Prime Minister Narendra Modi | PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi | PTI
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Since 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at a prime-time television address that he was withdrawing most of India’s currency overnight, such speeches have been preceded by wild speculation. Modi’s message on Tuesday evening was even starker than most expected. From midnight, this country of 1.3 billion will shut down: “For 21 days, forget what going out means.”

Modi is one of the world’s most accomplished politicians, a man who has demonstrated time and again his ability to understand exactly how to appeal to voters’ hearts and minds. But this pandemic will test even Modi’s hold over Indians. Earlier, he had called for a “people’s curfew” last Sunday, with a 5 p.m. round of applause from balconies for health workers on the frontlines. In some parts of India, that turned into a farce — an excuse for celebration in the streets. Which is why, perhaps, in this speech he had to stress the danger of not observing strict social distancing: “Step outside in the next 21 days, and you set this country back 21 years.”

In some ways, Modi’s hand was forced. In spite of a puzzling unwillingness to roll out widespread testing, it had become clear that the virus was beginning to spread out of India’s hyper-globalized enclaves, and one state government after another had begun to impose curfews and lock-downs. By the time Modi spoke on TV, almost every Indian state had put major restrictions in place.

Long-term lock-downs are difficult to implement anywhere, but in an India where so many need to work every day just to survive, they pose very special problems. You can’t lock down for too long — three weeks is already pushing the limit of what people will likely accept — and you can’t do it too often. So the question is whether India has been shut down too early, or too late.

Chances are, it’s the latter. The government was too slow to roll out testing, and the self-quarantine system for travelers had giant holes in it. Given how the novel coronavirus spreads — including through infected but asymptomatic people — a more active early approach seemed called for. Some state governments did well: The southern state of Kerala, for example, mapped out every possible contact of infected people, including which seat they may have sat in in movie theaters.

But the federal government seemed frankly overconfident. In early February, the leader of the opposition Congress party said that assurances from the government that the virus was “under control” in India were “like the captain of the Titanic telling his passengers not to panic as his ship was unsinkable.” In response, the federal health minister said on Twitter that the opposition should not compare the coronavirus to “one of the deadliest peacetime marine disasters in history” and that the World Health Organization said there was no need to panic. At moments like this we should feel governments know what they’re doing. This sort of response causes one to worry they don’t.

In any case, we could be more confident of the government’s response if India didn’t already have one giant example: What happened after that speech in 2016 that demonetized India’s currency. Whatever the merits of the idea — and there weren’t that many — the fallout revealed that the government’s political brilliance was not matched by organizational competence. Six months of chaos ensued. And then the government rolled out a new indirect tax regime similarly blighted by bad planning and worse implementation. Modi’s decisions can often be heroic in their aspirations, but very quickly derailed by the reality of the creaky Indian state and his own mediocre administration.

The success of this shutdown will depend upon the state’s capacity to monitor it. And India’s ability to survive these 21 days will depend upon the state’s ability to provide essential services to the large sections of the country that may not survive without them. In a country where migrant laborers might live a dozen to a room, a shutdown of this sort in fact asks unprecedented questions of the state. Will you shift these millions of people back home, risking the further spread of the virus? Will you hope that these crowded conditions don’t become hotbeds of transmission? And, most simply, how will you ensure that many members of India’s working class, who live off daily wages, will have enough to eat at the end of three months?

The Indian state will have to step up and be there for its people in ways it never has in history. Some parts of the country will do fine; state governments that took the lead in chasing down the virus will also probably manage world-class results when it comes to managing the lock-down. But others, particularly in poor and overpopulated northern India, may not do as well.

Modi may have felt he was left no choice, and his instincts are always to go as big as possible. Shutting down 1.3 billion people for 21 days is as big as it gets. Whether the gamble succeeds or doesn’t, the India that emerges at the other end of these three weeks will be irrevocably changed. –Bloomberg 

Also read: Why Singapore isn’t in a coronavirus lockdown — as told by a doctor of the country


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13 Comments Share Your Views


  1. Time for the people, specially middle class and the rich, to show some empathy for the poor. Government will do as much as it can, but Indians also have a duty towards the less well off people of this country.

  2. Its the correct decision for this time and several countries are doing the same. Even China did a lockdown for 2 months

  3. If International Flights have been shut Down totally by Febraury 28
    Thier would have less problem on every issue of Control of Every Aspect

  4. Decision was a bit late by a month. But if you are a hard core bhakth it is always timely. if only flights were shut down on feb 15, 1.3 billion people would have been spared a lot of trouble and huge financial loss. Now we have to go through the hardships for next 3 to 6 months. 1.3 billion suffering for about half a million Indians who have gone abroad but can’t wait to get back home in critical times putting every one at risk.

  5. I think the writer doesn’t hv his bearings right. Tell me one thing what good testing 100000 people will do. We’re don’t HV facilities to accommodate all of them. His gamble is absolutely correct becoz we are entering the third phase which is very very severe. So the best thing would be to enforce lockdown for 21 days and may be extended by another week or so also, becoz this will ease filtering of patients and only those suffering from coronovirus may be treated. Otherwise in 80% of cases it affects and goes on its own. Therefore the lockdown is very necessary so that only serious cases will come to light and they can be treated. There is no point in filling positive suspected patients with hardly any symptoms. And the best part is inspite of having 600 positively identified patients none of them is in the icu. That is a big plus. So what Modi is doing is very right and correct. Also he is being advised by the world s best virologist. I think author is trying to chew more than even he can digest.

  6. I think no need for 21 days lockdown, first step he should to take 7 days.After 7days in West bengal paddy cutting will be started, what will be farmer doing?

  7. I too believe in Mr modi for such a great decision as its a life of many people we should proud of him he stands with us in difficulty.

  8. In a country like India , shutting down 1.3 bn at home is unimaginable, in order to restrict a virus that spreads through aerosol & touch , I hope the government succeeds .

  9. India don’t have any choice except this for now, as most of the system did not taken step once first case reported in January 2020. This will surely slow down the infection rate but once restriction goes off infection may spread. So, at least reaching to deadline, hospitals should have well equipped with essential supplies as well as enough testing kits, ventilators etc. Other challenge is to providing essential commodities to peoples who are living on daily wages. Hope society will understand responsibility towards these daily wages people and help them in crisis situation.

  10. It has become a fashion among a section of journalists to deliberately insert few sentences praising Kerala Government which is the original sinner in not controlling the spread of virus by allowing the suspects to freely roam, a charge which the author surprisingly makes against central government.

    • You suppose the UP or MP state govt would’ve done better? There’s a reason why fact finders quote or cite papers, reports & history: as a credible reference or standard. Original sinner, really!! Kerala is one the best governed state per the Public Affairs Index, with an enlightened, educated, tolerant, cohesive & genteel population that holds the state accountable, transparent, effective & functioning. TN & Sikkim are also high up on the index. There’s a reason why the US dollar is the medium of international trade, Swiss quality standards are adopted, Scandinavian systems are referenced for social development models.


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