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.
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.
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.
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.
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.