Felled by insensitivity, incompetence

Earlier this week, a young woman in Uttar Pradesh tweeted a cry for help. Her grandmother’s oxygen level had fallen to 40. “Pls help us in getting one bed in hospital in Bareilly,” she wrote in desperation. Soon a handle that called itself “Team Hindu Unlimited” was on her: “Stop trying to defame UP government and Yogi Ji. Delete this tweet or you will face consequences.” This ugly tweet has since been deleted, but the plaintive response of the young woman is still there. “I’m just asking for help,” she had to say.

The storm troopers were the advance guard. Now, the State itself has decided it will step in. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has threatened hospitals with punitive action if they dare to publicly speak about low supplies of oxygen. How could they when there is no shortage? Nineteen Eighty-Four has arrived four decades late, the Ministry of Truth has at last been established in India.


This is where we are today.

India floundering

A catastrophe has hit India, caused in the main by a combination of arrogance and incompetence at the highest levels of the government and political leadership. Yet, the hubris has not ebbed and there is no sign that the competent have replaced the incompetent in dealing with the ferocious second wave of the pandemic.

Since public health services cannot deal with the catastrophe, citizens have been left to their devices to, literally, survive. When they seek each other’s help to care for the sick in their families, the vigilantes who now prowl our virtual and physical streets, threaten violence as they defend the reputation of their political heroes.

Power in one office

We may claim otherwise, but with all its extreme economic and caste-driven inequalities, Indian society was never known for its compassion. What we have become today though is something else. We have a government that has no moral compass to guide it; its only compass is to remake India into one where all are not equal and where it must be “mukt” of all diversity. In carrying out this agenda over more than five years, it has transformed the purpose and capacity of the state. To govern is not the main purpose; to create a Hindu Rashtra is the aim. To do so, it has bribed, threatened, or browbeaten all independent institutions and deprived them of an independent voice. It has made a mockery of federalism and reduced State governments to near vassals. It has centralised power in one office, the ominous sounding “PMO”. It has weakened the bureaucracy to an extent that civil servants are too terrified to do anything other than what their political masters want. To achieve its objective, it is focused entirely on winning every single election, from the municipal to the national, or failing that, engineering defections by hook or by crook so that it can wield untrammelled power.


Is it any wonder then that when the storm clouds gather, there is no one to tell the Emperor he is not wearing any clothes? There was no institution, no group and no individual in the circles of power to say that India was no Vishwaguru, that India was not special and that the pandemic was not in retreat. There was no one to tell a Chief Minister that holy as the Ganga’s waters are, this round at least will be won by the evil of SARS-CoV-2 if devotees gather every day in tens of thousands on the banks of the river.

The Election Commission of India has become such a shell of its former self that it dare not do anything that will reduce huge “road shows”, that new hallmark of Indian democracy that the ruling party specialises in. And there is no one to tell the Prime Minister that to say with pride (without wearing a mask), “I have never seen such a large crowd” at an election meeting, as he did in Asansol in mid-April when daily new cases of COVID-19 were over 200,000, is an invitation to create a public health disaster. The hubris of our political leadership has indeed turned the Government of India into a “Vishwaguru” of a certain kind — one that catalyses, not prevents, a humanitarian disaster.

A government that has lost its sense of purpose in governance will not have a machinery that can cope with a public health catastrophe. Its incompetence has descended to such levels that it cannot match numbers on supply with demand when it draws up a vaccination drive. It is so eager to shirk responsibility that it abandons a decades-long policy of free universal vaccination and then places half the burden of vaccination on the financially crippled States. It does not seek cooperation and support from the Opposition. It instead thinks it is more important to abuse former Prime Ministers who offer suggestions. And it is so obsessed with managing the narrative that it sends anonymous WhatsApp messages to the media with talking points about how to criticise the Opposition. It has created such an immoral universe that as people lie on pavements outside hospitals seeking medical help, the market feels free to engage in price gouging of the desperate.

No compassion

This is a government that is incapable of showing any compassion for those who are suffering. The DNA of the state has changed so much that it does not even think it should reach out with messages of comfort to those who are bewildered with what has overwhelmed them. The political leadership is so much in love with showing its ‘strength’ that it thinks compassion is another word for weakness. A strong government is not one that uses every occasion to ask its citizens to demonstrate their sense of nationalism. It is instead one that can admit it is wrong, seek forgiveness for its actions that have created harm and show compassion for those who are struggling to stay alive.



When it does so, it can surely draw everyone into a collective effort to deal with this catastrophe. It is not just a question of competence, this is a mammoth crisis that no government can handle on its own. The Government of India needs the support of citizen groups, of the Opposition, of the courts, of the medical profession, of industry — of everyone who is willing to help get the better of this nightmare. It was in a similar situation this time last year that it had the opportunity to form a national government (https://bit.ly/3h3B6yT). It instead chose the first wave of the pandemic to further centralise power, push State governments aside, use the infamous Delhi police to throw young people into jail on false charges, issue a slew of ordinances and then railroad unpopular legislation through Parliament. It used the pandemic in 2020 not to build a healthier society but for short-term political gain to further centralise power in one office.

It may be against the nature of this government to accommodate differences of opinion and seek everyone’s help. But Indians are now struggling for something as basic as oxygen as this vast country finds itself felled not by the virus but by a government’s insensitivity and incompetence. There is much more at stake than the self-interest of one political party and one individual. Hubris and compassion sit on two mountains. Which one are we going to climb?

C. Rammanohar Reddy is Editor of the digital publication, The India Forum

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 7:25:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/felled-by-insensitivity-incompetence/article34453076.ece

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