Covid-19 crisis: Leaders, both in govt and Oppn have fallen short in India

The spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) may be the most profound crisis facing India. In terms of its longevity, widespread impact and threat to everyday existence, this is an unprecedented crisis. As an evolving threat it requires exceptional political leadership.

So far their response to the Covid-19 crisis shows Indian leaders falling short both within the government and the Opposition. This is in contrast to the bipartisan efforts of politicians in most other countries to deal with the situation.

One hopes that the celebrity Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor of Baby Doll fame does not turn out to be the “Typhoid Mary” of these troubled times or more appropriately a “Corona Kapoor”. Typhoid Mary, an Irish cook working in New York in the 1900s, earned this apellation by insisting on working and ending up infecting 51 people. Kapoor according to her father, would have come into contact with about 300 people while partying in Lucknow and Kanpur instead of going into quarantine after returning from London.

But leaving aside the foolish recklessness of partygoers in Lucknow, since the virus respects neither class nor power, it must be asked why Rashtrapati Bhavan organised a breakfast for 50 MPs on March 18? Many will also ask why Parliament is still in session putting at risk up to 2,000 people. And thereby hangs a tale of unforgivable partisanship of political leaders.

Opposition leaders allege that Parliament was continued because of political upheaval in Madhya Pradesh where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) brought down the incumbent Congress government. Curtailing the Budget session would have legitimised, they say, attempts by the Speaker of the state legislature to postpone a vote of confidence citing the pandemic.

The Opposition leaders showed lack of leadership by interpreting events in this small-minded way. They forget that both Houses of Parliament need to pass the Finance Bill, the Appropriations Bill and the Supplementary Demand for Grants before March 31. If the Opposition and the prime minister appreciated the unprecedented nature of the crisis, they would have together agreed to pass these urgent Bills in a bi-partisan manner to curtail the parliament session. Prime Minister Modi, in a bipartisan gesture, could have also halted the politicking in MP.

His address to the nation on the pandemic left the people none the wiser about how the government proposes to meet the challenge. By giving a 24-hour notice about his address to the nation, he caused alarm, leading to a run on supplies. By institutionalsing such one-way addresses to the nation, avoiding forms of dialogue, including an address to Parliament, his impending speech sparked off apprehension among people who still remember his demonetisation announcement with dread.

His audience eventually heard nothing about government plans to protect the public – additional resources for the healthcare sector, increasing the number of quarantine centres, additional hospitals and ventilators being readied as well as extending Covid-19 testing facilities. He could have learned from other world leaders who have reassured their citizens by spelling out measures to absorb the healthcare and economic costs of containing the pandemic. Besides the Prime Ministers of Canada and New Zealand among others, young Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer of Britain, stood out for his outstanding assurance to the British citizens when he said, “This is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy, this is a time to be bold, a time for courage. I want to assure every British citizen this government will give you all the tools you need to get through with this.”

While the Bank of England has slashed rates, the UK has also announced GBP 330 billion in loans, GBP 20 billion in other aid and grants for retailers and pubs. Businesses have been promised extra cash access to pay their rent, salaries, and suppliers through government-backed loans or credit on attractive terms.

The United States has announced a $1 trillion package in addition to the $250 billion in cheques to families ($1000 to each family). The German State Bank, KfW, will lend Euro 550 billion to companies to protect workers (biggest government-backed economic package since World War II), France is giving Euro 300 billion in government loan guarantees besides deferring all tax payments and payroll charges due in March; China’s Central Bank has released 550 billion Yuan to help its economy; Sweden’s Central Bank has decided to lend upto 500 billion Kroner to companies; the European Union has launched a Response Investment Initiative of $37 billion to cushion the bloc’s healthcare system, labour markets and SMEs; Italy has planned an economic support package of Euro 25 billion and stimulus packages have also been announced by UAE ($27 billion), Saudi Arabia ($13 billion), Switzerland (Swiss Francs 10 billion), South Korea ($9.8 billion) and Austria ($4.4 billion), among others.

In contrast, Prime Minister Modi announced no specific measures to ameliorate the setback to businesses, airlines, hotels, entertainment industry, MSMEs, construction industry and daily wage earners in the informal sector. Those who neither have homes nor work cannot ‘work from home’ or order ‘home delivery’ as the PM suggested.

Some of the ameliorative measures will have to be undertaken by state governments (paying construction workers from the Construction Cess collected by the states, for example) and some are being already implemented by the governments of Kerala, West Bengal, UP and Maharashtra. Prime Minister Modi could have recommended some of these measures in his address, rather than announcing a taskforce under the uninspiring chairmanship of the Finance Minister.

His only concrete suggestion was to participate in a symbolic one day event, “Janata Curfew” or home-quarantine and ringing bells or clanging thalis in honour of workers in healthcare and essential services.

As it turned out the Sunday curfew has been converted into a lockdown of 75 districts of the country till March end. Citizens could have been given a fair warning so that they could be better prepared. But then nothing is straight forward about Prime Minister Modi’s leadership. He will have to communicate more reassuringly and transparently with the people to lead them out of these troubled times.

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