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India needs to treat its empathy-deficit disorder

There is a crisis of empathy raging through the ruling political class in India—and it is no less a pandemic than covid-19

Voters at a polling station during the West Bengal assembly election in Kolkata on 29 April.
Voters at a polling station during the West Bengal assembly election in Kolkata on 29 April. (Getty images)

In 1980, Nargis Dutt, actor and member of Parliament, accused Satyajit Ray of “exporting poverty” in order to win awards. She complained that because of films like Pather Panchali, foreigners asked her embarrassing questions like “Do they have schools in India?” Ray’s films became popular abroad, she claimed, because “people there want to see India in an abject condition”. What should he make films about? her interviewer asked. Modern India, she said. But what represented modern India, the interviewer persisted. Dams, she replied. Could she think of a film about dams? Not off-hand, she admitted.

Forty years later, Nargis’ dam-complex lives on. At the World Economic Forum this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India had “saved the world from disaster by bringing the corona situation under control.”

Now in the middle of a covid-19 storm, many politicians and bureaucrats seem to be more preoccupied firefighting photographs, tweets and hashtags they think are tarnishing India’s image abroad than fighting the actual fire raging in India itself. The optics of the issue start looming larger than the issue itself. Nowhere is this more searingly apparent than in Uttar Pradesh, where the government thinks one way to tackle a public health emergency is to put up plastic and cloth banners to hide cremation grounds from cameras. The banners warn that photography/videography of Hindu funeral rites is a “punishable offence”.

While government lawyers bicker in court about oxygen supplies, the minister for external affairs told Indian diplomats to counter a “one-sided” narrative about India in the international media. The accounts of distraught patients outside hospitals, burning funeral pyres and oxygen shortages were upsetting not because the pictures were fake but log kya kahenge (what will people say)? The real issue is always about saving face. As Nargis Dutt said, foreigners are asking embarrassing questions.

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It’s inevitable that those who are opposed to the ruling party will try and tom-tom its shortcomings in mishandling the second wave. It’s also true that nobody wants to see their country portrayed as if it’s on the verge of a meltdown. The government would naturally prefer images of the Oxygen Express delivering oxygen to those of funeral pyres. But the way to do that is with more initiatives like the Oxygen Express, not by hiding funeral pyres behind Photography Prohibited banners.

India is hardly the only country to find itself floundering in the covid-19 storm. As Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical adviser, said in an interview in early May, “The United States, for a while, was the worst-hit country in the world and the United States is the richest country. We were supposedly the best prepared.” We remember the days when a doctor described New York as something out of a “horror film”. A senior staff nurse told The New York Times, “This morning I looked up and the doctor resident was bawling, crying in his mask, and I started crying and the other nurse started crying. We’re all human, you know, there’s only so much we can take.”

“We’re all human, you know, there’s only so much we can take.”

Why does it seem so difficult for those in charge to remember this about those around them? At the start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister assumed a persona that was part paterfamilias and part Scout leader. Some might have rolled their eyes at the tin pan orchestra he proposed to boost our collective morale but, as San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk once said: “You have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.”

What has been astonishing during this time of national heartsickness, when every day we hear of someone we know getting sick or dying, when social media feels part crisis centre helpline, part obituary page, is how tone-deaf politicians seem to be to the pain of ordinary people. Where are the images of our leaders at hospitals unless they are inaugurating them with balloons? Civic society, on the other hand, has shown its best face on social media, tirelessly crowdsourcing oxygen, ICU beds, drugs.

Also read | How affluent Indians became covid superspreaders

Most politicians, with a few honourable exceptions, seem more intent on passing the buck, finding someone else to blame, and shooting the messenger. How dare you post about oxygen shortage on Twitter? How dare you ask me whether election rallies are a good idea at this time?

But where is the outrage about the oxygen shortage? Where is the pain about the public park doing double duty as a crematorium? There is a crisis of empathy raging through the country and it is no less a pandemic than covid-19.

This empathy-deficit disorder is not new nor is it restricted to one party. After the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape led to countrywide protests and candle-light vigils, then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit came across as dismissive and brusque, telling the media she had cancelled the licence for the bus in which the young woman was raped. What more did they expect from her? She reacted not as a mother and a fellow human being but as a politician trying to duck blame. After the Vyapam scam deaths snowballed in Madhya Pradesh in 2015, the chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, came across as more aggressive about defending his besmirched honour than comforting the families of the victims.

The dead seem to be a nuisance factor.

In the middle of a pandemic sweeping the nation like a wildfire, defensive politicians call on us not to politicise the issue—but would it be too much to expect them to humanise it? Words like “unfortunate” do not suffice to convey the anguish of a child whose father died a few days after his mother, or someone’s uncle dying in a taxi looking for a hospital bed. Our current Union health minister scolds everyone, except his own colleagues, for failing to wear a mask properly. He seems annoyed at the media for not highlighting the positives enough, like India having one of the lowest mortality rates in the world. But the minister, a doctor, shows no trace of a bedside manner when it comes to comforting those in pain and fear. He throws mortality and vaccine production statistics at them as if they were pills they should swallow.

Our leaders know how to be a commander-in-chief. Or a cheerleader-in-chief. Or a campaigner-in-chief. But they seem to not know how to be a consoler-in-chief. After the terrible church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, then US president Barack Obama attended the funeral service. He gave a thoughtful eulogy on race relations. Then, after the longest of pauses, he started singing Amazing Grace. The faces of the congregation around him started changing as that sank in. Some smiled, some clapped slowly, some gaped, some teared up and then, one by one, they stood up and lent their voices to his until the whole church vibrated with the amazing grace of that song.

Amazing Grace is a Christian hymn but grace comes, Sarah Kaufman wrote in The Washington Post, from the Latin word gratia, which comes from the Greek word charis, which meant favour, an act of kindness that one person can offer another. As Kaufman wrote, we all relate to grace as “comfort to the soul, a form of love, a way to get through difficulty”. It brings us together “even—and especially— when being human hurts”.

We need vaccines. We need oxygen cylinders. We need medicines.

But in a time of grievous daily, even hourly, hurt, most of all we need grace.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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