Nani Palkhivala, champion of constitutional morality and perhaps the greatest jurist of all time, in his book ‘We, the Nation: The Lost Decades’ had sagely remarked that all nations, just like humans, have positive as well as negative attributes and qualities that determine its trajectory. Nani gave examples of Japan, a country managing to have a superlative economy and growth despite its debilitating lack of natural resources due to its superior human resource and intrinsic respect for authority. Nani also postulated his theory with the example of Middle-Eastern countries having all perceptible natural resources but still considered as backward and underdeveloped due to its poor human resource. When it came to India, Nani lauded the people for their intelligence and skill but also lamented on the lack of civic sense and spirit of public duty.
The words of Nani could not have been more prescient in light of the present scenario where flouting lockdown orders are commonplace and news-feeds are rife with violation of social-distancing by all and sundry. While it cannot be denied that these are desperate times and a human crisis of global scale, it is also undeniable that the lack of public cooperation and violation of safety rules was wholly avoidable. One could also argue that such wanton disregard for community safety and self-discipline stems from an inherent and somewhat inextricable apathy for public duty which is now well and truly entangled with our DNA.
Historical accounts are surprisingly paradoxical depending on which perspective we may see it. The Britishers thought it fit to employ Indians for clerical jobs for our propensity to be supine and servile in face of authority. On the other hand, after the British sun set at the Indian shores, Winston Churchill famously said that India would be ruled by goons and would be lost in political squabble. While one can surely say that we have made great technological advancement and giant leaps in economic indices, the under-current of Churchill’s words somehow still resonates vestiges of truth.
Democracy is messy
Ranging from true democracies to flawed ones, democracy is definitely the most desirable form of governance in modern day politics if compared to any other form. However, compared to other forms of governance, be it single party regimes to monarchs to outright dictatorships, a democratic body politic is far more chaotic and difficult to manage in terms of administration and enforcement of law. On the other hand, an autocratic regime would be easy to control, govern and administer, and one does not have to venture too far from India for examples, as China, a tightly run and regimented single party communist regime, managed to control the spread of COVID -19 by imposing severe restrictions on its population which are unimaginable in a democratic setup like USA or even India.
Ironically, in times of crises like the present one, autocratic regimes fare better at governance than their democratic counterparts mainly due to monolithic systems of top-down structures and a populace which gets regimented over the years to obey the commands of the sovereign.
It’s a no-brainer that countries which fare well on the socio-economic index would generally fare well in most human endeavours. The present pandemic is no exception to the same rule with Nordic countries faring exceedingly well in terms of reported cases of COVID-19 as compared to their European counterparts especially the big three – Italy, Spain and France which fare much lower on the said index.
It is not difficult to see the co-relation which the socio-economic score of the country may have with the likelihood of its populace respecting the health advisories and guidelines. The superior education, healthcare and social security infrastructure of the Nordic nations not only foster better interface between the governing and the governed but also ensures that the trust enjoyed by the administration occasions lower levels of panic.
Contradistinguish that with India, where poorer socio-economic factors viz. lack of meaningful education, inadequate healthcare infrastructure and virtually inexistent social security setup have caused panic which have in-turn led to the worried masses to violate the lockdown orders in search of food, shelter or in some cases long distance transport. One can see the difference domestically as well where states like Goa, Manipur and Kerala have fared extremely better than other states in India having lower levels of education, healthcare facilities and social security measures.
Kashmir : survival of the fittest
The socio economic argument would certainly fail when it comes to the example of Kashmir which fares pretty well as compared to many states in India. However, the current public behaviour can be attributed to the long decades of turmoil in Kashmir. Certainly, the long years of conflict have not only festered adversarial outlook to the machinery of the state but have also moulded the psyche of the citizens by infusing a survival instinct which in times of crisis disregards all social niceties and reverence to the public administration.
There is no quick fix for this pandemic, and more so, there is no ad hoc solution to hindrances indicated above. The solutions would require generational reform with equal measures of statesmanship and constructive public participation. Even then, certain problems like Gordian Knots are too politically complex, and no measure of statesmanship can resolve them unilaterally. Unfortunately, in such unsolvable cases, the malady is not just a novel virus but a much more morbid malady which compromises human ideals.
Shadab Showkat Jan is Advocate, Bombay High Court