The Prime Minister is talking to all of us through different mediums. But we must talk to the Prime Minister too. Talking to the talkative is not easy but there is no easy way out either.
In a parliamentary democracy, it is not unusual for the Prime Minister to seek the counsel of the President. It isn’t abnormal to see him approach former Presidents and Prime Ministers of the country for advice either. In fact, it is a sign of a good democracy to see the Prime Minister consulting the respective state Chief Ministers and opposition leaders. However, when the Prime Minister is Narendra Modi, known for operating alone, such acts indicate the rarity of a grave situation.
Encircled by circumstances, a pandemic of epic proportions, the Prime Minister of India attempted to midly alter the perceptions about his personality. His die-hard followers would have liked to ignore such acts that legitimise the existence of ‘others’ in politics. But his critics must welcome these gestures by the head of the government, and demand the regularisation and formalisation of the Prime Minister’s communication with other leaders.
It is futile to engage with his followers; but for the sake of the country, his critics should realise the opportunity of constructively engaging with the Prime Minister directly. The engagement can’t be one-sided but must be mutual. The Prime Minister is talking to all of us through different mediums. We must talk to the Prime Minister too!
Talking to the talkative is not easy but there is no easy way out either.
Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, has once again shown the way by giving five important suggestions to the government. These propositions should be the first litmus test for the Prime Minister to test his own willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with the opposition, state governments and civil society. His government may not accept any or all of Sonia Gandhi’s suggestions but it must respond sincerely to her promptness. Otherwise, the Prime Minister’s phone calls to ‘others’ on the political spectrum would turn out to be nothing but a PR exercise.
The suggestions to the Prime Minister and cooperation with the government need to be accompanied by a frank assessment of what was or wasn’t done in the past, expression of facts about what is being done or not done in the present, and demands of what we must do and mustn’t do in the future.
The Prime Minister is curiously silent on all of these points in all of his addresses since his appeal for a Janata Curfew. The fine communicator, known for keeping an eye on the details, did not elaborate on what deliberations and measures his government had undertaken in the months of January, February and half of the March.
He also did chose to not highlight the consultations and measures his government had explored since the appeal for the Janata Curfew till the announcement of the nation-wide shut down. We don’t even know whether these two decisions of Janata Curfew and nation-wide lock down were approved in cabinet meetings. In fact, we haven’t even pondered upon the usefulness of taking the cabinet and the state governments in confidence before implementation of such massive decisions.
It is in this background that Prime Minister’s engagement with opposition leaders and state governments should be welcomed. As the extension of lockdown looms large, it is important the decision comes through deliberations, consultations and engagements leading to a viable action plan. Any action plan needs an assessment of what we intended to do, how many of the intended objectives were achieved, and what have been the unintended fall out of the decisions so far.
As we have entered the third week of the nation-wide lockdown, three things are very clear now. One, we lost precious time, rather all of the time, to prepare ourselves to fight the then-impending menace of coronavirus. The loss of time is very much evident from the fact that the government had not done anything to ensure the supply of sufficient numbers of COVID-19 testing kits and protective gears to medical practitioners. The government also failed to steadily improve the availability of masks, hand sanitizers and antiseptics for the general public. This was the minimum it should have done if it had an iota of an idea about what was lying ahead.
We need to know whether the Prime Minister was informed about making advance preparations to meet the exigencies. If not, then why wasn’t he informed? If yes, then what decisions were taken by the Prime Minister’s office?
Two, partly due to the obliviousness and partly due to the lack of planning, we have failed the millions of migrant workers in terms of providing a minimum assurance of the basic dignity during the lockdown period. A simple mandate to the state governments and local municipal authorities, in Prime Minister’s address on 24th March, to take care of migrants and poor in their jurisdiction would have been a great assurance to the working millions.
It didn’t happen then nor afterwards.
The Prime Minister had the lock down in his mind at least from the evening of 19th March. He repeatedly talked about the drill and testing of people’s support in his Janata Curfew address. The demanded drill and appeal for people’s support were for the longer shut down to which people responded overwhelmingly. The question is, why was there no planning to assuage the migrants? It was as if they don’t exist in the plans made by the government. It was a reflection of the hard fact of utter negligence of the migrants at all levels of the government. At least now, whether it will be extension of lock down or partial withdrawal, government must take the interests of migrants into account.
Three, a specter of gross uncertainty is haunting policy makers across the world and India is no exception to it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has four full years to take out India from the full-blown economic crisis. The last 6 years have proved enough that his government might be capable of doing many things but not pulling off a meaningful economic growth. If it continues on the same path of a coterie of Prime Minister’s confidents managing the economy, we would not see sunlight anytime soon.
The Prime Minister needs to engage with many other economists to fight the dark clouds of long-term economic depression just the way he has done with the opposition leaders including former Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. From Abhijit Banerjee to Jean Dreze and from Montek Singh Ahaluwalia to Dr. Thomas Isaac, a battery of acclaimed economists are willing to help the government in the hour of crisis. Talking to them will not hurt the economy, will it, Mr. Prime Minister?
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
10th April 2020