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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 20, New Delhi, May 1, 2021

What is the Issue, COVID or Democracy? | TJS George

Saturday 1 May 2021, by T J S George

IMPRESSIONS

Let us face it, Corona has swept across India in ways that point to a failure of leadership. Shameful details that highlight this keep surfacing one after another. Hospital have been running out of oxygen, but India exported more than 9000 metric tons of oxygen during the current financial year’s first three quarters. Who is responsible for this idiotic situation? Bodies have been stacking up in morgues and crematoriums but central and state governments hide the numbers. The system has collapsed primarily because, as the President of the Public Health Foundation put it, "leadership did not adequately convey that this was an epidemic which had not gone away."

Leadership was busy otherwise. On the day a record-breaking 234,000 new Corona cases were registered along with 1341 death, the Prime Minister was busy addressing a political rally in Bengal, noticing with satisfaction that he had "never seen such huge crowds." The Home Minister of the country has been hanging around Bengal, ridiculing Chief Minister Mamata Banerji and making new ground-level arrangements for his party to capture the state. He held a roadshow, the crowds defying Covid.

It is in times of emergency that people recognise the greatness, or smallness, of their leaders. Winston Churchill was a petty-minded racist, but when the World War challenged his country, he rose to great heights as the leader of Britain. He did so, as Mao Zedong did in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, by thinking only about his country and its people, never about himself.

In India the Prime Minister’s keenness to see his personal stamp on all moves in and by India is an acknowledged fact. All policy initiatives are Modi initiatives, not Indian initiatives. This approach was taken to the extent of vaccination certificates. Civilised countries never project parties and party leaders in such national endeavours. In the US, for example, a syndicated photograph of the Speaker of House of Representatives is put out on the official logo of the Centre for Disease Control. Britain and Israel have similar practices. In India vaccination certificates carried the Prime Minister’s photo even when it was in violation of the Model Code of Conduct. Many political parties protested. The Health Ministry came out with the explanation that filters were applied for the software to ensure that the Modi photo did not appear on vaccination certificates "in election-bound states." Who is trying to fool whom?

What we have in an "unstoppable Prime Minister" who has an I-am-the-state approach to governance. He will go his way whatever happens. There is a song titled Unstoppable made famous by Australian singer Sia Kate. The lyrics go like this: I know what it takes to fool this town/I am unstoppable/I am a Porsche with no brakes/I am invincible/Yeah, I win every single game/I am so powerful/I don’t need batteries to play.

We have a system where those who run on batteries last the longest and go the farthest. Consider the country’s Health Minister. The honourable Dr. Harsh Vardhan recently tweeted lines that were notable for their abjectness and eagerness to win favours. "Hail visionary leadership of Hon’ble PM Shree Narendra Modi Ji and prudence of Finance Minister for taking us closer to ’Health for All.’ " Does a cabinet minister have to openly hail the head of the cabinet and that too in words so obviously meant to curry favour? The answer is Yes, if we are talking about the Indian cabinet where the head needs frequent reaffirmations of his leadership qualities.

The price of greatness is responsibility, they say. Responsible leaders of nations usually have arrangements to anticipate developing crises and make advance preparations to meet them. In our country, crisis often takes us by surprise and then we see the authorities struggling to cope. When they fail, they blame others. When the Covid crisis developed unexpectedly, India made an attempt to position itself as an alternative to China in vaccine production. It found that China had an organisationally strong set up that could not be challenged easily. Within weeks India changed from being an exporter of vaccine to an importer.

But then China’s interest is confined to making President Xi Jinping the undisputed centre of power; popularity is not a factor. India is a democracy and Democracy has deep-rooted problems: Like the need for a leader to be liked by the people, a big nuisance. Minister of State Rao Inderjit Singh was right when he said last week that democracy was a handicap. Shall we say, Down with the Constitution, Down with Parliament?

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