Modi Once Stoked Public Fears About Coronavirus, Now He Doesn't Know How to Dial Back

Deep down, he wants to fire all cylinders of the economy. The narrative of fear has to be transformed into one of hope. But how?

On the eve of the United States’s entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, President Roosevelt said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.

In contrast, Prime Minister Modi consciously sought to instil fear and panic when he announced a complete ban on people stepping out of their homes because of the coronavirus:

“If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, the country and your family could go back 21 years… Several families could get devastated for ever… This virus spreads like wildfire… There is no other method or way to escape Coronavirus (except social distancing)… Jaan hai to jahan hai… Carelessness of a few can put the entire country in jeopardy.”

The prime minister said this on March 24 when the total reported COVID-19 cases in India were 536. Today, nine weeks, the total number of infections is around 1,80,000 cases and rising at the rate of about 6,000+ per day.

From June 1, the lockdown which began on March 25 will end everywhere across India except in the ‘containment zones. The handful of restrictions which remain – on malls, places of worship – will be lifted on June 8. So what is the justification for this substantial relaxation of the lockdown – including of social distancing – when the fire is still raging?

That is precisely what the Supreme Court observed on May 25 while rejecting the government’s and Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s submission on keeping the middle seat of aircrafts occupied for all future flights:

“Outside, there should be a social distancing of at least six feet, and inside you’re eliminating even middle seat difference. Shoulder to shoulder seating is dangerous and against the government’s own norms.”

Disagreeing with solicitor general Tushar Mehta, the bench observed that the government should worry more about the health of citizens than the health of commercial airlines. This is the response that Modi has got for his first big concrete step to restart the economic engine through air transportation.

Also read: Govt Should Worry About Citizens’ Health, Not Health of Commercial Airlines: SC

But more was to follow. After an initial carte blanche to the Modi government on the migrants issue in April, the Supreme Court – somewhat angry after having been embarrassed by high courts and criticised in social media – took suo motu notice of inhuman condition of migrants fleeing COVID-infested metropolises which had no work for them in the lockdown.

On May 26, a three-judge bench observed that media reports had been continuously showing the unfortunate and miserable conditions of migrant labourers travelling on foot and bicycles for long distances.

A migrant worker and her child wait to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before boarding a bus from east Delhi to UP. Photo: PTI

It observed that migrants have also been complaining of not being provided food and water by the administration at places where they were stranded or on the highways from which they had proceeded, and that “this section of the society needs succour and help” by the governments concerned.

In short, the court was telling the Modi government to address the very crisis of life and death that was alluded to by the prime minister in his addresses to the nation.

Slowly but surely, Modi is realising that it is not easy to retreat so early from the fear and panic that was injected so forcefully across India just the other day by none other than himself.

He cannot tell the Supreme Courts the naked truth so quickly.

The prime minister knows that the virus spreads rapidly and that the attempt to halt or significantly arrest its spread has been, to a large extent, failed.

His governmenthas no face to tell the court that in two months India has conducted only 3 million tests, which is not even 1% of the population, when the US (15 million tests) and some European countries like Russia (9 million tests) have tested between 2-10% of their population.

Also read: COVID-19: Is India Really Doing ‘Better’ than Other Countries?

It cannot tell the Supreme Court that the government does not know where the spread is, and that, consequently, it cannot do contact tracing for the bulk of cases that are unreported.

It cannot say on affidavit that according to the ICMR itself, 80% of the spread is through asymptomatic carriers which means that there are probably about 7,50,000 COVID-19 cases according to the government’s own estimates.

And most importantly, it cannot just yet tell the court that only senior citizens with serious co-morbidities are really at risk and need isolation till a treatment or vaccine is found, and that the large mass of healthy people have nothing to fear and could safely resume work.

Not surprisingly, the SG could only generally state that the government was controlling the virus through testing and quarantine, when the fact is that testing has been woefully deficient. Testing appears to have been put on the back burner because full-scale testing might not only catapult India to among the worst in the world in terms of total cases, but may also spread panic.

Modi is not in control of the situation. He does not know about the exact spread of the virus and how it could disrupt the civic and economic activity in the country. The opening of air transport is a desperate move to restart the economy anyhow despite the Central government’s inability to gauge or control the spread of the virus.

For the first time since he became PM in 2014, Modi has his back to the wall, and his inability to manage health related disasters is clearly evident. He must resist any temptation to conceal the spread of the virus by slowing down testing.

Also read: As the First Year of Modi 2.0 Ends, It’s Clear that Democracy Has Been Quarantined

For Modi, this is a new battle. There is no Pakistan element on which he can brandish his ‘fitrat’ of ghar mein ghus ke maarenge”. There is no communal element that he can exploit directly or indirectly. Nor is this about the Gandhis or about “Congress-mukt Bharat”.

It’s not about kaamdaar chaiwala against naamdar Rahul Gandhi, a working class tea seller versus a dynast. Modi is up against a virus – and his own assessment of the virus and how to deal with it, as broadcast by him on March 24 and April 14.

Deep down, Modi wants to fire all cylinders of the economy. The narrative of fear has to be transformed into one of hope. But how? He needs a new script and a tweak in his oratory. He knows what Adolf Hitler said in the preface to Mein Kampf  –  that ‘men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great oratory and not to great writers”. But what great oratory can he produce now?

In these times of COVID-19, Modi needs oratory like Martin Luther King Jr’s, ‘I have a dream’ or Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’. He also needs to match it with action like large scale testing, contact tracing and treatment, however damaging the resultant image may be. Speeches like the ‘56 inch ka seena’, or the ‘shamshan kabristan’ speech to win Uttar Pradesh elections or the speech in Parliament in 2014 on MNREGA to humiliate the Gandhis will no longer cut any ice. Why? Because the virus directly affects the people of India.

Yes, people may question his decisions and their effect on them but so be it. Unlike 1930s Germany, we are a democracy, though not so vibrant, with a functioning, if not an ideal judiciary, and a noisy social media (even if big media is largely silent) to compel the Modi government to be at least somewhat accountable.

Rahul Singh is a former civil servant who retired from the Ministry of Defence, Government of India.