Modi’s ‘Untruthful’ Speech Shows Desperation to Regain Lost Ground
Modi implied that the states were entirely responsible for messing up the vaccine drive, thus, shifting blame.
In his address to the nation on Monday, 7 June, when Delhi and several states had started returning to a modicum of 'normalcy' after the catastrophic second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, PM Modi launched efforts to regain political initiative and repair his battered public image.
In an inappropriately combative speech, the prime minister conjoined the announcement that 75 percent of available vaccines would be procured and administered by the Centre to citizens above 18 years of age, free of charge, from 21 June, with sharp criticism of previous regimes for India's immunisation programme.
He simultaneously laid complete blame at the doorsteps of the states for the vaccine mess in the country — shifting blame for the Centre’s faulty policy that had riled up even the Supreme Court.
He also accused critics, and his favourite target — ‘sections’ (read: non- ‘lapdog’) of the media — for demanding that the eligibility age for vaccines be lowered to eighteen, clearly a direct reference to his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh and other opposition stalwarts.
How Modi Deftly Shifted Blame to the States For Centre’s Bungled Vaccine Policy
In contrast to his projected image of one who cannot be coerced into taking decisions, Modi conveyed that the fault in the Centre's policy was due to the fact that he had bowed to pressure groups.
The version he presented was one-dimensional, as well as untruthful. He suggested that the Centre under his ‘able’ leadership was ‘efficiently’ vaccinating people against COVID-19, after ‘due bipartisan consultation’, till the states and political adversaries jumped into the fray by waving the flag of federalism because “health was a state subject”.
The subsequent disorder, Modi claimed, left the Centre with no option but to once again take charge of the entire programme, although even now, 25 percent of the vaccinations will remain available through private hospitals, (unfairly, a small number of them bagged 50 percent of the stock in May), albeit, with service charge capped at Rs 150. Not a word was said on reimbursing those who paid exorbitantly.
The political message was delivered unambiguously: centralisation is the panacea for all ills. If ever you require an example for the phrase, ‘give the dog a bad name and hang it’, look up the government's vaccination alternating stances and point fingers at federalism.
How Modi Sidestepped Explanation for Govt’s Failures — And Took ‘Credit’ Instead
The beating that Modi's public image has taken since April is unprecedented, and it would have been naive to expect him to live with it and eventually become a lame-duck premier for the remaining three years of his tenure.
This address to the people will not be the last for its political tone, but is the start of a process to reclaim political territory and goodwill. There's no certainty that it will work, but no effort shall be spared. The loss this time will take longer to overcome and memories of this period will linger.
Yet, these lines can be expected to be parroted ad nauseam at every party meeting, on every platform, by each leader, and in social media campaigns.
A hint of what was coming was provided at a virtual event on 3 June, when Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, glossed over mortality and morbidity figures during this period and instead claimed that India had controlled the second wave “in a very short time” under Modi’s able leadership.
The tone and tenor of Modi's speech replicated what was said previously too — Indians had emerged from the calamitous period with least possible damage due to timely interventions of the Centre. There was just a random remark at the beginning regarding many people regrettably losing loved ones.
Modi sidestepped an explanation of the government’s failure to anticipate the wave and not being better prepared with ready makeshift hospital beds across India and adequate medical oxygen supplies.
The boast of embanking the house after the tornado passed is of little solace to people.
Modi’s Attempts At Regaining ‘Vishwas’
It appears that the government and the ruling party has gone back to the mode they were in through the first quarter of this year: claiming that under Modi's “able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership,” India was introduced “to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID-19”.
It is not for no reason that Modi stressed on the need to have trust or ‘vishwas’. The loss of people's faith in his abilities is the biggest deficit the prime minister faces — remember, these are the same people who swayed to the chant of ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ (everything's possible if Modi's there).
The prime minister is aiming to restore people’s belief in their destiny to fight and win the battle as the first step towards the objective of resurrecting himself as the ‘hriday samrat’ (emperor of people’s hearts).
This, however, won’t be easy, given widespread criticism on social media immediately after his address concluded.
A Return to ‘Atmanirbharta’
Given India's continuing vaccine hesitancy, people's fear of not getting inoculated due to ham-handed policy is not the primary political challenge staring Modi in the face. Little purpose will be served by further antagonising states, because they must be enlisted as partners by the Centre to combat a possible third wave, and maybe more.
Furthermore, to address the terrifying thought among large sections of the masses of living a life in penury, Modi announced extension of the free food grains scheme under a central scheme, bearing the name of his office (PM Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana).
Establishing his copyright over matters important is crucial to Modi’s image re-fabrication.
Thereby, he returned to the ‘atmanirbharta’ theme on the two ‘Made in India’ vaccines, benefits of the standard claims of having ‘niyat saaf’ (clean intentions) and ‘niti spasht’ (coherent policy), although each of these claims is questionable.
Besides the pressure to prop up the falling approval ratings, the address was also an effort to pre-empt the Supreme Court and hope that the judges would be content with the new policy and not insist on a post-mortem of the earlier version.
Why Has Yoga Day Been Chosen to Re-Launch Centralised Vaccine Drive?
In recent weeks, the courts have not always allowed the government to breathe easy. It remains to be seen what it does on the matter of vaccines after slamming the earlier policy as “prima facie, arbitrary and irrational”.
Modi asking people to shed vaccine hesitancy is a bit like shutting the door after the horse has bolted. From the time when people were asked to bang ‘thaalis’ and blow conch-shells, the government missed a virus-sent opportunity to inculcate scientific temper among people. But because obscurantist practices furthers the BJP's politics, no effort was made in this direction.
Old habits die hard, they say. 21 June has been chosen as the day to re-launch the Centre-driven vaccination drive, not merely because it is a Monday or a fortnight away. Modi reminded people that 21 June is International Yoga Day. One wonders what yoga has to do with vaccination.
Modi’s Eyes On Upcoming Elections
The past fifteen months have demonstrated that regardless of the ferocity of the challenge on the health front, Modi's one eye remains focussed on the electoral battlegrounds ahead. He is aware of the grave challenges the BJP faces next year in its sternest test in Uttar Pradesh.
With this address to the nation, Modi has made his first explicit political move after the devastating second wave of COVID-19. It is up to the opposition to counter this effort at reclaiming lost goodwill.
The opposition cannot do this on merely social and mass media. Amid the challenge of safeguarding themselves from the virus, they need to remember that battles will be fought on the ground. Handing over to the BJP the first-movers’ advantage will not do the opposition's prospects any good.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. 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)
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