How the political planets aligned for Phailin to fail

After a long, long time it seems as if we have got our disaster management act right with Odisha's Phailin cyclone. Loss of life was in the low 20s, thanks to the proactiveness with which the Naveen Patnaik administration moved people out of harm's way and thanks also to the support of the centre in terms of logistics and rescue operations.

It may seem churlish to insert a "but" after all this, when we should be giving everyone a big hand for a job well done. But the entirely preventable stampede in a Madhya Pradesh temple, where over a 100 people died, tells us that we should not celebrate success too soon. Let's also remember Uttarakhand. And Muzaffarnagar, which happened just a month ago. Assam happened last year. Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one success does not constitute a turnaround in Indian governance and attitudes to disaster management, whether the disasters are man-made or the result of nature's pent-up fury.

In fact, there is good reason to treat the Odisha success as a one-off till proven otherwise, for we cannot overlook the extremely favourable alignment of stars and almost everyone's political objectives in the run-up to Phailin.

 How the political planets aligned for Phailin to fail

Phailin hits the cities. AP

First, we had a secure and stable government led by Patnaik. While he has been around for more than a decade as Chief Minister, the crucial point is there is no chance that he will be dethroned in the next election. His party swept the recent local body elections and Patnaik had no reason to feel insecure. The last thing he needed was a mess-up in handling Phailin, which would have put his own political future at stake - even if only marginally.

Just in case you believe Patnaik was always competent and secure, let's not forget the Kandhamal riots that erupted after the assassination of Hindu leader Laxmananda Saraswati in 2008. It was another lesson in mismanagement. So, yes, Patnaik's handling of Phailin needs a pat on the back, and lots of celebration, but we also must recognise that he had everything to lose by mishandling it. Governance happens when politicians are in alignment and clear about what they should do.

Contrast this with political situation in Uttar Pradesh where almost all parties have a stake in communalism. Over the past one year there have been 100 mini riots or incidents of communal tension, but neither the Samajwadi Party, nor the Congress, nor the BSP, nor the BJP had an adequate stake in preventing an escalation. Warnings about Phailin were just a few weeks old, but warnings on Muzaffarnagar were coming thick and fast for over a year and yet no one thought they had a stake in peace. Insecure politics leads to insecure and weak governance.

Second, after the disastrous handling of the Uttarakhand landslides by a Congress government, where the National Disaster Management Agency and the centre came up short in terms of relief and response (only the army deserved kudos here), this time both were in a chastened mood and very proactive. Politically, the Congress party, now staring at a possible defeat or a severe reduction in seat count in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has good reason to be helpful to Patnaik. Who knows, his 15-and-odd seats may be critical for any UPA-3 government. The last thing the Congress needs right now is regional parties like the Biju Janata Dal to be miffed with it for failure to help mitigate a potential human tragedy.

Third, as some twitterati (Nitin Pai, in particular) have noted, the extraordinary presence of the media in Odisha before the cyclone put everyone on alert. The media was right there, armed with cameras, raincoat and gumboots, to report on every administrative failure. This presence could not but have put every Odisha and central politician and bureaucrat on alert. You could say politicians had almost no option but to do the right thing when the spotlight was on them before the event.

In Gujarat, if we have had no major flare-ups recently its because Narendra Modi has been politically secure after 2002 and the media has been quick to latch on to any lapses - real or imagined - in his governance. Modi now has no leeway to misgovern.

Odisha has been a one-party state since 2000 and there is no challenge to Naveen  Patnaik on the horizon. But in states where political parties depend on marginal shifts in the vote to come to power - almost all states - it is difficult to see such a favourable alignment of the planets to ensure consistent governance. Governace, if it happens, happens in fits and starts.

We need to keep our fingers crossed for future Phailins or man-made disasters such as UP (riots), MP (stampedes), Assam (ethnic killings), et al.  When politicians depend on 25-30 percent of the vote to come to power, they cannot but be insecure. A small shift and they lose power. That problem isn't going away anytime soon in most states, especially those which are not two-party states.

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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2013 08:37:56 IST