India Under Total Lockdown: Has Modi Chalked Out a Rational Plan?
Every aspect of prime minister’s speech evoke contrasting sentiments, writes Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.
It was obvious, on learning about the broadcast of a new episode of Modi@8, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would ramp up previously taken and announced measures to combat the threat from the coronavirus pandemic.
Soon, I stepped out with the twin objectives of replenishing groceries and other essentials and topping up the fuel tank. In hindsight, the second item could have been done without – where could one drive to during a lockdown? But, human minds – if it is not the prime minister's or his advisers’ – can be excused a separate chamber for irrationalities.
Curious, as journalists should be, I took the main road while returning. It connects two major arterial highways heading out of the capital and is close to the Interstate Bus Terminus on the edge of Delhi's eastern periphery.
Hundreds were walking in lines of five or six. Young, in their twenties and early thirties, a few had women and children in tow too. Most carried rucksacks while others dragged cheap, non-branded trolleys or just inexpensive sling bags. Tired, they were sweating profusely in the sun that has begun turning harsh.
They walked past the hub where normally share-autos choke passing traffic. On Tuesday, there were none. These people were part of the great Indian exodus. They had certainly missed the proverbial last bus and now had nothing but legs or a willing and permitted empty truck to take them home, however distant and remote in Uttar Pradesh or Uttarakhand.
The thought of these people came to mind as Modi elaborated what he meant last Thursday when he asked citizens for “some weeks of their lives.” Every aspect of the prime minister’s speech evoked contrasting sentiments.
As Modi shared his concern for the 1.3 billion or more Indians, a gnawing worry caught up: did the thought of these people, epitome of those destined to suffer the longest from the disease, collapse of personal economies or disruption of children's education, cross the prime minister's mind while drawing up the plan to announce a complete nationwide lockdown?
Or, has it been rationally worked out by the powers that in this grave battle –undoubtedly, the most monstrous challenge post-independence – there would be collateral damage?
The prime minister's address to the nation has either been preceded or followed on all the three crucial occasions by panic. This was the second occasion that his "aaj raat bara baje se" (from midnight tonight) phrase sent chills down people's spine. He was hardly halfway through his speech that families were despatching members for last minute stocking of whatever they could lay hands on.
Modi Fails to Read the Pulse of People
Indians could have done with a more explanatory address where Modi stressed, in equal measure, on a complete lockdown for three weeks and also assuring people that supply lines of all essentials – goods and services – would be maintained.
It made little sense that guidelines of the measures during the lockdown were released later and the prime minister just made a veiled mention of this in his speech.
A good leader cannot be in denial if his previous call caused overreaction among people. We have commented previously how Modi harnessed public endorsement for his steps by the #ThaliBajao interlude during the ‘Janata Curfew’. Yet, even he was forced to chide the exuberance of people.
But, as someone with decades of experience in reading the pulse of the people, Modi failed his office by not sensing that the public action would not remain confined as an expression of gratitude but would become a manifestation of superstition and reiteration of faith in Modi.
Years later, when historians of the future write about and collate images of these troubled times, mention will be made when a throng tipped over to unreason because the leader’s call for “sayyam” or restraint was overrun by what eventually turned out to be another ‘event.’
Yet, Modi said that the way people adhered to his request to observe restraint was “prashansa ka patra” or worthy of praise.
At the least, he could have mentioned that while thanking doctors, nurses and others engaged in battling the pandemic, many had gone overboard and risked not just themselves but everyone else.
Bigger Concerns Remain Unanswered
Given that India is precariously perched on the edge of a precipice, the decision ordering a total lockdown cannot be faulted. The spread of COVID-19 has to be halted and in the absence of any medical breakthrough yet, social distancing appears to be the only route to take. But there are other issues which have to be simultaneously addressed.
Besides the biggest worry over availability of essential commodities which was addressed by a bureaucratic note, bigger concerns remain: what percentage of Indians have enough savings stacked away (or deposited in banks) to enable them to survive three weeks, and may be more, with their families? What measures are being contemplated to kickstart the Indian economy once this threat is over?
For the past ten days, attention has been repeatedly drawn to the majority of the Indian working class being engaged in the unorganised sector and living from one wage to another. The stage has been set for their exploitation yet again at the hands of unscrupulous traders and money-lenders.
Hunger eats away whatever reason a stressed individual is left with. With want certain to stare at the faces of the majority of Indians within the next few days, there is no knowing the extent of social upheaval and strife that awaits the country.
India is not Delhi or a few other metropolis that live the nights as they do the days. Moreover, does the state have the force required to enforce what Modi said “curfew jaisa” restrictions and in their failure, what steps have the police been instructed to take? Will violators be arrested, put in cramped lockups, only to further the mockery of social distancing?
Is Govt’s Approach to COVID-19 Going the Demonetisation Way?
The worry is that the address to the nation announcing 21 days of total lockdown has the possibility of going the demonetisation way. It was established after the decision was first announced in November 2016 that the entire process had not been thought through, and to manage emerging situations, goalposts were constantly shifted.
This is something the nation can little afford when faced with the coronavirus pandemic.
The nation requires assuring intervention and stewardship of the political leadership on multiple fronts.
In India's worst epidemic, Spanish flu, almost six percent of the Indian populace was consumed by the virus in 1918-1919. But more importantly, 94 percent survived and it included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi.
This government must be lauded for its attempts to ensure that mortality figures reach nowhere near that alarming mark, but it must be constantly reminded to take steps to ensure that survivors are many percentages more and with horses' strength in them at the end of this episode. For that, better care has to be taken of them.
Close to midnight, as I complete this piece, the police jeep presses the hooter and leaves barking dogs beneath my high rise. The view from my balcony is eerily secure and I cannot but blink when thinking if the hundreds I saw walking have found a safe shelter or not.
(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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