Whether India comes out of the coronavirus crisis without a catastrophe would be determined, for the most part, by the actions of one man — Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Should this be a cause for reassurance or concern? It depends on how you look at it. The success of India’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic will depend on whether Modi’s strengths overshadow his weaknesses.
Modi’s leadership possesses strengths uniquely suited for this critical moment, but also major weaknesses that could prove fatal.
Modi’s biggest strength
First, let’s survey PM Modi’s strengths.
In some ways, at least in theory, Modi is the ideal leader to have at this time. The fight against the coronavirus would certainly fail unless the population buys into it. The success of government measures is contingent on the response of society, which is always critical in pandemics. So, a political leadership that is able to convince the population of the extent of the threat, and persuade them into changing their behaviour and maintaining social order is essential.
In other words, you need a leader who enjoys a high degree of public trust.
Modi is, undoubtedly, the most trusted politician in a generation, at least for the Hindu majority. In a poorly informed society, in the thrall of conspiracy theories and WhatsApp forwards, it is crucial that we have a leader at the helm who commands public confidence, who, among other things, can effectively persuade Indians to follow basic regulations of hygiene and social distancing.
We have previously seen, most starkly during the 2016 demonetisation, people have an extraordinary degree of trust in Modi’s leadership. No other politician would have survived upending the lives of the public in this manner. But here, people trusted his claims and supported him despite facing enormous hardships.
The relationship Modi has with a large number of Indians, and which Modi has always sought to cultivate, is not that of a political leader, but a father-figure. A father-figure whose toughness you accept, because you instinctively trust his wisdom and ultimate benevolence. “I am talking to you not as your PM, but as your family member,” Modi said in his lockdown address, drawing on this relationship to cajole the public into accepting his extreme measures.
So, Modi is uniquely placed to draw out the social solidarity and shared purpose of Indians, what Ibn Khaldun called ‘Asabiyyah’, and harness these collectivist resources in what he described as the “war against coronavirus”. That Indians largely complied (in theory) with the self-enforced Janata curfew, and many even with the thali-clanging edict, certainly indicated the capacity of Modi’s leadership to generate public resolve and popular buy-in.
This high degree of public trust also enables Modi’s other strength useful in a crisis like this — the willingness to take big decisions. Inaction, for the fear of painful decisions, can be deadly at times like these. European countries such as Italy, France and the UK, which dithered on enforcing restrictions and lockdowns at the earlier stages of the pandemic, let the virus spread through their countries at a whirlwind pace before they were forced to implement hard measures.
This 21-day lockdown, like demonetisation, is among the biggest decisions ever taken by the Indian State.
But these strengths can be thwarted by the many weaknesses of Modi’s leadership. The biggest one is a glaring incompetence. The same incompetence that dreadfully floundered in the implementation of GST and demonetisation and has led the Indian economy into a prolonged slowdown.
This blanket 21-day lockdown has been implemented in a manner that has been catastrophic to the poorer segment of the population. There was no effective communication on how the people were supposed to negotiate, or even survive, this curfew-like lockdown. Modi, in his 8 pm speech on 24 March, didn’t care to address this point even once. The lockdown would come into effect four hours later. Unlike in any other country, the police beat up people venturing out to buy essentials, supply chains of essential items were severely disrupted and in many places, even shops selling items like food and medicine were shut.
The second related weakness is atrocious planning, especially with regard to details. Incredibly, no measures were taken to provide for the basic needs of the poor, who had been shut in their homes and left to somehow fend for themselves. The fact that there was no provision made for helping the millions of working class migrants before implementing a blanket lockdown, that also cut off transportation, is astonishing. The tens of thousands of migrants, old and young, who have set off on foot to traverse hundreds of kilometres to their villages on foot is a damning testament to the cluelessness of this leadership.
When finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman belatedly announced an economic package of targeted welfare measures, she bizarrely claimed to have “responded to the lockdown within 36 hours”. Apart from the strangeness of responding to your own decision, it was as if the helplessness of the poor, left without jobs and food, couldn’t possibly have been anticipated.
The last weakness of Narendra Modi is a complete disregard for transparency and a deep reliance on propaganda. The free flow of accurate information is vital in containing pandemics. It is important to remember that the attempt to suppress information about the virus by the Chinese authorities was what has led to this global crisis. Modi has dangerously set up the lockdown as a solution, talking about winning the war against coronavirus in 21 days likethe one in Mahabharata was won in 18 days. This is certainly not possible and has unreasonably inflated public expectations. In order to satisfy these expectations, that would only have heightened further after prolonged sacrifice, Modi would be tempted to declare victory after three weeks and then veer towards a course of suppressing information about the spread of virus post lockdown to maintain the illusion of success.
This is perhaps the most dangerous scenario for the foreseeable future. It has not helped that the government has been deeply opaque about the crisis, having not even acknowledged the existence of community transmission yet.
It is important to underscore that a lockdown is not a solution but merely a time-buying measure to slow down the spread of virus while we ramp up our health infrastructure and develop vaccines. If Modi shows the same level of incompetence in this task as he has shown in checking the spread of the virus over the last two months, and then in the implementation of this ham-fisted lockdown, we are certainly doomed.
India will have to see if once again Modi’s strengths as a politician are wasted on administrator Modi.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Views are personal.