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
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?