In a recent conversation, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev remarked to me, “In times of crisis, people need a strong leader. Confusion and vacillation can be very discouraging in such circumstances.” It immediately struck me why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had scored so high in the ‘Morning Consult’ world leader approval ratings released just before we entered the new year.
With over 75 per cent of the polled populace approving as opposed to 20 per cent disapproving his performance, Modi’s ratings at 55 per cent were the highest of any leader of the free world. The Morning Consult Global Leader Approval Rating Tracker included ratings of 13 democratic countries, including the US, Brazil, Germany, UK, France, and Australia.
Now that our vaccine rollout is starting today, Modi has demonstrated his vaccine leadership decisively. Addressing the chief ministers of 16 states on 11 January, Modi had announced that India would be home to “world’s largest vaccination programme”. Spelling out the manner of the rollout, Modi said, “Health workers, government as well as private, will be vaccinated first of all. Sanitation workers, other frontline workers, defence forces, police and other paramilitary forces will also be vaccinated in the first phase.”
Two “atmanirbhar”, India-produced vaccines have already been approved for emergency use – the Serum Institute of India-manufactured Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine Covishield and the indigenously developed Covaxin by Bharat Biotech. Vaccination of priority groups is now set to start. In the meeting, Modi focussed on efficient delivery and management of the vaccine rollout, including its safe storage, conveyance, and distribution. Home Minister Amit Shah was also present in the virtual meet.
A clear plan for India
When it comes to handling the coronavirus pandemic, in both statements and actions, Modi’s intent has been clear. To demonstrate effective and reliable leadership in a time of crisis. Politics aside, which is grist to his mill as India’s greatest vote-getter in decades, Modi is also keen to project himself as the modern-day CEO of the country when it comes to dispensing good governance.
In his purposiveness and single-mindedness, Modi sometimes resembles Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, when it comes to Modi’s more controversial decisions — “Tuglaqi firmans” as one wiseacre dubbed them — it might have redoubted more to his credit had he visibly engaged in a process of consultation rather than in time and energy-consuming narrative management and perception control after the fact.
If their statements are anything to go by, the Serum Institute already has a stockpile of over five crore doses and Bharat Biotech has shipped out some 55-lakh plus shots. Of this first batch of vaccines manufactured in India, the government has ordered almost the entire stock. It is estimated that the priority groups marked for vaccination including health workers and sanitation workers, defence, police and paramilitary forces, not to mention the high-risk elderly, already exceed some three crores in all.
All of them will receive the vaccine free of cost, with the states where they are to be distributed having to incur no expenditure on this account. Will this group include politicians? Although Puducherry Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy wrote to the PM on 13 January asking political leaders, ministers and legislators to be vaccinated first, it is not clear whether his request has been accepted.
Given the size of the population, apart from the government and its agencies, none of us is likely to have access to a private supply for several months. But government monopoly in this regard may prove counter-productive in the longer run. While it makes sense to control the distribution of a scarce vaccine to start with, later, with more approved vaccines and manufacturers able to ratchet up production, India should be the first country to make a life-saving medication freely available at reasonable cost to customers who can afford to and are willing to pay a fair price for it.
Else, we may well find ourselves staring down a sorry, scary, and slippery slope of hoarding, black-marketing, profiteering, and corruption with a life-saving drug. It is precisely to avoid such confusion or chaos that Modi urged his listeners to scotch rumours and fake news, also advising them to ensure that politicians don’t “jump the queue”, but wait till their turn comes: “All States and UTs must ensure that rumours around the vaccination programme are not allowed to spread. Corporate competition and vested interests of certain lobbies within and outside country may be at work to fuel the rumours.”
A cut above the rest
His supporters have been quick to shower praise on Modi for being a global vaccine champion. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said that under PM Modi’s able leadership, India has become a global leader in vaccine delivery. Co-WIN – the government’s vaccination portal — well-illustrates our capability in this regard. He added, “The scientists of India have proven that the vaccine is absolutely safe. It will build antibodies and immunity. No one should be doubtful whether they should get vaccinated or not.”
Microsoft founder Bill Gates also congratulated India in a tweet: “It’s great to see India’s leadership in scientific innovation and vaccine manufacturing capability as the world works to end the COVID-19 pandemic.” India’s role in vaccine production, Gates also said, will be crucial to the whole world in combating the pandemic.
As if on cue, countries in our neighbourhood requested an early supply of India’s coronavirus vaccines by reason of proximity, with Pakistan, of course, maintaining a studied silence. Vaccine diplomacy, which Modi is sure to judiciously deploy, will fetch India collateral benefits if we handle our domestic needs effectively. This the Prime Minister knows only too well. Hence, he has taken on the somewhat high-risk, high-rewards mantle of India’s vaccine deliverer.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.