File photo | PM Narendra Modi in New Delhi | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
File photo | PM Narendra Modi in New Delhi | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
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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.


Also read: Modi’s CV is full of crisis management experience, but war on Covid may be his toughest job


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.


Also read: Modi’s Covid-19 lockdown speech shows he doesn’t learn from past mistakes, or doesn’t care to


Glaring weaknesses 

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.


Also read: Seal borders, put lockdown violators in 14-day quarantine, Modi govt tells states 


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.

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14 Comments Share Your Views

14 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Brother,

    Your psychological analysis of the Modi Mind is the best I have ever read. Infact none of our astrologers would ever come anywhere close to the Modi Profile you have projected.

    What you have said is the truth and nothing but the bitter truth.

    What India needs today is not Hydroxychloroquine,but more people like you.

    Have a great time.

  2. It’s not in PM’s hand! It’s been nearly 3 months and a handful of deaths in India. Despite millions fleeing to villages. Dispute shortages of medical equipment. Despite irresponsible behaviour of certain sections of people. We have conducted very few tests considering our popn of 1.3 bn. There are in all probability lacs of asymptomatic stealth transmissions. So lacs of people, may be millions, will briefly fall sick. But it’s not a killer (in India) despite the fear. We have genetic immunity due to a history of rampant bacterial and viral invasions for over a century.
    But no one is going to buy this! Now.

  3. नमस्कार साथियों,

    सोचने का विषय है कि केवल 900 संक्रमित संख्या है अभी तक, लेकिन
    सेना एक लाख बिस्तर का अस्पताल बना रही है, क्यूँ…?

    उद्योगपतियों द्वारा करोड़ों की राशि दी जा रही है, क्यूँ…?

    निजी अस्पतालों को सरकार द्वारा अधिग्रहण किया जा रहा है, क्यूँ…?

    ट्रेन के डब्बों को अस्पताल बनाया जा रहा है, क्यूँ…?

    पूरे देश में यातायात सेवा पूर्णतः बंद है, क्यूँ…?

    पूरे देश में लॉकडाउन किया गया है, क्यूँ…?

    देश की अर्थव्यवस्था कि चिंता किए बिना इतने कड़े निर्णय लिए जा रहे हैं, क्यूँ…?

    क्योंकि कहीं कुछ तो गम्भीर है इसलिए ना।

    ओर पढ़े लिखे लोग अगर ऐसी मूर्खता करेंगे तो इन सारी व्यवस्थाओं की जरूरत जरूर पड़ेगी। सरकार जानती है की भारत एक पढ़े लिखे मूर्खों का देश है। क्योंकि ये संक्रमण भी पढ़े लिखे एवं एक अपने आप को उच्च वर्ग का कहने वाले मूर्खों की वजह से ही फैल रहा है।

    इसलिए अतिबुद्धिमान ना बने, लॉकडाउन का पालन करें, घर पर रहें, सुरक्षित रहें।🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

    • It is a contagious disease. So stopping the spread is more important. So isolation is the solution and even doubtful cases are also isolated which needs sizable arrangement. No country knows the end of this epidemic at present. So every country should be ready to cope with any eventual spurt. Simple counting the numbers today is foolishness.

  4. Never knew we had so many prophets all across the Nation …. everyone offering fail-proof solutions … wanting Indians to believe that Modi was the last person who should have been elected as PM. Guys don’t watch …. prepare for the 2024 ….all those who survive Modi’s Corona decisions! Good Luck!

  5. I buy more into the WEAKNESS than the STRENGTH.
    OPPORTUNITY IS TO REDEEM HIMSELF
    THREAT IS MAINLY FROM RETAINING HIMSELF AND NOT EVOLVING TRIGGERING
    I hoe for the Best

  6. It’s at least somewhat balanced article compared so called elitist authors who just spew some gibberish crap .Have no solution try to behave holier than thou and concern for “poor people and Garib” kind of crap and give unnecessary sermons.

  7. I have discovered Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York in this crisis. Also Dr Anthony Fauci. By a happy coincidence, both of Italian ancestry. They are setting standards of public governance in an emergency.

  8. The author perfectly understood What Modi is & his style of work, in last six years it’s the decision he couldn’t foresee the the results . GST, Demonitisation , CAA, NRC , Foreign policy , tours to foreign countries at no stage he couldn’t manage the his outcome. The same happens the most crucial juncture of Covid19 unless and until it knocked the doors . Without any judgement what will happen after lockdown. His puppet HM has not spoken a single word.He sent his Ambassadors to all state no powers merely reporters . Let’s hope results will positive being optimistic then only he & his team of course three to five will out spoke Modi hai to kuch bhi mumkin hai .After Gazni he is the only to lockdown as G moved capital from Delhi to Nagpur.

  9. As kids when we played football, we had a mate who was better than all of us. But he had a weakness as well, once the ball reached him, he wouldn’t pass to any of his teammates – he wanted to score all goals himself. We called him “solo master”. After we recognized this, it was easy – we just needed to block him – and since he wouldn’t pass to anyone else, we did not bother marking any of his team mates.
    The PM also is a solo master – wants to do and be seen doing everything himself. In any endeavour which requires collective effort like this one, that is a fatal trait. To emerge successful, he needs more people around him – people who can share the burden of managing the logistics of overcoming this pandemic and rescuing the economy. A suggestion would be having a national government (comprising of competent politicians from non-BJP parties) for the next 1-2 years instead of a BJP/NDA govt which can concentrate on setting the country’s battered economy on track rather than waste time on CAA – NPR, central vista remake and such unproductive stuff.

  10. Rightly analysed the response of lockdown by Govt. and its planning. There are two points I wd like to say. One, the lockdown has started showing its problems. Given the fatality rate of Covid, the rate of serious illness among those infected and the requirement of resources, Govt can even now analyse and rescale the outright lockdown. The medical resource shortage may certianly be there if the spread is to vast but still 80% of those affected will have minor illness, 20% will need to get hospitalize and only 5% will need ventilators. The mortality varies from 0.6 to 3%. Afterall it does not make sense to get people suffer and die due to food shortages, food riots, ailments due to lac of proper food and shelter or social disruption, The total lockdown is bringing economy to almost a halt which will cause further damage and deaths. This way there will more fatalities than due to Covid.
    Second point is Govt. will trumpet victory whether or not there is serious death and destruction. For even if 60% die they will say we saved 40% due to our great leadership.

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