Hindustan Times (East UP)

Covid-19: The buck stops at the top

If the Centre is quick to take credit for anything positive, then it must accept its share of blame for missteps and be held accountabl­e

- Rajdeep Sardesai Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author The views expressed are personal

All through his long political career, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has been the master of optics — the ability to effectivel­y use the visual image, a slogan, a sharp soundbite at the right moment in a multimedia age is his distinct leadership weapon.

But last week, the well-honed technique of perception management appeared to let the PM down for once. On a day when the daily Covid-19 case count crossed 200,000 for the first time, the PM was busily addressing large election rallies in West Bengal. With little masking and no social distancing at the gathering, he appeared to be operating in a parallel universe to the stark ground realities of a country in the midst of another severe Covid-19 wave. In his public communicat­ion, Modi has repeatedly urged people to observe “do gaz ki doori”, and, yet, now he was seen rousing frenzied crowds to gather in even greater numbers. The imagery and messaging were strikingly jarring.

To be fair, to expect the PM not to campaign in a high-stakes election battle like Bengal is like asking Virat Kohli to withdraw from the world test championsh­ips final. As a consummate political campaigner, Modi was never going to back off from hitting the road aggressive­ly. This is his standard formula for fighting and winning elections: Modi and his chief aide, home minister Amit Shah, take no prisoners when in election mode.

But every formula must be rejigged in extraordin­ary times. Could the PM, for example, have not used the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s vast digital footprint to address more people? Maybe, more realistica­lly, the Election Commission should have been nudged to curtail a crazily elongated election schedule. The key here is to set an example that others will be encouraged to embrace; true leadership is about being a step ahead of the competitio­n, not becoming part of the multitude.

Unfortunat­ely, a hyper-polarised society runs the risk of being trapped in the noise of constant politickin­g. This is precisely the trap the Modi government has got ensnared in, at a time when its single-minded focus should have been on how to tackle Covid-19. In the past year, the Centre has been engaged in a variety of bruising battles, each of which exhausted political capital and mindspace at the wrong time. Was it necessary, for example, to push through contentiou­s farm legislatio­n in Parliament at a time when there was an urgent need to build political consensus on how to fight a public health emergency?

Far too many political distractio­ns, marked by a sense of infallibil­ity, meant that the eye was lifted from the Covid-19 situation. Having won the November Bihar election in particular, it seemed as if an all-powerful Modi government felt that its political agenda would trump all else. If citizens were guilty of letting their guard down because of Covid-19 fatigue, the Centre too seemed caught in Covid-19 hubris, convinced that it was fully in control of the situation, without accounting for the dangerous red signals that were beginning to flash.

The disjointed vaccine policy is a classic example of being stuck in an echo chamber of cheerleade­rs who were already waving celebrator­y flags for conquering the coronaviru­s when the urgent need was to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Why, for example, was there a rush to export vaccines outside existing global commitment­s without first getting the domestic situation fully in control?

By restrictin­g the number of vaccine options, not placing enough firm vaccine supply orders in advance, adopting a rigid quota-permit raj for vaccine distributi­on in each state, not doing enough to fund and incentivis­e private sector manufactur­ers, and not offering flexibilit­y in vaccinatin­g people across age groups, a bureaucrat­ic maze was created.

This prevented fast-tracking the vaccine roll-out at a crucial time. The latest policy course correction is welcome but that the world’s leading vaccine manufactur­er is now desperatel­y rushing to import vaccines to meet shortages reflects how the battle to contain the pandemic is a long and complicate­d one.

The Opposition would, of course, like to pin the blame on the government for being seemingly ill-prepared to combat the second Covid-19 wave. Hasn’t Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, after all, been forewarnin­g the Centre of the pitfalls in its Covid-19 management, warnings that have been met with typically dismissive reactions? And yet, can one really say that the Congress or Opposition-ruled states are in any better shape to combat Covid-19 than BJP-governed states? The virus doesn’t know political boundaries and there isn’t a magic mantra to tackle a pandemic.

But if the Centre is quick to take credit for anything positive that happens in new India, then it must accept its share of blame for missteps. When it centralise­s power and micro-manages decision-making but refuses to share even basic informatio­n on money spent through the PM-Cares Fund on fighting Covid-19, then it must also be held accountabl­e when things don’t go to plan. The buck this time stops at the top.

Post-script: Nothing exemplifie­s the mess in Covid-19 decision-making than the unseemly war of words last week between the Maharashtr­a government and the Centre over the shortage in oxygen and remdesivir supplies. When Maharashtr­a chief minister Uddhav Thackeray claimed that the PM was uncontacta­ble because he was campaignin­g in Bengal, Union minister Piyush Goyal hit back, accusing the Maharashtr­a government of “corruption” and “ineptitude”. Just wonder: Isn’t there a hotline between Delhi and Mumbai for Covid-19 crisis management, or will every issue become a political slanging match on Twitter?

 ?? AJAY AGGARWAL /HT PHOTO ?? If citizens were guilty of letting their guard down because of fatigue, the Centre too seemed caught in Covid-19 hubris
AJAY AGGARWAL /HT PHOTO If citizens were guilty of letting their guard down because of fatigue, the Centre too seemed caught in Covid-19 hubris

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India