CORONA CRISES, LET THE BUREAUCRACY LOOSE
India is a country of paradoxes. It has an inept political class but a world-class bureaucracy. No challenge is too big for the bureaucracy. From time to time, it has shown that it can cope and manage the biggest disasters with ease. Its only handicap is its masters, who have to make decisions and let it take control in situations such as the current Covid crises.
If anything showcases the incredible machine that is the Indian bureaucracy, it is its handling of events like the Khumb Mela, the biggest festival in the world by far that makes events like Glastonbury (UK), the Olympics, and even the Huj at Mecca mini-festivals by comparison. It might seem absurd to be giving the example of the Khumb when it is being blamed for much of the current Covid spread, but during normal times, the Khumb can attract up to 50 million people in the month-long celebration. That is the equivalent of managing a country plus.
The Khumb management is a nightmare always in waiting. From the sanitation planning, the sleeping arrangements, the security, the food supply, and delivery, the water supply, the provision for essentials, the demands of the VIPs for special attention and not to forget that this is the most fertile place for terrorism, pickpockets, thieves, and drugs. Yet the bureaucracy manages it with an ease that marvels. The planning starts years ahead.
Or take disasters, such as the earthquake in Gujrat or floods in Bengal, or the absorption of millions of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Any western country would be stretched to limits of breakdown. Not the Indian bureaucracy. It meets the challenge with its co-partners, the Indian Army, and the Indian police.
The question is what happened with Covid. Has the Bureaucracy failed? Has it been brought to its knees? Has it been exposed as a mythical juggernaut of civil servants, beaten by a microscopic entity, the coronavirus?
In fact, the Bureaucracy and the medical scientist’s teams had been warning of this doomsday scenario long before the second wave of Covid descended. They had been asking for preparations as they do for other events. They had been asking for stocking for a second wave. They had been asking for vaccination programs to be escalated. But ultimately, the Indian bureaucracy’s Achilles heel is its political masters.
The BJP Government was too busy compromising the free press. It was too busy with elections and making Hindutva a political winner. It was too busy fighting its own citizens, the farmers. It was too preoccupied with spreading its ‘political goodwill’ worldwide to compete with China by promising vaccines to other countries rather than making them available to its billion people. And it ignored the cautionary warnings of its own experts of the hurricane that could come with a second wave Covid.
The Government was preoccupied with religious nationalism and letting Khumb go ahead despite warnings. It was concentrating on the gamble that a religious festival of this size would create imagery around India of the powerful narrative of Hindutva and belonging to ancient roots. It would help to bring a wave of nationalist sentiments in Bengal where the focus of the top political leadership was. But viruses are not politically motivated nor influenced. They see an opportunity and go for it.
The Indian Bureaucracy is incapacitated or activated by the political class. It acts in all its glory or fails ingloriously depending on clear instructions from the political leaders. The army too awaits instructions from the top. That is the hallmark of Indian democracy.
This is both a strength and weakness of the Indian system. It insures against recurrent coups that plague many other decolonised countries. But it makes the ability of the bureaucracy to act dependent on the prerogatives of the political masters.
This Covid crisis can be controlled if the bureaucracy is now given a free hand. It can muster help around the world, bring in safety equipment, bring in the personnel, ramp up production of necessary medical equipment, set up new crematoriums, build make shift hospitals, and bring in the doctors. And during all this, it can ensure that security is maintained, lockdowns are followed and people are fed.
With its partner the Indian Army, the Bureaucracy can handle the Covid crises that have now made India reach the top slot in mismanagement, deaths, and people infected. What’s more, given its history, it can handle this within days. It needs the Government to start governing for the crises rather than be obsessed by divisive matters such as how many crematoriums have been built for Muslims and Hindus. The Government needs to stop playing politics with the Virus. The Virus has no religious or religious preferences. It has no understanding of history or political expediency. Its only enemy now is the Indian bureaucracy. Unleash it on the virus.