Is PM Modi Finally Looking at Political Future Beyond COVID-19?
While shepherding the nation out of the coronavirus crisis, the prime minister has to be multi-focal.
In his address to the nation at 10 AM on 14 April, on the extension of the nation-wide lockdown in view of the coronavirus crisis, PM Modi acknowledged inputs provided by chief ministers, even mentioning some had already announced continuation of the lockdown.
Seeking advisories publicly from others, many of whom are also political adversaries, is against the grain of the PM’s persona. With another extension becoming a virtual fait accompli for him after Naveen Patnaik and Captain Amarinder Singh's announcements, the question looming over him (before 14 April) was if the decision this time would be presented as the collective will of all states and the Centre – or not.
The prime minister's decision for once, to share accolades for a ‘necessary but prudent’ decision, simultaneously insulates him from possible criticism later on, in the event of the shutdown's further extension – either triggering a fresh crisis, or resulting in the outrage of sections of society.
Can Only ‘Tapasya’ and ‘Tyaag’ Save Us?
But the prime minister drew his compliments back when it came to recapitulating the decisions made and measures taken by the government so far. On this issue, it was projected as the Centre's achievement all the way – and of course, that of the people –by their tapasya and tyaag (meditation and sacrifice).
Medical crises of the variety that humanity is now grappling with provides opportunity for governments to make citizens more rational and scientific in their belief and practise.
By using words that have cultural as well as religious connotation, the prime minister missed another opportunity in this direction.
No one has any disagreement with the two practices which are almost universally followed one way or the other. But certainly, the disease has not been contained by people resorting to these.
This is not the first time Modi has used a vocabulary that makes itself open to question. Opinion may be divided, but it merits a poser: is the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ a cultural notion or mythological idea, and thereby a religious phrase? Should it be used by the prime minister to convey to citizens that they mustn't cross the threshold of their homes?
Little Effort Towards Building Scientific Temper During COVID
Little effort has been made by the government to prop up levels of societal scientific temper. So far, the only lessons in personal hygiene has been to use face masks and wash hands repeatedly. Not a word on other universal habits of Indians that leaves first time visitors to the country aghast.
Although it has been communicated that the coronavirus gets transmitted from one person to another by sneeze/cough-induced droplets, in none of his addresses has the prime minister asked people to also give up the habit of spitting in public, or spraying walls with betel stain.
Having said that, there were three planes that one had expected the prime minister to address. The first is obviously the medical, and the paramount issue he needed to mention was the measures taken by the government so far to find, cure, contain and treat patients.
But, there is little on this that can be shared – India after all is not alone in groping in the dark on the issue of therapy.
Modi's position is not envious when it comes to the broader issues, but on specifics his fell short. True, he listed the increased number of laboratories, but remained silent on India's low testing rate.
Fatalism is a convenient and lazy way out for a large number of Indians who wish to rationalise failure. There was an element of this in the clarion call for India's ‘young scientists to develop a coronavirus vaccine’. It reads well as a headline, but also admits that India has “limited resources”, and not much has been achieved by these systems. Moreover, can the aspiring researchers work without adequate infrastructure?
Welfare For ‘Daridra Narayan’?
Has COVID-19 forced a thinking in government to redraw higher education and Research & Development priorities? One expected the prime minister's speech to the people to focus on these, and not be limited to providing a pep talk and lavishing praise for having followed instructions.
The economy was the second major matter that requires attention on two levels. First, is the present challenge of ensuring supplies and providing access, the latter to the poor especially those living on the margins of society.
It sounds good when leaders promise welfare for Daridra Narayan, a moniker for the downtrodden. This government claims to be driven on the principle of antyodaya or the service of the downtrodden, the proverbial last person in the line. But when images of these people in the last spots in life's race surface now while they jostle for a morsel of food, they are dismissed as ‘exceptions’ – and find no mention in the prime minister's words.
A Bigger Crisis Ahead: Kickstarting Economy & Restoring ‘Normalcy’
There is a bigger crisis staring us in the face – that of kick starting the economy once things become normal. On this, there will be the matter of finances, how to recover from losses, besides another big worry that is yet to cross anyone's mind – how does one generate confidence in the workforce that it is ‘safe’ to return to work?
The problem is linked to the extent of fear that has been drilled to get people to adhere to lockdown guidelines. It will not be easy to get migrant workers back overnight, and to do so, there has to be a plan. But before a plan can be drawn up, there must be recognition of the problem.
The third plane that Modi had to address was related to society. Much of our beneficial activity, children attending schools, families firming up bonding by going on holidays, adults going to work, running businesses, accessing modes of entertainment, all involve dealing with strangers.
No one can live through a day gainfully without interacting and striking partnerships and friendships, temporary or long-lasting, with people who are not previously known.
Each of these activities generate revenue, and when the entire machinery runs smoothly, there is social cohesion. Forget strangers, our social distancing drill has made people suspicious of their neighbours.
Why Govt Wants to ‘Ensure’ People Remain Suspicious Of Each Other
After using the phrase ‘social distancing’ initially, the WHO replaced it with 'physical distancing' almost a fortnight ago, arguing that the former could unintentionally preach social isolation. Kerala has built its highly successful model on the principle of social solidarity while maintaining physical distance.
But the prime minister telling people, “na laparwahee karna hai, aur na hee karne dena hai” (not just ensure that you are not careless, but also you must not allow anyone to be careless) – opens the gate for social vigilantism as people have been encouraged to see themselves as enforcers of discipline.
It possibly suits the politics that Modi is committed to, if people remain perpetually suspicious of the other. But a society where its members are not at ease with one another, can hardly be an attractive investment destination. It shall also be a permanently simmering nation where the slightest altercation can blow up into a major security challenge.
While shepherding the nation out of the coronavirus crisis, the prime minister has to be multi-focal. The addresses so far have been drafted with just the immediate objective in mind. The only difference in the latest speech is that Modi appears to have begun looking at the political future beyond this crisis.
Didn't Mukesh and Asha Bhosle sing lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi's Woh Subah Kabhee To Aayegi? But before that dawn to break, the prime minister has to weather the night with far greater clarity than shown so far, because the challenge is not just what has enveloped us, but what lies ahead too.
(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.)
(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.