As India Faces One of its Toughest Challenges, Who Holds the Reins?

The move to establish empowered committees suggests that the cabinet system of governance shall exist, but as an apology during the entire pandemic period.

As COVID-19 has unleashed an information epidemic, or infodemic – as a result of which we are constantly plied with an overabundance of information, some accurate and others misleading – it has become very difficult to stay fixated on one ‘window’ on whatever device we’re using.

Consequently, commonplace queries get pushed to the backseat. This is at great cost to the mission to flag issues, so necessary in democracies during crises – especially civilian ones. The absence of such questions clears pathways for leaders already looking at securing a position beyond this ‘non-kinetic war’, even before they have successfully tackled the pandemic. An uppermost issue that must be examined is the most obvious: How and who is India being governed by in this hour of challenge?

Last week, there were several reports in the media regarding the decision to form ten empowered groups and one strategic task force to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Altogether these have 68 bureaucrats, technocrats or other subject specialists. These committees, established under the powers conferred by invoking the Disaster Management Act, 2005, are “empowered to identify problem areas and provide effective solutions… delineate policy, formulate plans, strategise operations and take all necessary steps for effective and time-bound implementation of these…”

In short, these committees are sanctioned to do ‘everything’ pertaining to the challenge before the nation.

The Ministry of Home Affairs note announcing the formation of these committees listed names of members of these groups. Each has one member from the Cabinet Secretariat. Besides, every one of these committees will be ‘coordinated’ with a designated official from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Above all this, the prime minister’s principal secretary, P.K. Mishra, shall provide overall guidance to these groups. The CEO of NITI Aayog, Amitabh Kant, too heads one of these committees – it is tasked with coordinating with the private sector, NGOs and international organisations for “response related activities”.

Also read: Not Just COVID-19 Guidelines, Our Govt Would Do Well To Follow WHO’s ‘Life Skills’

Because the note is issued by the home secretary, it is certain that the move has the concurrence of the home minister. But besides this, the ‘order’ is completely silent about the role of members of the council of ministers, either those of cabinet rank or the juniors. The only mention of them inverts the hierarchy established within the cabinet system of governance.

It requires mentioning here that three days prior to formation of these empowered groups with sweeping powers, the government tasked 15 Union ministers with the job of ensuring that there was no disruption in the supply of essential commodities in 15 districts each that were listed for them to take care.

One report on the formation of these committees quoted an unnamed source as saying that these ministers shall be “reporting” to these 11 groups regarding implementation of the Centre’s policies and decisions.

We need to keep in mind that while ministers are elected representatives of the people, officials, technocrats and technical experts in normal circumstances work under the guidance and supervision of ministers.

We have seen in Hungary in the course of the COVID-19 outbreak how measures during a crisis can easily become permanent and lasting policies if democratic institutions in the country are weak. Since 2014, this government had undermined several institutions besides influencing autonomous arms of the state.

The present arrangement falls pat within the mantra once chanted by the prime minister before he assumed office six years ago: ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’. In practise, minimising government means reducing the role of elected leaders, mass or ‘unelectable’, and increasing role of people who cannot be held accountable.

The move to establish these empowered committees suggests that the cabinet system of governance shall exist, but as an apology during the entire pandemic period. The arrangement can last longer because once medical crisis somewhat eases, the country shall have to wage more battles on multiple fronts, most importantly in economy, trade, industry, labour and social welfare.

The cabinet has met for the first time on Monday via video conferencing since the prime minister’s first address to the nation. This shows the importance given to the cabinet system.

Will elected representatives hereon be mere showpieces displayed on the mantelpiece of the government, like those sitting mute during the prime minister’s video conference with state chief ministers on April 2?

As it is, in January a few weeks prior to the annual budget’s presentation, the nation was witness to the bizarre spectacle of the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, missing from a crucial pre-budget meeting with economists and sector experts. She was also absent from another meeting between the prime minister and top industrialists, including Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata.

Also read: Narendra Modi’s Response to COVID-19 Is Like an Admonishing Parent, Not a Leader

The question regarding the character of governance at this juncture is particularly essential to flag because there is a growing sense, especially in the vocal middle classes, that this is not the time, in the words of poet Alfred Tennyson, to make reply, not to reason why. For the past six years, we have witnessed every effort at questioning decisions of the government, as being a nothing but treasonous acts.

The power for this comes from the long dormant sentiment that democracy has negative effect on efficiency and slows down progress, and that autocracies or authoritarian systems are more ‘suited’ for India. People holding this viewpoint do not have high regard for elected representatives and are willing to dispense them in favour of those opaquely selected by the chosen leader.

Although waging a campaign against Chinese products, especially at this juncture, there is silent admiration for its political model. Yet, it is not recognised that despite its poor record of civil liberties, the government has a fair amount of people’s trust.

There have been several occasions in the past too, when over centralisation of power and dominance of the PMO in every sphere of governance made it appear that although India is a de jure parliamentary system, it was already a de facto presidential form of government. This sense could not be more obvious now.

Several chief ministers have also publicly stated that federalism has been badly compromised. Mamata Banerjee, after her first experience at the one-way video conference with the prime minister, stayed away from the next. Her party is also likely to remain absent from the exchange with parliamentary party leaders on April 8.

Also read: Why India Needs to Establish an Infectious Disease Forecast Centre Right Away

Some scholars have asked if it was wise to solely “depend only on (the country’s) elite administrative and law enforcement bureaucracy” and not delegate power to even local self governments who are not plagued by the trust deficit that dogs national and state governments.

Of course, there is possible viewpoint within the ruling party that not many ministers have displayed any capacity to burn the midnight oil. On the day of the Janata Curfew, one minister played antakshari on Twitter with celebrities.

The argument, however, rings hollow because it only shows the huge talent deficit that plagues this government and the ruling party. The problem is the Modi persona, which has not bothered from the Gujarat days to camouflage its message to ministers to step back during major crises. Non-consultation often results in embarrassing situations – the latest being the feared grid collapse due to the call to people to switch off lights in their residences.

It is indeed ironical that a democratic deficit has become visible in the world’s largest democracy when it faces its gravest post-independence challenge. How the threat from COVID-19 and its fallout on all fronts is governed will determine the future characteristic of the Indian state. This is the primary reason why it is important to debate who is governing India now and how.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.