Opposition politicians complain privately that because of the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an excuse to wriggle out of accountability for the declining economy since there is now a global financial crisis. Finance may not be Modi’s forte, but organisation, which a peeved L K Advani once described as “event management”, certainly is. Even some of Modi’s bitter political critics have appreciated the swift measures he put in place against coronavirus and the economic bailout package. Only time will tell whether Modi’s biggest gamble will pay off or the solution proves more lethal than the actual disease. In the present health crisis, Modi relies on a ministerial brains trust which includes S Jaishankar, Harsh Vardhan and Hardeep Singh Puri. In addition, most ministers have been assigned specific states to monitor.
Narendra Modi’s response to the COVID-19 threat was faster and bolder than both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s and US President Donald Trump’s. But there were loopholes in the policy meant to isolate India from the world. Initially, passengers from the US, UK, Japan and Saudi Arabia were exempted for diplomatic reasons and to accommodate OCIs, rather than as part of a comprehensive containment strategy. Most passengers returning from Europe simply took flights via London.
Cynics suspect that Parliament was not adjourned earlier because the BJP did not want the Madhya Pradesh Speaker to cite it as a precedent for not summoning the state Assembly for a vote of no-confidence against the Kamal Nath government. But an aspect that should not be forgotten is that Modi is a hard taskmaster who believes in pushing his people to the hilt and sets an example by leading from the front. When someone once congratulated a minister in Modi’s Cabinet for a cushy existence, he remarked wryly, “Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it may have been cushy, but Modi keeps you on your toes all the time.” During the present pandemic, when the Prime Minister received two complaints from returning passengers about the scanning at the Delhi airport being inadequate, he woke up all departments concerned in the middle of the night to examine the video footage from the surveillance cameras to see if there were any slip-ups.
Despite pleas from both Opposition and some BJP MPs that Parliament be adjourned in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi was initially adamant that House would continue till April 4, even though nearly half the Rajya Sabha MPs and a fifth of the Lok Sabha MPs, including Modi, are over 65 years and hence in the high-risk bracket. Rajya Sabha Chairperson Venkaiah Naidu did not permit TMC MP Derek O’Brien to wear a mask in the House and refused to let him demonstrate to MPs the correct method of washing hands to keep the virus at bay. Eventually, O’Brien and some other MPs had to perforce self-quarantine when news broke that fellow parliamentarian Dushyant Singh, with whom they had been in contact, was possibly infected. The birthday party of Adil Ahmed in Lucknow, where singer Kanika Kapoor who tested positive was present and which Dushyant Singh attended, generated ripples in both Delhi and Lucknow. Consequently, Parliament adjourned abruptly on March 23 after passing the Finance Bill without discussion. The empty benches suggested that despite a whip, nearly half the BJP MPs asked to be excused. Central Hall was deserted with even the media staying away. Since Uttar Pradesh Health Minister Jai Pratap Singh was also a guest at the Lucknow party, many UP ministers had to self-quarantine too.
Donald Trump pointedly refers to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus, and a few Chinese officials have retaliated with dark hints that there is a US military hand behind it. In fact, two years ago, China and the US had collaborated on a joint study on bats and viruses in Nagaland. The institutions associated with the project, which studied human bat hunters who carried antibodies to deadly viruses like Ebola, included Wuhan’s Institute of Virology, the US Department of Defence, which funded the project, and India’s National Centre for Biological Sciences. A newspaper reported that the Indian Council of Medical Research was kept in the dark and its permission was not sought before taking samples from bats and bat hunters and accepting foreign funding. Besides, Nagaland has no history of the Ebola disease. The research results were published in a journal in October last year. One of the writers of the research paper was Shi Zhengli, co-director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the first spokesperson for the Chinese when the COVID-19 outbreak was reported to the world. She is also among those named in a $20-trillion lawsuit filed by a Texas advocacy group against the Chinese for allegedly creating the COVID-19 pandemic.