The political theatre of Vardhan v. Ramdev

Last week, Baba Ramdev made offensive remarks against allopathic medicine and against people desperately looking for oxygen for their loved ones hospitalised with COVID-19. On Sunday, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan sent a letter to Ramdev asking him to withdraw his comments. On Monday morning, news reports suggested Ramdev had done so.

However, it wasn’t clear why the Indian government – so trigger-happy against any small, even nonexistent, slights against “India’s reputation” – didn’t book Ramdev under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 or any other law. Or is this not the right question to ask?

Compare Vardhan’s letter on Sunday to Ramdev to his letter on April 20 to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. A day earlier, Singh had written to Modi suggesting that the Centre give the states more flexibility to locally adapt the vaccination programme and share the Centre-company vaccine orders with the people.

In response, Vardhan lashed out, accusing Singh’s Congress party of “fuelling vaccine hesitancy”, spreading fake news and the states in which it was in power of being the biggest contributors to India’s second wave. It was a madman’s diatribe with no basis in fact or sense, designed to curry favour with his own party, and his Supreme Leader, instead of taking the opportunity to respond directly to Singh’s suggestions.

In contrast, Vardhan’s letter to Ramdev – whose remarks were as destructive as Singh’s were constructive – is cajoling. Here’s a translation by NDTV (the original is in Hindi):

The people of the country are very hurt with your remark on allopathic medicines. I have already told you about this feeling over phone. Doctors and health workers are like gods for the people of the country for whom they are fighting against the coronavirus risking their lives.

You have not only insulted Corona warriors, but have hurt the feelings of the people of the country. Your clarification yesterday is not enough to make up for it… I hope you will think hard on it and withdraw your statements completely.

A former prime minister and one of India’s greatest economists is met with blockheaded whataboutery whereas an unscrupulous businessman in cahoots with the national party and with no regard for the morals of public healthcare is coaxed gently into withdrawing his remarks, as if the minister is wary of tripping the wrong wire. This is political theatre pure and simple.

In a government apparatus that has never, in the last half-decade of its rule, done anything without the express permission of its prime minister, it’s not likely that Vardhan or Ramdev have violated this rule now. The big flip side of totally centralised power is that the buck never moves past the same person.

Ramdev was set up to say something offensive and Vardhan was set up push back in a display of understated authority, but authority nonetheless – to signal to the party’s followers that the government, despite so many expressions in India, the US and Europe to the contrary, is in charge and is looking out for the interests of healthcare workers, who show up in Vardhan’s letter as “Corona warriors”. Now that the project has accomplished its goals, the Supreme Leader and his office has allowed Ramdev to withdraw without consequence into his corporate offices and for Vardhan to bask in his ‘victory’.

But numerous healthcare workers have been offended by Ramdev’s remarks, many of them on Twitter, and so has the Indian Medical Association. Is the minister really looking out for anyone here apart from the party followers? This is the right question to ask.

Featured image: Harsh Vardhan and Baba Ramdev. Credits: MST/PIB and Kumari Anu/PIB, Wikimedia Commons.

The government’s enblightenment

The GMO debate is a fascinating object, even though participating in it often amounts to nothing but pain, frustration and lost time – especially if you’re pro-GMO foods. It’s fascinating because it’s one of a kind: one party has science on its side but little else, including good science outreach, and the other has sociology but also lots of overreaching rhetoric. There is also an unseen foe, the agrochemical company Monsanto, whose decades of indulgence in unethical practices and corporate recalcitrance to promote the sales of its fertilisers and genetically modified seeds have blighted the soil – both literally and figuratively – rendering hundreds of thousands of people around the world forever suspicious of genetic engineering vis-à-vis agriculture. One prominent outcome of this ‘enblightenment’ is that scientifically robust data no longer suffices to qualify GM products for regulatory approval, and any such approval, once granted, becomes automatically subsumed by doubts about corruption and subversion. Another outcome is the pall of cynicism that hangs over any public deliberations of GM products, especially regarding business practices – cynicism that effectively holds a gap open for unscientific, even pseudoscientific, arguments to slip into the debate and for untenable rhetorical methods, especially whataboutery, to find more purchase than might be warranted. Taken together, I think these are some reasons why the GMO debate has lasted for so long and why settling it to the effect of everyone being more accepting of GM seeds is going to be very hard.

It would seem some of these features are also visible, or are becoming apparent, on a different front. Baba Ramdev’s (I suspect) pseudo-Ayurvedic company Patanjali Ayurved has come under fire for falsely claiming an antiviral drug it has minted, called Coronil, was approved by the WHO for use against COVID-19. The WHO hasn’t granted any such approval – and the study backing up Coronil’s efficacy doesn’t seem to hold up to deeper scrutiny either. However, Patanjali Ayurved has stood its ground, most recently lashing out against the Indian Medical Association (IMA) for calling Coronil’s public launch on February 19, with Union health minister Harsh Vardhan in attendance as an honoured guest, despite its dubious credentials was “a slap and insult to the people of the country”. A spokesperson for Patanjali, S.K. Tijarawala, tweeted the company’s rebuttal on February 25, asking the IMA to focus on availing the people of India more affordable healthcare first and to abolish the practice of “commissions in the medical profession”. This is plain whataboutery – responding to one argument with another while also changing the topic. However, this counterargument is also likely to stick because access to affordable and good quality healthcare and over-charging in private clinics and hospitals are both big and rampant problems in India, thanks to the oversight of successive governments and the privatising tendencies of the current one. And even though Patanjali is resorting to whataboutery to advance this accusation, the issues’ shared relevance is likely to be able to hold the door open for someone – a minister, a political leader, a prominent doctor, anyone – to legitimise the contention, in much the same way Monsanto mass-poisoned the public impression of GMOs, thus allowing otherwise untenable anti-GMO arguments to survive for longer in conversation. Humming quietly in the background is of course the government’s profitable hypocrisy: of doing nothing to ensure the problems Patanjali is using to hide from the IMA’s complaint go away, dispatching two of its senior ministers to endorse Patanjali’s products despite the near-complete absence of reason in its ‘approval’ by the government, and allowing Patanjali to justify Coronil’s existence by offering it – in vague and therefore irrefutable terms – as a potential solution for India’s ‘access to healthcare’ problems.