The occasion to revisit the sovereign’s role

Let us make no mistake. COVID-19 is forcing a paradigm shift. We are unlikely to return to a pre-coronavirus homeostasis after the war against it is won. No section or sector is going to remain untouched and unaltered by the devastation the novel coronavirus is now unleashing. The virus is going to stay around for a while. Its annihilation in the near future is not on the cards. Vaccines are going to be slow in coming; therefore, its taming is not immediate. A second wave of outbreak is a realistic probability.

Unlike other threats to humanity such as global warming and a nuclear armageddon, this threat is now, not in the future; it is here simultaneously for everyone, not for someone else and somewhere else; its casualties are around us, not in far away battlefields or polar regions and coastal areas. No country can rescue another; it is each one fending for itself.

Defining moment

COVID-19 threatens to push the world into a deep recession. If the lockdown continues, the world economy will contract by as much as 6% according to the International Monetary Fund. If it is not extended, the loss of human lives could be of unacceptable proportions. The global community will be fortunate if it does not spiral into depression. Both demand and supply contractions are likely to be severe. They are not going to be short-lived. Political systems, economic architectures and cultural mores are on trial. Work patterns, production and distribution practices are up for redefinition. Denial and wishing away unpleasant, yet probable, realities by governments, global organisations and public intellectuals will only compound economic, social, political and human costs. We must now be quick in seizing lessons from the present crisis and get ready to embark on measures to build a new paradigm of life, work and governance.

The enlarged economic role of the state in the aftermath of the Second World War came under major assault since the 1980s. Leaders who asked ‘where is society?’ rode to power on ‘cut the damn government down’ ticket. Systems that were putative alternatives to capitalism fell into disgrace. Entrepreneurs heading unicorns and ‘soonicorns’ have become the new demigods. Minimum governance became the mantra. India too willy-nilly signed up to this creed. But COVID-19 is beginning to challenge the political economy of this creed. Very soon the full scores of the performance of state and non-state actors in the COVID-19 stress test will be available across the globe. The Indian state will also have to give answers as far as its report card is concerned.

The retreat of the state

India embarked on the path of trimming the role of the state, initially, with such caveats as ‘safety net’ and ‘reform with a human face’. Gradually, those caveats fell by the wayside. The lurch became sharp, unapologetic and full-throated. The Indian state’s role in health care, education, creation and maintenance of infrastructure and delivery of welfare has shrunk or become nominal, half-hearted, inefficient, and dysfunctional. Of course, it is true that it did not give a great account of itself in these sectors even before the 1991 departure. Disappointment with the dismal performance in its economic and administrative functions in the backdrop of a changing global ideological ecosystem encouraged a sharp de facto downsizing of the Indian state’s role. Its retreat from vital functions and abdication of its social responsibility have gained acceptance and legitimacy among the articulate upwardly mobile. While retreat and abdication found influential and forceful evangelists, selective retreat had few advocates.

This departure, however, was not vigorously interrogated. When it was, it was limited to the broad ideological opposition from the left which defended the discredited position of the Indian state occupying the commanding heights of the economy. Supporters of the departure, on the other hand, had little engagement in giving shape to the new policy. Nor did they worry about calibrating the architecture of the emerging role for the state. As a result, ‘private sector’ became the new holy cow in place of the ‘state sector’. What made matters worse is the culture of a simplistic and shallow discourse of public policy that took hold in civil society. It mindlessly privileges the agenda of corporates. It transacts in the idiom of stock exchanges and international rating agencies.

Lost voices

Therefore, those with no social media handles, who cannot organise annual ‘thought’ conclaves, who are incapable of highlighting their problems with impressive presentations are rendered voiceless. Today, those who bear the brunt of the consequences of shrunken and unresponsive state are the farmer and farm labour, the migrant worker, the unemployed, those in the unorganised sector, the rural poor, and the small entrepreneur. They are paying the highest price for the necessary but unbearable lockdown. They are either stranded far away from home, or confined to their homes with no work and incomes, unsupported by the state. Underfunded public health systems are unable to serve them. Tips on how to beat lockdown blues, how to work from home, use Zoom, spend quality time with family that fill our pullouts are irrelevant for them. But the dominant strand of public discourse is out of its depth. It has no time for these concerns. Worse, this discourse can be gamed from time to time. And the alternative discourse is too feeble to draw the attention of the government to the grave implications of COVID-19 for the weak in our society.

Time for tough questions

But the state’s first responsibility is the marginalised. They are also the crucial part of our economy. They lubricate its wheels and generate demand. Announcing stimulus packages that address the supply side alone without beefing up the demand side will be self-defeating to corporates. Prioritising the needs of corporate entities will lead to convulsions in our body politic in the wake of COVID-19. The state is in danger of forfeiting legitimacy if it does not ensure the survival and revival of the marginalised sections.

This is the appropriate context to revisit the political economy of the Indian state and its role. The country should begin a vigorous discourse on redefining every aspect of its involvement in our collective political, economic and social life. The relation between the state and economy, its role in allocating resources and addressing questions of inequality, its duty to provide basic human needs, the extent of the market’s role in providing services such as health, education, civic amenities, and the responsibility of the state and private enterprise towards deprived sections, need urgent attention.

We should re-examine the efficacy of our political structures too: the equation between citizens and government and what its implications are for individual freedom, privacy and national security; the equation between legislature and executive; the balance of administrative and financial power between provinces and the union on the one hand and provinces and local bodies on the other. The way we elect our representatives to legislatures must also come under the lens. The issue of atrophied local authorities and enfeebled legislatures needs attention. For, they are at the coalface, delivering the state to the citizen. The way legislatures are elected and governments are made and unmade must be scrutinised. Our outrage at the power of big money in our electoral system has not arrested its growth. The role of serving and retired members of higher judiciary ought to be a part of the debate.

We had an opportunity for intensive debate when the Justice Venkatachaliah Commission submitted its report in 2002 (to review the working of the Constitution). We missed it. The opportunity that COVID-19 provides should not be squandered. The Indian state should be strong so that the weak in our society can lean on it. Our rishis told us: durbalasya balam Raja. The strength of the weak is the Sovereign. Not the market.

Parakala Prabhakar is former Communications Adviser to the Government of Andhra Pradesh and is Managing Director of RightFOLIO, a knowledge enterprise based in Hyderabad

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Printable version | May 19, 2021 3:16:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-occasion-to-revisit-the-sovereigns-role/article31391665.ece

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