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Backstory | Vax-Maximisation and Media Exuberance: The Modi Govt’s Objectives

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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The media blitzkrieg launched to mark India having successfully administered a billion doses of anti-COVID-19 vaccinations to its population, with 73% of adults having had at least one shot, bore all the hallmarks of a successful advertising campaign. It had strong branding in the ubiquitous visage of the prime minister stamped large on every bit on information put out. It had copy that appeared credible even when as it bordered on the hyperbolic. It rode on a concern of national and international importance, the COVID-19 pandemic. It built a strong bridge with the public through the larger pledge of keeping India safe from the virus.

You could call this the second wave of media exuberance created around vaccine. The first wave launched on June 21 – Yoga Day – saw much figurative bursting of crackers as India trebled its vaccination rate overnight, with the daily inoculation touching a record of 90.86 lakh doses on the occasion. It is another matter that the numbers on the following day were far less sanguine, but let’s put that aside. For the billionth dose moment, monuments were lit up like Disney Land by the Archaeological Survey of India, and public announcement systems across the country delivered recorded messages announcing the milestone. It had Modi turning National Correspondent for various newspapers, writing front page reports about his achievement. In others he appeared as Opinion Page commentator, seriously analysing the lack of flaws in the entire vaccination drive. All this was finessed with the Prime Minister’s Address to the Nation, carried innumerable times across innumerable television channels (‘Narendra Modi Addresses the Nation, Lauds His Government’s COVID Vaccine Policy’, October 22) along with ads put out by chief ministers, especially those of poll-bound states, thanking the prime minister for giving the country its vaccines.

If all this furthered the impression that every jab was made possible because of the prime minister, it was entirely by design. One newspaper, while announcing on its front page an opinion piece on vaccinations written by Modi on another page, declared it in black and white. Its announcement read: ‘MADE IN INDIA, MADE BY INDIA’, followed by a third line: BY NARENDRA MODI. Inadvertent perhaps, apt certainly.

Also read: When Modi Celebrates 100 Crore Doses Mark, We Can Only Ask What He Wants To Forget

This framing of Modi as the chowkidar of the nation’s health and well-being is a familiar trope. In a sense, this was exactly what was sought to be conveyed through every one of those public hoarding that showed the aam janata, the ordinary folk, thanking Narendra Modi for free vaccines; this is what vaccine certificates bearing the prime minister’s image seek to do. What is buried in this avalanche of words and images is that India’s reputation as a “pharmacy to the world” far pre-dates this present regime as does its legacy of mass-immunisation programmes. After all, India won the battle against polio with the last case reported in January 2011, without the need for a multi-million rupee publicity drive or indeed the claim that the then prime minister was personally responsible for the achievement.

Also lost in the public relations’ verbiage is the scale: India with its billion shots trails far behind China, which has already administered 2.2 billion doses. In fact it is currently at the 101st place worldwide in terms of the percentage of people vaccinated, and if considered among the 12 countries with a population of over 100 million (for which data can be accessed), it is only makes it to the fifth slot. Few media entities even bothered to provide basic perspective (The Hindustan Times, from where I got the data I am citing, was a rare exception) on the day when common sense seemed drowned out in a tide of hyperbole. What were the inter-state and intra-state disparities in coverage like, for instance? Were there caste and community lags? What about gender? Surely these are valid lines of inquiry for any media establishment, even as they join in the general applause?

Few media houses bothered to recall the innumerable deaths of the second wave, neither was there any rewinding to the scams and scandals that came to be attached to India’s vaccine programme. One of them, incidentally, is currently roiling Brazil (‘Brazil Senate Report Indicting Jair Bolsonaro Dissects ‘Corrupt’ Covaxin Deal’, October 21).

But arguably the most conspicuous missing element in the reportage was the fact that we may have never reached the billion shots by the third week of October if the Supreme Court of India had not called out the “arbitrary and irrational” nature of the Modi government’s earlier vaccination policy, that arranged free jabs only for those over 45 years, health care workers and frontline workers, and left those in the 18-44 age group at the mercy of state government policies or the high rates charged by private hospitals. The apex court had also decried the elitist nature of access which was strictly through digital registration. It was at the court’s insistence that the Centre began to procure vaccines directly before allocating them to the states although Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to claim responsibility for the move through his television address of June 7. The latest prime ministerial TV address, too, had no mention of the apex court’s role and neither did the media hasten to point out this striking omission.

SpiceJet Airlines cover the outer part of their entire aircraft fleet with images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and healthcare workers, as India crossed the 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine dose milestone, at IGI Airport in New Delhi, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. Photo: PTI/Kamal Singh

So what could be the main drivers of the extraordinary media spectacle marking the billionth shot? The most important objective is to bury, once and for all, those bodies that surfaced from the Ganga’s shores, and leave behind extremely bitter memories of the second wave because of the complete abdication of responsibility demonstrated by the governments at the Centre and in several states, including Uttarakhand that staged the Kumbh Mela extravaganza amidst rising cases. In Brazil, an 11-member parliamentary commission of inquiry has just charged Jair Bolsanaro for having failed to control COVID-19 infections, which could damage his political career permanently. In India, partly because of a complicit media and a non-performing parliament, there have been no attempts at scrutiny of this kind or allocation of responsibility for all those unnecessary deaths.

The second objective is to further the Modi cult. The non-critical media is the foundation on which the government continues to build the towering persona of the prime minister in the minds of people. Among the images put out in the media to mark the one billionth shot moment was an extremely telling one of him laying his hand on the head of a health worker in a public hospital in Delhi – a saviour-like gesture if ever there was one. The latest ‘New India’ (over the years leaders of various stripes have envisaged a ‘New India), was introduced for the first time after the BJP won Uttar Pradesh in 2017 but has since then gained a wider geography in the perception war: An opposition-mukt New India is territory over which Modi can stride like a colossus. Unsurprisingly ‘New India’ figured yet again in his recent television address, when the prime minister observed that the country is “charting of a new history, a portrait of a New India that knows how to recognise and reach tough goals. It is a New India that works to reach the tough goals it wants to achieve.” For the BJP, which has ceded its own importance to that of the leader and is content to allow Modi to win elections for it, the larger the edifice, the greater the electoral benefits at a time when a key state like Uttar Pradesh, and smaller ones like Uttarakhand and Himachal, are headed for elections.

Objective three is all about securing international recognition. Bill Gates, although he likes his philanthropic veneer, is actually a gigantic player in the pandemic game, having cashed in on it several times over. When he writes an opinion piece in effusive prose on the billionth shot in a major Indian newspaper, taking care to lay the achievement at Modi’s feet, it translates into a significant international endorsement. In any case, the prime minister has lost no opportunity to do this himself. In Davos, earlier this year, there was his triumphant claim-making: ‘India did not allow itself to be demoralised. Rather India moved ahead with a proactive approach with public participation. We worked on strengthening the Covid specific health infrastructure, trained our human resources to tackle the pandemic and used technology massively for testing and tracking of the cases.”

A few weeks later, the second wave punctured many of these claims. In September, after the anxieties raised by the second wave had faded somewhat in public memory, there was the UN General Assembly address where once again the triumphalism was back, including the claim that India has developed “the world’s first DNA vaccine, which can be administered to anyone above the age of 12”. Never mind that this vaccine still lacks the necessary efficacy data – an important point to keep in mind at a time when the WHO has still not endorsed Covaxin for emergency use listing, and the US FDA has rejected it.

When it comes to vaccinations, or indeed any issue that impacts general health, a little more reticence and caution is always valuable – both in a government and in the media.

The Wire in their cross-hairs

The methods used to intimidate The Wire.in are varied and constant. Recently the science editor of this news portal pointed out how an individual in Thane has made a complaint of alleged copyright infringement. Such allegations in the normal course should have been addressed to the editor of the concerned section. Neither was this done, nor was a complaint sent to the ombudsperson of The Wire. Instead it was dispatched to the Amazon Web Services (AWS), which hosts The Wire websites. This clearly demonstrates that the intention of the letter writer was not to address the alleged problem but to undermine the institution itself (‘Invoking a DMCA Complaint: Is This a New Way to Harass Editors?’, October 16).

The Wire has also received a naked threat from an organisation that purports to “save” Hinduism, which has made the outrageous and completely fake charge that this cyber portal discriminates again “caste Hindus” and solicits applications only from “non-Hindus”. They want the policy (which exist only in the imagination of the writer of the mail) to be ended forthwith or else there are plans to make an “example” of The Wire.

Despite such constant intimidation, the organisation carries on. I am particularly happy to note that its series of exposés on Pegasus has received a great deal of international recognition. Most recently, the 17 media organisations that published stories on the spyware scam, which includes The Wire, were jointly awarded the Daphne Caruana Galazia Prize for Journalism for 2021 (October 14), one of the European Union’s most prestigious awards of its kind.

Unpacking Ajay Kumar Mishra ‘Teni’

Ever since Union minister of state for home affairs Ajay Mishra was catapulted to national attention thanks to the egregious activities of his son, the story about who exactly this individual is remained unwritten. The Wire too seems to have overlooked the possibilities of such an investigation. It needed the scrutiny of transparency activist to put out some scintillating details of the man (‘Who Was Ajay Mishra Before He Became a Legislator?’, October 18). The details are a comment on the amoral world of Uttar Pradesh politics, where money and the gun do all the talking – accompanied sometimes by killer SUVs.

Mishra has several notorious aspects adorning his bio-data. In fact, his notoriety was recognised as early as 1996, when the Tikonia (a nagar panchayat in Lakhimpur Kheri district) police station felt constrained to open a ‘history sheet’ on him. Four years later, he was making news again with regard to a murder, again in the same area. During the Uttar Pradesh assembly election of 2012, Mishra was evidently making himself useful to his political patrons, after which he was charged with five sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 147 (punishment for rioting), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 506 (criminal intimidation), and 452 (house-trespass after preparation for hurt, assault or wrongful restraint).

Also read: Explained: Here’s Why Modi Govt’s High Taxes on Fuel Don’t Just Affect 5% of India

The question is that how did such a person with such a transparently questionable record make it to the Modi cabinet during the ministerial reshuffle in July this year? Media commentators at that point had viewed the appointment as a move to expand the party’s appeal among its core voter base of Brahmins. But given Mishra’s extra-curricular activities, could it be that his rough and ready ways have come to be seen as a crucial asset for the BJP in its attempt to win Uttar Pradesh once again in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh election?

Readers write in…

Golden edifices

Ramana Murthy underlines a grave issue that largely remains uncovered in the media:  “Elected governments, both at the Centre and the state, are busy building grand temples. Following in the footsteps of the PM, the Telangana CM has just asked for contributions to meet the requirement of 125 Kg of gold for the tower of a temple his government is building, and he himself has volunteered to be the first donor by contributing 1 kg of  gold to the project. Where is the money coming from? Is it all the hard-earned earnings of these politicians? When people give away kilograms of gold, we know that it is mostly ill-gotten wealth. Now that he has put in his share, all his party bigwigs and other big shots have taken the cue and made similar offers. We know this could mean that the government will adopt a lenient stance on cases involving some of these players.

“No one, not even the media is questioning this. It is truly condemnable that at a time when people are suffering due to a lack of even basic amenities, these leaders are callously furthering their own self-aggrandising goals. It seems that in today’s India, elected governments can get away with anything.”

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We care about PM Cares

M.D. Rizwan from Gulbarga, who describes himself as a owner of a small stationery shop earning an income less than a daily wage labourer despite being a qualified mechanical engineer, writes a piquant note: “Going by current scenario no one knows – not the RBI, not the Union Finance Minister, not the CBI, in fact no one in India knows how much of the hard-earned money of Indians is being deposited in the PM Cares Fund. We request PM Modi to immediately name the bank in which this fund, which may well run into lakhs of crores, is deposited. We are living in a democracy, after all, not in the Mughal raj. This question that rages in the minds of 130 crore Indians must be answered. Jai Hind!

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2nd dropper preparing for JEE

Harshit Bansal, a 2nd dropper preparing for JEE, writes about a personal dilemma: “Greetings. I have been emailing literally hundreds of people, including politicians, political parties, student unions, the National Testing Agency, IITs conducting JEE Advanced, people working in the Education Ministry and AICTE, but have still not received a single reply from any one of them regarding the conducting of JEE Advanced for 2nd droppers in 2022. This has become a burning issue because COVID-19 gravely disturbed the education of all those who passed out in 2020 for two consecutive years, and our attempts have all been exhausted. Thousands of students are in the same quandary as I find myself in, yet no one seems to be bothered about this cohort of students. This is to request The Wire to give prominence to this vexed issue.

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Scripted story

Printinder Singh writes: “Thank you for your response to the Lakhimpur Kheri incidents (‘Have the Media Become Accessories to Covering up Murder?’, October 9). It was a thought provoking and wise article. The angle of the scripted story is mind blowing. Thank you for it.

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in