It is one thing for a government to fail and it is another for it to brazen it out and make a virtue out of this failure. This is especially so when it is a matter as calamitous as the monumental incompetence of governance that has led to the greatest public health tragedy in Independent India’s history.
Rather than accepting mistakes and trying to rectify them, the government of the largest democracy in the world is reduced to image management: writing official rejoinders to foreign media critical of its handling of the pandemic, asking Indian diplomats to counter the “one-sided” narrative abroad, or censoring social media criticism.
It is astounding that a not a single minister of the central government has resigned over a tragedy of this scale. Basically, the message is: the government is not responsible, and if it is, it must be some state government ruled by an Opposition party.
This is so drastically deviant from global democratic practices and, shockingly, even from practices of authoritarian governments.
Of course, we are not in an era when Lal Bahadur Shastri sent his resignation as Railway Minister over 112 deaths in a railway accident. Yet, the audacious abdication of responsibility is staggering in the face of visuals like patients dying because of the lack of oxygen in the capital city of nuclear power.
Let us look at global examples (not a fully exhaustive list) of how governments at least tried to be seen as being responsive to public sentiments.
Austrian health minister resigned ostensibly over his own health problems from overwork and because the government, in his view, needed a “fit” health minister. But he said something that cannot be even uttered by any senior member of the cabinet in India: “In a pandemic, no one is free of mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. We were in uncharted territory.”
Romanian health minister was dismissed after three patients died from ventilator failure. Previously, people had protested when a hospital fire killed patients. The former health minister, too, had resigned in August 2020 following mishandling of the pandemic.
Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic resigned after buying unapproved Russian vaccines without informing his nation or his coalition cabinet.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro replaced six ministers of his cabinet over what is generally considered as his failed COVID handling. One year ago, two health ministers of Brazil had resigned in one month and there were calls for the impeachment of the President.
Ecuador’s health minister resigned over a vaccination scandal after just 19 days of taking over from the previous health minister, who, too, had resigned because of poor handling of the pandemic.
Mongolia’s Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa resigned after protests broke out over the inhumane treatment of a COVID-19 patient which spiralled into a critique of the country’s general response to the pandemic. But at the time of his resignation, only two COVID-19 deaths had been recorded in the nation of three million!
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy resigned because the handling of the economic crisis following the pandemic.
Czech health minister resigned despite handling the pandemic reasonably well.
Polish health minister resigned over irregularities regarding medical equipment purchase.
The health minister of New Zealand, considered to be a rare global success in handling the pandemic, resigned over lockdown blunders.
Chilean health minister resigned over the government’s response to COVID-19.
Turkey’s interior minister sent his resignation taking responsibility for chaos following a weekend COVID curfew that was imposed with only two hours’ notice (Erdogan did not accept the resignation). The lockdown for the entire nation in March 2020, if we recall, was announced by Narendra Modi with just four hours’ notice leading to millions of workers walking thousands of kilometres to their homes.
Israeli health minister had to give up his post following intense criticism over his coronavirus handling.
Countries listed here holding some standards of public accountability during the pandemic are an illustration of how insouciant the Indian government has been when it comes to a hubristic policy-inflicted tragedy of this scale.
From the above list, Mongolia, Romania, Ecuador and Peru are ranked below India (a flawed democracy and ranked 53) on the Democracy Index. Turkey is ranked 104. Jordan is ranked 118 and is classified as an authoritarian regime!
Slovakia, Poland, Brazil and Argentina are all ranked only just above India. Chile, Austria and New Zealand are the only full democracies.
This shows the depths to which even electoral democracies can sink to, something that has been attested by India’s case and its continuous slide down the democracy scale to be recently classified as “partially free” or an “electoral autocracy.”
It is not just that the government gives two hoots about democracy, but the people themselves have been reticent about ensuring that their governments are accountable. This is not a just a function of the domination of the ideology of Hindu nationalism, but also of repressive use of draconian laws, a completely servile mainstream media and a national Opposition that has been rendered ineffective due to a combination of factors. Therefore, unless the pandemic causes a tectonic political churning, we will only be witnessing occasional trends on social media like #ResignModi.
The pandemic is, ultimately, not just a story of a health tragedy, but also the story of India’s democracy.
(Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University and tweets @nmannathukkaren. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)