Connecting Regions of Asia.

HARD TALK : Why India Can Not Be Vietnam?


There is already enough evidence that intelligence agencies warned US President Donald Trump in end November about an emerging pandemic in China. True to his maverick self, Trump silenced the US intelligence czars with a businessman’s logic  — ” The American economy is an engine which was not created to be locked down.”  This was a case of wilful negligence, even criminal negligence of one’s own intelligence assets created with so much taxpayers money.  Businessmen make bad political leaders — especially those keen to save their own business assets first and think of the nation later.

Back in Delhi, the question now doing the rounds is whether India’s diplomatic missions in China warn the Modi government about the emerging pandemic in the country.

The US may have specialized intelligence assets but India has thousands of students in China’s dozens of medical colleges, including many at Wuhan. Cultivated properly, this is a very useful network. Easternlink has received videos of Chinese citizens hurling abuses at the country’s leaders in the first stage of the pandemic, which were used moment our website was up and running. This came from medical students who were later flown back home.

The Indian missions in China, learns Easternlink , were tipped off by Indian medical students because they interact with a lot of Chinese citizens, including low-paid housekeeping staff working hostel rooms, canteen employees who serve food and snacks and many more. It is worth finding out whether the Indian diplomatic missions in China, who have both professional diplomats and professional intelligence officers, reported the emerging pandemic, at least a serious epidemic like situation, back to Delhi. And if they did — and it now seems they did — whether the Modi government took timely action.

Easternlink has no evidence of Indian missions in China reporting the emerging pandemic in Nov-Dec ‘2019 but it has been told by highly-placed sources that once China announced the COVID-19 in early January, the Indian embassy did send at least two and perhaps three detailed reports about the situation in China . But the Modi government overlooked them and even in mid-February, Health Minister Harshvardhan was trying to calm down beat-reporters that this was ‘a virus outbreak, not an epidemic and certainly not an pandemic ‘.

If Delhi had acted on the reports from Indian missions in China seriously in Jan-Feb’2020  and prepared the country for and then imposed a nationwide lockdown, millions of Indians would have been spared the pain and trauma suffered by them due to the March 24 lockdown imposed at four hour notice.

Just compare with Vietnam, a close friend of India.

Vietnam discovered its first COVID-19 infection in early January. Now, this country of 96 million people has reported a mere 324 confirmed total cases and zero deaths.Having earned high praise for its effectiveness in containing the COVID-19 outbreak, Vietnam is now one of the first countries to ease social distancing measures and reopen its society.

While observers have attributed Vietnam’s success to the country’s authoritarian nature and past experience with SARS, one salient narrative has garnered little attention: the decades-long effort to improve governance and responsiveness at local levels, says a brilliant piece by Trung Nguyen and Edward Malesky in study for top US thinktank Brookings.

” As students of Vietnam well know, the implementation of central policies is anything but automatic; rather, it is symptomatic of a carefully calibrated central-local relationship. Against that backdrop, how have Vietnamese leaders managed to induce compliance with restrictive COVID-19 measures in a country otherwise notorious for challenges in regulatory enforcement?,” the study says.

The study is worth further citation. ” Long-standing efforts to professionalize the administrative state. Leveraging data from Vietnam’s Provincial Competitiveness Index (PCI) and Provincial Administrative Performance Index (PAPI) — joint projects between Vietnamese authorities and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), respectively — we show that Vietnamese provinces have made steady improvements in healthcare, information access, and corruption control.

“Access to health insurance has grown rapidly over time, with 90% of Vietnamese citizens insured today (Figure 1). Hospital quality has improved continuously, and demands for hospital bribes have dropped to a 10-year low (Figure 2). Taken together with the government’s policy to provide mass quarantine largely free of charge, these data suggest that Vietnamese citizens today did not have to worry about costs from COVID-19 tests (formal or informal), associated hospitalization, and centralized quarantine, thereby increasing their willingness to comply with extensive contact tracing and strict quarantine measures.

“Survey data also document a turnaround, albeit a slow one, in citizens’ perception of government transparency — defined as the “full flow of information” — at both national and provincial levels. Citizens are increasingly able to access government documents (including land maps, budgets, and legal documents) (Figure 3), enabled by Vietnam’s 2018 Access to Information Law and publicly available court judgments.”

“Though some suspect political motives, the ongoing anti-graft campaign has generally received favorable responses from Vietnam watchers and international audiences, and experience with petty bribery appears to be declining across a range of citizen and business surveys. The anti-graft campaign has also intersected with the pandemic response. The head of Hanoi’s Center for Disease Control was recently indicted on a charge of collusion to inflate COVID-19 test kit costs.”

Compare this to the scams in India and the absence of punishment for the perpetrators  and one would know the point being driven at.

The Brookings report says about ” mitigated skepticism towards the Party-State’s COVID-19 reporting.”

“The Ministry of Health has posted all reported cases online, enabling deeper analysis by data scientists and bloggers, and gaining endorsement from public health experts. Vietnam’s online network of activists, while still critical of privacy violations and the lack of freedom of speech, has not raised the alarm on widespread fatalities or cover-ups. When a patient who earlier tested positive for COVID-19 died from liver failure, the government’s Facebook portal publicly discussed the reasoning for not counting his death, due to the patient’s advanced liver dysfunction and a series of negative COVID-19 tests premortem. Thus, while under-counting is possible, public disclosures open space for discussion and allow for corrections if needed.”

While it is true that Vietnam could fight the C-Virus , like it has fought French, American and Chinese invaders in the past, primarily due to its strengthened state capacity during these past months as the culmination of a deliberate, sustained effort to improve governance starting at local levels, it will not be right to overlook how its ‘early-warning’ mechanism worked in the virus handling. 

Vietnam closed its border checkpoints and air travel from China in early December after receiving reports about the pandemic. The country is closely linked to the Chinese-led Asian value chain in production — but it did shut down its physical contacts with China even at the cost of taking a hit to the economy. It was not ‘penny wise, found foolish.’

So Vietnam can now afford to open its economy and attract far more China-departing foreign companies to invest in its country. A less than 3 percent positive response to the 1027 China-departing companies by Indian missions gives a lie to the tall claims that ‘hundreds of foreign companies are rushing to India’, of all places, UP with its sordid record of fake encounters, religious riots , migrant workers deaths in trains and so much else.

These companies are rushing to Vietnam and not coming to India because the country has a free-fall economy with hardly any of the promised reforms affected in the last six years of the Modi government, which Amit Shah credited ( in a Times of India article on Saturday’ with having ‘undone in six years’ the country’s legacy of sixty years.  If Vodafone is slapped with a huge tax bill its officials feel was done at the behest of Indian monopoly-seeker close to the present regime, it is much too much to expect that thousands of foreign companies will rush to India.

Foreign corporates do elaborate risk analysis on a progressive basis before they decide to invest in a country . The surgical strike atmosphere created by the present government does not inspire any confidence , exposing the fallacy to import in the economic domain a concept that may bring some tactical military gain , only if applied judiciously. And if there are war clouds hovering over India , it may help the government to divert public attention from the huge human-economic crisis but not attract feisty corporates who value every dollar invested. The bluff and bombast that may fool the poor villager in rural India or even the middle class will not fool the foreign corporates .  They will invest in Vietnam, for all the reasons highlighted in the Brookings Study, and not in India , for all the reasons highlighted a clutch of foreign investment banks from Nomura to Barclays. 

And talking of war, which helps divert public attention and drive up nationalist frenzy like party drugs boosting dance-through-the-night capability , Vietnam’s 1979 war against China and India’s 1962 humiliating defeat at the hands of the Dragon are case in point. Even the mighty Chinese lost 33000 soldiers in 7 days (US reports shared by a former military attache based in Delhi) when the Vietnamese , down to every men and women took up their arms and enveloped the Chinese assault formations . A Vietnamese lady student of mine recounted how both her father and mother fought as part of the local militia in 1979 and her jaws stiffen as she proudly recounts how they killed “many many Chinese”. 

Our middle class worked up by television-driven drawing room patriotism  would send off their children to safer shores if war broke out and not ask them to join the army. Our traders would trade Chinese products since they were cheap, and close down their own manufacturing , even engage the Chinese to built the Sardar Patel statues. We need to see if our motormouth leaders, who have skipped their NCC sessions and only manage a lathi or a chura in a shakha, are any good for the army when it matters.  RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently boasted of the organisation’s capability to put together  an army in a few days. With due respect to him and his disciplined organization, is it too much to ask if  he can ensure an army of porters, health workers and support volunteers in the rear areas to help our army if a war were to break out ! Bringing down the Babri Masjid and taking down a well defended Chinese military camp or a supply dump are two different propositions.

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