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.

On The Lancet editorial

On May 8, The Lancet published an editorial criticising the Narendra Modi government’s response to India’s second COVID-19 outbreak, which has been redefining the meaning of ‘snafu’. All hell broke loose. Of course, hell has been breaking loose for quite some time in India now, but the latest episode was in one specific sense also gratifying to behold.

There were the usual rumbles in the week following the editorial’s appearance, until on May 17 India’s health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan shared a blog post penned by a Pankaj Chaturvedi deriding The Lancet‘s choice of arguments. (I’m fond of emboldening the honorific: it shows doctors can be stupid, too.) The post is mostly whataboutery studded with a few gems about how people who liked the editorial aren’t pissed enough that favipiravir and hydroxychloroquine were approved for use – as Dr Vardhan’s ministry did. More importantly, it seems Dr Vardhan, and his colleagues in fact, threw themselves into the barrel looking for anything with fully formed sentences that said The Lancet was wrong – a sign that their government still gives a damn about what foreign journals, and perhaps magazines and newspapers too, say about it.

We need to use this to the fullest extent, and I daresay that it’s the sort of resource the government is going to find difficult to duplicate as well. There was recently an article about Modi doing a great job during India’s second wave, published in an outlet called The Daily Guardian. There was enough confusion to draw the UK’s The Guardian forward and clarify that it was an unaffiliated entity – but no amount of confusion can supplant an institution, no matter how illiberal. Aakar Patel wrote in 2018: “The fact is that intelligent and intellectual bigotry is very difficult. There are very few people who can pull that off and that is why we can count the major ones on our fingers.” This is also why the government has twitched every time the New York Times, the Washington Post, BBC, The Lancet, Science and The BMJ have published articles critical of India, even if this isn’t the full picture.

It’s doubly interesting that the sophistry of the rejoinders aside, Dr Vardhan, his colleagues in government and his party’s supporters have all been antagonised by what they perceive to be a political act by a medical journal. This is an untenable distinction, of course – one that fantasises about a clear divide between the Watchers, who look out, and the Watched, who dare not know what the Watchers see. More pertinently, it’s a reflection of what they desperately expect from their own compatriots: to ignore how bad political leadership could help a virus ravage hundreds of thousands of families.

Featured image credit: Kunj Parekh/Unsplash.

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.

Ending 2020

My blogging took a hit this year – as did everything for everyone. I couldn’t publish nearly as much as I’d have liked. While the average post length was the highest it’s ever been – 989 words – and audience engagement was through the roof, I had to just forget many ideas for posts I’d had because I lacked the time and more importantly any creative energy to produce them. Since around May, I felt like writing only on the weekends, and only if an idea or an insight crossed a threshold of interestingness that for some reason kept climbing higher.

YearPostsWords
201211981,710
20139671,096
2014163117,302
2015209181,233
20166455,206
2017135114,737
2018184145,530
2019169136,241
2020113111,752

That said, I have two takeaways from blogging this year. The first is a minor one – that I’ve published 1,200 posts in all now. I don’t think of this number except at the end of every year; its bigness feels reassuring, and reminds me when I’m down that I haven’t entirely wasted my time.

The other takeaway is that it’s certainly becoming harder to get through to The Other Side, as their louder commentators clamber further down their rabbit hole, and further persist with argumentative tactics guided not by reason or even the pursuit of common ground but by the need to uphold Hindutva at all times. And as they’ve dug their heels in, I’ve found I’ve been doing the same thing, although not deliberately. I’ve used the first person to refer to positions and the provenance of argumentative tacks more in 2020 than in any other year, and I’ve also been less and less inclined to spell my position – as if I’ve become sub-consciously aware that I’m no longer speaking out to change minds as much as to harden the stances of those who have already expressed solidarity.

I’m not entirely happy with this shift, this closing of the gates – even if it sounds more productive, as the engagement data also attests – because I don’t know whether when all this tides over, and it will tide over, I will be capable of reopening the gates as swiftly as I might need to. Granted, keeping the gates open even a little bit now – i.e. attempting to reason every now and then with those who aren’t amenable to reason – could prove injurious, but I remain convinced for now that it’s the smaller price to pay. And this is why I think the continuously rising threshold of interestingness is a coping mechanism of sorts, an internally supplied resistance to the hardening of the exterior.

I’m excited to find out where blogging, writing, reporting, editing, publishing in 2021 will take me – will take us all, in fact.

Fortitude

What’s the point of sweating to compose a good argument when the reader doesn’t exist who will rebut it instead of nosing around to figure out who penned it and going after them instead?

This is a question worth asking but the answer is even more important. When faced with an audience addicted to ad hominem and whatboutery, you rage against them, you surrender and lay down your weapons, you keep hammering your arguments out in the hope that one day you will be understood or you simply walk away, never to lift your finger over a keyboard again – at least not to compose anything that will eventually end up as some mouth-breather’s toilet paper.

Rage, it is commonly acknowledged, and the desire to exert control over things that cannot be controlled that underlies such passion is not tenable. Surrender and submission are equally misguided, not to mention privileged, positions. So what is left is your commitment to your intellect and your industry and the implication is that you must keep going on and on.

I think it’s hard to define some things that don’t simply embody a fixed definition as much as encompass a set of circumstances that together carry a certain quality. Fortitude is one such, and I don’t know what fortitude itself is considering what it represents can vary drastically depending on the circumstances.

But here, now, fortitude would seem to be this radioactive mix of persistence, a willingness to skirt the edge of insanity (according to Einstein’s definition), the constant belief that one is right at the risk of being wrong every now and then, and of course the mental clarity and determination to enter this fortress of conviction at the right moments and leave at others without inadvertently leaving parts of yourself behind on either side.

If only it were a drug.