Updated: August 15, 2021 9:52:41 am
Before writing this piece, I went on a short tour of what is derided by Modi’s devotees as ‘Lootyens’ Delhi. I wandered into Vijay Chowk and then the streets that surround the seat of Indian political power. There were barricades everywhere. Not just to protect Parliament and the offices of the Prime Minister and important ministries, but to ensure that nobody takes a stroll between Vijay Chowk and India Gate. The Central Vista is being redeveloped with the secrecy of a military project.
Other than the barricades, what struck me was the profusion of posters thanking Narendra Modi. They were outside government offices, on bus stands, petrol pumps and on street corners. They thanked Modi for ‘free’ vaccines, free food grain and other freebies. Some had Yogi Adityanath lurking behind Modi’s shoulder. These thanked Yogi for creating ‘400,000 government jobs’. This blitzkrieg of self-promotion is on a scale I have never seen before. So, I found myself asking why and concluded that it was to erase from public memory the grave mistakes made by Modi and Yogi in the handling of Covid’s second wave. It has been a bad year for both, but in Modi’s case the worst of the seven years that he has been Prime Minister.
It began badly. In January he declared victory over the virus and said in his address to the World Economic Forum that other countries should learn from India how to deal with Covid. Then he and Amit Shah went off to ‘win’ West Bengal. At about the exact time news came that they had lost this election, in which they had invested so much political capital, personal prestige and money, what became evident was that the Government of India had not prepared at all for the second wave.
Modi has been charged with many things, but this was the first time he faced charges of serious incompetence. For at least 10 days India seemed to be on autopilot, and this was when the second wave was at its peak. Those images of desperate people begging for hospital beds, medicines and oxygen are hard to forget. The images of bodies buried in shallow graves by the Ganga and of pyres burning day and night even harder to forget. Then came the worst news of all. The Government of India’s vaccination task force had failed to order enough vaccine doses and had been so over-confident that their vaccination strategy was right that they exported doses Indians needed. Why? So that we can pretend to compete with our old enemy China?
We cannot compete. But our high officials have learned from that totalitarian country how narratives can be changed by fudging facts and figures. As soon as the second Covid wave began to wane, the Prime Minister personally took charge of changing the narrative. He went to Uttar Pradesh and praised Yogi Adityanath for controlling Covid better than any other chief minister and for launching the fastest vaccination drive. Not true. Yogi still refuses to accept that his government undercounted Covid victims or that vaccinations are moving too slowly.
A new narrative is that the economy is doing well and that not a single Indian is going to bed hungry. The truth is that so many millions of Indians have lost their jobs that a worrisome wave of extreme poverty is becoming visible in rural India. Families with middle class aspirations have been pushed back into poverty. Millions of small businesses have closed, and smalltime entrepreneurs now do menial jobs to survive.
Things are not much better at the top of the pyramid. The Prime Minister declared last week that the retroactive tax was being abolished to rectify a mistake made in the past. It was a terrible mistake, and it is good that it has finally been rectified. But there are other taxes that need to be made simpler and tax departments that need to get the message that businessmen should not be treated as criminals. There is a bankruptcy law that needs to be implemented with the aim of saving companies and jobs instead of celebrating the collapse of major enterprises.
Other bad things have happened since August 15 last year. Gangs of Hindutva thugs wearing saffron scarves have been so emboldened that they declared last week within shouting distance of Parliament that Muslims will be cut to pieces. They have not been charged with sedition. And a video went viral on social media of Hindutva thugs beating a Muslim man as his little daughter clung to him begging for him to be spared. It was too horrible to watch.
On Independence Day the Prime Minister stands on the ramparts of the Red Fort and gives us an account of what his government has achieved since August 15 last year. My deadline necessarily precedes this morning’s address, but if he can list some achievements, it will make the country feel a little less despondent. What will not help at all is if he continues trying to change the narrative in the hope that public memory is short and that the average Indian always believes the Prime Minister. Modi has lost so much prestige that posters saying ‘Dhanyavaad Modi’ will make no difference. What will make a difference is real improvement in the economy and the speed at which we are vaccinating India. And a serious effort to stop Hindutva hate crimes.