His Master's Spin: As Modi Faces Covid Surge Heat, Media's New Villains are Farmers, Babus

Farmers have been protesting at Delhi's borders for months now. Why would this create sudden delays in a time of crisis?

New Delhi: As Delhi’s hospitals were making desperate calls for oxygen and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal handling of the COVID-19 crisis came under sharp scrutiny, the ruling party’s spokespersons and government-aligned media found new scapegoats this week.

On Tuesday evening, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that some hospitals were left with “just a few hours of oxygen”. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia posted a list of hospitals with the number of hours left for their oxygen supply to run out.

In his letter to commerce minister Piyush Goyal, Kejriwal alleged that the output of a major oxygen supplier to Delhi hospitals, Inox Air Products, has been “diverted” to other states. “At this critical juncture, it will not be possible for hospitals to enter into the contractual arrangements with the new suppliers who have now been assigned to Delhi. The disruption is already starting to cause critical shortage across major hospitals,” he wrote on April 19.

The fact that Delhi’s private hospitals themselves took to social media and also approached the high court for help on the oxygen front made it clear that this was not some political battle between the Aam Aadmi Party, which rules Delhi, and the BJP, which controls the Centre.

The oxygen shortage was a sharp pointer to ordinary Indians that something was seriously amiss in the Centre’s handling of the fast-spiralling crisis. If they had missed the earlier warnings signs – the failure to cancel the Kumbh Mela and the enormous election rallies in West Bengal and elsewhere – the fact that hospitals in the national capital were literally gasping for breath triggered widespread anger against Narendra Modi and his government.

As if on cue, the Times group’s English language news channel, Times Now, led the charge in the opposite direction. Its primetime show had the hashtag “KisanCovidAndHypocrisy”, claiming that the opposition was hypocritical for not objecting to the farmers’ protest, as the former had slammed the BJP for not just allowing but also encouraging the Kumbh Mela.

A senior News18 journalist, citing “government sources”, posted a tweet that “an Oxygen firm” had mentioned delays at the border due to “order blockade by farmers”.

By Tuesday night, pro-establishment website OpIndia had published an article claiming that it had accessed a letter from Inox Air products to the Central government. The letter from Inox Air products reportedly stated that vehicles carrying oxygen were having to “travel an additional distance of 100 kms from their unit in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh to reach hospitals in Delhi due to the farmer protests” at Singhu and Ghazipur border.

On Wednesday morning, TV channels like ABP and News 18 Hindi alleged that the farmers’ protest was the reason for the oxygen delay. ABP News’ morning show had a segment titled “Farmers protest behind insufficient supply of oxygen in Delhi?

A TV news anchor claimed that she had “spoken to one oxygen supplier in Delhi”, who told her that they got “all possible support” from the government, but faced highway blockades that increased the supply route’s length by two hours.

By noon, BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya had tweeted a clip from News 18 India. His target was the farmers’ protest and Delhi chief minister Kejriwal.

A couple of hours later, news agency ANI tweeted a video received from the Delhi police. It showed police motorcycles escorting a tanker emblazoned on the sides with the words, “Inox Air Products”.

The tweet was posted with the text that the Alipur police station “facilitated the movement of Oxygen tanker from Singhu Border, which was stuck at Kundli Border today”.

Around that time, Republic was also broadcasting news about the purported INOX Air Products letter “accessed” by the channel.

The news channel’s anchor said that it was “shocking” that “20,000” farmers were moving towards the Tikri border, when “oxygen supply companies are saying that they are having to travel 100 kilometres additionally”. He also claimed to have the letter from INOX air products in his hand and then put Malviya on air.

According to Inox Air Products’ website, it has three facilities in Uttar Pradesh. There was no clarity from the news channel’s video clip on how the congregation at Tikri would have delayed the supply, since it lies at the border between Delhi and Haryana.

CNN-News 18 published a report by late Wednesday afternoon with the headline, “Covid Sparks Fresh Debate on Farmers’ Stir at Delhi Borders, Protesters Say Won’t Return”.

It quoted the BJP’s member of parliament from Delhi, Meenakshi Lekhi, as asking whether the “farmers would be happy if people died in hospitals because oxygen got delayed?” She also claimed that the courts should pass an order to “send them back given how the second wave is raging”.

The report claimed that the debate was ignited after “government officials said” that a major oxygen supplier asked for a “green corridor” for trucks headed to Delhi from their unit in Uttar Pradesh. “When approached by News18, the supplier did not offer a comment officially,” it noted.

This article was further tweeted and shared by several social media activists aligned with the ruling party.

The farmers’ protests at Singhu and Ghazipur borders have been going on since November 2020. As far as it is known, Delhi hospitals were receiving their share of the oxygen supply from Uttar Pradesh without any hitch in all these months.

While the demand has gone up exponentially, it is not clear how the delay can be attributed to the farmers’ protests only in the last few days – if there was indeed a roadblock, the issue should have been ongoing for the last five months.

In fact, the media had even reported earlier how protesting farmers had made way for ambulances to pass unhindered.

None of the reports carried visuals of the trucks getting stuck at the border due to the protests. Neither did the news channels point out that the barricades at the border were put up by the security forces, not the farmers.

A short video interview with one of the drivers of the tankers, posted on Twitter, stated that due to the Ghazipur border protests, it took five hours to travel to Delhi from Modinagar. He added that due to the police escort, the time taken was just two hours. This was despite the farmers’ protests continuing at the border.

Delhi BJP spokesperson Gaurav Goel reiterated the allegation on Wednesday evening that Kejriwal was responsible for prolonging the farmers’ protests “at Tikri border” by providing them with food supplies. “Now the major Oxygen supplier has said that it takes 2 hours more to supply Oxygen coz of protest,” he tweeted.

There were further discussions on this same subject on the news channels on Wednesday evening.

The shortage of oxygen had become apparent from Sunday when Kejriwal took to Twitter to claim that Delhi’s quota had been “diverted to other states”.

The Delhi high court had on April 19 directed the oxygen supplier, Inox, to immediately implement its contract with Delhi government hospitals and restore the supply of 140 metric tonnes.

A day later, the high court issued a contempt notice to Inox for not complying with its earlier order on restoring oxygen supply. Delhi government’s senior advocate, Rahul Mehra, said that Inox had claimed that a “possible law and order situation may be created” if oxygen was transported from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi.

At a late-night hearing on an urgent appeal by Max hospitals on April 21, Mehra submitted that there were “obstructions caused at Delhi-Haryana border for the movement of oxygen tankers to Delhi”.

The Indian Express reported on the inter-state conflict between Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where they were accusing each other of having “looted” their oxygen tankers.

It reported that several hospitals in Delhi had claimed that Linde India limited, which supplies oxygen from Faridabad, has been stopped by the Haryana government from sending its tankers outside the state.

On Thursday, the managing director of Apollo hospitals, Sangita Reddy, tweeted that an oxygen tanker was not being allowed inside the IOCL plant in Panipat by Haryana police.

Thirteen minutes later, she updated her followers that the driver had been let inside. She also wrote that oxygen tankers should be designated as ambulances and their movement enabled through a ‘green corridor’.

A few hours later, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order notifying free inter-state movement of medical oxygen. The order also stated that there will no restrictions imposed on oxygen suppliers to limit their supplies only to the state or union territory in which they are located.

Firewalling Modi by blaming bureaucrats

Besides farmers, there is another group that is also facing flak from the government. The Print had reported, citing unidentified government sources, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pulled up his top bureaucrats at a meeting last Saturday.

“Government sources privy to what transpired at the meeting said an “upset” Modi told the senior officials how their efforts this time around has not been up to the mark,” said the report.

The meeting was apparently attended by cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba, principal secretary to the prime minister P.K. Mishra, home secretary Ajay Bhalla, health secretary Rajesh Bhushan, pharma secretary S. Aparna and NITI Aayog member Dr V.K. Paul.

It further stated that the prime minister told the officials that “experience gained from handling the Covid pandemic situation last year, they should have been better prepared this time around”.

But commentators on social media were not buying this spin. “Journalists spreading that pathetic narrative about Modi being ‘angry at bureaucrats’ – you do realise he’s still doing rallies in Bengal tomorrow? His right hand man is already doing rallies today,” tweeted Vakasha Sachdev, legal editor of The Quint.

The investigative reporter Rohini Singh made the point that Modi’s style of governance is such that he cannot now be allowed to blame others:

Instructions leaked

A third attempt to spin the Covid narrative away from any blaming of the Modi government died a quick death on Wednesday with a copy of what purports to be instructions sent by unknown persons to friendly editors getting leaked on social media:

Sone channels attempted to steer the national discussion in this direction on Wednesday night before realising the provenance of the ‘debate’ had already been outed.