Is India back to being ‘Third World’?

A feature of ‘Third World-ism’ is lack of accountability.
Whether and how the Modi government is held to account politically is a matter for the future, observes T N Ninan.

So is India back to being a ‘Third World’ country, dependent once again — after 16 years — on aid from other countries? No, and Yes.

No, because India has given aid before getting it.

As the foreign secretary has said, it’s an inter-dependent world.

Besides, this is a once-in-a-century event, and mistakes will be made, so let’s cut some slack to those in charge.

But the answer is also Yes, because extraordinary bungling and incompetence lie at the root of the need for emergency help from overseas.

Institutional weakness is a feature of most Third World countries, and explains the two most egregious failures of the last few months: To set up planned oxygen plants and to ramp up vaccine-manufacturing capacity.

Add to that the failure to spot those failures before funeral fires began overwhelming us, despite official busy-making by high-level task forces and committees.

In many ways, India has returned to type. Like its weakness for declaring victory midway — as with the virus, or at Doklam — or its new variant, celebrating setback as victory, as at Depsang.

Also making a comeback is the old prickliness about criticism overseas.

That prickliness sits poorly with the reports on the guardians of red tape turning away a foreign vaccine manufacturer, doubtless by following the rules.

We are the world’s vaccine capital, after all — except that daily vaccinations have dropped from three million to two million in a country that needs upwards of two billion.

The inadequacies (like not having a proper public health infrastructure) have long been obvious and commented on, but were obscured by more recent successes that had begun, however belatedly, to script a different story.

So India moved from ‘Third World’ to ‘Emerging Market’; in some especially patriotic eyes, even a potential superpower.

The virus has merely exposed that obscured underbelly for the world to see and report.

The same world that had been happy to join in the cheering of recent successes while, perhaps out of politeness, not puncturing the puffed up comparisons with China.

So the counterpoint to the super-patriots is the predictable schadenfreude in recent ‘andolanjeevi‘ comments about premature triumphalism.

A mature view would acknowledge failures and successes, the jobs done, and remaining to be done.

So both No and Yes. Third World and Emerging Market. The same system that has allowed a crisis to balloon into untold (because substantially unrecorded) numbers of personal tragedies also has the capacity to respond to crisis.

Medical oxygen production is said to have been ramped up by 70 per cent in a month — a repeat of last year’s scaling up of the manufacture of personal protective equipment.

Field hospitals have been opened at speed. When government leaders focus on the job at hand, action does follow.

Institutional and industrial capabilities now exist, even if they function only in mission mode.

Unlike 1962, the army could and did respond instead of simply caving in.

It is not that nothing has been achieved in 60 or 70 years, just that the “normal” is snafu.

A feature of ‘Third World-ism’ is lack of accountability.

Whether and how the Narendra Modi government is held to account politically is a matter for the future, and involves the question of alternatives.

For the moment, it bears noting that the prime minister has not found it possible to stretch his acknowledgement of the country being ‘shaken’ to admitting responsibility for such shaking.

Nor have his ministers found it in them to tone down the arrogance with which they respond to questions or suggestions by a former prime minister and sitting chief ministers.

Lesser humans are threatened with arrest for complaining of oxygen scarcity, while no one has heard of action being taken against those responsible for the failure to set up sanctioned oxygen plants, or to act on the certainty of additional vaccine requirements even without a second wave of the pandemic.

The accountability and systemic checks within which developed societies operate — like the cabinet secretary in Britain looking into the home refurbishing expenses of the prime minister — are missing in India.

Here, the PM’s favoured projects get special sanction. That’s very Third World.

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