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A mix of social, political and diplomatic issues made the headlines this week. We turned to Vijay Makhan, former ambassador and former foreign secretary, for his views on these. He comments on the Covid situation here and in India, the communication surrounding it and the way forward. He also expresses his frank frustration and disappointment at the time our courts are taking to decide on the electoral petitions. Read on...
I would like us to start with the news making international headlines. After India was looked upon as a model, it is now looking more and more as a country completely overwhelmed by Covid-19. Some accusing fingers are pointing directly at Narendra Modi. What are your views on this?
Somehow I have the feeling that the mainstream international media is taking a kind of sadistic pleasure, beyond reasonable justifiable journalistic coverage, at showcasing the current disastrous situation in India. Is it on account of the boastful posture India projected last year as having successfully contained the spread of the virus when the first wave hit the world? Or the fact that India positioned itself at the forefront of benevolence when a vaccine was developed by providing a number of developing countries in dire need of help and assistance with vaccines manufactured by her, at a time when the developed countries embarked on a protectionist policy by not sharing for the common good and salvation of mankind? India was then being seen and applauded by the rest of the world as a responsible player on the international scene, playing the role expected of it as an emerging country with global leadership aspirations.
Was all the criticism unwarranted? Was India prepared for this second wave?
It appears from what we read and hear that the Indian authorities did not prepare adequately for the new onslaught of the virus with the appalling consequences that we see unfurling on our screens daily. Yes, you cannot hold it against those who say that there has been a disastrous failure in preventive actions both at central and state government levels. On the other hand, international help to come to the rescue of India in its moments of medical needs has been rather slow. Vaccine entrants for the manufacture of vaccines on large scale is reported to have been initially denied, thus putting paid to the capacity of the Indian manufacturers to increase their output.
What about the Indian leadership?
The leadership has to carry the cross of failure for what is clearly a lack of foresight in that sector. The Indian media, which is a very vibrant and powerful one, is very critical of the authorities, principally Prime Minister Modi. India is in crisis!
Famous Indian journalists like Ramachandra Guha have gone as far as saying it's Modi's personality, particularly his tendency to promote the personality cult, that is responsible for this state of affairs. Would you think it's unfair to say that?
I believe you are referring to the recent interview of Mr. Guha by no less well-known journalist Karan Thapar. As Mr. Guha himself says, India is a very incredibly difficult country to govern even with no pandemic within its borders. There is no doubt that when you are at the helm of affairs in such a large, complex and diverse country as India, you are bound to attract very severe criticisms from various quarters. In fact, Mr. Guha has gone as far to say that Mr. Modi is megalomaniac and doesn't believe in experts and expertise but prefers to surround himself with yes-men officials and bureaucrats, heading a sycophantic cabinet and that it is his leadership style that is mainly responsible for the public health collapse in India. Now, you will agree with me that this is an Indo-Indian affair and it would be remiss of me to offer any comment thereon, one way or another. Having said that, most world leaders end up being subsumed by their ego in the end. There are very few who emerge unscathed from their position of power and I am happy to underline that two such leaders are female: Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel of Germany. One would do well to borrow a leaf or two from them, our local leadership included!
Talking about our local leaders, would you agree that the points in common with the Indian leadership are eerily similar?
Let us please bear in mind a major difference between our two countries. India has a population of 1.3 billion while we are barely 1.3 million! The Indian capital, Delhi, is larger than our country with a population running close to 20 million. Bearing that in mind, it should have been easier for us to contain the pandemic and avoid the unfortunate and regrettable loss of human lives, the psychological misery endured by the population and loss of livelihood in countless households. But, as in India, we allowed political and public rallies, mass religious gatherings/ pilgrimage with the consequences that we know. Those who come into our living room everyday on the small screen, in the name of the high-level committee, display an arrogant air of know-it-all and self-sufficiency instead of showing empathy and acknowledging the system's shortcomings.
"There was a predecessor to Mr. Soodhun who was a career diplomat whose term was abruptly cut short. I do believe that he was properly accommodated and had all the necessary comfort to carry out his representational assignment. Why then the additional costs for residence and furniture, not to mention the item gifts?"
But we haven't done that badly, have we?
I think that what we have witnessed in terms of widespread distress tells a different story. We have recorded more deaths since the second wave than during the first wave last year. Any loss of life is one too many. While, on the one hand, the authorities, including our prime minister, claim that we are better equipped and prepared to face the pandemic this time around, on the other hand, there have been so many casualties, the closure of a hospital, the reportedly poor hygienic conditions in some of the quarantine centres, the sub-standard meals dished out. One could go on.
Most of the casualties this time round are dialysis patients. A Fact Finding Committee into that has finally been agreed to. Are we likely to see some accountability or is too little too late?
The pressure was building up for a form of inquiry to be carried out. One can say that a Fact Finding Committee as opposed to a full-fledged Commission of Inquiry with wide terms of reference is better than nothing. I believe that the chairperson appointed to head that committee will no doubt ensure that all corners of the carpet are lifted to bring to light all the untold truths hidden thereunder. The committee will doubtless bear in mind the high legitimate expectations of the families afflicted by the loss of their near and dear ones as indeed the thirst of the population to know the truth. It should be able to bring to light the shortcomings in the handling of the crisis, including poor resource management and propose remedial action. One thing that disturbs me is that the minister of health is still in office. Any other person worth the salt of his office would have relinquished his position the moment he was publicly disavowed by his colleagues, if not earlier, by the institution of a Fact Finding Committee, an inquiry which he had vehemently opposed in public and in parliament. It's tantamount to a non-physical slap with reverberations and a sting that will last long! Elsewhere in less-sung democracies, a rail accident or the collapse of a building immediately leads to the resignation of the minister in charge. As we speak, in Iraq, the fire that has engulfed a hospital with loss of life has seen the suspension of the minister!
Was the communication surrounding Covid-19 as a whole handled properly?
This week the prime minister made a sudden appearance on our small screen. One would have thought that there was something very important that he was to announce that was not already in the domain of public knowledge. Instead, he took time to tell us what was already in the communiqué issued earlier. He made an appeal for working together to win the war against the pandemic and yet he refused the opposition's proposal made earlier to go that route, to the extent of depriving elected MPs of WAPs to meet their representational responsibilities while on the other hand more than half a million WAPs had been delivered. He appealed for unity, goodwill and discipline to overcome the pandemic. Yet, some of the actions and initiatives taken are incongruent with the appeal. At another level, while the majority of the population has followed the hygienic norms dictated by the situation, quite a few daredevils are seen roaming around with impunity without masks or being improperly masked and not respecting the mandatory social distancing. While other countries have closed their borders to India on account of the drastic situation, we were about to bring in workers for the metro! Thank God for public pressure.
On another front, we are dealing with increased attempts to curtail our freedom of expression. Is the proposed consultation paper aiming to 'regulate' social media a good thing for the country?
By so doing, we are only blowing wind in the sails of those that aver that we are sliding into the category of autocratic countries. The regulations regarding the use or abuse of social media already exist. So what are we trying to do, if not use any means to prevent the public from venting its frustrations and criticism of government? I call on the citizens of this country, principally the youth, irrespective of their political affiliation, to alert their elected representatives of their opposition to this attempt at encroaching upon and curtailing their freedom.
As we speak, three of our most experienced parliamentarians are not allowed into the national assembly and have to go to court to be able to do the work we elected them to do. Was the speaker's decision justified in your opinion?
I am appalled, like the majority of our citizens, at the way the speaker conducts the proceedings of parliament. The matter is in court, which will decide, soon enough I dare hope, on the way forward to prevent the recurrence of this uncanny habit of trying to muzzle the opposition. Whoever they are, they are the representatives of the people, elected by them to be their voice. By depriving such long-standing experienced parliamentarians of their legitimate place in parliament, we are yet again confirming the autocratic nature of the system.
The trigger was a question about former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Showkutally Soodhun. As a former ambassador and former foreign secretary, what are your views on this whole episode?
It truly disturbs and irritates me when I note the decline of the Foreign Service which in any country is the privileged window through which the international community observes and gauges the credibility of a nation. Over the past few years, our Foreign Service has slid into the abyss of insignificance, with a distorted image and sullied reputation, much to the distress of the career cadres of the ministry. There are some very worthy officers there who are deprived of the opportunity of putting their expertise at the service of the country. We have stuffed most of our missions with nondescript political appointees to the extent that those missions have become the privileged dumping ground for undesirable or unplaceable elements in the local context. Yet, this country does have citizens, and not necessarily career diplomats, who have the required level to do justice to an ambassadorial assignment, while not necessarily being courtesans of any political party! A good mix of career diplomats and capable political appointees would go a long way to render the Foreign Service healthy.
The purging out of the minutes has led to finding out that Soodhun was enjoying an insane salary with some ludicrous allowances like a 'warm clothes allowance' in Saudi Arabia. Does that package look normal to you?
The basic salary of an ambassador is prescribed in the PRB pay structure and is therefore the same for everyone at that level. It is the Foreign Service allowance which differs and is fixed according to the cost of living in the country of residence. However, some of the items included in the package under scrutiny are questionable. As an example, we know that there was a predecessor to Mr. Soodhun who was a career diplomat whose term was abruptly cut short. I do believe that he was properly accommodated and had all the necessary comfort to carry out his representational assignment. Why then the additional costs for residence and furniture, not to mention the item gifts? But there are a few other fundamental aspects to this whole episode. Mr. Soodhun has been non-resident since January according to the foreign minister. How come a Note Verbale to that effect was addressed to the Saudi authorities only in March of this year? His credentials for accreditation to certain other Gulf countries must have mentioned Riyadh as residence. This status has changed, hasn't it? Had his predecessor as per practice already left Saudi Arabia prior to the arrival of Mr. Soodhun there? These are but a few...
"Those who come into our living room everyday on the small screen, in the name of the high-level committee, display an arrogant air of know-it-all and self-sufficiency instead of showing empathy and acknowledging the system's shortcomings."
Well, where do we go from here? The opposition, once strong and unified now seems to be in tatters and they cannot even agree on unified action against the speaker. Isn't that playing in the hands of the current government?
I wouldn't say the opposition is in tatters, even if they appear to be treading different paths to attain the same objective. The more they allow their personae to dictate their actions as opposed to the common good of the people, the more they will play in the hands of the current regime. They should understand that politics must be seen as a crucial instrument to change lives for the better! I agree that the three excluded parliamentarians should have lodged a singular case but as their common leading counsel has said elsewhere, an element of susceptibility crawled in. I am however confident that they will overcome personal considerations and rebuild the unity which emerged sometime back and which was applauded by the public at large.
What does it take to build that unity, other than putting their egos aside?
First, as in any negotiation, they should sit down and dress up a kind of balance sheet on which they need to jot down the points on which they agree, then the points on which there is no consensus and build up from there. As they would surely realise, if the primary objective, that is, to rid the country of the present regime is found to be stronger and more important than the points on which they disagree, then they should do everything to rally around a common programme, based on what should be best for the country. There should be no hidden cards or dagger behind the back. Country first!
All that is a tall order. Electoral petitions are still before the court and not a single one has been heard nearly two years after the election. How do you feel about that?
Like many citizens who follow such matters, I am at the end of my patience and really disappointed at the snail's pace of this matter. I have had the opportunity of leading many elections observer missions abroad and to countries of lesser democratic credentials than ours. In such countries, any such electoral petition is dealt with in priority! Here, I do not understand the delay....can't be just the pandemic. Is the Supreme Court overwhelmed? A case where I was personally involved lodged in 2012 was finally heard this year! Isn't it time for a special division of the Supreme Court to be set up and be operational for a pre-determined period before, during and immediately after the elections to handle such matters in an expeditious way?
But why are people quiet about everything wrong in this country?
The voices that are heard are insufficiently ventilated. Aside certain private radio and written media platforms, there is little opportunity for such voices to be heard. The social media platform runs the risk of being curbed. The opposition parliamentarians are systematically muzzled. Questions go unanswered. There are a few who have used criticism as a vector to secure positions for themselves or to serve their narrow personal interests. They are known and should be decried. We are in a situation where a minority is calling the shots to the detriment of the majority which, it must be repeated, voted against the government of the day!