Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeals on coronavirus have been greatly respected. His call for offering community thanks to all those on the front line of war against Covid-19 was a resounding success. But, he certainly did not expect that people would come on to the streets dot at 5pm and convert his simple thanksgiving appeal into a highly avoidable and hazardous victory procession.
Little wonder that the ace crisis manager had to go into a huddle with his advisors and come out with another appeal. This time, a stern one that declared a 21-day national lockdown.
Leadership is truly tested in times of crisis, and for Modi, the coronavirus outbreak has created yet another challenge. But the Prime Minister has, time and again, proven his crisis management skills, turning an adverse situation to his favour. The emerging situation is no different and Modi should keep wearing his ‘crisis manager hat’ for a longer duration.
One of the important rules in crisis management is to realise the errors of commission and omission in the initial decisions and take immediate corrective steps.
In a situation where it was clearly established globally that the coronavirus infection spreads through human-to-human contact, it would have been advisable to have gone into a lockdown mode much earlier. But it is also true that world over, governments took time to realise the enormity of the syndrome due to delayed relay of information about the gravity of the viral attack and its deadly consequences.
Modi’s past experiences
All the previous Indian prime ministers have faced major crisis situations during their tenure. The 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars; the challenges to political seat and the declaration of Emergency; the pawning of country’s gold; the 1992 Ayodhya incident; the hijacking of Indian Airlines plane; the Kargil conflict; the Indo-US nuclear deal, the list is endless. It would make an interesting read as to know how every occupant of the most coveted seat of power in the country handled their respective crisis and the price they paid.
Prime Minister Modi is no greenhorn when it comes to handling crisis situations. His years of grassroots work in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have probably honed his skills of being forewarned about the impending extent of the crisis and take quick steps to mitigate it.
From being a participant in the 1974 Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat to playing an active role in the anti-Emergency outfit Lok Sangarsha Samiti in 1975, Modi’s exposure to political crises had an early beginning.
The Morbi flood caused by the Machhu Dam disaster in 1979 that killed nearly 10,000 people was probably one of the first calamities that brought “RSS Pracharak Modi” face-to-face with a gigantic crisis.
Modi cut his teeth in handling political crisis during the exodus of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators in Gujarat, caused by a major rift in the otherwise disciplined party. His direct participation in electoral politics as a member of the party, ascendency to power and subsequent events not only continued to test his nerve but also established him as a successful administrator.
The 1998 cyclone that hit the port town of Kandla, the crippling drought in almost half of the districts in Gujarat in 2000, the flash floods in the capital city of Ahmadabad in 2000 were some of the tragedies that brought Modi closer to being the ‘crisis manager’ of the party and the state, no matter who the chief minister was.
The devastating earthquake on 26 January 2001 that reduced many towns like Bhuj, Bhachau, Anjar in Kutch district of Gujarat posed one of the worst challenges for then chief minister.
More than 20,000 people were killed and about two lakh injured. About half-a-million structures were turned into dust. The economy was devastated and so was the morale of the people. It was Modi who was the moving spirit behind the relief operations, enlisting the support of religious bodies and social organisations, and appealing to the rich Gujarati business community abroad to come out and help.
His expertise in managing crisis and rebuilding the economy catapulted him to the high seat of power in the state. The infamous 2002 Gujarat riots brought out yet another facet of the ‘crisis manager’ who had to manage the economy and social equilibrium amid many odds.
What lies ahead?
The menace of coronavirus is essentially a man-made disaster whose origin has more or less been determined. The jury is still out deciding whether it should be classified as an experiment gone wrong, a calamity waiting to happen due to unhealthy eating habits or just the beginning of a major biological warfare.
Whatever it may turn out to be, but the challenge it poses is gigantic in proportion, compared to the devastation brought about by the two World Wars or the nuclear destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the dreaded plague and terrifying tsunami. Most of these man-made and natural calamities were to a very large extent localised and the damage was confined to a fairly limited geography, but that is not the case with coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic has left its footprints all over the world, affecting the rich and the renowned and the poor and the obscure, from the Prince of Wales to the pauper on the streets. The mightiest of the economies to the least developed ones, every country is going to face an unprecedented recession perhaps never experienced before.
The total lockdown is no doubt the only immediately available, best and ideal solution to the coronavirus pandemic. But no one is immune to the stress and anxiety that the aftermath of the lockdown would inundate us with, the society as a whole and the economy in particular.
Prime Minister Modi’s present cabinet colleagues are good to carry out their assigned duties, but the country needs far more superior expertise to deal with this extraordinary crisis. As a senior journalist put it, ‘we are certainly in good hands’ no doubt, but Modi should constitute a larger team to formulate and implement short-term and long-term plan of action to tide over this unprecedented crisis.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.