Outsourcing Governance to the Citizen

Under the Modi government, the migrant workers and the poor have been left to their own devices.

The poor are being beaten up for asking something basic, hospital infrastructure crumbling, doctors are using makeshift masks, social media is spewing hate, Indian television channels  are demonising Muslims and governments are going after independent journalists.

It’s another day in the Indian paradise.

The New Normal, did someone say?

This is good old fashioned, traditional, garden variety old Indian normal.

This is how we have always been and always will be. This is the default position we settle down to once a crisis passes.

A country that makes a virtue out of jugaad and fantasises about its alleged achievements 5,000 years ago cannot be expected to have the rigour to put in systems and processes that work seamlessly and efficiently. It’s just not in our culture.  

While the horrendous crisis is on – in this case a pandemic, but in the past, earthquakes, floods and so much else – there is a scramble to be seen taking action, orders are given, grand pronouncements are made, and then, when things begin subsiding, there are pious promises to spend money and improve things.

As we have seen several times in the past – don’t hold your breath that India’s investment in health will shoot up.

But this time round, there is a big difference in how the establishment has responded. Even the token outreach to the citizenry, especially the more vulnerable among us, is missing. Of empathy there is no sign. There is no sense of resolute decision making, with clear cut instructions and direction, and an action plan to find, if not a long-term solution, an immediate way to help the community.

Photo: Shome Basu

There are exceptions of course. The governments of Kerala, Rajasthan, Odisha and, to an extent, Maharashtra, are working to make things easier for their citizens.

These strategies are not without their faults – in Maharashtra, the death rates are high because of inefficient use of resources and vast numbers of people – the poor and the migrant workers – are facing hardships; there is also no saying if things are totally under control. But a resolve to make things better is visible – the constant communication by the chief ministers and their respective demeanours are giving a sense of assurance to the citizen.

In states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the systems seem to have collapsed.

Also read: Did Madhya Pradesh’s Political Crisis Lead to the Subsequent Health Crisis?

The health department in Madhya Pradesh is in a shambles and as for Uttar Pradesh, the saintly chief minister cannot think beyond the lathi.

That in the midst of this crisis his police can travel 700 km to hand over a notice to a journalist to appear in a police station three days later would be laughable if it was not so menacing and surreal.

The difference between states is apparent, but somewhere in this, it is also clear that the ruling party as it is today, is adept at political machinations, buying out politicians and winning elections, but is simply not equipped to govern.

This is starkly visible at the centre, where the central government has not managed to coherently spell out what is plans to do. Leave aside the many tall claims made by the administration – Prime Minister Modi’s statement that testing had begun in January is partly wrong.

Flights were coming in as always and there was no curb on mass gatherings – the Namaste Trump rally in Ahmedabad on February 24 is a good example. A government that was concerned about the disease spreading would not have allowed something like that, and also instructed its new chief minister in Madhya Pradesh not to hold a big, celebratory swearing in

But it is the prime minister’s frequent homily-filled addresses to the nation that have really demonstrated his – and therefore his government’s – worldview. Apart from announcing sudden lockdowns and extensions, each time leading to stress and upheavals, especially among the vulnerable, the underlying themes of his paternalistic talks are – I would like you, my people, to do these symbolic tasks and practice safe measures — look after your elders, follow social distancing, show compassion towards your employees and concern for the poor.

Also read: Modi’s Moral Science Lecture for a Nation Facing a Crisis

Nothing about the steps and measures the government is taking, commitment to health infrastructure upgradation, and ways in which the poor and the migrants will be looked after.

Photo: Shome Basu

The onus is on the citizen to help the indigent. (The much-maligned NGOs, which this government has gone after with vengeance, are already all working in the slums, helping residents with food and medicines.) In short, you are on your own.

It is possible that behind the scenes, the government is working hard to ensure that this pandemic causes minimum harm. There are competent bureaucrats who are still committed to public service. Ministers could be working round the clock to take decisions. Things may be getting under control.

If that is the case, we the citizens are not aware of it. No one but Narendra Modi is allowed to talk to the country. It could well be a government of silhouetted cardboard cut outs for all we know, because of the absence of credible public faces. Occasionally someone does a (one-sided) press briefing or some information trickles out through friendly media news agencies and journalists, but with no way to cross-check, it remains unsatisfactory.

And till today, there is nothing about how tens of thousands of people, who have no jobs, no money and no shelter will reach their village homes. 

It is not as if governments can’t do something to alleviate their misery. Hundreds of Indians were flown back from other countries where they were stranded. Newspapers report that on March 28, after the lockdown, 1,800 ‘influential’ Gujaratis were brought back from Uttarakhand in luxury buses. This political will is missing in the case of the desperate thousands who gathered in, first, Delhi, and now in Mumbai and elsewhere.

Also read: ‘Let us Go Home’: No Sign of Relief in PM’s Speech, Migrant Workers Take to Mumbai Streets

And when darbari channels start hinting at a political conspiracy behind such incidents, one knows how powerful people in the ruling dispension want to project it. 

Nor is this attitude limited to the authorities.

The Indian petit bourgeois mind too is now incapable of any concern for the poor. Over the years – and this is much before this pandemic – the upwardly mobile middle class has socially distanced itself from the tens of millions of their fellow citizens.

In their gated minds, they are now part of a global community, and their eyes are fixed on a horizon far away. There is no dearth of WhatsApp groups with thundering proclamations against the irresponsible behaviour of those who gave up the joys of ‘work from home’ to congregate in a public place. “They deserve more than a lathi charge!” 

So that’s how we will bumble along — a prime minister who gives lessons about hygiene and promotes an app that will sort out everything, a middle class that is busy trying out new recipes and learning how to make Dalgona coffee, and vast numbers of poor who have been left to their own devices.

Meanwhile, the economy slowly but surely slides into a recession. The reality is that when the recession sets in, not just the daily wage workers and the unorganised labour, but also those in white collar and professional jobs, will find themselves unemployed. The after effects of the pandemic will be brutal.

Thousands will then have to sit at home.

That will be the New Normal.