India has a formidable enemy now, and the nation needs to be united in fighting it, even though that enemy isn’t visible. That real enemy is coronavirus, but many in India seem to want to fight other enemies, such as the foreign press, cartoonists, stand-up comedians, what passes for the country’s opposition, and even doctors who champion modern medicines and nurses who speak in Malayalam.
It goes without saying that India must do all it can to defend itself against that virus. And yet, many of those who support the government appear far more keen to defend its reputation from these imagined enemies. They seem to have confused the government with the nation, as they fight their quixotic battles against those who they believe are undermining the nation.
If defeating the virus is India’s priority, then the government’s goal should not be to launch an international television network or fight battles with social media platforms but to import reliable vaccines regardless of cost and ensure that the country has an equitable distribution system. The priority should be ensuring the delivery of vaccines, not announcing that everyone is eligible without fixing the logistics.
And yet, enthusiastic and often pseudonymous or anonymous individuals on social media, as well as anchors on national television networks (who seem to consider themselves journalists), have been parroting identical messages, as if on cue following instructions, revealing charmingly enforced and contrived unanimity, cheering the government, assuming that those who read their jingoistic messages are as unthinking as they themselves often appear to be. The entire charade is palpably dishonest, and transparently so, and yet the unreal circus persists, like a clumsy manoeuvre synchronized by a dance master in a Hindi film with music that’s cacophonous and not hummable.
They add noise, not wisdom; they generate heat, not light; and they consume time and attention, without doing any favours to those fighting the disease or those who deserve comfort over their loss. In such a universe, data gets tortured to arrive at a conclusion that seeks to show India in a good light, and then bizarre claims are made.
India is, after all, a land of synthesis, so mutually contradictory ideas coexist. India is at once so powerful that it can donate vaccines to other countries and at the same time suffers massive dose shortages, requiring donations from other countries. The Prime Minister pats the country on the back at the World Economic Forum, saying that its pandemic is over, only to return with a teary speech before a perplexed, angry nation, grieving “those snatched away from us”, as he put it in a speech.
One month the government promises to supply vaccines to the world as part of a global initiative, and another month it restricts the leading manufacturer from exporting vaccines, exposing the company to contractual breach. One week the government makes the ‘sensible’ decision of granting autonomy to states to procure their own vaccines, and then another week it makes the ‘sensible’ decision of centralizing distribution to ensure equity. Considering and evaluating mutually contradictory thoughts is a sign of wisdom only if it results in a wise decision, not if the consequence is confusion.
To that confusion, add the idea of Indian exceptionalism. Each country is of course unique, but comparisons are possible. The government itself seems obsessed with its rankings on indices that measure the ease of doing business or economic growth. And yet, when it comes to the pandemic, India insists on its sui generis identity. Has Taiwan dealt well with the pandemic? But it is so small. Has New Zealand virtually wiped out the virus? But it is so sparsely populated. Has China returned to normalcy? But it is a dictatorship. Has Singapore managed its borders well? But it is an island. Is India’s death toll too high? Look at it as a percentage of the population—the toll is actually low. Has India vaccinated too few people as a proportion of its people? Look at the absolute numbers—it is so high. Has the United Kingdom vaccinated a far greater part of its population? But the UK is a small country. Has the United States vaccinated people at a rapid pace? But it has so many more resources. Is America offering its surplus vaccines to India? But that’s too little; a drop in the ocean.
These are defensive talking points, intended to please and reassure a small base that will support the government no matter what. The government won’t lose their vociferous enthusiasm. To be sure, the Prime Minister himself remains popular.
But there are signs that the government’s support has weakened. Some supporters claim that they are against dynastic politics, as if it is a problem peculiar to only one party, and even if they themselves work for family-run businesses or follow their parents’ profession, and find nothing odd about doctors’ children being doctors and actors’ children joining cinema. Others assert that “there is no alternative”.
Such views change quietly when people look around and find empty chairs at the dining table at home, and those they loved are now in their memories or framed in garlanded photographs on their walls.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi
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