The Silent Orator

I want to start this post with the following quote:

 Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move, the greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Mike Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Program

Mike Ryan was one of the key figures involved in the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Two weeks ago, he made the above statement which has resonated with me to no end especially in the context of the work I, like so many thousands of others, am doing. But it rings especially loudly in the Indian context now. In an earlier article I praised the bravado it took for PM Modi to declare the nationwide curfew in India. And the problems that bravado has now thrown up are slowly turning into a humanitarian crisis in some states. The scenes from Delhi and other parts of the country are heart-wrenching, shameful and belie the notion that PM Modi is some sort of administrative magician who can do no wrong. But once again, let me reiterate. India is an unenviable situation. The outcome of any action the government of India took last weekend was likely to result in chaos. The question was if we could steer the chaos in a direction that we had the capacity to manage. The answer is unclear but one thing is certain. At that point, inaction was not an option.

The reason I’m writing today is to drag out a point I mentioned briefly in my earlier post: Why is Modi so mind bogglingly allergic to a (virtual, unscripted) press conference? In Today, more than ever, there is a need for a two-way interaction with the Prime Minister and his team to clarify some extremely important questions about the execution of this national curfew and other steps the government is taking against the coronavirus. Perhaps, had an interaction of that kind happened instead of his 45minutes address to the nation, the questions about “essential supplies”, the plight of migrant workers and so on could’ve been answered BEFORE the lockdown and we could’ve avoided the confusion that resulted in the following days. My intention isn’t to say India isn’t doing enough. India simply isn’t being told why (or how) it is doing some things.

In six years, PM Modi has held exactly one unscripted press conference.

For someone hailed as a great communicator, modi’s reluctance to face tough questions is a failing that we can’t afford at this time. The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Home Affairs has put out at least a dozen notifications to clear up the confusion regarding the implementation of this curfew. In the process, they’ve added several exemptions, created new rules and guidelines for state and local administrations to follow. We know from the disastrous excursion that was demonetization, that these reactionary bulletins create more, not less, confusion and by the time these messages trickle down to implementation, it has probably already caused too much damage.

Modi’s “governance by diktat” is problematic. India is far too big a country for someone to show up on TV, announce something and hope that it all works out. Again, that isn’t to say that announcing the curfew was the and decision. It certainly wasn’t. But the fact that it came with little or no notice to the general public, to local police and, it seems, even the finance minister, suggests that there was only one plan: “Dekha jayega” (We will see). The result? The police hitting the “aam aadmi” with lathis for defying a curfew. People trying to buy medication and groceries aren’t “violating the curfew”. They’re trying to prepare for a 21 day lockdown of which the PM gave nearly zero details.

Modi Seeks 'Forgiveness' From India's Poor Over Coronavirus ...
Migrant workers crowd up outside a bus station as they wait to board buses to return to their villages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India March 28, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo

And still, at the time of writing, other than some choreographed PR appearances, the man leading this crisis response has not answered a single question about the steps he has personally announced. The Jt. Secretary (Health)’s press conferences are the only other avenue for clarifications and while the officials answer some questions, even they have been evasive in recent days especially regarding questions around testing, confirmed cases and community transmission. But he too has little to do with some of the PM’s other policy decisions. Take for example, the trust that has now been set up under the name of “PM CARES” (Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations). PM-CARES is a laudable crowdfunding initiative that Modi announced for people to donate to in response to the coronavirus. Donations have poured in by the crores in the short period since it has been set up.

But it begs a basic question which has now been asked on Twitter with no real answer: Why did the PM set up this trust when we can all donate to the PM's Disaster Relief Fund like we do all the time for every other disaster? 

In 2018-19, the fund had 3800 crores in it. It is regularly audited by an external auditor and is a trusted place for people to send in donations for emergency response. We know basically nothing about this newly set up PM CARES trust. And sure, it might be a well intentioned financial vehicle set up to distribute resources quickly and perhaps it is audited in the same way as the disaster relief fund but we would’ve known that on day one if someone would only take these important questions about things he announces. At the time of writing, the distinction between the two funds remains unclear and has given rise to entirely avoidable controversy about its legitimacy- a controversy which a country battling a deadly virus can ill afford.

Let me circle back to the top. Inaction is not an option. I will stand by every step Modi takes, as we should all, because there is no playbook for this response. Nobody knows the “right way” to deal with this deadly and we shouldn’t believe any quack who claims they do. The only people we should listen to are the experts. And for them to work, we need to clear the decks and wholeheartedly support the implementation of some rather dramatic steps. But it is incredibly difficult to follow someone in the dark. And that is exactly what Modi expects India to do. Like some guardian angel, Modi wants everyone to trust his instincts without explaining his logic or his plan. I don’t hide my resentment for his policies and the bigotry of his colleagues but in this moment of time, I will give him the benefit of the doubt if he claims that he has a plan. My problem is, he won’t tell anyone what that plan is unless we stick a needle to the TV at 8PM on a random day and absorb his fine oratory straight into our veins. What is this? North Korea?

I’m mad. I’m upset. I hope you are too. The uncertainty into which we threw our fellow countrymen is unforgivable. This was supposed to help, not hurt them. Giving migrant workers who work on daily wages just 4 hours to figure out what happens to their lives is ridiculous. It seems only obvious now that so many of them tried to go back to their homes by train, or bus or even by foot. Is that Modi’s fault? Probably not. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 so perhaps I’m being too harsh because who could’ve seen this coming? But that is too long a rope to throw to a man who did exactly the same thing with the demonetization and seemingly learned absolutely nothing from it. Instead, the ministry of Home Affairs under Amit Shah has refused to take responsibility and has doubled down by reiterating that states must prevent mass migration at all cost. I agree with that idea because it was accompanied by several notifications that could’ve prevented the chaos in the first place. Things like ensuring those laborers would be paid on time despite not having work and that they wouldn’t be evicted from their homes until the lockdown is finished are absolutely the right things to do. But I can’t think of a single reason why those things weren’t part of the PM’s address because those were questions that were raised immediately after his speech by several people on social media and on news channels alike.

Migrants near the U.P. border, having walked all the way from Delhi en route to their villages amid the nationwide lockdown, on March 29. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

I trust Modi to fix this mess soon. Not because I want to trust him but because we have to. We have to be patient while he maneuvers the country out of the way of a deadly global pandemic and if we, the people, pull in different directions we will only make it infinitely harder for all of us. But Modi needs to reciprocate that trust and shed whatever anxieties or complexes he has which prevents him from simply answering some goddamn questions about his actions. Modi has not failed but now, more than ever, accountability matters. One of China’s earliest mistakes was to suppress critical information which could’ve helped people in that country and everyone else to prepare for the spread of this disease. Modi’s information opacity is leading India down an eerily similar path. The shockingly high numbers of confirmed cases in the US is definitely sending out alarm bells globally but it is also helping the authorities and the people here to respond appropriately. The fact that our authorities deny that community transmission of COVID19 has started in India is outrageous and a flashing warning light we should not ignore because according to experts, India isn’t testing nearly enough people to make that assertion.

Modi and other leaders in India including Pinarayi Vijayan, Shailaja teacher, Uddhav Thackeray and others have done plenty right in this response. I hope that continues. But Modi is making a mistake that the others aren’t – he’s making big decisions and not standing around to be held accountable. In fact, they helped is cause by holding their own press meets to calm the public and share more information. I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of this seemingly small step at this early stage in our response. There is no point laying the blame at his doorstep after this blows out of proportion. There is precedent even within this government of how to do this correctly: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman does a commendable job with her public announcements and provides great clarity on the schemes she announces. Why won’t the Prime Minister do the same for his??

Mike Ryan is right. We can’t be paralyzed into inaction by the fear of failure. But with Modi it seems like he’s so afraid of being held accountable for potential failure, that he has chosen to abdicate that responsibility entirely. In the weeks after his monumental announcement of demonetization, Modi had made another massive, emotional public appeal: “Give me 50 days and if you find any shortcomings with my actions, I’m ready to face any punishment”. Not only did he (or anyone else) not face any punishment, he conveniently changed goal posts and spun that horror show into a “win”, the consequences of which our economy is still reeling from. It seems like he’s trying the same strategy again except this time, the goal posts aren’t for him to move. The virus has set the goals. And again this time, irrespective of whether he faces the consequences or not, several of our fellow Indians will and that, I think, is unforgivable.

3 Replies to “The Silent Orator”

  1. There are so many things that are fundamentally wrong with this “write up”. To assume that answering an agenda driven press is the only way to answer the nation is totally wrong. The PM, has been speaking to RJs, Industrialists, Healthcare professionals, etc. To add on to it, there have been multiple twitter and other social media interactions with common public. The reach of all of these definitely exceeds what a press conference would do.
    Addressing the nation at 8:00pm:
    Yes addressing the nation on a national television is the way to reach the masses , the issue of migrant workers having little/no time to react is subjective, this firstly, begs the question as to why were they asked to leave? Why was the state Govt complacent? What rumors were spread to scare them?
    No country has ever had such a scenario and thus there is no standard operating procedure to deal with it. Before the Janata curfew was imposed, 11 states and 2 UTs had already locked , down, so where does the question of a sudden shock announcement originate? Fictitious and plausibly propaganda driven agenda of the author?

    You refer to information being suppressed? What information is being suppressed? If anything, only the fake news factory has been suppressed in this hour of crisis.

    Lack of testing:
    No country was prepared for a epidemic like this, and ramping up of testing takes time, we have increased the testing by 7 folds in the last 3 weeks, that is a testimony to the proactive approach of the Govt. Private labs are roped in, rail bogies are converted to isolation wards , people are deployed on a war footing to engage with the most affected. If these arent the benchmarks against which a country should be compared, I do not understand what else will.

    All the states were consulted before a national lockdown was announced, yet a few states scared the migrant population. Delhi and Kerala being the notable ones. While states like Telangana, Karnataka, TN were ready to deal with the migrants, the so called model states pushed them to the brink, either by discontinuing electricity or by rumor mongering (similar to this write up)

    The very mention of Pinarayi Vijay and Uddhav Thackery shows the affiliation and the left leaning mentality of the author, Kerala and Maha are leading the charts and that is mainly because of the heavy footed approach by their respective state governments. Kerala infact went ahead and opened the alcohol shops, yeah, money matters. Another reason for Kerala topping the charts is the pathetic levels of follow up and quarantine. If a foreign traveler lands in Karnataka, he is quarantined, the nearest police station is informed, his geo location is tagged, the CORONA war room is updated and a follow up call is made frequently. No such things exist in the author’s favorite state.

    India pro actively started screening passengers from the 27th of January, when the WHO was kowtowing China.

    The very fact that the short sighted author compares Demo with a pandemic like Corona shows the moral bankruptcy if not the political leaning.

    Difficult times call for a strong leader and Modi is the only leader in India, if not the world who can succeed in doing the same. A viewership of 20Cr for a single address on national television is a testimony to the greatness of the man.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for your passionate and absolutely spot on analysis. I’m glad you took the time to read the article but I only hope you’d read the two earlier posts which I mentioned in this one because, believe it or not, I support the lockdown! I keep repeating that India is doing a lot of things right which other countries are not doing. Again, that doesn’t mean we’re not making mistakes. I hope you take that criticism in the spirit it is being made

      The only thing that upsets me is that a whole lot of people weren’t given time to respond to that announcement of the lockdown. The reactions that followed from the government are laudable but all I’m saying is that there clearly was a blindspot which people have been pointing out but nobody seemed to be listening. Press conferences are well-established avenues for questioning authorities in power globally. I might be outdated but that kind of two-way conversation does not happen through other media.

      You’re probably right that the comparison to demonetization is a disingenuous one but I make that comment in the context of accountability in these force majeure events. So I fully appreciate your argument on that one.

      The only factual fallacy I want to point out in your comment is regarding Kerala’s contact tracing efforts which have actually been in place, like you mentioned, since January. Kerala is testing about 8 times more people than the national average which is why they’re close to the top of the charts (https://thewire.in/government/wanted-a-one-stop-source-for-all-covid-19-case-data-in-india). So while I take your arguments fully, I hope you’ll acknowledge this one correction.

      You also got my political leaning right. Not sure why you think that would be insulting to me somehow though..Thoughts?

      1. Thanks for taking the criticism in the right spirit and publishing a detailed response, always a very good sign in times when dissent is not always welcome.

        About people being given time to respond:

        If people are given time to respond, wouldn’t it defeat the purpose of the lockdown? Say a window of 3 days is given, wouldn’t that mean migrant workers from across the country would go back in an assemblage? Migrant workers of all strata of incomes are present across the countries, wouldn’t that have crowded airports , railway station and basically sabotage our response? When states like Kar, Telangana , TN are able to take care of the migrant population, why did Delhi fail? I would pin the failure on the state Govt and not on the sudden announcement, you cut electricity, water supply, spread fake news, push these people out and then blame the sudden lockdown.

        The Central Govt is making sure the essential supplies are air lifted, medical equipment necessary is available and many such measures to ensure the poor don’t get affected much. An epidemic of disastrous proportion like this one has not dawned upon the Indian subcontinent before and thus there are no standard operating procedures to deal with an adversity of this sort.

        A two way conversation happens on social media and not on conventional media where the focus is more on agenda (read propoganda). Why would the PM answer a media gathering that would have political leanings? Nira radia fame Bharkha dutt, a Rajdeep , a Sekhar Gupta, An Arnab Goswami? A Rajdeep who is obsessed with 2002 and asks Sonia Gandhi how Indira used to cook? Or an Arnab Goswmi who would be Fawning the administration? Where is credibility in the electronic Media? The health secretaries and the concerned people should answer the media and any two way communication happens over social media, which is far more transparent

        Demonetization and Lockdown:

        The only thread that ties them both is that the announcement was made on a national television at 8:00pm. As far as accountability goes, demo definitely got its stamp of approval when the ruling administration was able to come back with a larger majority, there cannot be a bigger approval than the mandate of the public.
        Lockdown though is something that we are seeing right infront of our eyes, we see the results of lockdown and how it has helped to stem the rot and probably save a million lives.
        Accountability is subjective and I feel nobody more than the PM is more accountable for any of the actions that are taken, majority of the elections fought are in his name (most of the states) and his actions are put to test repeatedly.

        Kerala and testing:

        Testing protocols in India remained the same till 14th of March: Anyone who comes from abroad and shows signs of the virus has to be tested. So if Kerala has performed higher number of tests it is not because they have more testing labs or because of their capacity, it is only because of the number of people who have come from Dubai and the middle east to Kerala is very high, which also explains why you see Delhi, Karnataka and Telangana in the list.
        If I were to go to a Kerala hospital before the 14th and ask for a Corona virus test, I would be denied because I would not have come from abroad or come in contact with people who have come from these “hotspot” countries. Thus I stand in disagreement when you say that more testing is equal to better preparedness. The only parameter that determines the level of preparedness or the efficacy of the State government is how successful they are in containing local transmission, unfortunately there is no common denominator to measure the same, so we would have to stick to the measures taken by individual governments such as setting up quarantine facilities and availability of ventilators etc.

        I don’t mean to insult you by being able to identify your political leaning, I just wanted to show the prism through which you see things, if being a left leaning author has insulted you then the problem probably lies with ideology, the same ideology that has the blood of thousands of innocents in Kerala. ๐Ÿ™‚

        In hindsight, I also would like to shed light about the objection you have raised over PM Care relief fund, CAG monitors all the donations received and the money is safe,so apprehensions over the model is not rightly placed. The need for a separate fund apart from the Disaster relief fund, as I hear is because the DR fund cannot be used to purchase a lot of things, however the PM care fund does not have any such restrictions (I am not sure though), however the donations received are all audited.

        Cheers and stay safe ๐Ÿ™‚

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