The second wave of the pandemic has been devastating India, with well over 300,000 daily covid-19 cases for days in a row, exacerbated by acute shortages of oxygen and hospital beds. India now has the second-highest number of confirmed infections worldwide and the actual number of cases may be a lot higher.
While India’s crisis has many causes, one key ingredient is weak competition among the political parties. Party competition ensures that policies result from consultation and deliberation among different political constituencies. Such an effort delivers policies that are more likely to be comprehensive and benefit the whole society — something that’s especially important for a diverse country like India.
States with more political competition have healthier citizens
My research finds that Indian states with several parties in the legislature have better health outcomes than states with two-party systems. I measure health outcomes with infant mortality rates, which tend to be higher among poorer sections of society. In these “multiparty” states, different parties have incentives to work together to keep all voters healthier. In contrast, when just two parties dominate the legislature, smaller minority groups are more likely to be overlooked, especially if neither party needs their support to win office.
Examining Indian states between 1980 and 2011, I found that when a higher number of political parties won in state legislative races, the state was more likely to have a lower infant mortality rate. Consider two Indian states: Tamil Nadu, which had several parties with significant blocs in the legislature between 2001 to 2010; and Madhya Pradesh, which was overwhelmingly dominated by just the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC).
During the 31 years in my study, Tamil Nadu gradually saw the rise of more regional political parties to represent the interests of the poor, women and smaller minority groups. These parties challenged the earlier dominance of the INC, which catered to the interests of upper caste and landowning groups. Between 2001 and 2010, as more parties representing different groups won seats in the legislature, the state government passed health policies supporting maternal and neonatal health care, which helped large swaths of society, resulting in the steepest decline in infant mortality in the state.
By contrast, in Madhya Pradesh, poor and minority group interests were not as well represented. The state had higher infant mortality rates as compared with other major Indian states as well as the national average.
Kerala did more for its citizens than other Indian states during the pandemic
We can see the importance of more parties in how the state of Kerala responded to the pandemic. Kerala has two major alliances — the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). Both alliances have several parties, representing its considerable religious diversity. The current LDF alliance of 12 different parties recently returned to power after April 2021’s state legislative elections.
Early in the pandemic, the LDF government took prompt action to curb the spread of the pandemic, such as screening incoming passengers at airports and sea ports, contact tracing, and testing. It also passed welfare policies to support infected patients that helped to keep them in quarantine, such as delivering essential food, increasing pensions and offering free treatment. These policies had broad appeal, increasing the alliance’s support among Muslims and Christians, groups that have traditionally supported the opposition UDF alliance.
The LDF government’s leftist ideology, which inclined it to deliver hefty social support to those in need, helped it win reelection. But the presence of numerous parties representing the state’s diverse population also motivated the government to formulate policies that benefit groups across religious and class lines.
India’s national government has no real competition among parties
India’s national Parliament has no significant party competition. The ruling BJP government won 55 percent of the seats in the 2019 national parliamentary elections; its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies won another 9 percent, giving it a majority of 64 percent. The main opposition party, the INC, only won 9 percent of the seats, while the other opposition parties that won seats had even fewer than the INC. As a result, the BJP government has pursued pandemic policies without consulting other parties.
In August 2020, the INC criticized the BJP government’s failure to plan to vaccinate its vast population. India produces 60 percent of the world’s vaccines, which led to optimism earlier this year that it could produce enough both to vaccinate its citizens while also supplying other countries. India was vaccinating 4 million people a day in early April — but that rate dwindled to 450,000 in early May.
In an effort to motivate vaccine manufacturers to scale up production, the BJP government deregulated vaccine prices effective May 1 — once again without consulting other parties. Several opposition leaders called on the national government to provide free vaccinations to quell the second surge, since otherwise the poor would be unable to afford them. So far, the BJP government has not agreed to this demand.
The INC has also questioned the BJP for pursuing the Central Vista project, an expensive development project in the capital city of New Delhi, suggesting this is a misplaced priority during the pandemic — when resources are stretched and the country is enduring shortages of vaccines, oxygen and hospital beds.
To be sure, the lack of party competition in Parliament isn’t the only reason India’s coronavirus rate is so dire. Other factors have contributed to the surge, including religious gatherings and election rallies. But if the BJP government had to collaborate with other political parties, it might have better managed the pandemic.
Nisha Bellinger (@BellingerNisha) is assistant professor in political science at Boise State University and the author of “Governing Human Well-Being: Domestic and International Determinants” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).