Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on June 7 (Photo: PIB)
IN A DRAMATIC STEP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the vaccination policy against Covid-19 being followed in the country on June 7th. It is another matter that the policy—that lasted just a month—was a product of pressures brought to bear on the Centre in an acutely polarised political environment.
With that announcement, India “course-corrected,” or rather, went back to its original course that was set in January when vaccination began. In reality, it was a well-thought -out plan followed across the country from January until April. Vaccines were first given to people who needed them the most: doctors and healthcare workers and personnel manning essential services.
All was proceeding well, even if there were issues like vaccine hesitancy, until sometime in February when the first rumblings against it were heard. That was the time when the first signs of the second wave began emerging from some districts of Maharashtra. In no time, the demand for “decentralisation” gathered speed to the point that the Centre appeared a beleaguered participant. A mix of “political entrepreneurs”, chief ministers of opposition-ruled states, activists and social media influencers brought to bear immense pressure on the Centre which, finally, gave in.
The prime minister summed up what happened succinctly: “…several state governments again said that the vaccine work should be de-centralised and left to the states. Several voices were raised. Like why age groups were created for vaccination. On the other hand, someone asked why should the Central Government decide the age limit? There were some voices also about why the elderly were being vaccinated earlier…After much deliberation, it was agreed that if the state governments also wanted to make efforts on their behalf, why should the Indian Government object?”
In the end, the liberalised policy lasted just a month. Under the new policy, state governments had to procure 25 per cent of the doses while the Centre would continue to supply 50 per cent of their requirement. The remaining 25 per cent of the supplies was left for the private sector. In the month that the policy lasted, states proved incapable of getting hold of even 25 per cent of what they needed. It was a far cry from February when state governments were in a “federal” mood and thought they could get hold of supplies directly from global suppliers. They could not secure even a handful of doses.
What happened was a classic instance of state governments led by voluble chief ministers—who were personally very confident and reassured politicians—that did not think even for a moment what they were capable of. The Indian people learnt this the hard way. There are two explanations for what happened, one administrative/organisational and the other, political.
It is a well-known fact that, administratively, states do a far superior job of delivering many last-mile services. This was evident during the pandemic itself. From doctors who went far beyond the call of duty to serve patients; the anganwadi workers who doubled up as contact tracers; the local policemen who maintained containment zones and others show that India is not a “flailing state” as some scholars describe it. Governments in India deliver many goods and services effectively even as they are pretty poor at other tasks.
This, however, does not mean that states are magic machines that can do well at everything they attempt. Consider Mumbai as an example. The local government (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation), among the richest local bodies in India, did the job of contact tracing very well, but is a dismal failure—year after year—at providing and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to prevent flooding during monsoons. With the exception of Odisha, state governments do badly in managing relief and rescue work during natural disasters. So much so that some years ago, a government in Uttarakhand could not even prepare the list of persons who had died during floods there; the army was roped in to do that elementary task.
The contrast with what the Centre can do is stark. The Centre does well at macro tasks while states deliver micro ones. The Centre is also effective at tasks that require inter-state coordination and regulation. What it cannot do are tasks that require intimate knowledge of local conditions. Healthcare, irrigation and aspects of law and order fall in that class. These clear lines of what they can and what they cannot do should be evident to state governments. In recent years, this ability has been lost after bitter electoral campaigns have placed politicians as chief ministers who think that opposing the Centre is necessary for their political well-being, if not survival.
Vaccination is a task that requires both Centre and states to cooperate seamlessly: the Centre to arrange vaccines and states to make local arrangements for executing vaccination. This is more so in a pandemic when vaccine supplies are scarce and states competing with each other for the few available doses would be extremely counter-productive. But this is exactly what some chief ministers—mostly ambitious ones from non-BJP ruled states—bargained for until they realised their mistake.
This begs an explanation. It is hard to believe that these chief ministers don’t know the limitations of what their governments can do. The answer is to be found in the extremely polarised and competitive politics that India has seen in the last one decade or so. With BJP gaining ground in states where it had no presence even a few years earlier, local politicians feel threatened. That starts the game of trying to forge sub-national identities to secure immediate political advantage. Flag, language, local anthems promoted to a sub-national level and even vaccines—nothing has been left out in this mobilisation. The idea behind decentralisation of Covid-19 vaccines was not efficiency—a part of which is legitimate—but to show that sub-nationalism could pip nationalism. In their bid to put down Modi, these ambitious—and nervous at the same time—leaders ended up harming the residents of their states.
For the time being, this ruinous game is over. The Centre will procure vaccines for all states—as it should—and give them to states on the basis of clearly spelt-out criteria. Vaccine stocks have been ordered and the pipeline has been strengthened. Hopefully by December, a majority of Indians would have been vaccinated.
The issue, however, is not one about vaccination but the abuse of “federalism” as an idea and turning it into an ideology that comes close to separatist sentiment. In an earlier age, separatism was based on religion, language and other features that marked off India as a near-ungovernable country. Now, it is being driven by political ambitions. Many regional leaders harbour the dream of becoming prime minister one day. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is the means to that end that are questionable. The standard tactic is to strengthen one’s “base” in the home state using some local feature—language and local symbols are common tropes—to the point that one becomes a sub-national symbol. The next step is fulfilling one’s national ambitions. In the process, however, the foundations of India as a nation-state are being hollowed out. Politically, at the level of the states, and intellectually, by disaffected intellectuals who are in a symbiotic relationship with local leaders. The process ought to be ended decisively by putting “federalism” in its place: as a mere system of distributing local public goods and nothing more. A pandemic is a good reminder that much worse can happen to India. India needs to be vaccinated against the ideology of “federalism.”