WHILE hearing the matter on the health emergency precipitated by the second Covid wave, a Bench of the Supreme Court told the lawyers appearing before it on April 27, “Recrimination won’t save people’s lives. Let us all find a solution and that is my appeal to all the members of the Bar. Let this not be adversarial.” The judges’ wise appeal, at a time when India is facing its most difficult period since Partition, should be heeded by all citizens. For, this is not the time for anger and division but for calm and unity. This is also the time for strength and resilience.
It is significant that the judges chose the word ‘recrimination’. Pocket Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “an accusation in response to one from someone else”. Tragically, even during these days, members of India’s political class continue to point accusing fingers at each other. This is reflected in national television shows where spokespersons for various political parties try to show up others for their sins of omission and commission while defending the record of their own party. There is no attempt at constructively coming together to meet the grave national threat brought about by what Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the storm of the second Covid wave.
It is not too late even now to give up recrimination and politics as usual and reach out across political divisions. That is the responsibility of the leaders of every political party and formation and the first step of this process can be taken by Modi himself. As part of this outreach, the Prime Minister can consider associating persons of proven political experience, administrative and technical competence, irrespective of their party affiliation or ideological persuasion, in Covid management. This will not diminish either the government’s or the ruling dispensation’s standing but will only display their commitment to unify the people to meet the many current and future challenges in different sectors, beginning with health, on account of the pandemic. It will also be a signal to the international community of how India has the vision and the capacity to come together as one to overcome great adversity.
It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court judges used the word ‘recrimination’ and not ‘accountability’, which is derived from the word ‘accountable’. To turn again to the Oxford dictionary, accountable means “responsible for your actions and expected to explain them”. Before going further, it is necessary to clarify that “to fix accountability” is an altogether different idea from accountability in itself. To seek to fix accountability means to ask that responsibility be attributed for wrongdoing. There is no connotation of wrongdoing per se in seeking accountability which simply means, as the dictionary clarifies, to ask for explanations or clarifications.
Accountability is the foundational and essential principle of India’s representative democratic system. Every institution and individual in public life, especially those holding offices of state, are accountable to the people through established procedures. They are, therefore, never immune from public scrutiny. Even when they cannot disclose their actions or spell out their thinking because of reasons relating to the security of the state, they remain accountable.
It is important to recall the principle of accountability because it remains operative at all times, even in times of the gravest emergency. At no stage can any institution or person claim that he is not required to explain his actions. Asking for the rationale for a policy cannot be construed as exhibiting a lack of faith or a desire to apportion blame, though it has almost become a norm of Indian public discourse to level the charge of lack of patriotism on anyone who merely seeks a clarification of a policy or a governmental action. This is not restricted to any particular party. Naturally, those seeking explanations for government policy have to take care that they do not attribute motives or impair the morale of critical institutions, especially in times of distress.
Thus, those who sought a rationale for why the government chose to send out a month’s production of vaccines earned the ire, if not the invective, of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. He called them ‘blame-game wallahs’ and added that it was ‘short-sighted’ to hold that vaccines should not have been exported. He further said, “Only irresponsible people, really non-serious people can make that kind of argument.” The minister justified vaccines exports thus, “Today, as Foreign Minister, I am pushing other countries, particularly some big countries, saying look please keep the raw materials flowing for vaccines to be made in India. Can I go around the world and tell people, ‘guys keep your supply chains flowing towards me and I am asking you for raw material but I’m not going to give you the vaccine’?” And that most countries understood the decision to stop exports when “things got tough”. It is good that Jaishankar responded to the questions being raised to give the rationale for vaccine exports. This was being accountable even if his arguments can be questioned. The attack on those seeking explanations was completely unnecessary.
Stripped to its bare bones, the premise of Jaishankar’s justification is that international relations are transactional in nature. This is also the premise of what ‘sources’ are reportedly stressing to mediapersons that the ‘gifts’ and ‘donations’ of medical supplies being sent by some countries in the wake of the second Covid wave is a ‘return of favour’ for the emergency supplies made by India earlier during this pandemic. There is merit in Jaishankar’s viewpoint in as far as the transactional nature of inter-state relations are concerned. However, the problem lies in seeking to earn merit from what is essentially transactional. That sometimes becomes counterproductive as can be seen in the commentary of some sections of the international media on vaccine exports.
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