Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have reasons for his hesitation to engage with the people at large, as they grapple with a devastating pandemic that has robbed lakhs of families across the country of one or more loved ones.
Those who profess to be familiar with his style of functioning say that he never speaks during a crisis. He works the backroom and reaches out to the public only after the crisis has abated and he can claim success. Others feel that he is overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge thrown up by the second COVID wave.
The virulence of the virus and its rapid spread have caught the government by surprise. What is particularly worrying is the penetration into rural areas where lockdowns and containment strategies are next to impossible to implement, and the health infrastructure is insufficient or broken. It will take superhuman effort and out-of-the-box thinking to repair the ravages of the pandemic as it engulfs village after village.
Tough to Ignore Reports Trickling in From BJP-RSS Cadre
The BJP used to gloat that a silent prime minister was a UPA trademark. “Maun-Mohan Singh,’’ its leaders used to mock the former PM as his government slid into a morass of corruption scandals and policy paralysis halfway through Dr Singh’s second term.
The Congress paid a heavy price for Manmohan Singh’s hesitation to defend his government although he had plenty of ammunition to counter the allegations as later revelations about the so-called 2G ‘scam’ have shown.
But then, Singh never had Modi’s communication wizardry.
Now that the boot is on the other foot, panic has set in amid mounting anxiety about the political cost of silence. As the national mood sinks into despair and gloom, Modi is under pressure from within to put his oratorial skills to use, to reassure and empathise with his angry citizenry.
Reports trickling out from within his inner circle suggest that his aides and advisors are engaged in heated daily debates on a public outreach strategy that Modi would be willing to adopt despite his natural inclination to remain mum till the situation improves.
While media criticism can be dismissed as ‘anti-Modi propaganda’, it is becoming difficult to ignore ground reports coming in from the RSS and BJP cadre and intelligence agencies, that the government has become the target of public ire for mismanagement and callousness.
What RSS Chief’s Decision to Speak Up On COVID Crisis Reveals
Unfortunately for Modi, he can no longer brush things under the carpet and deflect internal dismay by getting his lackeys to take pot shots at opposition parties. The arrest of random autorickshaw drivers for pasting critical posters about the export of vaccines, the unveiling of an obviously fake toolkit supposedly prepared by the Congress to sully Modi’s image and other such antics have backfired badly. Despite the best efforts of bhakts and other Modi cheerleaders, the public hasn’t bought these narratives. It is far too worried about the grim daily struggle to breathe and live.
The worry within has spilt over into the public domain now. Consider RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s decision to speak on the COVID crisis. Those who know the RSS well say it is unusual for the Sarsangchalak to say something which could be construed as criticism of the Modi government.
But Bhagwat did talk about lapses by everyone including the administration which led to such a severe outbreak of COVID-19.
In his own way, he was trying to prod the government into action. But he was also stepping in to shore-up the government’s sagging image by attempting to fill the void created by Modi’s rectitude. The sub-text was simple: ‘hum hain na’. If Modi won’t speak, then Bhagwat will.
RSS & BJP’s COVID Outreach & Volunteering
Interestingly, the RSS has also fanned out its workers for COVID relief. While the Sangh has always been at the forefront of helping victims of train accidents, floods and other such calamities, health has never been a priority issue. Despite its lack of experience, however, it has now rushed to set up isolation centres wherever possible, arrange oxygen banks and help people to procure anti-COVID medicines.
The Sikh community was already deeply involved in COVID relief work through gurdwaras across the country. The RSS realised that the Sikhs were winning hearts while its own workers were missing.
The BJP too is trying to step into the breach. After spending weeks defending the government with attacks on the Opposition, it has replaced earlier hashtags with #sevahisangathan on all social media platforms. The BJP President has also ordered party workers to fan out in villages to distribute masks, medicines, and help with oxygen cylinders.
What Modi Must Do — A Direct Outreach to Common People
Again, the BJP has come in late. The Youth Congress was already doing this while the ruling party supporters were missing in action.
But Modi has yet to make himself the face of the battle against the second COVID surge like he did last year, when the pandemic first attacked.
He has made targeted interventions, like addressing doctors and health workers in his constituency of Varanasi, or done a video conference with the district magistrate to discuss strategies to contain the spread of the virus in rural areas.
But what is missing is a direct outreach to common people. And that is what is needed when a nation is in distress.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)