COVID Surge: How Modi Focussed on ‘Heroes’ & Ignored Govt Failure

One had hoped that Modi would discuss govt & systemic failure amid COVID surge on his 30 May ‘Mann ki Baat’ episode.

6 min read
Image of PM Modi used for representational purposes.

PM Narendra Modi's 30 May episode of Mann Ki Baat was the first occasion for him to address all citizens on freewheeling subjects of his choice, after a month-and-a-half-long horror show of the catastrophic second wave of COVID-19.

One expected the prime minister to use this opportunity to communicate with the people, alleviate their sufferings, and promise them of working on strengthening systems, should the virus stage a comeback with renewed destructibility.

It was also assumed that PM Modi would discuss the reasons behind the failure to anticipate the virulence of the second wave of COVID-19, and why the system failed when it was faced with this challenge.

However, Modi chose not to dwell on these matters. Instead, he recreated an idyllic scenario of a few professional groups acting heroically to meet the crisis and providing much-needed relief.

The emphasis was not on the crisis. In its place, he highlighted individual interventions in the line of duty.

Modi’s Depiction of a Selfless Citizenry Being Guided by a ‘Flawless’ System

The picture emerging from one of his longest radio shows was of a citizenry — selflessly, often at threat to personal safety and health — motivated by an ‘inspiring’ political leadership and under the guidance of a ‘flawless’ system, standing up in an organised fashion to face the crisis.

Although large sections of society were united in grief and coming to the aid of one another, often with the State and leaders ‘missing in action’, this India found no representation in the prime minister’s words.

Because his regime is rooted in individualistic action, Modi has a proclivity for finding heroes for every occasion and crises. Predictably, he showcased several brave hearts as done consistently since March 2020, when he urged people to bang thaalis and blow conch shells to appreciate the dedication of the medical and para-medical community, even naming them ‘corona-warriors’.

All individuals who spend hours, even days, away from their families on numerous occasions, often at the cost of their lives, are indisputably worthy of praise. But a pandemic cannot be fought just by heroes. Instead, it takes an organised system steered by people who have either thought through the steps required, or are capable of responding with swiftness at the unexpected, and not lurch from one fire-fighting operation to another.

‘Mann Ki Baat’, 30 May: No Mention of Distressed Relatives of the Critically Ill

Between the last episode of Mann Ki Baat on 25 April and the current one, Modi has spoken on five occasions. Each were addresses to specific target audiences although, being televise, they also served as lectures to the nation.

Whether these speeches were targeted at recipients of another instalment of financial aid under the PM-KISAN programme, state and districts officials, or paramedics and frontline health workers in Varanasi, the exemplary work of ‘corona-warriors’ was consistently highlighted.

In the latest edition of his radio programme, this category was expanded to include a wider range of professionals involved in collectively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

PM Modi donned the role of an anchor or journalist, and simulated ‘live’ conversations with a variety of people. Involved in transporting oxygen tanks during the recent period of acute shortage, they comprised an oxygen-truck driver, a woman working with the Indian Railways as a locomotive operator on board an Oxygen Express, an Air Force officer involved with transporting the elixir from other countries and within India, and the officer’s school-going pre-teen daughter who provided to listeners the belief of complete ‘comfort’ with online education and quality of life.

Modi subsequently spoke with — obviously pre-identified and briefed — a lab technician at a hospital whom he thanked for his bravery in testing possibly infected samples.

The prime minister made no mention of another important section of Indians who marked their exemplariness with their commitment to provide self-sacrificing service to distressed patients.

This included hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk who ran helter-skelter with gasping dear ones, in search of either oxygen cylinders or an oxygen bed, or both.


The India Portrayed by Modi in ‘Mann ki Baat’: Obfuscating Reality

While the prime minister and his supporters may take recourse in the argument that it is but natural for family and friends to step in during crises, especially medical crises, he also felt it was needless to thank numerous people who provided resources and personally ran ‘oxygen langars’, started by one nondescript gurdwara in Ghaziabad's Indirapuram, and later replicated elsewhere.

Sadly, the majority of these went unreported by a media that was either already stretched, or not keen to show disease and death. What Modi could have brought out with the reach of the official machinery will remain unknown.

The India portrayed in this edition of ‘Mann Ki Baat’, amid the gravest health and economic crisis that Indians have faced in over a century, was one that is in complete control of the state of affairs. This is, however, completely at odds with reality.

This was that episode of Mann Ki Baat for which the PM and his office requested people to share “inspiring” stories to enable Modi to “celebrate the power of positivity and the strength of 130 crore Indians”. This tweet was “wordlessly deleted” after it gathered online flak for the regime's chutzpah to celebrate positivity when the word ‘positive’ evoked nothing but dread among people.

BJP-RSS’s ‘Positivity Push’ Amid Brutal COVID Surge

The plan to give a 'positive' twist amid the gloom over the brutal second wave of COVID-19 after a premature declaration of victory over it, was part of a concerted bid by the Sangh Parivar to obscure harsh truths and distressing images from over-crowded hospitals and packed crematoriums.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organised a four-day 'Positivity Unlimited' online lecture series earlier this month, and the objective was being fulfilled until industrialist-philanthropist Aziz Premji found an unlikely ally in the RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat.

Bhagwat endorsed the industrialist and philanthropist’s assertion that the willingness to accept and “confront the truth” was at the core of good science.

He also called out 'unmindfulness' (gaflat) of the shashan and prashashan (government and administration) after the first wave of COVID-19.


BJP Underplayed Modi’s 7th Year as PM & Told Cadres to Not Celebrate: What This Means

Despite criticism over soliciting suggestions from people to share the agreeable and spare the ugly, in his radio show, Modi remained confined to showcasing individual action for common good, although the hour demanded the projection of systemic improvements and enhanced public health outlay.

Obviously, there was little to put on the display counter.

It was already four days since Modi completed his seventh year as prime minister, when he spoke on his radio show on Sunday. Yet, he marked the day of this edition of Mann Ki Baat as the anniversary of the occasion, because in 2019 he took oath of office for the second time.

Significantly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) underplayed this milestone and directed cadres not to hold “celebratory events”.

The party is aware that the Centre will find it tough to avoid responsibility being placed at the Centre's door.

Modi, as part of his emerging strategy, attempted to shift the focus to achievements over the past seven years.

Clearly, efforts have been initiated to obfuscate memories of the pandemic. Consequently, Modi highlighted the government's flagship programmes in the social sector, and embarked on his favourite theme of how the Centre has achieved what was left ‘undone’ for seventy years.

Will the People Forget Govt’s Absence & Apathy Amid COVID Crisis?

Significantly, giving a "befitting reply to those who conspire against us" and becoming a country that "does not compromise on the issues of national security," remain Modi's recurring go-to themes. This is indicative of the political discourse that we are likely to start hearing soon because crucial elections are due in early 2022 in Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, and most significantly, Uttar Pradesh. Of these, the BJP is in power only in the last three states mentioned above. Amid the sense of gross erosion of trust and belief in both Modi and state governments, good governance and achievements during the pandemic period are unlikely to be planks on which the BJP can seek re-election.

Will this line of argument find acceptance, and will people forget the government’s absence during the worst crisis they navigated, by the time then press the EVM button?

Although not a comprehensive indicator, public responses on Modi's YouTube channel, while his address was live, were pointers to prevailing anger. For instance, one asked for an "unscripted press conference" while several others mockingly hoped that the prime minister would not turn ‘tearful’ again. Both sets of comments received several ‘likes’.

The challenge before the BJP now is to prevent social media activity from becoming a tidal wave of anger against it, next year and beyond.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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