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Modi gained popularity in Covid, but real test comes later. Don’t judge a leader in crisis

During the 2008 financial crisis, leaders like Gordon Brown, Tara Aso and Kevin Rudd gained popularity, but vanished after the rise of nationalist populism.

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to engulf one country after another, most leaders around the world are seeing a surge in their approval ratings.

From Japan’s Shinzo Abe and India’s Narendra Modi to France’s Emanuel Macron and United States’ Donald Trump — albeit the lowest among those polled — most democratically elected leaders are witnessing a rise in their approval ratings, based on their supposedly effective response to the pandemic. Political scientists call it “rallying around the flag” effect.

But if major economic crises of the past have taught us one thing, it’s this: Never judge a leader based on their immediate response in a crisis situation.

During a crisis, especially a transnational one, there are usually cookie-cutter technocratic economic responses available at the disposal of a leader. When one looks at the aftermath of the First World War or the 2008 global financial crisis, most leaders had technocratic responses and were lauded by the commentariat of the day for successfully mitigating the crisis and “saving the system”.

In 2008, G20 drove the international response to the global financial crisis. Of the 20 leaders that attended the momentous 2008 G20 meeting, only two were still in power by 2018.

Major economic crises often destroy the basic political assumptions of the day. And the initial technocratic responses fail to recognise the fundamental political shifts that may be occurring during the crisis.

Also read: Why India’s rural economy stands to gain after the lockdown is lifted

Don’t leave the politics out

In 2008-09, leaders such as UK’s Gordon Brown, Japan’s Tara Aso, and Australia’s Kevin Rudd were lauded for increasing spending and successfully dealing with the financial crisis. But within a few years, the world saw the rise of nationalist populism, in one country after another.

The initial technocratic responses failed to acknowledge that the crisis had fundamentally hollowed out the middle class across Europe and North America. It left almost everyone worse-off. And millions of people were now feeling politically disenfranchised. This wasn’t a temporary change, and it was impossible to restore the only economic order without addressing this shift.

What made matters worse was the decline of traditional political parties and the blurring of their loyal voter base. Political theorist at McGill University Jacob T. Levy argues that compared to a few decades ago, political parties are no longer rooted in people’s lives. When the 2008 economic crisis worsened people’s lives, they couldn’t even articulate their demands using older party platforms.

Also read: Situation normal, but all locked up: How Modi govt has risked incapacitating India

The fall of the Weimar Republic

In the aftermath of the First World War, the rise of the Weimar Republic in Germany with a slew of centrist leaders was seen as a major political development of the time.

But just a little over a decade into it, this new political experiment failed and made way for a Nazi Hitler rule.

The massive politicised debt that Germany was being forced to pay by the victors in the aftermath of the First World War was fundamentally incompatible with the free-market economy that the country’s new political leaders were trying to uphold, according to Adam Tooze, economic historian at Columbia University. Only concessions or complete write-off of its debt, which had been proposed at the 1932 Lausanne conference before Hitler’s rise to power, could have supported the new economic order.

But this would have been a fundamental political decision, not an immediate technocratic response to the crisis.

Tooze says that once the crisis is over, the political leadership of the day wants to quickly restore the old economic order. The problem with such an approach is that the leader fails to address the structural and political realignments that have taken place during the crisis.

Also read: Modi got all the credit for lockdown. Now, he wants states to share risk of unlocking India

Economy is not the only thing a pandemic destroys

Today, leaders are responding to the coronavirus pandemic by either imposing or withdrawing a lockdown or throwing cash at the economy. Most of them will continue to see a rise in their popularity and some of them might even be rewarded electorally in the immediate future.

But the complete shutdown of the entire global economy in one go is unprecedented by any historical standards. And it is bound to have brought about fundamental shifts in not only the economy but the organisation of political life. Over the long-run, countries will be required to look for complex solutions than opt for technocratic responses such as lockdowns and fiscal stimulus that economists and epidemiologists have suggested for the coronavirus pandemic.

Views are personal.

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  1. People are now becoming aware of this kind of repeated agenda. People are expected to have gain in their intelligence due to the continuous evolution as per Darwin’s theory. But, it seems that there is nothing to evolve. Whole world is appreciating our PM and these people are still in stone age of their dreams.

  2. Nice model. Hope it comes about, and our cherished dynasty that vanished after the post-2008 slowdown will make a comeback (though slightly at a variation from the model prediction).

  3. No leader is permanent in the world & it counts how effectively motivated & dedicates to his country men is importent… may come and men may go… leader remains

  4. Come what may, India will not bring back that duffer pappu if that is what the author is hoping against all odds.

  5. I suggest you write a sequel to this article titled ‘If a leader doesn’t do well in times of crisis, it doesn’t mean he can’t come to power’ to see if you can prop up you-know-who.

  6. Global economy being destroyed by a pandemic is unique in the annals of history. No economist had ever envisaged or anticipated such a scenario, and so there is no known solution for the revival. So one economist’s solution is as good as another, however eminent. In this environment, the leader who appears to be confident and firm will definitely become popular, and in the present circumstances might even retain it for some time to gain politically.

    • I do not think pandemic control has been tackled nicely, as no much mindful policies with long term planning have been devised. Nor any intellectuals were invited, who could form the core team to tackle it effectively, which could be a mix of people at least 3 from each field like top doctors, top economist, top thinkers (professors from IIMs & IITs), top educationist and mathematicians who could study the daily spreads and provide effective feedback etc. My suggestions: 1) In India most of the people are labourers and poor and they do not think much beyond daily bread and daily livelihood, many a times even compromising their health, thus taking at risk of avoiding social distance, even not wearing the mask etc., so the government could announce that these poor people will get Rs 1000.00 in their accounts by 1st week of October, 2020 (if they are not tested positive for coronavirus till then) and then another Rs 1500 by 1st week of March, 2021 (if they are not tested positive for coronavirus till that time), 2) Lockdown should have started 3-4 days earlier, 3) Proper working and effective communication system should have been devised at the time of Lockdown. One single working coronavirus grievance national number (say employing 20000 call center personnels in the beginning who could be working from their home) with promise to resolve each issue including migrations within 48 hours and they would send feedbacks to respective person’s place of need immediately and action taken report be in public domain, 4) Trains should have been started at the time of Lockdown itself or within 2-3 days with only 25% capacity for desired migrants (who register at centralised numbers) and tickets could be purchased online by feeding password being sent through a link. 5) Coronavirus testing and cure (in at least pvt. hospitals) should have been more economical and regular audit of testing and cure expenditures vs revenues must have been done, 6) Mask wearing and changing methods should have been popularised as even not yet done properly, 7) Immune system boosting good quality ‘Kadha’ should be prepared by Govt agencies and National Ayurveda Institutes and made available throughout the country (free to poor and with reasonable charges for others), as most people in India are still deprived of it. 8) Online learning for poors should be taken care by providing free good quality laptops & monthly data (as by educating these people we will assure that our country will be able to repay our loans). Believe me this way, coronavirus would have stopped its spreads much earlier. Believe me, India could afford it and also believe me Indians (at least poor) would have also learnt social distancing in a positive note.
      ~ Brainchild of Rishi Kumar Aggarwal, New Delhi,

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