One would have expected a nation which completes 63 years of Independence and sovereign government, and is the world’s largest democracy to boot, to have rid itself of a worst feature of nationalism?that is, xenophobia. Unfortunately, that was not to be; this was evident in the recent superbug row which pitted not only the Indian government but also many Indian medical experts against The Lancet.
In a study published in the reputed journal, researchers reported a new gene, termed New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1, with a high resistance to antibiotics. Lead researcher Timothy Walsh, from the UK’s Cardiff University, was quoted in the media linking foreigners’ travel for medical treatment and cosmetic surgery with the new superbug, which could soon spread across the world. “This is a real concern. Because of medical tourism and international travel in general, resistance to these types of bacteria has the potential to spread around the world very, very quickly. And there is nothing in the pipeline to tackle it,” Walsh was quoted as saying.
According to the study, in the UK, out of the 29 patients who were screened, “at least 17 had a history of travelling to India or Pakistan within one year, and 14 of them were found to be admitted to a hospital in these countries.”
The response to the study in India was swift and scathing. The government and politicians immediately cried that it was “unfair to blame India” for the superbug. Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad criticized the report. “It is the most unscientific article and I am shocked that Lancet has published it. There is a conflict of interest and there is clearly no science behind it,” K. Sujatha Rao, Health Secretary, told a newspaper. “Multi-drug resistance can be found anywhere in the world. It is unfair to blame India for that,” said Dr. V.M. Katoch, Secretary, Health Research.
Not everybody in the government was critical of Lancet, though. Dr M.K. Bhan, Secretary to the federal government, said that the journal has “outstanding standards. They are very India-centric and have helped India build its own biomedical science. We value their partnership and they do everything in partnership with the government.”
The general mood, however, was chauvinistic. Jayanthi Natarajan, a spokesperson of the Congress, said in Parliament that the reports attributing the superbug to India were “wrong propaganda against the country.” S.S. Ahluwalia, a leader of the principal Opposition party, the BJP, said in Parliament, “When India is emerging as a medical tourism destination, this type of news is unfortunate and may be a sinister design of multinational companies” to defame the Indian medical sector. There was some loose talk about the MNC-pharma conspiracy.
Regrettably, it was not just the political class which was peddling conspiracy theories; some medical experts, too, joined in the chorus. “Drug resistance is all around the world. To try to… make a web around this whole story and say the consequence is that ‘people should not come to India’ smacks of a larger interest somewhere,” said Dr, Naresh Trehan, a high-profile heart surgeon and chairman director of Medanta, a 1,250-bed hospital near New Delhi. Similarly, Dr, Raman Sardana, secretary of the National Hospital Infection Society of India, found the Lancet study as “economically motivated.”
Several facts emerged in the media, contradicting the MNC-pharma conspiracy theory. As many as six Indian institutes funded by the Indian government had participated in the study with Cardiff University, UK, and Stockholm’s Karolinska University Hospital. Further, most of the funds for the study came from Wellcome Trust, a charity that sponsors medical research. A very small portion came from Wyeth, a drug-maker now part of Pfizer. It was also reported that Wyeth could gain little from the study.
What the superbug episode?especially, the promptitude with which the conspiracy theory was floated, almost as a Pavlovian response?has highlighted is the fact that the country’s public discourse is still carried out in an idiom which was suited for the socialist system which prevailed for four decades. After Independence from British Raj on August 15, 1947, the nationalist mythology blended perfectly with socialist fantasies, giving rise to a toxic public discourse in which the vileness of the West, especially the US, and capitalism were self-evident truths.
In 1991, the economy opened up and some of the worst features of socialism were dispensed with, thus propelling the nation on a high-growth trajectory. Much has changed in the last two decades: India is much more integrated with the global economy than it was ever before; more Indians travel overseas; information technology and communications have made the world much smaller and expanded the mental horizons. Yet, the climate of opinion remains quite unchanged, with the most obnoxious elements polluting political debate. Xenophobia is one of the residual toxic wastes.
There seems to be a body-mind dualism: while the economy becomes more and more capitalistic, the mind refuses to shed the dogmas and shibboleths of socialism.