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Shooting the Messenger

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By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

A few days ago the UK daily The Guardian commented on the plight of the people suffering in India while fighting the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic and blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the sorry state of affairs. On May 11 a website of The Daily Guardian published an article praising Modi for his untiring efforts in successfully tackling the crisis. The article titled ‘PM Modi has been working hard; don’t get trapped in the opposition’s barbs,’ was tweeted and re-tweeted by several union minsters and BJP leaders. Readers were baffled at the turnaround by The Guardian apparently backtracking from its critical position. However, it didn’t take long to unearth the story behind the article. It was not a follow- up piece by The Guardian but originated from a website that bears resemblance to the UK publication. It was written by Sudesh Verma, convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and former journalist with the NewsX Channel. A similar eulogy of Prime Minister Modi appeared in The Australian, another media channel run by a rightist group in Australia. The twitterati were quick to react to it and called it a BJP’s toolkit for propaganda and a desperate bid to salvage the image of their supremo which was consistently attracting bad press. Publications such as The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The London Times and Le Monde have been harshly criticising our Prime Minister. ‘Modi leads India out of lockdown and into a Covid apocalypse,’ declared a recent headline in the Sunday Times.’ The Australian newspaper reproduced the story with its scathing denunciation: ‘Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions, critics say, as India’s crowd-loving PM basks while citizens literally suffocate.’ The reference was to an election rally in Bengal addressed by the Prime Minster where he could barely hide how elated he felt at the massive turnout of people who had gathered to listen to him. All caution to observe corona protocol was of course thrown to the wind.

To some extent the Western media, given its inherent anti-orient bias, can be blamed for its negative reporting on India, an offshoot of a tendency to valorise the West at the cost of demeaning the rest of the world. The Eurocentric view has not altogether disappeared. However, if the Western perception corresponds with the ground realities in India one should hardly complain. In fact more and more voices from within India are questioning the constant image building exercise of Modi. If someone like Anupam Kher, the BJP leaning celebrity star and a known Modi admirer, turns a sceptic there must be seriously wrong with the way the BJP ecosystem is working.

The magnitude of the pandemic crisis in India, especially since the onset of the second wave, has put enormous strain on the system. Spiralling cases and deaths across the country have silenced the PM’s cheerleaders and diehard admirers. This is probably for the first time since the meteoric rise of Modi to the centre stage of Indian political scene that he has been on the receiving end of people’s ire.

The tragedy brought about by the Coronavirus has engulfed the entire humanity. But India has failed to effectively meet the challenge. The callousness is evident at every level. There has been not enough preparedness despite warnings from health experts and opposition leaders. In April the BJP government in Uttarakhand wilfully took the risk to allow Kumbh Mela with much fanfare giving full page advertisements in daily newspapers inviting aspiring pilgrims to come to Haridwar for the event and earn spiritual merit. The Kumbha Mela, the embodiment of Hindu faith, has been celebrated for centuries. But holding it in the midst of a raging pandemic is to put precious lives at risk. It cannot be considered as an act of religiosity. It was not even an act of piety since it was conceived and carried out in bad faith by the state government with an eye on the forthcoming assembly elections early next year. The idea was to reap electoral dividends which, nonetheless, has proved to be a miscalculation. Instead of placating the Hindu sentiments the BJP played with the faith of the people making them vulnerable to avoidable hardships, with little regard for their safety and health. Predictably, the gatherings in Haridwar proved to be super spreading events. Hundreds of health workers, police personnel, pilgrims and mahants of several akharas lost their lives to the virus infection.

In January, Modi proudly declared at the virtual Conference of the World Economic Forum that under him the country had ‘not only solved our problems [pandemic crisis] but also helped the world fight the pandemic.’ Within a fortnight in mid-February, BJP national leaders met in Delhi and adopted a resolution hailing Modi’s leadership for ‘defeating’ Covid-19. Modi was credited with giving ‘able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership.’ While the real issues of concern were lost in the din, the focus shifted to rhetoric and credit-seeking gimmicks. The premature triumphalism ignored the fact that the country was ill- prepared to face the impending crises, the successive waves of a pandemic being a well-known fact.

Now that the Covid crisis delivers a severe blow to brand Modi, his criticism both from foreign and domestic sources is not likely to go away. If anything, it will only get more stringent. Ruchir Joshi, writer and columnist, in a recent piece published in The Telegraph, even makes a case that Modi and Shah should go, detailing how the duo had blundered on all fronts. Alas, as mass deaths, gloom and devastation engulf India, the carefully cultivated image of India as ‘Vishwaguru; has been blown into smithereens. From our vaunted role as instructor and giver, revelling in our ‘Atmanirbharata,’ we have become supplicants to global generosity.

What is needed at this juncture is to acccept our shortcomings and do course correction subjecting our conduct to rational scrutiny. But rationalism is in short supply in contemporary India. Irrationality and superstition rule the roost. A case in point is Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan pulling up representatives of several ministries over the delay in approving and funding research projects ‘that aim to validate the uniqueness of indigenous cows and its products under an inter-ministerial funding programme’. As the world struggles to find a cure to the Covid virus a BJP legislator in Assam left the state assembly aghast by saying that the remedy may be ‘gaumutra’ and ‘gobar.’ The Chief Minister of Uttarakhant Tirth Singh Rawat made the fantastic claim that taking a dip in the holy Ganga at the Kumbh Mela cures the Coronavirus. Two union ministers even acted as marketing representatives for Baba Ramdev for his product coronil. He is on record declaiming recently that he could not understand why there was such hue and cry about oxygen cylinders when we are already equipped with two naturally powerful oxygen cylinders- our two nostrils. Now in a tweet Health Minister Harsh Vardhan recommends dark chocolate with 70 percent cocoa content to beat Covid-19 related stress, undeterred even as the experts ask ‘where is the proof?’ One is reminded of the folklore about Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France during the French Revolution, who when being told that her starving peasants had no bread responded by saying ‘Let them eat cake.’

The Nehruvian era was marked by insistence on cultivating scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry, but since Nehru’s name is an anathema to the present dispensation everything associated with him must be discarded – a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathtub. Those who interpret myths and fables as history and science are made to head prime institutions, even as research projects are funded to establish beliefs and customs as science.

There are multiple lessons that this pandemic has taught India. One is that we urgently need to learn to respect our scientists, doctors, scholars and anyone who contributes to the proliferation of rational thinking.

As Modi entered the national political arena in 2014 he began to be feted by his worshippers who hailed him as a Messiah setting aside the scruples of those who were attached to secularism, human rights and economic justice. Modi exuded super confidence in his carefully crafted image of a leader heading to his own tryst with destiny. Modi and Shah armed themselves with weapons of investigative agencies and pliable media to disarm their opponents. The Machiavellian strategy worked for them. But the sheen begins to fade as their aura of invincibility is being called into question. It is time for them to introspect and do some course correction. Do not abjure the well meaning criticism and listen to sane advice even if it comes from your political opponents. Don’t shoot the messenger.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department
of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)