Singh was a quiet power-driven by institutions and systems, Modi is visible and vocal, powered by his own personality. Both bring unique brawniness to tackle coronavirus.
It is a tantalizing thought to entertain. During the coronavirus pandemic, Indians required a figure to obey lockdown orders and other candles and clap requests; Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fascinating and rhetoric did that magic part. Administering over the COVID-19 crisis, wouldn’t have been easy if this was under the regime of Manmohan Singh as the prime minister.
Singh’s slender voice, serene attitude and lagging in fan following across India as well incomplete knowledge of political capital would have been proved huge hurdles in pandemic leadership. Envisage, him telling people to stay indoors during that 8 pm address, his own councils would not have spoken in one voice; leave the citizens.
We can agree to “India is different under Narendra Modi”. Have you got the direct contact with health and family welfare secretary Preeti Sudan; she says now it’s different, if they send her a query on the coronavirus pandemic at 2 am on WhatsApp, they have a clear answer within minutes. It looks like quite an evolution from the Union health minister under Manmohan Singh’s second UPA government — Ghulam Nabi Azad was using the mobile phone even for routine calls was abominated.
That’s far from the only difference between the two governments, the one era between 2004 and 2014 led by Manmohan Singh, reflecting his personality, and he was only one among the others who have a say is a fact; and the other led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose voice is the only one that matters. Manmohan Singh was abetting, while Modi is assertive.
But leadership is not just about splendid personality oddities and cult it’s more than that. Democracy is all about the work of building institutions and the people who run it – and not about being in the headlines and in the limelight.
Let’s go back in time when H1N1 virus pounded India in 2009, though the epidemic was not at scale, but it claimed over 1,800 lives and infected 20,000, from Manmohan Cabinet, Ghulam Nabi Azad was the face, speaking to head of each state to put in motion political attention, recalls former Union health secretary K. Sujatha Rao, with additional face-to-face meetings with state health cabinets. Well, with a change in the scenario has been witnessed, where daily briefing on coronavirus update is not head by health minister Harsh Vardhan but by the favorite of the PM Office, health and family welfare joint secretary Luv Agarwal, and Modi himself hold virtual meetings with chief ministers.
The time when the nationwide lockdown was implemented on 24 March, the Chief Ministers (CM’s) were not acquainted in advance. It is quite a emblematic of the way Modi runs the government. Even one of the CM Bhupesh Baghel, Chattisgarh has tweeted, it would have been in the national interest if the prime minister had consulted with states first. But then we throwback to the part done by PM Modi, surgical strike mindset, or it is the 2016 demonetization or the strike in POK, to apprehend the terrorists.
Previously Manmohan Singh was heard saying ‘history would be kinder to him than media’, for him this came faster than he could have imagined. It’s believed that Singh would be better at decision making and handling the economy better, rather than being consultative and weak to stand up to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
The good and the bad
A quick and dirty contrasting study on the basis of SWOT analysis among Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.
Manmohan Singh’s mighty weakness was always his inability to communicate effectively, something Modi is able to do brilliantly. Dilip Cherian, communications specialist was quoted saying: “Remember, UPA’s substantial failure was not running an economy at all, it was the communication. One should recall, before comparing India’s economic growth under the Manmohan Singh UPA regime to the Modi sarkar’s, the time he led the government, he reckoned weakly and couldn’t have the courage to take hard decisions. In the Indian public’s mind space, Modi quite easily deemed fit due to the later avatar of the Manmohan Singh government, which opened up the space for Modi.
Yet, in 1991, when Manmohan Singh was then finance minister, he tackled the economic crisis firmly and swiftly. “The top team in place then,” he says, “was world-class and also rather visible. From PM to Chairman of Planning Commission of India Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the big guns were authoritative, dominant and efficient. Survival was ensured and the crisis was used to trigger long-term changes to prevent recurrence” said Cherian.
Well without the benefit of the doubt, unlike Manmohan Singh or any other UPA staunch, Modi was exemplary in his communication skills, whether it was his live telecast to the public at 8 pm or recorded addresses at 9 am, to make a bolstering impression that he directly deals with people, and they do listen to him, either you take an example of taalis and thalis or to light diyas without the occasion of Diwali. This tool to engage with people was productively used to bring the government, Cherian adds.
Standing on old institutions
Modi can address as many time against Jawaharlal Nehru and the ripped ‘70 years’. But on several counts, the Modi government could be said to have borrowed from the Manmohan Singh government.
A program developed in 2004 and run by the National Centre for Diseases Control, the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme; which is being used to track the spread of coronavirus now. Even take the idea of the entrusted group of ministers (GoMs) for consultations. With the provided circumstances, where ministers are nowhere to be seen in the Modi era, it was substituted with the empowered groups (EGoMs) headed by selective secretaries once the humanitarian crisis was out of their hands and in the previous month on 18th, a technical task force was put into play by Indian Council of Medical research (ICMR) and health ministry on 21st March set up a public health working group but both were not enough. There were 30 EGoMs and GoMs in UPA 2. When Modi came into power, he abolished all.
But as of 29 March, cabinet approved setting up 11 empowered groups under the Disaster Management Act 2005, headed by handpicked secretaries with a history of delivering under duress such as drinking water supply secretary Parameswaran Iyer (head of facilitating supply chain and logistics management for the availability of necessary items such as food and medicine), CEO Amitabh Kant, NITI (given charge of coordinating with the NGOs, private sector, and international organizations for response-related activities), and pharmaceuticals secretary P.D. Vaghela (heading a team to ensure all essential medical equipment like PPE, masks, gloves, ventilators, productions, procurement, import, and distributions are available and handled accordingly).
Even a scheme launched in 2008 under UPAs, Rashtriya Bima Yojana was expanded with new version Ayushman Bharat, Modi’s most ambitious health scheme. Ayushmann Bharat is the largest worldwide publicly funded health insurance.
But not all inheritances are positive. Spending in healthcare is still woefully short of 2.5 percent of the GDP it is meant to be. In its report to the Fifteenth Finance Commission constituted in 2017, a high-level group on the health sector had estimated the central health funding had to be Rs 145,000 crore in 2020-21 in order to achieve the goal of 2.5 percent of GDP as stated by the 2017 National Health Policy. Unfortunately, this year the funding provided for the central health spending was just about Rs 70,000.
Setting up a public health framework
Let’s go back to the battle of UPA government 1 against HIV/AIDS and when in the budget the funds to the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) ware tripled to overcome the challenge of maternal and infant mortality rate, which of course went off the map because of numerous scams in UPA 2. Take a look what lesson future government can learn, with enough political support, sufficient funds, and continuing dialogue with civil society and states— with NGO dispute of being seen as anti-national and condemnation of the National Advisory Council during UPA 1 and UPA 2; the government’s distaste for civil society is also well known with this.
But to say with heavy heart, India’s public health system has deteriorated badly and continues to, whether under Manmohan Singh or Narendra Modi. Under the UPA government, there was an initiative to create a public health cadre, which was accentuated in the 2016-17 National Health policy. States are required to give precedence, to locate disease hotspots, detect cases and keep vigil surveillance. The team required could be some district-level trained personals, not someone with degree says former Union health Secretary (1999-2002), Shailaja Chandra. Medical and public health are two independent streams and both are essential.”
Sujatha Rao, director-general of National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) who served from 2006-09 and as health secretary from 2009-10 said the institution set up by Manmohan Singh, The Public Health Foundation of India has offered a master’s in public health but from past years, with no rise in communicable diseases and having a burden for that very purpose, attention to public health began to dwindle. As per data, India still counts 36 percent of its disease burden on account of communicable and infectious diseases. Laying down their guard on infectious diseases could play as the worst nightmare for India. This will be certain when we have a dedicated department of public health,’’ adds Rao.
Nirmal K. Ganguly, former director-general of Indian Council of Medical Research, responded that the creation of cadre of public health workers could be based on top of his four decision— in British rule, we used to have Indian Medical Service, which demobilized in 1947, whose military cadre worked in civilian hospitals as well. Second, build infrastructure like public health laboratories that are affordable and will create a network of accessibility. Third, allow educational institutes to start a specialist course on infectious diseases. And fourth, is to create a network of research NGOs that should be supported by the government and other organizations.
On the economic and foreign policy front
Experts have reported that the Modi government is ardent in handling the crisis, but muffed on three key fronts. You have been sensible to except being bold and fast is not enough, says Merchant. He lists the mistakes in detail:
a. Imposing the 21Day lockdown without the prior notice, just 3.5 hours notice caused almost a stampede like the situation at medical and supermarket, grocery shops, violating every principle of social distancing. Instead, citizens could have been given a one day window with efficient measures taken by the local administration to pay bills, gathers papers to WFH, buy necessities.
b. Public transport availability should have been increased and before shutting in productive mannerism, allowing migrant workers to reach their villages/towns safely with barring the number of passengers per bus/train.
Right now, it is every nation for itself, but on the foreign policy front, which was Manmohan Singh’s competence. National security expert Bharat Karnad says, an initiative of setting up Indian embassies everywhere and updating host countries about the measures Modi government took, such as three-week lockdown and assuaging the effects of the coronavirus spread, will in present phase international affairs in no foreign policy gains.
From the very top to the edge of the bottom, health has to be put back on agenda; while virologists predicted regular outbreaks possible of viruses. Repeating past mistakes will not be tolerated.
Well, both Singh and Modi proved a good leader never lets a crisis go to waste; when Modi has administered the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, another side Singh presided over the 2004 tsunami crisis. As Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy recently wrote in the Financial Times, “Pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
This crisis may be able to lead Modi to use the coronavirus pandemic as a doorway to set up a responsive and inclusive health administration to serve Indians well just not only in public health emergencies.
A baby step could be to start with Harsh Vardhan.
Since India has the luxury of having a doctor as a minister, one with an excellent track record of eradicating polio from Delhi and taking measures for tough anti-smoking, perhaps Prime Minister Modi could begin by allowing him to not merely take charge but to be seen to be taking charge.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.