New Delhi: A former minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Arun Shourie has been a sharp critic of Narendra Modi’s rule over the past seven years. In this interview with The Wire, he turns his attention to the COVID-19 disaster that has struck India. Explained away by the government’s supporters as a failure of the “system”, Shourie says Modi cannot evade personal responsibility for what he calls his “criminal dereliction”.
The Wire: India is reporting more new COVID-19 cases in a day than the rest of the world combined and single-handedly accounts for nearly a third of all COVID-19 deaths worldwide, and that’s going by the official count, which is widely regarded as an underestimate. How would you describe the present situation in the country?
Arun Shourie: Arundhati Roy has used the correct expression: ‘a crime against humanity.’
TW: The word ‘crime’ suggests that someone has committed it. But the establishment narrative today, and this is echoed by a major section of the national media, is that the catastrophe around us is not the doing of any one person or group of people. It is the ‘system’ that is responsible.
AS: And who is responsible for the ‘system’? Poor Pandit Nehru again? The British? Better still, the Mughals?
Is the problem that the ‘system’ has bequeathed a CBI to us, an Enforcement Directorate, an Income Tax Department? Or that they are being put to perverse use today?
Think about Gujarat for a moment. Is it doing any better than the rest of the country? In the number of patients dying for lack of oxygen? In the number of fires in hospitals? And how long has the BJP been in power in the state? For how many years was the ‘system’ of Gujarat in the hands of the prime minister?
It is not the ‘system’. The failure is not ‘systemic’, another buzz word today. It is the systematic perversion of the system which is responsible.
TW: Who in your eyes is responsible for systematically perverting the system?
AS: The rulers, of course. When there is patent fraud in elections – when the BJP conducts a manifestly communal campaign, when the schedule is stretched to seven rounds – is the cause that the Constitution lays down that there shall be an Election Commission? Or the perverse way in which those who man the Commission discharge their duties? When the Supreme Court shuts its eyes to the patent fraud of electoral bonds, is it the ‘system’ which provides for a Supreme Court responsible? Or chief justices and judges who decide?
And not just those who are sitting in the Election Commission and the courts. But the ones who put them there, and who by various devices make sure that these nominees hand down the decisions that suit the convenience of those who put them there.
When you look at the condition of institutions today, it is the present rulers who are responsible for stuffing them with spineless yes men – and that means the prime minister for no one else matters.
TW: I take your point but the Election Commission and the Supreme Court are many steps removed from the current crisis – of COVID-19, of oxygen not being available, of the second wave not having been anticipated, of the vaccination rollout being no better than the GST rollout. What about the current breakdown?
AS: Who chose as health minister someone who will willingly proclaim that the ‘endgame’ against the coronavirus has begun? Who says that there is no shortage of oxygen even as people are dying gasping for it? Who stands before the media and launches a drug of Ramdev’s, saying that it has ‘WHO certification’? Who chooses the minister who tells the states to ‘manage the demand for oxygen better’ – as if what they must do is to have the dying inhale less oxygen?
But it isn’t just a helpless health minister or that other minister. Recall what the prime minister himself told the World Economic Forum in February – that India had vanquished COVID-19 and was now saving the world.
Who has stuffed key positions in the civil service with spineless yes-men?
TW: Some people are saying one should not blame Prime Minister Modi for what his sycophants say and do.
AS: Make no mistake, the one who chooses, carefully chooses the person who, when called upon to do so, proclaims the chooser to be the vishwa guru (as Harshvardhan proclaimed Modi to be) or ‘God’s gift to India’ (as Venkaiah Naidu proclaimed him to be).
Recall the resolution that the BJP’s national body passed hailing the prime minister’s unparalleled, visionary leadership which had conquered COVID-19 and made India the saviour of the world. Does anyone believe that there even is a BJP today independent of the PM? To say nothing of a BJP that will on its own conceive of, much less be able to draft a resolution? Does anyone think that Harshvardhan can draft that vulgar and stupid reply to Dr Manmohan Singh’s suggestions?
Is the president responsible for changing the name of the stadium from Sardar Patel to Narendra Modi? There is ‘The Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act’ of 1950. The name of, say, the prime minister just cannot be used for any organisation or building or event except by his permission in writing or that of the ‘designated officer’.
TW: Of course, Modi is responsible for the choice of such persons in key posts, but–
AS: But his responsibility goes even beyond that! Did any of these frightened mice decree that you must hold massive rallies? Has the ‘system’ commanded, has one of these frightened mice commanded that you spend scarce resources, not on vaccinations and oxygen plants but on vanity projects – a plane for yourself, a new house, a new Raj Path? Rs 25,000 crore on these projects – not counting the Rs 3,500 crore on that statue cast in China?
TW: Do you then believe, as Ramachandra Guha has said in a recent interview with The Wire, that the current catastrophe is a direct result of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘style of governance’? Can we expect him to change this –given, say, the results in Bengal, etc.?
AS: To expect anything like that would be foolish in the extreme. The current ‘style of governance’ is not something that you can change by shuffling boxes on an organisation chart. It flows from his nature. The literature on heads of government, of companies, etc., speaks of the Dark Triad. It has three elements.
First, narcissism. One aspect of this is evident from the name itself: the person is in love with herself or himself, he thinks himself as ever so attractive. This was grossly evident in Trump. Here you see it in the suit with that embroidery to the stadium to his photograph on the vaccination packs. But there is also a second aspect. Deep down the narcissist knows he isn’t what he has made himself out to be. And so he is a very nervous, insecure person. He is constantly grooming, and re-grooming himself. For the same reason, he is nervous of expertise. He compulsively surrounds himself with mediocre persons. He seals himself within an echo chamber. And you get what you call ‘the system of governance’ – of second-rate persons choosing third persons ad infinitum, causing chaos.
Insecure, he must reassure himself every day that he is still beautiful, that he is still strong, that others still fear him. He makes them defend the indefensible: demonetisation yesterday, his mishandling of the pandemic today. If they were merely defending that which was right, that wouldn’t prove to him that he still has undisputed power. It is only when they proclaim demonetisation to be such a master stroke; it is only when they hail the calamitous steps in the current crisis as ‘visionary leadership’ that the fact that they are afraid of him, that he is powerful is proven to him.
For the same reason, he spits at his colleagues, at the people. ‘What did you say, that people are dying? That I should not build a new house for myself at such a time? Yes, they are dying, and I will build a new house even as they are dying. What can you do?’
TW: And the second feature?
AS: The second feature of the Dark Triad is Machiavellianism. Such persons take an instrumental view of everyone, of every occasion. The one thought in their minds as they encounter a person or event is, ‘What use can I make of this person/event/catastrophe?’ See how even such a catastrophic crisis is put to use to push their agenda. Recall the contrasting ways in which they dealt with the gathering at the Nizamuddin Markaz and the recent one at Kumbh. Look at the way in which the PM Cares Fund is sought to be legitimised today by doling out bits and pieces from it. Look at the way blame is being pushed on to the states and the breakdown is being used to further centralise power. The Centre announces, ‘All above 18 can get the vaccine.’ As there are no stocks, ‘We decided that all of you shall have the vaccine, the states are not implementing the decision. And so, we are forced to take matters in our own hands…’
Words are also devices to be put to use. They have no sanctity. Truth is not some absolute. You say what is convenient, you put out the jumla that is convenient at that moment. That you sold tea at a railway station – so what if the station was not there at the time? That you got a degree – so what if it was in a subject which has never existed? So what if it was printed when degrees used to be written out by hand? So what if it was printed in a font that did not exist till years later? That you walked up to a height of 25,000 feet…
This is that much easier if you have been weaned in a culture, an organisation in which myths are minted into facts. That we had rockets and aeroplanes thousands of years ago, that we had plastic surgery, that we had in-vitro fertilisation… Then it comes perfectly easy on the lips to proclaim when doing so is convenient that Alexander came up to Bihar and that it is Bihari valour which sent him galloping back to central Asia. You can say such things with ease and also when it is convenient to do so hail Gandhiji for whom ‘Truth is God’!
Such persons cannot just proclaim but genuinely believe one day that we have we have conquered COVID-19 and that too solely by our own efforts, that we have become atmanirbhar. And the next day believe that the fact that forty countries have sent us aid to get us out of a ditch marks the success of Indian diplomacy.
TW: You said there are three elements. If Narcissism and Machiavellianism are the first two, what is the third aspect of this ‘Dark Triad’?
AS: The third feature is sociopathy. The essential element of this is remorselessness. The slightest trace of remorse for the migrant workers last time? In the scores and scores of speeches made in the last four months, a word of sympathy for the many who were dying for lack of oxygen? And we should not fool ourselves into thinking that there is only one sociopath in this lot. It is their culture. Look at what the minister from Haryana said when he was confronted with the fact that scenes at the cremation grounds showed that the official figures of those dying of COVID-19 are gross underestimates. He said, ‘There is no point in discussing the issue, the dead are not coming back in any case.’
TW: We know from history that a leader with these traits also believes he has done no wrong.
AS: That’s right. Do you know how such a person sleeps at night? Soundly! For he has convinced himself that everything he is doing is for a Higher Cause. Ordinary persons like us are shaken by the burning pyres, and are revolted by the gross suppression of the number of those dying. But he is having this done to ‘keep the morale of the people from sinking.’
And thinking this way, thinking ‘positively’ becomes second-nature to him. Yes, there is a catastrophe. But look at the other side. Is anyone talking about the areas in Ladakh that the Chinese have refused to vacate? Is anyone talking about the Farmers’ Agitation? This is the way forward: ‘We must spread positivity,’ says Dattatreya Hosbale, the presumptive next head of the RSS.
TW: Where does this end?
AS: In the end, such a leader has to go the whole hog. Just as one lie necessitates a host of other lies, one authoritarian step compels the next ones.
TW: The picture you paint is bleak, what should the people be doing as citizens in response?
AS: First and foremost, we must own our responsibility. Naseeruddin Shah, the great actor, has put it very well: Sawaal yeh naheen hai ki basteeyaan jalaayeen kisney, he says, sawal hai ki uske ke haath mein machis kisney dee… Why did we give a matchbox to an arsonist?
Second, remember the criminal dereliction this time – the dereliction that has already killed, on official estimates alone, 2.5 lakh persons. Remember the lies. And remember that these are not accidental. Both spring from their genes. Document the dereliction, write down the lies so that all may recognise them that much sooner the next time round.
Third, watch with a hawk’s eye the ways in which they are using, and will keep using even this catastrophe to advance their own agenda. For instance, for even greater centralisation of power. To puncture this, get the facts out to the world: [i] They yearn for legitimacy – from those who are not their captives, from other than the bhakt-kambakhts; [ii] Their incompetence will force them to turn for help abroad again and again. Hence, persuade the world not to help unconditionally. Persuade other countries to look beyond commercial opportunities that countries like India and China offer.
Fourth, don’t be fooled by the rulers’ propaganda that they are doing this, that and the other. The fact is that the Government has abdicated. Save yourselves: masks, social distancing, vaccination, helping each other. The great example that has been set by nurses and doctors, by Gurdwaras, by volunteers across the country – let that be our beacon.
Fifth, and most important: just as this crisis, like every other one, has brought out the best in some, it has shown up the worst latent in the rest of us: the adulteration of medicines, the black marketing, the bribes that are being extorted for a bed, for Oxygen, for cremation… This awful disgraceful greed is as visible as the burning corpses. And we call ourselves the land of the Buddha and Gandhi. Even as we straighten the rulers, let us purge ourselves of this greed, let us expose and punish the greedy and the inhuman among us.