There was an interesting conversation with a senior political leader early this week, which began with the possible outcome of state elections and then moved on to the pandemic raging across the country with people dropping dead like birds in the scorching summer. In the seven years that this government has been in power, it weathered many crises, most of them inflicted on people by way of unsound decisions. But this time, as the politician put it, the government/party is neither able to create a narrative nor build optics to counter the backlash.
There is, however, a fundamental problem in the way the Narendra Modi government is being hauled over the coals for its disastrous handling of the Covid second wave and that flows out of the expectations from this regime. Even assuming that this is a direct offshoot of the “cult culture” assiduously built over the years, to ignore the “collective responsibility” of such sections that have chosen to back the government without a whimper reflects only a partial understanding of the issue.
Not long ago, in January 2021, this government bragged to world leaders that India had set a shining example on how to beat the virus. People believed it. A month later, the BJP was effusive in its praise of Modi’s leadership in dealing with the pandemic’s first wave. We kept our faith in the resolution passed at the BJP meeting than on reality. A couple of weeks later, the health minister, who should have resigned a dozen times in the last one year, declared, “We are at the endgame of the corona crisis.”
There were counter-warnings during the same period but none paid attention. As early as in February, Mr Rahul Gandhi (lampooned by rival BJP as ‘Pappu’) cautioned that the threat from the virus was very much alive and urged the government to devise an action plan. But why should anyone listen to him? He knows nothing, was the collective disdain. Virologists and other experts, too, sounded alarm bells. Every country in the world faced second, third and even fourth waves and India cannot escape, they said. But we went ahead with the Kumbh Mela and elections. On a day when the country recorded over 2.5 lakh cases, we gloated over the “biggest ever rallies in Bengal”.
The narrative was pushed — cases are not going up in Bengal or Uttarakhand despite rallies and the Kumbh. Once both states started witnessing a rapid rise in cases, that spin was dropped. Instead, what are we told now? The second wave was expected, not the ‘tsunami’. Who converted what could have been a second wave but a manageable one into an unmanageable tsunami leading to mass cremations? If only we were cautious instead of getting busy with just the Didi hatao campaign in Bengal; if only the Centre and the states had worked as a team and marshalled all possible resources learning from last year’s experiences; if only we had placed orders for vaccines when other countries did. If only….the list is endless.
As for optics, all one gets to see are pictures of long queues of ambulances, burning pyres at crematoria and patients with oxygen kits waiting outside hospitals for admission endlessly. Valiant attempts are still being made to protect the carefully crafted image, but the facade is peeling off, layer by layer. The Centre sanctioned 162 oxygen plants last year itself but the states/hospitals blocked them was one excuse. The “best managed state” in the country — Uttar Pradesh — had been granted 14 such plants but only one was installed. Who is to blame? All we are doing now is file FIRs against people who complain or plead on social media for oxygen. Yes, corporate hospitals should have built their own captive oxygen plants. Having taken over the health sector since the pandemic struck, who and what stopped the Centre from issuing such a directive or insisting that states do it? For a government that digs archaic Acts to slap cases against dissenters, this would have been an easy task.
All these questions would have still meant nothing if the rants came from ‘usual suspects’ who could have been branded anti-nationals. But they are now coming from the middle and upper middle classes, the core constituency of the BJP. They believed demonetisation was indeed meant to rob the rich (we no longer read about how cash in circulation continues to go up) even as we ridiculed the best brains who bemoaned that it is the poor who get hurt by such measures. They believed that for all the ills plaguing this country, the one and only reason is the existence of minorities — recall the onslaught against the Tablighi Jamaat last year.
For a section that always expects and received thus far all the privileges that a state accords (irrespective of the party) and perennially rues that but for reservations, they would have been somewhere else in the social and economic order, this wave has come as a rude shock. Gated communities are engulfed, the high and mighty — judges, bureaucrats, journalists and MPs — are unable to access beds or oxygen. The middle class suddenly has this sense of hurt, a feeling of being left orphaned/abandoned even as their savings are getting exhausted rapidly with hospitals jacking up the prices and every medicine/instrument sold two-three times the MRP.
We didn’t care when thousands of migrants walked hundreds of kilometres last year to reach their homes in the face of an instant lockdown, nor were we shocked when the government’s legal luminaries told the Supreme Court there was no evidence of such a situation. But when the same legal eagles tell the courts now “don’t be a crybaby”, we are horrified. Because the virus has now reached our doorstep, the cool confines from which we have been operating for a year. We are not used to begging for beds, oxygen or medicines.
Our “Atmanirbharta” is no longer strong. Offensive as it may sound, it took a crisis of this magnitude to shake everyone out of the slumber and realise we are basically living in an unequal society and successive governments have abandoned the two most important duties assigned to them — health and education. As long as only the poor were denied health and education, we didn’t care. Now, it is being denied to us as well, which is why we are no longer amused by tweets by BJP supporters that 3,000-plus deaths a day is negligible for a country of our size. This is what happens when citizens are reduced to mere statistics, when everyone knows for a fact that the deaths are at least 3-5X the official records, going by the sheer load at crematoria and long waiting periods.
Democracy is not just about winning elections. If only the mainstream media (which I am a part of), the judiciary and other institutions accountable to people (not government) did their duty by holding up the mirror, we may not have come to this situation and the ruling dispensations, too, would have done a better job, correcting course whenever they went wrong. As a colleague said, we have come to a stage where we “cast our votes and count the dead”. There are too many nights when you go to bed with a feeling that “there is blood on our hands”.
Editor, The New Indian Express