White House advisor Dr Anthony Fauci, an internationally recognised authority on Covid-19, told a US senate panel earlier this month, “The reason that India is in such dire straits now is that they had an original surge and made the incorrect assumption that they were finished with it, and what happened, they opened up prematurely and wound up having a surge right now that we are all very well aware of is extremely devastating.” He added, “One of the important things is don’t ever underestimate the situation.” Dr Fauci expressed his opinion in measured words. But what was the government of India doing until then? In mid-January, India launched its vaccination drive against Covid. On January 22, the Prime Minister said, “On the world’s biggest need today, we are completely self-reliant. Not just that, India is also helping out many countries with vaccines.” On January 28, Modi told the World Economic Forum that India would assist other countries with vaccines. He added that India had saved the world by defeating Covid. The BJP office-bearers described his leadership as ‘visionary’ in a meeting on February 21. The government of India instructed its representative at the UN to tell the world that we were not only vaccinating our own people but had exported our vaccines to 70 countries. He said in fact, we had exported more vaccines to other countries than we had used for our own people. We took pride in the fact that India was the pharmacy of the world and our self-sufficiency was never in doubt.
Now that the vaccine drive has collapsed, and people in India are criticising the exports, the government and BJP spokespersons are bending over backwards to claim that the bulk of exports were made under licensing agreements, and there was no option except to export these quantities. These are typical BJP tactics: tails I win and head you lose. So, when it suits them, they will take credit for helping the world as a Vishwa Guru, and cite international legal obligations when it does not. The arrest of activists in Delhi for putting up posters against the PM’s decision to export vaccines represents the diminishing space for questioning the government. The Prime Minister lapped up the undeserved praise. Did he say then, as is being claimed now, that the exports were on account of legal agreements? Boasting and celebrating too soon is part of the Modi DNA.
Today, Covid is raging all over the country. In Yogi’s Uttar Pradesh, there is no dignity even in death; dead bodies are being thrown in the Ganga; Yogi’s famed administrative skills, like those of the Prime Minister and Home Minister, have been exposed like never before. Everyone agrees that the antidote to the virus, apart from masking and physical distancing, is the vaccine. The PM has made his singular contribution to this effort by promptly putting his photograph on the vaccination certificate. The carefully-nurtured image of the Prime Minister as a tough, no-nonsense person with a 56″-chest, which he himself claimed he possessed, has been fully exposed in this crisis because it was nothing but bombast. The Home Minister, equally artificially propped up, has been equally exposed. After the miserable defeat of the party in West Bengal, he seems to have vanished from the scene. The general feeling is that India today is a country without a government. The Indian media, still reeling under fear, has been muted so far, but the foreign media has gone hammer and tongs for the government hammer. Modi’s international image, cultivated so carefully, is in tatters. I feel diminished as an Indian when I find the country’s Prime Minister under such vicious attack abroad.
Modi seems to be losing the social media war too. Earlier, when I issued tweets critical of the Prime Minister, I was abused left, right and centre by the ‘bhakts’. Now, there are many more likes than abuses. The tide is turning. There is a saying that those who live by the sword die by the sword. In this case, the apt saying should be that those who live by untruths in social media are finished when truth overtakes falsehood.
But my concern is not Prime Minister Modi. People like him will come and go. My concern is the suffering of the people of this country. So, what is the way out? Today, we have an elected government supposedly under a strong Prime Minister, but he has been found wanting. Can an enterprising Chief Minister take the lead, call a meeting of like-minded Chief Ministers and chart out a course of action to tackle the pandemic? The states should not depend on the government of India even for funds and spend from their own treasury. The bureaucracy in the states must also rise to the occasion. I know the bureaucracy has been compromised, demoralised and reduced in stature. But this is a historic opportunity for the bureaucracy to show its mettle. What is needed now is to ensure that Collectors play their role effectively. They must be made directly responsible for the state of affairs in their districts. The elected representatives must also be kept in the loop.
Ultimately, the need of the hour is truth and honesty. We cannot expect that from the government of India which is wedded to untruth. But all of us must do our bit to save the country and its people.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004). He is currently vice-president, Trinamool Congress.
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