Harsh Vardhan's departure from cabinet marred with COVID-19 policy failure?

Express News Service
The departure of Dr Harshvardhan from the Ministry of Health last week earned him sympathies from the most unusual quarters the leaders belonging to Congress party. Former Union minister Jairam Ramesh in a tweet said the Lok Sabha member from Chandni Chowk had been made a scapegoat for “monumental failures at the highest level nowhere else”.

The Congress leader also said the former health minister is a “good man”. The head of media cell of Congress party, Randeep Surjewala indirectly defended Vardhan saying the National Disaster Management Authority, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was responsible for the “criminal mismanagement” of Covid-19. These comments obviously were made to embarrass the Prime Minister and not in any genuine sympathy for a ‘good man’ as Ramesh would prefer calling Vardhan.

These comments may or may not have embarrassed the Prime Minister but must have given a cause for introspection to the former health minister. Vardhan as health minister in Modi 2.0 government has been unduly harsh on the Opposition which was rightly trying to raise the issue of the pandemic. As early as February last year, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had tweeted, “The coronavirus is an extremely serious threat to our people and economy. My sense is the government is not taking this threat seriously.

Timely action is critical”. To which Vardhan had responded with a comment laced with sarcasm rather than seriousness and sagacity. This year too, when the second wave of coronavirus was peaking, Vardhan did not take kindly to a letter by former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to his successor suggesting a roadmap to fight the pandemic.

Instead of Modi, it was Vardhan who replied and that too very caustically saying, “History shall be kinder to you Dr Manmohan Singh ji if your offer of ‘constructive cooperation’ and valuable advice was followed by your… leaders as well in such extraordinary times!” What followed in the subsequent days was a government plan to fight the pandemic which drew liberally from the note sent by the economist-statesman to the Prime Minister.

The agitated and the rude demeanour of Vardhan during the past two years was for sure not in sync with his carefully cultivated image over the past three decades of an affable person. From earning epaulets of ‘Swasth Vardhan’ (one who makes you remain healthy) from former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to being dropped from Narendra Modi government for his failure as health minister has brought Vardhan for once face-to-face with political trough. His political journey so far has been of surfing on a political high-tide with minor setbacks here and there.

For almost quarter of a century, Vardhan lived with the halo of being the man responsible for eradication of polio from the country. This would now get overshadowed by his ‘failure’ to efficiently handle the scourge of Covid. There could be merit in Jairam Ramesh’s claim of failures at the highest level but it cannot be ignored that Vardhan as the health minister was a crucial clog in the anti-Covid machinery of the central government. If at all he did not have his way in the manner the pandemic was being managed, as is being suggested by the Congress leaders, Vardhan could have flagged it as did his senior Cabinet colleague Nitin Gadkari.

As health minister and a politician with a credible track record, Vardhan’s word would have carried weight. He, however, chose to be part of the plan which included despicable espousing of medicines from Ramdev’s stable, which were tom-tommed to be cure for the virus. Both the plan and the concoction failed to deliver, and now Vardhan is paying the price for it. There is a saying, you can’t have the cake and eat it too. Harsh Vardhan chose to be part of the plan, defending it stoutly and sometimes rudely in the public domain, so where is the scope for any sympathy on being unseated for the failure of the plan.

SIDHARTH MISHRAAuthor and president, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice