Former BJP president and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s suggestion to a fellow minister on a public platform about how to ramp up production of vaccines revealed a disturbing truth about this regime: that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has almost cut his cables with senior leaders of the BJP who could contribute meaningfully to governance and strategy-making. That the Cabinet system has been seriously undermined and the Prime Minister’s Office is the sole engine of this government is an open secret.
While differences within the Cabinet stalling decisions have become an impossibility now, even such monumental initiatives like demonetisation weren’t discussed with ministers. Not even the top ministers of defence and external affairs were aware that the Prime Minister would announce the purchase of Rafale fighter jets during his visit to France in 2015. That’s Modi’s style of functioning.
But a tragedy of such gigantic proportions, where the lives of millions of Indians are at stake, called for a collective effort, without any requirement for secrecy that other decisions might have entailed. A senior minister like Gadkari asking another minister to convey to the Prime Minister that all manufacturing units should be utilised to enhance vaccine production – that too at such a late stage – at an unofficial function, betrays signs of a dysfunctional system.
Wasn’t this vital issue discussed at any Cabinet meeting over the last one year? Not even after former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested the invocation of compulsory licensing, the same thing that Gadkari proposed? Did the core group of the government not discuss the joint letter sent by opposition leaders which included this demand on vaccine production? Or the public perception that Gadkari, much like another senior leader, Rajnath Singh, is not part of Modi’s inner coterie which decides on critical issues is indeed correct?
The public perception about Gadkari’s status was strengthened when Modi chose a much junior Nirmala Sitharaman to look after the ministry of finance. Now with this unseemly episode, there is little doubt that the Council of Ministers is not driven by unity of purpose. The fact that Gadkari was soon made to retract or clarify his statement confirms that the Prime Minister did not approve of his uncalled-for intervention.
This is not a desirable state of affairs, as the nation is required to summon all its resources – intellectual, administrative and financial – to fight this health scourge. While the Prime Minister could have done well by picking the brains of veterans in the opposition camp, the best minds within the party and the government should have been involved in strategy-making. After all, there has been a failure in anticipating the enormity of the Covid-19 second wave and drawing up an effective response to deal with the crisis when it had already gripped the nation. At such a critical time, even a faint indication of deficient intent is tragic.
There are explicit manifestations of disquiet among BJP legislators and leaders in Uttar Pradesh. Many of them wrote letters, registering their disapproval of administrative malfunction. The mild censure from RSS veteran Ram Madhav also gave a glimpse of unease within the Sangh Parivar. Ram Madhav wrote: “Initially, the Government looked like ‘a deer in the headlights’, as one commentator put it. But it has come out of that and is engaged full throttle in handling the challenge. A little more transparency, a little more engagement with the public by the political leadership and a little more openness to constructive criticism and enlightened expert opinion from outside the government would further help the Government’s efforts. After all, the lives of millions of people are at stake.”
This understatement manifests the unease within the RSS-BJP. If the spread of the virus in rural India is frightening, what has been laid bare by, perhaps, an aggrieved Ganga – thousands of bodies strewn all over the sand – was reminiscent of those unimaginable, apocalyptic scenarios. No diversionary trick or propaganda blitz can hide the multitude of sins.
Ganga, the greatest symbol of India’s culture and tradition, has given the defining visual of this pandemic. The visuals have hurt national pride. The RSS-BJP, which claims to identify with India’s cultural heritage and nationalist sentiment, cannot afford to live with these macabre images. It needs an exceptional effort to obliterate these images from the nation’s collective memory. It can’t be done by blaming the opposition for silly toolkits or remaining in denial. The Prime Minister needs to wipe the slate clean and begin anew, by deploying all the resources and ideas at his command.