The complex dance of politics and power during a pandemic
A common adage in the post-Cold War era of globalization was that if “every economy is global, all politics are local”.
The implication was that a country’s economy and politics danced to different tunes. There was a problem with this wording. All economy is also political and since all politics are local, all economy is ultimately also local.
In the aftermath of the 2008-2009 transatlantic financial crisis, this reality increasingly emerged among politicians around the world as they turned to domestic policy levers to address issues that had external triggers. .
In the face of a global pandemic of epic proportions, nation states are once again discovering that despite all the global dimensions of a nation’s economy, all politics are local. Discussions of international cooperation are largely confined to diplomats on the ground unable to rack up flying kilometers and columnists with a cross-border readership. The virus crosses borders with impudence, political action remains largely limited to national initiatives, raising the profile of national leaders.
From epidemiologists and virologists to geopolitical analysts, economists and futurists, anyone with an opinion on how the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we live and the world around us, are busy speculating about the future and offer policy advice. Since most individuals and families are preoccupied with basic existential issues such as health and diet, most are willing to trust doctors, gurus, political leaders, and government officials to help qu ‘they take care of them. They assume that professionals and policy makers will make rational and informed decisions that will help lift everyone out of the current impasse.
It is worth testing the hypothesis that during wars and pandemics, the confidence of the common people in those in positions of power increases. In a war, people can normally expect generals on the front lines to make rational decisions that would minimize losses and maximize gains. Likewise, in the event of a pandemic, most would expect doctors and healthcare professionals to make informed decisions with the well-being of everyone in mind.
The problem with these assumptions is that generals and medics aren’t the only decision-makers during wars and pandemics, respectively. More often than not, they are forced to take decisions which have the approval of their political masters. This is how politics and political considerations enter policy making during crises.
Economists familiar with crises know this all too well. The economic crisis of 1991 was largely a consequence of the political choices that VP Singh and Rajiv Gandhi made, while its management and resolution was a consequence of the political choices that Chandra Shekhar and Narasimha Rao made. Each prime minister viewed the economic choices he had to make through the prism of politics and power.
- When the ruling political leader takes an appeal on the professional advice offered to him, the question that arises most in the politician’s mind is “how will my power be affected?”
Numerous other examples of this type can be cited. The reasoning was explained to me once in very simple terms by one of my revered gurus, the late K. Subrahmanyam, a defense and strategic policy expert and organizer of the first National Security Advisory Council (1998-2001) . Whether it is a democracy or a non-democracy, the last word on any state policy that has an impact on society is that of the political leader, Subrahmanyam would say. Professionals and officials offer the best advice possible, but it is the politician in power who takes the last call. It’s obvious. Subrahmanyam’s theorem, following this common observation, was that “therefore all politics is a matter of politics.”
In other words, when the ruling political leader takes an appeal on the professional advice offered to him, the question that arises most in the politician’s mind is “how will my power be affected?” Whether it is an economic policy choice, a decision to go to war, a foreign policy initiative, whatever decision a politician must make, it takes into account the political consequences for the person making that decision.
Professionals can present political options to a political leader and make their professional arguments as to which option to favor, but the political leader’s final appeal will necessarily take into account the political consequences for them. Rarely have political leaders made political decisions, whether in foreign or domestic affairs, which have harmed them politically.
I remember that during the domestic political debate on the civil nuclear energy debate between the United States and India, foreign policy analysts and nuclear strategists wrote extensively in the media on various aspects of the agreements. under negotiation. The government was asked to keep in mind the national interest or commitment to principles such as non-proliferation and disarmament, or the nation’s energy security in mind, or the geopolitical interests of the India, etc. Subrahmanyam would only add one more consideration for the man who had to take the final call – keep your political survival and legacy in mind as well!
In the end, the whole question came down to the politics of power. This is how the left played it, this is how the BJP played it, this is how Mulayam Singh and the Congress party played it. The issue had strategic and foreign policy dimensions, but it ultimately boiled down to the power of the prime minister and the legacy of Manmohan Singh.
While all political choices concern political power, it should be remembered that, whether in international affairs or in foreign economic policy, heads of government always remain attentive to the national political consequences of foreign policy decisions. Again, this simple proposition should be pretty obvious to most. However, professionals offering policy advice do not always appreciate this.
So in trade policy negotiations, for example, economists would tell ruling politicians the most rational political choice to make, but the politician’s final decision would be made on the likely domestic political fallout. Indeed, this would often be true even for decisions relating to war. Would a war before an election be useful or hurtful? Generals in uniform can present all kinds of technical information for the head of government to decide, but the politician in that person will take a final call based on personal political costs and benefits.
If all policy is political, how can the management of the pandemic not be? Thus, those who say that political decisions relating to the management of COVID-19 should be devoid of policy and that the nation should unite into one are either deliberately dishonest or simply naive. Every political decision relating to the management of COVID-19 at home and abroad is deeply political. And, since it’s political, it’s a question of power. For Xi Jingping and Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson, for every political leader, their pandemic management policy has had political consequences. This, for this reason, has implications for their hold on power – nationally and internationally.
It is therefore not surprising that COVID-19 at the international level is involved in the geopolitical and geo-economic conflict between the United States and China, and that it has become entangled in domestic politics. As public-minded analysts call for rebirth of multilateralism, cooperation between nations, rejuvenation of the UN system, etc., President Trump and President Xi are said to focus more closely on both their own careers. short-term policy and on the medium impact on world power politics.
The United States has embarked on a geo-economic containment of China, and China has pursued a policy of emergence as a hegemonic power in Asia before challenging American domination on a global scale. It would be naive to expect the United States or China to approach the solution to the pandemic from a perspective other than that defined by its calculations of national power and President Xi’s efforts to retain his individual power and that of the Communist Party.
Likewise, with us, everything Narendra Modi can say about “ cooperative federalism ”, all his unilateral political actions, his populist calls for social solidarity and the intimidation of his government against state governments is part of it. a political discourse aimed at maintaining its dominant position in national politics. It is only natural that when the Center puts West Bengal under the scanner for the management of COVID-19, the Chief Minister of State, Mamata Banerjee, reacts angrily, accusing the Center of violating the rights of the ‘State.
Prime Minister Modi’s foreign and domestic policy choices and the response of opposition political parties to them will be defined by their respective political interests. Every crisis, whether man-made or natural, is full of political possibilities and politicians will make political decisions based on their assessment of how their political choices favor their political and personal power.
Sanjaya Baru is Emeritus Fellow of the Institute for Defense Studies & Analysis, New Delhi.