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Covid-19 seems to have strengthened India’s cooperative and competitive federalism – the two concepts Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been stressing on since 2014.
The pandemic has created an extraordinary situation which seeks extraordinary efforts between the Centre and states to work in coordination. The Modi government invoked the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act and the post-2004 tsunami Disaster Management Act (DMA) of 2005 to assume extraordinary powers to impose four lockdowns.
Interestingly, it was Modi’s calibrated strategy to field the chief ministers of the 30 states at the forefront while playing the role of captain of the ship. For the first time, the PM conducted his cooperative federalism in the five virtual meetings with the chief ministers in full public glare. The whole country watched their interaction on TV.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about quite a transformation with the Centre and states on the same page, bringing the strength of federalism to the fore.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren has lauded the “strength of federalism” displayed by the cooperation among different states. “In this time of crisis, the strength of the federal structure has come to the fore. I spoke personally with various CMs — Kerala (Pinarayi Vijayan), Maharashtra (Uddhav Thackeray) and Delhi (Arvind Kejriwal) — where our people are stuck,” Soren said, adding that there was complete understanding among them.
There is also a competitive spirit among the chief ministers as they try to out-do each other in their performance against the coronavirus.
All states cannot perform at the same level because of their size, finances, development and other reasons. It is clear that states like Odisha, Kerala and Rajasthan have done better than other states and the northeast has also fared well. In a rare gesture the Prime Minister has lavished praise on the performing chief ministers; Ashok Gehlot, Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan in particular in his virtual meetings.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Modi has been increasingly relying on building consensus among the state chieftains.
Contrary to his image of an authoritarian leader, he has become a consensus-seeker. For example, the PM told a meeting of chief ministers on April 11: “Any chief minister can speak to me anytime. We should stand together shoulder-to-shoulder.”
The latter, too, have accepted the ‘Team India’ spirit. This cooperation from the state chieftains is also due to the fact that they sense tremendous political good if they rise to the occasion.
Though the pandemic has enabled provincial chieftains to function in a spirit of cooperation and competition, the chief ministers had their share of grievances with Modi on issues like lack of resources, testing kits, migrant displacement and delay in getting their share of the GST compensation. But both set aside their differences and put up a united fight against the pandemic, importantly since health is a state subject.
The states depend on the Centre for funds and early disbursal of funds from the Centre is critical. They face twin challenges – to contain the spread of the pandemic and to increase public activity gradually while adhering to government guidelines like social distancing.
While states like Punjab and Assam had sought further extension of the lockdown, others like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana wanted to put off resuming rail and air traffic.
Modi is an experienced politician and knows that he needs the support of every section to succeed in his Covid-19 strategy, more so from the chief ministers as it is the states which are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. He referred to how he had to deal with the 2002 earthquake as Gujarat chief minister. Therefore, he took them into confidence right from day one of the first lockdown and held five virtual meetings with them. He has now left the post-lockdown strategy to the states.
The PM as well as the CMs are riding a tiger, and as long as there is lockdown, they are in control. But the post-lockdown period is tricky because no one knows whether the coronavirus will spread further or whether people will follow guidelines like social distancing, wearing masks etc. He has now asked chief ministers to make a blueprint for the post-lockdown strategy.