The Political Theatre of Harsh Vardhan v. Baba Ramdev

Compare Vardhan's letter to Ramdev to his letter on April 20 to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Last week, Baba Ramdev made offensive remarks against allopathic medicine, calling it stupid and alleging that more people had died from taking such medicines than due to COVID-19. On Sunday, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan sent a letter to Ramdev asking him to withdraw his comments. On Monday morning, news reports suggested Ramdev had done so.

Compare Vardhan’s letter on Sunday to Ramdev to his letter on April 20 to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. A day earlier, Singh had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggesting that the Centre give the states more flexibility to locally adapt the vaccination programme and share the vaccine purchase orders the Centre signed with the manufacturers.

In response, Vardhan lashed out, accusing Singh’s Congress party of “fuelling vaccine hesitancy”, spreading fake news and the states in which it was in power of being the biggest contributors to India’s second wave. It was a mad diatribe with no basis in fact or sense, designed for Vardhan to curry favour with his own party, and the prime minister, instead of taking the opportunity to respond directly to Singh’s suggestions.

In contrast, Vardhan’s letter to Ramdev – whose remarks were as destructive as Singh’s were constructive – is cajoling. Here’s a translation by NDTV (the original is in Hindi):

“The people of the country are very hurt with your remark on allopathic medicines. I have already told you about this feeling over phone. Doctors and health workers are like gods for the people of the country for whom they are fighting against the coronavirus risking their lives.

You have not only insulted Corona warriors, but have hurt the feelings of the people of the country. Your clarification yesterday is not enough to make up for it… I hope you will think hard on it and withdraw your statements completely.”

A former prime minister and one of India’s greatest economists was met with obstinate whataboutery whereas an unscrupulous businessman in cahoots with the national party and with no regard for the morals of public healthcare is coaxed gently into withdrawing his remarks, as if the minister is wary of tripping the wrong wire. This is political theatre pure and simple.

In a government apparatus that has never, in the last half-decade of its rule, done anything without the express permission of its prime minister, it’s not likely that Vardhan or Ramdev have violated this rule now. The big flip side of totally centralised power is that the buck never moves past the same person.

Ramdev was set up to say something offensive and Vardhan was set up to push back in a display of understated authority, but authority nonetheless – to signal to the party’s followers that the government, despite so many expressions in India, the US and Europe to the contrary, is in charge and is looking out for the interests of healthcare workers (who show up in Vardhan’s letter as “Corona warriors”).

Now that the project has accomplished its goals, the Supreme Leader and his office has allowed Ramdev to withdraw without consequence into his corporate offices and for Vardhan to bask in his ‘victory’.

But numerous healthcare workers have been offended by Ramdev’s remarks, many of them on Twitter, and so has the Indian Medical Association. Vardhan has in fact endorsed the farce that was Coronil, made by Ramdev’s company and marketed as a “cure for COVID-19”. And he didn’t speak up against an older video in which Ramdev is heard calling people desperately seeking oxygen cylinders for their loved ones hospitalised with COVID-19 “fools”.

And what of Vardhan’s advocacy of drugs and therapies based on cow excreta, many of which Ramdev’s company purports to sell? These are substances and methods that we know have no therapeutic value, but are priced well enough to drain precious financial resources and time.

Is the minister really looking out for anyone here apart from the party followers?

This is the right question to ask.

This article was originally published on the author’s blog and has been edited for clarity and style.