It is perhaps a less known fact that Narendra Modi’s political career was dramatically transformed by a natural disaster. The alleged mishandling of relief operations during the 2001 Kutch earthquake by the Keshubhai Patel government in Gujarat forced the central BJP’s hand and Mr Modi was sent to Gandhinagar as a replacement. The rest as they say is history.
The Corona virus pandemic is not a natural disaster but a once in a century global pandemic. Mr Modi could bring an element of order to relief and rehabilitation efforts in Kutch because it was a ‘controllable’ situation. A medical emergency like Covid 19 offers no such opportunity: this is a crisis where no one can tell with any degree of certainty what comes next. From autocratic states like China to open democratic nations like the United States, every country has struggled to bring the virus under control. The US president Donald Trump in particular stands exposed for his erratic style of functioning as to an extent do the Chinese for the opaque manner in which they dealt with the initial virus outbreak in Wuhan. In that sense, the pandemic poses the biggest challenge to modern day leaderships across the world and demands a drastic change in approach to crisis management. Mr Modi is no exception in this context.
Mr Modi’s leadership style has been built around his image as a political ‘strongman’, a risk-taking doer with the demagoguery and muscularity to attract a cult-like following. His transformation from a Hindutva hero to a governance guru has revolved around a 24 x7 image-making machine and is best exemplified by a highly successful one-liner during the 2019 campaign: ‘Modi hai toh mumkin hai’ (anything is possible if Modi is there). That notion of seeming political invincibility has ensured a larger than life image where the lines between myth and reality are blurred. A pandemic like corona though allows no place for spin doctoring or myth making to control the narrative: the viral infection cannot be countered with fine words or glitzy events but can only be dealt with by a hard, nose to the wheel focus on containing its spread. A terrorist camp can be blasted by an air strike, a virus cannot; an election can be won or a government toppled by roguish political machinations but a disease can only be conquered by medical-scientific discovery. To that extent, corona exposes the limitations of the strongman cult.
Compare for example the 21 day national curfew announcement (desh-bandi) to control corona with the prime minister’s previous dramatic decision to de-monetise high value currency in 2016 (note-bandi). The latter, arguably, was a self-goal, one that was driven not as much out of necessity as hubris, a conviction that massive state intervention would end the menace of black money. It was a decision based on individual judgment and not built through any form of consensus building with the key stakeholders. By contrast, the corona lockdown is now simply adhering to a widely accepted global playbook which has been now followed by dozens of nations across the world by viewing effective ‘social distancing’ as the only means to limit the casualties. While note-bandi could be justifiably criticised for using a sledge-hammer approach to tackle the disease of corruption when less disruptive methods could have been better used, no one can quarrel with the intent or need for a three week desh-bandi to mitigate the impact of the corona virus.
Where the problem arises is when a coercive step is taken without any matching degree of compassion towards those who are most affected by the use of unbridled state power. Clamping down on the public’s right to move freely is understandable: extraordinary times do call for extraordinary measures or, as the prime minister put it, ‘jaan hai to jahaan hai’ (when you have life, you have the world). But to impose a clamp down without a strong social security safety net for the most vulnerable groups is a recipe for a potential disaster. India’s affluent, for example, may well have recovered from the demonetization blip in their fortunes but those living on the margins in the informal sector still have not. Likewise, it is small and micro businesses and those who work as daily wage labourers who stand most to lose from an extended clampdown on economic activity. Only a massive, well-directed financial package for the poor, especially the urban poor, can atleast partly soften the inevitable social and economic costs of desh-bandi.
Which is why the corona challenge calls for not just strong, decisive leadership but also one that exudes a human touch. It calls for a new citizen-state engagement where the mighty arms of the state – be it the police or the local bureaucracy – are trusted more than they are feared. Social distancing calls for a high measure of individual and collective discipline from the citizenry but also demands that governments actually deliver on their promises of ensuring that essential services supply links are not halted in any manner. If those supply links are broken, then it can only create chaos and lead to large queues outside shops, hardly ideal when social distancing is an imperative. The panic buying witnessed in several parts of the country within minutes of the prime minister’s address is further evidence that the average person doesn’t have faith in the government’s assurances of well-stocked grocery stores. In that sense, the lockdown is the greatest test of the efficacy of last mile delivery systems this country has ever experienced.
Moreover, a demonetization order could be issued like a firman from an imperious power at the Centre; a national lockdown calls for genuine centre-state co-ordination where the notion of ‘co-operative federalism’ is practiced in letter and spirit. Indeed, this is as much a test of Mr Modi’s ability to influence people as it is of the chief ministers to connect with the masses. That many chief ministers like an Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, a Pinrayi Vijayan in Kerala or an Udhav Thackeray in Maharashtra are conducting daily media addresses is a positive sign: only a sustained and aggressive communication campaign can work in spreading awareness in a vast population.
This is also not a moment for political one-upmanship: opposition arguments over whether the government could have been better prepared to deal with the corona outbreak must be pushed to a later date. Nor is it a time for any celebratory nationalistic fervor where self-styled vigilantes roam the streets to enforce a lockdown or revel in a ‘Janata curfew’ with triumphal public processions. Yes, we need decisive leadership but we also need a more dignified, empathetic one.
Post-script: When the parliament session was pushed into the third week of March, I asked a government law-maker why the houses had not been adjourned earlier in the wake of corona. The minister looked at me grumpily: “Do you journalists think you know more than us!” Political conceit must have no place in the age of corona.