Testing Democracy in a Pandemic

The surging numbers of fresh Covid cases in India makes for grim reading, day after day. The daily hunt for hospitals, oxygen, ambulances, even cremation ground space is simply heart-rending. It seems that our cities have turned into funeral pyres, with not enough space to even cremate or bury their dead. If times weren’t already testing enough, the country just conducted state assembly elections in four states and one union territory. And as I had written in an earlier blog post, it could have been better planned, keeping the pandemic in mind.

But it seems to have escaped the authorities in charge of conducting elections in India. Or perhaps, the ruling party, BJP, had other things in mind. Including eyeing victory in Bengal, where the elections were unnecessarily stretched across eight phases lasting an entire month and a half. Knowing that the party’s star campaigners, Narendra Modi and and Amit Shah would themselves be addressing large rallies and knowing that it is impossible to test crowds of millions of voters in such situations, or mandate mask-wearing, the Election Commission went ahead. In fact, it was reported that at one of the PM’s many election rallies in Bengal, he even bragged about the size of the rally and said it was unprecedented. Together, they held over 30 such rallies in the state, multiplying the risks of Covid-19 transmission, as the surging cases later would tell.

Ditto, for the other states that went to elections as well. These elections will go down as the most controversial in history, for this very reason. That they were being held during a pandemic, amid hundreds of thousands of new cases every day, and rising numbers of deaths as well. Given the sorry state of our healthcare, we can’t accurately track hospitalisations, so it is not surprising that many believe that we might actually be underestimating the numbers of cases and deaths.

To make matters worse, India is plagued by a shortage of nearly everything we need to fight Covid-19. From not enough hospital beds, to oxygen, remdesivir, vaccines, India’s public health system is collapsing. With healthcare spending of under 2% of GDP for several decades, we should have known the day of reckoning would come. It is here finally, after decades of handing over healthcare to the private sector, which only the urban upper middle class can afford in India. If that’s not bad enough, we have the vaccine producers pricing their vaccines at different levels for the centre and for the state, the latter being higher than the former. And while the price ought to be higher for private hospitals buying vaccines directly from the producers, such a huge price difference for a vaccine is not justified in my view.

India’s famed “pharmacy to the world” tag too is in shreds. In fact, it took this Covid-19 pandemic for many Indians to take note of the fact that India – and the Serum Institute of India in particular – had been the world’s biggest vaccine producer for years. Yet, the chief of SII was quoted in media as saying that due to a shortage of imports of ingredients from the US, the company was not able to produce enough quantities of the vaccine. This is a terrible situation to be in, for the vaccine is the only way out of this pandemic.

Confirmed new daily cases for India (7-day average); Chart: Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre website

If US’s ban on exports owing to the Defence Production Act being invoked in their country is going to stop India from making enough vaccines and cheaply enough for millions of Indians and people from other poor and developing nations, this is clearly a wake-up call for the Indian pharma sector. Just as we need to make our own APIs and reduce dependence on Chinese imports, perhaps our Indian pharmaceutical companies need to consider making vaccine ingredients indigenously as well.

Media reports of the US agreeing to export vaccines and ingredients didn’t help to clarify the picture either; I read news of “20 million doses of the Astrazeneca vaccine” being shipped to India, to “no vaccines or ingredients being exported” even after Joe Biden spoke to Narendra Modi, to “oxygen tankers and other medical supplies” being sent. Meanwhile, we read a few days ago that SII’s chief and his family have fled to the UK, in order to escape aggressive and threatening calls, including from powerful politicians, pressuring him to send them enough vaccine.

In the midst of all this chaos, Indian democracy was being tested in a few important states. Important for the BJP to improve its tally, since it was in power in only one of the four states going to elections. Were the 30 odd rallies, the crowd-pulling power of Modi and Shah and the rising Covid-19 cases all worth it?

Not if you look at the results that these elections threw up. If anything, they at least help to affirm that Indian democracy is well and assertive at least in some states, if not pan-India. The BJP managed to hold on in Assam, which was surprising in itself in light of the state’s outcry over the controversial CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens) being implemented. They also gained in the Union territory of Puducherry along with their alliance partner. They didn’t help the AIADMK retain Tamil Nadu, nor did they make much headway in Kerala.

Vaccination queue in Nagpur, May 1, 2021; Ganesh Dhamodkar CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons

And in the biggest battleground of all, projected as a Mamata Banerjee vs Narendra Modi fight, the BJP suffered a humiliating defeat. They did gain many seats from their last assembly election in Bengal, but are nowhere near any position to unseat the TMC which won a landslide victory in an election that was said to be too close to call.

What was also heartening about these elections is that they threw up clear and decisive winners, in favour of a single party/alliance. We are at least spared drama in the forthcoming weeks over hung assemblies, coalition politics, horse-trading and the like. Having said that, clear and decisive victories in this case could also be a sign of fewer strong parties – those that are capable of splitting votes and playing king-maker at the state level.

The Congress Party, for one, has been so weakened and emasculated over the years, thanks to weak central leadership, relying too much on old leaders in states, in-fighting within the party, and a refusal to face reality. It relied on old leaders especially at the state level for too long, and continued with its dynastic politics at the centre. With the result that it has been unable to reinvigorate its state cadres and its national level leadership lacks vision and the ability to mobilise wide support.

Volunteer checking temperature at polling booth in Bengal assembly elections, April 6, 2021; Image: PIB on behalf of Election Commission of India on Wikimedia Commons

That doesn’t bode well for Indian democracy at a national level. Because although coalition politics became a fact of life in India in the 80s, they were never very stable and struggled to complete even a full term. It helps to remember, though, that the BJP and the Congress party function as alliances in the form of NDA and UPA, but these alliances too are being tested as with the Akali Dal quitting the NDA recently and rifts with the Shiv Sena as well. Meanwhile, the NCP and the Congress Party were not exactly singing from the same hymn sheet, either; NCP, pursuing its aspirations in Maharashtra is now part of the Shiv Sena-led state government. One wonders when Indian democracy will mature to the level where well-managed coalitions are the order of the day as in the Netherlands and in some other northern European countries. Then again, Israel, which too has had long experience with coalition politics, is struggling to form a government as I write this, even after four rounds of elections in the country.

Yet, at the national level, NDA and UPA are the dominant players. It is for all the weaknesses of the Congress-led UPA, that the BJP-led NDA has been on a winning spree. Otherwise, it is a travesty of democracy that after the devastating effects of demonetization, unspeakable rural distress and high unemployment in India, NDA was still voted back to power with an even larger majority in 2019. Imagine voting them in again in 2024, after all the ignominies of this pandemic. 

The BJP-led government is midway through its second term and one still doesn’t see a strong alternative on the horizon. Hopefully, these state elections will encourage regional parties to cast their nets wider and plan with proper development agendas in whatever time they have.

If only we could have avoided adding to the Covid-19 cases and deaths.

If only the authorities had realized that at a time of fast-accelerating digitization, election campaigning too could have been restricted to media campaigns (both in mass and social media) and perhaps a few virtual/streamed election rallies. On that note, perhaps the Maha Kumbh Mela too could have been held virtually. Might the Prime Minister have been suggesting this, when he asked devotees to conduct the Kumbh Mela “symbolically”? Maybe I am just being too charitable.

If only we didn’t have to say our final farewells to the dear departed on pavements and in makeshift parking lots.

Featured image at the start of this post is of India’s teeming rural folk, who usually vote in large numbers, from Pixabay.

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