The moment of truth is here for PM Narendra Modi: Is he just a vote-catcher or can he also seize the moment? Is combativeness his forte or can he also forge a consensus? Is he just another politician or can he rise to be a statesman? The PM can no longer manage the Covid crisis from the backroom; he has to lead the charge against the pandemic, just as he does with poll campaigns. He has to come up with a dramatic gesture.
A country faced with the gravest crisis since Independence is looking up to its PM for deliverance. No human can perhaps do justice to the task but that should not stop Modi from showing that the PM cares. All the citizens expect from him is an acknowledgement of their pain and suffering, a human touch. Even symbolism will do but no one has seen the PM visit a single hospital nor has he shed a tear over the deaths of 2.2 lakh countrymen. Solace apart, the nation needs assurances on vaccines, livelihood and the future. It needs a father figure.
First and foremost, the PM first needs to shed his defensive mindset, some would say he should stop living in denial. There is no shame in accepting that we were unprepared for the tsunami of a second wave, that mistakes were made, that precious time was lost. Now, there is no time to waste. All is not lost. India is resilient, all it needs is a little reassurance, a healing touch. For that, the government should stop fudging figures; even conservative estimates show that the actual toll is thrice the official one of 2.2 lakh.
Yet, Haryana CM Khattar says there is no point in discussing death figures as the dead will not come back to life, while UP CM Adityanath had a man arrested for pleading for oxygen on Twitter, thus ‘spreading rumours’ and ‘defaming’ his government. When will the powers-that-be realise that there is a limit to hiding the truth; Union health minister Harsh Vardhan denies that there is a shortage of medical oxygen. No wonder the Supreme Court had to set up a 12-member task force for Covid response and to allocate oxygen all over India.
So far, the government only treated the media as an adversary, now it is treating the judiciary as one too. This mindset has to change; the very role of these institutions is to keep the legislature and executive in check. They serve to hold a mirror to the government and prevent any overreach by the executive. Refusing to hold press conferences, using a pliant media to tar critics and draconian laws to silence dissidents only alienates the intelligentsia. In the echo chamber that is left, one only hears, ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’. This leads to blunders like the PM proclaiming India’s victory over Covid in the World Economic Forum in January, which let complacency set in. Even The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and best-known medical journals, noted that the Modi government seemed more intent in removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic.
Coming to the opposition, it has hardly played its role. However, that hasn’t stopped the BJP from using every trick in the book to unseat non-BJP governments; buying MLAs, using law-enforcement agencies to hound its leaders, starving them of funds and even using the pandemic to embarrass them. For instance, Maharashtra was forthright about its Covid figures unlike many of the BJP-ruled states, which played them down. This was used as an excuse to send Central health teams to the state to flag off areas of concern, one of which was lack of Covid-appropriate behaviour. Now, high courts as well as the SC are lauding Maharashtra for the ‘Mumbai model’ while the Covid-inappropriate behaviour of the Central government was on full display at the Haridwar Kumbh.
The PM will now have to make an extraordinary effort to heal the Centre-state relationship before he can start Operation Covid. Competent ministers must be put in charge of health. A national action plan must be launched after taking all chief ministers on board. Only when there is a consensus on jurisdictions, roles and financial allocations can the fightback start in earnest. And what’s stopping us from constituting parliamentary select committees on vaccine production and distribution, on strengthening the public health system and on compensation for lost livelihoods. After all, this is not demonetisation or reverse migration that can be brazened out.
The writing is on the wall now. The Lancet, quoting The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, estimates that India will see a staggering ten lakh Covid deaths by August 1. Modi has to bite the bullet now. He must deliver on his promise to rid the country of ‘bhay, bhookh aur bhrashtachar’ and concentrate on building hospitals instead of temples. It’s time to act like Nehru and not Nero.