Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation on Tuesday, 30 June, was conspicuous in its skirting of the current state of affairs with China in the wake of the violent hostilities over differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. On the other hand, announcements on the Centre's steps to ameliorate the present condition of the poor, were a tacit admission of its inability to generate jobs that people had lost during lockdown, and in reviving the economy.
It is also an indication that the government does not have a clear roadmap for the way ahead, and is instead, responding to situations as they unfold.
One month after Unlock 1.0, the Centre has realised that the pace of economic revival has not been as per expectations. This singularly elucidates the reasons behind the extension of the free food grains scheme, named Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Under this programme, under which free wheat and pulses are being currently provided to beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act, was paradoxically passed by the much-maligned UPA government.
Modi's announcement of extending the programme beyond the initial three months first announced in late March by finance minister (https://bit.ly/3idGe1f) Nirmala Sitharaman is peculiarly for a period of five months, or till the end of November. Normally, government schemes are announced or extended on basis of quarters.
While announcing Modi said this benefit would cover the "festival season". He listed several Hindu festival but missed out mentioning that Bakr-id or Id-ul-Zuha, Moharram and Guru Nannak's birth anniversary fall in the same period. In a multi-religious nation, this oversight opens Modi to the accusation of being uni-focal on matters of festivals of different faiths.
Significantly the five-month long extension will end with the conclusion and installation of a new government in Bihar after conduct of assembly polls. The term of the current legislative assembly ends on November 27. Opposition parties will certainly deduce political motives behind this coincidence.
It is after all no accident that in barely an hour or so, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee made an announcement outstripping the prime ministerial award of free foodgrains. She declared people will receive free ration till June 2021, a date by when the elections in the state are to be completed. This is indeed a rare instance of an adversary taking a leaf out of Modi's playbook.
Mamata Banerjee was additionally critical of the government on its handling of the situation with China. She was of the view that "banning some apps will not give result. We want to give China a befitting reply." The critical remark will be embarrassing for Modi as the social media is chock-a-block with old videos of Modi and his party colleagues were critical of the Manmohan Singh government for its handling of the confrontations with Beijing over differing perception of the LAC.
When the PMO announced late evening on June 29 (https://bit.ly/2Zm9yKz) that citizens shall have another tryst with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Address to the Nation, this time not at 9 pm, but five hours earlier, it rightfully fuelled speculations. That this announcement was made barely an hour or so after the government's decision to ban TikTok and 58 other Chinese Apps, gave rise to expectations that Modi would use the occasion to clear the doubt on several issues that have arisen in the aftermath of the bloody encounter between troops of both countries.
The prime minister has chosen to maintain silence on the military standoff and diplomatic parleys with Beijing but continued avoidance of taking people into confidence will dent his image of a majboot (strong) leader.
Yet, Modi's decision not say a word about China and also make a very short speech (just 16 minutes) raises questions about the necessity of the address. This is particularly true after the Centre issued the guidelines (https://bit.ly/3eP661p) well before the PMO announced the Address to the Nation.
In fact, there was only one other pertinent matter that Modi flagged in his Address. He said that while during the lockdown period "we were very careful with respect to wearing of masks, social distancing and washing of hands for 20 seconds." This caution has been thrown to the winds and "there is increasing negligence in personal and social behaviour".
Modi implicitly pulled up state governments and local administrative bodies for not enforcing guidelines and rules issued by the Centre. He asked these bodies "to show similar alertness (as under lockdown)."
In an uncharacteristic Modi address, a conscious effort to reiterate steps the government had taken so far to reduce suffering of the people was palpable. He spent a significant part of his short speech listing what the government had done so far and detailed the specific schemes under the omnibus Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana.
Much of this is part of regular or pre-announced programme -- for instance, Modi listed that since lockdown was imposed " Rs. 18,000 crore have been deposited in bank accounts of over 9 Crore farmers." It however, was not mentioned that this amount was transferred to farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi and the amounts would have been deposited into beneficiaries' accounts even if the event of the pandemic not disrupting life and economy.
On the issue management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the prime minister stuck to the tactic of comparing the situation in India with other countries. At a time when India has displayed dramatic increase in daily fresh cases, Modi continued taking recourse of the "death rate." This argument, that although we are in a tight spot, the situation would have been worse but for timely lockdown, is little more than a Pyrrhic Victory and certainly avoidable.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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