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'Modi's carefully cultivated image was smashed to smithereens': Mahua Moitra

Speaking To Karan Thapar, The TMC MP From Krishnanagar Says The Mamata Banerjee Government Did Not Put Undue Pressure On Modi, But That He Was Acting Of His Own Accord When It Came To Vaccination.

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On June 10, The Wire published an interview of TMC MP Mahua Moitra by Karan Thapar. The interview covered India’s vaccination policy, the role of state governments – especially Mamata Banerjee’s – in shaping Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vaccine liberalisation plan and India’s image in the aftermath of a heavily delayed vaccination process.

Below is the full transcript of the interview. Watch it here.

Karan Thapar: Hello, and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. Are state governments to blame for the confusion and chaos that surrounds India’s vaccination policy, as the Prime Minister has alleged, or is that an unfair and unwarranted conclusion?

That’s the key issue I should raise today with Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra. Ms Moitra, on Monday when he addressed the country, the Prime Minister said that he had fallen under pressure from various state governments. And as a result, he had changed the vaccination policy leading to the confusion and chaos that prevails today. And his point was very simple; state governments are responsible for the mess we have today.

And in particular, your state government. How do you respond to that?

Mahua Moitra: This is the ‘Iron Man’, the ‘loha purush’ (iron man), the ‘56-inch-chest’. Never in his life, has he ever listened to any state government and changed tack. This obviously has nothing to do with state governments, whatsoever. Modi ji is simply doing what he does best, which is trying to get out of a sticky situation and trying to deflect blame.

I really urge the Prime Minister to look in the mirror, and like Dorian Gray he will see his picture change as he keeps lying. And it’s like Pinocchio with his nose getting longer, because the vaccine policy has been a mess right from the word ‘go’. And it’s come to a point now where they had absolutely no way out. They were caught with their back to the wall, with the Supreme Court coming out with probably a very, very strong stricture very soon. And the entire country was up in arms as to how an elected government with the majority as large as the one the BJP has could come up with something like this.

KT: Should we be absolutely specific? You refer that answer to Dorian Gray, you refer to Pinocchio. Are you saying the Prime Minister, when he addressed the country on Monday, was lying?

MM: Yes, of course he was. Yes, of course.

KT: Lying? Actually lying?

MM: Yes, I mean you can call it prevarication, you can call it lies, you can call it whatever…

KT: You’re calling it ‘lying’?

MM: Absolutely. Because the state governments have nothing to do with this. Under the National Disaster Management Act, right from when the pandemic started, the Prime Minister has been in charge of pandemic control. And to come out and say now that the state governments have anything to do with it is an outright lie, but of course.

KT: Let’s look at the facts from Mr Modi’s point of view for a moment. His claim was that he was under pressure from various state governments. I’m going to quote your state government, Mamata Banerjee. On the 24th of February, she wrote a letter to Mr Modi demanding that state governments be given permission to buy vaccines directly.

Where did she believe that she had the confidence and the ability to do so?

MM: Mamata Banerjee is a chief minister of a state. Like other chief ministers, in Maharashtra and in other states, what is the chief minister supposed to do when people are dying? The Prime Minister of this country was busy in mid to late February, preparing for the Kumbh Mela and preparing for an eight-phase Bengal election. The Central government was doing absolutely nothing to ensure that the vaccination policy was equitable and that the majority of people in our country were vaccinated. So of course, state governments, including Mamata Banerjee, came out in February and said, “Listen, if you can’t do this, let us try and do it. We had to do something.”

KT: In other words, she was filling a gap that he had left empty?

MM: Well, of course, because here we had a vaccination policy that was completely skewed. The Central government had missed the boat on ordering vaccines, on manufacturers. On production, on ordering, on procurement. And we were stuck with a situation in February where we did not even have enough vaccines to vaccinate frontline workers and over 60s.

KT: The problem is that her claim that she would be better able than Mr Modi at acquiring vaccines was actually not based on facts. Let me give you a couple of reasons why. To begin with, she knew this better than anyone else, that Pfizer, moderner Johnson and Johnson AstraZeneca had pre sold, and more than pre sold what they were producing, to countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan…There were no vaccines available. In fact, the European Union was suing AstraZeneca for failure to comply with commitments.

In those circumstances, when Mamata Banerjee says to the Prime Minister, “Give us permission. I’ll go buy them,” who was she going to buy them from? There were none to sell.

MM: Just a second. Mamata Banerjee was only pointing out exactly what the Central government had done wrong. The Central government had only blocked 11 million vaccines from the Indian manufacturers…

KT: No, can I interrupt?

MM: Let me answer the question. Mamata Banerjee on the 24th of February had to come out, like other chief ministers, and say that, “Listen, you didn’t fill the gap. Let us do something.” We couldn’t just sit on our hands and wait.

KT: Except she wasn’t saying, “Let us do something. Let us try. Even if we fail”…

MM:: Yes.

KT: What she said was much more specific. She said, “We would request you to kindly take up the matter with appropriate authority so that state government is able to purchase the vaccines from designated points on priority. The problem is, she knew or she should have known, no matter what effort she put in, she couldn’t purchase them. Because there were none to sell.

MM: One second, the fact that they were not to sell had nothing to do with Mamata Banerjee. It had everything to do, and hear me out, it had everything to do with the Central government’s failure to procure vaccines when they should have been in 2020 and ’21. Please hear me out.

So, Mamata Banerjee, in February, like other state governments is faced with the prospect of a population that needs vaccination. We’re in the middle of the most terrible second wave. And of course, we’re going to go out and say, “Listen, we have to try.”

KT: I hear everything you’re saying. I hear what you’re saying, but your chronology is wrong. The problem created by the Modi government was in 2020, Mamata was writing in February 2021, and in February 2021 she was saying to Mr Modi, “Give me permission, I can buy them. You can’t.”

The problem is, she couldn’t. She wanted permission to do something she should have known she could never achieve because they were none to sell.

MM: It was not the question…Different countries were buying at that time, while trying to buy via global tenders. The Central government failed spectacularly. Was Mamata Banerjee wrong? Was Uddhav Thackeray wrong? Were other state governments wrong? Because hear me out, Karan, the state governments, you’re trying to push the buck on us. Should state governments, when their people are dying in the middle of a second wave – which by the way, in late February, the government was saying everything is hunky dory – Mamata came out and said, “Listen, whatever the way is, let’s find a way.”

KT: Let me give you a second reason why, in fact, Mamata’s claim that she could buy vaccines where Modi can’t is wrong. (A) Because as I pointed out, vaccines weren’t available. Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, AstraZeneca were oversold. They had none to sell yet. So, the claim that “I can do it, even if you can’t” was a silly claim to make. But there’s a second reason. Vaccine manufacturers had made it clear they would only sell to Central governments. In no country was a state government being sold to directly. Why would those manufacturers make an exception for Bengal?

MM: One second. I think, Karan, your chronology here is wrong. When Mamata Banerjee wrote that letter, it is only after sometime in late March that different companies came out and they told the Maharashtra government that, “By the way, we are not going to deal directly with state governments”.

KT: Sorry, no. Pfizer and Moderna had made it clear. In January, they had made it clear they would only sell to Central governments.

MM: Pfizer and Moderna had the issue of indemnification, which was still pending.

KT: No, there were two issues, there wasn’t one. And Pfizer and Moderna had made it clear they would only sell to Central governments. They’ve made it clear all over the world that they won’t even sell to large corporates. Even Germany attempted at individual states or ‘lambda’, as they’re called, to buy directly and they were told no.

MM: So what was Mamta Banerjee supposed to do? This vaccine procurement, we said right from day one, this is something that the Central government should have done. This is something the Central government should have done. Universal free vaccination is a constitutional obligation of the Central government. Please hear me out, Karan, do not interrupt. This is something that failed spectacularly in. Come February, when our people were dying for vaccines, Mamata Banerjee, as a responsible chief minister flagged the issue and said, “Hey, listen, let’s find a way. If you can’t do it, let’s try and do it.”

KT: You know what your answer amounts to?

MM: Yes.

KT: That Mamata Banerjee, knowing that she couldn’t buy them because there were none to sell, knowing that in fact they wouldn’t sell to state governments, because that was already made clear, was still saying to Modi, “Let me try. Let me try even if I fail.” That’s not a helpful suggestion.

MM: Of course, that is a helpful suggestion, or at least trying to do something when the Central government in February was in complete denial. Please understand you have a chief minister on the 24th of February saying, “We have a problem”. The Central government in February did not even…

KT: No, forgive me. Your chief minister claimed to have a solution, and I’m pointing out that solution was wrong. It was non-existent.

MM: That is not correct. All she said was, “We have a problem. As a chief minister, let us try and find a solution because you are holding everything in your hands.”

KT: She wasn’t asking for consultation to find a solution. She was suggesting what she wanted, and demanding the right to buy. And I’m saying, there were none to buy. There were none to sell.

MM: There were none to sell, but at least we should go out as a state government. Was Maharashtra equally wrong?

KT: “Let me try even though I fail?”

MM: Yes, of course. Because what were we supposed to do? Were we supposed to act like the Central government? Not at all. I think you’re just playing right into the hands of the Central government.

KT: No, I’m playing devil’s advocate against a very foolish position taken by Mamata Banerjee.

MM: Not a foolish position at all, as a state government faced with the prospect of a population that had no access to vaccines, faced with the prospect of a terrible second wave – which, by the way, the Central government had not even woken up to…

KT: You know what this amounts to? “I know that there’s no door. I’ll bang my head against the wall, maybe it will break,” that’s what Mamata Banerjee was saying. “Let me try, it’s better than doing nothing.”

MM: You know something, absolutely. When you’re stuck in a room and you don’t have a lock, sometimes it’s good when you’ve got to get your children out of a sticky mess, and you’re stuck in a room when you’ve got to get them out. Perhaps as a mother, as a chief minister, if she’s trying to break her head on the door and try and get the door open, that’s better than sitting in there and saying, “You know what, I don’t have the key.” That’s not such a bad thing at all.

KT: Let me point out something else that Mamata Banerjee said in that letter of the 24th which is even worse. It’s bad enough that she claimed that she could get vaccines that weren’t available, it’s bad enough that she believed that manufacturers will sell to state governments when it was clear they wouldn’t. What was even worse is that she demanded universal vaccination for everyone over 80. Now, at a time, when we didn’t have enough vaccines for people over 60, leave aside over 45, by demanding it be given to the age group 18 to 44, which is 600 million more, she was making a bad situation hugely worse.

MM: Karan, I genuinely believe…I’m surprised at your line of questioning and it’s great that you want to put the opposition on the mat. But I genuinely believe that with a question like this, your audience is going to have a field day because they’re going to be like what is wrong…

KT: But that does not answer my question. Answer my question, how can you demand that vaccination be given to the 18-44-year-olds when you don’t have enough? And you’re making a bad situation worse?

MM: One second, excuse me, Karan. You’re coming to the state government for answers when the problem has been of, please let me finish, when the problem has been of the Central government’s making. Every single civilised country in the world – be it Canada, be it the UK, be it the European countries, be it the US – way back in 2020, said, “This is our population which needs to be vaccinated.” In India, it was…Please hear me out.

KT: I’m not even interrupting.

MM: That’s fine. The gesturing is throwing me off. So let me finish. It is definitely that we needed a population that needs to be vaccinated.

KT: No one is denying that. You’re stating the obvious.

MM: When we needed to vaccinate, the Central government missed the boat on procurement, right?

KT: But we’re not talking about procurement. We’re talking about ages now.

MM: Yes, definitely. So, we needed universal free vaccination.

KT: Everyone says you do but you have to go through it in stages. There’s not a country in the world that gave it to 18-year-olds when we did.

MM: Yes, one second. The Government of India, when it came out with their frontline workers on the 16th of January, when the government opened it out, the pace at which the Central government was doing its vaccination, it would have taken, hear me out…

KT: Because they didn’t have enough vaccines.

MM: But that’s not our fault. That’s something…

KT: But don’t you understand? You’re missing the whole point missing. Let me finish and then you’ll understand. You accept that they didn’t have enough vaccines, you just did. It’s because they didn’t have enough vaccines that the pace was slow. Now, when they don’t have enough vaccines for 60-year-olds, they certainly don’t for 45-year-olds. At that point, to put pressure that they should include 80-year-olds – that’s 600 million people more. You’re making a bad situation incomparably worse…

MM: Not at all, not at all. The idea was at that point to go in and say that the third wave is coming in. Unlike…please hear me out. And the second wave, sorry.

KT: There was no second wave on 24th February. If you did not know about it, how would you know it was happening?

MM: February 24, we were perfectly aware, there were signs all around, other countries that already been affected by the second wave. We all knew it was only a matter of time before it was coming here. It was only Mr Modi and the rest of his bureaucrats that were blindsided to this. Everybody else was aware of this, number one.

KT: I have to dispute that and point out to the audience that you’re claiming, with hindsight, knowledge that wasn’t available at the time.

MM: That’s not true at all. Every single person with half a mind knew at the end of February, it was a matter of time that the second wave was going to hit India, first. The second thing was the question, the Modi government was functioning at a pace – the reasons for which were known only to them – hear me out, even if they were to prioritise over 60s, they only ordered 11 million doses. The point was the…

KT: But none of that answers the question I asked. Why introduce 600 million people when you don’t have enough vaccines?

MM: Because we wanted this Indian government to go out there and say, “You know what, we need to buy from foreign manufacturers.”

 KT: You know what the head of NTAGI (National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) Dr N.K. Arora said to me? He said it was a mistake to introduce the vaccinations to the 18-44-year-old group because we didn’t have them. We did it before any other country in the world did. Number three, every country in the world gave it in a graded way from the elderly to the next slot to the next. India, under pressure from your chief minister and as the chief ministers, was suddenly forced to jump. And this is another era that the pressure brought by Mamata Banerjee made the government make. I don’t deny that Mr Modi made the error, but it happened under pressure and that pressure was wrong.

MM: Karan, Mr Modi and the BJP do not come under pressure from anybody. Let me tell you, let me lay out three things very clearly; universal free vaccination is a right of every Indian, number one.

KT: But not at one go when you don’t have the vaccines.

MM: Please let me finish. Every single government in the world – be it the UK, be it the US, be it Canada – when they’re talking about planning for the future, they don’t plan that they will only vaccinate over 60-year-olds. Please let me finish. The way the Indian government did…

KT: No, they didn’t. You are misrepresenting the Indian government.

MM: I am not misrepresenting the Indian government.

KT: The Indian government made it clear we’re starting with healthcare workers, then over 60s and then gradually it will come to everyone else.

MM: By February 24, state governments were not even given enough to vaccinate over 60s…

KT: Then why suddenly include 18-year-olds? You are contradicting yourself.

MM: I’m not contradicting. We are just saying that, “Listen, you are relying only on the Serum Institute and Bharat Bio vaccine to fulfil it. Please go out there, do whatever it takes. Talk to Moderna, talk to Pfizer, talk to whoever it takes and plan on universal free vaccination.

KT: But talking to everyone would help you get sufficient vaccines for the over 60-year-olds. Don’t, at that point, suddenly insist 18-year-olds have to come in. You brought in 600 million people. From under pressure from you, it happened.

MM: Who is this pressure under? This pressure is under pressure from your own children? From my children? Who is the pressure under? The Indian population, there was a huge risk to the population. This time the second wave has hit people disproportionately between the ages of 30-50.

KT: Can I can I stop you there? Other countries have had second and third waves, India hasn’t had a third wave. In other countries, the third was worse than the second. In America and in Britain, just to take those two examples, when the second wave hit them, the third wave hit. The age of population which wasn’t being vaccinated did not begin to put pressure on the government and say, “There’s a second wave, there’s a third, please jump the line and vaccinate us.” Mamata Banerjee did precisely that.

MM: Mamata Banerjee did what the Central government should have done on day one, which is plan on having a universal free vaccination for all Indians. Should have put in an order and planned on procuring a billion vaccines right in 2020. And as those came in, in phases… because no, hear me out…

KT: But given that hadn’t been done, forcing him to bring in the 18-year-olds at the wrong time makes a bad problem worse.

MM: You’re trying to make me laugh. This is Prime Minister Modi who walked out on your own interview, nobody can force Modi to do anything. This is very conveniently played into him. This is very conveniently played into his story. The Central government’s failed spectacularly at every stage of the vaccination process, and it is now trying to deflect the blame on the state government.

KT: Let me put it like this, and I’m summing up. Chief ministers, prime amongst which was your chief minister Mamata Banerjee, made a political, and what I call, unrealistic demands. Mr Modi’s mistake was that instead of standing up for what he was doing, which was the right thing in the right way, he actually caved in, he made a mistake buckling under your pressure.

But I’m pointing out to you that to put that pressure when India was going through the worst imaginable surge – remember, we hit 414 cases a day – to put that political pressure raising unrealistic demands when we are going through the worst surge was a terrible mistake. You pushed the Prime Minister into making a mistake. It’s his mistake. I don’t deny it. He heard hugely, but you pushed him into it, and you shouldn’t have. At that point, you should have been supporting him, rather than pushing him into error.

Narendra Modi during his address on Monday.

MM: This Prime Minister doesn’t need anyone pushing him into error. He’s messed this up from the word ‘go’. And if you’re under any kind of a false impression that anyone’s pushed him into it, the only reason he’s done this is because he’s come under huge pressure himself from his own electorate, and from his own vote bank where people have been dying and where the hospital infrastructures have been completely inadequate. There’s been no vaccination, there hasn’t been enough oxygen. The last two months have been probably the worst in Modi’s electoral career. And that is what has put pressure on him. It is not a letter from Mamata Banerjee. I wish it were.

KT: The Prime Minister has said to the country that under pressure from the state governments, and in particular your state government, he did things.

MM: The Prime Minister, under whose pressure did he end let 96 lakh people come to the Kumbh? Was it under Mamata Banerjee’s pressure? Under whose pressure did the Prime Minister come out on the 18th of April and liberalise the vaccine policy, where he allowed the state governments to come in and buy the vaccines which were apparently not available, at 3x the price of what the Centre was assuming?

KT: That’s what I said, your pressure pushed the Prime Minister into making a terrible mistake. The mistake is the Prime Minister’s, he takes the blame for it. But putting pressure on him when we’re going through the worst surge was the worst thing you could have done.

MM: From the minute this pandemic has started, every state government has been left on its own. We haven’t even got our GST dues cleared. Every single state government has been left on its own to deal with the pandemic, the Central government and Mr Modi have failed spectacularly. To come out and to blame this on the state governments now is a very poor, sorry attempt at deflecting blame.

KT: Let’s move to the second part of the Prime Minister’s address. You know and I know, that in the address to the country, he claimed that he was pushed into this by the state governments and the state governments were blamed for the confusion, the chaos in the mess. There are others who say that, in fact, the Prime Minister is changing his policy. And the change happens on the 21st of June, because he’s worried about the Supreme Court.

Not only has the Supreme Court said that his policies are arbitrary and irrational, but probably every leading lawyer believes that if this next hearing had happened – we don’t know what will happen when the next hearing happens – the Supreme Court has declared the policy unconstitutional, because it allegedly violates Article 21. It allegedly violates Article 40. Do you believe that despite what he said, he blamed your state government…The truth is he was worried about the Supreme Court, and that’s why he’s changing the policy.

MM: Mr Modi, like I said, he does this very well. The Prime Minister does this very well. He reads the signs and he figures out how to get himself out of a tight spot. So even with the Solicitor General…

KT: So, Pinocchio becomes the Artful Dodger?

MM: Clearly. But you have, I mean, you had a Solicitor General who during the worst of the pandemic in 2020, said to the Supreme Court, stood up on the Supreme Court and said that there are no migrants on the road. Stood up again in April to the Supreme Court and told the bench, told the Chief Justice, in fact, that there is no oxygen crisis. But this time, the bench led by Justice Chandrachud was very clear.

On May 31st, the observations made by the bench were very clear. And it was very clear that the Supreme Court was going to come down like a ton of bricks, because remember, you can have a pliant judiciary, you can kind of you know, everybody wants to give the Central government, specially in something like this where people are dying, a long rope. But when people are dying, when judges can’t get their wives and their relatives admitted into hospitals, when members of the bar are dying, that’s when the pressure is also on the judiciary.

KT: So, the policy is changing on the 21st of June because the Prime Minister is scared about the Supreme Court?

MM: Definitely. Because if you go by what the verbal observations were on the 31st of May: arbitrary, irrational, and why is the difference in pricing, why are people above 18 not allowed access to vaccines? All the questions that you claim Mamata Banerjee raised in her letter of February 24 are absolutely actually in line with Justice Chandrachud has said now.

KT: So Justice Chandrachud’s comments, as well as what lawyers were now beginning to fear would be the outcome, that the policy could be struck down as unconstitutional, is what worried Mr Modi, you say. That’s why he’s announced he’s going to change the policy, because he wants to avoid the embarrassment of the Supreme Court telling him “this is unconstitutional, we strike it…”

MM: Yes, he’s finally realised that his solicitor general can’t, kind of, get around this one. And he’s decided that before it’s too late, and they actually come out with an order, let’s try and save face. That’s exactly what he’s done.

KT: Now, the change that will happen on the 21st has three landmark issues that are important. Vaccines will suddenly be free to everyone, regardless of age, states don’t have to pay for vaccination, hospitals cannot charge whatever they want, there’s a cap. But there is one issue that still hasn’t been sorted out and that’s the digital divide.

MM: Right.

KT: And that means that people under 45 have to register on CoWIN before they get a jab. People above 45 can literally walk in and get it without registering. And the Supreme Court has pointed out that this raises fundamental concerns for rural India, where registration is difficult. Where WiFi access is perhaps even impossible. Will you and your party, Mamata Banerjee in particular, continue to push for this change as well?

MM: Yes of course, we’ve already brought that up. And this is completely, again, arbitrary…what is Article 14 and Article 21? Say, it’s right to access, it’s right to equality. If you’re saying that under 45 in a country such as ours, where only 500 million people have access to technology which will let them get the CoWIN app…I come from a rural constituency. If you try and tell the majority of people in my constituency, “You’ve got to go on this app and download it before you can get a vaccination,” there’s no way they can do it.

 KT: I’ll tell you why I ask will Mamata Banerjee bring this up. Because yesterday, Wednesday, she actually was talking about vaccination and things and this issue didn’t feature.

MM: No, it doesn’t matter. It’s not that you bring everything up in one go.

KT: But she will bring it up? And she will insist on it?

MM: Yes, of course we will. Because this is something that is completely again, arbitrary. You cannot have half the population and have access to vaccination without going through this and the other half of the population to have to go through this ridiculous app.

KT: This is clearly a breach of Article 14 which guarantees you will not be discriminated against.

MM: Absolutely. This is very simple, Karan. Let me get down to the two things that we need to take away from this, India is a country where the over 18 population is a billion. Yeah, it’s a billion, and the Central government can go in and buy vaccines at Rs 150 or Rs 200 for a billion. That’s 100 crores. That’s going to cost you Rs 20,000 crores or Rs 30,000 crores. Say, you pay Rs 300 a vaccine for it; put aside Rs 30,000 crores, decide on the best way and the quickest way possible to get access to 100 crore vaccines and how best do we vaccinate at a speed of about 75-80 lakhs a day to get to that figure by December.

KT: Mahua Moitra, this would have been ideal if the government had thought of it along these lines in April last year. The problem is everyone is now in February, March, April of this year.

MM: Yes, but that is not the state government’s problem…they are playing catch up.

KT: You know, no matter how much money you offer, you can’t buy vaccines from abroad. They’re not available, they’re not there on sale. Pfizer has indicated that it might be able to give, over a four-month period, 50 million, which is not even a huge amount, But no one else, absolutely no one else. Moderna can’t give it till next year, AstraZeneca from abroad doesn’t have anything to give, they’re actually angry with Serum for not giving them more.

Johnson and Johnson is not giving anything to anyone. Novavax hasn’t even come into being. So, the truth is what you’re saying would have worked last year, this year, it’s too late. Let me end by putting this to you. It’s five and a half months into the year. And during that short period of five and a half months, India’s vaccination policy has done two dramatic U-turns and somersaults. What does that tell you about the critical strategic thinking behind, what is perhaps the most important policy for the country today?

MM: I think it tells you of the complete absence of any kind of critical strategic thinking. And that’s what happens when you have this kind of a regime that absolutely, just thrives on this mythical figure of this ‘all powerful uberman’. And when you’re faced with a crisis, where you actually need to take well thought out consultative decisions, you fail spectacularly. And unfortunately, India has had to weigh a very heavy price for Modi’s ego and India’s had to pay a very heavy price for this kind of brute majority, which the BJP has brought in. And nothing has, I think… everything we’ve seen so far, in the past seven years, we’ve paid price, we paid a price with demonetisation, we paid a price with x or with y. But nothing illustrates this spectacular failure of the government as this entire last three months as shown.

KT: Let me pick up on that very evocative phrase “all powerful uberman”. What does his handling of the vaccine policy, the fact that he personally has done two huge somersaults in just five and a half months, tell you about the uberman’s capacity to handle the challenge of vaccination?

MM: You know? Absolutely. I think the capacity is absolutely zilch. And I’d like to quote something Justice Chandrachud also said. It says, “When you accept a mistake, it’s a sign of strength. It’s not a sign of weakness.” But unfortunately, Mr Modi, if you heard is address to the nation, it was the pettiness that came across and sort of, again, our entire exchange has been because Mr Modi is still, now trying to change the narrative and trying to blame the state governments when he should have come out and said, “You know what, we’ve made a mistake. We’re trying to fix it.” That’s all that was needed.

KT: So, the corollary to what you’re saying is, “Mr Modi, accept you made a mistake, accept you made a terrible mistake, and you will be a stronger man.”

MM: You will be a stronger man. But even…you’re trying to accept it, but you’re trying to do it so gracelessly. And even in your moment of what should have been your triumph, your moment of strength, where you say, “You know what, we messed up, but I am the greater man for it, let’s move forward,” even then you’re trying to be petty and say, “Oh, Mamata’s done this, Uddhav Thackeray done this, and Mahua Moitra has done this.” It’s not about us, you’re the Prime Minister.

KT: My last question. Vaccination today is perhaps the most important thing that is needed, not just to give people confidence and dignity back in their lives, but also to revive our economy. At this moment of the greatest challenge, how has Mr Modi acquitted himself?

MM: Mr Modi lives election-to-election. I think, the mess in Bengal and the fact that they didn’t get the results that they wanted in Bengal, has given them a bit of a setback. But for example, if UP goes their way, then that is going to be another stamp of approval and he’s going to be like, “I’ve done nothing wrong, look.”

KT: So, providing he wins UP, he can escape this?

MM: That’s the way Mr Modi works and that’s the way the BJP work.

KT: How much damage in your eyes has vaccination and the handling of vaccination done to his image?

MM: I’ll tell you, even a year ago, for example, people like us in the opposition who speak out quite openly against – not personally against Mr Modi because he is my Prime Minister, I have nothing personal against him – but against his policies and against some of the things that the BJP does, people reach out to us both covertly or covertly and overtly, from the BJP and say, “You know what, please don’t attack the Prime Minister. You know, he’s above board. You can say anything you like about the BJP.” But what the past three months has brought up, is that little children on the road, normal people at home now, a tonga wallah, a rickshaw wallah, are coming out and saying that “Pradhan Mantri ne kya kiya hai?” (“What has the Prime Minister done?”). So, this carefully cultivated image of a Prime Minister who could do no wrong, has been smashed to smithereens in the last three months. And that, I think, has actually been good for the country. Because that happened, we could move forward.

KT: He has three years more before an election.

MM: Yes.

KT: And if he wins UP, can he escape from the hole he’s dug himself into?

MM: That only time will tell, Karan. It’s very difficult for you and me to sit here and…

KT: It’s too early to write him off, then?

MM: It’s too early to write him off, but I don’t think we should look at it in terms of electoral politics. We should look at the danger it’s done to India’s image. I mean, look at India, it was the global pharmacist.

KT: You’re saying when India needed a strong man to deliver vaccines, we had a vacillator who failed?

MM: We failed our own country and we fail the world. Look at the way we failed Africa. We’re the global pharmacist and look what’s happened.

KT: So, Modi failed. India and Modi failed Africa. And Modi in the process, you’re saying has damaged India’s reputation as the pharmacy of the world?

MM: Yes, it has. Of course, it has.

KT: Covax will be upset with Modi, GAVI will be upset with Modi, Africa will feel let down with Modi and India has been completely let down because we don’t have the vaccines. So instead, what you’re saying is Modi blamed the state governments, you’re squarely blaming Modi back?

MM: Yes, unequivocally.

KT: Mahua Moitra, a pleasure talking to you.

MM: Thank you.