What is the Modi government doing during a deathly pandemic? It might seem inexplicable but one answer to that actually involves tracking down and arresting people for questioning it.

Starting May 12, the Delhi Police, which reports directly to the Union government, started to arrest people who had put up text posters across the city. “Modi ji, why did you export the vaccines meant for our children?” the posters stated in Hindi.

By the end, the Delhi police had arrested as many as 25 people – many of them poor residents looking to earn some money putting up posters – under a slew of sections such as disobeying the order of a public servant or defacement of public property. “Nothing short of ridiculous,” as one lawyer put it, explaining why in a series of tweets.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi responded to the arrests by amplifying the message on the posters through social media.
The posters that led to the arrests in Delhi. Photo: Twitter

‘Vaccine guru’

Given the Modi government’s extreme reaction, the irony is that the posters actually highlight something the government has often raised itself as a way to pat itself on the back: India’s record number of vaccine exports to countries across the world.

In September, Prime Minister Modi went to the United Nations General Assembly and delivered an “assurance” that India’s vaccine manufacturing capabilities would be open to the world. Apart from allowing orders with Indian manufacturers, this also involved an explicit government programme called “Vaccine Maitri” to supply vaccines to other countries.

This was – as is usual for foreign policy in the Modi era – accompanied by a publicity blitzkrieg to bolster the government’s reputation. The Indian government claimed credit for the global supply of vaccines, with friendly media outlets often personally crediting Modi for it.

In a statement that has not aged well, the Indian government at the United Nation even claimed in March that India has supplied more vaccines to the world than to its own people.

India foreign minister painstakingly highlighted India's export of vaccines.
Many media outlets personally credited the prime minister with India's export of vaccines. Here Hindi news channel ABP News called Modi a "vaccine guru".

PR over planning

Through this publicity blitzkrieg what the Indian government egregiously missed, of course, was the possibility of a second wave.

Even as it patted its back on supplying to other countries, the Modi government placed few orders for vaccines for its own citizens to use. As a result, Indians now face a crippling vaccine shortage, with only 3% of the population fully vaccinated even as the second wave has meant India has been hit harder by Covid-19 than any other nation.

For a mistake so large, unfortunately the Modi government seems to have learnt few lessons. On April 19, it exacerbated the problem by simply abandoning its role in vaccinating Indians below 45 years of age and forcing states to purchase from the international market – the only country where this is being done.

Making it worse

Then digging itself further into a hole, it has now gone and tried to use force to shut down criticism of the disaster that India’s vaccine policy has been, hurriedly trying to deny its own boast of vaccine exports till just a few months back.

The Modi government needs to realise that the use of force will not fix the issue – neither getting Indians more vaccines nor solving the political crisis that it faces for not planning for a second wave.

Rather than shutting down criticism, the Modi government needs to take it on board. And instead of wasting its energies on arresting people with legitimate criticism of its disastrous vaccine policy, the Modi government needs to put its head down, do its job and ensure that India’s states have enough vaccines to distribute to their citizens.

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