How does one go from nailing the pulse of the nation to losing it completely in less than a week? Yet, that’s what Prime Minister Narendra Modi did with his 21-day coronavirus lockdown speech Tuesday.
At the time of crisis, there are two kinds of speeches — one, which raises the morale of the population, much like Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches, and the other, which gives directions to troops so they know exactly what to do. The former is esoteric, the latter is precise and detailed. The problem with the novel coronavirus or Covid-19 crisis is that it requires the populace to be soldiers, every single one of us. So, we need both morale boosters and specifics. And this is where Modi’s speech Tuesday failed monumentally.
His earlier speech for a day of solidarity or ‘Janata curfew’ was about morale — but his speech announcing a 21-day pan-India lockdown was, in effect, a military campaign. But this added to how he handled the Delhi riots, reveals a consistent pattern that can mean one of three things: mismanagement, laziness or hubris.
The Gujarat riots
This is the pattern: messaging, law and order and panic. In each case, we see past mistakes being repeated again and again, leading to the disturbing conclusion that these aren’t mistakes but deliberate.
We are constantly told that Modi is a master of messaging and 303 seats in Parliament is absolute proof that the man knows how to package his decisions. Yet, we find that this messaging only appeals to the lowest common denominator.
Consider this: the 2002 post-Godhra riots that happened during Modi’s chief ministership in Gujarat had two levels of messaging. For the foreign and domestic press, it was of state complicity in riots. For those who did not consider the press credible (I include myself in this category, having witnessed riots in my childhood at South Arcot — a severe caste friction zone), the narrative was of a man hounded and wronged by a clueless and detached press. This split narrative served Modi well and ultimately, led him to becoming the prime minister.
The Delhi riots
This was repeated again with the 2020 northeast Delhi riots. Despite the reputation setbacks India, Gujarat and he himself suffered due to the Gujarat riots, nothing changed in Modi’s handling of the Delhi riots. Same delayed use of force, same case of the police openly picking sides (there are hard operational reasons for this in the case of Delhi outside the ambit of this article) and the same pogrom allegations.
Notice the pattern here? Amazingly, the one thing Modi has not done despite presiding over two riots, once as prime minister and once as chief minister, is initiate any form of police reform or standardisation of procedure. In fact, any law and order professional will tell you the key to crowd control is preventing the crowd from gathering in the first place. Once they get together, the game is already lost. Yet, we’ve also seen no intelligence or surveillance reforms.
Either Modi doesn’t listen, or he doesn’t care, or the more disturbing conclusion: he wants it. The fact we still don’t have a clear government narrative of what happened in Delhi also seems to indicate he’s quite happy for the pogrom narratives (which it clearly was not) to continue — he may very well reap the benefits, but India bears the liability.
An established pattern
This is the same pattern we see with the panic buying that happened last night all over India after Modi’s speech. Given that he presided over the 2016 demonetisation and the havoc that it wreaked, he of all people should have not just known but had a duty to know the kind of panic it would trigger.
While live-tweeting his speech, what little training I have in security and crowd control told me that panic buying was imminent. Yet, a man staffed by a virtual legion of security and social experts couldn’t predict this? Again, either he doesn’t listen or he doesn’t care or he actually wants this.
Academically, we need three instances to prove a pattern. Now, we have four: Godhra, demonetisation, Delhi riots, and now the coronavirus lockdown. The mitigating factor here is that we also have a pattern of knee-jerk policies — designed for ‘first day maximum shock’ mentality, ignoring the far more important second and third-order effects. We’ve seen this again and again — be it demonetisation, GST, Balakot, and Article 370, to name a few.
In short, one can make the case for a malign Modi, but a true accumulation of all facts shows us an incompetent Modi. Much like Nehru, it turns out, Modi can win elections, and nothing else.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.