In a time of crisis, no government can make its citizens happy no matter how well it governs. Any judgment on governance in Karnataka during the past nine months of crisis fuelled by COVID-19 must be subject to this caveat. But the story of the State’s governance during this phase is not just about managing the pandemic and its complex impact. For, the crisis appeared as an opportunity for the Karnataka government, much like the Union government and many other States, to push its own agenda of governance dictated by its politics.
Karnataka may not yet present any model of best practices in managing the crisis, but the State, despite many constraints, must be credited for not allowing the situation to slip out of control. In any case, given the complexity of the crisis, any conclusion about what went right and what did not will be tentative. Many unknown stories as well as the unknown subtexts of the known stories may remain hidden. For a fuller account of governance, therefore, attention needs to move beyond the narrow range of activities around managing the pandemic to cover the entire gamut of the State’s actions related and unrelated to COVID-19.
For any sensitive chronicler of governance during the crisis, one image that will haunt for long is that of the ferocity of the police during the early phase of enforcing a hurriedly announced national lockdown. The political class, which should have reined in the police, appeared to have gleefully watched the sordid sadism unfold on the streets. A lawyer, who is also a ruling party sympathiser, took up the cudgels against the might of the regulatory state by filing a PIL petition in the High Court of Karnataka. The police chief then issued an order to the men and women in khaki to show restraint — thank the judiciary for small mercies. There may be a lesson in this on how to and how not to use the police during a humanitarian crisis, but who cares for it in a society that seems to revere the violent police culture.
The crisis period has also seen Karnataka pass a plethora of laws. Obediently taking orders from the political bosses in Delhi, the BJP government went virtually berserk, passing new laws and amending existing ones to comply with the Central laws. The last visage of land reforms era was conclusively removed when the restrictions on purchase of farm land by non-agriculturists were lifted by amending the Karnataka Land Reforms Act, 1961. Many labour regulations were relaxed. The APMC Act was amended in line with the Central legislation, paving the way for bigger and smoother entry of private capital to the farm market. Cattle transportation and slaughter were subjected to more restrictions by amending an existing Act.
Most of these laws were brought in through the Ordinance route. Even when the Bills were introduced in truncated sessions of the legislature to replace the Ordinances, hardly any debate was entertained. The worst case was that of the cattle slaughter Bill, which was passed even before copies of the Bill were circulated among the members! Whatever might be its ways, the government seems to be hell-bent on seeing the State economy more liberalised than ever before by the time the crisis ends.
A ₹1,722-crore relief package was announced in three instalments in May. That was the last word one heard of it. ‘Who gets what’ is not what politics seems to be concerned with any more. In the middle of the crisis, a flood made it worse for people in many districts. Media reports suggested that most of these flood victims were still left to fend for themselves. It is accepted that is the welfare arms of the government is the one that gets stretched the most during a crisis.
However, in the meantime, the government has announced a ₹500-crore bonanza for one of the most socially and economically advanced communities — an example of its welfare priorities during the crisis. In the wake of massive public spending that the crisis demanded, the corridors of power were awash with stories of corruption, but none became an issue. What seems to matter in governance during a crisis is what gets done and not whether the rulebook is followed. But, skeletons may start tumbling out of the closet after the crisis is gone.
(A. Narayana teaches policy and governance at Azim Premji University)
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