Politics & the war against Covid

Somewhere in the middle of the lockdown that began in March, a bureaucrat friend predicted darkly: “Wait for the lobbyists and the vested interests to crawl out of the woodwork. That’s when the politics will start.” While the lockdown might have been unavoidable, even imperative (though the jury is out on this), the decision about how to exit and when, is deeply political. This is probably why even experienced politicians have been skittish and nervous, changing their minds about their immediate future steps (the flip-flop by UP on the issue of transporting migrant labour, for instance), sequencing the exit (Chhattisgarh and Telangana have asked the Centre for a plan) and preparing voters for the inevitable economic pain that lies on the other side. (Kerala is warning that it is bro­ke, which means it could be preparing the sta­te government officials for drastic pay cuts.)

If politics is about to take over the management of Covid-19 in India, the same is true of its neighbourhood. Politics via constitutionalism has been a hallmark of public life in Sri Lanka and the Covid-19 crisis has landed slam-bang in the middle of a constitutional crisis (hard to say when Sri Lanka has not had a constitutional crisis, but that’s another story). For those who have not followed the riveting story of politics in the island for the last six months, here’s a quick recap: Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka in November 2019. He inherited a parliament that was dominated by the Opposition but he appointed his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister till parliamentary elections could be held. The earliest they could be held (legally) was March 2, six months before the term of the existing parliament was to end. Elections were scheduled for April 25 with nominations closing on March 19. The newly elected parliament was to convene on May 14. This was well within the constitutional requirement that the new parliament had to convene within three months of the dissolution of the old one. As it had been dissolved on March 2, the new parliament needed to be in place and meet before June 2.

And then along came Covid-19. At first, the president announced it would be election as usual. However, the election commission (and the president) realised that it was just not possible to complete the mandatory campaign period and election with a health crisis on their hands. So after a great deal of consultation and discussion, new dates were announced: June 20.

Now here’s the rub. The constitutional deadline of June 2 is being violated any way, because the election to parliament itself will be held on June 20 (the EC has reserved the option of pushing back elections till even later if the public health situation does not stabilise). So now constitutional pundits in Sri Lanka are arguing that the directive dissolving parliament is illegal and therefore, as a country cannot be without a parliament, the old parliament must be brought back to life!

Meanwhile, the Speaker of the old (or is it current? Most confusing!) parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, has remarked pithily that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world that is battling Covid-19 without a legislature. Worse, election campaigns, as raucous as India’s, will be held as Sri Lanka battles with containment and curfew in many parts of the island. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the president just chucks the whole thing up, commandeers all powers and declares that this is the only way to safeguard democracy.

It can happen.

Nepal is in a slightly different situation. Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli has just had a second kidney transplant and is in no position to supervise the response to the pandemic although Nepal has had no deaths and has reported under 60 Covid-19 positive cases. However many — and some in his own party — argue that the PM needs rest. Among them is party president Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda. Oli has constituted a committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Ishwor Pokhrel to handle the pandemic. Squabbles among members of the committee keep finding their way mysteriously to the newspapers.

Both Sri Lanka and Nepal will have a really difficult task of reconstructing their eco­nomies post Covid. Both are at the mercy of tourists. Both are sustained heavily by foreign remittances sent by workers abroad: 30 per cent of Nepal’s gross domestic product and 8.25 per cent of Sri Lanka’s. The Oli government is under immense pressure to allow foreign flights to land. He has said, “The economy is secondary in this crisis, saving lives is of prime importance.”

As New Delhi looks for exit options and the politics around it, Sri Lanka and Nepal battle their own political contradictions. No telling what lies at the end of the struggle.

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