To discern any change in politics — and remember changes in politics are, more often than not, incremental and take years to have a noticeable impact — the first clue is political vocabulary. The coinage of new terms reflect new ideas, and in turn, get reflected in political communication. Once the vocabulary gains legitimacy or appeal, there is an impact on both political mobilisation — it is ideas that constitute the basis for any organised activity — as well as policymaking — these ideas, when in power, get translated into action. This, then, generates debate and opposition, and ideas which had, till then, enjoyed limited traction, become a part of everyday discourse.
A year after Covid-19 hit the national capital, it is instructive to examine — from the prism of politics — what has changed and what has not.
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Vocabulary offers a clue. On March 1, 2020, when the first case hit the national capital, no one had thought that terms such as mahaamaari (pandemic), do gaj doori (six feet distance, to describe social distancing), lockdown, migrant workers, unlock, corona warriors (to hail frontline workers), RT-PCR (the gold standard for Covid-19 testing), testing labs, Covishied and Covaxin (the two vaccines currently deployed in India), and aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) would become a part of everyday discourse in India. No one had thought that the idea of video conferencing between the prime minister and state chief ministers or between the prime minister and world leaders would become such a regular occurrence that it wouldn’t be even seen as a departure from the older physical format of meetings.
No one had thought that the impact of Covid-19 — reflected in this new discourse and new methods of interaction — would result in swasthya, health, becoming a public policy priority of the highest order, with increases in budgets and allocations and renewed commitment to health-related institutions. No one had thought that demand for better health care, more facilities for health workers and speedier vaccination would come from below in the crowded political marketplace of demands. And no one had thought that the link between health and economy — reflected in the long march of migrants back home — would become so starkly clear.
Yet, all of this has happened. And that reflects the story of political transformation in India 2020-21.
But alongside, it is important to remember what has not changed.
Politics remains driven as much by real or perceived identity-related grievances. There remains a powerful Centre, led by a dominant Bharatiya Janata Party, which has, for most part, so far, been able to politically overcome the disruption caused by the pandemic. There remains a weak national Opposition, which has neither been able to present an alternative model of how they would have dealt with the pandemic and associated challenges or leverage the discontent the pandemic produced among citizens. There remains an even greater economic challenge of generating jobs at a time when inequality has only become more stark and more starkly visible. There remains both cooperation and discord in India’s federal structure, with differences between the Centre and states ruled by non-BJP forces. There remains the everyday staple of political rhetoric, as can be seen in states going for polls over the next eight weeks. And there remain questions about the health of India’s institutions and whether democracy can navigate the dominance of one party while ensuring checks on it.
But along with this, the change is palpable.
There may be differences on the quantum of public spending on health, but there is little doubt that no government can now afford to go to the people without a report card on what it has done to handle the pandemic and improve health systems. There may be differences on the quantum and nature of welfare spending, but political parties cannot discard the idea of State support to the vulnerable — at a time when instruments of welfare came to the rescue of India’s poorest citizens.
There may be differences on the Centre’s new economic paradigm of embracing reforms and the private sector, but it clearly stems from a sense that the political economy cannot function in business-as-usual mode if India is to become “self-reliant” — and remember, the idea of self reliance itself is a product of the pandemic which disrupted global supply chains, brought home the reality of dependence on China, and the need to develop autonomously.
And there may be differences on India’s foreign policy posture, but the pandemic has added to the urgency of making difficult geopolitical choices. The change is palpable in unlikely realms too, including the government’s relationship with big tech. Political communication — if you are on the side of the ruling dispensation or a part of the Opposition or a member of civil society organising protests — has become overwhelmingly dependent on digital communication. And while the dispute between sovereign States and online platforms was a long time coming, it is perhaps not a coincidence that this has intensified in recent months as the value of digital platforms has become even more pronounced.
The pandemic has affected both social and economic structures. And if this is the case, politics and governance cannot be divorced from the underlying changes. It is still too soon — India is still confronting the pandemic — to accurately gauge the nature and scale of changes. It is also tempting to underplay the continuities and overplay the disruption . But what is clear is that the pandemic presented, arguably, one of the most difficult challenges the Indian State has confronted. When it emerges from it, scarred but also healed, the State — just like citizens — will not be the same. It will be better, in some ways, and it may be worse, in other ways.