ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Indian Federalism and COVID-19

Following the principle of fairness to regulate centre–state relations during a crisis becomes urgent.

In normal times, the relationship between the centre ruled by a particular party and state governments led by different parties tends to get muddled by partisan and even by vindictive politics. The history of harassment of the state governments led by parties other than the ruling party at the centre is also the history of unfairness that structures the relationship between the centre and the state. Thus, in normal times, partisan politics colours the decent federal relationship between the centre and the state. Given the serious nature of the crisis, it may be assumed that the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, as it were, has led to the suspension of everyday forms of the politics of harassment of the state governments led by oppositions parties. However, one may not completely rule out an element of asymmetry of power that seems to put the centre into a privileged position to take decisions without the required deliberation with the states. The centre seems to enjoy the exclusive authority to hand down the lockdown decision to the states, which have been shouldering public responsibilities to confront the pandemic. Considering the enormity of the challenge posed by the pandemic to protect the lives and livelihoods of the vast masses, a definite shift away from these ordinary ways of doing things is necessary. One would expect the ruling party at the centre and its leadership to take the lead in facilitating this shift. However, the experience of the past one month is far from encouraging.

The unilateralist approach of the government at the centre has been evident right from the beginning as the first phase of the lockdown was declared without consulting the state governments and/or major opposition parties. Acute problems created by the sudden announcement of the lockdown, effectively leaving not enough time to prepare, had to be addressed by the state governments. The state governments, in the event of the sudden decision of the lockdown, were in a difficult situation to handle the problems of migrant workers who were stranded in these states. Considering the uneven support structures that exist in different states, the process of framing rules and modalities of the lockdown demanded the participation of these states when the lockdown decision was announced on 24 March. However, this process was also characteristically top-down, and the  series of changes introduced as an afterthought were due to the pleas made by the states. Considering that health as well as home—two of the most important heads during these times—are state subjects, elementary compliance to federal principles would have meant the decisive participation of states in devising the strategy to deal with the pandemic. Ideally, there should have been an all-party meeting as well as a meeting with all chief ministers of states before heading towards a lockdown. As the reports from electronic media show, the central government led by the Prime Minister seems to have avoided the lapses that were evident in the lockdown decision. The central government did make some efforts to open up the channels of discussion and deliberation with the oppositions leaders. Even in normal circumstances, the central government should show cognitive generosity towards seeking the expertise available with the senior leaders from the opposition parties. Similarly, it will be in the interests of the ideal federal structure if the central government shows willingness to learn from the experiences or best practices of some of the state governments. Nevertheless, a crisis of such proportions can only be tackled by joint efforts of all political parties as well as all the state governments across party lines. This would demand a decentralised approach and will increasingly empower the state- and district-level administrations. The actions of the central government, however, point to the contrary as it continues to take recourse to one-upmanship, centralisation and micromanagement from above. Be it the uncalled for “advisories’’ to the states from the union health ministry to not procure personal protective equipment and ventilators themselves and place their demands to the centre, or the very constitution of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) fund superseding the existing Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) and excluding the opposition parties altogether.

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Updated On : 23rd Dec, 2020

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