Clueless captain
FRONTLINE|May 22, 2020
Clueless captain
As the nation longs for relief from the pandemic and the economic misery caused by an ill-planned lockdown, the government prefers symbolism over substance, exposing its lack of meaningful leadership.
VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

STAGING EXTRAVAGANT, DRAMATIC spectacles to camouflage the confusion and paralysis in terms of policy formulation and practical governance has been the central characteristic of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis right from the early stages of the pandemic in India. True to form, the run-up to the third phase of the lockdown from May 4 through May 17 was also marked by yet another diversionary extravaganza. This time it was by deploying Indian Air Force flights to conduct flypasts across India and shower flower petals on select hospitals and facilities, ostensibly to show the nation’s gratitude to the thousands of health care workers battling the pandemic. The “celestial flower show” was accompanied by illumination of Indian Navy ships in harbours and band performances by the Indian Army in hospitals and other venues.

Similar theatrics preceded earlier phases of the lockdowns too, on March 24 and April 14. Lockdown 1.0 came in with the “sound show” of March 22, when the Prime Minister exhorted the people to clap their hands or ring bells or bang utensils from their houses as a symbolic gesture to show their appreciation for the corona warriors. Then came the “light show”, by which people were asked to switch off lights at home at 9 p.m. on April 9 and light a candle or a lamp or flash a mobile phone standing at their doorsteps or balconies. Each of these performances was accompanied by self-aggrandizing manoeuvres of the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath were the principal players in this “patting one’s own back” exercise.

DEATH ON THE TRACKS

Amidst all this showmanship, the pandemic has continued to rage across States, especially in large ones such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, which contribute to the economy in a big way. Exodus of millions of people, mostly migrant workers, from cities and towns to rural areas, caused by the utterly unscientific and unplanned manner in which the first lockdown of March 4 was announced, continues in several parts of the country, leaving heart-rending tales of misery day after day.

The horrific death of 16 migrant workers sleeping on a railway track when a speeding goods train ran over them in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad in the early hours of May 8 starkly highlighted this misery. The workers, who were based in Jalna in Maharashtra, belonged to Madhya Pradesh, and had tried for many days to get into a special train bound for their home State. When their efforts did not succeed they decided to walk hundreds of miles to get back to what they perceived as the relative safety of their native places. After a hard day’s walk, they decided to sleep on the railway track as they did not expect any train on that route since it was lockdown time. According to the survivors in the group, they had also thought that the tracks were relatively safer against any attack from animals and reptiles.

Indeed, the Aurangabad tragedy was the most shocking incident that highlighted the colossal hardships inflicted on the poor and the marginalised thanks to the absence of proper planning by the authorities in facilitating movement of people and the callous and inhuman way the Union government and many State governments treated them. Barring States like Kerala, which has managed the public health crisis and its social and human ramifications in an appreciable way, almost all regions are facing unparalleled distress situations caused by the pandemic, which have been compounded by rampaging hunger among large sections of the population.

According to a number of serving and retired defence personnel who talked to Frontline in the context of the unprecedented human misery, the deployment of the armed forces for the “flower show” was nothing short of a criminal offence. “We all hang our heads in shame. All the things that the three forces were made to do as part of the flower show are normally done after their victory in a war situation. Where is the victory here? And were the forces deployed for the kind of yeoman tasks that they have done in the past, such as delivering food and essentials for those who are being forced to go without them for days on end?” a senior retired army officer said.

ADMIRAL RAMDAS’ LETTER TO PM

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May 22, 2020