The campaign against the government’s response to the pandemic has borrowed from the playbook of Chinese propaganda but has hit a wall in the trust Narendra Modi enjoys
PR Ramesh and Ullekh NP | 01 May, 2020
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a video conference with chief ministers, New Delhi, April 27 (Photo: PIB)
CGTN stands for China Global Television Network, an English TV channel controlled by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Its star anchor, Zou Yue, is a native of Wuhan where Covid-19 originated. He comes on TV, on Zoom and other platforms in a video that has gone viral. Zou, a sharp journalist, begins with reasonable statements about the state of things. “It [the disease that originated in his Hubei province] respects no national boundaries, no social bounds, no political systems and no cultural values. It hits us just as hard. It levels the world…It infected thousands in Wuhan in a day. And every hospital bed was occupied. Now, empty beds and closed wards in the city.”
Before he goes on to preach to the world how China broke the cycle of the spread, he contends that adjectives such as extreme, draconian and aggressive are true of the measures the country adopted. Then, suddenly, he skips to what others had done when confronted with unprecedented events. “After 9/11, all airports in the world had to impose draconian security measures and people accepted it. We traded a little bit of our freedom for the greater good of the people,” he asserts. “China imposed [the] largest and most draconian quarantine in history. Factories shut. Public transport stopped. People stayed indoors. By doing that, it flattened the curve. China avoided many millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths. On the other hand, it stretched out the time and made the hospitals re-staffed and less strained.” And then, Zou becomes pedagogic: “This is exactly what Europe and America should know. But public policy needs both ends to agree—the decision-makers and the decision-takers. Quarantine is indeed extreme and extremely restrictive. It needs the people in lockdown to be honest and cooperative. I think what the people in Wuhan did was exceptional.” He goes on: “We should all move ahead with humility. There is no decision without trade-offs. And most of all—there is nothing without skin in the game. And now the whole world has learnt or learning to play.” The bottomline is clear: China is exceptional and it can offer the rest of the world tips.
Such campaigns couched in seemingly inventive logic have the power to attract people’s curiosity—and also to mislead them. Sample this tweet by Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying: ‘China is the 1st to report and share virus data with WHO (World Health Organization) and other countries. WHO joint mission including 2 US experts already visited Wuhan and commended China’s efforts. When will Washington invite joint international expert team to the US for investigation?’ She is one of the top Chinese diplomats on an overdrive to deflect global public opinion against the CPC and its top leaders over their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and apparent failure to stop its worldwide spread. Falling back on this mode of propaganda is nothing new for China.
The Chinese playbook is being borrowed for verbal assault on the Government’s handling of the crisis in India too, but with much less finesse. The common thread begins and ends with loudness. Notwithstanding the alacrity with which the Narendra Modi dispensation and various state governments sprang into action, the opposition has been raising objections, highlighting exceptions rather than the rule. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was quick to dole out advice: “In no way does a lockdown defeat the virus. It helps only to pause the virus for a short while. The only way to do this is to increase testing and chasing the virus, and going beyond, and this is my advice to the government—use testing.” For her part, his sister and Congress Vice President Priyanka Gandhi tweeted: ‘Transparency is a big thing in the fight against coronavirus. Hiding data and truth will not help.’ These Congress leaders also went on to talk about their “concerns” about the “plight” of migrant workers.
Magnifying certain aspects of human behaviour beyond the control of governments has become a favourite pastime of rivals seeking political mileage in a grave crisis. What comes to mind is Mahatma Gandhi’s crisp yet forceful terminology for India baiters of yore: sanitary inspectors. The hypocrisy of such posturing when the Government needs the whole political and bureaucratic classes, and the people, to align with it smacks of ulterior motives, especially considering what the administration has done in steering and coordinating an anti-Covid blitz along with state governments.
This uproar seems to have influenced the media, too, to focus merely on the plight of migrant workers. While more measures are in order to address the concerns of people who have relocated from their villages to cities, triggering an extreme urbanisation, the steps being taken by the Centre and states are being glossed over. What is left, once again, is pandemonium that muffles reason while entrenched lobbies disproportionately put the spotlight on areas where the Government has been less successful.
Italian scholar Umberto Eco had identified two forms of censorship, both close to Chinese statecraft: one through silence and the other through noise. ‘To avoid talking about deviant behaviour, talk a great deal about other things,’ Eco had written. That is precisely what the likes of Hua are doing: passing the buck through clamorous propaganda. Other prominent names in this Chinese publicity juggernaut are Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the UK; Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the US; and star diplomat Lijian Zhao. The most remarkable thing is they employ a raft of tactics that includes professing of solidarity with the rest of the world while never losing sight of the strategy: to lap up the so-called phenomenal Chinese success story in slowing the spread of Covid-19 while the West dawdled for weeks until they bungled when they stood face-to-face with trouble at home. The ruse is clearly to talk a great deal about everything else, except the smoking gun that would relate Beijing with apathy and hostility towards whistle-blowers and deaths in large numbers. The dominant narrative now is that of China’s superlative action against the virus versus the incompetent response of most other nations.
In India, the opposition is imitating the Chinese. The anti-Government blitz started with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his team reportedly telling non-voter migrants through a murmur campaign that buses were ready at the Anand Vihar bus depot to take them home. Since the lockdown was announced on March 24th, people began marching, along with children, towards their homes in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Haryana and elsewhere, in the hope of hoping onto a bus. All social distancing norms and caution were thrown to the wind. Something similar happened a few weeks later in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb. Migrant labourers thronged the Bandra West railway station looking to board trains back home. The visuals from outside a mosque showed no women in the large crowds; nobody carried bags or any luggage. They had to be dispersed by force.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be fully aware of the situation and wonders why the opposition is not measuring up to the extraordinary challenge. He has repeatedly pointed out that his interactions with ASHA workers, doctors and others are invigorating affairs and that even those employed in the final lap, between our health system and the people, are trained in using apps to make communication about Covid-19 unhindered.
On migrant workers, Modi has said that most of them now feel cared for since state governments are working to provide them the best they can. For instance, only 10 per cent of the migrant workers from UP in Haryana’s Yamuna Nagar camps want to return home, although the Yogi Adityanath government has assured them safe transportation to their villages, according to a state nodal officer. The Prime Minister has also often referred to migrant workers’ responses in the media when, on TV, they have categorically stated they have no ill will towards the Centre. Modi has said that he found it heartening amid stories that his Government was being brutal and insensitive towards the plight of the migrant population. Every state is in perfect coordination with the Centre to ensure migrant workers don’t starve, officials affirm. It is often other existential woes—such as restrictions on movement—that migrant workers have got to share. Government officials and doctors Open spoke to say that is something no government can do anything about at the moment. “Lockdown is a stark reality. People have to come to terms with it. No point in fretting about it,” says a Lucknow-based medical specialist. Notwithstanding scepticism from various corners, the Prime Minister has said that India will do well in combating this pandemic thanks to the relentless implementation of a slew of measures aimed at saving lives and livelihoods.
Writing in The Atlantic, political scientist Francis Fukuyama said that the major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other. “Rather, there will be some high-performing autocracies, and some with disastrous outcomes. There will be a similar, though likely smaller, variance in outcomes among democracies. The crucial determinant in performance will not be the type of regime, but the state’s capacity and, above all, trust in government.” In the past six years, Modi has invested in building capacity and in winning people’s trust. Which is why, as he notes, the Centre could perform well in tackling the virus and keeping the death toll low compared with other countries with more advanced medical infrastructure. Given India’s size, population and a plethora of factors, including poverty levels and health infrastructure, even die-hard optimists had expected the situation to be much worse. So far, the Government’s performance has been phenomenal despite the proliferation of naysayers. Senior officials and politicians note that blaming the Centre for targeting the Muslim community as super spreaders is ridiculous. After all, senior politicians at the Centre have insisted on political correctness. The official release that initially talked about the Tablighi Jamaat attributed the spread to a ‘single source’ and dealing with the large number of infections caused by attendees was called ‘special operations’.
“That the fiasco in Nizamuddin at the Tablighi Jamaat conference [where close interactions among participants resulted in a record number of infections] was intended at stigmatising any community was peddled by vested interests,” says a senior official, who adds that the Government’s mission now is to save one-sixth of humanity from the highly infectious viral outbreak. Democratic mobilisation of all stakeholders has proved fruitful, too, he adds.
Yet, the noise that Eco talked about still appears pervasive. And the pessimism of detractors appears contagious. The Congress has been active through the media and on social media in their apparent political isolation. Like a prototypical irresponsible opposition, the party’s leaders have been busy pointing fingers at the ruling coalition for doing what they themselves would have done.
Uttar Pradesh feeds 12.35 lakh people from its community kitchens. It launched 14 Covid-19 testing labs where 1,200 tests are done daily. It also scaled up manufacturing of masks and hand sanitiser
Senior Congress leaders, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and P Chidambaram, have criticised the Union Government for freezing a hike in Dearness Allowance (DA) and Dearness Relief (DR). States like Rajasthan and Maharashtra where the Congress is in power or is part of the ruling dispensation, as well as Andhra Pradesh, have ordered a 50 per cent deferment in salaries of government employees. Similar ‘freezing’ measures were taken by the Congress Governments at the Centre shortly after the wars with China and Pakistan in the 1960s and in the 1970s. Incidentally, it was Manmohan Singh who, as Chief Economic Adviser, had piloted such a move in 1974. Besides, India has a rich tradition of its leaders seeking sacrifice from people in tough times. For instance, Lal Bahadur Shastri had appealed to the people to skip one meal during the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and the majority of Indians had readily obliged.
The noise notwithstanding, the Modi Government has earned praise from the WHO for its prompt cash dispensing scheme (direct benefit transfer) and distribution of food material in various parts of the country. The numbers tell the real story: the Centre has transferred Rs 36,659 crore directly to the bank accounts of more than 16 crore poor people between March 24th and April 17th to help them tide over the lockdown. The bank transfers were done by the Controller General of Accounts office, which is part of the Union finance ministry. According to reports, the Government disbursed Rs 17,733.53 crore to 8.43 crore farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) and Rs 5,406.09 crore to 1.55 crore rural workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). “Such moves by the Government at the Centre and by several states to address the concerns of the needy are not getting due attention amidst the barrage of criticisms by opposition leaders,” says an IAS officer, who adds that states are also diligent about such plans. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the state government had disbursed Rs 1,000 each to daily wage labourers and MGNREGA workers through real-time gross settlement (RTGS) as early as March 24th. More workers were paid over the next weeks and the disadvantaged were given three months’ free ration. Similarly, the state feeds 12.35 lakh people through its community kitchens. It also launched 14 Covid-19 testing labs where 1,200 tests are done daily, besides scaling up manufacturing of masks and hand sanitiser from state-run units. Such initiatives, perhaps in smaller measure, are successful in many other states, too. Identifying hotspots through state-of-the art technologies is in full swing in many states, including UP. In most states, phone apps are used by health workers, linking them to main centres to update the latest figures on tests done, recovered people, deaths, active cases, etcetera.
As a result, even in India’s most populous state, 27 districts are now declared Covid-free. Which means scepticism and doubts that continue to be aired are hardly reflective of the ground reality. Such tales of success in fighting Covid can be heard from Kerala to Odisha.
The temptation to construe the demography of India as its weakness persists, much to the anguish of its detractors.Indian Railways is the fourth-largest railway network in the world, and during this lockdown, freight trains have plied round the clock to make sure that essential goods reach even the farthest corners. “We are working 24X7 to ensure availability of foodgrains. We have set records in the process of our untiring efforts,” Railways Minister Piyush Goyal told Open. Numbers give a glimpse of the larger picture. From March 24th to April 18th, over 9.37 lakh wagons have carried supplies across the country. Of these, more than 6.07 lakh wagons carried essential commodities. According to the ministry, ‘Annapoorna Trains from North and Jai Kisan Special from South mark the beginning of long-distance super heavy fast special freight trains. Indian Railways has made railway parcel vans available for quick mass transportation, especially of medicines. Besides, over 16 lakh free meals have been served by railways to the needy till the 15th April 2020.’
The railways have also made room for 5,000 beds for the treatment of Covid-19 patients at railway hospitals, officials said. Besides, over 5,000 coaches are being used for quarantine/isolation purposes, they added. The department has vowed to produce over 30,000 PPEs (personal protection equipment) for healthcare professionals. By the end of May, it will make another 1 lakh PPEs, according to an official, who adds that the railways will deploy more than 2,500 doctors and 35,000 paramedical staff from hospitals run by it to meet the challenge. Meanwhile, the rail coach factory in Kapurthala has manufactured a low-cost ventilator named ‘Jeevan’ for patients in intensive care.
In line with the efforts of multiple government departments, state-run oil companies are committed to the goal of enhancing economic activity and in saving livelihoods, officials told Open. They say that public-sector undertakings in the oil and gas sector will shortly resume 511 projects stalled due to the lockdown. These projects, according to Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, will require around seven crore mandays for their completion. These include 196 projects of the Indian Oil Corporation, 168 of Bharat Petroleum Corporation, 57 of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, 32 of GAIL and 26 of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. “To rise to the Prime Minister’s dream of saving lives and at the same time saving livelihoods, we are following a comprehensive approach towards fighting Covid-19. Our plan is to lessen as much damage as possible to the Indian economy. In our sector, we are in constant touch with grassroots-level employees to ensure that we do our best,” Pradhan told Open. The projects to be kickstarted cover refinery, exploration and production, marketing and so on. “Over 1.5 crore free LPG cylinders have been delivered so far during the lockdown,” the minister said, emphasising that he has held video conferences with LPG delivery boys whom he calls “frontline soldiers” in the war against Covid-19. “I am also in touch with other stakeholders,” he added. Officials told Open that like the petroleum ministry and Indian Railways, various other departments are busy with the anti-Covid-19 crusade so that nothing is left to chance. “We are doing everything from ensuring the welfare of stranded migrants to those who want to return home from abroad. What we have done in the past—including dispatching repatriation flights to Italy, Iran, Wuhan and elsewhere—is well known. We are also working closely with state governments to make sure that people are not deprived of supply of essential goods. It is a Herculean effort, but then, as it happens, not much of it is getting noticed thanks to those who are fishing in troubled waters. But we have no complaints. The campaign against the Government has no substance,” says a person close to the taskforce that manages the central Covid-19 response.
The Government has also come under attack for a so-called ad hoc top-down approach, instead a bottom-up framework. It has also been accused by the opposition of using this opportunity to clamp down on civil liberties. What flies in the face of such arguments is the near-total participation of people and state governments across political divides in the Centre’s major initiatives to fight the pandemic. The Prime Minister has stated that the channels of communication between the top and the bottom are open and everyone’s feedback is taken seriously.
No state government sincerely involved in the Covid-19 response has pointed fingers at the Union Government, which is busy interacting with experts to evaluate newer ways of responding. The major advantage Modi has is the trust he enjoys. Even hitherto recalcitrant opponents of the Centre share cordial ties with Modi whom they invariably turn to for advice and help. “We have no complaints. We welcome the moves of the Centre. We expect the Prime Minister to do more because the states are resource-scarce and have to depend on the Centre,” Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had told Open in a recent interview (‘In Kerala, the Fight against Covid-19 Is a People’s Movement’, April 13).
Modi has emerged as the sole voice the people of India trust at the national level. His communication skills and candid talk have only endeared him to a broader section of people cutting across political, socio-economic and ideological lines, especially when the country has been looking up to someone who is a dynamic leader and keeps his word. A long list of initiatives by his Government that have directly impacted the poor and rich alike has struck a chord. Apart from existing schemes and new imaginative programmes, other plans, such as ‘Lifeline Udan’ (the operation of flights to transport essential medical cargo across the country), are evidence that the Government has its ear to the ground in these trying times. Meanwhile, the hyperactivity in attributing a communal tone to announcements by bureaucrats also shows a propensity to use noise to divert people’s attention.
But the trust deficit in such inveterate campaigners means their fulminations have failed to hit home.