Coronavirus and Lockdown: What Crisis awaits Indian Politics

Ashif Shamim

At the culmination of the 21-days of nationwide lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation again on 14th April. While reiterating the various aspects to defeat the spread of the virus, the PM announced the extension of the lockdown until the 3rd of May.

While we brace ourselves for the nationwide “Lockdown 2.0”, wondering in what shape or form will it impact our routine lives, socially, economically and politically. There is a question persisting in our minds that needs to be articulated.

So, what likely will be the impact of Coronavirus crisis on India’s politics?

To contain the coronavirus, the Indian government has chosen to confine all of its 1.3 billion residents. The success of this lockdown varies from city to city and state to state, some areas airily empty with few people venturing out. But for the millions living below the poverty line confinement isn’t an option. Poverty is pushing millions of desperate people to defy India’s lockdown order. This pandemic has dried up work and caused a mass exodus. But while the poor flee, they could potentially spread the virus throughout the country, making the fight against the COVID-19 even tougher to win.

While the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections in India are modest for a court of the size of 1.3 billion, many experts feel that India needs to significantly ramp up the number of tests done across the country to trace COVID-19 infection cases if the pandemic is to be contained in time.

This pandemic has increased the already existing levels of frustration and anger felt by India’s vulnerable and poor people for the system. The ‘system’ here implies not just the government but the ‘ruling establishment’.

After six years in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces the greatest test of his political career. If he steers a successful response to Covid-19, he will cement his standing as India’s most popular and powerful politician in a generation. But if India suffers a crisis, it could severely diminish PM’s stature and lead to widespread and unpredictable social and political upheaval. Up until now, the crisis has not affected the Prime Minister’s standing and many who have suffered will have appreciated his apology. Also, as in a situation of war, in a crisis like this, there is an initial tendency to rally around the flag and government. Therefore, it is likely that the government will be benefitted one way or the other.

Talking about the vulnerable and poor sections of this country, it is tough to articulate what tens or hundreds of millions of daily wage workers, landless agricultural labourers and unemployed unorganised sector workers felt about the BJP government and the Prime Minister. Although it is certain that they would be angry with the system. Anger against the PM and BJP could depend on how severe the suffering turns out. However, if the lockdown had been announced for seven days at a time, rather than twenty-one at one go, the poor and vulnerable would not have begun walking back to their villages hundreds of miles away.

To what extend this outbreak affects the ‘ailing’ Indian Economy?

There are several channels through which the COVID-19 outbreak may affect Indian economy (or any economic for that matter), of which the disruption of supply chains is the major one. Job loss is on the rise along with the slowdown in manufacturing and services activities. Workers are back to their home in faraway places, thereby leaving the coming harvest in uncertainty. Lack of orders may eventually lead to massive trade contraction. Further fall in Indian rupee is not remote. Besides, disruption in air travel, fall in travel and tourism, contraction in outdoor entertainment industries, rise in bankruptcy and Non-Performing Assets. While these are short-term effects, rise in death and destabilisation, complicated diseases and continuation of the pandemic, etc., cannot be ruled out. As a result, these shocks can spill over to other sectors and economies via trade and production linkages.

The economic damage, particularly the loss of jobs, hunger and deaths if increased sharply will definitely damage the BJP and the Prime Minister’s standing. In the end, the buck will stop with the Prime Minister. Just as he will take the credit if all goes well, similarly the blame will be pinned on him if the outcome is opposite.

The same outcome could be applicable in terms of the state governments. If the suffering increased, they too will be blamed. It’s not just the central government that will face the wrath of the people.

A steady start to tackle the epidemic

The central government was slow to react to the Coronavirus crisis and was “still behind the curve”. Many leaders and people who are at the very top did not seriously respond until the 20th of March. The first case of Covid-19 was detected on 30 January in India. Owing to the seriousness of this disease in countries like Italy, France and Spain, besides China, India had a heads up on how to go about tackling this disease, which surely weeks later became an epidemic in India. It was only on 4th March that the ministry of health and family welfare, announced the compulsory screening of all international passengers arriving in India because the virus was not just coming from China but from Europe too. Till then, only passengers from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia were being screened.

Another fault lies in the government’s effective communication. The regular press conferences are mostly held by the bureaucrats. Instead, it is the duty of those top ministers who are transparent and open. That would also give the country a higher level of confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis.

Unity: The only need of the hour

Speaking about the opposition parties, at this point of time they should not seek anything that is electorally beneficial. They also must not oppose and criticise for the sake of criticising. In fact, it is necessary that they support the government on “the right points”. Most importantly, they must go out to the grassroots and comfort and support people. Unfortunately, what is seen today is that the leaders are tweeting from the comfort of Delhi and Mumbai or state capitals but not going to the people to be with them.

To what extent this pandemic would damage the current government and what affect will it have in elections is something which is very difficult to say both because elections are almost four years away and this will also turn on the opposition’s ability to unite and find a face to take on the PM. Although, anything can happen. Who knew in 1986 that Rajiv Gandhi would lose three years later? Who could say in 1973 or 1975 that Indira Gandhi would lose in 1977?

The COVID-19 crisis is not a war but it is a ‘war-like’ situation that requires the mobilisation and direction of resources at unprecedented levels. Solidarity between the states and a readiness to make sacrifices for the common good are decisive. Only by pulling together and cooperating across borders can we beat the virus and contain its consequences. This outbreak could have much long-lasting impacts on the establishments, real economy, business and the financial world. In the immediate future the public health emergency is undoubtedly going to affect growth in the second and third quarters.

Not only India but the impact of this crisis will force change at ballot boxes around the world for politicians who have been exposed and found wanting: ‘Some politicians (those who have not taken adequate measures) are definitely going to pay a heavy price for this.’

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies of NET.