COVID-19: It’s time a national unity government is formed in India

The crisis is not a partisan issue and the dispensation requires to function like a wartime government

Narendra Modi
We stand with our close friend Russia in efforts to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi said. Photo: PTI

Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary responses. With India still in its first few days of the three-week lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country needs to urgently close ranks. The time has arrived for India to have a ‘government of national unity’ that sacrifices partisan interest for the sake of the nation.

The announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 23 has not come a day late. But preparations for the lockdown and the measures since the outbreak have been woefully inadequate. The humanitarian crisis that has emerged, with lakhs of migrant labourers wanting to return to their villages across the country but with no transport arrangements, is as grave as the medical challenge that COVID-19 has posed.

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The Narendra Modi government was slow to assess the gravity of the global crisis and by the time the virus reached Indian shores, the enormity of the challenge already began to appear overwhelming.

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Some Opposition leaders, notably Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, had as early as during the second week of February warned of the “extremely serious threat” of the coronavirus, and voiced concern that the government was not taking things seriously. Yet, the prime minister began to take steps in an opaque fashion without consulting either the States or the Opposition parties at the national level.

Steps to mitigate the economic hardship brought about by the pandemic with an economic package announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were ambiguous and appeared to be a sleight of hand.

Yet, the Opposition did not make much of the failure and refrained from criticising the government. In fact, the ₹1.76 crore economic package was welcomed by most parties, saying that a good beginning had been made, displaying a responsible political behaviour.

It is becoming increasingly clear as the crisis becomes graver by the day that the challenge may be far too big for Prime Minister Modi to handle it all by himself. Especially so, when experts are unanimous in saying that we are in for a long haul, perhaps for many months, with predictions that COVID-positive cases will spiral and India may enter the full-blown community transmission stage. But unlike Italy, Spain or the United States, India may still have the advantage of time and should therefore do all it can to restrict the damage.

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Given the enormity of the task before him, Modi will do well to co-opt the Opposition parties, many of whom have a reservoir of rich administrative experience, in the national effort to combat the COVID-19 challenge. The way some of the Opposition party-ruled states like Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi and Odisha have responded to the emergency has been impressive. The prime minister should not only acknowledge the positives that have emerged from these states but also incorporate measures that have worked there in the national strategy to meet the challenge.

In such a scenario, when the range of challenges from medical to social through economic are bound to widen, the Modi government will surely come under increasing strain and as weeks go by, fatigue may set in. Ever since Modi won a second term in office in 2019, he has taken a series of decisions that have led to deep divisions in the polity and among people. These divisions and distrust must be set aside if the countrywide effort to combat the medical emergency should bear fruit.

The BJP may enjoy brute majority in Parliament but there are several states where the ruling dispensation is of other political formations. After all, it is the States that have to work on the ground. The crisis is not a partisan issue and the dispensation requires to function like a wartime government.

Modi has to behave like a true statesman and take all sections of the political class along, even if it means he has to sacrifice the grandstanding he is usually accused of. All said and done, he is one leader who enjoys immense public goodwill. It will be in national interest if he considers forming a ‘government of national unity’ with representatives of a wider spectrum of the polity till the crisis passes.

There is excellent talent and experience on the other side of the government which the prime minister can tap into in the larger national interest. In the last couple of years, the death of senior ministers like Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Manohar Parikkar and Ananth Kumar have left the Modi Cabinet a little bare when it comes to administrative acumen and competence.

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Representatives of non-BJP parties in such a ‘government of national unity’ can act as effective bridges between the Centre and the States. This will go a long way in reducing rancour and conflict that has been a defining feature of Modi 2.0, and lead to a meaningful and constructive engagement with parties across the board.

Sagacity demands that parties eschew pursuing their strongly-held political beliefs in a crisis. Therefore, such an arrangement has to be largely ideology-agnostic for it to be effective. Parties can, and will, of course go back to their agendas once the crisis is over and the unity government ceases to exist.

Such unity governments are not stuff of fantasy. The UK has had several, and there has been some debate there of the need to have a ‘COVID coalition’ now. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, despite being indicted for corruption, may well head a ‘corona government’ with rival parties. And closer home, after the 2015 earthquake, Nepal saw rival parties burying their differences and forming a unity government.

Can we hope to see Modi rise to this occasion and use the huge people’s mandate in an unconventional manner to suit an unprecedented situation?

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