India prepares for world's biggest vaccination drive, melding democracy and discipline

Tuhin A Sinha
·5-min read

On 16 January when India embarks upon the biggest vaccination drive in history, let the magnitude of the exercise sink in. In the next few months, India will be vaccinating a population nearly as large as that of the entire USA. Sixty crore vaccine doses would roughly equal the total number of votes polled in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Thankfully, the start of this gargantuan exercise coincides with India attaining a vantage position in its fight against COVID-19. From nearly a lakh cases a day being reported in September, that number has now slipped to 15,000 a day. The USA has been in struggling in comparison. Last Friday, it reported three lakh cases. The UK has been is disarray as well, reporting over 50,000 cases per day.

How did India manage this turnaround?

At the core of this change lies the change in the leadership culture that the country has witnessed in the past seven years under Narendra Modi. The prime minister has proved that a selfless hands-on brand of leadership, where the leader leads by example and inspires behavioural change, is invariably more potent in achieving results than coercive impositions.

This model was first witnessed at the pan-India level in the #Giveitup campaign of 2015, which in a short span of time, encouraged more than a crore citizens to give up LPG subsidies. The money thus saved, was used to partly fund the ambitious Ujjwala Yojana, which provided over eight crore gas connections to the poorest of rural women.

On another note, post-demonetisation, the increased adoption of digital currency, has ensured an exponentially higher tax compliance. In fact, this financial year UPI payments, is expected to be of a level equivalent to 15 percent of India's GDP. That even vegetable vendors now use UPI, points to a behavioural change, unimagined a few years ago. The effortless espousal of digital currency, thus, is another example of behavioural change, led by persuasive, reformist leadership.

Now, let us consider India's fight against COVID-19. Given the uncertain nature of the unprecedented crisis, this was a battle that had to be won, in the mind before it could be played out on the ground. This is where Modi's temperament stood out. Unlike some prominent world leaders who were initially dismissive of the COVID threat, the Indian government was among the most circumspect and proactive, introducing curbs on Chinese passengers and beginning surveillance at airports, way back in January last year.

Modi himself led by example. On 4 March, when less than 100 cases had been reported, the prime minister announced that he would not be celebrating Holi, sending a clear message to the citizens to avoid public gatherings. On 22 March, the janta curfew became the right participatory device for a six-week total lockdown that ensued from 24 March. It is worth noting that when the lockdown began, India had less than 600 reported cases. It took an iron fist and cucumber cool temperament to steer India through the worst of the COVID months and then initiate the decentralised unlocking phase from 1 June, giving increased authority to states to take decisions, based on the local situation.

Given the complex challenges that went into ensuring due diligence during lockdown and the coordination that went into the unlock phase immediately after, it required immense maturity to have all state governments in sync with the Centre. This is where the prime minister's periodic interactions with chief ministers played a crucial part. It is worth noting that despite several Opposition-ruled states underperforming in the COVID battle, due to their confrontationist approach with the Centre, the Central government showed restraint and maturity in reaching out and avoiding deadlocks.

The most successful leaders are those who diligently practice what they preach. In Modi's case, he ensured that he was adequately masked in all his public appearances, thereby emphasising the non-negotiability of wearing masks. In fact, all his ministers, also followed the COVID-19 protocols, thus sending the right message to people. The prime minister's persistent messaging on mask-compliance attained the desired impact. In fact, when one looks back at these 10 months, in no other large democracy have people universally accepted masks and other COVID protocols so effortlessly. The US and some European nations have struggled with mask protocols. India's universal masking-up, has in fact, been the game-changer!

The months of May and June were particular tough, when to add to the health and economic woes, China revealed its nasty intent in Ladakh. True to his style, instead of blinking, Modi handled the situation with calculated aggression, personally visiting the border and asserting that China's expansionist tendencies will not succeed.

The COVID-19 battle has been the modern world's biggest conundrum. Almost all countries had to choose between life and livelihood. India chose both, in a calibrated strategy and pulled it off well enough. As the economy looks set for a V-shaped recovery, India's approach through the last 10 months looks increasingly vindicated.

As India gets ready for the grandest vaccination drive, Modi has once again struck the right notes in the meeting with chief ministers. The cost of vaccinating three crore health workers and frontline warriors will be borne entirely by the Centre. This leaves no room for some of the habitually confrontationist state governments to manufacture new conflicts. Politicians are not a priority and hence, will not be allowed out-of-turn vaccination. Finally, a new app (Co-WIN) will be the one-stop coordination point for those receiving vaccines and the one-stop resource for the government to know the real time status of the progress of the vaccination program.

If India successfully combats COVID-19, it will undoubtedly be the subject of several case studies over decades. Most importantly India has showcased to the world how its inherent spiritual strength, coupled with the power of democracy, can combat the worst crises with stoic resilience.

Tuhin Sinha is an author and BJP spokesperson

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