What the Indian public got from Narendra Modi this week was another monologue–the fifth since March 19.
Column in Business Standard, May 16, 2020
President Donald Trump has a habit of hurling daily doses of abuse on social media at papers and journalists who are not in his corner. His pressers on the pandemic may be ill-informed and ignorant but they’re a regular punching bag for correspondents persisting with pointed questions. Individually calling them out as “terrible”, “fake”, and “nasty” losers, his attack this week was racist when a television reporter of Chinese origin asked if boasting about high levels of testing was worthwhile when more and more Americans were dying every day. “Don’t ask me. Ask China that question,” the president huffily responded, quit the podium, and stomped off.
“King” Trump’s blunderbuss speech is notorious for letting it all hang out. However, such no-holds-barred exchanges give the American public an idea of whether or not he’s worthy of re-election in November.
This kind of face-off doesn’t happen in the world’s largest democracy. No one gets to ask the head of government in New Delhi any questions. One of the first established rules of Narendra Modi’s reign was abolishing “public” press conferences, any interaction that was spontaneous, unscripted, or without the crutch of teleprompters. Pitching himself as a visionary leader during election campaigns, the prime minister, at a time of an unprecedented health emergency, is now a televisionary figure.
What the Indian public got this week was another monologue — the fifth since March 19 — delivered in shudh (pure), not sadharan (plain) hindi. It was a king’s speech, drained of empathy, devoid of human connection or the common touch. Mr Modi’s earlier telecasts explaining the lockdown had an urgency, peppered with colloquialisms such as jaan hai to jahaan hai. In contrast, Tuesday night’s performance was a pot pourri of abstract concepts: Self-reliance, quantum jumps, local’s power over global, with occasional sorties into the PM’s hobbyhorses of promoting yoga and solar energy.
There were references to speedy production of PPE and face masks, but the plight of millions of exhausted, half-starved, jobless migrants struggling for thousands of miles to reach home was lost somewhere towards the end of Mr Modi’s half-hour homily. Cocooned in sanitised safety, is he out of touch with the horrifying scenes of privation on highways, at railway stations, of migrants run over by trains and lorries, and the shortages of beds and health equipment in hospitals?
Mr Modi’s ministers seem to echo some of his obliviousness. At a public event on May 14, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal declared, as if it were a signal achievement at 73 years of nationhood, that no hunger deaths had been reported:
“We have gone through the entire three months without a single person starving.”
That claim could be contested once the migrants reach home and the rural incomes begin to plummet. What the lockdown has so far achieved is to make the invisible visible. This hitherto unrecorded horror of urban poverty, hidden in the folds of the ripped fabric of urban India — some 80 million migrants (for that is the latest official statistic) currently adrift somewhere between town and village. These nowhere people are but a fraction of casual labour far down the food chain, the supposed beneficiaries of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s munificence: Two months of grain supply worth Rs 3,500 crore of the vaunted Rs 20 trillion of relief.
After years of tub-thumping about the triumph of schemes such as JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, Mobile), it has suddenly dawned on the government that many of this vast workforce possess neither bank accounts nor ration cards. Why else would they be flogging their cell phones to scrape some rupees for their perilous journey home? Talking to some construction workers huddled in an incomplete building site near my house to whom the neighbourhood RWA supplies meals, one of them ruefully said, “Agar Aadhaar card ki keemat hoti tau bech detay” (if our Aadhaar card could fetch some money, we would have sold it).
As for the other segments that the Rs 20 trillion relief package is aimed at — salaried employees, small and medium enterprises, and industrial units — critics have pointed that the rebates by way of tax refunds and provident fund payments are not grants but evergreened loans. This means taxpayers are getting money that belongs to them anyway.
One of the most dangerous developments of the pandemic panic is the growing intimidation, harassment, and violence against journalists, with punitive police action at the behest of various state governments. This week the Gujarat police booked an editor for sedition for merely suggesting that Chief Minister Vijay Rupani could be replaced for his incompetence in controlling the rise in coronavirus cases.
In this respect Mr Modi is well-tutored in the school of Donald Trump. It was apparent this week that the prime minister (having run out of eye-catching diversionary ploys such as thali-banging, bell-ringing, and nine minutes of diya-lighting) is suffering a communication crisis. It is time to polish up the king’s speech.