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Backstory | A Question the Media Seldom Asks: Does the PM Care?

A fortnightly column by The Wire's public editor.

In March last year, as the COVID-19 clouds gathered, the acronym loving political establishment came up with a new relief fund which bypassed the existing Prime Minister’s Relief Fund that had been functioning since 1948. The new fund had a lengthy title – Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund – which conveniently folded into the acronym ‘PM CARES’. It was meant to suggest that not just any prime minister, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically cares for you, me and every Indian. By implication, anything adverse that happens to us will pain the prime minister directly. You could call it part of the old compact inherent in a line that inevitably emerges in Modi’s election speeches: “every vote you cast will reach me directly”, seedhe, seedhe.

But the question that the “mainstream” media forgot to ask when PM CARES was presented as something of a guarantee against the ravages of COVID-19 was this: Does the PM really care? Today, as cremation pyres light up the night sky, and people are left gasping for oxygen outside hospital portals, this question raises its head. As ugly statements are voiced by those in power (‘Nine Things BJP Leaders Said Recently About the Pandemic – But Shouldn’t Have’, April 17); as institutional functioning comes to be marked by a lack of accountability (‘Behind the Disastrous Response to the Pandemic Lies a Majoritarian Mindset’, April 22); and a government allows a super-spreader event that could have easily been held next year without breaking any religious requirement (‘Kumbh 2021: Astrology, Mortality and the Indifference to Life of Leaders and Stars’, April 20), the question becomes even more urgent.

Yet many sections within the “mainstream” media are still not interested in it. They would rather have you disbelieve the evidence of on the ground, or even that marshalled by more independent-minded media (‘System Has Collapsed’: Global Media Minces No Words on India’s COVID Crisis’, April 22), and frame it as yet another attempt to tarnish India.

Family members of COVID-19 patients wait outside an oxygen-filling centre to refill their empty cylinders, New Delhi, April 23, 2021. Photo: PTI

Anand Narasimhan, presenting a programme for CNN-IBN titled, “Anti-India Lobbies Hijacking Narrative?” (The Right Stand, April 22), for instance, suggests a dark plot by anti-India interests and the usual suspects with “deep Pakistan links”. Such a highfalutin thesis cannot but excite curiosity about its originator: Narasimhan is a representative, you could say, of new India’s new journalists, where personal ambition meets proprietorial interests in mutually beneficial arrangements. Narasimhan began 15 years ago as a sports commentator with ESPN before graduating to the Times Now school of journalism as a senior editor with that channel. In 2018, he emerged fully prepped and aggressively poised to take on the world as deputy executive editor of the Ambani vehicle, CNN-IBN, with a show that is unabashedly establishmentarian and rightwing and sold to the viewer as having broken away from “clichéd formats”.

But to go back to the main question: Does the PM really care? The story of India’s vaccination quest may be one of the ways to arrive at a conclusion. In his televised address to the country last May, Modi had sounded the clarion call of Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India). The COVID-19 vaccine was to be one of the examples of such self-reliance. By July came news of a letter from the director-general of ICMR, Dr Balram Bhargava, to 12 institutions chosen for clinical trials for an indigenous vaccine to be produced by Bharat Biotech, stating that, “It is envisaged to launch the vaccine for public health use latest by 15 August 2020 after completion of all clinical trials.”

Today, we realise what a complex business producing a safe and efficacious vaccine is, and how foolhardy was that quest to link a finished vaccine with a commemoration day, but it is entirely of a piece with the event-driven, nationalism-centred, personalised politics of the prime minister. Independence Day arrived, and the vaccine unsurprisingly was not ready for clinical trials, but the prime minister in his address from Red Fort assured the country that our scientists were hard at work and that three Indian vaccines were in different testing stages, which the country will produce in “large numbers” so that vaccinations “will reach every Indian in the shortest possible time.”

It was soon time to adopt the vaccine narrative to win the Bihar elections. In November, the BJP’s election manifesto released by Modi’s trusted aide Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, promised that once the vaccine is approved by ICMR, every Bihari will get vaccinated free of cost, a promise that has just been renewed for election-bound Bengal (‘A Day After TMC, BJP Promises Free Vaccines in Bengal ‘as Soon as’ It Comes to Power’, April 23). So a vaccine that served nationalist interest was repurposed for political dividends. By February 2021, the perception was allowed to gain ground that India had not only conquered the virus but was, true to its role as the pharmacy of the world, delivering vaccines to countries desperately needing them through its Vaccine Maitri programme. Vaccines now came to serve foreign policy objectives and Modi was hailed by grateful world leaders as a true hero and “first responder”.

It was not long before reality caught up with India’s vaccination drive, whether in terms of the secrecy that accompanied the drug approval process (‘India Approves Two Vaccine Candidates, But Let’s Not Pretend Everything Is Okay’, January 2); the lags in genome sequencing to track new variants of the virus (‘India Sequenced Less Than 1% of Total COVID-19 Samples in Nearly 3 Months’, March 30); serious shortages in a country of 1.3 billion (‘How the Modi Government Overestimated India’s Capacity to Make COVID Vaccines’, April 23); or exploitative pricing (‘Everything You Wanted to Know About the Price of Vaccines in India’, April 23), even as cases and deaths surged as never before.

What is conspicuous is that all three purposes – vaccine nationalism, electoral gains or foreign policy dividends – that were sought to be achieved by the vaccination drive centre-staged the prime minister, just as it was his face that graced the certificates people received after getting their shots. So does the PM care? The “mainstream” media mavens may not be interested in the answer, but it is staring them in the face.

Representative image.

How the groves of academe shrank…

Over the last two decades, and especially in the past seven years, there has been systematic denudation of our educational, educational, and media resources, expedited largely through state-sanctioned censorship and policymaking. Collective memory is a fragile thing and we tend to forget past assaults as we engage in new struggles to retain intellectual independence – such as the ongoing one against the Information Technology (Intermediate Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (‘RTI Reply Busts Centre’s Claim that ‘Elaborate Public Consultations’ Preceded IT Rules‘, April 17) with its cynical design to strangle the independence of digital media. How easy it is to give up on constitutionally guaranteed rights of free expression, how difficult to hang on to them!

These were some of the thoughts that went through my mind when I read ‘Six Tables that Tell the Story of Academic Unfreedom in India’ (April 18) based on a submission made by two academics to the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Focused on how our campuses have shrunk under a retributive and controlling state, its tabular form makes for an easy read and quick connect.

It set off a train of memories. I still remember the shocking manner in which H.S. Sabarwal, a professor at Madhav College, Ujjain, which was holding student elections, was set upon by ABVP goons in 2007 and collapsed almost in real-time on live television, ultimately succumbing to his heart attack the next day.

The tables capture incidents that served as intimations of future storms. The arrest of a student artist of MS University Baroda in May 2007, because his work shown at a department exhibition was deemed to have been “derogatory” of Vishnu, Durga and Jesus Christ”, was an early example from the Gujarat of chief minister Narendra Modi on how things would pan out in the India of Prime Minister Modi.

Some of these developments continue to be referenced in conversations, as for instance the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, or Perumal Murugan’s public declaration of his death as a writer in a Facebook post soon after he was forced to withdraw his book Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman). Others are consigned to the siding track of public memory. It is hardly recalled that Vivek Kumar, after he gave his lecture on ‘Baba Saheb Ke Sapno Ka Bhartiya Samaj (Babasaheb’s vision of Indian society)’, was termed an “anti-national”, a couple of months before the term was given wider airing when JNU’s Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid and others were so labelled.

Perumal Murugan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Sreejithkoiloth CC BY-SA 4.0

The courage of academics to defy the system also comes through. When Snehsata Manav and Manoj Kumar of the English department of the Central University of Haryana staged Mahasweta Devi’s powerful play, Draupadi, army men were mobilised from surrounding villages to file police complaints. The two academics faced censure by the university authorities but emerged as rare exemplars of intellectual courage in an unlikely setting.

There is also fairly good documentation in these tables on how the doors to foreign scholarship came to be increasingly slammed shut, whether this was reflected in the resignation of George Yeo as chancellor of Nalanda University or through the denial of visas to scholars from countries across the world, including Pakistan.

All in all, this is a valuable public record indeed.

§

Last year, a lot of the mail that came in referenced the pandemic. The trend died down as 2020 progressed. Now, the subject is back as an area of prime concern for readers of The Wire

Polls and the pandemic

Subhajit Basu, a resident of Hooghly, West Bengal, writes: “The Wire is one of the few portals which try to speak truth to power. Since this pandemic will last for a long time, it is important to have dedicated sections devoted to it on all media platforms.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the country’s tallest elected leader, and he is expected to lead by example and adhere to COVID-19 protocols at this time. Sadly, the second wave of this virus is a direct consequence of the lack of foresight, mismanagement of essential supplies, flawed vaccination and export policy, and the deliberate disregard of public safety norms of this government.

“Our prime minister holds vast sway over the minds of his devotees. This was evident when the Mahant of Juna Akhara called off their participation in the Kumbh following the PM’s rather late symbolic appeal to control an obvious ultra super-spreading event. If such an appeal was made by other political leaders they would immediately have been branded by the devotees as anti-Hindu or anti-nationals.

“Yet the PM and his ministers are still campaigning in West Bengal and elsewhere by brazenly violating every possible corona-virus public safety norm. Is this not a deliberate criminal action, with the full complicity of the Election Commission of India? Does this not literally force the other opposition parties to follow the irresponsible example of the PM and keep breaking safety protocols to compete with him electorally? Does this not set a bad example for common public who every day sees how the PM has total disregard for COVID protocols?

“When the average person is fined for failing to wear a mask, why should the PM not be similarly checked for endangering public safety? In middle of a ravaging pandemic we expect our PM to emerge as a statesman. Most unfortunately, our prime minister has failed the test.”

Chinindru Srinivasan writes in: “Despite the phenomenal rise of COVID-19 cases, the Government of India and its Union home minister Amit Shah seems to living in a world of their own. As a former stock broker, Shah cannot allow his investments in ousting the TMC in West Bengal go to waste. So for him, votes are more precious than the lives of people being brought to his meetings.

“Whether Shah admits it or not, the facts and figures cannot be ignored. By some connivance, it would appear, the ECI for the first time held polls over eight days in West Bengal to make it convenient for BJP leaders to traverse the country from the south to the east during a raging pandemic! The country is paying the price for BJP’s greed for power. PM Modi’s absences from Delhi, caused by his election campaigns, resulted in the pandemic assuming grave proportions. There was a failure in the management of vaccines; there were shortages of hospital beds and even oxygen, causing widespread human misery… To take one instance, the Serum Institute of India had requested a sum of Rs 3,000 crore to expand its capacity several months ago but was ignored. Now, Rs 4500 crore have been hastily sanctioned to vaccine manufacturers but they will need at least three months to match supply with demand.”

Union home minister Amit Shah campaigns at Krishnanagar in Nadia of West Bengal on April 16. Photo: PTI

Testing times

Saurabh Kumar, came up with a video for us: “I was at the Charak Palika Hospital in Moti Bagh, Delhi, at about 8 am recently. There were only about 200 people in front of me and 300 behind me. The counter of registration opened at about 9 am and it took a total of three hours to get a registration slip. After that, we all waited eagerly for our chance to get tested. At first, the notice board read that both RT-PCR and antigen option were available. But just after we reached the testing queue, RT-PCR testing was stopped. At 3 pm, we were asked to come the next day. A chaotic situation developed with crowds rushing into the tent to get the test. Social distance soon became a joke and the tent was full of patients, some infected with the virus. I am attaching a link to the YouTube playlist for a video of the action.

Weekend lockdowns

A student of Punjab Engineering College (PEC) writes in: “This is a cry for help. On April 20, the Chandigarh UT issued notifications on weekend lockdowns. However, Punjab Engineering College has issued orders to all inmates to vacate the hostel in less than 48 hours, making it extremely difficult for students from out of town to make alternative arrangements at such short notice. We have approached officials on the issue but there have been no results so far.  Asked about fees reimbursement for the hostel accommodation not availed of, they chose to ignore the issue, saying, ‘Don’t bring up such cheap matters.’ I request you on behalf of all the affected students here to highlight this issue and expose the true face of college officials who adopt extremely inhumane measures.”

Dangerous for journalists

Kunāl Majumder, India Correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists: “I am writing to share with you my ground report on the state of press freedom in India’s largest state – Uttar Pradesh. In the last one year, there have been over a dozen police cases against journalists. The trend is particularly alarming as the COVID-19 pandemic makes the flow of news and information critical to citizens’ health and economic survival. And while journalists say some violations have come at the hands of police and other authorities, others have emerged from organised crime – including the river-sand mafia.”

His report can be found here.

‘Love jihad’ in Dakshina Kannada and Udipi

Reader Suresh Bhat writes: “I have just read your report, ‘Karnataka Rightwing Activists Beat, Stab Man for Travelling With Woman of Another Community’ (April 2). The records tell me that there has been an alarming increase in the number of such cases this year. The first quarter has already seen around 13 incidents of moral policing. I know this because I have been keeping track of all types of communal incidents in the twin districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi from 2010 onwards.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in.