Indian diplomats asked to counter ‘one-sided’ Covid narrative, but it is a tough task

Ministry of External Affairs, India
Photo credit: Ministry of External Affairs, India

Representatives of many global media organizations have been covering crowded, noisy and
aggressive campaigning in Indian states for months.

By Vappala Balachandran

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reportedly asked the country’s diplomatic envoys stationed abroad on April 29 to “counter the one sided narrative” in international media that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had failed the nation by its “incompetent” handling of the second Covid-19 wave. In particular, they were told to emphasize that there was no connection between the elections, campaign rallies and the spike numbers.

A similar, but stronger call was made on April 25 by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale to their cadres, including religious and social institutions controlled by the organization, to be cautious about “conspiracies” by “destructive and anti-Bharat” forces, who could take advantage of the adverse circumstances posed by the second wave of Covid-19 to “create an atmosphere of negativity and mistrust.” RSS is the spiritual guide and mentor to the Modi government.

On May 2, India suffered 3,689 Covid-19 fatalities, which pushed the country’s death toll to 215,542, while the infection count reached 19,557,457 with 392,488 more people being confirmed positive for the disease, according to the Ministry of Health.

India had recorded 18,708,692 infections and 207,523 deaths till April 30. The average daily deaths in the country during the last 7 days rose to 2,882, which is reported to be highest in the world. At the same time, the daily vaccine doses administered in India dropped to 2,100,000 for a population of 1.380 billion. In fact, the month of May has started with a serious vaccine shortage almost all over the country.

READ: Modi’s diplomatic project to woo Trump by enlisting pro-BJP Indian Americans is dead (January 23, 2021)

Hapless relatives of patients have been running from pillar to post in search of oxygen and hospital beds to admit them. Twelve patients and a doctor died in the popular Batra Hospital in New Delhi, on May 1, as they did not receive oxygen on time due to the panicky situation in the National Capital Region.

On April 30, the Indian Supreme Court criticized the Modi government for the oxygen crisis in the national capital when the solicitor general had tried to shift blame to the Delhi administration, ruled by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party.

The situation became so desperate that the Delhi High Court had to give an ultimatum to the Ministry of Health on May 1 that it would start “Contempt of Court proceedings” against them if 490 metric tons of oxygen was not supplied daily. The ministry had failed to do that till then, and, as a result, patients were dying every day.

My feeling is that India’s envoys, especially in Western democratic countries with free press, would find it very difficult to convincingly explain the External Affairs Minister’s message to their local media that the spike had no connection with electioneering. This is because many global media organizations had already positioned their own representatives in India to cover the crowded, noisy and aggressive election campaigning for months, especially by the BJP in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where the party’s bursting “road shows” and public meetings had started even before the dates of elections were announced.

Also, they would find it very difficult to support this argument after the High Courts of Madras and Calcutta had passed severe strictures against the Central Election Commission (CEC) for not enforcing Covid precautions during electioneering. On April 23, the Calcutta High court rebuked the CEC for not taking proper action to enforce Covid guidelines during campaigning by political parties and voting in the state assembly election, although the Commission had full powers to do so.  The order came on the day of the sixth phase of election, when voting was held in 43 constituencies.

Anticipating a Calcutta High Court verdict, the CEC issued Covid-related orders in West Bengal, banning “road Shows” and cycle rallies, and restricting the crowds to not more than 500 people, only on April 22.  By that time, most of the “super spreader” campaigning was already over.

READ: Two tragic events in UP distort idea of ‘New India’ (October 3, 2020)

In the Indian system, the CEC assumes almost total control of the state having elections in supervising administrative responsibilities concerning security, campaign rules, polling, counting and declaring the results. The All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), the ruling party in West Bengal, lodged a complaint with the court alleging that the CEC had unilaterally decided to have polling in eight phases only in their state, although similar elections planned in Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala had much shorter campaigning period. The party objected to the discrimination, pointing out the Covid situation, as crowds would continuously be generated by a month-long campaign and become “super spreaders.”

The Trinamool Congress also complained that the long campaign would be advantageous to the BJP, which could repeatedly deploy heavy guns from New Delhi, flown in by daily charter flights for organizing spectacular public meetings and crowded “road shows.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had addressed 20 mass rallies and Home Minister Amit Shah led 50 rallies and road shows in West Bengal.

In fact, on April 17, Modi had publicly marveled at the huge crowd size he had attracted in West Bengal. On the same day, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray publicly complained that he could not get the prime minister on telephone to request him to rush in life saving oxygen for Covid patients in the state.

Four days after the Calcutta High Court’s strictures, the Madras High Court remarked, on April 27, that “murder charges should probably be imposed” on the Election Commission for being “the only institution responsible for the situation that we are in today.” The court had said that the CEC should be held “singularly responsible” for the Covid-19 second wave, with which the country was currently battling.

Appealing against remark, the CEC moved the Madras High Court to restrain the media, which according to them was “sensationalizing” the court’s oral observations on facing “murder charges.” This was rejected by the High Court on April 30.

On the same day, the Supreme Court of India warned state governments against launching prosecutions against people who were ventilating their grievances through social media about lack of oxygen, hospital beds, essential medicines and vaccines due to which people were dying.

This was in the wake of reports that some BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh were booking people who aired such complaints under drastic penal sections like the National Security Act 1980 for spreading “rumors.” The Supreme Court said that it would “brook no violation of the right to free speech of a citizen” and warned these states that it would consider any such action as “contempt of Court.”

The same logic would apply to huge religious festivals held in BJP-ruled states. The proposed “Char Dham Yatra,” scheduled at Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinatjh temples during May15-18, was cancelled only after the Uttarakhand High Court reprimanded the local BJP government on April 29 for holding the “Kumbh Mela” after which more than 2,000 devotees tested Covid-19 positive. Visuals of as many as 3 million devotees taking dips at the crowded Haridwar river ghats for “Kumbh Mela” were beamed repeatedly on international media and had become the talk of the world.

In fact the Kumbh, which comes every 12th year, should have been celebrated in 2022, as the last one was held in 2010. However, it was held in 2021, in the midst of the pandemic due to “astrological configurations” and as demanded by the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad, a religious body of ascetic councils. Neither the state government, nor the Ministry of Health, objected to this even when the second Covid wave was raging. Among those who succumbed to the pandemic was Mahamandaleshwar Kapil Dev Das, head of one of the top Hindu councils. He died on April 15.

Along with the Kumbh, global media must have noticed that 60,000 Uttar Pradesh teachers who were drafted for “counting” duties for the state panchayat (local village) elections had announced on April 30 that they would boycott that duty protesting against the negligence by the BJP government. According to the protesting teachers, the government was “not at all bothered that we lost 706 teachers” due to Covid while performing the election duties.

Calls by Hosabale and Jaishankar are coming at a time when more than 400 Indian scientists have made an open appeal to the prime minister that our “inability to manage the spread of infections” has resulted in “epidemiological data not being systematically collected and released in a timely manner to the scientific community.”

The letter, dated April 30, said that the premier’s pet scheme “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) has made “importing of scientific equipment and reagents an extremely tedious and time consuming process requiring too many approvals” and this “has reduced our ability to scale up testing by developing new testing platforms and impaired our ability to sequence viral genomes for surveillance rapidly and accurately.”

In the end, the results of the state elections, declared on May 2, has revealed that the BJP’s “super spreader” political rallies in different states were of no consequence, except distracting their top leadership from attending to more urgent duty of life saving by analyzing and anticipating the horrendous results of the second wave of Indian variant of Covid-19.

As this is written, the BJP, which had boasted that it would get at least 200 seats in West Bengal, has lagged far behind the Trinamool Congress by winning only 82 seats against 209 by TC in the state assembly of 294. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the party came nowhere near the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which they wanted to unseat directly or through their allies. The only gains the party made were in Assam and in the tiny Puducheri in the south.

(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. He is the author of, among other works, A life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar.)

Read more from Vappala Balachandran:

Trump’s India visit: An election oriented trip to court Indian American voters (February 21, 2020)

Trump can’t control global security situation through his friendship with Putin (January 8, 2017)

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