Unceasing deaths. Economic and social distress. Psychological trauma. Never in living memory were Indian citizens more hapless. Never was there an absolute absence of hope. Never was India’s leadership more cruel and callous towards citizens.
Several commentators have blamed the ‘system’ for the massacre caused by the coronavirus pandemic, without underlining the failure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without naming the man behind the mayhem. They refuse to acknowledge that governance and administration do not operate in vacuum, these are led by specific personalities. The Modi government took little steps to build India’s health infrastructure, declared a false victory over the virus, celebrated Kumbh and went ahead with election rallies when the disease was spreading fast.
When the outbreak was first reported in India last year, the Union leadership was at test. A crisis is the biggest test of leadership. It makes and moulds leaders, prompts them to cede their hardened stances and reinvent themselves to meet new challenges. As we look back at the last 12 months, it’s obvious that the leadership deficit always existed at the top. Carefully concealed by PR exercises and submissive media, it has now become more visible than ever.
Any commentary that ignores the prime minister’s arrogance in responding to the health emergency over the last year is an apology for his government. The whimsical lockdown, the antics of candle lighting and banging utensils, apathy to the plight of labourers, failure to install oxygen plants and ramp up vaccine production and procurement to deal with the imminent second wave, concealing cases and death counts, bullying media to not report facts are among the long list of reasons that have converted the nation into a wailing crematorium; reasons why the final accountability rests with the Union government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Deflecting attention from the PM
Deflecting attention from PM Modi and finding escape routes elsewhere has been the usual approach of many opinion leaders since 2014. It insulated the man and emboldened the government to continue with its dangerous mix of antipathy and arrogance. Last month, an elite private university was embroiled in a scandal over the resignation of an eminent faculty. Several commentators criticised Ashoka University for succumbing to the mighty, ignoring that the university administration was clearly bullied by the country’s rulers who couldn’t tolerate their criticism. Those who treated the Ashoka episode as an isolated incident overlooked falling standards in academic institutions during the Narendra Modi era. The government despises academics and scholars, be it at private or government institutions, reflected in assaults on writers and academics.
Many of those who were gloating with guilty pleasure in 2014 and 2019, who had rationalised, even justified, his earlier victories, couldn’t read the omens that have fallen upon us now. As we fix the responsibility of the Modi government, it’s imperative to assess the contribution of such commentators to his ascent.
Let’s strongly disagree with the UPA and the Congress dynasty, but also appreciate that the dynasty had given immense space to some outstanding civil society leaders who were instrumental in drafting and crafting several welfare schemes like the MGNREGA under which the Modi government later sought and found a shameless asylum.
And unlike the current rulers, the UPA acknowledged its failures. At the peak of the Naxal violence in 2010, then Home Minister P. Chidambaram, admitting to the government’s failure in tackling the insurgency, said, “The buck stops at my desk”. The current Union home minister is unlikely to have this humility. The Modi government doesn’t even acknowledge the dead piling up in various crematoriums across the country. The government doesn’t even bother to properly record its dead. We are mere voters, robots to be programmed to press the EVM button.
Healthcare, the pillar of democracy
The last months have reinforced that the poor have the maximum stake in health infrastructure and efficient management of health services. The rich can buy air purifiers for their homes, but the poor in a deeply unequal society like India will die on the pavement. Let me illustrate this point by citing the great environmentalist Anil Agarwal’s World Conservation Lecture of 1985, an essay historian Ramachandra Guha termed his finest. Agarwal noted that “the main source of environmental destruction in the world is the demand for natural resources generated by the consumption of the rich (whether they are rich nations or rich individuals and groups within nations)”, and “it is the poor who are affected the most by environmental destruction”. Environmental degradation poses the biggest threat to marginal communities like adivasis, fishermen and forest-dwellers who are dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and survival.
Agarwal’s argument that “eradication of poverty in a country like India is simply not possible without the rational management of our environment and that, conversely, environmental destruction will only intensify poverty” also applies to medicare. Eradication of poverty in India is not possible without ensuring universal and quality healthcare to its people, and any attempt to undermine it will only intensify poverty and inequality.
The Covid pandemic has provided the clinching evidence. While India’s richest increased their wealth by 35 per cent during the lockdown, the pandemic pushed 75 million Indians into poverty in 2020. The number should be considerably higher this year. Amid this, the Indian government has ensured that its citizens will have to pay the world’s highest price for the vaccine in private hospitals, even when the richest European countries are providing it free to their citizens.
Consider this instance from the capitalist world to illustrate how the rich purchase basic services even when they are ineligible. In March 2019, the US prosecution unearthed a scam that saw wealthy people spending from $200,000 to $6.5 million to fraudulently ensure the admission of their children in elite universities, including Stanford and Yale. “The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” a US attorney said, “The real victims in this case are the hardworking students” who were displaced by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in.”
The rich have various ways to fund their health and education needs. Only on rare occasions of scarcity like the one India is in now, are they unable to make their purchases. Whereas, the poor need basic services round the clock, through the year. It’s not a grant, but a constitutional guarantee. Article 21 of the Constitution provides enough space to bring free vaccination under the ambit of fundamental rights.
Any commentary on Modi’s handling of the pandemic that doesn’t take note of India’s slide into poverty and the administration’s continued apathy for the poor is an apology for the government.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, which traces the Naxal insurgency, received the Atta Galatta Best Non-fiction Book of the Year 2020 award. Views are personal.