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.
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.
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.
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.