India Under Lockdown: Will Modi Retain the Poor’s Trust This Time?

Reports emanating from within the government suggest that Modi is a worried man today. All the optics are bad. 

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

On the day the Modi government declared that it had no plans to extend the current lockdown, it received a fresh scare. The country recorded the highest number of novel coronavirus cases, and a hot spot was identified in the heart of the capital from which the disease has travelled to various states through infected worshippers who recently attended a religious congregation in a Nizamuddin mosque.

Although the numbers are nowhere close to the frightening figures pouring out of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain, the developments have rung alarm bells, as the government grapples with a decision it must make sooner than later.

Coronavirus Lockdown Aftermath: Modi Earns Bad Press, Loses Brownie Points

The lockdown ends on 14 April, and before that, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his advisors will have to determine whether to revoke it or extend it. It’s a tough call because the human, social and economic costs of the lockdown, by far the harshest in the world, are beginning to manifest themselves. And no one knows better than Modi that there will be a heavy political price to pay if he and his team get it wrong.

Reports emanating from within the government suggest that Modi is a worried man today. All the optics are bad.

The lockdown has sparked off a human exodus of the kind only seen during famines and wars, as migrant workers who became unemployed overnight, flee cities and towns to seek shelter back home in their villages. Heartrending visuals, photographs and stories are flooding the media, of men and women clutching their children and carrying their frugal belongings to trudge hundreds of kilometers on highways, because trains and buses were grounded at the stroke of midnight one fine day.

The international media, which was full of praise for the way India was tackling the corona crisis till the exodus began, has turned critical.

Modi had just about managed to regain brownie points internationally after weeks of negative publicity over the anti-CAA protests and the Delhi communal riots. That goodwill has disappeared under the wave of human misery unleashed by a lockdown announced without planning and preparation.

Human Cost & Economic Fallout of the Lockdown Can’t Be Ignored

The government’s anxiety was evident in an unusual directive put out by the National Broadcasters Association. It urged television channels not to show visuals of fleeing workers as it would encourage others to follow suit. Not only is the logic bizarre, but many in the media questioned the NBA for trying to impose some sort of censorship on news that is potentially harmful to the Modi government.

More than 20 workers have already died in the exodus. And the mass migration from cities to villages has totally defeated the purpose of the lockdown, which was to isolate and contain through social distancing.

Just like the human cost of the lockdown can no longer be hidden, the hit to the economy is evident in the manner in which the unorganised and small scale sectors, which constitute the bulk of economic activity, have collapsed.

Construction has ground to a halt. Small eateries are shut. Self-employed service providers are jobless.

While experts warn of the destruction to an already fragile economy, the extent of the damage will only be known once the health crisis recedes. Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, Rajiv Kumar, dropped a grim hint when he admitted recently that GDP growth could slip below zero.

What Caused Modi Govt to Panic & Impose 21-Day Lockdown?

It is increasingly being said that the decision to impose such a crushing lockdown was prompted by panic in government circles, after a Johns Hopkins University study authored by, among others, Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, warned of an impending corona disaster in India. The study predicted that some 300 to 400 million persons would be infected by the virus. The peak, it said, would be between April and May, when at least 100 million would have the disease.

Laxminarayan is the founder-director of the Washington-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, and is a Princeton University research scholar and professor. He has worked in India before and was closely associated with the health ministry’s immunisation programmes, and the Public Health Foundation of India of which he was vice president.

Although Laxminarayan has worked with the previous UPA government, BJP circles say that his credibility with the present establishment is due to his association with persons close to Modi, including the PM’s scientific advisor Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan.

Since then, Johns Hopkin University has dissociated itself from the paper. And BJP bhakts have taken to Twitter to diss Laxminarayan with the usual epithets of being a ‘foreign agent’’ etc. The most prominent among the critics was Vijay Chauthaiwale , who is Modi’s point person for the Indian diaspora.

As the optics turned ugly within a few days into the lockdown, there was mounting concern that while stringent measures may prove beneficial in containing the spread of the virus, the other costs could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Angry Comments of Migrant Workers Reveal Resentment Against Govt

According to those familiar with the development, Modi was quite furious at a review meeting he held over the weekend with his team of advisors. The lockdown was not panning out the way it was supposed to, and earning him brickbats instead of bouquets.

Subsequent developments suggest that the government is trying to change the narrative.

As the week began, cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba said there were no plans to extend the lockdown, while health secretary Luv Agarwal denied all talk of community transmission. He said as of now, there is only some local transmission.

Even as the narrative was being amended to pave the way for revoking the lockdown on 14 April, the unexpected spike and identification of the Nizamuddin mosque as a transmission cluster have posed a new dilemma.

On the one hand, the now dissed study by Laxminarayan may contain a grain of truth, and India could be heading for a medical disaster in the coming weeks if the lockdown is lifted on 14 April. On the other hand, there are huge social, political and economic ramifications if the lockdown continues indefinitely.

The angry comments of fleeing workers reveal the resentment that is spreading against the government and the rich.

“No-one cares for the poor.’’ “The government arranged planes to bring rich Indians who came back with the virus. But there is no transportation to take the poor back to their villages.’’ These are just some examples of the bitter remarks made by hungry, tired, desperate migrants seeking to go home.

Every politician in India knows that if he loses the support of the poor, he has lost the country. Can Modi ride this tiger without falling? He has done it befor, but this time, it’s going to be a rough ride.

(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.)

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