Why should a country in the grip of a deadly wave of Covid-19, with people dying all around, remember the Emergency, a nationwide suspension of democracy, that happened almost half a century ago?
One simple but somewhat trite answer is, those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. A follow up is ‘Oops! We learned nothing from the past after all, so we are right now back in a second Emergency, much worse than the previous one!’.
There is also an answer that is perhaps most relevant to the ongoing pandemic and India’s dismal response to it. It is that the strangling of democracy also kills transparency, accountability, public participation, and suspends critical thinking itself – all essential to beat the capricious virus ravaging the entire planet.
For, if there is anything that governments – from Brazil to Burma – are painfully discovering over the last year and half, it is that the novel coronavirus is completely impervious to the way state machineries everywhere deal with threats – through a show of brute strength. All restrictions on fundamental freedoms and rights under any pretext inevitably produces disastrous results.
This invisible organism, a new, complex and unpredictable force of nature, shows no respect for power, wealth, propaganda and fakery either, bending only to hard facts, where available. At a minimum any response to it calls for the humility to say ‘I don’t know’ and seek answers with great sincerity using all the known methods of science.
As any good doctor can tell you, when dealing with problems of the human body, whether it is a blocked artery or a bacterial infection, it is impossible to try and bluff your way without paying a very heavy price. Either you have a solution that really works and the evidence to prove it or you are indulging in mere quackery – the shortest route to sure tragedy.
Coming to the case of India, one of the key reasons for the current government’s inability to the tackle the pandemic lies in the fact that it not only indulges in the worst forms of quackery but is also supremely arrogant.
Ever since it came to power six years ago, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ruthlessly taken a ‘Chanakya niti’ or ‘evil genius’ approach to ward off every challenge to its domination. Manipulating data, managing the media, peddling half-truths and making false claims, the current Indian government has done it all, to both hide its failures and exaggerate its achievements.
While all this may have served it well in terms of electoral outcomes and to keep political opponents in disarray, the consequences in the context of Covid have been truly catastrophic.
Since the SARS-COV-2 virus first hit Indian shores in March last year, India has recorded the second largest number of infections in the world at 29.4 million while the official toll of deaths stands at more than 370,168 by mid-2021. These numbers too are considered a gross undercount and various reports put the real casualties at almost four or five times that being claimed by the government.
What has made the Indian situation worse, is that the strategy of deception has been accompanied by the regime’s grand delusion of being competent and all-knowing too .As a result the quality of knowledge available to the regime is abysmally low, surrounded as it is also with yes men and with all critics shut up or even thrown in jail.
The coming of Covid has also given a boost to strong dictatorial tendencies that existed from before the pandemic, indicated by the way those in government react harshly to criticism or even good advice of any kind. The excuse of a national ‘medical emergency’ has further allowed them to grab more power and do away with public scrutiny of decisions taken or resources mobilized.
So, what can be the antidote to this new variant of the old virus of authoritarianism that builds on the hierarchies of caste, wealth, gender and regionality that are deeply rooted in Indian society? If the current reign of Narendra Modi represents the Second Wave of the Emergency, what will a Third Wave look like?
We know from the history of the last Emergency India went through from 1975-77, that the current situation cannot go on forever. Sooner or later, those who believe their own lies and even promote them with great passion fall very badly.
There have also been signs of resistance emerging from different parts of India over the last several years – whether it was the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement of 2019 or the farmers agitation that continues since the middle of last year. Regional political parties too have challenged attempts by those ruling in New Delhi to monopolize both power and resources.
And yet, as of now, there is nothing to suggest the regime is paying any real price for its innumerable failings. Instead, it is ordinary Indian citizens along with democratic institutions, that have been struggling for oxygen to breathe, begging for hospital beds, going totally bankrupt with healthcare bills or dropping dead abruptly in the prime of life.
While there are no clear-cut answers, pushing the medical metaphor a bit further gives us some clues. Learning from the Covid experience perhaps one should follow the standard algorithm for tackling any pandemic– Detect. Isolate. Treat. Trace contacts. Manage. Prevent.
And this time, unlike the forces one is opposing, go about it without deception or delusion and also the great modesty needed to understand what really needs to be done to restore the political and social health of the nation. The Indian Republic’s longevity depends on it.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at [email protected]