A Portal to Nowhere

Picture Source: PTI, Swapan Mahapatra

An event like an unfolding global crisis, especially one with a fog of uncertainty surrounding it, lends itself to analysis not just from experts with domain specific knowledge but even from intelligentsia with no immersion in the subject matter who generate elaborate commentary largely furthering their own preconceived notions and biases by employing both the real and imagined consequences of the catastrophe. Last week, the Financial Times carried an article on the ongoing pandemic written by novelist and commentator, Arundhati Roy, within its prestigious pink sheets. Having held no administrative role or public office in her lifetime, Ms. Roy tears into the Indian administration’s response to the pandemic by throwing nuance to the wind with such certitude and confidence that would probably embarrass an actual expert.

In her article, which she probably wrote within the confines of her Delhi’s urban elite circles,Ms. Roy stops short of exhibiting glee at the prospect of the virus bringing the “engines of capitalism to a juddering halt” and that of the virus making the “mighty kneel…like nothing else could”. It doesn’t require much effort on the part of an alert reader to further lift the layers of literary embellishments revealing the logical fallacies and contradictory inconsistencies within the arguments she presents.

Ms. Roy suggests that the response to the pandemic would have been better had countries diverted the spend on defence to building adequate stocks of medical supplies beforehand. The obvious hindsight bias notwithstanding, the real logical problem visible in her argument relates to her blindness to the understanding of ‘tail risks’. While states can (and should) certainly be criticised for failing to maintain buffer stocks of medical supplies to combat the increased tail risk of epidemics and pandemics in a hyper-connected world, it is fallacious to suggest that this can be done at the cost of building adequate defence capabilities to combat another ‘tail risk’, that of a war, especially for a nation like India which faces a hostile and bellicose neighbour to its north-west making the region equivalent of a strategic tinder-box. Seen in this light, her facetious suggestion to the Prime Minister to renege on the Rafale deal and use the proceeds on emergency measures seems little more than an imprudent rhetorical remark.

Just as a chef modifies his dishes to suit the palette of his patrons, so does Ms. Roy, while writing in a newspaper almost exclusively read by the world’s elite. She uses hyperbole to cement the frame of a poor, filthy, unhygienic India within the minds of her readers when she characteristically claims that most Indians would not have known about the existence of a ‘hand sanitiser’ but for the advent of this crisis. Complementing this distortion with another, Ms. Roy performs the role of a judge, jury and executioner (of a kangaroo court perhaps) when she crafts an elaborate narrative pinning the blame of the Delhi riots on the city’s majority Hindu population with its Muslim residents acting as submissive victims. She does not let the fact that the investigations of the tragedy which unfolded are still ongoing come in the way of her storytelling.

Announcement of the lockdown was followed by the moving pictures of migrant workers fleeing the prospect of possible starvation in India’s cities. Ms. Roy mentions in her article that she used her press pass that day to drive to the border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to witness the exodus first hand and gather testimonies of the people returning to their villages. The reader cannot help but wonder if Ms. Roy used the facility of her air conditioned four-wheeler to ferry to the safety of the nearest government shelter at least some of the children and the weak among those walking in the scorching heat or if she took the effort to inform those walking of the arrangements the government was making for them in Delhi’s night shelters. The reader earnestly hopes that Ms. Roy did not let her concern for the state of the returning migrants be limited to the collection of sound bites for her article.

Ms. Roy makes a reference to the TablighiJamaat event in Delhi which has jeopardised India’s fight against the pandemic. However, the reader finds that her concern is not so much about the fallout of the carelessness of its organisers but for the prospect that the scenario would be exploited to “stigmatise and demonise Muslims.” Even if one overlooks the obvious ideological undertone behind her concerns, one cannot help but overlook yet another example of a lack of understanding of the risk of ruin on the author’s part. If the reader opens a newspaper a month later and finds that India has witnessed the unfortunate prospect of thousands of deaths then which of the two causes would be the most likely ones: the event itself or the prospect that it was used to “stigmatise and demonise Muslims?”

Ms. Roy ends her article expressing the hope that the pandemic would convince us to imagine a new world order. But this rhetorical statement is not followed by any specifications as to what this new world would look like and how different would it be in the author’s view. Perhaps this ambiguity is intentionally maintained for any specificity would have brought the author’s prescriptions under closer scrutiny by her sophisticated readers.

As this crisis generates a tsunami of opinions from experts and intellectuals across the world, it is essential to develop a filtering mechanism to focus only on views worthy of our limited time and attention. I suggest a simple heuristic to enable this filter. Would the reader of an opinion piece be comfortable with the hypothetical prospect that the author of the piece was leading the war on this deadly virus? If the immediate answer from the reader is in the affirmative only then is the view worthy of any attention from the reader. Unfortunately, Arundhati Roy’s article fails to pass this litmus test.

*The author is a Young India Fellow from the batch of 2019 and is currently working as a Finance Professional.

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