There was a certain 8 pm ‘address to the nation’ with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the image of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Once seen as the “Brahmin Bania” party of the Indian town-square, the BJP was now a pro-poor party that saw the rich with suspicion, à la Indira Gandhi.
This was a risky gamble that paid rich dividends for the BJP. And its calculation about its core Hindu upper caste, middle class, urban vote proved to be correct: they didn’t have any alternative to shift to.
Four years later, with another 8 pm ‘address to the nation’, Narendra Modi has risked his and his party’s carefully cultivated pro-poor image. The necessary but horrendously implemented 21-day nationwide lockdown due to coronavirus has unmasked the BJP’s pro-poor image, revealing that it remains in its disposition a Hindu upper caste, middle class, urban party. It thinks like one, even if it sometimes manages to act differently to woo the voters.
It is clear that the Modi government did not anticipate that daily wage migrant labourers in the cities will be forced by the lockdown to return to their homes, even if it means walking hundreds of kilometres. Such a lapse suggests a disconnect between India as its exists and the India of the imagination of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg.
Also read: How Covid-19 is changing Indian politics
The difference between Notebandi and Gharbandi
Many have counted the obvious similarities between notebandi and gharbandi, demonetisation and lockdown. Good intent, no planning, Tughlaqi farmaan, sudden announcement, four-hour notice, people dying, modification of orders on a daily basis, and so on. But there’s this big difference: demonetisation came across as pro-poor, anti-rich. The coronavirus lockdown is the opposite.
The lockdown was necessary and it will no doubt slow the rate of infection, thus “flattening the curve”. But there is little to suggest we won’t see a surge in cases, unless this lockdown is extended forever, which is not possible.
Meanwhile, the poor are already suffering from the harshest lockdown in the world. Only an urban middle class-minded government would decree showing Ramayan and Mahabharat on TV as a solution to the people’s lockdown woes, because it presumes that people are just bored at home. But the poor weren’t facing boredom. They were, and still are, facing hunger, homelessness, unable to find daily work. They have been asked to leave construction sites and hostels where they were put up by contractors. And since the Modi government has suspended all public transport, they don’t know how to get home.
The subjects and the objects
Meanwhile, the police has been beating them up, treating them like objects. Officials have been spraying bleach on them as if they were the virus, caning them, making them hop. How do you think they feel about Bharat Sarkar after this treatment? And BJP-ruled states are markedly worse. The worst is Goa, where an overzealous chief minister, Pramod Sawant, won’t even let people buy bread and milk. Let them eat Doordarshan.
As migrants across India were looking for ways to reach home, public broadcaster Prasar Bharati actually asked people to post photos of themselves watching Ramayan. What we have here is a cognitive bias arising out of what the BJP actually is: an urban middle class, upper caste party.
It has achieved its awe-inspiring national dominance by shedding some of that image. It thought of smart cities over smart villages, neglected farmers to keep inflation low, and so on. It addressed the resulting backlash through freebies like toilets, LPG cylinders and affordable housing. After losing three Hindi heartland states in December 2018, the Modi government was forced to give cash handouts to farmers.
But in this moment of health crisis, it has bared its true self. Why are these labourers on the roads? Why can’t they just be where they are? These are the kind of reactions we saw from the BJP trolls on social media.
At least 22 people have died in highway accidents while walking home. Accidental deaths happen all the time, but people aren’t supposed to be walking on highways, and vehicles don’t expect pedestrians.
Who has seen poverty?
Narendra Modi gave people three days’ notice to beat pots and pans, giving the BJP machinery ample time to organise a show of strength. But for the lockdown, he gave less than four hours. Trucks carrying goods, including essential supplies and perishables, were stopped at state borders. How were these truck drivers supposed to reach home? Eat food? No thought was given to such questions, because the BJP’s worldview is that of the upper caste, well-off trader who can just take a few days off and watch Ramayan on Doordarshan without a care in the world.
People in essential services are allowed to move around, but even they were harassed and lathi-charged by the police. Public transport is shut. How is the sanitation worker supposed to travel? How is the cleaning staff at the hospitals supposed to go for work? How is the hospital supposed to arrange transport for them amid a national lockdown? They’ve been walking many kilometres a day. Again, the BJP did not think of this because in its worldview, everyone has a car. Everyone it knows.
A belatedly announced economic package by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman does very little to give immediate relief to those who need it the most: migrant workers, daily wagers and marginal farmers.
This is not the moment when Narendra Modi could say, “Gareebi dekhi hai maine ( I have seen poverty).” With this lockdown, it is difficult to say if the Indian prime minister even knows what poverty is.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.