December began with a mild joke, so it is easy to forget the month of March when laughter suddenly disappeared, and a deep, pervasive panic consumed our nation. Maybe amnesia is necessary for survival after passing through the valley of the shadow of death. Death, the god or angel of the immense void, stood knocking at the world’s door, with dreadful persistence. Death has no class, no caste, no mercy and stands at the crossroads of every religion. Hearts echoed with silent lament; the air was quickly polluted by the hysteria of psychological spreaders, that puffed and puerile tribe of doomsday-mongers, some of them garbed in the quackery of false doctors. Their pestilence is littered across the endless fields of the internet.
Panic is the contagious corollary of a pandemic. No chapter in the history of this endless year was more heart-rending than the sight of mass migrations as the poor fled their urban nightmare and sought the familiar sunrise of their original communities. Philosophy had an answer for our wracked consciousness: this too shall pass. But that comfort, while coherent in the collective, trembled on the edge of individual uncertainty. No one knew who would survive the scythe as it reaped havoc.
It was in the overlap between November and December that a weak joke began to flit through mobile screens: given the declining numbers, the pandemic would disappear even before the vaccine arrived. Jokes are like the famous buses of London: you can’t see any for a long time, and then suddenly they arrive one after another. A second one turned up. The success of the vaccine has been estimated at between 70 per cent and 95 per cent, but India’s survival rate is over 98 per cent so who needs the vaccine in India?
Like all good humour, it originated in lived experience. India had the lowest death rate of any major country with a democratic and open system of records. From the middle of September, the figures began to decline in a consistent slide. That was the miracle no one had expected, in media or private chatter. On the day of writing, the total number of dead is 1,43,709, out of 99,06,165 registered cases.
Long before the arrival of any vaccine, Indians came to terms with this upheaval. In October, the public mood began to change perceptibly. It was not that people became careless; they merely decided they were not going to die before their death. They were not victims of illusion. They simply factored in the various equations of a complicated calculus, and decided that they could deal with the negatives if they remained positive. This did not happen by accident. Indians were not being foolhardy; they were becoming confident that while the pandemic was a scourge of fate, its management was in safe hands.
Who wore a mask in India before March? Who produced a mask? No one. Which was why in the first stage Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated covering your nose and mouth in rural areas with a gamchha. His pandemic management was practical and comprehensive; it addressed the requirements of every corner of a vast geography and demography
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There is still debate over whether the country should have been put into lockdown in the third week of March; that debate, like so much else, is rife with partisan opinions. The more sensible option is to test it with logic. The first lockdown was necessary not because it was a wave of some magic wand that would drive out pestilence in a brief minute, but to prevent dislocations inherent in panic. It would control contagion, but could not possibly eliminate it. India needed time to create the vast healthcare infrastructure and emergency commodities-supply chain essential to handle this sudden, fearsome calamity; and slowly build the confidence of the people as they began to understand that Indians were not going to become helpless victims of an incomprehensible terror.
Who wore a mask in India before March? Who produced a mask? No one. Which was why in the first stage Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated covering your nose and mouth in rural areas with a gamchha. We had no ventilators. Sanitisers? How many medical centres used them then as they do now? We had insufficient knowledge. In the circumstances, Prime Minister Modi’s pandemic management was practical and comprehensive; it addressed the requirements of every corner of a vast geography and demography. Nudged into line, hospitals and medical centres began to adjust to the demands of this crisis. They did so brilliantly. Those with some memory will recall that railway coaches were repurposed to become coronavirus beds in an emergency. That was a confidence-building measure, which became unnecessary as the healthcare system found its bearings.
Prime Minister Modi used a mix of symbolism and pragmatism that worked. You cannot command in a democracy; that can only be done in an authoritarian regime. In a democracy, people must believe that a decision is in their best interests; only then will they accept it. The brilliant turn he gave was to make people a part of the solution, instead of only being part of a problem for which they were not responsible. The village and the mohalla became guardians against the virus.
Prime Minister Modi led a federal and national effort, in cooperation with every chief minister, including the one or two who remain recalcitrant, to create as good a safety net as India could improvise. Nothing is impervious, but doomsday had been postponed to some future age.
In a democracy, recognition of quality leadership by the people comes not in newspaper articles or internet pontification, but through elections. Prime Minister Modi has won almost every election since the pandemic began, including in bitterly contested Bihar, where opinion polls almost unanimously predicted victory for his opponents.
We witnessed in 2020 perhaps the most peaceful round of elections in our history. This was democracy at its best—and its most normal. This was clinching proof that life was back to its regular cycles in India
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Pollsters often get things wrong because they are so busy with variable text that they have little patience for context. How many of the number-jugglers, to offer just one example, remembered what happened to the rabi harvest this year when they were checking in the villages to find out who would vote for whom?
For those unfamiliar with that distant land called agriculture, rabi is the crop sown in winter and harvested around April. This year April was the month of gloom and doom. The country was at a nervous standstill. Prime Minister Modi took measures, quietly, without fuss, to ensure that the harvest process, with its large requirements of labour for mowing and transfer of produce, was completed. This was good governance in the midst of a severe challenge. There was no reason for farmers to forget in October what had saved their harvest in April.
At the start of the lockdown in March, there was genuine apprehension of food shortages. Food scarcity is not only a condition of production and supply. Fear can turn a problem into a calamity. If an average urban household decides to hoard five kg of grain, all the supply in the world cannot keep up with demand. But people quickly found the confidence to buy what they needed and no more. They were certain of assured availability by a hands-on Government. Bread and sport, says an ancient adage, keep the people calm, although you do not have to be ancient or modern to appreciate the necessity of food or the value of entertainment. With the arrival of rains, sport crept back onto the television screen, which has become the common man’s stadium while the stadium has been upgraded into an upper-class theatre.
Even though the casualty radar flickered between heavy and light blips, there was no return of lockdown. India found its feet, one step at a time. By November, the economy began to show evidence of revival; manufacturing was up, as was the Goods and Services Tax collection, an accurate measure of commercial transaction. The inveterate sceptics stationed in Delhi, who had been reporting the imminent onslaught of unprecedented disaster, discovered that the daily infection rate had slid as sharply as the descent of an Everest; while the death rate remained the lowest among major nations with an open system similarly afflicted. So what did the alarmists do? They changed the subject, of course.
What was the big story of 2020?
May I suggest an unusual answer to a seemingly redundant question? The virus was, one assumes, an accident, perhaps one waiting to happen but nevertheless an accident; an insidious tsunami from the air selecting victims with the random eye of a tyrant. A story, in my view, is a narrative of human endeavour. For me, the big story of 2020 was the quiet, persistent and meticulous way in which democracy conquered dread.
The pandemic of 2020 was cruel. This year, death was lonely. You disappeared into the void alone and isolated, without family or friends. The only conversation you had was with yourself. Eerily, this was also true of those who survived
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Elections were held in India, at every level from state to village and municipality, all through the pandemic. The decision to hold them is taken by the Election Commission in consultation with governments, which must provide the security and bureaucracy required. But they are successful only if people vote. Without a voter there is no ballot. In every case the voter turned up, followed the discipline, marked his and her preference, and surprised the know-all pundit with rare relish. We also witnessed in 2020 perhaps the most peaceful round of elections in our history. This was democracy at its best—and its most normal. This was clinching proof that life was back to its regular cycles in India. Remarkably, the elections did not lead to any spike of virus cases.
There were 7.3 crore voters in Bihar; 57 per cent participated in three phases, taking their decision on 71 seats on October 28th, 94 seats on November 3rd and 78 seats on November 7th. It was better than a carbon copy of an electoral schedule in a non-pandemic year. There were elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad, Assam and Goa. The only subdued turnout was in Hyderabad, and this had more do with an absence of political enthusiasm rather than a fear of disease.
Here are the newspaper headlines a day after the panchayat elections in Goa: ‘Amid Covid, 57% of rural Goa votes, keeps parties guessing’; ‘Usually vocal, mining belt goes silent this time’; ‘Salcete records 47% turnout’; ‘31 Covid patients turn up in PPE suits to cast vote’; ‘Police drop rifles, arm themselves with thermal guns’; ‘Cong., NCP in verbal duel at Benaulim’. In other stories, the ruling party, BJP, claimed victory and the principal opposition, Congress, accused the election panel of turning a blind eye to violations. Gripe is usually a sign of weakness, and so it proved. BJP won an overwhelming victory.
One self-important American newspaper, always happy to overegg the pudding, uses as its brand line the claim that ‘Democracy dies in darkness’. Quite the opposite. Everyone can see in light. It is only democracy, illuminated by the principle of the collective good, powered by an accountability mathematics that can bring down any government, which has the force to outlast darkness. The American presidential elections proved this, not because of the results but because of voter participation. Both candidates got over 74 million votes: Biden had 81,282,896, Trump got 74,222,484. The figures are the highest ever for both parties, in the middle of a health disaster that has already taken over 300,000 American lives.
A virus without borders should encourage solutions without borders. A century ago, the world learnt little from the global affliction of the so-called Spanish Flu. There is some good news today. According to one estimate, 200 million would have been dead by now instead of 1.5 million if the lethal rate had been the same as it was in 1918 and 1919. If there is hope of control in 2020 and 2021, it is because the crisis has lifted national compartments. Manufacturing abilities in India have teamed up with research facilities in Britain; testing is transnational; and pricing has to become affordable. Alas, such facts and figures may comfort the living but are meaningless to the million and half that have died.
Death is not sentimental. Age has its demands, if disease has let you slip through to dotage. There is an unconscious but prescribed routine for normal fatality: tears dry within a day; kitchen fires are re-lit in 24 hours; memories begin to leave the conversation although they might never quite leave you; and then comes some anointed day when speeches and prayer bid an official goodbye. Life must go on.
The pandemic of 2020 was cruel. This year, death was lonely. You disappeared into the void alone and isolated, without family or friends. The only conversation you had was with yourself.
Eerily, this was also true of those who survived. For long periods, conversation was rationed. You spoke, mostly, to yourself. This probably needs another term: perhaps ‘inversation’ rather than ‘conversation’. When I think back to an elder I loved and respected but who has now gone, or a friend of long ago who passed away, thoughts sink into a conundrum. Of what use were those hedgehog quills of ambition, or the many years of telephone power to an individual trapped for a month in a sterile room staring at the slow but inexorable arrival of the angel of death?
Why does religion offer an angel of death, but no angel of life?
I think, said a French philosopher, therefore I am. The truth may be elsewhere: I think and therefore I am not.