How the prime minister’s power of exhortation is critical in the battle against Covid-19 – columns
The ongoing 21-day national blockade is unprecedented, though it might not have been a surprise to those who had been watching other countries respond to the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19). India reacted quickly, convening a crisis management group in early January.
Since then, starting with the interruption of flights from China in January, to the detection of arriving international passengers and quarantine, preventive measures have been gradually increased. This is how it should be. In any other way, for example, imposing a total blockade a month before, not only would it have been premature, but it would have had a dire impact on the economy, much worse than the current serious setback.
More importantly, such a drastic measure probably could not have been applied before reaching a tipping point of acceptance among the population. In fact, even now, there are stray examples of noncompliance, even among the educated middle class. That’s why the March 22 trial, the one-day volunteer “janata curfew “(people’s curfew) was a crucial prerequisite.
The haunting stillness across the country during the janata The curfew was unprecedented. The social networks were full of publications by Internet users, some with videos, about the only sounds that were heard throughout the day that were the song of the forgotten birds. Except at 5 p.m., with millions crowding their doors, balconies, and windows to applaud the work of those in essential services with prolonged applause and banging of utensils.
India has seen large-scale mass movements before, of course, but they have been political. From Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement to Jayaprakash Narayan’s challenge to Indira Gandhi’s follow-up, passionate millions crowded the streets. And despite objectives set to the contrary, violence invariably occurred.
But never before has India seen the acceptance, on such a large, totally peaceful scale, of so many citizens for a social cause. Yes, there were some who took to the streets in the wrong celebratory mood. But they were a small fraction of those who joined from their homes, in the true spirit of what was intended.
The reason why this exercise was important has to do with democracy and the capacity of the State. Authoritarian states like China can, and did, take drastic measures to impose social distancing. Of course, China is guilty of suppressing information about the coronavirus in the first few weeks, to the point of harassing and disciplining the first complaining doctor. But in a first decade later, it demonstrated something hitherto unimaginable in the 21st century, that closing entire cities and provinces was not only conceivable but also feasible.
Democracies have a harder time emulating that kind of top-down, brutal policymaking and enforcement. Examples abound in this particular crisis itself, with various democracies reacting at different speeds. All democracies, by definition, are burdened by slower decision-making than authoritarian ones. Those who made difficult decisions faster did so, more likely, because of cultural attributes than at any inherent systemic speed.
As the largest and most diverse democracy, India is no exception. Indeed, over the seven decades in which it has been gradually rediscovering its historical relevance after centuries of decline, India has often been found to lack state capacity on a variety of fronts. Unlike China, therefore, no one, not even the most popular Prime Minister (PM) in decades, could simply snap their fingers and wait for a blockade to be successfully implemented. Millions of argumentative Indians would have resisted, not for rational reasons, but because of the long-instilled discomfort with dictations. Therefore, democracies require leaders who excel at communicating with the masses, especially during crises. And that, indisputably, is the strength of this prime minister. Even leaving aside their ability to rally the electorate during the campaign, which has resulted in the most important terms in decades, there are many other examples.
Narendra Modi’s messianic zeal in uniting millions for a social cause, simply by the power of exhortation, has been exhibited many times. Its reactors initially mocked its revival of national consciousness towards public hygiene through the Swachh Bharat Mission. But six years later, it is widely recognized that it began to show results. There is still a long way to go, but changes in attitudes are noticeable.
Similarly, among many other examples, another that stood out was the Prime Minister’s appeal to middle-class beneficiaries of subsidized kitchen gas cylinders to voluntarily deliver them. More than 10 million Indians did so, allowing subsidies to be directed to those in need.
However, to stop a pandemic in a country like India, exhortation is a necessary but not sufficient precondition. Strict application is inevitable. Although large segments of the population are convinced of the need for social isolation, some can still be seen violating the blockade. Whether they are still unconvinced or undisciplined, strict application of public health guidelines should apply.
As these weeks progress, there will be many challenges. The organization of enormous resources will be required. The big package announced this week for the most economically vulnerable citizens is a crucial component. The government is surely working on more measures of this type. And yes, from time to time, exhortations will still be needed from the top.
Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda is vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a former member of Parliament.
The opinions expressed are personal.