BY a perverse logic, the Covid pandemic has upturned the Centre-state equations and inverted the principle of co-operative federalism, at a time when the two arms of the political executive require one another the most. Barring Odisha and Tamil Nadu, the other states that were not ruled by the BJP endured the impact of an order which should have favoured the provinces because public health is a state subject under the Constitution’s Seventh Schedule. Although the catastrophe triggered an old debate over placing public health on the concurrent list, in practice, the fiscal and institutional constraints the states were subject to made the Centre an active player in shaping policies in this crucial sector all along.
The Seventh Schedule defines the mandate under public health to cover sanitation, hospitals and dispensaries, while the prevention of the spread of contagious diseases — relevant in the present context — from one state to another comes under the concurrent list. Bolstered by the archaic Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA), 2005, the Centre had the constitutional and political carte blanche to give directions to the states during the pandemic. The top-down approach resulted in tensions as some Opposition-governed states acted contrary to the Centre’s ‘advisories’ while the Centre despatched inspection squads without the concurrence of the states to identify the Covid hotspots.
The Centre also seemed reluctant to accede to the states’ demands for augmented funds, personal protective equipment kits and testing kits. The ongoing clash over oxygen supplies between the Centre and the O2-starved states is a fallout of the skewed relationship that emanated from the imbalance of powers in the public health sphere. Although medical oxygen is not a controlled commodity, amid the pandemic it is allocated centrally and its distribution is monitored by an Empowered Group 2 constituted by the Prime Minister’s Office with representatives from the states and the major oxygen producers. At the core of the Centre-state discord lie vexatious issues: the limited finances of the states, the lack of technical expertise with the states that was evident in the inability of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to handle Japanese encephalitis and Karnataka to deal with monkey fever, and insufficient institutional back-up to make and implement policies. These circumstances caused states to rely excessively on the Centre for aid and advice during a pandemic as well as local public health issues.
While the first phase of the pandemic was marked by pinpricks and clashes between the Centre and the states, especially during the first lockdown when the migrants returned to their home states, a near breaking point came on March 22, 2021, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi conferred with the chief ministers of the virus-ravaged states at a video conference. The backdrop was fraught with anxieties over the deaths caused by O2 scarcity in Delhi hospitals. There was a remote chance of getting the supplies replenished. Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi Chief Minister, live-streamed his speech in which he implored the PM to increase the oxygen quantum until the government cut short the stream, citing ‘tradition and protocol’. Relations between the Centre and Kejriwal were never even-keeled although in his present tenure, the CM was mindful of not nettling Modi without provocation as he did in his previous stints and letting on his national ambitions.
Uddhav Thackeray, the Maharashtra CM, whose state has been hit the longest and hardest by Covid, heard Modi out without interrupting him. Thackeray, who put up with the Centre’s calculated apathy towards the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s former ally, realised there was no point in antagonising Modi all the time. The BJP has been on the job of destabilising the disparate Maharashtra coalition and lately found a weak spot in the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and its leader, Sharad Pawar. Just how focused the BJP was on the Maharashtra project was apparent when last week, the CBI raided the properties of NCP leader and former Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, who quit after the Bombay High Court ordered a probe into corruption allegations against him. Following the raid, the CBI booked Deshmukh under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the IPC.
The Centre’s attitude towards the Opposition-ruled states, heightened during the pandemic, raises a political question: what happens when the BJP next sets out on a quest for ‘friendly’ allies? Until 2024, it can live out its present tenure albeit as a shrunken National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that lost its key constituents, the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal. The determination that marked the BJP’s objective to dislodge Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) from West Bengal since 2019 might replicate itself in neighbouring Odisha, where success has eluded it so far. Although Naveen Patnaik, Odisha’s low-key CM and president of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), rarely, if ever, annoyed Modi, the BJP regards him as its prime adversary in the east because he must be vanquished by 2024 when the state votes along with the Lok Sabha polls.
Therefore, the BJD can never be an ally except in the very remote possibility (at least as of now) of the BJP requiring outside support after the next parliamentary polls. Patnaik is one of the most successful regional chieftains. He has been CM five times, a record held by Pawan Chamling and Jyoti Basu, and has never ever disclosed or even feigned to have national aspirations.
The BJP has a long way to go in the south. It will need hand-holding in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to take baby steps. There’s the North-east, barring Assam. Can the BJP’s cavalier, indeed hostile, conduct with the regional forces inspire confidence in its present and prospective partners? Something to ponder over.
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