Shekhar Gupta is a national treasure. His reportorial output, a luminous first draft of history, is indispensable to anyone seeking even a rudimental understanding of India’s difficult republican history. In spite of my many disagreements with him, I number myself among the countless beneficiaries of his work. And it speaks to his democratic spirit that when I privately dissented from his column of 8 April—in which he defended Narendra Modi from those who said the prime minister had buckled to pressure from US President Donald Trump in deciding to send hydroxychloroquine to America—he invited me to express it in the pages of his own publication. It would be an affront to that openness to be anything but direct.
What is the utility of hydroxychloroquine—or HCQ—for those infected by the novel coronavirus? We cannot say with certainty. The accumulating anecdotal evidence of its therapeutic value has, however, heightened the demand for it. This prompted India, among the world’s largest manufacturers of HCQ, to notify a curb on the export of the drug on 25 March—three days after the Indian Council of Medical Research prescribed it as a prophylactic for frontline personnel and their kin—before effecting a blanket ban on 4 April. The Modi government then performed a volte-face within two days. What explains the abrupt reversal?
Consider the chronology.
The missing piece
We know that the prime minister had been making and fielding calls from a number of world leaders, among them Trump, who rang Modi on 4 April and 5 April. We know also that on 6 April Trump issued an open threat of “retaliation” against India if New Delhi refused to release the medicine. The next day, India announced the decision partially to revoke the ban. Is it unreasonable to infer from the sequence of events that Modi capitulated to Trump?
Yes, says Shekhar Gupta, adducing as evidence for his claim reports in the Mint, The Hindu, and ThePrint on 6 April—many hours before Trump’s abrasive ultimatum—which, he contends, clarified that “India had already decided to lift the ban”. The implication of the column was that the prime minister had not crumbed under pressure. If Modi’s detractors choose to overlook this, Gupta wrote, it is because “facts are boring” and complicate their dim-witted outrage. A debunker of disinformation can feel entitled to a triumphant flourish. But Gupta did not so much debunk Modi’s critics as succeed in missing what in law school we used to call gravamen—the essence of the grievance—of patriotic Indians.
A private decision
The chronology Gupta’s column constructs does not resolve the central mystery of why Modi decided to rescind a ban on the export of a potentially lifesaving drug two days after its activation. Notice that the government effected a full ban on the export of HCQ on 4 April—ten days after putting it on a list of restricted items. The intervening period is when the authorities would have evaluated India’s capacities and requirements. If they were satisfied on both counts, the blanket ban on its export would not have come into effect on 4 April. That it did come into effect hints at some qualm—or a desire to err on the side of caution.
As the Mint’s editorial of 6 April warned, “It’s unclear exactly how much [HCQ] we have available and can make.” And it is for this reason that the editorial proceeded to counsel the government “to take a worst-case scenario into account” because the “most dismal numbers often yield the best decisions in matters of life and death”. If the expansion of the ban 10 days after its notification was necessitated by a lingering fear of scarcity, the revocation of the ban after Trump’s phone calls to Modi suggests that the prime minister elected to subordinate India’s needs—difficult to quantify with certainty at this stage—to his personal relationship with the American president.
We have subsequently been told that India has surplus quantities of the drug. But what if the need intensifies? We have been assured that India has the capacity to multiply production of the drug. But what if the capacity breaks down? Did Modi pay the slightest attention to such questions? If the utter lack of preparation that preceded his announcement of an India-wide lockdown—the largest in human history—is any guide, we know the answer is no. None of us can foresee the exigencies to which a pandemic can give rise. What we can do is prepare ourselves as best as our circumstances permit. Even if we choose to dismiss Trump’s public threat of retaliation as bluster, we still have to account for Modi’s private decision to undo a decision intended to ring-fence India’s need.
For a phone call
Modi is a prime minister who, lest we forget, never reverses his domestic decisions—no matter how demonstrably disastrous the consequences for India and Indians. The detonation of the economy in the aftermath of the 2016 demonetisation did not prompt him to revise his action. The eruption of mass protests across India could not persuade him to discard the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. But a pair of phone calls from the US president is all it took for him to rescind the prohibition on the export of a vital drug. Whatever happened? Did the prime minister’s 56-inch chest, which he never tires of puffing at fellow Indians, shrink upon hearing Trump’s voice?
Having shipped the medicine to America, Modi’s formidable PR machinery sought to portray the prime minister’s cravenness as an act of statesmanship. On 8 April, Rahul Kanwal, the news director of India Today, claimed on Twitter that Trump had suggested in an interview to Fox News that: “India could have early access to #Covid19 vaccines being developed in US since PM Modi accepted request on HCQ”. The claim was verifiably false: Trump said nothing of the sort on Fox News. But it would have been no less insulting to Indians had Kanwal been relaying the truth. Is it not offensive to us to be made to piece together the thinking of our own prime minister from fragments of information gathered from a foreign head of state’s interview to his nation’s media? Why won’t our prime minister do us the honour of taking questions from our journalists? Why does the nationalist who is so ingratiating with powerful foreigners refuse to grant an audience to his own compatriots? Is it contempt or cowardice?
Everywhere in India there is uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety. But Modi feels no obligation at all to expose himself to questions that aren’t screened or scripted. There is no means available for the press to subject him to direct scrutiny. Demonetisation, Kashmir, and CAA have taught us that the prime minister is habituated to gambling with the lives of others. Every crisis is for him an occasion to indulge his addiction to theatre. We are living and dying through the worst public health crisis in more than a century, and we haven’t even a clue what our prime minister may do next. It is like Albania under Enver Hoxha: every moment is agog with suspense as people drive themselves mad speculating about their self-absorbed supremo’s next move.
For a tweet
Contrast the prime minister’s disdainful treatment of Indians with the deluxe service he extended to Trump. It should surprise nobody. Modi is not an India-first nationalist. He is a Hindu-first sectarian. He will smilingly incinerate India’s interests in return for international legitimacy for his brand of politics and, by extension, his political project. One of Trump’s most durable qualities, as David Frum has written, is his almost congenital inability to stand by those who stand by him. Last September, Modi abased himself to gratify Trump at an event in Texas. Exactly a day later, Trump appeared next to Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, and offered to mediate in Kashmir—a proposal so inimical to India’s position that its mere iteration amounted to a repudiation of every ounce of investment Modi had just made to tickle Trump’s ego.
It is an act of self-harm to delude ourselves into the belief that America, should it develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, will put India before its European allies and other partners. India has been misled over the past decade by its governing elites into thinking that it occupies a dominant position in America’s view of the world. It does not. To state this is not to traffic in what Gupta calls “anti-Americanism”. But none of this matters. The only thing that matters is that Modi got his moment’s glory when Trump tweeted his gratitude to him. We gave away our medicine for a tweet.
The author has written Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India (Context).