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Undeserved media praise for ‘secular’ Chief Ministers makes us less safe amidst the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic, not more

When you take away the incentive of political parties to work, they don’t. In decades after independence, India’s secularism could not guarantee even one toilet per family. PM Modi has had to arrange that since 2014.

India is in crisis. The number of people who have tested positive for the Wuhan Coronavirus is now disturbingly close to the 1000 mark. Countries such as the United States, Italy and Spain are now rapidly approaching 1 lakh confirmed cases. Only yesterday, the pandemic claimed over 900 lives in Italy and 300 in the US. We can only shudder at the thought of the nightmare scenario that could unfold in India.

Amid this, you would be pleasantly surprised (and possibly bewildered) to find that some in the media think that India is actually making the war on the virus look “easy.”

Or at least, some states are:

Article by Livemint
Article by Livemint

So that is the list of 7 states where the war with the virus looks “easy.”

Wait! Maharashtra? Kerala? Punjab? Aren’t these among India’s worst affected states? Didn’t over 300 people escape quarantine in Punjab, endangering everyone? If the battle in these states looks “easy,” how can it add up to a crisis overall?

Ok, there is this canard being spread that India is not testing “enough.” Perhaps it only looks like Maharashtra, Kerala, etc are worst affected, because they did the most tests?

Read: Wuhan Coronavirus: If India is testing too few, why is the percentage of ‘positives’ in India so low?

But then, how did Jharkhand make the list? According to the same article, they’ve done just 61 tests so far.

Somebody should explain this discrepancy. If the most affected states and the least affected states, if the states doing maximum tests and the states doing minimum tests are all making the battle look “easy,” how come India is in crisis?

Among the list of achievements of these star Chief Ministers touted in this article :

(1) Chhattisgarh CM getting credit for installing banners of himself across the state. Oh and a tweet by some guy called Sudhir Mishra who thinks Bhupesh Baghel is doing a fantastic job.

(2) Rajasthan CM getting credit for writing a letter to PM Modi.

(3) Puducherry CM getting credit because his police lathicharged some street vendors.

It doesn’t take much to notice that all the star Chief Ministers being praised in this article belong to a certain political camp. This would be fine, if these were normal times.

But in times like this, if Chief Ministers belonging to a certain camp feel like media will not hold them accountable, it takes away their incentive to work effectively. And that makes us much more unsafe at a time when the life of millions of people could be at stake.

Read: Did Gujarat company ‘CoSara’ become ‘the first and only’ company to get ​license to make Covid-19 testing kits? Here are the facts

This is not just a matter of one article. Consider the ultimate trailblazer when it comes to receiving media praise: the Communist government of Kerala.

Article by Quartz India

By Feb 14, 2020, Kerala had successfully fought and contained the deadly virus. Mission accomplished.

Or not.

Article by TheWeek

On March 5, Kerala won praise for its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic again, this time from the imperial BBC. However, the BBC was slightly less effusive, downgrading Kerala from “successfully fought and contained” to “efficient handling.” Perhaps our former colonial masters were jealous.

As of March 28, cases in Kerala continue to increase rapidly, making it the second most affected state in the country. Despite successfully fighting and containing the virus over a month ago.

Perhaps this would have happened anyway. But there is a valid concern: if the govt of Kerala notices that they are receiving global accolades for the handling of Coronavirus pandemic for free, why would they do anything at all? Did undeserved media praise make the govt of Kerala complacent?

Which is the worst affected state in India? Maharashtra. But imagine this.

Article by The Print

The article quotes about half a dozen people to draw this conclusion. Among them, one Congress Rajya Sabha MP, one ex-aide to Rahul Gandhi and a Congress spokesperson. At least one of the people complained that Aaditya Thackeray is the “true pillar of strength” behind the CM, but is not getting due credit for it.

This is comical. Except that there is nothing funny about the pandemic right now.

Here is the Associate Editor of The Hindu.

Tweet by the Associate Editor of The Hindu.

Now consider this. We have all seen the disturbing images of migrants having at the Delhi/UP border amidst the Coronavirus lockdown, so desperate that they consider walking hundreds of kilometers back to their villages in Uttar Pradesh. Could Arvind Kejriwal, with the resources of the national capital, have done nothing for these unfortunate people instead of leaving it all to Uttar Pradesh?

He just didn’t have an incentive. Because he knew he was getting showered with certificates of appreciation.

When PM Modi came to power in 2014, less than 40% of households in India had access to toilets. Have you ever wondered how this happened? What were our secular and liberal Prime Ministers doing for six decades?

Perhaps they didn’t have the incentive to do anything. Perhaps because they were showered with excessive praise for doing precious little. That’s why we ended up with the collective failure where 60% of households did not have toilet access.

GDP per capita – India vs Pakistan

This is data from the World Bank on per capita GDP of India vs Pakistan. Observe how Pakistan’s green line stays consistently above India’s blue line for decades. Until around 2007, when India finally manages to push its nose ahead.

In other words, 60 years for India to pull ahead of Pakistan in per capita GDP.

How did this happen? Perhaps because media and intellectual class was busy showering praise on ‘secular’ Prime Ministers by quoting one Congress MP, one Nehru-Gandhi family aide and one Congress spokesperson?

Read: India under Lockdown: The downsides of under-reacting were simply too scary

When you take away the incentive of political parties to work, they don’t. In decades after independence, India’s secularism could not guarantee even one toilet per family. PM Modi has had to arrange that since 2014.

Now, all of a sudden, we have been plunged into a situation where we might need one ventilator per Indian. It is good that liberals are now asking: what about quality healthcare? Expectations from India are surely growing even faster than the spread of Wuhan Coronavirus. Now we are expected to have a better healthcare system than America, France and UK. It’s been (almost) six years of Modi already. What could be taking so much time?

Very well. The Govt of India should welcome this challenge. And the commitment of the media to keep the Modi govt accountable. At the very least, the Central government needs the states to cooperate. As a matter of basic decency, perhaps the media should try not to take away the incentive of non-BJP Chief Ministers to pitch in and help.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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