Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first address after the second wave of Covid-19 made one thing clear: the Modi government has decided to wash its hands off the worst public health crisis faced by India. The prime minister’s designer look of a sanyasi did not indicate any desire to renounce power, but it did betray a proclivity to abjure responsibility. He had nothing to offer. He knew it. And it showed.
The speech was not ill-timed. If anything, the nation has been waiting to hear PM Modi. The number of Covid-positive cases has been rising exponentially. The number of deaths is reported to be much higher than the official count. Health infrastructure is crumbling. Public as well as private hospitals have no ventilators, no beds, not even oxygen. The one thing not short in supply is dead bodies in crematoria and burial grounds. Life-saving medicine is being traded in the black market. Number of vaccinations has come down. Everyone is worried, trying hard not to panic. Everyone needs assurance. Everyone has questions about India’s preparedness for the crisis that is upon us. Everyone wants to know about the government’s plans.
PM Modi’s speech was mercifully short. It was also woefully short on everything people needed, wanted and were entitled to know. People demanded answers; he offered none. People needed credible assurances; he offered empty words. People were angry at the criminal negligence of their elected government; he trivialised their suffering by treating it as personal misfortune. It was not the speech of a democratically elected leader submitting a report to his masters. It was an imperious ruler telling his subjects that all is well, that they must trust him and his government.
There was no dramatic announcement, nothing that could cause public panic. The closest PM Modi came to announcing something was to indicate that his government was not considering another nationwide lockdown. That was perhaps the only real relief in the speech. But you don’t need to keep the nation in suspense at 8:45 pm for this reward.
There was no account of the work done over the last year. Not a word about why we find ourselves in the midst of a second wave despite his earlier claims of India being a model of Covid management for the rest of the world. He chose to present the second wave as if it was aftershock of an earthquake, a natural calamity beyond our control. Nor did he bother to offer any details of what his government had done in the last 13 months to safeguard the country against this possibility. As he was addressing the nation, medical superintendents of some of the leading hospitals in the national capital were raising a red flag that they had only a few hours’ supply of medical oxygen left with them. The PM, of course, assured that plans were on to make medical oxygen available, but said nothing about why this was being planned now. Same with hospital infrastructure and medicines. Everything was in present continuous tense: “Prayas kiya jaa raha hai”.
There were no future plans either. The PM had suggestions for everyone else. The state governments must inspire confidence among the workers so that they stay back. So, if there is another exodus of migrant workers, the responsibility lies with the state government, never mind the fact that it was the Modi government that invoked a central act overriding the powers of the states to deal with the pandemic. He asked NGOs and social organisations to help the needy. So, relief work is not the responsibility of the government. He wanted the media to ensure no panic and rumour-mongering was happening. He advised the youth to form committees to enforce pandemic appropriate discipline. He forgot to tell them how to cultivate this discipline among the leaders who continue election rallies in the midst of this crisis. Not content, he also recruited the children in this crusade. In sum: Everyone except his own government is responsible for facing this second wave of Covid. For the Modi government, there were no targets, no roadmaps, no benchmarks, no tasks.
There was not even the usual attempt to bluff on his part. There was only one concrete detail that the PM shared with the public. He claimed that India was the fastest country to give 10 crore doses of the vaccine. This claim is incorrect and misleading. Dr Rijo M. John confirmed that the US took 82 days to reach this landmark, while India took 84 days. In any case, the success of vaccination should be counted not in numbers but as proportion of the population. On that count, India is way behind many countries. Going by the PM’s standards on economy of truth, though, this would be considered a small lie.
PR at all cost
What, then, was the point of PM Modi’s address to the nation? What was the speech all about?
Well, the PM’s address to the nation was a PR exercise, a high TRP show on national television. My friend Rakesh Sharma, who has tracked Modi for over a decade, calls it “Pran jaye par PR na jaye”. The TV show was to ensure that the public gets to see the prime minister and not notice his absence at this critical juncture. His lofty but vacuous assurances were calculated to give enough reasons for his supporters to continue to suspend their disbelief. The rhetoric was intended to distract the public from the tragic images of hospitals and crematoria that are now doing the rounds in the media. The entire ritual was designed to cover up the growing impression of a ruler indifferent to the plight of the public and, worse, a leader who is solely interested in electoral victory at all cost.
The trick has worked for long, with active support from darbari media. But the law of diminishing returns is beginning to set in. It is one thing to lose territory to China in the far-flung Ladakh and yet convince the public that it was China that got a thrashing. It is quite another thing to convince that we have done our best in this pandemic to those who are running from hospital to hospital for a bed, trying to purchase medicines in the black market and watching the pyres lit outside a crematorium. Sooner than later, this recognition is dawning upon the Indian public: Modi knows how to win elections, but he does not know how to govern.
Yogendra Yadav is the National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)