India's Political Parties Must Realise Austerity Is No Answer to the COVID-19 Crisis

What is needed is a massive expansion of the state, direct payments to people to the tune of 10-15% of the GDP and investment plans for the reconstruction of the economy.

COVID-19 has laid bare the limits of the Indian political imagination. The pandemic calls for massive state intervention, but neither the government nor the opposition is up to the task.

Famously, Gore Vidal had, in his state-of-the-union broadside against the American political establishment, declared that ‘there is only one party in the United States, the Property Party, and it has two right wings, Republican and Democrat’, each more averse than the other to effect progressive change. As with the US in the 70s, so too with India today—only more so. For in scanning the multi-party landscape in the time of the COVID-19 crisis, it appears that no party on either the Left or the Right is up to the task of dealing with the pandemic.

As every self-respecting state has begun rolling out its public spending defibrillators, even if nowhere nearly enough, India—perhaps along with only Brazil and a handful of other countries—stands apart. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ham-fisted response to the pandemic is well-known now: a sudden announcement of a lockdown that has disproportionately affected the casually employed, who account for more than four of five Indians, and has unleashed a migration crisis where the number displaced is probably second only to Partition; a paltry Rs 1.7 lakh crore bailout, less than 1% of India’s GDP; a carte blanche to the police to use arbitrary powers as they see fit; a shifting of the blame for the rapid spread of the virus to the Tablighi Jamaat in particular and Muslims in general, now accused, by the BJP ecosystem, of waging a ‘corona jihad’ and turning themselves into ‘human bombs’; and a capitulation to the US after Donald Trump pressured the prime minister to lift restrictions for the export of hydroxychloroquine.

Lacking state capacity and recognising the limitations of the country’s healthcare system, as ever with one foot in the grave, it is probable that the government decided in favour of a blanket lockdown because it knew it could not test the general population en masse. India is no Germany, Australia, or South Korea. Hence Modi’s focus on self-help, his exhortation to upper and middle-class families to take the ‘navratri pledge’ and help nine needy families each. All this, as Christophe Jaffrelot has recently pointed out, is in keeping with Modi’s mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and more broadly, the RSS’s ideology, wherein the well-heeled charitably tend to the poor.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation on Tuesday morning. Photo: Video screengrab

The opposition’s dismal response

But what is harder to understand is the dismal response of the opposition parties to the crisis. Most of them, it seems, have become obsessed with the idea of austerity. Instead, what is needed, of course, is a massive expansion of the state, direct payments into the hands of the people to the tune of 10-15% of the GDP, investment plans for the reconstruction of the economy, nationalisation of key industries and a return of the wealth tax.

To be sure, Rahul Gandhi was quick in diagnosing the malaise, tweeting a Harvard Gazette report on February 12 and noting that ‘the government is not taking this threat seriously’. But understanding a problem is one thing, finding a solution another. The Congress party’s prescription, his mother’s Five-Point Programme, came on April 7. Rather disappointingly, it had little to offer apart from some token gestures and a defence of austerity. ‘Austerity measures, which can be used to divert much needed funds to the fight against Covid-19, are the need of the hour’, Sonia Gandhi told the press.

What of the five points themselves? The Congress calls for scrapping the Central Vista project, the planned reconstruction of a new Parliament House and residences for the prime minister and vice-president; and a moratorium on government advertisements and official foreign travel—all put together Rs 21,643 crore. The last budget, it should be remembered, put annual spending at Rs 30 lakh crore. More money to battle the coronavirus can be raised, we are told, by shrinking public spending by 30%—apart from salaries, pensions, and Union schemes—which will apparently free up Rs 2.5 lakh crore, or 1.5% of India’s GDP. Finally, the party calls for using discretionary spending from two relief funds—one set up by Nehru, the other Modi; both drawn, tellingly, from public contributions. No different from the BJP, then, the Congress wishes the government were run like a charity, not a state.

Also Read: The COVID-19 Crisis Tells Us Democracy Needs Expertise as Much as it Does Elections

But this should not be surprising. For the Congress has for long championed a small-minded, anti-statist style of technocratic governance, allergic to permanent jobs and social security and in favour of deregulation. Such ideas were the mainstay of the Manmohan Singh years, during which a loan write-off to the middling peasantry and the employment of, at its peak, some 80 million people for an average of 29 days a year passed as significant reform. Still, if Sonia Gandhi’s programme reflects an older pattern, her party colleague, former finance minister P. Chidambaram’s Ten-Point Plan is considerably more ambitious, calling for pumping cash into the hands of landed peasants, farmhands, and the urban poor. Seen in a global perspective, however, the Rs 5 lakh crore package—3% of the GDP—that he proposed on April 5 pales in comparison to what other states are spending; the G20 average is 8% of the GDP and growing.

The Left is also disinterested in structural reform

Even the Left seems disinterested in structural reform, fiscal and monetary stimuli, cash payments to all as opposed to means-tested benefits. Certainly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] has shown greater promise than the Congress in its response to the pandemic. It is time, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has rightly noted, to tear up the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, which in trying to enforce a debt ceiling is keeping public spending at both the level of the Union and the states on a tight leash.

Moreover, plaudits have broken out for the ‘Kerala model’, and rightly so. When it comes to testing, contact tracing, food and shelter for migrants and the working poor, Kerala seems to be head and shoulders above the rest of the Union. Still, Vijayan and his comrade in Delhi, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, are content with the kind of incrementalism that has characterised the politics of the Indian Left for well over a quarter-century now. While the CPI(M) has called for more testing, food aid, and demanded that the government pay 80% of wages—on a par with Britain and many European countries—to workers unable to work, bigger and more consequential questions have remained unaddressed. When asked last week whether it was time to start printing money to finance coronavirus-induced emergency spending—the efficacy of which even many right-wing governments across the world have now recognised—Yechury simply noted that ‘there is no dearth of resources in the country’; a mere reallocation of resources would suffice. Part of the problem is ideological. Today, India’s Marxists appear to be incapable of fiscal or monetary boldness.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: PTI

The same unimaginativeness is to be found in other opposition parties. The BSP’s Mayawati contents herself with an ‘appeal to all the governments to provide essential commodities to the poor and labourers either free of cost or at low prices’. For his part, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray takes a dim view of what he regards as Modi’s antics: ‘claps, thalis, and lights’. But the Shiv Sena leader’s own counsel—‘self-discipline’; ‘behave properly’; ‘maintain social distancing’—are no more useful bromides. Sanjay Raut, a fellow party leader, is more obviously supine. ‘In times of crisis, we accept the leadership of Narendra Modi. The country needs him’, he told the press early on in the crisis.

Perhaps, there is a silver lining in all this. With opposition parties scarcely holding the country’s rulers to account, the centre of gravity of dissent will sooner than later shift to the people. As we saw earlier in the year, there are grievances aplenty in India today, and people are ready to take, and have taken, to the streets. No longer are citizens waiting for the judiciary to save them, as has regrettably been the case throughout India’s postcolonial history, mass movements having been few and far between. The coronavirus might well be the catalyst in the birth of a new popular movement that will lead the country out of the morass of partocracy.

Pratinav Anil is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. His India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-1977, co-authored with Christophe Jaffrelot, is forthcoming from Hurst.