From the time I started writing this column nearly 35 years ago, I have tried to mix reportage with comment and analysis. Reporting became almost impossible in the past 18 months, especially after the ferocious second wave hit in April. I was trapped in a village on the Konkan coast and the Delta variant made its way into my village and other villages on this coast, so I was unable almost to leave the house at all. Last week, I managed after weeks to get to Mumbai and the first thing I did was to try and meet people in real life to find out how they had survived and what problems they now face.
A shopkeeper said that business was so bad that his expenses were more than his sales. A taxi driver said his daily earnings had halved and he worried about how he was going to support his family. A young man employed in the service sector said that he managed to work only 15 days in a month because his employers could not afford to pay him fully. He added that he was among the lucky ones because he knew so many who had lost their jobs.
For the first time since February, I managed to take a flight and when I got to Delhi, I continued my inquiries only to find deep anger among those who had got and survived Covid. This was because of what they said was the ‘criminal’ shortages of oxygen and hospital beds. One young man said both he and his mother got sick, so he had been forced to buy oxygen from ‘private sources’ because he was afraid that his mother would not survive without it. To all the people I interviewed, I asked one question: Who did they blame for what had happened? With one exception in Delhi, they said: Modi. The exception was a BJP supporter who blamed Arvind Kejriwal.
It is intriguing that recent polls give Narendra Modi higher approval ratings than any other leader in the world, but when you actually talk to ordinary Indians, they say that they no longer trust him. Many said that they had voted for him in both general elections because they believed him when he said that he would bring change and prosperity to India. Their faith that this will ever happen has died.
Is this the reason why BJP spokesmen and Modi devotees sound so hysterical these days? Last week a BJP spokeswoman ordered Rajdeep Sardesai on his own show to ‘not interrupt’ as she shrieked ‘India had now vaccinated more people than the entire population of the United States.’ He was ‘interrupting’ to point out to her that India has a population that is more than three times larger. It is not just BJP spokesmen who seem gripped by hysteria, it is also senior ministers. They seem not to realise that shouting frenziedly in defence of the Prime Minister makes their case worse, not better.
Modi himself appears to live on some higher plane like those rishis of yore. It is not just his new long hair and beard that give this impression, but his demeanor. Except that one time when his eyes welled up, he comes across now more like a religious leader than a Prime Minister. When he shares his thoughts in his monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’ it is more often these days to speak in sage-like tones of how mankind should find spiritual strength. If he came out of virtual reality into the real world, he may find that people are not hurting spiritually but mentally and physically. When things get as bad as they have been for the past three months there is little time for the pursuit of spiritual strength.
Instead of worrying about our spiritual wellbeing, the Prime Minister needs to worry about how his government can help people who have lost loved ones, their savings, their businesses and their jobs. Every time the Finance Minister pops up virtually, she announces grandiose sums of money that have supposedly been spent on helping those who have been devasted by the pandemic. But if she stepped into a real village she may find that most people have been forced to fend for themselves without any help from the government. In the cities there are at least hospitals, even if they are short of beds and oxygen. In the villages basic things are missing. When people have got sick in my Konkan village they have simply stayed at home until they got better because the nearest hospital is more than 20 kilometres away. Only those who stop being able to breathe get taken there.
Everyone I talked to last week said that they wanted to get vaccinated as soon as possible and some asked if I could help. The Prime Minister in his most recent ‘Mann ki Baat’ urged people to get vaccinated as if this was the simplest thing to do. It appears that in the Himalayan heights he now inhabits nobody has told him that many centres in Mumbai ran out of vaccines last week and had to close. And in Chhindwara, the rage of those who did not manage to get vaccinated was so great that they started throwing furniture around in the centre. We have the infrastructure to vaccinate 10 million a day. But, where are the vaccines?
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 4, 2021 under the title ‘Governance needed urgently’.