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Praised by Vajpayee, chosen by Modi, Harsh Vardhan will be tested by coronavirus

Is Harsh Vardhan up for what could be the biggest test of his political – and perhaps also medical – career? BJP's search for a Delhi face is not over yet.

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Delhi’s loss may well prove to be India’s gain. But it all depends on which way the handling of the coronavirus goes. If India is able to handle this public health crisis well, it will be considered a victory for the Narendra Modi government. If it is not, it will be Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Harsh Vardhan who will likely become the fall guy.

The otolaryngologist has for long wanted to be the boss of Delhi. In a special issue of India Today magazine in January 1999 on Faces of the Millennium, he was described as Doctor Do-It and “BJP’s best bet for a young Delhi chief minister”. When former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana’s health deteriorated, there was a brief moment when Dr Harsh Vardhan thought it was possible.

He got an opportunity to lead the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi in 2013, but the BJP didn’t quite make it. It won 31 of the 70 assembly seats but got no support to form the government. The BJP leadership then went into the 2015 election with Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate, lost badly, and chose to remain faceless in the 2020 election, which it lost too. Harsh Vardhan was suspected of not working hard enough to ensure Bedi’s win in 2015 but given the huge pro-Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wave then, the suspicion seemed unfounded.

In all this, the good doctor’s Delhi ambitions were fading from the scene. And they finally disappeared in 2019 when the BJP leadership thought fit to keep him in the central government, where he had been moved to five years ago upon winning the Lok Sabha election from Chandni Chowk. The door to Delhi 2020 was effectively shut on him.

“He reconciled himself to his fate. His shift signalled that the old guard of Delhi BJP that held the fort after Khurana’s departure was on its way out,” says veteran journalist Radhika Ramaseshan. Indeed, Khurana, who passed away in 2018, was the only big leader the BJP had in the national capital. But Harsh Vardhan couldn’t fill in for him.

Also read: Improve surveillance, screen pneumonia cases — how experts want India to fight coronavirus

Testing coronavirus

So, is Harsh Vardhan, a member of the BJP’s ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) since childhood, up for what may well be the biggest test of his political – and perhaps also medical – career?

He is certainly hands-on, and has a strong technocratic team under his wings – ophthalmologist Dr Rajiv Garg as Director-General Health Services, and cardiologist professor Balram Bhargava as Director-General of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

With Harsh Vardhan – he dropped the surname Goel when he was in Class XI in Daryaganj’s Anglo Sanskrit Victoria Jubilee Senior Secondary School – himself being a long-time member of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), it is easier for him to get support from professionals in the field. The question is: will he be allowed to follow his professional instincts?

The Prime Minister’s Office has set up a group under joint secretary Lav Agarwal, a 1996-batch Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer, who has invited professionals from different institutions to form monitoring teams. They have borrowed a senior person from the Public Health Foundation of India, Dr Subhash Salunke, Director-General, Health Services, Maharashtra. Salunke will be the adviser for state-level coordination.

But the task of identification of community-based infections such as coronavirus is not easy. It involves case identification, which requires testing kits in adequate numbers, and contact identification, which requires self-declaration. The problem, says an analyst, is not with serious cases but mild ones that are not quarantined and will go on to infect others.

Also read: Will India’s experience with previous outbreaks help it tackle coronavirus better?

After rise, several jolts

Harsh Vardhan earned his spurs as the health minister in Delhi with the successful implementation of the Pulse Polio Programme, which ensured mass immunisation of 10 lakh children up to the age of three. He was given a Polio Eradication Champion Award Commendation Medal by the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1998. “The programme was finally expanded to the whole nation and polio was eradicated from the country,” notes senior BJP leader Sudhanshu Mittal. “What could be better proof of his exceptional contribution to public health?”

In 1997, he also piloted the Delhi Prohibition of Smoking and Non-Smokers Health Protection Act in the Delhi assembly, one of the first anti-tobacco laws implemented by any state government. But his first tenure as health minister at the central level did not last for more than five months in 2014 when he was surprisingly replaced by now BJP president J.P. Nadda.

There were several possible reasons for it – one was Harsh Vardhan’s tough stand on tobacco warning, which went against the larger will of the BJP MPs, who were opposed to his proposal of 85 per cent pictorial warning on cigarette packs. He also mishandled the Medical Council of India allegations on corruption after first acknowledging that it needed a clean-up. He similarly waffled on corruption charges by Sanjiv Chaturvedi, chief vigilance officer at AIIMS. An RTI report revealed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had discussed the charges with Harsh Vardhan. But what was supposed to have swung things against him was his avid seeking of media space.

Since then, Harsh Vardhan has learnt his lesson, keeping a low profile as science and technology minister. Veteran journalist Shekhar Iyer says his return to the health ministry was a surprise move by Prime Minister Modi, especially in the backdrop of his predecessor Nadda walking away with all the credit for the launch of the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana that covers hospitalisation cost up to Rs 5 lakh for poor sections of society.

Mittal, who has known Harsh Vardhan since he entered politics in 1993, says he has always been a disciplined member of the BJP and the RSS, which see a reflection of their values in him. “He is the man next door, steeped in family values, whose lifestyle has not changed despite the important positions he has held in his career,” says Mittal, adding that the “truly remarkable aspect is he has never hankered for power, never manipulated the situation, and never lobbied for any position. He is honest, clean and very sober”.

Also read: Ministers’ group to regularise e-pharmacies after Modi govt fails to meet 100-day target

Still a healthy hand?

Unfortunately, despite having the advantage of being a professional doctor, Harsh Vardhan has not been able to inspire confidence among the cadres, or indeed others. His effort to reform the scam-tainted MCI by creating the National Medical Commission is still a work in progress. His frequent declarations about the superiority of ancient Hindu wisdom to modern science are unfailingly absurd, especially given his medical training and his position as the science and technology minister. His views on banning sex education, though in keeping with his RSS background, have also come in for criticism.

He has certainly been trying to be seen as being hands-on, inspecting coronavirus preparations at Delhi airport, updating Parliament, and addressing press conferences. Healthcare consultant Ayesha Jhunjhunwala says the biggest difficulty in responding to coronavirus is the sheer ambiguity involved. Not only is the science still unclear, any effective response will require a genuinely interdisciplinary approach.

She adds: “While Dr Harsh Vardhan may be able to cobble together a disaster response that is adequately funded and medically sound, the sophisticated PR and communication strategy required to raise awareness and limit panic seems to be a stretch for the available skill set. Also, this government’s overall resistance to mobilising private sector expertise means that the sort of deep public-private cooperation required–not just between government and private sector healthcare but also between government and professionals in media, disaster management–already seem to be headed down the road of ‘too little too late’.”

He has his admirers though. Dr Anupam Sibal, Group Medical Director, Apollo Hospitals, believes his leadership has been outstanding and his ministry has done a stellar job.

In 2001, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had described Harsh Vardhan as ‘Swasthya’ Vardhan, someone who, according to another former prime minister I.K. Gujral, was the “best health minister of India”. Harsh Vardhan must now live up to both the name and the description.

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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