From imposing a countrywide lockdown at a short notice when cases of coronavirus infections in most Indian states were in single digits to arguing against it, calling it the last resort when the numbers are going up by thousands every day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pandemic policy has taken a U-turn. And like all U-turns, it tells us he has taken India nowhere, except to a place that’s far worse than where we had started in April 2020.
Modi’s address to the nation on the pandemic on April 20, the first after the Bihar elections, and on the eve of the final rounds of polling in West Bengal, was a study in irony. Both in terms of delivery and content, it was a counter-argument to whatever Modi had said or done till a few weeks ago.
Gone was the optimism, the ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ spirit that underlines all his speeches, and the effort to turn the pandemic into a collective assertion of the Indian spirit through ringing of bells or lighting of lamps. The Modi of 2020, the one who mistakenly believed that he’d be able to stall the pandemic like his counterpart in China, was replaced by a man entreating states to refrain from lockdowns, and expressing grief for the human toll of the pandemic.
Modi is a master of tweaking his messages and principles (revisit everything on Aadhar, GST, Pakistan, China, demonetisation, et al). Groucho Marx famously said, those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others. Modi’s politics has often been a tribute to this policy.
His volte-face on lockdowns can easily be explained by the realisation that they will now cost the Indian economy a lot more than Modi had initially anticipated. By washing his hands of future lockdowns, and making the states responsible for them, he is trying to distance himself from the financial and emotional misery that would follow.
Modi has also realised that the mood of the nation is now sombre, and there is an undercurrent of fear among people because of the ferocity of the second wave, so he is refraining from organising mass events, or making vacuous claims about India’s victory over corona. He is perhaps aware that people are reconsidering Modi’s response, both flawed and inadequate, to the pandemic. He has begun to realise that the festival lights he had prescribed a year ago have now been replaced by funeral pyres burning across India. Like a defeated commander, he can now offer only condolences and hope that the remainder of his forces keeps fighting.
Much of this change in Modi’s mood is his own fault. At the peak of the pandemic, his principle was “life at the cost of the economy”. This dictum was followed by many countries but with a fundamental difference. Modi made the people – the migrants, the small businesses, and partly India Inc – pay the price of the lockdown. Unlike other countries where people were given cash or financial subsidies for their losses, his government did nothing to reimburse the cost of the lockdown. Now, he knows, there will be hell to pay if he orders a country-wide shutdown. So, like the drug HCQS, he has withdrawn his own corona prescription.
Modi’s uncle Scrooge brand of kanjoosi (penny-pinching) isn’t limited to direct interventions alone. His government made another blunder of not spending on vaccines in advance, ramping up medical facilities, augmenting oxygen supply lines.
A report in The Indian Express (April 21) reveals how India refused to spend on vaccine development, and failed to place advance orders for purchases when every country was preparing to stockpile doses. This refusal to prioritise life-saving shots appears even more disastrous in view of the fact that manufacturers like Pfizer themselves offered to supply vaccines to India several months ago. Back then, this miserly attitude was drowned by mendacious arguments around vaccine nationalism, only to force a hurried U-turn on allowing imports without bridging trials.
It is apparent from the chaos on the ground that the Modi government just didn’t prepare for the pandemic. The second wave of the pandemic has just begun and hospitals around India are already short on medicines, beds, oxygen and staff. In labs across India, the waiting-period for corona tests has gone up to more than 48 hours (a typical test takes 4-5 hours). And nobody knows what exactly happened to the opaque and secretive Prime Minister Care Relief Fund that attracted millions in the name of corona last year.
When the history of India’s pandemic response is written, historians will note that Modi’s policy was a disastrous mix of Trumpism and Bolsanaroism. Like Trump he underestimated the virus, and like Bolsanaro he ignored scientific advice and didn’t take pre-emptive medical measures to fight the returning waves. Unlike some European leaders, and Israel, he lacked foresight and the ability to plan for a contingency. In addition, he led by poor example, tweeting pictures of mass rallies in Bengal when all of India was talking of mass deaths during the second wave. Historians will note that while India was burning, Modi was campaigning.
Modi’s pandemic response has been a big failure. His U-turn on lockdowns, a classic example of the Talat Mehmood song ‘sab kuch luta ke hosh main aaye toh kya kiya (what is the point of wisdom after destroying everything) is the first public admission of his own blunders. And, the way the second wave is building, he may be forced to admit more mistakes in the future.
Corona will reshape not just India, but also a part of Modi.
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