If the government’s economic plan to cope with the coronavirus emergency is becoming less hazy after his fourth consultation with state chief ministers on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hardly suffered from a lack of clarity on the political side, with manipulation being its imprint.
While the PM delayed unconscionably on moving on the pandemic front, and began taking steps only when the contagion became impossible to ignore as people began to suddenly die around mid-March, politically he has tried to lay stress on the assertion that he acted well in time and ahead of many countries (which is not borne out by the facts).
This in a nutshell was the fundamental point Mr Modi sought to make in his first address to the nation in the third week of March in which he called for the so-called “janata curfew” on March 22. The expression tried to create the impression of a benevolent government seeking voluntary self-restraint from the public as an act of “sacrifice” for the “nation”, although the world has seen police lathis were rained on day-labourers and migrant workers to force them to stay put, and not be out demanding bread.
This PM often employs the latter term as a dog-whistle to denote a Hindu nation, and backs this up with the projection of a traditional Hindu paterfamilias through the clothes he chooses to wear on certain occasions (discarding his usual with-it designer wardrobe), at times even putting on the garb of a swami (as in his second corona outing address when he urged people to light lamps while posing beside a brightly-lit tall lampstand used on special occasions in affluent Hindu households).
These reinforce for many his conscious self-image of a “Hindu nationalist”, which he first invoked in a Reuters interview around the time he became Prime Minister.
Why did the PM wake up so late in the day in actually beginning to deal with the new coronavirus emergency, calling for special measures like social distancing and ordering a nationwide lockdown (that had to be extended), besides making desperate efforts to procure masks and PPEs for medical warriors, and ventilators and hospital beds?
For more on a proximate answer to the late response to the coronavirus threat, we may have to wait for the day when struggles with conscience may produce a whistleblower on Raisina Hill. Meanwhile, it is practically a certainty that what kept the PM’s response from emerging on time was his extraordinary willingness to wait on the President of the United States.
Donald Trump was arriving on a bilateral safari, and this imperious creature demands to see large crowds cheering him when he arrives in the world’s most populous democracy. That’s just his way. Mr Trump’s benevolent disposition to India is crucial for Mr Modi. His status as a “global leader” (BJP’s coinage) rests on it. History has seen that Indian leaders who dared stand up to American Presidents paid a price.
Thus, Mr Modi got down to the task of arranging crowds for the Trump show in Ahmedabad an objective that was the exact opposite of social distancing.
Even after the American leader departed, a swift change of gear to frontally take on the pandemic was simply not on in view of emerging politico-ideological compulsions.
The first of these was the communal violence raging in the national capital, and the fire had been lit by a deeply polarising speech of a local BJP leader taking advantage of the prolonged protests of mainly Muslim women against the recently passed citizenship legislation that discriminated against people of the Islamic faith.
Settling this matter to the satisfaction of the ruling party and its cohorts (and the wider majority community audience across the country, which is conspicuously wooed by the government and the ruling party) could brook no delay and it was necessary that some were taught an object lesson.
We were already in the last days of February, and now there was looming on the political chessboard the prospect of the destabilising of yet another democratically-elected state government and installing of a BJP ministry in its place, using money and muscle power and legitimising defections to undo electoral verdicts.
Now we were past the first week of March, and the game in Bhopal was on. The Madhya Pradesh Assembly had to be kept going for the game of thrones to be won. The passing of the Finance Bill in Parliament to give effect to the Union Budget had therefore to be artificially delayed.
Parliament could not be placed in recess when skulduggery remained to be concluded in the MP Assembly. The Congress defectors’ brigade mobilised by the House of Scindia had to first flee from Bhopal, and then be placed in safe havens in BJP-ruled Karnataka.
Where was the question of safe-distancing and a national lockdown when such a crucial political skirmish was waiting to be won? It seems hardly surprising the Centre was declaring in mid-March that there was no emergency due to the new coronavirus.
All this would change the minute the BJP’s political objective in Madhya Pradesh was gained. First the symbolic “janata curfew” and then the national lockdown were immediately imposed, but not before underwriting the success of political machinations.
And yet the PM artfully insists that India’s overt actions against the threat of the pandemic came on time. It is also important to note his second cleverness-laden assertion, which is an integral part of his politics that but for timely action thousands more would be dead.
What is, in fact, true is that in the absence of mass testing we do not know how many are down with the bad flu and how many are actually dead. India has so far tested fewer than 400 persons per million a shockingly low figure by world standards.
What seems likely is that, on one pretext or another, mass testing will not be done for fear of bad news that can be politically very damaging.
We will most likely just wait for deliverance when the anti-coronavirus vaccine arrives. More clever words will then be spun....