Black Friday & The Molnupiravir Saga

“Heads must roll” would have thundered Minister Alan Ganoo in his Opposition days on that black Friday

By Jan Arden

The Minister of Health and Quality of Life may long remember last Friday 10th of December as an epic moment in a ministerial career that has been careening from one hot-spot to another throughout this pandemic that erupted shortly after his appointment. While many other Ministers were chirping away or working discretely in the background since March 2020, while others were saddled with double or triple responsibilities, it befell upon him to shoulder the daily and weekly workload of watching over our collective backs and steer us as safely as his army of consultants, senior advisers and higher cadres could manage. With the expert guidance of a pro-active WHO and the privileged backing of a High-level Committee chaired personally by the PM of course. Under a barrage of pointed questions from the Leader of the Opposition Friday last, the shocking dimensions of the Molnupiravir saga erupted for a bemused population and even for an acutely embarrassed government.

It is not our purpose here to pile on the misery on the hapless incumbent. But multiple levels of questions dog the particularly revealing circumstances leading to the Ministry of Health purchasing under emergency conditions and stocking up, from what we read, nearly 3m doses of the generic version of that drug, of which some 800,000 per tender on 6th December and the very next day, 1 million more through an unsolicited private offer at about eight times the tender price obtained the previous day and certainly much higher than the market price in reputable high street pharmacies who, by the way, do not bulk order.

The Opposition and civil society are since bludgeoning government, pushing the point that the many aspects that are troubling in this shocking affair and which has yet to reveal its full fraudulent dimensions, require a full investigation by a Commission of Inquiry chaired by a sitting or retired judge. For the time being, the Prime Minister in a statement at a week-end inauguration in Phoenix, has stood by his Minister, although the embarras was palpable, the explanations less than confident.

Separate inquiries have been started by the CCID and the ICAC, which has sprung into action soon after that intervention. The first agency is believed to be looking at the leakage of sensitive or confidential information but the fraudulent aspects of the drug deal and any conspiracy with the objective to defraud the public purse under the prevailing tough health and socio-economic conditions of the population cannot be excluded.

As for the ICAC, its self-built reputation for proceeding at snail’s pace when party or government officials, agents and henchmen are involved needs no labouring with the population at large, but it will have yet another opportunity to show its mettle in the service of interest for the public good rather than for protecting the powerful.

Whatever the meanderings of those inquiries, government will have to brace for the possibility of further damning revelations and the constant pressure of civil society and perhaps honest and hard-working staff in various departments, fed up with the unending stream of procurement scandals at the Ministry of Health since the notorious Pack & Blister affair and related procurement scandals.

“Heads must roll” would have thundered Minister Alan Ganoo in his Opposition days on that black Friday.

* * *

Kashi redevelopment and Hastings

The PM of India has just inaugurated with some style, fanfare and rejoice in his constituency, the vast and immensely symbolic Kashi/Varanasi rejuvenation and urban redesign project that he launched back in 2019 and which many here might have followed through the internet news channels.

In a speech laced with emotion he spoke of foreign invaders, citing specifically the Moghul tyrant Aurangzeb: “Invaders attacked this city, tried to destroy it. History is witness to the atrocities and terror wreaked by Aurangzeb. One who tried to change civilisation on the strength of the sword, who tried to trample culture ruthlessly. But the soil of this country is a little different from others…”.

His other historical allusion would be familiar to Indian or Bengali folk and other historians, but Warren Hasting’s (first Governor General of India, 1773 to 1784) story of brokering alliances and power games between nawabs, Moghul chieftains, the local Nawab of Bengal and Marathi warlords was unfamiliar territory. It would become the hallmark of the Divide and Rule attitude so common in expanding British mercantile and colonial interests.

Modi’s reference to his infamous exit from Kashi evoked only distant reminiscences of college British empire history classes and I had to beef up on my readings and the picture was complex as one UCLA education site would have it. “Warren Hastings occupies…an unusual place in the annals of British India. He was a patron of Indian learning and evinced a keen interest in Indian literature and philosophy.”

But his erstwhile jockeying for the remote masters did not exclude financial blackmail. “In reality, these Indian rulers and numerous others were compelled to part with their financial resources, on pain of being at the receiving end of British fire-power. These acts of extortion, as well as other charges pertaining to Hastings’ conduct of Indian affairs, became the basis of Hastings’ impeachment in Parliament” back in London and he was utterly ruined after a ten-year process.

In a few words, the insulting attempt by Hastings to demand more financial tribute from the Kashiraj, was met by the beheading of his rude envoys and the extermination of British officers and their British Indian forces at the famous battle of Shivala by local boat people whose patriotism had been aroused. When news of the revolt reached Hastings at his Residence, he packed up and fled in a “paalki” disguised as a woman and the episode is remembered in the lines: “Ghode par Hauda, Haathi par Jin, Aisebhaaga Warren Hastings!”.

There is no doubt that PM Modi is riding the patriotism political wave with the inauguration of this landmark redevelopment in Kashi, but he is also getting close to his own inner spiritual dimensions, while attempting to keep the bridge between India’s complex and ancient cultural and religious heritage as it heads forward in its economic future as a regional development centre.

Development, he seems to postulate, is not just about blocks and cement and, whether he succeeds or in what measure, it is quite an intriguing pathway to watch unfold.

* Published in print edition on 17 December 2021

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