Updated: May 8, 2021 9:42:21 am
India is a polarised country, the word bipartisan is a misnomer in its political vocabulary. Unsurprisingly, the pernicious coronavirus second wave has aggravated the chasm. I read with some disappointment the feverish defence of the ruling dispensation by senior actor Anupam Kher (I am a huge fan of this outstanding artiste) in The Indian Express (‘No time for partisanship’, May 1). Kher makes some valid observations about dispassionate conduct during an unprecedented health emergency and the responsibility of state governments. But he seems miffed with opposition parties for their interrogation of the Centre. He shouldn’t be. That’s what democracy is all about; perennial scrutiny. The family members of the 25 Covid patients who died on account of inadequate oxygen supply in Delhi’s Ganga Ram hospital may not quite acquiesce with Kher’s commiserations for the BJP-led NDA. Truth hurts.
“The buck stops here” is among the most popular aphorisms in corporate boardrooms. FDR’s epochal words were meant for political leadership though. A country’s CEO has enormous powers; success depends upon how they are used. Kher believes that the severe condemnation of PM Narendra Modi’s handling of the pandemic is unjustified. Unfortunately, hard statistics are devoid of rhetorical sandbagging: Over 4,00,000 cases in one day (cumulative 18 million), 3,600 deaths ( 2,15,000 aggregated), 69 lakh new infections in April 2021, and a teetering health infrastructure unable to cope with the interminable influx of infected patients. It is hardly a state secret that these numbers are artificially suppressed. India has become a micro-containment zone, sequestered from the global community. This is our biggest humanitarian crisis post-1947 and we are failing the test. But who is accountable?
In calm waters, every ship has a great captain. But the litmus test is when the ship encounters storms and tumultuous waves. In March 2020, when India went into a sudden lockdown, I was among those who applauded PM Modi’s mesmerising ability to get a highly disorganised, fractious India to obediently adhere to his admonishments. Although perdition loomed large, we miraculously dodged doomsday. Following 98,000 cases in September 2020, we saw a continuous fall of cases even as the lockdown eased. India’s magic formula that blended the co-existence of lives-cum-livelihood had everyone foxed. We were deemed an outlier. In retrospect, it was just serendipity. But the government should have known better. Instead, an inexplicable complacency set in. At the Narendra Modi Stadium on February 24, 55,000 people, mostly mask-less, watched the inaugural test match between England and India. Gujarat today has burning pyres.
India miscalculated the falling numbers during the hiatus between October 2020 to February 2021. The BJP’s smug triumphalism was evident in its spokespersons talking of how “our honourable Prime Minister has through his enlightened leadership even thrashed the virus like no other”. Everyone nodded vigorously on cue and if anyone dared to suggest circumspection, they were promptly labelled chronic pessimists who wished to see India in the doldrums. Scientists’ warnings of a second wave were ignored. But cow urine was not working either.
There was a crucial difference; in 2020 it was the novel coronavirus. Literally. Everyone, therefore, backed the PM. Even the harried migrants forgave the government their miserable ordeal. But in 2021, we had the wherewithal to anticipate trouble. We didn’t. Instead, we approached it with sublime cockiness. India had foreknowledge of deadly second waves in Europe, America’s massive overconfidence in opening up the economy too soon had backfired, and the need for augmenting vaccine supply was compelling. The government wooed FDI but forgot to place orders for foreign vaccines because of the inward-looking 1970’s type economic philosophy — Atmanirbhar. Our foreign embassies were told to create a PR spin when the world saw asphyxiating patients beg for breath.
Despite boasting of a minimum government maximum governance slogan, an unusually risk-averse PM seemed predisposed to a communist-government model of centralised command and shoe-string budgeting. Fiscal prudence was not on the menu but the government still chose to be tight-fisted. From oxygen tanks, ICU beds, fully-functional ambulances, vaccine procurement and distribution strategy, medicine supplies, recruiting and training lakhs of healthcare professionals on a war footing, we missed the bus.
With the government giving itself a gold medal, do we blame the common man for dumping masks, shirking social distancing and avoiding elementary hygiene practices? The less said about super-spreader events such as the Kumbh Mela and the frenetic electioneering in five states since February-March, the better. Kher wants the opposition to back the government but ignores the latter’s reluctance to forge a national task force to tackle the once-in-a-lifetime crisis ( former PM Manmohan Singh’s recommendations were rudely trashed). He sadly brackets opposition parties as “political rejects”. Every elected opposition leader is also a people’s representative.
In a poignant scene in the classic film Saaransh, a heartbroken Anupam Kher, frustrated by bureaucratic cholesterol, goes from pillar to post for his deceased son’s ashes that must travel India’s cumbersome customs procedures. Kher is brilliant (he was just 29 years old) as a broken father, grieving helplessly. The audience wept with him. Today, perhaps Kher needs to tell himself that many fathers and sons are going through the same hellish nightmare. They are pleading not just for oxygen canisters, ICU beds, scarce remdesivir or precious ventilators, they are scrambling for crematorium space, to give dignity to their lost loves. Even a make-shift parking lot will do. It is wretched, this bottomless depth of human suffering. It is dehumanising. And it is for real.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 8, 2021 under the title ‘The buck stops where’. The writer is former National Spokesperson, Congress.