All through his long political career, prime minister Narendra Modi has been the master of optics: the ability to effectively use the visual image, a slogan, a sharp soundbite at just the right moment in a multi-media age is what has been his distinct leadership weapon. But last week, the well-honed technique of perception management appeared to let down the prime minister for once. On a day when the daily Covid 19 case count crossed two lakhs for the first time, the prime minister was busily addressing large election rallies in West Bengal. Little masking and no social distancing at the gathering, the prime minister appeared to be operating in a parallel universe to the stark ground realities of a country in the midst of another severe Covid wave. In his public communication, Mr Modi has repeatedly urged people to observe ‘do gaz ki doori’ (a distance of two yards) and yet now he was happily seen rousing frenzied crowds. The imagery and messaging were strikingly jarring.
To be fair, to expect the prime minister not to campaign in a high stakes election battle like Bengal is like asking Virat Kohli to withdraw from the world test championships final. The Election Commission’s refusal to curtail an eight phase elongated poll schedule for Bengal meant that political parties were necessarily constrained to run a marathon race. As a consummate political campaigner, Mr 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 prime minister, for example, have used the BJP’s vast digital footprint to address people online? Maybe, more realistically, the Election Commission itself should have been nudged to curtail the rallies and roadshows that are potential super-spreaders. 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 rest, not becoming part of the multitude.
Unfortunately, an over-politicised and 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 the single-minded focus of the decision-makers should have been on how to tackle Covid. In the last year, the Centre has been engaged in a variety of battles, each of which exhausted political capital and mindspace at the wrong time. Be it the border tangle with China, the attempt to topple opposition governments at home, the tug of war with state governments over resources, and now the do or die ‘war’ in Bengal, far too many bruising fronts have been opened. The China conflict can be blamed on an expansionist and untrustworthy neighbor but what of the farmers struggle that sparked off a winter of discontent? Was it really necessary to push through a contentious farm bill in parliament at a time when there was an urgent need to build greater 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 gaze. Having won the November Bihar election in particular, it seems 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 fatigue, the Centre too seemed caught in Covid 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 and short-sighted vaccine policy is a classic example of being stuck in an echo chamber of cheerleaders who were already waving celebratory flags of conquering corona when the primary need was to prepare for worst case scenarios. Why is it for example that by the third week of March, India had exported more vaccines than it had administered to its own citizens? (60 million doses dispatched to 76 countries while 52 million Indians were vaccinated). The desire to use vaccine ‘soft power’ for diplomatic mileage and personal ‘Vishwa-guru’ image building could easily have been put off till the situation on the domestic front was 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 incentivize private sector manufacturers and not offering flexibility in vaccinating people across age groups, a bureaucratic maze was created that prevented fast tracking the vaccine rollout at a crucial time. 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 entire blame on the Modi government for being seemingly ill-prepared to combat the second Covid wave. Hasn’t Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi after all been forewarning the Centre of the pitfalls in its Covid 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 a better shape to combat Covid than BJP-governed states? The virus doesn’t know of political boundaries and there isn’t a magic mantra to tackle a pandemic. But the first step towards finding a solution is to accept the problem, acknowledge mistakes and then course correct.
Which is why the recent changes in the vaccine policy are a step in the right direction. However, the Modi government cannot pass the buck now to state governments for Covid management. If the Centre takes credit for anything positive that happens in ‘new’ India, then it must accept its share of blame for missteps. When it centralizes power and micro-manages decision-making but refuses to share even basic information on monies spent through Prime Minister’s Care 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 quite exemplifies the mess in Covid decision making than the unseemly war of words last week between the Maharashtra government and the Centre over shortage in oxygen and remdesivir supplies. When Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray claimed that the prime minister was uncontactable because he was campaigning in Bengal, union minister Piyush Goyal hit back, accusing the Maharashtra government of ‘corruption’ and ‘ineptitude’. Just wonder: couldn’t there be a hotline between Delhi and Mumbai for Covid control, or will every issue become a political slanging match on twitter?