It’s time for plain speak. Another day of yet another peak of Covid-positive cases, another spate of reports about the plight of migrant workers on the roads and inside trucks, another day in office for imperious Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman bulldozing her way through hard questions about the economy that can no longer be set aside. Two months into this unprecedented health and economic crisis, it is time to assess the Narendra Modi government’s response to this disaster.
Let us not be unfair to the government. I have supported Prime Minister Modi when he first announced the lockdown, while noting that its preparation, timing and communication left much to be desired. The PM was decisive when a hard call had to be taken. Indecision or further delay could have landed us in a worse state than we are. In retrospect, we now know that our response was already delayed, but it would be unfair to indict the government on that basis. Global knowledge and awareness at that time did not warrant such a response. On balance, we reacted faster than most other countries.
It would also be unfair to blame the Modi government for all the mess that we face today. A largely unanticipated pandemic is bound to create havoc, even in the best of places. It is bound to be worse in a country like India, given the weak public health fundamentals and fragile response systems. An indictment of the Modi government must be careful about limiting itself to what could have been anticipated, what could have been achieved in our conditions. And it must leave room for genuine mistakes. Faced with a crisis of this kind, the best of leaders with the purest intentions will make erroneous calls. They must be criticised, but not indicted for bona fide errors of judgement.
Sadly, even after making all these allowances, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Narendra Modi government has failed India in its hour of need. The government has been clueless about controlling the health crisis, incompetent in handling its economic consequence and insensitive in dealing with the humanitarian crisis.
A failing health model
Let us begin with the health crisis. We must not blame PM Modi for his early decisions in pandemic management. We cannot indict him for erring on the side of caution because he heard (as all global leaders did) conflicting forecasts about the progress of the pandemic. But we must ask some questions nevertheless: why did the government not listen to alternative voices about more testing at an early stage? Why did the PM not try to learn from and replicate the Kerala model? Did he allow political envy to trump national interest? Why did he not come down heavily against his supporters trying to communalise the pandemic? Once it became clear that the lockdown was not ‘breaking the chain’ or flattening the curve, why did he persist with the lockdown as the sole remedy? Did he allow his ego and self-image to trump rational course correction? And finally, why is no senior functionary (not even a minister, let alone the head of the government, as is the norm in many countries) responding to the media’s questions on the pandemic? What is the future strategy? Is there something that the government wishes to hide?
All these questions do not admit of easy answers and leave the country with the impression of a government that is lost but does not know how to admit it or ask for help.
Misplaced economic priorities
On the economic front, let us allow for the fiscal constraints that the government faces at this moment, even though it is largely responsible for this situation due to untimely waiver to corporates and inflation of revenue projections. Still, we must ask why has the Modi government not done anything to stimulate demand (despite pleas from every economist who matters)? Why the continuous pumping of liquidity despite the fact that banks have failed to use the extra liquidity made available in March? Why has the government not addressed what the industrialists, businessmen, farmers and labourers were actually asking for? Why has the government made no attempt to raise additional revenue (despite many sensible suggestions) to meet this crisis? Why use this crisis to push through a number of policy changes on labour law, agriculture, environment and investment that have nothing to do with the cause or solution to the current crisis? And, why not share the real economic situation with the country? Why dress up the “packages”, that too in such amateurish ways, so as to somehow match the magical 20-lakh crore figure?
These questions lead us to a sad answer: the economic response of the fifth-largest economy facing its worst recession and joblessness is being shaped by a bunch of too-clever-by-half economists and packaged by an ignorant and arrogant political leadership. More than saving the economy, the leaders are focused on saving themselves and their wealthy friends.
Finally, let’s turn to the Modi government’s handling of the humanitarian crisis made visible by the migrant workers who have taken to the streets. Again, let us grant that given our size and deep inequalities, some degree of distress was inevitable. But we must ask: Did the government even try to anticipate this distress and plan to alleviate it when announcing the lockdown? Why was the government surprised by the scale of the problem of the migrants (eight crore, as Sitharaman admitted in her press conference)?
Why were there no special arrangements for food and income of the stranded workers for the first 50 days of the lockdown? What else did the government expect jobless, food-less and hopeless workers to do, except walk back? Why do we not get a report of this kind from any other country in the world, even African countries much poorer than us? And once the government discovered, within the first week of the lockdown, the plight of the migrant workers, what did it do to address the crisis, except law and order advisories?
Why was the decision to start Shramik trains delayed so much and taken when it was actually riskier? Why the insistence on the fares for distress evacuation? Why did it take the Ministry of Home Affairs six weeks to issue a simple advisory about humanitarian support to the migrants on the road?
Insensitive would be too mild a word to characterise this shameful handling of the worst national-level humanitarian crisis. To call the Modi government heartless displays credulity. As India goes for a free fall, the top political functionaries are focused on political intrigue, blame-game and public relations. India’s worst health, economic and humanitarian crisis is being handled by undoubtedly the most callous and perhaps the most incompetent government.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.