Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Mann Ki Baat episode on 29 March was his third address to citizens in barely 10 days. His first, on 19 March when the lockdown period began, was a speech reminiscent of John F Kennedy’s iconic line, "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country" – Modi asked citizens to contribute their might to meet India's gravest post-Independence test. Since then, two new challenges have been added to existing threat from COVID-19.
The first, which we mentioned before much of India became aware of it, has now become the biggest humanitarian challenge since the influx of refugees from what was then East Pakistan – the problem of the ‘walking lakhs’.
An incalculable number of people hit the road the moment it was announced on 24 March that Modi would address the nation for the second time. By then, speculation abounded that he would either declare financial emergency or impose harsher measures to ensure people stayed indoors.
Few realised then how humungous this problem would become. By then, Indian Railways had suspended all passenger trains. Bus services too had been halted within and between most states.
With Thousands Taking to The Streets, Social Distancing Nigh Impossible
The initial trickle has now gone beyond being merely a humanitarian challenge for the Centre, states and voluntary organisations that stepped in to alleviate hunger and manage temporary shelters.
With an incalculable number of Indians out on the streets walking cheek by jowl, occasionally gathering for free community meals dished out by good samaritans and government agencies, all talk of social distancing being paramount is nothing but a sham. Pictures of people milling around borders to get into buses are worrying, to say the least.
This adds to India’s existing medical crisis and increases the risk of community transmission.
When It Comes to Lockdown, One Size Does Not Fit All
BJP Vice President Vinay Sahasrabuddhe has correctly drawn attention to these people's quest for "emotional security, to be with their kith and kin, to seeking less cramped accommodation."
His tweet admits that the problem of "migrant worker's reverse migration" is indeed "vexed" and that "one size (or explanation) is not fitting all."
While talking to District BJP Presidents of @BJP4MP,realised multiple dimensions-from yearning for greater emotional security to be with their kiths and kins to seeking less cramped accommodation-of the vexed issue of migrant workers’ reverse migration. One size not fitting all! pic.twitter.com/8ZRQgeIAjo— Dr. VINAY Sahasrabuddhe (@vinay1011) March 29, 2020
The second problem is that India’s small businesses have been so badly hit that many may never recover and many entrepreneurs will get sucked into the labour force of the unorganised sector.
Starting from the small roadside tea-vendors who also double up as providers of 'sin products', to slightly bigger enterprises, there is no certainty about how many of them will be in a position to restart their businesses.
An Apology Without Regret Is Just Grandstanding
Surprisingly, and against the grain of his persona, Modi offered a general apology to citizens for the problems they are facing during lockdown.
This, however, is mere grandstanding for there was no expression of regret for an unplanned lockdown that has driven fear into the hearts of Indians, but has provided no solution to problems –barring a medical roadmap in the event of citizens unfortunately contracting the virus.
Modi mentioned the poor and the need for the better-placed to take care of them, but lakhs of people trundling home deserved a separate apology. Likewise, while Modi spoke to two COVID-19 survivors who are back home after treatment in hospital, a sensitive sentence or two regarding the deceased was missing.
Sadly, the Mann Ki Baat episode – which steers clear of political issues (although he has referred to political matters in the past (namely in April 2015 on OROP, July 2015 on government's rural electrification drive, September 2016 on Uri attacks and November 2016 on demonetisation) – could have been an ideal platform for Modi to provide what Sahasrabuddhe referred as "emotional security."
As a result, Modi’s radio address was a wasted opportunity.
Modi, the ‘Compassionate Leader’, Is Missing in Recent Speeches
Since Mann Ki Baat began broadcasting in October 2014, it has apparently been a big draw, especially among admirers of Modi – and that is not a small number of people.
Doordarshan telecast Modi's talk show, modelled on the lines of American President, Franklin D Roosevelt's The Fireside Chats, which ran for eleven years starting 1933 (although not on monthly basis) interspersed with visuals of people collectively listening to Modi speak to them.
Although each of these groups are pre-selected and it’s a ‘staged’ shooting, there is no denying that Modi remains one of the most charismatic speakers in India and has a loyal audience. Unfortunately, in all of his addresses on coronavirus, Modi has merely conveyed fear most emphatically. The facet of the compassionate leader has been sadly missing in the three speeches.
There have been occasions when Modi's words in times of crises provided powerless citizens with the assurance of a leader at the helm. This was partly the reason why despite immense hardships, people continued supporting him despite how the aftermath of demonetisation was mishandled.
No Shifting Goalposts During COVID-19
He may still ride his luck, but it is a tall order to prevent the loss of personal credibility, and this has portents for his continued dominance in politics.
Unlike during demonetisation, COVID-19 does not permit shifting goalposts.
Although he persistently pours scorn on journalists and has encouraged right-wing supporters to ridicule them, there is an unfulfilled scribe within his persona.
This became first visible in January 2015 when he 'interviewed' President of United States Barack Obama during his state visit to India. In Mann Ki Baat episodes, he has routinely conversed and asked questions of pre-selected people. It was no different in the latest broadcast.
But the India that was presented through these conversations was predominantly middle-class and upbeat. In these times, when Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath committed an act of social ‘proximity’ within hours of Modi announcing the nationwide 21-day lockdown – to shift the idol of Ram Lalla in Ayodhya in a ritual attended by several score people in a close huddle, no less – it cannot be missed that the first caller who to be hooked on the show, was a person named Ram.
One of the doctors on the show twice used the ‘aap ke aashirwaad’ se (with your blessing) phrase when explaining how medical management in the country was running smoothly.
Encouraging Words, But Silence On Future of Businesses & Livelihoods
There is nothing unplanned about Modi's public interfaces. Subliminal messaging has been at the core of the prime minister's publicity strategy. Make no mistake, like Roosevelt, Mann Ki Baat was also started with the goal of establishing direct communication with masses, bypassing mainstream media.
The Modi pep-talk on Sunday, 29 March, had words of encouragement for doctors, nurses (he also threw in information that WHO had designated 2020 as Year of the Nurse and Midwife), those maintaining essential civic services, and shopkeepers.
But he was quiet on plans being drawn up for those whose businesses have been disrupted. Or on whether the government is aware of the possibility of scarcity-induced social turmoil.
At the end of the more than half-hour-long broadcast, the sense one came away with is that the government does not yet have a comprehensive plan for anything beyond medical management. Many are even of the opinion that in this area too, especially regarding testing, the involved agencies are merely playing it by the ear.
In these 10 days since his first address, the crisis has deepened – but the approach and tonality of Modi's engagement with the people has not changed much.
(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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