Two articles came into my space this morning. One was written by Makarand Paranjape in ‘Hindustan Times’ and another one was based on an interaction of Anupam Kher with NDTV. Both were not known critics of Modi. Quite the contrary. Yet, they have done some much needed plain-speaking. Worth reading both.
Then, I came across a long FT article that was posted few hours ago online and that, in turn, led me to an earlier article of theirs from April 27th. The link ‘promised’ to reveal scientific warnings of the second wave that the Government ignored. In truth, there is no credible, actionable and remotely precise scientific warning of the magnitude, speed of spread and infectivity of the virus (or its variant) on India from any scientist.
This long article in Bloomberg is another case of long on rhetoric and words and short on substance.
So, what is making everyone train their ‘guns’ on one man? I have several hypotheses. I have aired some of them in my Mint columns. He has that air of everything under control and that he is invincible. That makes him vulnerable when things go wrong. In general, the vast majority of us consider ourselves to be underdogs. Therefore, we usually view with envy/awe those who exude supreme self-confidence. We secretly wish that they would fail so that they would be ‘like us’. Not invincible. Not infallible. So, when they fail, it sends us into paroxysms of glee and schadenfreude and we pile on them.
That could be happening:
When there is substance behind confidence, it is tolerated. If not, we are sitting ducks for scorn when we stumble. [Link]
The other reasons were India’s premature triumphalism and his own statements that reflected such triumphalism. One was his remarks at the virtual World Economic Forum on India’s way of beating the virus and helping the world. Second was the resolution passed by the BJP on the 21st February that called his government victorious in the war against virus.
In general, most humans resent others’ successes. So, very successful people, at least once in a while, must share the credit for success with others and make them co-owners so that when they fail, there would be some sympathy and not everything would have their daggers out.
The high-decibel election campaign in West Bengal also made some wonder if it could really be so much ‘all clear’ on the corona front. Watching the cricket matches in Ahmedabad being telecast with very few sitting with masks on also made some of us entertain a fleeting thought or prayer that it should not turn out to be misplaced optimism. But, that was that. It was fleeting. Given that winter had passed, India was coming into warmer months and with vaccine availability, India, we thought, was justified in opening up fully.
Just two days ago, a friend had shared a video (barely 30 seconds) of massively crowded shopping in narrow streets, with nary a face mask, for Ramadan. This is in the middle of a vicious second wave with so much of death and struggle to grapple with. I am not sharing it here because I don’t have a URL. At one level, one has to call it irresponsible. But, at another level, is it latent stoicism that is also a harbinger of India’s revival, once this phase gets over? People are simply tired of being held down by the virus. That possibly explained why the collective urge to believe and act as though it was all over was so strong.
Sample this tweet by Sridhar Vembu of Zoho on the 26th April 2021:
Most of us, myself included, thought Covid was over in India, particularly after the second wave didn’t happen in Nov/December, unlike in the West. Covid fatigue meant that most of us were happy to forget the whole thing. [Link]
So, it is tempting to hold one man responsible for all of these. Did he influence all of these people or did they influence him? It is not that easy. I reiterate: we should not be seduced by the simplicity of binaries.
All that being said, there is a need to show visible leadership. There is nothing wrong in admitting to errors in vaccine production estimates. One reason is the fire and the other reason is that there are genuine export restrictions from the United States. That is a pity. The Health Policy Editor for ‘The Economist’ has a useful tweet thread on it. She confirms that Novavax production has been held back by U.S. export restrictions on inputs.
Novavax lines in India and the UK have been affected by shortages of items needed from the US. Start with the UK which has been manufacturing this vaccine for a while (not yet approved). Novavax is struggling with 3 key things: biobags, media, and filters. @halhod
Firms also say things are worse under the current administration, not better. Oh, and I have also heard of an un-named firm that had active substance in Europe, shipped to the US, and then were unable to get it out again. They had to improvise and find a new supply chain…
The US needs to become part of the solution, and stop being part of the problem. When it moves to donate vaccine or support the global supply chains, other countries will follow and lives will be saved as a result.
Quite what the Quad statement on helping India with vaccine production capacity for the world means, I am not sure.
Quad partners are working collaboratively to achieve expanded manufacturing of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines at facilities in India, prioritizing increased capacity for vaccines authorized by Stringent Regulatory Authorities (SRA). Quad partners will address financing and logistical demands for production, procurement, and delivery of safe and effective vaccines. Quad partners will work to use our shared tools and expertise, through mechanisms at institutions including the United States Development Finance Corporation (DFC), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and, as appropriate, Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), as well as others. [Link]
A friend of mine assures me that, by July, there will be enough vaccines to go around. But, the next several weeks are important for confidence, sentiment and psychology.
It is true that strong personalities go into their shell/cocoon when confronted with failures. Their advisors might also be influencing them in this regard. But, some thrive on connect with people and communication. Hence, PM Modi must trust his instincts, come out and communicate with people. He must share their angst, their fears and uncertainty and keep communication lines open. This is as good a time as any to break the mould and trust his instincts rather than the usual risk-averse advice offered by advisors. That might be the right thing to follow in normal times. Now, times are not normal.
I was reminded of a very thoughtful note that the investment manager Tim Price wrote in April. I catch up with his writings even if I don’t read him every week. His posts are available at pricevaluepartners.com
In this post dated 13th April 2021, ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’, he recounts the tale of James Stockdale, American War Veteran and Prisoner Of War in Vietnam. He survived 7 long years in prison and four of them in utter darkness. Apparently, James Stockdale’s story is recounted in Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’.
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” replied Stockdale, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining moment of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins was silent for a few minutes. As they walked together, Stockdale was limping and swinging his stiff leg that had never properly recovered from repeated torture. Finally, Collins plucked up the courage to ask another question.
“Who didn’t make it out ?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale. “The optimists.”
Collins was confused.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving. And then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
As the two men walked slowly onward, Stockdale turned to Collins:
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” [Link]
The lesson is that the leader should not lose faith and yet he has to convey that he has the discipline and the courage to accept and confront the most brutal facts of the current reality.
If he is unable to rediscover his Mojo, it will begin to affect Indian policymaking in the remaining three years of this government. India cannot afford to lose time now. Already, growth forecasts for 2021-22 are being lowered. Moody’s has cut India’s growth forecast to 9.3%. That does not look that drastic. I did some high-level spread-sheet manipulation without going into individual components. 10% is still achievable but a lot depends on speed of vaccination and the dissipation of fear. Else, consumption will be hit. Inventories will pile up. Production will be cut back and so will capex be.
India’s future, stature and a seat at the high table depend on India being able to generate prosperity and employment for Indians. The latter is not only a pre-requisite but an important end in itself. The former will follow automatically if the latter is achieved.
It is also time to embrace true federalism and usher in an era of cooperation with states. The Union Government can and should showcase successes of other states in managing and controlling Covid even if they are not BJP-ruled. The Prime Minister must share and revel in their success. Big hearts are needed now more than ever.
The website of the Inter-State Council Secretariat sports pictures from five to six years ago in its landing page. ‘What’s new?’ results in a blank page. Quite.
Postscript: If arrogance and hubris were supposed to lead to disasters eventually, I wonder where all of these would lead China to. I just read the recent ‘China Up Close’ column (ht Sanjay Anandaram) by Katsuji Nakasawa. It is a highly perceptive column.
After the Group of Seven foreign ministers issued a joint statement criticizing many of China’s recent actions last week, a computer-generated graphic depicting an event from 120 years ago was widely shared on the Chinese internet.
The aim of the young Chinese CG artist, who goes by the name Wuheqilin, was to brand the G-7 as an invader and to recall the Boxer Rebellion.
The 1900 uprising attempted to expel all foreigners from China and was supported by the Empress Dowager Cixi. That prompted forces from the Eight-Nation Alliance (the U.K., the U.S., France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy and Austria-Hungary) to enter Beijing and liberate the besieged foreigners.
As a result, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the humiliating Boxer Protocol in 1901, which imposed backbreaking compensation obligations.
The satirical image took the commemorative photo of the G-7 foreign ministers standing on the steps of Lancaster House in London and replaced the figures with people dressed in old-style military uniforms from the Eight-Nation Alliance, similarly posing for a commemorative photo at the same place.
The “G7 — United Kingdom 2021” sign behind the ministers had been rewritten “G7 — Invaders United Kingdom 1900.”
One more provocative though less visible element in the image is a soldier from India — a guest participant at the G-7 — wearing a white face mask and connected to an IV drip. The caricature ridicules India as it battles a tsunami of COVID infections. [Link]
This is the image: