India is going through one of its most trying times as a nation. At the time of writing this article, we have recorded close to 2.7 lakh cases in 24 hours. There are heart-wrenching images and stories of Indians suffocating to death due to an absence of beds, oxygen cylinders, ventilators, and medicines. There have been horrific photos of bodies being piled up and buried together and of our fellow citizens slowly documenting their descent into death on social media while pleading for some medical intervention. The situation is dire and if you have switched on the news, been on social media or been unfortunate enough to have to visit a hospital or crematorium at this time, then you are painfully aware of just how severe the situation is. How did we get here? Are there mistakes in history that the government has repeated? and what are the things that India can do to ensure that no government fails her this badly in the future?
In cases of a monumental failure of governance and leadership, there appears to be a few established hallmarks that a leader or government displays --- the most significant of these is a disconnect from reality. This is a situation where the focus is more on image building or narrative building than grappling with the truth.
Take the example of China. As part of the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign led by the Chinese Communist Party between 1958 and 1962, Mao Zedong sought to reconstruct the economy of China. He sought to do this by relying on fear and coming down hard on criticism against his government. Subsequent studies found that this hard-line approach that sought to inspire fear and clamp down on criticism was actually the primary cause of the Great Famine in China where the total number of deaths as a result of the famine is believed to be up to 55 million. The studies reveal that local officials competed with each other in inflating the figures of grain production so as to avoid punishment from Chairman Mao. As a result of these inflated figures, the Communist government in China failed to realise that the country was suffering from a famine until two years from the time the famine actually started and tragically exported grains out of the provinces that were experiencing the famine as they were rely on inflated numbers from officials below.
Another example is the case of “Burking” typically used in police work to mean the secretive disposal of proof or alternatively suppressing/smothering crime data --- a term that gets its name from William Burke, who was convicted of murdering 16 people by smothering. In cases of “Burking”, crime data is intentionally suppressed by the police which leads to a situation where crimes that warrant attention are never brought to the notice of people and therefore there is never any pressure to solve them.
In the case of Mr Modi and the BJP government, this is, unfortunately, a verifiable trait of the government. There has been widespread criticism of the manner in which India is reporting its cases with the belief that numbers are being intentionally suppressed to help the government save some face. Even the Chief Justice of the High Court of Gujarat, while taking up a suo moto public interest litigation on the state of Gujarat’s Covid response, remarked that there appeared to be a discrepancy between the numbers being reported and the situation on the ground. The lack of interest or wilful neglect by the BJP government to understand the true ground reality has bitten India badly. Take the example of India’s vaccine strategy. The Prime Minister has been well aware that most, if not all, countries have experienced a second wave and is also presumably aware that there were mutant strains of the virus in India. The government has also been aware that vaccines are the only real way to tackle the virus and that India’s vaccine capacity is approximately 7- 10 crore doses a month. Why then did we not invest in expanding its vaccine capacity from the time the government became aware that India will need to manufacture more vaccines? It boggles the mind that by March 24 when things started to deteriorate quickly in India, the government allowed the export of more vaccines (60 million doses) than the number of vaccines that had been administered to its own citizens. Why was this not the priority for the government?
Similarly, in terms of having enough oxygen cylinders in place for the citizens of this country, why did it take the Modi government eight months to invite bids for new oxygen plants after being aware of the Covid 19 pandemic since the beginning of 2020 and why have we only recently seen the news about expenditure from the PM Cares Fund to establish oxygen plants? This expenditure could have easily been incurred over the past 385 days when India should have been preparing for the second wave that every country was suffering from. We never did these things that any responsible government would do. Instead, the Modi government’s approach to solving problems is akin to how the Yogi Adityanath government dealt with reports of the huge number of cremations taking in place around the state of Uttar Pradesh. Instead of addressing the absence of adequate cremation facilities, the state government responded by immediately boarding up the grounds where cremations were taking place so that the photos and videos could not be circulated on news portals and social media. Instead of first focusing on the fact that our citizens are dying in the thousands, the first instinct of the BJP is to ensure that any negative news is tackled.
Other than facing facts, another way in which the government could have reduced the state of turmoil in the country and ensured better handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is by taking the views of experts and Opposition leaders into account so that a unified strategy to tackle the pandemic may be adopted. However, when Mr Rahul Gandhi submitted his suggestions to PM Modi to better tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, including a suggestion to fast track approval to other vaccines, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a cabinet minister actually held a press conference to criticise the move and suggested that this suggestion was a way for the Congress to “lobby” for foreign companies. It, therefore, turned out to be thoroughly embarrassing for Mr. Prasad and the government when just a few days after Mr. Gandhi’s letter, the central government did actually fast track the approval for Sputnik, a foreign vaccine. Maybe Mr. Prasad would like to examine if there has been any lobbying that led to this quick approval. As an Indian citizen under the government of PM Modi, I truly hope that the government can effectively tackle this pandemic but at such a trying time when BJP cabinet ministers are reduced to trolls attacking Opposition leaders for the limited purpose of image management rather than examining the merit of the suggestion, do we have much hope?
As a parting remark, the Congress party is well aware that we must all come together to fight this fight but this requires PM Modi and the government to shelve the megalomania and to (perhaps for the first time) build consensus and take the Opposition on board and most importantly to take responsibility and fix accountability. This means that PM Modi should not merely have his photo on the vaccine certificates that are issued to Indians but should also display his photo on the death certificates that are issued after avoidable Covid-19 deaths due to government inaction. But ultimately this is a cautionary tale for our citizens rather than the government because just like with Mao and the Great Famine when governments have a preference for rhetoric and image management over facts – the ones that suffer catastrophic consequences are the populace.
(The author is a member of the Indian National Congress, a former Lok Sabha MP and an ex-IPS officer. Views expressed are personal.)