Crises are the ultimate trial for any leader and how they perform under the ensuing pressure reveals their true calibre. As his presidency wound down, Bill Clinton was reported to rue that he had lost any chance of being judged a great President by historians (as if his impeachment were not enough of a disqualification), because he had overseen a largely peaceful and prosperous period without the defining crises like the ones that made the reputations of a Lincoln or FDR. The current crop of global leaders will have no such regrets as they are tested by the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic as it tightens its grip across the planet with stunning ferocity.
We are currently enduring a unique crisis in the sense that the enemy is invisible; convincing people of its lethality was always going to be a challenge before overwhelmed hospitals provided sufficient proof - and by then it was too late. For every Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Lee of Singapore who evolved their responses to the pandemic with realistic assessments and a science-based approach, you have a Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro living in denial and delaying crucial counter-measures at the cost of untold lives. These right-wing populists who rose to power with campaigns of divisiveness, fake facts and anti-scientific mindsets were left hapless as the cold, hard reality of Covid-19's surging death toll made short work of their propaganda and posturing. Having personally experienced the worst of the disease, Boris Johnson looked humbled and transformed from the man who a few weeks ago callously boasted about how he shook every hand offered to him during a hospital visit.
In India, the response by the government has fallen somewhere in the middle. Flights to China were suspended pretty quickly, followed by a phased suspension of flights with other countries over weeks as the virus spread, but temperature checks deployed at major airports proved no help in identifying contagious but asymptomatic passengers. This, coupled with the unwillingness of a significant proportion of returning passengers to adhere to self-quarantine norms, made the situation worse. Numerous cases of government servants, especially IAS officers, hiding their travel histories or trying to insure their progenies were not quarantined only added to the sense of collective frustration.
As the crisis worsened in China and then spread to Italy and Iran in January and February, the Modi Government was distracted first with the Delhi election campaign, the Trump visit that followed shortly thereafter, and finally the communal flare-up in the national capital. The first inkling we received that the Prime Minister was paying any attention at all to the pandemic was when he tweeted on March 4 that he would not be celebrating Holi and advised the country to follow social distancing norms as advised by the medical community. This should have been all the warning anybody needed to desist from continuing their socialising, but as we were to find out, many people, especially those in responsible positions, continued their high-flying social schedules and strutted around as though they were immune from the virus. India was learning a lot about itself during this trying time.
This was when the BJP indicated its political priorities by pulling down the Congress party's Madhya Pradesh Government by engineering the defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia; this took precedence over all other matters, even a burgeoning pandemic. It is no coincidence that the Modi Government began to take concrete steps towards a lockdown only after the Kamal Nath Government fell on March 20. At least a week, if not more, of invaluable time was lost there, but there is no doubt that the lockdown was necessary and there was no disagreement on that part. The manner in which the lockdown was executed is another matter, however, especially in the treatment of migrant workers in major cities who were left stranded in limbo without a livelihood or the ability to return to the sanctuary of their villages as a result of the sealing of state borders. Just like demonetisation, it seems there had been close to no preparation before the Prime Ministerial pronouncement, though ironically the experience of enduring the ordeal of demonetisation did in some ways mentally prepare the country for the lockdown.
This was when the most extraordinary thing happened. The political leadership of the country basically disappeared into their residences. Nobody self-quarantined with more rigour and intent than the Union Council of Ministers. Apart from the occasional appearance of the Prime Minister in his video conferences, for three weeks, the face of the Modi Government was a dour Joint Secretary from the Health Ministry who held forth in a daily presser where his unsatisfactory answers to basic questions from the journalists present became more and more apparent as the number of infections in India began to peak. Apparently, there is still no community transmission in India.
It is understandable for the Prime Minister to stay put in his residence especially considering his age group are most at risk from the virus, but one of would have hoped that his younger cabinet colleagues would have been empowered to take a more visible role. Instead of issuing daily missives to the states via the Home Secretary, the Hon'ble Home Minister would be better advised to make use of one of the government planes at his disposal and visit the state capitals most affected by the virus. He will likely find that even states with opposition governments will greet him with relief and genuine goodwill, this once. Asking the Finance Minister about an overdue stimulus package seems equally futile even as the economic costs of the lockdown spiral with every passing day. The complete centralisation of all authority and policy initiatives in the hands of the PMO has never seemed so stark and flawed.
The entire weight of dealing with the epidemic has been placed on the shoulders of Chief Ministers and their state governments. Kerala's government in particular has not only impressed the country but the world with its performance in containing the virus. But many other states have struggled without sufficient support from the centre. The Modi Government seems unable or unwilling to unleash the full array of financial and administrative resources within its remit that is necessary to win this fight. Or maybe it just doesn't know how? In which case there are many senior leaders in the opposition ranks like Yashwant Sinha, Sharad Pawar and P Chidambaram, to name just three with decades of administrative experience, who have been shouting advice from the rooftop (and their Twitter handles) about how to mitigate the economic and social welfare repercussions of this unparalleled crisis. The need of the hour is for the Modi Government to put politics aside for now and listen.
(Krishan Partap Singh is a novelist and political commentator.)
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