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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenth address to the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic came a day after the country marked the administration of 100 crore COVID-19 vaccine doses. Modi lauded his own government for ‘path-breaking’ efforts to help India reach the milestone, in what he believed was a reflection of “New India’s” determination and will to achieve tough targets.
What stood out in his speech was the emphasis on positivity, using which he asserted that not only the vaccination drive but even the economy is set to improve in the days to come, while urging people to use “Made in India” products during the festive season. At the same time, in his inimitable way of circumventing prevalent concerns about his government’s handling of the pandemic, Modi stressed that the 100-crore vaccination milestone was enough to silence all criticism.
In exhorting people to think optimistically, the prime minister posited himself again more as an elderly figure in a family than an elected leader with accountability. This is not the first time he has banked on the trope to enthuse people; in fact, each time criticism mounted against the government for its alleged administrative failures in handling crises, he has ditched the critics as those on a mission to be “pessimistic” about India’s future.
What is it that forces Prime Minister Modi to assume a saintly countenance every time critics expect him to give direct and concrete answers?
The events over the past two years partly answer the question. The pandemic exposed India’s ruinous public health infrastructure like never before, especially in the region where the Bharatiya Janata Party is in a dominant position. India has reported around 3.4 crore COVID-19 cases, second only to the US. With 4.52 lakh reported deaths, which many specialists believe is a gross underestimate, India is behind only the US and Brazil.
India’s vaccination rate has also been sluggish, to say the least. Only around 21.1% of the eligible population has received both the doses. Several countries, including those with a much-lower standing on health indices, have performed better than India.
The figures talk loudly about India’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, despite the prime minister speaking highly about the country’s improved health infrastructure. One would have to struggle to forget how thousands of people died owing to a shortage of oxygen and beds during the second wave earlier this year. So much was the economic burden on people without sufficient state support that India forced families to leave the dead floating in the country’s rivers. Those who lost their kin in the chaos of the second wave are still reeling under immense trauma, which the prime minister chose to ignore in his multiple messages to the nation.
And even as people are grappling with unprecedented anxieties, the BJP’s campaign has relied on taking the gaze away from such sufferings. In a visible attempt to absolve Prime Minister Modi of his responsibilities and accountability, the saffron party on the ground has been emphasising the universal nature of the pandemic, and taking the focus away from the government’s role. The BJP appears to have cracked a political formula, which is to maintain a stoic silence on pertinent concerns that could prove to be more effective than attempting to address people’s true concerns.
Perhaps that is why important issues like price rise of essential commodities, unemployment, closure of lakhs of industries over the last few years or the despondent visual of innumerable migrant workers walking back from cities to their villages thousands of kilometres away haven’t elicited a concrete response from the BJP top leaders – who, on other occasions, haven’t hesitated even for a moment to project the prime minister as the centripetal force in the Union government.
In the last two years, opposition parties have formally alleged that the Union government has discriminated against opposition-ruled states in providing essential health care equipment and vaccines. And even as states like Kerala, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh are constantly complaining of vaccine shortages, the prime minister proudly claimed to have distributed vaccines according to the needs of each state.
To top it all off, the Union government’s massive PR exercise and event management during the pandemic to deflect attention from such an inept response to the crisis has only clarified its intentions. The 100-crore milestone came nine months after the vaccination drive started in January. Through this period, the drive has been typified by a crawling pace, terribly inadequate manufacturing, supply bottlenecks, poor management of human resources, even the removal of former health minister Harsh Vardhan.
However, the Union government accused critics of fuelling vaccine hesitancy in its apparent attempt to push the ball in the opposition’s court. At the same time, the government has used the pandemic for Modi’s promotion, even as the international press regularly panned India’s handling. India may be the only country to have its prime minister’s image on vaccine certificates.
Obsession with event management
The BJP’s “Thank You Modi ji” campaign to highlight the Union government’s free vaccination campaign is being projected as the world’s largest drive, notwithstanding the fact that most vaccination campaigns in the past have always been on the government’s initiative. The “free vaccination” campaign itself is a myth because the Modi government also allowed the private health sector to administer vaccine doses on the pretext of widening the drive. As most know, private hospitals are charging people anywhere between Rs 800 to Rs 2000 for a single jab (and have regularly overcharged patients for COVID treatment). Only a few months ago, one struggled to find a free slot for vaccination on the Co-WIN app, while the private hospitals were flush with vaccines.
And despite the prime minister’s advocacy of using Indian products, the ‘Indian-made’ Covaxin has been administered to merely 10% of eligible adults because of its uneven production, while the Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s Covishield has been India’s go-to vaccine.
At the same time, the government’s obsession with event management had been so intense during the pandemic that different BJP-ruled states deliberately slowed the drive on some days to achieve the Union governments’s targets on one particular day. On Modi’s 71st birthday, for example, the country administered two crore doses, much to the government’s joy. But on days preceding and succeeding the occasion, the number of doses administered was significantly lower.
The government claims that it will complete the drive by the end of 2021, which would mean that it will have to administer more than 1.5 crore doses a day. But the average since the start of the drive has been around 36 lakh doses a day – which is also a truer reflection of the manufacturing capacity.
Such has been the government’s excitement in this time of gloom that new health minister Manukh Mandaviya on Thursday announced that his ministry would celebrate the 100-crore ‘breakthrough’ by launching a film and a song at New Delhi’s Red Fort.
But much of the credit for the massive vaccination drive should go to lakhs of frontline health workers who have worked ceaselessly, even with personal sacrifices, to inoculate India’s adults. Modi was in fact right when he said that lakhs of frontline health workers should be given their due. However, he didn’t point out that even all health workers haven’t yet been fully vaccinated in India.
The Modi government had promised to vaccinate 300 million frontline and healthcare workers by July 2021, while flagging off the vaccination drive on January 16, 2021. As of September 30, 99% of healthcare workers had received at least one dose and 85% had received both doses. These figures are likely to be lower if frontline workers, like the police and municipal workers, are included. No doubt 85% is a big number, but we are also three months past the deadline and the delta variant has accentuated the difference between one dose and two doses. So these figures only speak of a government that couldn’t plan properly and celebrates tautological events.
The challenges are only increasing, notwithstanding the Indian government’s insistence on celebrating milestones. Modi will need to amp up the vaccination rate many fold, although experts believe that would be nearly impossible at the given rate – both of vaccination and of production. While the government may pretend that everything is in good shape, even its more avid supporters will have to agree that the Modi government’s performance was below par.
Instead of focussing on efficient administration, the BJP governments at the Centre and in states have used the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) to crush dissent and silence critics. Over the last two years, the number of opposition party activists who have been detained, arrested or prevented from staging protests has reached historical highs. In most cases, the police have invoked the NDMA to forestall the opposition’s actions, while the BJP rank and file have been let loose in most cases. At the same time, the Modi government has encouraged unprecedented sycophancy among high-ranking bureaucrats, who miss no chance to give credit to the prime minister for every small achievement.
The growing authoritarian impulses of the Union government during the pandemic is apparent. However, its promptness to camouflage all such administrative concerns of Indian citizens with an ill-timed and imposing PR exercise has been more conspicuous. The saintly demeanour Prime Minister Modi has donned against such a critical backdrop makes him immune to rising concerns and queries. His speech on Friday morning was a telling reflection of that privilege.
(With inputs from Vasudevan Mukunth)