All said and done, Narendra Modiji must be having a grand time. He never meets the press — the only prime minister in the world with that distinction — nonetheless he is all over the papers and television. Terrible things happen in his watch, but they do not affect him and he doesn’t really care. As senior advocate in Delhi, Rajiv Nayar put it, there have been “unaccounted-for deaths, bodies mixed up in hospitals, mass cremations/burials — and the loss of hope.” But the show goes on unimpaired, unquestioned. The Hindu Hriday Samrat seems more secure in his seat than any of his predecessors, not excluding Jawaharlal Nehru.
He has made no attempt to hide his two ambitions: one, to put his personal stamp on anything and everything; and two, to stay in power long, achieving things others have not. His attempt to put his picture and signature on railway tickets had to be given up because of the shock it created among the people. Nevertheless, Ayushman Bharat postcards carried his photograph. Vaccination certificates also did. Here, ego is out and assertive and unstoppable. Ryan Holiday’s book ‘Ego Is The Enemy’ has no place in this universe.
Attention to personal publicity deprived the vaccination campaign of its primary focus: vaccination for all. While a process began to give vaccination to about 60 crore people in the 18-44 age group, orders were placed only for 28 crore vaccine doses which could vaccinate only 14 crore people. As Priyanka Gandhi asked: “Why is India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, today in a position that it has to ask for vaccines from other countries?” When ego dominates the scene, no such questions come up.
Priyanka’s question was accompanied by another question: Why was the Prime Minister’s photograph on the Covid-19 vaccination certificate, an initiative described by a Punjab Minister (Congress) as a “move smacking of an obsessive self-projection” and by a West Bengal MP (Trinamool) as “condemnable”? While the Shiv Sena tried to justify the photo campaign, public opinion seemed to be with an NCP minister of Maharashtra who said “It is absolutely wrong to have political personalities on a vaccination certificate.”
This kind of ego-boosting politics can lead to spectacles that shame the whole nation. It wasn’t long ago that UP showed the extremes to which its power-drunk politicians could go. Car number plates appeared in that state with prefix indicating not the state (such as UP, as in KA for Karnataka) but the caste of the owner, such as Jat, Thakur, Brahman. Owners explained that this was to “glorify their identities”. The Government was eventually forced to intervene and stop the glorification.
Launched in 2018, Ayushman Bharat had big plans including new hospitals in 2- and 3-tier cities. Not one came up in reality, even after the Prime Minister’s photograph appeared on the postcards it sent out. The Government’s Scientific Advisor warned that a Covid third wave was inevitable. He was shamed into withdrawing his words the next day. In practice, health workers were handicapped because they did not even get basic supplies. A community health worker in Azamgarh, UP showed how pathetic the situation had become. “At least give us masks and gloves,” he said. “Is there no value to our lives?”
For the Prime Minister, the art of speech making was the solution to the pandemic as it has been to all national problems. “A positive mindset leads to positive results,” he sermonised, ignoring the fact that for six days beginning April, India set new global records, repeatedly surpassing the 3,00,000 tally previously set by the US. By official count, more than 4,00,000 have died so far. The true toll is at least two times higher, according to B Mukherjee, an epidomologist at the University of Michigan.
Hospitals across India are gasping for more oxygen supplies, ventilators and beds. Essential drugs are running short, driving prices up to scandalous levels. Central Bank officials ignored such realities and said that the economy was breaking out of winter’s lengthening shadows. Some even called Narendra Modi a “vaccine guru”. The greatness of India is that, even in the worst situations, the masters of public relations keep performing. When they are masters inspired by Modi, their performance rises to great heights. Remember, the 2020 lockdown did not harm Modi although it threw millions out of jobs and saw multitudes walking across the plains of northern India. Where the Great Lockdown failed, can the Great Covid win? Positive mindsets triumph at the top. Below, at the people’s level, mindsets struggle to figure out how to convert the negative into the positive.