It is not the pandemic that is of big concern to the Narendra Modi government. Publicity, press and projection are. Health is not the primary focus, headlines are. At a time when India is at war with a virulent second wave of Covid-19, Prime Minister Modi and his team are busy battling not the virus, but voices that seek to critique them, or as much as give them feedback.
From the health minister writing a nasty letter to a senior opposition leader and former prime minister, to the external affairs minister telling diplomats to counter ‘one-sided’ coverage of the pandemic in India by international press, to the Delhi Police making arrests for posters criticising the government’s vaccine policy — the ruling dispensation’s actions have reeked of a bullish behaviour, a tendency to completely dismiss any unflattering feedback. There appears to be a compulsive need to ‘manage’ headlines and image, the need to fight the pandemic be damned. All of this, of course, betrays a heavy sense of insecurity and intolerance.
Criticism, feedback and questions are a vital aspect of any thriving democracy, more so during an unprecedented crisis. Any government or leader with self-awareness, the ability to admit mistakes and course-correct, and having respect for diverse views would refrain from taking such a harsh and combative stand against critics.
Essentially, two things have defined the Modi government’s responses during the second Covid wave — a desperate attempt to whitewash its image and making offence your tool of choice.
It’s one thing not being able to tackle a crisis efficiently — a challenge any government can face, and many state governments, in fact, are facing it currently. But to brazenly defend your inefficiency by launching an offensive against your critics is quite another matter. The PM doesn’t have the stomach to take criticism, a long way from what he had said in Kolhapur in 2015, that he misses criticism.
Every decision, every thought must be criticised. There must be Samvad and Vivad: PM @narendramodi
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) January 3, 2015
The combative stance
That the Modi government’s handling of the second wave of the pandemic has been abysmal is hardly a secret. And that its vaccination programme has been a letdown is also hard to refute.
But these failings on part of a government, though a reflection of inefficiencies, inexperience in the ranks and a lack of control over the situation, are not unusual. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, for instance, has also struggled to keep the national capital afloat in both waves of the pandemic.
What, however, is most unforgivable about the Modi government is its misplaced sense of priorities — of managing public perception, as well as its reaction to anybody who has a piece of advice.
A former prime minister, who is known for his intellect and academic achievements, writes to you with well-meaning advice. But the health minister of the country, otherwise mild-mannered and congenial, ends up responding with a nasty letter written in a politically caustic tone. The reference, of course, being the Manmohan Singh-Harsh Vardhan exchange.
When the Congress Working Committee criticises the government for mismanagement of the pandemic, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president promptly shoots off a letter to Sonia Gandhi, accusing her party of creating ‘false panic’.
The external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, gets into a Twitter spat with Congress leader Jairam Ramesh over oxygen supply to foreign embassies.
And when you see posters in the national capital attacking the government’s vaccine policy, you set off Delhi Police to make multiple arrests. These are not just excessive measures, but inexcusably vicious and outlandish reactions at a time when working together with everyone should be the government’s push.
The perception management
The Information and Broadcasting ministry has been holding a chain of high-level meetings to counter bad press and work out the messaging to ensure that the government’s image isn’t dented. Never mind that the meetings should be happening in the health ministry to discuss what next on handling the pandemic, and on stepping up the vaccine game.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is busy telling diplomats how to counter negative foreign media coverage. And BJP leaders and an IT cell working overtime are making full use of social media to counter criticism, brush things under the carpet and ensure the vikas purush PM’s image isn’t dented.
The Narendra Modi-led BJP has always been about image management and creating larger-than-life situations. To be fair, politics is a game of perception and the ability to sell your point effectively. But there’s something extremely ruthless, perturbing and, frankly, immature about just being focussed on making yourself look good, and your enemies look bad, when the people of your country are going through a crisis of such magnitude.
When all this ends and history looks back at this phase, it isn’t the Modi government’s poor management of the Covid-19 crisis that will stand out. It is this government’s selfish and blinkered response that will be the blot. Brave women and men are not the ones that don’t make mistakes. They’re the ones who accept their mistakes, don’t try to whitewash them, and show the grace to allow others to point them out.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)