As I watched the Prime Minister urge chief ministers last week to not slow down the pace of vaccinations, I wondered if living in virtual reality has made him lose touch with reality. This virtual meeting was where we had the first sighting of the Home Minister since the defeat in West Bengal. The Home Ministry is directly in charge when there is a national disaster and yet for the past two months Amit Shah has been sighted only at election rallies in Bengal.
He was so certain that the BJP would snatch this state from Mamata Banerjee that he boasted publicly about winning at least 200 seats. He gave many televised interviews about Bengal after it became clear that this second Covid wave was catastrophic, and that he should have been in the Home Ministry directing operations. When asked about reducing the length of the Bengal campaign, he smiled and said, “There are no elections in Maharashtra so why is the virus spreading there?” In another interview, he said that the only reason why Opposition leaders were asking for a shorter campaign in Bengal was because the BJP was winning. India was left to fend for herself while our two most important leaders concentrated on winning Bengal.
It is good to know that they are back, at least virtually, but so much time has been wasted that India is now on a ventilator. Modi’s ‘atmanirbharta’ dream has been thrown in a garbage bin and we are begging for help from anyone ready to give it to us. Many countries have closed their doors to Indians because they see images of the pyres that burn all night in our cremation grounds and people gasping for oxygen in our hospitals, and they fear that we have a horrific new mutation that travellers will bring with them. Things are so bad that our Foreign Minister seems for now to have given up his silly efforts to counter the bad press the Supreme Leader is getting internationally.
The Prime Minister’s image has taken a huge hit. May I humbly suggest that it could be improved considerably if he stopped work on the Central Vista project. Images of the mounds of debris and dirt that lie scattered where once there were elegant streetlamps and manicured lawns have travelled all over the world and most people are horrified at what they think of as vandalism. We Indians know that the Prime Minister believes that this project is an assertion of nationalism and that his favourite architect will do a much better job than Edwin Lutyens or Herbert Baker. His faith in Bimal Patel is extraordinary. He was tasked with tearing down parts of the old city of Varanasi to build a corridor from the Ganga to the Vishwanath Mandir, and to redesign the Sabarmati river front in Ahmedabad.
In any case the Central Vista redevelopment must stop. The money being spent on it is needed to build the infrastructure for modern healthcare. Since the pandemic, we continue to report that our healthcare system has been overwhelmed. The truth is that it never really existed. Most Indians were using private hospitals and clinics because in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, they said that politicians usually built hospitals only to make money out of construction. Some years ago, I did a series for this newspaper on hospitals in small towns in UP and saw hospitals whose roofs had blown away and whose wards had wild grass growing in them. It should surprise no Indian that our hospitals have been crushed by this pandemic.
Now is a chance to rebuild public healthcare from scratch. But, this cannot happen if the Prime Minister and his Covid team remain in denial about the horrific realities ordinary people are dealing with. It is very bad in the cities, but it is going to get much worse in rural India. Already reports are coming in from villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar of people dying of ‘breathlessness’ before they can be taken to the nearest district hospital. This is just the beginning.
The Prime Minister needs to urgently put together a new team in which there should be chief ministers of every political party along with scientists and doctors, so that a national policy can be made to deal with what is the worst crisis India has ever faced. But, first he needs to acknowledge that his old team has failed abysmally.
Modi has always boasted of his image as a strong and decisive leader. This is the time for him to prove that he is. For now, every time he appears virtually on our screens and gives one of his speeches, he sounds as if he has been fooled by his admirers and his social media army to believe that the horror stories are lies. Is this why he has shown more empathy for BJP workers in Bengal than for people dying without oxygen in hospitals? Is this why he has not ordered his ministers and MPs to go into their constituencies and help those who are in desperate need?
Is the Prime Minister privately tormented by the disease and death that has spread across the country on his watch? Does he see that we have come to this pass because of mistakes made by his government? He shows no sign that he does, and he really needs to.