Some Members of Parliament of the Bharatiya Janata Party were distraught last Tuesday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had categorically told them there was no question of curtailing the budget session of Parliament due to coronavirus. Also, just as people salute the soldiers, MPs should meet doctors, nurses and safai karamcharis in their constituencies at the weekend to salute them for their dedication, Modi had said at the BJP’s parliamentary party meeting.
The MPs saw merit in his arguments. It was in the BJP’s interest, too. Curtailing the Parliament session would weaken the BJP’s case against adjournment of the Madhya Pradesh assembly session. But corona was getting on their nerves. Making it worse were four MPs who sneezed as Modi spoke.
But the MPs quickly suppressed their anxieties. They knew Modi, the politician, was like The Gambler of late American singer Kenny Rogers: “If you’re gonna play the game, boy/You gotta learn to play it right.” And nobody has beaten Modi in his game so far. He knows every crisis also offers an opportunity. All one needs to do is play it right.
Modi’s connect with his audience
Look at the way people of the country responded to his call for Janata curfew on Sunday — with conch-blowing, drum-beating and thali-banging at 5 pm to show support for medical practitioners. It was a complete success. It was a testament to the faith people still repose in Modi. So what if the government failed to detect and stop scores of virus-infected Indians and foreigners coming from abroad at the airports! India had reported its first coronavirus positive case on 30 January but it was not until the first week of March that the Modi government woke up to the urgency of full screening of flyers from abroad at the airports. It took a Delhi resident carrying infection from Italy to celebrate his son’s birthday, leading to the closure of two prominent schools and quarantining of a five-star hotel’s staff.
Modi cancelled his Holi Milan but was happy to attend BJP president J.P. Nadda’s son’s wedding reception in New Delhi where Union ministers, chief ministers and hundreds of dignitaries also showed up. Even a full-blown outbreak didn’t deter BJP leaders from celebrating Jyotiraditya Scindia’s induction in the party and the toppling of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.
PM Modi on Thursday announced the setting up of COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force under Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Until then, nobody in the government had the time or vision to work on contingency plans in India even as the virus was creating havoc in the neighbourhood and spreading across continents. On 31 January, when Chief Economic Advisor K.V. Subramanian was asked about the possible impact of coronavirus on the Indian economy at a press conference on the Economic Survey 2020, he looked amused as he answered: “I am not a doctor to be able to actually tell you. May be very marginal… if you look at even SARS phenomenon that happened earlier, one can go and look at the data there… I don’t think there would be that big an impact (of coronavirus) on the economy… It’s very marginal.” Obviously, the Modi government took a lot of time to wake up to the threat from the virus.
On Sunday, though, the people forgot all these as they melted under the Prime Minister’s compassionate and heart-warming call for a Janata curfew. There had to be a collective realisation about the constraints under which the Modi government had to deal with, what the Prime Minister publicly acknowledged, a disease for which there was no cure. People must know that the government can do only so much when such a virus afflicts the economy. From Monday onwards, therefore, the Modi government starts with a clean slate. It will be judged for a long time by how it deals with this crisis now.
Remember how then US president George W. Bush, barely ten months after getting a second term in office in 2004, saw his popularity ratings dwindling just because he remained stationed at his Texas ranch while Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, causing devastation in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Bush did leave his ranch three days later and took an aerial survey of the affected areas but he had lost it by then. A president whose war on terror post-9/11 prompted Americans to give him a second term lost their trust within a year.
But, as was evident from the strong public response to Sunday’s Janata curfew, Indians are optimistically looking up to PM Modi to shield them against coronavirus.
Many CMs will make it or break it
While Modi can be a man of actions, the same can’t be said about all the chief ministers. Some like Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot acted promptly to get the people to stay away from temples and mosques, cancel festivals and even impose curfews in districts with suspected coronavirus cases, but many others have been lackadaisical. Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa flouted his own government’s restrictions on large gatherings to attend a wedding with over 2,000 guests last week. After the PM had cancelled the Holi Milan, Mamata Banerjee had said that there was an attempt to create panic to divert attention from Delhi riots.
On 13 March, in fact, she went on to address a gathering of thousands of people at Netaji Indoor Stadium in Kolkata, ignoring the Centre’s advisory against large gatherings.
Coronavirus is turning out to be a huge public health crisis and how our leaders deal with it would determine their political future, too. Remember how 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy haunted then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh all through his life. The story of his alleged escape to a mansion outside Bhopal to save himself, instead of taking command of rescue efforts by his administration, comes up every time the late Congress leader is remembered.
But for the mishandling of the 1999 super cyclone by then Odisha chief minister Giridhar Gamang, the Congress wouldn’t have lost its political relevance in the state. In his book, Naveen Patnaik, journalist-cum-author Ruben Banerjee offers a brilliant peek into Gamang’s house when the cyclone hit Odisha on 29 October 1999.
Three godmen/soothsayers were with the CM then. One of them studied the Gamang’s horoscope and told him that his star constellations were such that the cyclone would “pass ‘high’ over Odisha”, sparing the state. Another said the storm would split into two, one moving towards Andhra Pradesh and the other towards West Bengal, sparing Odisha. The third godman said that the storm would “rebound on hitting the short-statured chief minister’s chest and return to the sea without causing any destruction.” Gamang could, therefore, afford to go to sleep. When he woke up the next morning, writes Banerjee, trees had fallen and blocked his gate; there was no power in the house; and, the phone lines were dead. The super cyclone had sealed the fate of Gamang— and of the Congress — in Odisha.
Gamang’s successor Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal learnt great lessons from that episode. One of his achievements that people never forget to mention is how he has set global benchmarks in tackling calamities efficiently. In the next couple of months, we will know who the Gamangs and Patnaiks outside Odisha are.
Views are personal.