Politics Post Corona: Modi’s ‘Muscle’ or Opposition’s Narrative?
This crisis has provided some leaders license to do exactly what they wish to do without too much accountability.
Despite roadblocks, political multi-partisanship has been one of the few silver linings during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In India, Prime Minister Modi’s call for lockdown has received broad political support, albeit with relevant riders. The US Congress has struck a deal for an unprecedented stimulus package to keep the economy afloat. Notwithstanding his political motives, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a national unity government. In the Netherlands, an opposition MP has been appointed as the country’s new Health Secretary. Leaders across the political divide understand that a lot is at stake, including thousands of human lives.
Political bickering in these times can severely undermine their political future.
Yet, once this crisis does blow over, the direction of the aftershocks will depend on existing institutional strength.
The steady rise of high-pitched nationalistic fervour across the world has hinged on the premise of decisive action against challenges that threaten the existence of a nation state, and in some cases, that of the nation state’s majority. In what has become a common script, this narrative involves the projection of a (male) leader as a decisive disrupter, who is out there to protect his nation and regain its lost glory. In the process, enemies are created – often, another nation is that ‘enemy’ – and when that is not viable, communities within the country are demonised. This ‘Us vs Them’ narrative, catalysed by social media, has swept the world.
The biggest beneficiaries in most cases – the conservative right-wing leaders – have used this strategy to enthuse their followers and make them rally around their identity, even as hapless opposition parties (mostly the liberal left) haven’t been able to do much, except look on in shock.
Interestingly, once the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic blows over, there are two distinct possibilities that this model could face. In countries such as the US and the UK, which are still following the institutional rulebooks while dealing with the crisis, the electorate might be compelled to ask tough questions of its incumbent leaders. As one can imagine, this might provide the flailing liberal left just the perfect plank for at least three important issues critical to their agenda – public healthcare, social security, and the environment.
Will Post-Corona Narrative Benefit the Opposition?
South Korea’s (relative) success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic may have given the advocates of universal healthcare an important case study to talk about. Indeed, leading Democratic candidates for the upcoming US presidential elections (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders) have merged these issues with their electoral pitches as they gear up to take on President Trump. PM Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in the United Kingdom has announced that it will share the wage burden of those affected by the crisis. France, Spain, India and the US have announced similar measures to insulate the economically weaker sections.
On the environment front, the issue is not just restricted to reassuring views of reduced pollution levels and wildlife returning to their natural habitat. In fact, the crisis may be a dry run for larger global shocks that do not respect international boundaries. Climate change, anybody? It is safe to say that across such countries with well entrenched democratic traditions, when the dust settles, there will be adequate ammunition for the liberal left to seek larger shares of their national budgets for public healthcare, social security and the environment. This will come with enhanced political capital and a possible path to revival.
‘Muscular’ Govt Sans Accountability?
However, that does not imply that the other side will necessarily come a cropper. In COVID-19, muscular nationalistic leaders in power have found a ‘natural enemy’ against which they can rally not only their own voter base, but in fact, the entire nation state. For instance, amidst a slew of unpleasant developments over the last few months, Prime Minister Modi’s decision to impose a nationwide lockdown of 21 days has allowed him to reconnect with the masses in pursuit of an indisputable objective. Many suggest that the crisis may have provided Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political career a fresh lease of life. President Trump positioning himself as a ‘wartime’ President, fighting the ‘Chinese’ virus is yet another example.
With an unprecedented crisis at hand, such leaders won’t mind the fact that institutional checks and balances within their country’s democratic frameworks can be bypassed in pursuit of the ‘greater good’.
If they succeed, this heavy-handed style of governance will receive further validation, leading to political dividends in the near future. This has already become evident in a big way in countries such as Hungary and the Philippines – political systems which may not be hailed as the traditional paragons of democratic values.
The crisis has provided such leaders the license to do exactly what they wish to do without too much accountability.
Unfortunately, in such a dire situation, the process may not be as important as the final result. As a result, although mitigation remains top priority for now, the political reverberations that the crisis will leave in its wake will depend on the tenacity of the prevailing set of institutions.
(Kartikeya Batra holds degrees from Delhi University and The Fletcher School (Tufts University), and is a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Maryland (College Park). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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