When it comes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is not the medium that is the message. It is the man himself. And when he seizes the moment, there is mega impact. To put it in a nutshell, Modi’s ‘Janata curfew’ speech was an astute and extraordinary convergence of 5 M’s — man, moment, message, medium, and, of course, Modi. Together, they made magic, leaving Indians spellbound.
The speech had Modi’s stamp all over it. What critics would be quick to point out as another of his feats of event management. Turning the curfew into a nation-wide movement. The opposition, which hates Modi so much, may well say that his address was nothing but another illustration of dramebaaz Modi.
But this is neither the time to be uncharitable, nor overly political. The fact is that we’re in the second, possibly third, stage of the pandemic already. The dreaded novel coronavirus has crossed our borders and spread deep into our country. Cases are going up by the hour globally, as are fatalities. Over 244,500 worldwide and 10,030 dead. In India, we have more than 200 reported cases and four casualties.
That doesn’t mean that we should be complacent. There’s only a thin line between individual contact transmission and catastrophic community transmission of the virus. The latter is when it explodes, becoming truly viral. Showing how our metaphors have, in a cruel manner, come back to bite us.
A new ‘war’
In the first place, Modi’s speech, both sober and statesmanlike, was addressing our possible inactivity (karo na) or smugness when faced with coronavirus. While we should not panic or start hoarding supplies, the need of the hour is to be vigilant. Only a watchful, attentive, and compassionate society can save itself, the Prime Minister implied. Hum svasth, jag svasth (if we are healthy, so will the world be). Modi couldn’t have been more correct.
Once we accept that the surge in the malaise has to be prevented, the next logical step is social distancing. That is the only way to slow down the spread, to round off, if not flatten, the spike of infections across India.
But, unlike China, we are a democracy, not an authoritarian state. Curfews can be imposed, but only in wartime. Modi remembered how he had experienced India’s wars in the past. Blackouts, darkened windows, community patrolling. He urged Indians wholeheartedly to participate in this new war, this time against a virus, by joining his ‘Janata curfew’.
In my view, this was the most brilliant part of his speech and strategy. The 7 am to 9 pm curfew, called on Sunday, 22 March, serves at least two important purposes. It enforces social distancing voluntarily. And it also unites the populace, giving them a sense of national purpose and direction.
Gratitude and compassion
Pandemics are cruel. They not only decimate large swathes of the populace, but bring economic activities to a standstill. In such times, panic and pandemonium often ensue. Modi led from the front, giving Indians a sense of urgency, agency, and hope in combating this unknown and still not well-understood enemy that has invaded our land.
Empowering the common man and woman, giving them a way to counter or contain the disease, and filling them with hope and inspiration—these were the greatest achievements of Modi’s speech.
Modi did not neglect another couple of important virtues that we Indians need to instil in our daily lives and flag as a part of our public culture. Gratitude and compassion.
The former for all those who serve us and do their duties in these troubled times—public servants, health, sanitation, and civil supply workers, security personnel, and, yes, though he did not mention it, our leaders. We need all of them to keep the nation functional.
Modi urged Indians not only to join the Janata curfew, but also to clap, shout or make noise at 5:00 pm to show our appreciation. From our doorways or balconies. Tali baja ke, thali baja ke, ghanti baja ke. Some critics asked how many Indians have balconies—this is the level to which Modi critics stoop, making asses of themselves.
Giving and taking
Modi also asked us to demonstrate our fellow-feeling and duty towards those who are worst affected by the coronavirus. Those who will lose their livelihood or wages also deserve our help. By not cutting wages, by supporting neighbourhood shops or hawkers, by continuing to take care of those who are dependent on us, we will tide over the crisis.
Some say that Modi had nine asks, one for each day of Navratri, corresponding to a Goddess or Shakti. Be that as it may, we need not bring religion into the picture unnecessarily. Only avoid congregational prayers. While our largest and most popular shrines including Tirupati, Vaishno Devi, and Siddhivinayak, have already shut down, it is time for mosques, gurdwaras, and churches also to join the curfew. Even for Shaheen Bagh and other such Muslim protests to disband. Lest contagion renders them pointless. When our very lives are at stake, what liberties are we fighting for?
Modi said, “You’ve never disappointed me whenever I’ve asked you for something.” This is how great leaders manage the masses. By giving in the guise of taking or taking in the guise of giving. Modi has proved himself a master of both. When it comes to the pandemic, he made us feel that we can win against it. He rose to the occasion to be greater than the pandemic. This no other world leader, from Donald Trump to Xi Jinping, has quite managed to do.
Modi began by addressing us as “mere pyare deshvasiyon”—my dear countrymen. I would say that at the end of his speech, most of us would have said, “hamare pyare pradhan mantri-ji”—our beloved Prime Minister.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.