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HomeOpinionIndia’s democracy deficit comes in the way of its battle against COVID-19

India’s democracy deficit comes in the way of its battle against COVID-19

Critical questions about India’s handling of COVID-19 are being brushed under the carpet of propaganda and there is a brazen lack of accountability.

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In countries without democracy, only one narrative prevails, that of the state. People’s grumbling, even online, is heavily censored.

Case in point: China.

If China were a democracy where the opposition and free press could ask critical questions of the Chinese government’s handling of COVID-19, perhaps the world would have been suffering a little less. That’s the power of democracy, it makes sure the state is kept on its toes.

By contrast, criticism by public, media and opposition in the UK and the US have made the governments correct their course. In the US, President Donald Trump has come under heavy criticism for taking the novel coronavirus lightly in the beginning. Among the things he’s being criticised heavily for is not providing enough testing facilities for people.

Does India feel more like China or more like the US/UK? If you see the response of the media and the public, and the opposition’s inability to get their thoughts across to the public, India is more like China. We may have free and fair elections to produce a democratically elected government, but the Indian political discourse over coronavirus is a good case study of the health of Indian democracy.

One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s answers to liberals whining about democracy and freedom is to point to a globe full of strongmen at the helm. So his government invites mostly Right-wing European Members of Parliament to visit Kashmir and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Republic Day celebrations and Donald Trump to a stadium event in Ahmedabad. But even Bolsonaro takes questions at a press conference. He doesn’t evade a press conference, not even when he knows he might end up coughing before cameras while claiming he is not down with COVID-19.

Elected officials in almost every democracy have been doing regular, often daily press conferences with top experts by their side to answer technical questions. This includes Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Narendra Modi, by contrast, has never addressed an open press conference since he became prime minister six years ago. And in one rare conference, he let Amit Shah answer all the questions. Instead, he prefers addressing the nation at 8 pm, holding India captive to his ideas and away from the people’s questions articulated through a free press. This style of one-way communication is more China than America, more autocracy than democracy.

Also read: At current rate, India can see 30,000 COVID-19 deaths by May, no hospital bed by June: Data

Ask no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies

India’s democratic deficit has been widening. Historian Ramachandra Guha who once called India a 50-50 democracy, now says it is more a 30-70 democracy — only 30 per cent democratic. This view is shared by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2019 that saw India fall by 10 places to rank 51.

India’s weakening democracy index is hurting its battle against COVID-19, which all experts agree, is hanging upon the country like the sword of Damocles.

The near-total domination of the ruling establishment over the means of propaganda means that the people at large don’t get to hear any critical voices. On the most-watched news channels across languages, on social media, on WhatsApp, through party workers, influential elites and celebrities such as Bollywood and sports stars, the people of India get to hear only one thing: Modi is the best.

Instead of going into a two-week lockdown, Modi first announced a one-day ‘Janata curfew’. And at 5 pm, he asked people to clang utensils or clap for five minutes, to honour those at the frontline against COVID-19. This was his way of telling people they should be grateful — and not ask critical questions of the government. And clap they did.

Any questioning of Modi, such as his handling of COVID-19, is suppressed under the weight of such creative propaganda, and with some help from abusive online trolls. It means that the questions that need to be asked won’t be asked beyond the Left and liberal echo chamber.

Also read: Why coronavirus crisis is a make-or-break moment for PM Modi and many CMs

Who exported the PPE units?

While asking people to pay tribute to those at the frontline of fighting COVID-19, the Modi government has actually been making life tougher for the foremost of them: healthcare workers. Despite the very real threat of an explosion of COVID-19 cases, the Modi government allowed the export of personal protective equipment or PPE till the last minute, instead of stocking them for India’s healthcare workers. Without PPE, doctors and medical staff will be at great risk of contracting the coronavirus, further weakening our already frail healthcare infrastructure.

While the government banned PPE exports on 31 January, it overturned the ban a week later on 8 February, according to an investigation by Vidya Krishnan. And instead of taking the help of the private sector in manufacturing PPE as fast as possible, the Modi government has banned the private sector from doing so, granting a public sector company a monopoly.

No reporter will ask Narendra Modi to explain this because he won’t take questions. Ministers and bureaucrats will issue denials. Pro-government websites like Swarajya magazine will manufacture some spin, and its sister concern, serial-slanderer OpIndia will personally target those asking questions about the Modi government’s self-destructive PPE policy.

Modi will continue telling us to clap for the very healthcare workers his PPE policy has endangered, and WhatsApp propaganda will tell us that Modi has managed to get so many PPE units manufactured that India even sold some to the rest of the world, showing how Modi has raised India’s stature on the global stage.

Also read: Coronavirus has given India two choices: Increase state power or state capacity

No testing, no data 

On leading news channels, you won’t hear most anchors and guests ask the government why India is still testing the least number of people. Imagine this was 2013, and the UPA-2 government had decided not to test too many people, what would anchors such as Arnab Goswami and Rahul Shivshankar be doing? They would have been running a campaign accusing the government of risking the lives of Indians by not testing enough suspected COVID-19 cases. They would have been screaming at the top of their voices, claiming to represent the entire nation, asking why we haven’t been testing enough, not even to the extent our testing capacity allows, especially when the World Health Organization says, ‘test, test, test’.

How do you prevent the spread of coronavirus without identifying the infected and quarantining them? Had this been taking place in 2013 and not 2020, the channels would have forced the Manmohan Singh government to explain why we already have COVID-19 patients without any contact with anyone who returned from abroad when the government denies we have reached the community transmission stage?

An expert says he is sure even Narendra Modi doesn’t believe India’s official data on COVID-19 patients and the BJP goes after him. Why is everyone interviewing the same epidemiologist, ask the spin doctors.

Ah, Ramanan Laxminarayan is an economist. What does he know about pandemics? His CV can answer that but by the time you reach there, the propaganda machinery has already shifted the debate from what Ramanan says to Ramanan himself. Shoot the messenger, always.

Also read: Coronavirus pandemic has given Chinese government even more powers over its people

Blame everyone, credit Modi

No debate can thus ever be had in good faith. Try asking the Modi government about its efforts to ramp up the number of ventilators in the country, or emergency isolation beds, or whether it has identified indoor stadia to convert into COVID-19 hospitals — try asking any such questions and all you’ll get are ad hominem attacks.

The answers will come in the next address to the nation, any day at 8 pm. Until then, you may read WhatsApp fake news about how Modi came up with a 14-hour curfew to kill the virus once and for all.

Across the world, governments have already announced economic packages worth billions of dollars to counter the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. India, already suffering from a Modi-inflicted economic slowdown, is in no hurry. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, known for her failings and poor budgets, is set to head a special task force.

Millions of daily wage labourers wondering how they will buy rice to eat are not complaining. Modi has convinced them to bang utensils. We the people have to get rid of the “Chinese virus”, and the online propaganda armies are attacking China at full speed. What is Modi’s fault?

The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.

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  1. The comments are ample testimony to our foolishness and blind faith. I think everyone missed the PPE point and lack of medical centres and I urge everyone to read this

    Helped by a submissive ICMR and NITI AYOG, we bumble along in our war against the virus. We disregard the experience of other countries and the advice of WHO and refuse to accept anything that goes against propaganda by various vested interest groups

  2. As per Shivam Vij’s usual style, some of the stuff here makes eminent sense and some don’t. But what no one has bothered to point out is, that while this dispensation is quick to blame Pakistan (Muslims)/ Nehru-Gandhis (Congress) for almost all of India’s current problems, the regime and it’s media cheerleaders haven’t said a single word about China. They haven’t even called it “Wuhan Virus Disease” All pandemic viral outbreaks are named for the place or origin – Spanish Influenza, Japanese Encephalitis, Nipah Virus Disease etc. But the entire right wing ecosystem in India, which is normally quite shrill, is conspicuously silent on this matter. Why? Is one bully afraid of a bigger one? How can a scared govt look after our national interest. Nation wants to know.

    • After 2015, WHO decided to not name diseases after people, place etc.

      Although, in this case, I too support it should be called Chinese Virus, since, it is a direct result of Chinese govt policies.

  3. Dear Editor , {Better term would have been –Dear Idiot }
    Modi is a hardened warrior . He has not lost any battle nor any war . The people are with him. Medical , para-medical soldiers and senapatis are doing their best. Corona and anti-modi media will be defeated in a matters of days or at least in few weeks. Stop tirade . It is time of human emergency. If you can not contribute in this battle which people of India are waging , at least throw your lap-top away from which you might be turning out garbage day in day out.

  4. I would like to hire Modi as an event manager in my company. Only he can convert a national disaster into a jamboree.

  5. Did the Modi government delay a lock down so that the MP government could fall into BJPs hands?!

    Or, let’s put it another way.. would Modi delay a lockdown to grab power? Looking at the track record, he would go to any extent for power – be it using money, muscle, or lies, the latter even in the Supreme Court!

    This is just a conspiracy theory.. but let’s face it, it’s more possible than impossible! That’s just how much our democracy seems to be more like an undeclared emergency or dictatorship. That’s just how upside down our system seems to be at the moment. Its just a sign of how personal gain has been converted into national gain. How one man’s lust for power has subverted one of the most vibrant, diverse and plural places to live, into a personal fiefdom of hate!

  6. Once upon a time, the media, the intellectuals, the sickular politicians, the Bollywood celebrities and assorted anti-Hindu types used every opportunity to
    1) demean Hindus and Hinduism
    2) praise Islam and Muslims.
    This gave rise to Hindu nationalism and Modi.
    If the above types just did their business honestly, without favouring Muslims or demeaning Hindus, the media would have remained neutral. But alas, you sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.

  7. Stupidity and socialist view of keeping people poor and helping keep criminally corrupt people in power. Same power has now been withdrawn under current dispensation. Hence enjoying the frustration of middle men

  8. When the Kerala High Court ordered that GST payments be deferred, Modi opposed it in the Supreme Court! It just shows where his priorities lie- money, for his pet projects like NRC. That 30,000 crore statue could have been a few hospitals instead! He is yet to place orders for protective equipment for healthcare workers. In Kashmir, there’s a 10 year old girl doing his job.. making face masks, because even doctors don’t have them!

    But yeah, the propaganda machine will spin the yarn of his ‘dikhavat ki rajniti’!!

    We’re surely in community transmission phase, and those with their heads in the sand can’t see the writing on the wall. We’re all set to do our ‘duty ‘ as sheep – clapping and going ‘Baaa Baaa’ – just as we’re going to suffer like them too!

    The critical comments on this article only prove the author’s point. Not one had even a hint of logic, or even a whiff of fact!’

  9. There is no cure for the Modi derangement syndrome that afflicts some so-called journalists at The Print.

  10. Only 6.5 percent people work in organized sector quarantine easy said then done. What about the people who earn their living on daily basis why govt has not anouced any direct cash for poor even kerla has announced 20,000 crore . What Modi is waiting for? Modi can only do bhashnbaji jagk croro pariwar aaj Bina kmaye sone wale hai .

  11. I usually like vij’s articles , but this one goes overboard in the sense that you cannot blame one individual for all that is wrong in india( there is a lot that is wrong ). Clanging & clapping was a mawkish idea but believe me people were extremely happy doing that ,just like people were happy watching hum aapke Hain Kaun! As far as press conferences are concerned , undoubtedly every pm ought to do them ,but pronouncements by party spokespersons are also sufficient.lastly , the people of india who have voted for him are ok dying for him , like ghalib said love does not differentiate between life & death ,for whom I love & clang ,I am ready to die for him.

  12. Personal views of a contributing editor? What Journalistic reviews do you subject these articles through or is this (or not just this article) a loophole to publish anything?

      • There has to be some standard. You can’t also start giving space to ISIS writers so that they can express their “opinion”. Vij is a propagandist. If he writes something which is factual then it’s fine. He is just cooking up stories and being horribly wrong in every predictions he made in last one and half year. He should do some introspection and so should ThePrint on letting him continue with his propaganda.

    • Then you and all Indians suspicious of EVMs will have to express those suspicions out loud. Take #VVPAT receipts, for example. Should they be behind another screen and flashed at the voter for just 7 seconds? Or should they be hard copies that the voter can see with their own eyes?? Receipts that the voter can touch with their own hands? And deposited in the VVPAT boxes themselves?

      For security reasons those VVPAT boxes should have CCTVs trained on them 24/7 until all parties have accepted EVM results.

      Shouldn’t the ECI give in writing when VVPAT receipts have to be counted, as 22 opposition parties had demanded last year?

  13. This same reporter was very unhappy because he didn’t see enough deadbodies in Kashmir.Nobody gives a shit about his reporting.

    • He is not a reporter. He is a 10 JP Dalal. This article is another supari job which The Print xontinues to do.

      • Ha ha that’s only thing you can say.Modi implemented and executed what he wanted to do.Infact that’s the reason you hate him which is nice and validates his work.Even if he goes the system he will create will stay and educate the next generation. Unlike this half baked intellectuals who go around just lecturing about some democracy and crap and have no skin in the game.

  14. It is exactly the opposite, democracy hampers handling of problem. China would have failed massively if it had democracy.

  15. Shivam Vij want to pick a topic, only one subject, Corona Virus, spin which ever way, target Modi and hate Modi. Nothing else. If so much negativity has gone into someone’s brain, he/she is more deadlier than Corona Virus. So much of hate and somehow want to correlate China and India on same platter. Chinese leadership forced its citizens in with threat and Modi just requested everyone to follow Janta Curfew for 14 hours. Everyone, almost everyone, except few pseudo intellectuals followed Modi. And it burns more for haters.

  16. This is not the time Shivam. Grow up man 🙁 ..It is people like you who make people like me believe that the Chinese system is better. If we had that system we would have been able to keep you quiet.

    • Care to explain who’s the “we”?
      Are you the government, or has the so-called reviver of the nation totally convinced you that since you’re on his side, you have full immunity to do what you like?
      So, who the F is “we” again?

  17. Inspite of criticism you do no one is getting convinced by your arguments.Modi must be like I win you lose again.Poor shivam continue with your poopah.

    I am sure you will moderate my comments so much for freedom of expression

  18. Great article. Informative. Engaging. Thoughtful. Keep posting Sir. I always wait for your article. Great job.

  19. The mystery of no financial relief package being announced is easily explained. There is no 1.76 trillion lying in Governor Das’s vault to hoover out. The fiscal deficit was running far above the budgeted figure. Tax collections were falling short before Coronavirus arrived. States are not being sent their subvention payments in time. Humanity dictates what CM Arvind Kejriwal is doing – look after the poor. Give them free rations, increase their pension amounts. Help the most vulnerable get through this crisis alive. 2. The Textiles ministry could take a break from playing Antakshari and produce some cloth face masks.

  20. Mr Modi blundered. International flights should have stopped on March 1st which is 45 days after China locked down on its flights.

    And when the world’s Corona incidents are so high, India’s cannot be low. It is just lack of testing.

    It is not just Mr. Modi, any politician would have failed in India. Hence a free and fair press is important which Mr Modi has happily killed.

    • You are idiot, it is this so called free-fair press and dissent drama which is problem, actually democracy cannot fight such thing. You need one party system and top-down approach with efficient bureaucracy.

      • You are a bigger idiot. Nowhere has one party system and top down approach been successful in the long run. I know it is tough for a bhakt but if possible, try to get some basic education.

      • Looks like idiocy is more contagious than the Corona Virus! That’s exactly what the author is saying – for all practical purposes, we’re behaving exactly like a one party system, with a top down approach – and it’s not helping is it?! Give it a month, look in the mirror and you’ll see who the real idiot is!

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