Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally spoke to Indians, albeit in Hindi, on 7 June. It was not enough and it was not good enough. What must it take for an elected leader of 1.3 billion people he considers his own, a man hyped as a good communicator and orator, a political leader with the strongest parliamentary majority in three decades and nearly 20 years of leading governments to retreat into silence in his palatial home-office for the exact number of weeks that the nation went through its worst and unprecedented public health crisis since Independence? Modi’s last national address was on 20 April.
In the seven weeks since, India shuddered through a cataclysmic second wave of Covid-19 with nearly 4,00,000 cases a day throughout May—a staggering 9.1 million cases that month which was the highest monthly count reported anywhere in the world since the pandemic began—and nearly 1,20,000 Indians dead which was 2.5 times the death toll in April. Through this, Modi was not on national television addressing his beloved Indians, offering solace to the bereaved, sharing plans to handle the crisis, giving information on resources available, and offering a roadmap to steer India out of the predicament. Instead, in his last address, he had unveiled a Liberalised and Accelerated Phase 3 Vaccination Strategy turning the principle of free and universal vaccines on its head, blithely transferring responsibility to states, which the Supreme Court remarked later as “arbitrary and irrational”.
The overwhelming numbers are deceptive. There has been rampant undercounting with statisticians pegging the reality anywhere from three to thirty times the recorded numbers, but importantly, they are only a glimpse of the devastation, helplessness and abandonment Indians felt with inadequate hospital beds, medical oxygen and medicines. Social media helplines were set up, the Youth Congress formed a relief cell which soon became a hub of support activities, citizens networked with one another on all available channels for oxygen supplies and ICU beds. Through the catastrophe and chaos, brought on by the Modi government’s lack of preparedness and hubris, Modi was not visible. The party’s “massive digital footprint” that its IT head Amit Malviya had boasted during the West Bengal Assembly election had seemingly fallen silent.
Modi’s silence during India’s worst Covid-19 phase is more eloquent than his words in the two national addresses. It’s the silence of a leader who focussed on winning state elections than on the pandemic—and knows it. It’s the silence of a majoritarian who allowed mass religious gatherings and appreciated large turnouts at election rallies over the pragmatism of cancelling the Kumbh Mela or scaling down campaigns. It’s the silence of the head of state who had prematurely boasted in January to international leaders that India had defeated the virus and had basked in his party’s resolution applauding him. It’s the silence of a leader who may be an exceptional politician according to some warped rubric but could not elevate himself to be the statesman that India desperately needed in her worst hour. It’s the silence of a man who knows the truth but cannot—or will not—speak it.
This many-faceted silence marred his national address of 7 June. Mercifully, BJP leaders and social media bhakt-warriors did not describe it as Modi’s finest hour. It was anything but that. It was laden with hard-to-miss subtext and fell woefully short on several counts.
First, Modi announced a partial rollback of the Phase 3 vaccination policy without conceding that he had made errors or acknowledging the criticism from the Supreme Court—which put a long list of questions to his government—opposition leaders who questioned the Rs 35,000 crore budgetary allocations for it, and from heavy-weight voices such as former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. Instead, he explained how the earlier policy was reasonable. In Modi’s self-view, acknowledging a mistake is a sign of weakness; he would rather paper over it, revise and repackage it. This is churlish but entirely in character.
Second, in partially reversing the vaccination policy to take back control of 75 per cent of procurement and distribution, Modi framed it as if states had fallen short of their remit and begged him to rescue them. Like other “facts” he asserted about independent India’s vaccine programme that evening, especially about India’s vaccine coverage being only 60 per cent till 2014 when there is evidence to show it is from 82 to 91 per cent for a range of vaccine till 2013—there was a mischievous mix of truth and half-truth. States had indeed asked for a greater level of freedom in administering vaccines following local conditions but he made it sound as if they had demanded complete autonomy in procurement and spending. How could states spend, how much could they spend anyway?
The National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid (NEGVAC) had advised central procurement and discouraged states from directly purchasing vaccines. Why Modi allowed states to prevail over his wisdom and expert advice in April is a mystery he did not care to explain. Worse, how he framed the rollback was as if he was the saviour of Indians who are otherwise at the mercy of this or that state. This is one more nail in the coffin that the government has built for federalism. States’ aspirations and regional autonomy were important to Chief Minister Modi but have little relevance for Prime Minister Modi.
Three, the most telling part of the address, was the utterly perfunctory way in which Modi recognised the staggering devastation of April-May. He offered only a line at the start— “Many of us have lost relatives and acquaintances, my deepest condolences to all such families”—without adequately acknowledging the heart-wrenching anguish and pain that millions of families went through and are going through, without sharing their grief and misery, without offering words of solace and support let alone a sensitively-designed national programme of rehabilitation for those who might want it. This was not a great communicator or orator speaking. Modi gets overwhelmed and chokes on occasions, but he was not filled with emotion that evening for fellow Indians who had been through a living hell.
Cartoonist Manjul depicted Modi during the second wave in a series of four boxes in which Modi hides under the table on which a board has the Covid-19 graph zooming up, only to emerge when the graph declines. Nothing could be closer to truth, conveyed without words. The government wanted Twitter to take action against the cartoonist and the government is after the social media giant too. Like in the cartoon, Modi’s seven-week silence and the subtext of his address are more eloquent than his words.
The author is a senior Mumbai-based journalist and columnist. She writes on politics, cities, media and gender. The views are personal.