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In Covid-19 pandemic, Modi govt focussed more on headline management than crisis management

One week into coronavirus lockdown it is clear that thinking and planning began after PM Modi’s momentous decision. And PR has overridden governance.

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My Hindi teacher never introduced me to the expression ‘raita failana’. I guess proverbs enter textbooks when they are fossils. Over the years, as I struggled to eat rice and curd with my fingers, I have come to appreciate the value of this neologism: to create an avoidable mess that is hard to manage thereafter. One week into the lockdown, this expression captures best the Narendra Modi government’s management of the coronavirus crisis. It is clear that potential gains of a tough decision are being negated by its botched execution.

My first response to PM Modi’s declaration was to support it, much to everyone’s surprise. I still maintain that it would be unfair to indict Narendra Modi for the call he took. Not because it was the best or the only possible decision. Frankly, no one knows what is the best, or the least worst, decision in this crisis. All of us might look foolish in the mirror of history. You can hardly blame the Prime Minister for taking a call backed by global medical establishment and followed by most countries across the world. Indeed, if he had not taken this decision, critics would have roasted him for procrastination. The situation called for a clear, coherent and quick political judgement.

Equally, it would be unjust to criticise PM Modi for everything that has gone wrong in the last one week. A good deal of hardship is inevitable in a big decision of this kind. People all over the world are putting up with sudden disruption in their life-plans. Given the size and complexity of our country, we should allow for some confusion and chaos as well. And no one can anticipate every problem that the country would encounter in such a gigantic operation. Any government would have faced a lot of criticism, no matter what the decision and the execution.

Yet, it is fair and necessary to ask three questions: Did the Modi government think through the lockdown, at least those difficulties that could have been anticipated? Was the decision communicated as well as it could have been? And, has the government responded swiftly and coherently to the situation as it has evolved since the lockdown was announced? Sadly, the answer to all these is a big no.

Also read: Lockdown or not? Covid-19 raises key questions on decision-making in a democracy, like India

Lock first, look later

No doubt, the government did not have all the time in the world to take this decision. At the same time, Covid-19 is not an earthquake where the response has to be post-facto. India announced nation-wide lockdown full eight weeks after China did it in Wuhan , four weeks after Italy enforced it in some regions, and two weeks after nation-wide lockdown in Italy. That is a lot of time to think and plan.

Sadly, over the last week we have not seen much evidence of that planning. Why did agriculture (farming inputs, farm equipment and farm operations) not figure in the original list of exemptions during lockdown, and that too during harvesting season? Why was there no clear plan of action for migrant labourers in the unorganised sector? Why are we still waiting for hunger deaths to announce universal ration provision to cover those who fall outside all existing welfare nets? Did anyone think through the seemingly illogical sequence of transport shut-down (first passenger trains, then complete inter-state travel, and finally domestic and international flights)? Was it so hard to anticipate that complete lockdown of transport would lead to the collapse of supply chains, shortage of essential goods and possible black-marketing? Why the delay in announcing any relief measures? How come the government wasted days before announcing empowered groups to implement the lockdown?

The more you think about these questions, the clearer is the answer: thinking and planning began after the momentous decision. No wonder, this lock-first-look-later approach has created a bigger crisis than the one the lockdown was meant to address. At this stage, at least, the health and life threat posed by Covid-19 pales in comparison with the livelihood crisis created by the slam-bang lockdown.

Also read: Modi emerged from poverty but his govt is blind to the poor

Over-the-top communication

Two things stand out about how such a momentous decision was announced to the public: its timing and tone. Now that we know the poor quality of pre-planning, it is intriguing why PM Modi chose to give Indians barely a four-hour notice, unless he has a genuine attachment to the shock-and-awe technique of telecast at 8 pm.

For a consummate communicator like him, Narendra Modi’s address to the nation was a model of how not to communicate during a health emergency. In his effort to bring home the grimness of the challenge, he went over the top. Thanks to his alarming tone, everyone — uneducated or educated — believes that the coronavirus is as deadly a disease as smallpox, cholera or plague and is living in a state of panic. The address was woefully short on information and assurance. The PM did not inform his listeners that fatality rate in Covid-19 is 2 per cent or lower. Modi did not share facts about the government’s level of preparedness, nor did he comfort the public regarding the quality of our doctors and medical researchers. He did not explain what would be permitted in this ‘curfew-like’ lockdown, resulting in a late night raid on markets. Worse, he did not offer any assurance to the most vulnerable people that the government would look after their food and other basic requirements, resulting in an exodus of the poor migrants. PM Modi’s address to the nation managed to turn a state of public health crisis into a state of collective paranoia.

Also read: India shouldn’t struggle with Covid-19 lockdown. It organises Kumbh Mela much better

Recusal as response

An unprecedented decision like nation-wide lockdown demanded an unprecedented level of pro-active response by the state. This was not impossible for a bureaucracy that manages the kumbh mela and elections. Instead, the government has focused only on managing isolation through law and order measures. For everything else, the central government is in a recusal mode.

For a PM quick (and right) to invoke the authority of the Central government under the National Disaster Management Act, Modi has been strangely reticent to accept the responsibility of his government for providing support to those at the receiving end of the lockdown. The Union government is still trying to push the responsibility of looking after the migrant workers on to state governments. Or else, the PM talks of NGOs and civil society organisations.

In the middle of this emergency, the government is more focused on headline management than crisis management. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman is more invested in padding up numbers than in helping the needy. Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar has barely spoken about what’s on the plate for farmers. Far from informing the public about coronavirus in a credible way, the I&B ministry is focused on distractions like TV serials or on using this opportunity to gain greater control over the media.

The assiduous cultivation of the personality-cult has succeeded in diminishing everyone else within the BJP and the government. One person’s flaws have become systemic weaknesses. At the height of a national emergency, the system is focused on PR rather than governance. This is a disastrous approach to disaster management.

All this is reminiscent of the aftermath of 2016 demonetisation. Yet, Narendra Modi got away with that historic blunder. But as they say in Hindi: “Kaath ki handi baar baar aag par nahin chadhti (you can’t put a wooden pot on fire again and again).”

My Hindi teacher did teach me this one.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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    Dear sir/ Madam

  2. Hats of Yoagenderji. Planning to face lock down? What’s that. Notebandhi was to maintain “Gupt”, it seems “Gharbandhi” was also kep Gupt which helped elites managing to safeguard them with stocking, moving to safe place. No wonder, we rarely came across any news of rich getting struck at airports unlike daily wage workers. Shaji and Ajitji were busy tracing down religious heads.

  3. The lockdown was done China as well, India is not the first. All said and done, the issue with the current Govt. is nothing but more publicity than what is happening at the ground level. Exporting some of the PPEs even after the lockdown speaks volumes. The attempt has been always to bury the blunders under the carpet.

  4. Yogesh ji, you would have sold your…. to get into ruling class.
    You tried at least.
    Next time.

  5. It is not crisis management but bigger crisis creation.

    Question – Was PM Modi’s govt sleeping on the wheel or simply doesn’t understand governance? My answer is both or in one-word incompetent. Kindly see following especially those who disagree.

    All I can say there was no planning and no communication and no coordination with states and UT in spite of various ALERTS & WARNINGS by WHO and opposition leaders rightly raising questions. Passing the buck to states isn’t going to cut with India.

    What Do You Expect in India When There is Electoral Authoritarianism? In addition to this BJP has a policy of some are more equal than others and this has resulted in fall of all. This BJP’ policy can be summed as Divided We Stand, United We Fall.

    Take a look at following key coronavirus event time lines in India in the year 2020 to make judgements for oneself.
    1. January 30 First coronavirus patient discovered in India
    2. January 31 Word Health Organization (WHO) declares coronavirus global health emergency
    3. February 5 Coronavirus: Window of opportunity to act as per WHO
    4. February 12 Starting from Feb 12 onwards (March 3, 5 etc.) opposition leaders are asking PM
    5. Modi govt to prepare for tsunami of coronavirus cases in India
    6. March 11 WHO officially declared the coronavirus as a global pandemic.
    7. March 12 Reports first death due to coronavirus in India.
    8. March 19 Govt banned the export of certain kinds of masks, ventilators and overalls amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
    9. March 19 Janata curfew speech by PM Modi
    10. March 22 Janata curfew on March 22
    11. March 24 Total lockdown speech by PM Modi on March 24 at 8 pm Indian time
    12. March 25 Total Lockdown in India starts after 4 hours at midnight of March 25
    13. March 26 Finance minister announces a Rs 1.7 Lakh crore package to help deal with pandemic
    14. March 27 Frontline health workers still don’t have adequate personal protection equipment and not enough coronavirus testing kits for citizens of India
    15. March 28 Start of reverse mass migration of poor people to villages in Bharat due to inadequate package and being abandoned
    16. March 28 PM Modi’s govt ministers playing antakshari & watching TV and asking rich & well-off Indians in cities to join them
    17. March 31 Serbia procured nearly 90 tonnes of “medical protective equipment” from suppliers located in different parts of India.
    18. March 31 Frontline health workers STILL don’t have required personal protection equipment and not enough coronavirus testing kits for citizens of India

    BJP govt ended up creating great economic partition of India as result of first no response and then bad response to pandemic. This great economic partition of India is much bigger than intended internal partition of India based on religion.

    Leaders know all too well that with great power comes great responsibility. However, in the case of pandemic PM Modi’s natural inclination is to pass the buck to states. Delegating decisions and responsibility can be an effective way of avoiding blame for negative outcomes. This is what PM Modi and his BJP govt is doing.

  6. Mecca to Vatican — COVID-19 proves when human beings are in peril, gods flee first
    Taslima Nasreen

    Ha..ha..Why did that dirty worm ran away to India ?

  7. Yogendra: Modi did not have much time to respond. That much is true. But it is also true that he ignored the problem until his hand was forced. By January 20, the world knew about the coronavirus. So the government should have been on its toes right from then. As early as Feb 12, Rahul Gandhi, to his credit, warned about the problem and he tweeted again on March 3. Yet the government did not respond till much later, indeed by the time Modi responded, some state governments (Kerala, for instance) had already taken the initiative. Modi has to take the blame here for the slow response, there is no getting away.

    That said, I largely agree with the rest of what you say. One can underestimate initially the scale of the problem and be slow to respond. It can happen. But a good leader will rise to the challenge once the problem becomes apparent. Modi unfortunately has failed to rise to the challenge. And this is not the only time. As with Trump and Bolsanaro, there is a world of difference between winning elections and governing effectively.

  8. The hindi teacher should have said something about- Aham bramhasmi – if I am really the omnipotent- who do I got o for guidance.It has to come from the inside.This moniker of a tough decision taker and that too quickly ,is a heady mix of cocaine and tequila.
    There are no qualified advisors – just subservient facilitators.

  9. Yes, Modi first looks for headlines. But sadly, the pliant media gives him labels like “elder brother”, “family elder” etc. But the people have given him a bigger mandate in 2019. Who knows, the “happy” masses may give him even a bigger mandate in 2024.

  10. You don’t have to write just for the sake of writing. Seriously, this is the worst article that has come from you. Disappointing.

  11. Raita has a special place in our family’s hearts. Parents got married in 1950, difficult years after Partition. By the time the couple sat down for their dinner, the raita had run out. And yet they brought us up with so much care and affection, not wanting for any of the sensible things a decent middle class family would need.

  12. I pray to God that India does not ever go to war. For all the sane, sensible reasons. Also because, after the last few years, have made my own assessments about our systemic and governance capabilities. Far more detailed assessments have been made by each Ambassador, assisted by his station chief, posted to Delhi.

  13. Aptly brought out. Impact of full lock down not well nuanced. Area specific lock down of Corina hot spots could have kept wheels of Nation moving. We have overlooked lessons learnt from handling Tsunami and Super cyclones.

  14. Yogendraji can you check if SHRI kejriwalji who is appearing on MANY national NEWS channels regarding CORONA VIRUS is paying for his appearances and if so how much.

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