Opposition heat on the central government is finally seen rising after several weeks of silence that was meant to provide space to the ruling party to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. But what role has the opposition played during the COVID-19 crisis?
The increasing economic and social turmoil should be a matter of utmost concern to the centre, the opposition has stated. Speaking on the third lockdown earlier, Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi raised concerns over the effectiveness of the shutdown. “I am also of the view that the government was uncertain about the criteria for lockdown, nor does it have an exit strategy. Successive lockdowns have yielded diminishing returns,” she said adding that the economy is in shambles and the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package announced for relief is nothing but a ‘cruel joke’. Gandhi also expressed her concerns about the present government’s handling of the migrant workers’ crisis, saying “The present government has no empathy or compassion for the poor, it is simply heartbreaking.” But the question still remains at to what role exactly is the opposition playing or will thereafter during the COVID-19 crisis?
What should the opposition be focusing on?
Several experts have pointed out some of the issues the opposition should focus on. In regular times, in any kind of democracy, especially in a parliamentary democracy like in our country, the opposition’s job is to critique the government, point to the gaps in each policy decision, speak up for those who are not being heard or represented while the process of decision-making is happening, mobilise and gather both grassroots and elite opinion against the ruling government, and eventually, through the polls, displace the party already in power and win a democratic mandate thereafter.
But in testing times such as these amid a pandemic, the role of the opposition is somewhat altered. It has to begin with the premise that the central government’s intent is noble and the opposition should sound supportive — that even if there is political rivalry, those who are exercising power in the states wish to help the country overcome the challenge posed by the crisis. This intent has to be supplemented by cooperation, for it is only when the political class in the country takes a united stance for a challenge, across federal units, there is a possibility of common action plan and the implementation thereafter. This was also somewhat seen happening in India. The opposition continued to be supportive in the initial days of the crisis and the subsequent lockdown. However, there is also a broad consensus about the methods that were or are to be adopted to battle the pandemic — starting from increased testing to identifying hotspots and containment zones, from the importance of social distancing among the population to increasing isolation and quarantine facilities, from providing relief to the poor to curbing the economic slowdown. But beyond these, the opposition’s job is not to go along with each government measure or action. It has to while being supportive, also vehemently critique the centre if it is falling short in any sector, by remaining constructive and not being adversarial.
The opposition in our country indeed has worked on a few things amid the pandemic — they have had a role in pushing the government to achieve more. First, of which is despite experts consistently pointing to the need for huge amounts of testing as a way to identify the spread of COVID-19, the government was initially slow, although it has increased testing now in the past few weeks. But the opposition has played its part in pointing to this gap and chief ministers have been alert in identifying the lack of testing kits as a pressing need. This has thus pushed the government to do more.
Secondly, the lack of personal protective equipment (PPEs) for frontline healthcare workers has been a major concern area in India’s COVID response. Here, too, the opposition — along with civil society — has increased the pressure on the government, legitimately, to deliver rightfully. It has in ways given voice to frontline warriors in this battle against the deadly virus. India is still short of requirements, but PPEs today are recognised as an issue and there has been an increase in production.
An economic narrative for the opposition?
And lastly, the opposition has played a critical role in pointing to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the lockdown. This is, once again, the collective responsibility of all governments including the states. But given the role of the Centre, its wider jurisdiction in terms of power, and the resources at its command, it is essentially the duty of New Delhi — not the states — to come up with measures for betterment. The government has announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package for the marginalised and then a Rs 20 lakh crore economic stimulus package. But this does not seem to be enough — not enough to ensure the viability of businesses in our country; curb the massive unemployment; restore supply chains; augment demand, and help sectors which are in acute crisis due to the pandemic such as tourism, aviation, hospitality, micro, medium and small enterprises, among numerous others.
The opposition has, however, raised this issue continuously, though one could always argue that it needs to do so more effectively at times like these. To do that, the Congress party today needs another mascot (apart from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who is 87) to represent a new economic vision for India, and without a doubt, it’s the man sitting in Chicago. Raghuram Rajan was chosen by Manmohan Singh as Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor in 2013 when the country’s economy had begun facing a relatively smaller crisis of economic growth — the buzzword then being “policy paralysis”. Rajan, like Manmohan Singh, cannot be called just an economist, he is not. He’s emerged as a popular public face over the years. How many former RBI governors’ names can you recall? There are many who have their thinking caps on whether Rajan could be the dark horse and be the next Manmohan Singh of the Grand Old Party as the Congress is in dire need of such a credible face. The party has lost the economic narrative since the BJP came to power or even before that. Sonia Gandhi coined the slogan of ‘aam aadmi’ in 2004, which worked quite well for a decade but for the past five years, it remains clueless. What the opposition in the centre now needs is a good economic narrative and Rajan apparently has good relations with the Congress bosses. Some have also gone to the extent of pointing out that if the Congress needs another Singh, Rajan fits the bill quite perfectly. It must be noted and recalled that just before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, several articles appeared to be promoting Rajan even as a possible prime ministerial candidate. He is seen as one of the best appointments of Manmohan Singh during his tenure. Also, it is quite early and premature to speculate such a feat.
Common people to be affected by centre-state tussle?
The opposition in the states has also come into the question after the super cyclone Amphan left a trail of destruction in West Bengal. Will bitter politics and the tensions between the state and the central government impact rehabilitation in the aftermath of the cyclone? The question everyone is asking. As West Bengal is busy picking up the pieces after the ruthless cyclone which has certainly brought about unprecedented damage, many from the state have expressed their discontent saying that despite the arrival of such a huge calamity, the rest of India has not paid adequate attention to the state when it needs the most support. People from the state have pointed out that the national media has been doing little to create awareness about the intensity of the damage and the Union government has to be blamed for not yet declaring cyclone Amphan a national disaster. 22 other opposition parties have also come together to criticise the central government’s stance of not declaring the devastating cyclone as a national disaster. Following PM Modi’s visit to the state, he announced a modest package of Rs 1,000 crore for immediate relief. The initial package was seen as a mockery of the intensity of the disaster by many and was seen as heavily inadequate given the scale of devastation it has caused. So, the question asked above still remains.