The coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) has the potential of not just redefining the rules and the balance of power in the international system, but altering the contours of Indian political life.
The scale of the pandemic, the national lockdown, the economic crisis it has already generated, and the fact that every citizen — irrespective of class, caste, geography, gender, age, religion — is affected, admittedly to varying degrees, makes Covid-19 the most significant event in recent Indian history.
If society is affected, and if the economic structure is altered, it cannot but have an impact on the way political competition takes place, and on the political choices people make in the months and years ahead. While the situation remains uncertain and fluid, four key variables will determine what Indian politics will look like once the crisis subsides.
First, how India manages Covid-19 will be the defining legacy of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi. It is no longer Kashmir or the Ram temple or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or welfare measures or demonetisation or Goods and Services Tax that will be the dominant element in how Modi is remembered in history.
To be sure, these issues matter — and may even play a partial role in electoral outcomes and have long-term consequences. But it is whether India manages to minimise the fallout of the pandemic, with limited cases and casualties, or succumbs to it on a mass scale, with a devastating loss of lives, that will be the central element of Modi's prime ministership.
It is whether India manages to, in the wake of the health crisis, reduce the economic consequences, provide social security support and rebuild its core sectors — or whether it enters a long period not just of contracted growth but perhaps even sustained recession that will define Modi's governance record.
If he manages to lead India out of this pandemic relatively successfully, Modi will have sealed not just the 2024 election — but etched his name as a heroic, almost war-time, PM. And, if he fails, nothing else he does will be able to mitigate the damage from this crisis.
Two, the crisis will strengthen the power of the Indian State. It has shown that at a time of grave public emergency, the government is essential. Many fervent supporters of free markets have often argued for the retreat of the State and confining it to essential law and order functions, while leaving the private sector to take over other functions. This never happened in India, even though liberalisation opened up key sectors, rightly, for private sector participation. And private sector firms, including in health care, have a role in battling Covid-19.
But it is the government that is at the heart of the response. From getting Indians from abroad back home to determining the duration of a lockdown and implementing it, from deciding on the testing strategy for Covid-19 to embarking on extensive contact tracing of all those possibly infected, from allocating (what appear to be inadequate) funds to ramp up health infrastructure to announcing relief measures for the economically disadvantaged, from leveraging private sector support to representing India's point of view internationally, it is the State which is responding to the crisis.
All these measures are legal and necessary, but they will enhance its power and role beyond the crisis. The era of big government is set to return.
Three, the crisis has the potential to redefine the nature of Indian political discourse. Growth and welfare have mattered in shaping electoral contests — but religion and caste have been key drivers in determining political choice. This is not always negative, for identity-based mobilisation, especially of marginalised caste groups, including Dalits, has given them representation.
But in this process, issues of public interest have often receded. Political leaders believe that they can win elections without needing to deliver better governance outcomes if they can get the religious or caste arithmetic right. Citizens often do not demand better public service delivery — and end up making choices based on either older parochial loyalties or abstract emotional appeals.
But this crisis may force both the political system and citizens to recognise that issues such as health cannot be marginal, but are central. The Aam Aadmi Party's victory in Delhi is an early indicator of this trend, where its perceived record on health and education helped it win the support of a cross-section of voters. But Covid-19 has now shown the indispensability of public health systems and the need to invest in a more healthy society and prepare better.
No national election in India has been fought on education or health or social safety; voters have not decided their choices based on which party promises to invest more funds in building State capacity. But it is hard to imagine that in the future, political parties can go to voters without an agenda on health — or that citizens will not demand better services.
Finally, the entire episode will strengthen Indian federalism. The role of state governments has been critical in the battle against Covid-19. The constitutional division of powers has meant that not all decisions happen at the same time, slowing down responses in different geographies. Some states have done better than others. There have been coordination issues between the Centre and states and among states.
But the crisis has brought home the indispensability of India's federal compact. A centralised, unitary structure would have struggled even more to deal with the emerging realities, given India's spread, and specific local realities. The fact that there is an administrative apparatus that percolates down to grassroots, through state governments and Panchayats, has helped and will be an asset in this long battle.
Covid-19 will shape the legacies of governments and leaders; it may alter how elections are fought, what citizens demand and what political parties will need to deliver; and it will re-establish the primacy of the government in everyday lives.