May 23, 2021

Pandemic Exposes the BJP Govt’s Governance Model

S R Raman

INDIA is no stranger to shortages, but there was one shortage nobody would have dreamt of in their most horrific nightmare – shortage of space and firewood at cremation grounds and burial grounds. And yet, that is a spectacle that has become routine in several cities across India. Families of those who had lost their loved ones waited for hours in queues to cremate their dead and paid astronomical sums to buy the firewood needed to do so. Many were cremated outside the crematoria. Administrations were scrambling to build additional cremation capacity at the kind of pace at which the central government should have scrambled months earlier to build healthcare capacity. For those who wonder how we could have come to such a situation, remember the bhakts’ favourite slogan – Modi hai to mumkin hai (where there’s Modi, it is possible).

News reports of hundreds of bodies floating down the Ganga in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar shocked the nation, but the two-state governments, one run by a star campaigner for the BJP nationally and the other at the mercy of the BJP, were busy blaming each other. Then videos surfaced of policemen on a boat on the Ganga warning those living along the banks not to resort to “jal pravah” of bodies. Unbelievable scenes, but Modi hai to mumkin hai.

Just a few months back, Modi and his cronies were boasting that India is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines and had supplied crores of doses to the rest of the world. Today, private tour operators, always quick to spot an opportunity to make a quick buck, are offering (for the few who can afford it) “vaccine tourism” – trips to Russia where people can combine getting the vaccine shot with taking in the sights. An unbelievable turnaround in just months, but once again Modi hai to mumkin hai.

Incidentally, India being one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers has nothing to do with the Modi government and precedes it by decades. How, despite that, we are today struggling to produce enough vaccines for our own people is something we will come to a little later.

The evidence that the situation has been utterly and comprehensively been bungled is all around us, bombarding us day in and day out forcing even those who may not want to see it to do so. Anupam Kher, who has in the past defended this government even in indefensible situations, acknowledged that the government had “slipped” and anger against it was understandable and it should be held accountable. The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, admitted that the government has been negligent, but only to cover it up by also blaming the people for becoming careless. This indeed is part of the desperate attempt by the Sangh parivar and its supporters to diffuse the responsibility for this calamity by spreading it thin over the entire population, a classic case of blaming the victim.

The culpability of Modi and his coterie in creating a public health catastrophe of a scale not witnessed in this country in over a century is unquestionable. This is a government that has been in denial about the scale of the problem and one that has bought into its own public relations rhetoric about its “success”. As recently as January 28, Modi was boasting to a gathering of the world’s rich and famous – the World Economic Forum based in Davos, Switzerland – that India had shown the world how the virus could be defeated. In March, when the second wave of Covid-19 was well under way in India, his health minister Harsh Vardhan declared that we were in the “endgame”.

Today, the government is trying to spin a narrative that the scale of the second wave could not possibly have been foreseen and no system could hope to cope with this tsunami of cases. This is a complete distortion of facts. Every epidemiological expert in the world had warned that there would be several waves of the pandemic and the evidence from around the world showed that the second wave was typically much worse than the first. India had the advantage of learning from the experience of the rest, but was led by a government that chose to ignore the scientific evidence.

The pandemic was declared a national disaster in March last year and a national lockdown lasting weeks was imposed ostensibly to augment healthcare infrastructure. Yet, something as basic as medical oxygen was neglected for months. Experts had warned that demand would rise several fold, but the government waited till October, a good seven months later, to float a tender for oxygen plants for 150 district hospitals, to which 12 others were added later. By the government’s own admission, even today less than half of those have been set up. Little wonder that when the crisis hit in April, hospitals and patients were left facing a daily struggle to access the oxygen needed to stay alive.

Shortages of oxygen, drugs used in the treatment of Covid, hospital beds, ventilators – there is not one aspect of the battle against the pandemic in which the government has not come up short in preparing for what was needed. The result was inevitable. A private sector ever eager to extract its pound of flesh has milked the crisis to the hilt, hiking up prices of oxygen, drugs, beds and even ambulances to levels that would have seemed impossible. Another example of Modi hai to mumkin hai.

As with all aspects of the crisis, the government’s response has been to try to pin the blame on the states. Union minister Piyush Goyal even went so far as to say that state governments must ensure demand does not go up as sharply as it had. A government that had for months been tom-tomming its ‘success’ suddenly switched to shifting accountability to the states. Modi and Amit Shah, who had been so visible when credit was to be claimed, have become increasingly invisible except for periodic addresses to the nation in which there is no mention of what the government needs to do and a series of homilies on what people must do.

At a time when lakhs have died, the focus of the Modi government and of the state governments led by the BJP has been on image management. Investigative reports have uncovered the extent to which deaths are being undercounted especially in states ruled by the BJP – Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that Covid deaths in India are over seven lakh or about three times the official count. In Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, it estimates that actual deaths are nearly four times the official counts.

The Yogi government responded to criticism by threatening not just journalists but even hospitals of criminal cases against them if they made “false” claims of oxygen shortages. The message was clear – reveal the truth at your own peril. People have been arrested in Delhi, where the police is directly under the Centre, for putting up posters questioning the Modi government’s prioritisation of vaccine supplies for export when it is unable to meet India’s needs.

The vaccine situation is characteristic of the ineptness of this government in handling the pandemic and its readiness to wash its hands of problems when they become political hot potatoes. Among the major countries hit by Covid 19, India was among the last to start vaccinating its population. Even when it did, it was clear that the two vaccine manufacturers supplying doses, Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, simply did not have the capacity to meet India’s requirements fast enough. With a combined capacity of at best about 70-80 million doses a month, India’s need for 188 crore doses to vaccinate its entire adult population would take nearly two years to produce. The government could have used compulsory licencing provisions to allow others, including public sector units, to manufacture the vaccines under licence from these companies. It is yet to invoke those provisions. Instead it has allowed these private manufacturers and private hospital chains to make a killing by creating a market for private vaccination. One quarter of all doses produced in India are now to be supplied to private hospitals which are free to charge what they like for administering them. A vaccine that costs the government Rs 150 to buy is now being delivered to people for as much as Rs 1,500 a dose in private hospital chains. Who would have believed that when even the home of free-market capitalism, the United States, would not allow a private market in Covid vaccines, India would not allow it but tailor policy to encourage it? Modi hai to mumkin hai.