Janata Curfew: Why Modi’s Call for Self-Imposed Lockdown is Tricky
Modi called for a campaign by people, but this must not be converted into coercive action.
In an address to the nation which contained several positive takeaways, the worry is that the entire focus can get riveted on the 'event' which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for – the Janata Curfew, and its accompanying clapping and cacophony of sounds from ringing bells.
Already, a large number of people from celebrities, political loyalists, to the hoi polloi, have relayed enthusiastic endorsements of one another.
The entire nation has been beseeched to come out and thank doctors, medical personnel, cleaning staff and others who have embarked on a journey which has barely begun.
One, however, hopes that with Sunday's 'success' behind him, Modi would be able to shift the goal post. The ultimate objective is to prepare people for longer periods in solitude and one hopes this experience of self-enforced lockdown would do so.
This Could Be the First Step in the Long Haul
Because 'events' have often been at the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's political and administrative persona, there is worry that successful adherence to the citizen-imposed 'blackout' during the daytime could end up being seen as 'victory' over the devastating coronavirus.
Yet, this social segregation of the self can just be the first step in a long haul. This was hinted at by Modi, but not explicitly spelt out, as in the absence of compensatory package for the days of work lost, it may be counter-productive at this stage.
Contained in the address was a tacit reminder to citizens of their duties. Inexplicably, this was not balanced by clarity regarding plans being drawn up to ensure people’s right to safe and secure living was being addressed by the government.
Undeniably, this was a speech in the mould of John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961 where he uttered the enduring line: "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."
Modi's address was of a leader who knows the captivating power of his words and how this can draw people into his programme.
Should Not Become a Reason for Social Vigilantism
It is too early to foresee the footprints that the coronavirus will leave on Indian history and the extent to which the government and its leaders will be scathed, but as an idea, Janata Curfew will be recalled for long.
Care, however, has to be taken. In this, the BJP's foot soldiers have a crucial role to play, that this call should not become a reason for social vigilantism – a phenomenon which has tainted India's image in recent years.
Modi called for a campaign by people to secure support for the day-long curfew, but this must not be converted into coercive action against people deciding to opt-out.
There, however, is nothing wrong for the prime minister to try making people stakeholders in what French President, Emmanuel Macron, labelled as "war". Modi also rightly tried to shake the nonchalance which has been visible on streets and markets as well over the past few days. In his signature dramatic style, he asked people to give some weeks of their time principally by dropping out of social circulation.
Given his penchant for alliterations, the two 'Ss' he sought from people were sankalp (resolve) and sayyam (restraint). People will certainly be enthused because Modi has certainly given a more participative dimension to the fight against COVID-19.
Yet, they are likely to be gnawed once the euphoria of the address wears off by the realisation that the prime minister has committed little besides announcing the formation of a special economic task force to evaluate ways to overcome the economic crisis that people are already beginning to stare at.
Was an Early Notice Required?
At the end of the address, there was also the thought if this required a notice of nearly 22 hours, allowing speculations to circulate through the day and gain so much momentum that it necessitated a formal clarification that a nationwide lockdown was not on the anvil.
Panicked response has been one of the characteristics of public behaviour in India in recent days – first evidenced with the disappearance of hand sanitizers from the markets.
At every stage, people have rushed into hoarding essential commodities – especially food products. The prime minister correctly advised against such responses but it would have been more appropriate if a strong message was sent to potential hoarding, warning them of sternest action in the event of their misdeeds being detected. The advise for "normal buying" should have been accompanied by the directive of 'usual selling practices".
From the time he became prime minister, Modi has revelled in the role of the national tau or uncle. In his first Independence Day speech, he reminded people that because rapists too were someone’s sons, society had to take responsibility in reforming from within.
Once again, the prime minister was in his element in convincing people that he needed their help in saving everyone.
While he was liberal when it came to seeking the help and assistance of people, Modi was tight-fisted when spelling out what had been done by the government so far and what it proposed to do in the coming weeks.
The formation of a task force and a plea to employers not to deduct wages can be of little consolation to people who had to overnight flee to seek refuge elsewhere for lack of jobs and regular wages.
India's workers predominantly subsist in the unorganised sector and imploring employers to continue paying wages has little meaning. Many of them are what Modi himself described in recent years as "job-givers", who till recently were "job-seekers". Furthermore, the address indicated little comprehension of the economic challenges especially for those on the margins of the unorganised sector.
While concluding, Modi alluded to the powers of divinity. He referred to the impending Navaratri period when the powers of the Hindu Goddess in the form of Shakti are invoked. Personal faith and belief in a state broadcast at a time when all resources of sciences and scientific establishments need to be marshalled certainly struck a discordant note.
It is a different matter that on this front too, he would have bolstered the faith and belief of a large section of Indians in his capacity to meet the challenge. The faithful have been given several more reasons to continue being devoted to him – for the moment at least, when societal defences are low.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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