The virus is washing through our bodies, killing thousands, crushing our modest health system, causing crippling shortages of doctors, nurses, medicines, even oxygen. If last week we said this is the Narendra Modi government’s biggest crisis, it’s only become bigger since. It threatens to grow bigger over the next several weeks.
Growing alongside the crisis will be a call for unity, and clamour like, “this isn’t the time for a blame-game”. In this big, great national crisis, we should all shut up, and put our shoulder to the wheel. But in a democracy, politics doesn’t stop, nor does political analysis and questioning.
We know most of the things a strongman leader in a democracy, from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu to Narendra Modi, invariably does. They all speak to the base, and as long as the base is happy, they keep winning. Or win often enough.
There are also things a strongman leader never does. He never, for example, admits failure, a setback, anything that looks like a defeat, however small, or that he has erred. You must never seem to blink.
The base adores him precisely because it thinks he is infallible. It doesn’t expect him to say, ‘sorry friends, I got this one wrong’. That would be admitting that you are another human being, not a divine figure or an avatar. That’s why everything you begin, must end in a victory and be hailed as a ‘master-stroke’.
Earlier this week, the prime minister made some uncharacteristic changes in direction. Not once, but at least thrice. His short televised address to the nation was sombre, and devoid of the characteristic claims, promises and exhortations.
Second, that the buzz made by a short letter from Dr Manmohan Singh had rattled the government was evident not in the health minister’s combatively worded reply. That would be normal. But in the fact that the very next day, the government more or less announced everything Singh was suggesting on vaccinations. That is not the response of a strongman government.
And third, PM Modi cancelled the last leg of his campaign in West Bengal. That he waited till the last day means he was still hoping to be able to do it, but realised he was behind the curve on the pandemic.
Modi’s followers would be hoping this setback is momentary. That headlines would change in about a week when West Bengal results come. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) merely crosses the figure of 100, it will be called a big win. After all, it started with 3. And if it wins a majority, it will be all the adjectives we listed above. But, whatever the BJP’s election performance, it will be overshadowed by the Covid situation.
There are many things the best of scientists still do not know about this virus. But some we know. The virus doesn’t vote. Nor does it care about who wins or loses. It can’t be polarised. It spreads sickness, misery and death, irrespective of politics or faith. It feeds on political hubris. It made the people of the United States, Brazil, and until recently the United Kingdom, pay the price for the overconfidence of their leaders. Now it’s threatening to do just that in India. The three instances of change we listed show that Narendra Modi has realised this as well.
Since words like hubris and schadenfreude are tossed around casually these days, it is necessary for us to marshal some evidence. I am sharing here the full English translation of the prime minister’s address to the World Economic Forum, Davos, in January.
There is as clear a declaration and celebration of victory against the virus as you could imagine. When the pandemic began, the world was so concerned about India, that a tsunami of infections was going to hit us, Modi said. There were people predicting 700-800 million Indians getting infected and more than two million dying. But India didn’t let this happen and saved humanity from a big disaster, he said.
He talked about how India had built capacities in no time, the world’s biggest vaccination programme has been launched on the back of two ‘Made in India’ vaccines with many more to come, and how India is now out to save the world by exporting these.
Next exhibit, see here, the resolution passed by the BJP National Executive in February. It was a stirring declaration of victory against the virus. “It can be said with pride,” it read, that “India not only defeated Covid under the able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi, but also infused in all its citizens the confidence to build an Atma Nirbhar Bharat”. The resolution was so effusive, it’s a surprise it stopped short of asking that a victory arch be built. We quote again: “The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid.”
It said “the world has applauded” India’s achievement, and then also praises the “appeal for activities like clapping and clanging of thalis, lighting of diyas, showering of flowers over hospitals”. India, it said, stands tall, especially with its “vaccine victory” and moving in the “direction of complete triumph over Covid”.
Now you might say one, Davos, was just a speech to a forum where every leader grandstands and the other a party resolution, so what would you expect? Somebody might even pull out some AICC resolution more effusive than this, maybe under “Indira is India” by D.K. Barooah. That might’ve been a great debating point on a prime time news show. But the virus doesn’t read, hear, or care. It only waits in ambush for you to turn complacent.
It was around late-mid February that infections began to creep up. The first rise was in Kerala, Punjab and Maharashtra, three opposition-run states. Maharashtra, in particular, given the Hindutva Divided Family blood feud with the Shiv Sena. Curses and abuses were thrown at the state government, central teams were sent and when Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said he wanted more vaccinations, he was scoffed at. Meanwhile, we also heard about a ‘Harvard study’ that apparently hailed the performance of the Yogi Adityanath government against Covid in Uttar Pradesh.
But why would a virus that doesn’t recognise national borders confine itself to some states? As it grew elsewhere, the BJP had a problem. Having just celebrated a grand victory against the virus, how could it now backtrack?
Nobody, not even Narendra Modi, could have stopped the second wave, especially with new variants emerging faster than conspiracy theories do on social media these days. But if we weren’t caught in such celebrations, we might have seen it coming and prepared better. Every indicator was there.
That complacency shows in our pedestrian vaccine programme that carried on serendipitously, taking weekend breaks, holidays on Shivratri, Good Friday, Holi and more. Full scale Kumbh Mela was allowed, advanced by a year for astrological reasons. The prime minister addressed a rally in West Bengal last Saturday so big that he said he hadn’t seen one such before. That was also the day Manmohan Singh’s letter arrived.
The course correction has been on since then. But tens of thousands, if not more, Indians would die and many of these lives could have been saved if we had vaccinated at a better pace, placed orders in time, not run short of oxygen, and critical drugs. Maybe then we would have prevented this global embarrassment of the crush at our crematoria and graveyards. Or India wouldn’t be airlifting oxygen generators from Germany, looking to import vaccines and indeed suspending its own exports against committed orders. While talking of atmanirbharta.
You can’t claim vindication in the mass death and misery of your compatriots. But these questions must not be brushed under the carpet of warm ashes piling up at our crematoria. This almighty second wave has just begun, the virus has a head-start. Our government looks like a hare frozen in the headlights. Unless Modi has it in him to do a Boris Johnson in second innings: Vaccinate at supersonic pace to crush the pandemic. We’d prefer a chance to applaud that to any malevolent sense of schadenfreude.