India's Pandemic & Modi's Leadership
The centre’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a mixed bag. But the shortcomings expose serious flaws within Modi’s leadership—flaws that we should be familiar with by now.
Rohan Hande for The Atlantic
Seven months after the country first went into lockdown, in an effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic, we are still struggling with the virus. For much of the television media, the pandemic might have been forgotten and been replaced by film actors, drugs and alleged rating scams; but for much of the country, the virus is still alive and well, although things seem to be getting better.
To be fair, the whole world, for the most part, is also on its knees against the pandemic. A vaccine is still unavailable; people are dying; economies are falling; people seem to be getting more careless. Some countries, which seemed to have reined in the virus earlier, are now going through a second wave. Still, that should not prevent us from inspecting how India performed.
As Things Stand
At the time of writing, India seems to be better placed than many other countries. According to the latest data, the number of daily new infections in India has been the lowest in months and “for the 22nd consecutive day, more people recovered from the disease than fell ill, a trend that has resulted in a significant decline in active cases in the country.” The number of active cases, the data tells us, is now around 6.7 lakh as opposed to over ten lakh in September. The September peak is receding while testing rates have also gone up.
As per the centre’s Ministry of Health data, India’s recovery rate now stands at 90% while the fatality rate is 1.51%. The data also shows that the number of active cases has now been under 7 lakh for the third consecutive day, as of 25 October. Daily deaths have also been constantly less than 1100 since 2 October. Till now, over 1.18 lakh people have died of the virus. However, some questions have also been raised about possible undercounting of deaths.
Current recovery rate in India. Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
Active cases have fallen below 7 lakh. Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
Declining daily deaths. Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
India has also made advances in the production of PPE kits, from being an importer to now the second-largest producer of the same.
Locking and Unlocking
India went into a nationwide lockdown on 25 March and remained in that state till the beginning of June, when the government started easing restrictions. It is difficult to determine how successful or unsuccessful the lockdown has been. While the government has claimed that the lockdowns prevented tens of thousands of deaths and lakhs of infections, some experts have also argued that lockdowns do not work. At the same time, others have also warned against pursuing relentless herd immunity strategies in the absence of a vaccine.
Measuring the successes and failures of the lockdowns is also difficult because state-wise variations still exist, both in terms of restrictions and the healthcare systems. Maharashtra was the worst-hit state till some time back; now, Kerala is leading in the number of new cases having reported over 2000 more cases than Maharashtra in the last 24 hours, as of 25 October. Kerala is followed by Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Delhi. However, Maharashtra still led considerably in the daily number of deaths, as of the time of writing.
The Undeniable Crises
While the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the lockdowns can be debated by experts, some accompanying crises have clearly emerged.
The harsh and abrupt lockdown led to thousands of migrant workers being trapped in cities. In absence of appropriate facilities and savings, many had to walk thousands of miles back to their villages. The visuals of huge crowds of migrants at railway and bus stations showed some of the most explicit impacts of the lockdown on common people. Many people ended up losing already precarious livelihoods. This has also brought about food insecurity and consequent fears of long-term damage to children as a result of malnutrition. Results from surveys of “nearly 5,000 self-employed, casual, and regular wage workers across 12 states of India, conducted between 13 April and 23 May” by Azim Premji University found that “almost 8 in 10 are eating less food than before. More than 6 in 10 respondents in urban areas did not have enough money for weeks worth of essentials. More than a third of all respondents had taken a loan to cover expenses during the lockdown. More than 8 in 10 respondents did not have money to pay next month's rent.” The study finds that among the sample surveyed, 66% workers lost their jobs, 77% households were consuming less food than before, 47% households did not have enough to buy essentials to last them a week. 77% vulnerable households—those defined in the study as having a total income of less than ₹10,000 in February—received ration and 49% of such households received a cash transfer. 87% self-employed workers in urban areas reported to have lost employment, while 66% casual workers in rural areas went out of work.
The haste in which the lockdown was imposed by the centre has also been criticised. With barely any timely notice, the lockdown left many stranded with no time to prepare. The economist Kaushik Basu called the lockdown a failure: it could not prevent the spread of the virus as large sections of migrant workers had to be on the move, but at the same time it led to the economy freezing up. The 23.9% contraction in India’s GDP in the first quarter of the financial year 2020-21 has been a major cause of concern. However, top economists have been puzzled by the centre’s response, calling for the government to do a lot more to fix the collapsing economy.
How has the Prime Minister acted as the head of the government all this while? On the one hand, he has conducted himself responsibly. Unlike other nationalist leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro who have underplayed or even denied the virus, Modi has admittedly shown a much more cautious side. He has been advocating the use of masks and following social distancing norms in his addresses, cautioning people from becoming careless in the absence of a vaccine. This was again reiterated in his latest address to the nation in the wake of the upcoming festival season. However, Modi’s leadership also has some serious flaws, which have made their impact known again in his handling of the pandemic.
First, much of his conduct has been based around rhetoric and perception management. When the Prime Minister announced a ‘Janata Curfew’ for 22 March, Sunday, it was supposed to be a preparation for the days to come. However, while he did urge citizens to be vigilant, a one-day curfew could not have been a preparation at all. It could obviously not have broken the chain of transmission and in absence of clear guidelines about what could happen next, no one knew how to prepare, especially those stranded far away from their homes. But Modi instead seemed interested in keeping the citizens on their toes in suspense of what might happen next. He also urged Indians to show their gratitude to essential workers by clapping or banging thalis on the day of the ‘Janata Curfew’. A novel gesture. Indeed, we should be showing gratitude to people saving lives at this critical moment in history; however, in absence of many much needed responses, all this rang hollow. Similarly, lighting diyas was good enough to create a spectacle and perhaps also to create a sense of solidarity among Indians. But, it does not make the situation better. Add to this the media lapping up these small gestures and blowing them out of proportion, and the focus shifts from actual handling of the pandemic to a celebratory spectacle. Modi, of course, isn’t one to stay behind image management. A politician of his political acumen knows how to control narratives.
These gestures of solidarity also fall flat in light of the fact that Modi, continuing his past trend, has not held a single press conference even in this critical time. His monthly ‘Mann Ki Baat’ speeches often gloss over pressing issues. His addresses recently have not said much, except making routine announcements that sometimes arguably did not even need a televised speech. Many other world leaders have done a much better job of communicating with their citizens in times of crisis. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Facebook Q&A sessions became popular because of her calm demeanour in times of crisis and an honest conversation with her citizens. Even Trump held multiple press briefings in front of reporters and faced questions. Modi never did.
There has also been a targeting of many journalists who have reported stories critical of the government's handling of the pandemic. At the same time, doctors who have complained of poor facilities and equipment have also faced backlash by authorities.
Moreover, Modi’s lack of transparency has been evident in the controversy behind the PM CARES fund as well. Even though the PMO asserted that the fund was not a “public authority” and hence not covered under the RTI Act, much of the funds have come from staff salaries of central government departments like the railways, public sector banks and the RBI, and central educational institutions. Yet, the cloud of uncertainty over the exact nature and finances of the fund remains.
The suspension of the Question Hour and the reduction of the Zero Hour in the monsoon session of Parliament were further blows to executive accountability, especially needed in times of crises. Even with the Parliament, the hasty passing of bills, and specifically the controversy over the passing of the farm bills in the Rajya Sabha raised important questions about parliamentary functioning.
Even more distressing was when the centre’s Ministry of Labour admitted in Parliament that it had no data about the number of migrant deaths during the lockdown, even while it said that over 1 crore migrant workers had returned to their home states in that period.
This haste, lack of transparency, and a taste for theatrics invoke parallels with Modi’s failed demonetisation experiment. A sudden ‘major announcement’ with no prior warning—and what seemed like no prior preparation or consultation—along with highly exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of the activity also marked the 2016 episode. There too, an uncertainty remained over the deaths of common people. Once the failure began to be seen, the theatrics and tall claims soon stopped being mentioned in political speeches. However, the accountability never came.
The pandemic could have been a time for Modi to reinvent his leadership for the better. He could have become what he needed to be: accountable and honest. With the kind of sway he perhaps still commands in the public mind, he should have been honest with the people. Instead, he continued his long aversion to accountability and being questioned. He rather went for a cleverly crafted new look, theatricality, and an ever-growing authoritarianism.
*Initially published in the September - October Issue.