Dear affluent voters of the Prime Minister,
We sincerely hope this letter finds you all safe. After all, we are all still mourning the deceased. But we were not actually supposed to be in the house of the dead. We were, after all, living our great dream, sequestered in the designer isolation of our cozy apartments. Through the last year, for most of us, the impact of the pandemic was muted. We worked from home, watched Netflix, shopped online, worried about putting on weight and expressed distant sorrow at the plight of migrant workers who lost their work because of a hastily imposed lockdown.
Then, came a bullying, great leveller of a pandemic in its second avatar – one that crashed through fences and class barriers. Some scientific estimates suggest that the pandemic could claim more than 1.5 million Indian lives.This is like seeing the entire population of the towns of Ayodhya, Haridwar, Varanasi and many more being reduced to ashes.
How did India become such a cradle of disaster? How did the the virus breach the cocoon of our mollycoddled lives, nullify our privileges and prompt the supreme leader to disappear? How did we come to queue helplessly with poor fellow citizens, pining for oxygen and hospital beds, making a dash for medicines and vaccines?
Our social media feeds were full of desperation. We were willing to buy oxygen from the nearest Muslim vendor. What happened to our prejudices, our disdain for public institutions, our belief in the privatisation of everything?
Dear voter, you cheered when your leader who thundered about the benefits of “minimum government, maximum governance”, not because governance was efficient but because your interface with the government was, in fact, minimal, barring one-off needs such as getting a driver’s licence or registering an apartment.
Otherwise, you have moved to gated communities with in-house generators that allowed you to ignore the stuttering electricity supply, sent your children to expensive schools, bought every totem of the good life that money can buy while applauding the sale of public institutions. You never asked why the government routinely underfunded health, nutrition, education and employment, or enquired about why millions of children were being malnourished.
Dear voter, while you gasped for breath, the leader presided over a catastrophe called the Central Vista project and at least four public sector units donated Rs 100 crore to the Badrinath temple. Meanwhile, the vaccination policy turned into a volleyball game with the state governments. This, at a time, when the states had been left dry of cash as it became dependent on the Central government for devolution of taxes collected since the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in 2017.
Dear voter, we hope you recognise that federalism as per our Constitution is not an object of convenience but meant to be co-operative. When public institutions are diminished like this, it is not merely a case of misplaced priorities. It indicates the presence of a glowering forest fire that will ultimately decimate everything that comes on its way. Forest fires do not differentiate between various species of trees. Fires may start by feeding on the most vulnerable but then, slowly and surely, engulf all classes. This is what you may have now experienced.
Believe it or not, dear voter, most of India faces constant humiliation just for being poor and struggles for the essentials that you take for granted. With a single ill-planned stroke in 2020 to lock down with just four hours’ notice, the prime minister jeopardised the lives and livelihoods of 500 million people.
According to a report of Azim Premji University, in just the last year, an additional 230 million people have fallen below the modest daily earnings of Rs 375 per day that constitute the national poverty line. The leader’s obsessive push for technology has meant that many of those dependent on food rations, pensions and wages were deprived of their entitlements due to biometric failures and the lack of internet connectivity and electricity. Even when these technologies work, millions have to stand in line, foregoing a day’s wage to collect their weekly wages.
The majority of the 100-plus starvation deaths that occurred in India between 2015 and 2020 were due to technological glitches, resulting in citizens being denied their food rations. Highlighting the upper class blind spot for technology, the social activist Nikhil Dey urged (in a sarcastic vein), “Biometric authentication must be made mandatory for everyone boarding a flight.’’ Perhaps the desperate search to find a slot for vaccinations on the government’s centralised CoWin app has taught us something? Maybe not entirely. With 25% of Covid-19 vaccines made available at a premium in private hospitals, the government has immunised us once again from having to deal with public services.
Dear voter, if only you had cared all these years, you may have seen what a large part of India was battling. The prime minister looked the other way when foot soldiers of his party attacked Muslims and Dalits accused of eating or transporting beef. His ire was turned on public universities and students protesting injustice. Then came the casual worker, whom he targeted by demonetising 86% of the country’s currency. The goods and services tax introduced in 2017 undermined the finances of the small traders, followed by initiatives that endangered the lives of refugees, migrants and farmers.
When the first wave of the pandemic was waning, restaurants and malls were allowed to operate at 50% occupancy to ensure social distancing. But do you know, dear voter, that Indian prisons that house half a million people have an occupancy rate of 118%? Several prisoners are behind bars without trial merely because they disagree with the government’s policies. They include an 84-year-old man with Covid-19 symptoms, suffering from Parkinson’s disease who was denied the sipper cup he needed to drink water.
Such contempt for compassion and the indiscriminate use of sedition laws, aided by a genuflecting judiciary, has helped the leader champion the art of what the academic Jan Wener Muller calls discriminatory legalism – for my friends, everything; for others, the law.
Dear voter, your silence gave the prime minister confidence; your conformism fed his conceit; your approval gave him wings. While institutions became cancerous, the supreme leader petted peacocks, explained how he ate mangoes, went on a stunt-hunt for a television show. In short, the prime minister has mounted one tableaux after another depicting his lack of empathy, conscience and competence.
But you shrugged your shoulders and moved on. Because you are not a Muslim, a Dalit, an Adivasi, a student, a labourer, a dissident, a refugee or a farmer. Unfortunately, you faced the hour of crisis. Remember the last lines of German pastor Martin Niemöller’s iconic poem? “Then they came for me –and there was no one left to speak for me.”
If only, dear voter, you had called the prime minister’s bluff early on, if only you cared for the vast geography of desperation beyond your fences, if only you called out the politics of prejudice, if only you had asked for an accountable government instead of a minimal one, you could have spared India of these epic agonies.
But there is still time for to make amends. Learn from the Mahabharata. Even Krishna’s patience ran out when Shishupal crossed hundred sins. Dear affluent voters of the leader, has your Krishna moment come?
Sayandeb Chowdhury teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi.
Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore and is associated with LibTech India.
Views are personal.