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Fifth Column by Tavleen Singh: India cannot breathe

As a first step the Prime Minister needs to sack the officials in his government whose criminal negligence has put India in intensive care without oxygen.

India is in the ICU and those who put her there now spend their time trying to shift the blame. The change from ‘victory’ over Covid to gasping for oxygen began in the last week of January this year when the Prime Minister proudly declared that India had not only defeated the pandemic but had been an inspiration for other countries. He then proceeded to personally oversee vaccine exports to needy countries and his Minister of External Affairs boasted about it. After this ‘victory’, the Prime Minister and Home Minister spent their time organising a blitzkrieg of election rallies in West Bengal and Assam without wearing masks and while exhorting large crowds to gather.

Why the Election Commission allowed this to happen is another story. What matters is that the message ordinary Indians took from the example of their leaders was that they could happily go off to the Kumbh Mela and plan pilgrimages to temples in the mountains that begin at this time of year. When opposition leaders said that it was wrong to allow huge election rallies, BJP spokesmen attacked them for playing politics. They took their lead from Amit Shah who gave a series of television interviews between the many phases of the Bengal election and repeated in each of them that the only reason opposition leaders were trying to stop rallies in West Bengal was because they knew that the BJP was winning. “Why did they not complain during the Assam election?”

When epidemiologists and doctors started ringing alarm bells about the possibility of a second wave, they were ignored by high officials in the Government of India with an arrogance that they continue to exhibit. They have been responsible for criminal mismanagement and should be sacked. It was their strategy to fight the pandemic in a centrally planned way. Now they blame state governments for the grim shortages we are seeing of oxygen supplies in major hospitals in Delhi and Mumbai. Their strategy was so flawed that India now has more daily cases than any other country and the death toll is rising so rapidly that there are long queues outside cremation grounds and graveyards are running out of burial space.

The horror of what is happening seems finally to have pierced the echo chamber in which Narendra Modi is sealed, so last week he took a series of urgent steps. He allowed the import of foreign vaccines thereby admitting that his slogan of ‘atmanirbharta’ was badly timed. It was also faulty since to make Indian vaccines we need raw materials that come from other countries. Modi also cancelled his election rallies in Bengal and held a series of meetings with chief ministers and oxygen suppliers, but whatever new strategy that results from this will take many months to become effective. Many, many more Indians will be dead by then.

The Prime Minister may have become fully aware of the horror that has resulted from criminal mishandling by his officials, but the message his ministers, sycophants and party spokesmen continue to send remains defiant. If anyone dares suggest that India is in the ICU because our strategy to deal with the pandemic was wrong, they respond with disdain. Last week, a senior BJP spokesman appeared on a prime-time chat show to declare that the opposition parties were playing ‘vulture politics.’ These spokesmen also make every effort to blame the Maharashtra government for everything that has gone wrong because other than winning Bengal the BJP wants nothing more than to take back the state that they believe they won.

They need to be careful of what they say because among the states with the biggest surge now is Uttar Pradesh, which is ruled by the man who in Hindutva circles is not just a hero but a future prime minister. Not long ago he was chosen by an India Today poll as India’s best chief minister. He seems more eager to retain this image than fight the pandemic because his office has now taken to lying about the death toll. It is brave journalists taking pictures of rows of funeral pyres and desperate people begging for oxygen and beds outside hospitals that tell the real story of how bad things are in the state that Yogi Adityanath claims he has ‘transformed’.

So, what should happen now? As a first step the Prime Minister needs to sack the officials in his government whose criminal negligence has put India in intensive care without oxygen. He should then make a new team with all chief ministers in it and take their advice to evolve a new strategy. He should show that he has risen above the partisan politics his supporters continue to show. The most important thing he needs to do is to open the purse strings of Prime Minister Cares and use it, along with that Rs 35,000 crore allocated in the Budget, to vaccinate at least half of our population as soon as possible.

Countries that have put vaccinations at the centre of their fight against Covid are now looking to reach pre-pandemic normalcy by the summer. Many of these countries have made it clear that their borders will remain closed to Indians until we can establish that vaccinations are effective against the Indian double mutants. Putting our best scientists on the job should be a priority. For the moment India feels like a ship that is totally adrift.

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