With Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a lockdown for three weeks, if there ever was a time for the nation to come together as one, it is now. If there ever was a time for the political class to stand together as one, it is now. If there ever was a time for ideological disputations to be put on hold, it is now. Why?
The Covid-19 challenge in its many dimensions — medical, economic and social — is potentially the greatest that the country has faced since Independence. It requires, above all, the unity and support of all sections of society to see through what is likely to be a period of enormous disruption and hardship. It would be catastrophic for people to witness a divided and bickering political class seeking to score points.
There is no doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is by far the tallest leader in the country. The people trust him, as demonstrated both in the 2014 and the 2019 elections. His appeal to the people to observe a “janata curfew” (people’s curfew) was largely adhered to; but the spirit of solidarity will have to be shown through the tense weeks and months ahead. Negative political comments and queries will inevitably raise doubts and even controversies that may sap popular motivation to observe government advice and accept the pain of what may be a prolonged lockdown. It is, therefore, essential for the political class to close ranks. Modi and Opposition leaders should reach out to each other so as to make overcoming the Covid-19 challenge a national effort. That would not diminish, but enhance the standing of all political leaders .
Parliament has adjourned. That is the right step, for as the country moved towards a lockdown, it would have been inappropriate to let the two Houses continue. However, consultations among national political leaders should continue through video-conferencing. But that is not all. Can we take a leap of imagination and think of Modi associating some Opposition leaders in an executive capacity, not only to gain from their expertise and experience, but also to conclusively show that the steps the government is taking has the backing of the entire political class? That will be a demonstration of national will as nothing else will be.
It is evident that the country will have to rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to stem Covid-19. Realism demands an acceptance that India’s medical support systems cannot be of the same level as those in the advanced countries. There is no doubt that the authorities are taking, and will continue to take, all necessary steps to mitigate shortages. But there may be a time when difficult choices may have to be made at all levels. In such a situation, prudence demands that the political class becomes united also for this contingency. Hence, it is necessary for the tallest leaders of all political parties to make a common appeal to the people for unity and solidarity and scrupulously following government directives. This will boost popular morale.
The country has gone through very trying and contentious times recently, owing to ideological differences over controversial laws. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) is a case in point. While it is true that the government has explained its rationale, and the law will be tested in the Supreme Court, the fact is that it continues to be seen by the Muslim community as a precursor to the National Register of Citizens (NRC). That has aroused suspicion and fear to such an extent that the Shaheen Bagh sit-in continued for so long. This is not a time to examine if it was justified, but to inculcate confidence that the interests of all will be secured during the coming months.
Social harmony has to be maintained. It may come under some strain, and the political class will have to address whatever misgivings may arise. The Covid-19 challenge is obviously more than an administrative one and, hence, with Modi in the forefront, a picture backed by the reality of political cohesion has to be conveyed to the people.
That will also help in meeting the great economic burden which society as a whole will have to bear. Modi correctly said that the poorer parts of society may have to bear a disproportionate part of the burden. They will have to be ably assisted. At this time, will Modi consider consulting a wide cross-section of economists to chart a way forward? This should include those wedded to Opposition ideologies so that the people can again see the political class coming together. India’s political class may be tested as never before if difficult scenarios unfold. Let us hope that they come through with flying colours.
Vivek Katju is a former diplomat
The views expressed are personal