By Shirish Nadkarni*
Several recent horrifying images on international TV stations of human bodies burning on hastily arranged funeral pyres in the streets of Indian cities and semi-urban areas have focused the attention of the world on what appears to be a dismal picture of the public health scene in India.
The photographs – many of them procured from Getty Images, whose exorbitant charges are proudly displayed on its website – have been accompanied by articles painting an anguished vignette of how poorly the Indian government has managed the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, and induced the virtual collapse of the Indian economy.
Prominence has been given to highlighting all the perceived defects – lack of hospital beds for the treatment of badly affected patients, shortage of oxygen, slow pace of vaccination, often due to stock-out of vaccines; delayed lockdown announcements, thanks to which the second wave has spiralled out of control.
Never has it been pointed out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s detractors that public health is a state subject, and that the central government has only been issuing guidelines for the handling of the Covid situation.
Aside from being directly responsible for the first nationwide lockdown announced on 25 March 2020, the central government has only provided pointers, and left it to the states to work out the implementation of the guidelines.
Many of these states had initially refused to distribute the vaccine on the pretext that it had been rushed into service, insufficient pre-testing, and protocols for clinical trials on humans had not been followed. The same Chief Ministers have, of late, been vociferously criticising the central authorities for delays in the procurement of the two indigenous vaccines, and improper distribution.
The same is the position with oxygen. By May 2020, the central government had provided the states with directions and funds to set up oxygen plants in their territories, but the states did not even utilise these funds. Delhi, for example, had been given funds to set up eight oxygen plants, but Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) dawdled on the implementation, and had just one plant set up by the time the second Covid wave struck.
Great pains have been taken by a clutch of journalists to stress upon the slow pace of vaccination in India, and that the entire country can be vaccinated only by December 2021, at the very earliest.
No perspective has been provided on this matter – the vastness of the country, its 1.3 billion population and the fact that the vaccines have been provided free to those that are willing to await their turn while the aged and healthcare workers were given top priority.
Incidentally, India’s vaccination rate is on the brink of reaching 20%, whereas the vaccination rate in an advanced country like Japan is just 6%.
The handling of the farmer protests is another instance of the Opposition parties lashing out in all directions in an effort to reverse a legislation that actually puts money in the pockets of the small and marginal farmers. Wealthy landowners have been at the forefront of these protests, which threaten to stop the massive commissions that middlemen were earning from the old Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) system.
Even countries like Canada have joined the farmer protests against the new farm laws. What is not publicised on TV is the fact that Modi’s “atmanirbhar” (self-sufficiency) movement threatens to adversely affect the import of pulses into India from Canada – which has been a major source of income for Canadian farmers and Indian immigrant agriculturists to that country.
Those who have lambasted Modi’s move to demonetise the Rs1,000 and Rs500 banknotes in November 2016 in an effort to curb the uncontrolled flow of black money, and have said that it was one of the reasons for the ruination of the economy, should also be aware that India has been able to bounce back from the economic fallout despite lengthy lockdowns and that its growth rate is among the strongest in the world; moreover, the Indian stock market is booming at levels never seen before in the country’s history.
It is interesting to note that the most raucous cries of mismanagement of public health have come mostly from a section of the world media that has been assiduously attacking Modi and his philosophy of Hindutva from the time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014 – and the party got an even more impressive mandate in 2019, to rule the country until 2024.
The same media operators have been the most vociferous – with The New York Times, Washington Post and the BBC constantly orchestrating a campaign to bring down Modi and vilify the right-wing, Hindutva-promoting Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which had played a big role in bringing the BJP into power after 60 years of mostly uninterrupted Congress Party rule since India’s Independence in 1947.
In India, NDTV, an ardent supporter of the Congress Party, has been at the forefront in hitting out at the central government at every opportunity. The TV channel is being investigated for several wrongdoings during the 10 years immediately prior to the BJP’s coming to power; and prominent journalists associated with it – the names of Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, psephologist Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika, come readily to mind – have spared no effort to hit the BJP as much below the belt as they could.
That is not to say that Modi and the BJP are blameless. Certainly, Modi has made a few glaring errors that have provided fodder for his detractors. The delay in announcing measures to control the milling crowds at the Maha Kumbh Mela, a festival that comes once in 12 years, and the crowded election rallies in West Bengal in the lead-up to the State Assembly elections, both of which could have spread the contagion, have been rightly criticised by even ardent supporters of the Modi government.
But, despite these mistakes and its somewhat dictatorial ways, the BJP has handled the Covid situation far better than anyone in any other political party in the country could conceivably have done. In addition, the Opposition, led by the weak and rudderless Congress Party, has been unable to raise a finger of suspicion on the point of corruption – one of the main election planks on which the BJP fought the 2014 election.
Modi has consistently maintained “Na khaata hu, na khaane doonga” (“I don’t indulge in corruption, nor will I let anyone else do so”).
Despite the combined might of the Opposition parties, which have united under the banner of ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (Major Coalition), they are unable to unearth even a single instance of wrongdoing in the matter of collecting money for personal ends. This has got them all panting in sheer frustration and planting all sorts of wild tales in the media, the veracity of which has been highly questionable.
The same names keep cropping up as the authors of these anti-government stories. It is noteworthy that many of these journalists occupy huge bungalows in the swish Lutyens (panned by opponents as ‘Loot-yens’) area of New Delhi, for which they pay negligible, almost laughable, rent. There is now a move to evict them from these spacious residences that were allotted to them by the previous ruling power.
These presstitutes and “vulture journalists” cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be accused of following the norms of good journalism, of providing unbiased reporting of national events and political developments. They had been carefully cultivated by the Congress; and, with the Grand Old Party floundering in its inbred dynastic politics, they now have no backer to help them retain all the perquisites extended to them by the pre-2014 government.
It is worth ending this exposition of the true state of how India’s media is handling the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unsavoury part played in it by a section of the international TV and print media, by quoting from the discussion that India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar had with General McMaster of the Hoover Institution, during the former’s recent visit to the United States.
Jaishankar was questioned on India’s handling of the pandemic. He stated, “We are giving free food to as many as 800 million people. We have put money into the bank accounts of 400 million people.”
To underline his statement, he explained that India was providing food stocks to two-and-a-half times the US population and funding more Indians than its entire population.
On the global projection of a failing Indian government, Jaishankar added, “I would certainly see this very much as part of a political effort to depict our current government in a certain way, and obviously I have a very profound difference with that.
“In recent times, the global image of India has been of funeral pyres, depicting a nation failing in its battle against the pandemic.
“Casualties have been higher in percentages in countries possessing smaller populations, in numbers and/or density, than India, including US, European nations, Brazil etc. In no case were the deceased so disrespectfully depicted as in our case.
“The reality in the US was that Covid casualties were buried in mass graves, employing mechanical means and without permitting the next of kin to pay their last respects or be present. Human touch to those who lost the battle against Covid was missing.
“In Italy, the situation was so depressing that the army was called in to take over casualties and hurriedly cremate them away from cities. Most western nations, currently critical of India, adopted similar measures.
“Indians, on the other hand, cremated their dead with dignity and as per religious ethos, despite shortcomings and a spreading virus.”
It was this display of religious reverence which the presstitutes displayed to the world, to depict India as a failing nation.
Victory against Covid is not determined solely by the number of casualties (dead or infected), but by protecting the majority of the population, as also catering for their essential needs during periods of enforced lockdowns.
Jaishankar maintained that the number of casualties is dependent on the population density within a nation; while they matter, they cannot be ultimate determinants; success should logically depend on reversing the Covid cycle with minimum inconvenience and suffering to the populace.
Indeed, criticism from so-called global watchdogs or senators or members of parliament of the Western world have led to privately funding of influential organisations, many of whom control media houses, including TV operators. And some of these are at the forefront in tarnishing India’s national image.
* Shirish Nadkarni. A correspondent for APB for more that 30 years, is a keen observer of trends and technologies impacting the broadcast industry, from the days of analogue TV to today’s TV Everywhere. He is not a member of the BJP or any other political party in India.