Dear Pradhan Sevak,
I start with a disclosure: I have never heard your Mann ki Baat—not once. Nor do I intend to in future. I also do not normally listen to your pronouncements on TV. Because I know they are mere braggadocio, amounting to nothing—words and promises that barely ever translate into action. But, for a change, I read your letter to fellow Indians.
I read it for I was curious. I thought you would surely and exclusively dwell on the most searing issue the nation is grappling with, which is growing exponentially. I thought your letter would reflect your thoughts on it and convey your strategies to contain and manage this beast, as also reimagine life beyond it. But, sadly, I found nothing of the sort in your letter.
It was vain and vapid, filled with platitudes and bromides: “Your affection, blessings and active participation have given me fresh energy and inspiration,” you wrote. People have “showcased the collective strength of democracy”, you insisted. You asserted that this strength has become an example before the entire world.
More of your clichéd refrains were repeated times without number: “From 2014 to 2019, India’s stature rose significantly. The dignity of the poor was enhanced...” The self-adulation continued: “In the last five years the nation saw how the administrative apparatus broke itself free of status quo and from the swamp of corruption as well as mis-governance.”
I was not surprised by your reference to “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas...” or “Ek Bharat...Shreshta Bharat”, both alliterations you deploy to convey meaning in a typically Orwellian streak. Nor was I surprised by the references to Article 370 (in the name of national unity and integrity of course) or the happy outcome of the age-old duelling over the Ram mandir and triple talaq, not to forget masking the citizenship law as a sign of Indian compassion against a “barbaric practice”. A laundry list of achievements!
Did I view the affirmation that “empowering the poor, farmers, women and youth has remained our priority” also as part of the same Orwellspeak? Perhaps.
I allude to the following oft-quoted refrain from George Orwell’s 1984:
“War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.”
Orwell also came to mind after you claimed that your government’s policies have led India to bridge the gulf between urban and rural lives. I smirked indulgently on reading this.
I owe it to you to explain why my head was so full of Orwell when I read your piece. Because even all the parallels listed so far still do not fully reflect the dystopia we are living in.
But first, your best, which you reserved in your letter for coronavirus. On the virus you exceeded my worst Orwellian phantom-building fantasies! Let me quote your prognosis in your own words:
“Many feared that India would become a problem for the world when Corona hits India. But today...you have transformed the way the world looks at us. You have proven that the collective strength and potential of Indians is unparalleled compared even to the powerful and prosperous countries of the world… Be it clapping and lighting a lamp to the honouring of Corona Warriors by India’s armed forces, Janta curfew or by faithful adherence to rules during the nationwide lockdown, on every occasion you have shown that Ek Bharat is the guarantee for Shreshta Bharat.”
As is your wont, and as a piece of a continuing story, you preferred to win brownie points, and not just by counting the eggs that were unhatched (far from it, for even the chickens had not arrived home to be counted.) But look at the nation today; wallowing in the depths of the corona pandemic. Look at the decrepit healthcare, hobbled and trundling down the slope. And in their midst, these pyrrhic phantasmal averments!
The truth is that we did not prepare to face Covid-19. Ever since the first case was detected on January 30 in Thrissur, Kerala, and two more on February 2 and 3, we ought to have moved quickly to a whole new gear. China’s new hospital, built in a record 9 or 10 days and opened on 3 February had telegraphed the gravity of the virus.
Look at how New Zealand and Iceland prepared themselves. Iceland had its first Covid-19 case almost a month after ours, but their Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management had kept itself in readiness for the eventuality to plunge ahead. Tracking was at the heart of the matter.
Elizabeth Kolbert elaborates in a bracingly honest piece, How Iceland Beat the Coronavirus, published in The New Yorker on June 1: “The first case was followed by three more cases, then by six, and then by an onslaught. By mid-March, confirmed Covid cases in Iceland were increasing at a rate of sixty, seventy, even a hundred a day. As a proportion of the country’s population, this was far faster than the rate at which cases in the United States were growing. The number of people the tracing team was tracking down, meanwhile, was rising even more quickly. An infected person might have been near five other people, or fifty-six, or more. One young woman was so active before she tested positive—going to classes, rehearsing a play, attending choir practice—that her contacts numbered close to two hundred. All were sent into quarantine.”
The country did not just flatten the curve. It bent it to near elimination. As did New Zealand. They have leaders. They showed leadership when it mattered. Testing, tracing, isolating was always their mantra. Add to this the fact that in Iceland the whole task was run by the public health authorities. It can be argued that it was easy for a country like Iceland, with a population of 3.65 lakh, to test, trace and quarantine people. Yet the point is not the number, but the methodology. If anything, more numbers require more tests, more tracing, and more isolation.
The methodology and processes are the same, as is the planning to swing into action fast, in the here and now. We did nothing of the kind. Closer home, right in our midst, Kerala and Chhattisgarh’s governments managed to contain the spike, but instead of learning from them, we wasted the whole of February sedulously preparing for Namaste Trump as a reparative gesture for Howdy Modi. We played to his base egotistic monomaniacal narcissistic instinct, which is now magnifying and ringing out aloud across the United States, and in several other countries, as more and more people stand up to fight Trump’s reprehensible and dumb words and actions in this George Floyd moment. (Ironically, we too had our moments of darkness, with diya jalao at 9 pm for 9 minutes; such a colossal waste of money and time!)
But in February we in India found the time to let loose a certain junior minister of finance to play the slogan provocateur with his infamous “Desh ke gaddaron ko…” call, and others played along to pour gasoline on the polarised fire. No advance thinking, no red-hot preparation, no planning—it’s no wonder we are where we are today.
We are paying with soaring fatalities—and many are dying without hospital admission.
But we continue with the bluster:
“Due to the global pandemic this is certainly a time of crisis but for us Indians this is also a time for a firm resolve.
We must always remember that the present and future of 130 crore Indians will never be dictated by an adversity.
We will decide our present and our future.
We will move ahead on the path of progress and victory will be ours.”
How long are we to ride the coattails of false promises, theatrics, egotism and outright charade? It is as though the deaths and suffering did not matter. As though the migrant’s lives did not matter!
The truth is that it is an abject failure of the government to act adequately and on time to contain and stave off the blight. The suddenly clamped lockdown with no advance planning exacerbated the spread. Ironically, un-lockdown—the ongoing sequel to the ill-planned lockdown—also seems ill-timed. It has kicked in just as we climb up the Corona mountain to reach the summit.
But people have wised up. The long walks of the migrants will not have an eclipsing effect on the mind.
There are writings on the wall. Today the United States is awash with Black Lives Matter. The day is not far off when India too will be awash with PMLM—Poor and Muslims Lives Matter. These are transformational times, demanding change in approach and to build back better in future, not with high falutin paeans but with substantive and scientific management.
Cocooned in your official fortress, hermetically shuttered, far from the pulse and hubbub of quotidian toings and froings of life, watching virtual life play out by obsequious flunkeys and sundering TV anchors always at the ready to sing your praises, the poor citizens who had hitched their lives to your leadership are paying with their dear lives.
Do I then read again in putative Orwellspeak that your “Atmanirbhar Bharat” is your uniquely nuanced way to convey to citizens to rely on themselves, not on the government, to save their lives?
I don’t know. Nor do others.
The author is a former civil servant. The views are personal.