There could not have been anything more ironical than the frailty of human beings staring us in the face in a world characterised by the rising number of populists. For several years we have seen the emergence of leaders across the world, including all around us, who professed to be in ready possession of quick solutions to deep-rooted, enigmatic and complex problems. Yet, as the events since December 2019, but more so in recent weeks, have shown us, magic wands are good solely to lay a smooth pathway to governance or to the office of power, but rarely thereafter.
What, however, compounds the paradox is that people, when faced with the old tossup -- what manages crises better, authoritarian or democratic systems -- might conclude that it is best to follow the pied pipers merely because such blind following spares them having to take responsibility, for themselves and others. Responsibility -- political, economic and social -- is paramount and must be primary in times of pandemics and other similar challenging circumstances, yet it is a burden that few are willing to take and more shirk.
If the initially comatose response of governments in the United States and several European countries are anything to go by, and juxtapose it with the way that China went about its “business”, it certainly strengthened the viewpoint that these challenges are best met by governments that “do” and don’t “debate or deliberate”. But how does one characterise the Indian government's initial lethargy and belief that the coronavirus would “go” by deputing Union ministers to chant mantras and outsourcing a few yagnas to ideological affiliates? This is, after all, a strong-willed and clear-thinking government -- at least that is the yarn the PR machinery has spun -- so why this belated action?
Even this response or action has unfortunately ended up elevating panic instead of pacifying people. Furthermore, the entire thrust has appeared uni-dimensional rather than following a multi-faceted approach that does not look at the challenge merely from the prism of health facilities and containment. Societies like India have abysmal levels of welfare systems and the disparity levels remain glaringly high.
Human crises, especially those that spare no one in the community, get accentuated by fear, suspicion, distrust and hatred. No leader in India, either in the government or outside, has either targeted any of these failings, or cautioned people to be on their guard against such divisive sentiments. Not just in India, but elsewhere in the world too has in recent times, selfish leaders have built political embankments by playing on the anxieties of one group, or by publicising the myth that goodies have so far been earmarked for the imaginary “other”. Large sections of Indians have been seeing this for the past several months, especially since the middle of 2019 following the watershed electoral verdict, as many of their dystopian imaginations are coming true.
Few people expected that there was more to come from completely unexpected frontiers. For a large section of Indians, the triumphalist script was running to perfection. The last vestiges of the coalition era had been shed, and there was greater ideological cohesion in a decisive government led by an infallible leader who brooked nothing that was against the “national interest”. Even Pakistan had been marginalised internationally, and its protestations on Kashmir had evoked a feeble response. That is why the threat from the coronavirus was presumed to be somebody else’s problem.
The still underway debate over the past few days if a group of a few hundred people, predominantly elderly women protesting against the amended citizenship law, had the capacity to significantly elevate the threat of coronavirus has been farcical. The campaign deriding the sit-ins against the CAA was politically motivated and paradoxical amid the continuance of Parliament’s Budget Session merely as cutting it short would strengthen the Madhya Pradesh Speaker’s case, who had chosen to push back the floor test in the state Assembly in the hope that this would provide the Kamal Nath government an opportunity to remain in office by handing out a bigger lure. Like always, this is a case of misplaced priorities. Sadly, it stems from possible non-recognition of the scale of the affliction.
Hardships under curfew
As a reporter, for decades one has been privy to hardships faced by people under curfew because people fought one another for their own gods only. This time it is possibly not a temporary lockdown, and people are forced to flee cities and towns where they found work and return to their villages. No migrant worker wishes to die without his family at his side, with all fear becoming a part of the “missing” list, fates that often await less-privileged people. Indians without cushions find their present stolen and a secure future is not in sight.
Hardships and common concerns are expected to bring people together on same platforms. But urban India has already seen suspicion eat into social relationships. Neighbours give a cold stare to a person coughing and the police is often called to hustle even non-carriers of the virus to quarantines. Religious institutions too, who are also home to the destitute, are shutting their doors and await normal “business”. Instead of providing alternate platforms for the needy, the state will possibly utilise this as opportunity to widen the infrastructure of surveillance, ostensibly for the people’s good.
Containment of the disease certainly has to be priority. The need to ramp up health facilities overnight is obvious, however herculean a task this may be. But, in the effort to protect the more visible, invisible Indians cannot be forsaken like they were during the self-induced catastrophe of demonetisation. Social distancing may become the OED’s word of the year, but many Indians know since birth the need to maintain distance and what exclusion means. The panic shutdown of work spaces across industries and sectors without providing safeguards is being accepted by people at the moment, as they take flight from possible infection. But it is a matter of time before hunger begins gnawing the insides and weakens the body and mind further. The response of the Indian government so far shows little evidence of an emerging comprehensive plan.