On the issue of Covid-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered a televised ‘address to the nation’ on five occasions.
On 19 March, he ‘addressed the nation’ to announce a day-long ‘Janta Curfew’ as a drill for the upcoming lockdown.
On 24 March, he appeared again on TV to announce Lockdown 1 with four hours’ notice.
On 3 April, he re-appeared to ask people to light lamps and candles for nine minutes.
On 14 April, on the day Lockdown 1 was supposed to end, Modi did another TV address to announce its extension by 19 days in what would be Lockdown 2.
However, Lockdowns 3 and 4, as well as ‘Unlock 1’, did not see a televised address by Modi. Between Lockdowns 3 and 4, Modi appeared on TV to announce an economic package that he claimed was worth Rs 20 lakh crore.
This timeline tells you how the prime minister began dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic like a general leading a war, but who has since moved on. As Covid cases and death figures rose, as the economic pain of the lockdown became unbearable and the government’s handling of the migrant labour crisis more and more indefensible, the Modi government has sought to shift the narrative away from Covid.
At some point, the headlines changed from ‘Modi extends lockdown’ to ‘NDMA extends lockdown’. As the situation worsened, states were given a great deal of freedom in deciding their own lockdown policies. So now we can discuss which states are doing well and which ones are doing badly. The judgement is no longer on Modi.
In other words, PM Modi shifted to carefully protecting his image from the Covid lockdown just as the national consensus on the lockdown began to turn negative. Surveys and experts may not agree, but the government’s own response tells you it anticipates a political cost in being seen as steering the Covid and lockdown policies and is clearly spooked by the labour crisis.
Covid-19 in India is clearly out of hand, with deliberate under-testing and data fudging making the numbers look manageable. What the ‘official data’ can’t hide is that Mumbai has been running out of hospital beds and Delhi of cremation facilities and burial grounds. And we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The return of Shah
The prime minister has even stopped his video consultations with chief ministers. Instead, Home Minister Amit Shah uneventfully discussed the situation with chief ministers on phone.
Speaking of the Home Minister, his long silence before cameras and the eventual breaking of the silence is a mystery wrapped in enigma.
He spoke before Parliament on the issue of Delhi riots in March, and then Covid-induced lockdown took over. That’s when Amit Shah went so silent that rumours took root of serious health issues. These rumours became so strong that he was forced to deny them — only in writing, on Twitter.
After two months of the public not getting to hear the Home Minister’s voice, he is back with a bang, giving long interviews to news channels on the Modi government’s completion of one year in power in the second term.
If it wasn’t health issues, what accounts for the long silence of over two months? Perhaps the answer again was in image management. The division of labour between Modi and Shah seems to be such that Modi speaks mainly on matters of governance, positioning himself as global statesman and the nation’s patriarch. Amit Shah is the face of Hindutva and party politics.
If this assessment is correct, then Shah’s return to TV screens signals a return to business as usual, the pandemic becoming a side story. His apparent good health should confirm that his long silence was political. Now, Amit Shah answers the uncomfortable questions such as those on jobless workers, and Modi goes back to the never-ending promises of high economic growth and ‘Achhe Din’ (the good days).
Stretching public memory
It is for this reason — distracting public attention away from Covid and lockdown — that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gone big on celebrating the sixth anniversary in power despite the public facing a pandemic and millions of labourers suffering crushing unemployment, poverty and the hardship of returning home.
Even the smallest of the Modi government’s achievements over the last six years, such as an amendment to a chit fund law, are being recounted. A BJP promotional video even counts not joining the ASEAN-led trade body Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as an achievement. This must be the first time that not doing something is counted as an achievement.
This suggests a desperation on the BJP’s part to make its voters remember all the high points of the Modi government over the last year, so that they don’t judge it by its poor handling of the labour crisis alone.
There’s an unmistakable defensiveness, which was also palpable in Prime Minister Modi’s latest Mann ki Baat, his monthly radio show in which he positions himself as the patriarch of the nation. In the latest episode, he spoke very little of Covid and lockdown, expressing empathy with the plight of labourers but pretending it wasn’t a poorly planned lockdown and that Covid alone was responsible for their suffering.
Instead, Modi spoke at length about his government’s health insurance scheme, claiming its beneficiaries had crossed the one-crore mark. As rising Covid numbers will put a spotlight on the poor public health infrastructure, Modi’s supporters will be able to talk about Ayushman Bharat Yojana to put the blame on state governments and 60 years of non-BJP governments.
The Modi government finds it much easier to play on a turf it has already excelled in: politics, elections, nationalism, and showing economic dreams that keep becoming ever so distant. That is why we don’t hear Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan speak much and the health ministry went without a briefing for eight days. The message from the government is that Covid and lockdown are not on top of its agenda anymore.
As Modi stopped addressing the nation over every lockdown, the ministers started speaking and giving interviews. This helped ministers take flak and protect Modi’s image.
Repeat after me
The health ministry switched off its briefings at the same time as Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of a second economic package over five long press conferences.
The greatest trick in the Modi government’s publicity playbook is repetition. Just like a product ad plays again and again on TV until you have memorised it, the Modi government repeats its slogans and talking points until they have been drilled into your head. It does this not only with campaigns (such as anniversary celebrations) but also with its policies and decisions it makes.
Any policy decision by the government goes through a one-month publicity plan. First, the big announcement. Then, detailed press conferences and interviews by ministers. Third, the cabinet approval. And lastly, notification. These steps are comfortably spread out to allow each step to have its own publicity plan, each step presented as a ‘bold’, ‘historic’, ‘game-changing’ ‘masterstroke’.
We saw this with the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ package too, allegedly worth Rs 20 lakh crore. Like a campaign, it has a name, and its rollout will repeat its content every week, presenting them as a new initiative every time. The actual economic stimulus or new spend by the government may only be a small fraction of Rs 20 lakh core, but the publicity is more than worth Rs 20 lakh crore.
It is therefore not surprising that the Modi government seems to have made up its mind to hold the upcoming assembly elections on time despite the pandemic. Elections is when the Modi government’s propaganda machinery is at its best, why would it want them postponed? But before that, there’s the International Yoga Day that must ensure we do not talk about labourers for much of June. To begin with, Modi wants you to participate in a video blogging contest showing your yoga poses.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.