IFS (Retd.) & Advisory Council
India has performed well so far in tackling the Wuhan virus, with only 19,343 cases and 640 deaths. This is no mean feat given the country’s size, population density, limited means, inadequate health facilities and poverty levels. India has had to fight the virus as a democracy, with unfettered internal debate on steps needed, diverse expert opinions aired incessantly on the media, fake news, opposition circles bent on exposing the perceived deficiencies of government actions etc. Our federal system, with health a state subject, creates its own management hurdles. Additionally, to discredit the government in some way, entrenched anti-Modi lobbies in India, in complicity with the foreign media, have tried to draw the focus away from the evident success of the government in containing the crisis for the time being by highlighting areas where government action may not have measured up to the challenge.
For this, the issue of migrant workers has received disproportionate attention. Their situation is a legitimate cause of anguish, but to ascribe it to an unfeeling or ignorant government is to play politics. Faced with an unprecedented crisis for which no standard operating procedures exist, failure to anticipate every possible problem is not a reason for a general indictment of the government. The US and UK liberal press – New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and the BBC – have highlighted this issue as if they are exposing some dark underside of the Modi government’s efforts to handle the crisis. The hypocrisy of such reporting is all the more reprehensible in view of people dying in thousands in Europe, with horrendous accounts of patients denied medical aid because of an overwhelmed health-care system, dying and being buried without family presence, and all this treated not as a gratuitous failure of government policy but as an unfortunate corollary of the virulence of the crisis.
The US/UK liberal press shows no compassion for India’s struggle; it is focused on fault-finding, with a sub-text of anticipation, and even wishfulness, of India succumbing to the crisis. The allegedly ‘morally-deficient’ UN Human Rights chief who finds it easier to question India’s democratic efforts than China’s contempt for democracy has expressed her distress at the plight of migrant workers and has hoped that the measures taken by India are “neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities”, giving more life thus to propaganda against India. Modi-haters in India and Modi-baiters in western liberal circles have joined hands against the country. These lobbies also want to give an anti-Muslim colour to Modi government’s herculean efforts to meet the crisis with limited resources and many handicaps, by alleging that the crisis has opened the field for it to promote anti-Muslim sentiments in the country, particularly after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi that led to an immediate spiking in infection cases in many Indian states. Calls against stigmatisation of a particular community have been made in the usual Indian and western liberal circles, with Time magazine leading the assault and the rancorous US Commission on International Religious Freedom joining in.
It is not the end of the battle for India. Any talk of India being a model for handling the pandemic and taking the lead internationally to combat it would be premature. As it is, India has its hands full in seeking to protect one-sixth of humanity from the calamity inflicted by this Chinese-origin virus. Modi rightly took the initiative to combine efforts within SAARC to combat it regionally. He prompted the Saudi Crown Prince to convene a G 20 video meet to discuss the crisis and establish some consensus at the international level on handling it. The UNSC has been unable to take leadership because of deepening differences between US and China that are reflected in US seeking to pin blame on China for engendering the virus and manipulating the WHO. Trump has temporarily withheld funding for the body till there is clarity on the connivance between its head and China in diffusion of misinformation about the time-lines and toxicity of the virus.
Opportunity in crisis
US, which took the lead in building China’s economic power on mistaken assumptions, has the capacity, along with Europe, to curb Beijing’s excessive ambitions through decoupling trade, investment and technology strategies. India should welcome this as it could benefit from this re-arrangement of equations economically and security-wise. However, India, which needs to manage its ties pragmatically with an adversarial neighbor through engagement, does not need to take sides expressly as it is a subsidiary factor in the developing US-China frictions. India’s stature and Modi’s leadership will get an enormous boost if India defeats this Wuhan virus with least damage. It would have done this with democratic mobilization, proving that democracies are not inherently inefficient in fighting such pandemics. India would also have shown that seemingly chaotic India has the administrative frame and skills to confront a national challenge. This should open doors for it to be a leading power.