Implement deshbandi, with care and compassion, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
It is perhaps a less-known fact that Prime Minister 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 Bharatiya Janata Party’s hand. Modi was sent to Gandhinagar. The rest is history.
Covid-19 is not a natural disaster but a once-in-a-century global pandemic. Modi could bring an element of order to relief and rehabilitation efforts in Kutch because it was a “controllable” situation. By contrast, a medical emergency such as Covid-19 is a crisis plagued with extreme uncertainty. From autocracies like China to open societies like the United States (US), almost every country is struggling to bring the virus under control. In that sense, the pandemic poses the biggest challenge to modern-day leadership, including that of Modi.
Modi’s leadership style has been built around his image as a political strongman; his demagoguery and muscularity has a cult-like following. His transformation from a Hindutva hero to a governance guru has revolved around a 24*7 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 Covid-19 has no place for myth-making to control the narrative. The viral infection cannot be countered with sharp rhetoric or glitzy events. An election can be won by a high-pitched presidential-style campaign but a disease can only be conquered by medical-scientific discovery. To that extent, the virus exposes the limitations of the strongman cult.
Compare, for example, the 21-day national curfew announcement (deshbandi) to control Covid-19 with Modi’s previous dramatic decision to demonetise high value currency in 2016 (notebandi). The latter, arguably, was a self-goal, one that was driven not as much by 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 current lockdown is adhering to an accepted global playbook that views social distancing as an imperative to limit the casualties. While notebandi could be justifiably criticised for chaotically disrupting the economic cycle, no one can quarrel with the intent or need for a three-week deshbandi to mitigate the impact of Covid-19.
Where the problem arises is when a coercive step is taken without any matching degree of compassion towards those most-affected by unbridled State power. Clamping down on the public’s right to move freely is understandable. Extraordinary times 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 clampdown without an effective 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 demonetisation blip in their fortunes. But those living on the margins in the informal sector have not. Likewise, it is small and microbusinesses and daily wage labourers who stand to lose the most from an extended clampdown on economic activity. Only a massive, well-directed financial package for the poor, especially the urban poor, can at least partly soften the inevitable social and economic costs of deshbandi. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement on Thursday is a welcome first step, but much more needs to be done.
The Covid-19 challenge calls for not only strong, decisive leadership but also one with a human touch. backed by intelligent policymaking. It demands a new citizen-State engagement where the mighty arms of the State — be it the police or the local bureaucracy — are trusted more than feared. Social distancing requires a high measure of individual and collective discipline from the citizenry, but also obliges governments to deliver on their promises of ensuring that essential services supply links are not broken in any manner. The lockdown is the greatest-ever test of the efficacy of last-mile delivery systems in this country.
Moreover, a demonetisation order could be issued like a firman from an imperious power at the Centre; a national lockdown calls for genuine Centre-state coordination where cooperative federalism is practised in letter and spirit. Indeed, this is as much a test of Modi’s ability to influence people as it is of chief ministers to connect with the masses. This is not a moment for political one-upmanship. The Opposition’s arguments over whether the government could have been better prepared to deal with the coronavirus outbreak can wait. Nor is it a time for celebratory nationalistic fervour where self-styled vigilantes roam the streets to enforce a lockdown or revel in a “janata curfew” (people’s curfew) with triumphal public processions. Yes, we need decisive leadership but also a more dignified, empathetic one.
Post-script: When the Parliament session was pushed into the third week of March, I asked a minister why the houses had not been adjourned much earlier in the wake of Covid-19. He looked at me grumpily: “Do you journalists think you know more than us!” VVIP conceit must have no place in the age of the coronavirus.