Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Ministers and Public Distancing

By Dilip Bobb

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Normally, they are everywhere, on your news channels, sending out press releases and videos, making announcements, getting interviewed, holding press briefings or getting themselves photographed in self-promotional activities. Ever since the coronavirus crisis hit India two months ago, they have vanished from public view. Social distancing was meant for the public, not for ministers in charge of crucial ministries to practice public distancing. In this hour of what is probably the greatest crisis the country, and the world, has ever faced, we should logically be hearing more from the health minister, the finance minister, the home minister and above all, the prime minister. In America, President Donald Trump, who hates the press (barring Fox News) holds a daily press briefing where he is asked some probing questions about his government’s response to Covid-19.  In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a daily press briefing as well till the virus infected him as well. Subsequently, the health secretary and other medical experts have replaced him.  In Spain and Italy, their leaders and health ministers are speaking daily to the public, informing them of what steps are being taken and what the public should avoid. In contrast, Narendra Modi has appeared twice since the outbreak began to address the public, once to announce the janta curfew and the other time to announce the lockdown. Mann ki Baat did not require him to face a camera. No one has seen the Health Minister, who happens to be a qualified doctor, speak to the public except on a Town Hall video conference hosted by NDTV which, in any event, was in English.  He has tweeted, again in English, about demonizing health care workers but as Union health minister it is his moral and ethical duty to be speaking to the public more often and answering questions from a public entrapped in fear and panic, preferably via regular press conferences. The Home minister who plays such a crucial role in the imposition of law and order and discipline has not been seen at all, despite the agonising sight of thousands of migrants crowding bus stands and walking in large groups on our highways. As The Telegraph noted, “The lockdown is on but the bid to break the chain of transmission has not succeeded in containing one question. Where is Union home minister Amit Shah, the country’s new “Iron Man”? The question hangs in the corridors of power amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with Shah’s absence from the frontline leaving many wondering about his role in the battle against the virus. Shah — the second most powerful leader in the ruling dispensation after Prime Minister Narendra Modi — has so far been engaged in merely tweeting to hail the measures taken by the government or sending advisories to states.”

If the coronavirus disaster has taught us one thing it is this: there is no bigger weapon to combat a national crisis and show that the government is doing everything in its power to help its citizens, than transparency. Without transparency there is no trust, something which many governments have learnt to their everlasting regret.  Many countries refer to transparency not only as the right to access information, but also as a tool for enhancing government efficiency and accountability. In a time of national crisis, that is required more than ever. Talking of information, we have seen precious little of the minster in charge of dispensing it, Prakash Javdekar. Maybe he is following his own advice which he tweeted last week, saying that watching Ramayana during the shutdown of the country is the way forward!



lead picture: UNI

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