It will be known only over time if the ‘janata curfew’, for all purposes a government-steered shutdown in the name of the people, will play a significant role in breaking the chain of the spread of coronavirus or not. But it can already be stated that as a social mobilisation strategy or programme, it is undoubtedly one of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest successes.
There is need to realise that although people were ostensibly clapping and expressing gratitude to doctors, nurses, other medical staff and every professional waging the war against the deadly virus, this turnout was effectively an expression of faith in Modi's capacity to lead the nation at its gravest moment of crisis post-Independence.
It was an enactment of the old BJP slogan – ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ (everything is possible if Modi is around).
It cannot be missed that at the end of the almost half-an-hour-long cacophony, crackers were burst in some places, conveying this sense of exuberance.
Modi Takes the People Along
The challenges before Modi are multiple. First is obviously the test on the medical front. Second is to ensure that administrative measures taken to support medical steps do not create social unrest. The third task Modi faces is to address the impending economic crisis. This can be skirted for a few days by citing the 'emergency'.
But, the longer no attention is paid to the looming economic catastrophe, the deeper it will become.
In all these challenges before him, barring the medical task on hand, the prime minister requires the support of the people. Despite the BJP’s massive parliamentary majority, several of Modi's recent decisions faced rough weather and the BJP's poor to not-very-impressive performances in Delhi, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Haryana provided the political backdrop when India entered the coronavirus crisis phase. Regaining political momentum was thereby undoubtedly a very important final challenge.
This is where the capacity to conceive an event like janata curfew separates Modi from his adversaries.
With the ‘successful’ execution of the event, the prime minister has considerably regained lost political ground, at least as far as securing people’s support in waging war against the pandemic.
Since the janata curfew was called to encourage social isolation for everyone's 'good' or in ‘rashtriya hith’ (national interest), there was no way it could be criticised. Likewise, because caregivers were declaredly cheered, this too could not have been questioned.
While medical gains from this move will be known later, the immediate political advantage for the prime minister is apparent. Modi's success holds a lesson or two for United States President Donald Trump who appears to be struggling on the health front even while sensing the threat of dipping popularity.
A Smartly Presented Collective & Participative Programme
Because the programme served this primary objective, it makes little difference for its planners that the collective participative action was embarrassingly laced with superstition and driven by the anti-thesis of scientific temper. Paradoxically, the finest of scientific minds, not just in India but globally, are working round the clock to find ways to contain the pandemic and beat the virus.
Yet, when impatient lots across the country could not wait for the clock to strike five pm, they were not just clapping, ringing bells or clanging plates, but in several places, the entire event was backed by chants of ‘OM’ and other religious invocations.
In social media chatter since the event was announced, the 'power' of 'vedic chants' and the shankhnaad too were widely discussed and promoted. Some leading television channels too did their bit by inviting various businesspersons masquerading as yoga or spiritual gurus who expounded on how chants create 'vibrations' that play a useful role in eliminating disease.
Undoubtedly, the 'event' would have been planned to the smallest detail – including a 'reminder' tweet to people at 4 pm. In hindsight, it appears evident that a nationwide lockdown, unveiled in parts after Sunday evening's clapping, clanging and gonging exercise was over, was always on the anvil. But the government tactically did not want to rush into it as that could have created more panic than what was already witnessed.
With the day-long janata curfew smartly presented as a collective and participative programme, Modi prevented a hard landing for the people. By getting them to break their period under lockdown with a celebratory event, the prime minister has made people stakeholders in the government’s efforts to fight the virus.
It is somewhat akin to how people were made stakeholders at the time of demonetisation when Modi successfully communicated to the people that the hardships they had to face were for "their own good."
The advantage Modi has this time is that it not a fight against a notional 'other', an enemy state or black money. Instead, it is a virus – carrier of a deadly disease which is killing people in the thousands across the world – and Modi is at the forefront of this global strategy. At stake is not the nation's future, but the personal health of each citizen.
In actual terms, the video conference with SAARC leaders may eventually yield little when the sentiment of what the Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has termed "nationalist isolation", is the preferred route that most international leaders have chosen over "global solidarity."
But in terms of optics, this interaction has put Modi back on the international pedestal after his position became somewhat shaky in the wake of decisions on CAA, Article 370 and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
On the way, Modi has outsmarted political adversaries and enlisted the support of large sections of people. Having done this, the sterner part of the challenge now lies ahead for him. For once, at least, his success in meeting this challenge will well and truly be for the good of the people and the country.
(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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