Historian Barbara Tuchman, in her celebrated study on decision-making failures by governments, The March of Folly, chronicles several major events in history when despite the clarity of the situation and availability of options, wrong choices were made leading to catastrophic consequences.
Her analysis starts with the case of the Trojan horse, actually a Greek horse laden with Greek soldiers with deadly intent, which was unthinkingly and happily hauled into Troy. Tuchman theorised that leaders are usually driven by base and sundry motivations instead of being driven by grand visions and noble impulses, and so make huge mistakes time and again.
Why did Jawaharlal Nehru embark on the foolhardy “forward policy” in 1961, which envisaged inserting Indian military posts behind Chinese forward posts, when the Indian Army just did not have the military means then of sustaining these posts, let alone holding the resultant imaginary line?
In his seminal work on decision-making in government, psychologist Irving Janis warns of the dangers of Groupthink. Groupthink is a malady to which decision-making groups are highly susceptible unless the group’s dynamics are carefully controlled and marshalled to advantage by the leader, for groups often tend to be dominated or manipulated by one or few individuals who have their own agendas.
There are dangers when the system leaves all decision-making to one individual. Others stop thinking. Worse, they stop warning the leader.
Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, with less than 200 soldiers, entered Tikal, the Aztec capital. Cortez boldly strode up to the waiting Montezuma seated on the great pyramid and seized him. The numbed Aztecs capitulated, and South America soon became Latin America.
Coming to more recent times, there are two fateful decisions we must wonder about. The first was the decision to “demonetise” all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. On that fateful day in November 2016, the total banknotes in circulation valued Rs.16.42 lakh crores, of which nearly 86 per cent, or around Rs 14.18 lakh crores, derived from Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 banknotes.
Did they consider the consequences of rendering the economy dangerously anemic by withdrawing 86 per cent of the cash? Did they not know that India was still mostly a cash economy, and that the so-called “black money” which Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was after, is seldom kept in cash? In the end it only flushed out Rs 10,720 crores.
We were still counting the devastating losses inflicted by demonetisation when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. India saw an even more virulent pandemic in 1957, when the influenza, again with a Chinese origin, arrived in May that year on a ship from Singapore.
By the end of June, it spread all over India, infecting over two million people. The H1N1 swine flu pandemics hit India in September 1968 and again in May 2009.
The last visitation in India was from the United States and was brought by an air passenger returning to Hyderabad. Clearly, the only way to curb a pandemic is to stop it at the gates.
When reports of the new coronavirus started coming in early January, we should have been warned to screen all air passengers arriving into India. I returned to Hyderabad from Bangkok on January 23 and saw the thermal cameras, but they were not manned.
It was the similar situation in all other airports with international arrivals. By the time screening began in late February, over 70 lakh passengers had arrived from all over the world, many carrying the virus.
Why were the lessons of the earlier flu pandemics not imbibed? Those viruses too were mostly dangerous for the older population, and we had dealt with them by isolating the infected and vulnerable. Clearly, the government needed to reach out to the institutions that retained the institutional memory.
The medical professionals who were seen advising the government were mostly cardiologists and general physicians. The head of ICMR is a cardiologist who earned his spurs attending to the heart ailments of New Delhi’s VIPs. It is said he pipped an epidemiologist for the job. The head of the prestigious AIIMS, New Delhi, is a pulmonologist.
The medical professionals favoured by the influential English TV channels were again mostly cardiologists. So, who was influencing the government’s decision making?
If eminent epidemiologists like Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil, a former dean of the reputed Christian Medical College, Vellore, were consulted they would have told Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “There was an epidemic of H1N1 influenza in 2009. It came in and stayed for two-three months and spontaneously disappeared.
Why? It is because of a certain level of herd immunity that was produced by the infection. So, our only hope is that this virus head that way.” Once again, this virus caused only a mild disease among the age group below 60 years. Unlike the United States (16%), Japan (26%), China (12%), Italy (23%), Britain (18%), France (20%) and Russia (16%), India with a life expectancy of 68 years had a population cohort above 65 years of only about 6.8 per cent.
The morality rates in these other countries were relatively high as they typically had twice as many people in the 65-plus age group.
Now the big question. Did Mr Modi not know of the unorganised workforce of around 410 million, at least half were daily wage earners? A lockdown meant all workplaces like construction sites, small retail, eateries, industrial sweatshops and factories using contract labour shut down, throwing tens of millions to the wolves.
CMIE has now estimated 130 million people were rendered jobless with just four hours’ notice.
Did he consider what social distancing would mean in our metro city slums that typically have population densities over 60,000 per sq. mile? Dharavi has a density in excess of 700,000. Most migrant workers stay eight to 10 in a room, with as many as 27 sharing a toilet.
Did he consider that confining them to their localities without incomes and food and in summer was a death sentence? Did Mr Modi think that the migrants would not break out of their prisons, and begin their now familiar long marches back to their villages?
Before he died in St. Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte exhorted his son to read history because that was the only truth.
Was Hegel right when he wrote: “People and governments have never learned anything from history”? But then history is not Narendra Modi’s strong suit....