Democracies are not designed for hardened stances but ability to reach across the aisles, says former UPA minister and ex-MP from South Mumbai, as he talks about the role of centrist politics, Covid-19 economy and vaccines.

Should we have another lockdown?

A.I think a lockdown in every city was essential in the earlier part of the outbreak to make people aware of the protocols they need to follow, to upgrade our healthcare systems and to create quarantine facilities. So, an aggressive lockdown in the beginning was essential. But it certainly had a huge impact on the economy and livelihoods. Today I won’t agree to a European-style lockdown. In a country like ours we cannot afford another lockdown of the kind we have had. But if the government were to implement a curfew, that’s okay to restrict community transmission. As regards a blanket lockdown, I don’t think any government in India would want that.

Q. How do you see the economy picking up?

A. Fact is that the first quarter was devastating for the Indian economy. I don’t think the lockdown was planned as effectively as it should have been. There should have been more cooperation with state governments and that had a huge toll on our first quarter. I think the second quarter will also be more problematic, but it has shown signs of recovery. I do believe that the Indian economy will pick up. The fundamentals of the Indian economy remain very strong. However, there are certain sectors I don’t know if they will come back or how soon, like live entertainment, movie theatres, banquets in hotels. There are also industries which you think would be adversely affected by Covid-19 but are doing better—like real estate is showing signs of quick recovery. It’s a sector that is a driver of economic growth, it has an impact on state revenues, state governments earn thousands from stamp duties. Maybe people feel that now is a time to own a home, that’s one of the lessons from Covid. This is of course residential real estate, whereas commercial real estate has been badly hit. Overall, I do believe the economy will improve. 

But I do think we need to start reimagining the economy. One interesting trend you can follow is that over a hundred years ago when we had the Spanish Flu it coincided with the end of World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic began just as World War I was ending—it was because of troops being positioned around the world that Spanish Flu spread. It went through four phases and suddenly two years later, it disappeared. There was no vaccine. Right after the Spanish Flu you had the Roaring Twenties, a decade of high economic growth, high investment, high exuberance, the birth of jazz. Sure, it lasted only a decade and then you had the Great Depression. 

But hopefully, by this time next year, most countries will have vaccinated even their younger population which is low on the priority list—I don’t know if you will have Roaring Twenties all over again but you will have some exuberance in the economy. It’s important for people to be optimistic. We will have to reimagine the economy—our commercial spaces. What a pandemic of this nature does, philosophically and existentially, it reminds policymakers and individuals as to what is a priority. For instance, in India, we never heard of healthcare being a political issue. Today the social sector in India is an important election issue. We have been politicking over Covid as to which state has better healthcare and this is a good thing. Our politics in a sense is also being reimagined. 

Q. How to disburse vaccines?

A. Every country will prioritise frontline workers. Then should it be people with comorbidities, regardless of age, or should it be a blanket distribution based on age? Countries that have limited data are giving to frontline workers and second to the elderly regardless of comorbidities. But if there is a younger person, say at the age of thirty-five, with very severe diabetes, and is also a very productive asset and is working, then from an economic and healthcare point of view is it smarter to target that person than someone in their seventies and is staying at home? I don’t mean to be discriminatory towards the elderly but is that a smarter way to look at things? Should productive assets get preference than those who are not. You will find people in their 30s and 40s who have severe comorbidities. Should they get prioritised? But it will be very tough to get the data, especially in India. 

Q. Do you see Joe Biden’s win as an aberration or a trend towards centrist politics?

A. It was not an accident but a carefully designed strategy by the Democrats. I think the Democrats realised America is a very polarised society, as is India too. The democrats smartly prevented extreme elements from their party to get the ticket and Biden picked Kamala Harris who is more a centre-left democrat and not a far-left democrat. They reached out to voters, who if they had a far-left ticket would have abstained. So, it was a case of how a political party actively scripted a path to victory. The far-left would have anyway voted for a Democrat, they had that vote, so they topped it off by reaching to swing voters who wouldn’t have voted for a far-left candidate.