Has PR overridden governance?

My Hindi teacher never introduced me to the expression “raita failana”. I guess proverbs enter textbooks when they are fossils. Over the years, as I struggled to eat rice and curd with my fingers, I have come to appreciate the value of this neologism: to create an avoidable mess that is hard to manage thereafter. One week into the lockdown, this expression captures best the Narendra Modi government’s management of the coronavirus crisis. It is clear that potential gains of a tough decision are being negated by its botched execution.

My first response to PM Modi’s declaration was to support it, much to everyone’s surprise. I still maintain that it would be unfair to indict Narendra Modi for the call he took. Not because it was the best or the only possible decision. Frankly, no one knows what is the best, or the least worst, decision in this crisis. All of us might look foolish in the mirror of history. You can hardly blame the Prime Minister for taking a call backed by global medical establishment and followed by most countries across the world. Indeed, if he had not taken this decision, critics would have roasted him for procrastination. The situation called for a clear, coherent and quick political judgement.

Equally, it would be unjust to criticise PM Modi for everything that has gone wrong in the last one week. A good deal of hardship is inevitable in a big decision of this kind. People all over the world are putting up with sudden disruption in their life plans. Given the size and complexity of our country, we should allow for some confusion and chaos as well. And no one can anticipate every problem that the country would encounter in such a gigantic operation. Any government would have faced a lot of criticism, no matter what the decision and the execution.

Yet, it is fair and necessary to ask three questions: Did the Modi government think through the lockdown, at least those difficulties that could have been anticipated? Was the decision communicated as well as it could have been? And, has the government responded swiftly and coherently to the situation as it has evolved since the lockdown was announced? Sadly, the answer to all these is a big no.

No doubt, the government did not have all the time in the world to take this decision. At the same time, Covid-19 is not an earthquake where the response has to be post-facto. India announced nationwide lockdown full eight weeks after China did it in Wuhan, four weeks after Italy enforced it in some regions, and two weeks after countrywide lockdown in Italy. That is a lot of time to think and plan.

Sadly, over the last week we have not seen much evidence of that planning. Why did agriculture (farming inputs, farm equipment and farm operations) not figure in the original list of exemptions during lockdown, and that too during harvesting season? Why was there no clear plan of action for migrant labourers in the unorganised sector? Why are we still waiting for hunger deaths to announce universal ration provision to cover those who fall outside all existing welfare nets? Did anyone think through the seemingly illogical sequence of transport shut down (first passenger trains, then complete inter-state travel, and finally domestic and international flights)? Was it so hard to anticipate that complete lockdown of transport would lead to the collapse of supply chains, shortage of essential goods and possible black-marketing? Why the delay in announcing any relief measures? How come the government wasted days before announcing empowered groups to implement the lockdown?

The more you think about these questions, the clearer is the answer: Thinking and planning began after the momentous decision. No wonder, this lock-first-look-later approach has cre­ated a bigger crisis than the one the lockdown was meant to address. At this stage, at least, the health and life threat posed by Covid-19 pales in comparison with the livelihood crisis created by the slam-bang lockdown.

Two things stand out about how such a momentous decision was announced to the public: its timing and tone. Now that we know the poor quality of pre-planning, it is intriguing why PM Modi chose to give Indians barely a four-hour notice, unless he has a genuine attachment to the shock-and-awe technique of telecast at 8 pm.

For a consummate communicator like him, Narendra Modi’s address to the nation was a model of how not to communicate during a health emergency. In his effort to bring home the grimness of the challenge, he went over the top. Thanks to his alarming tone, everyone — uneducated or educated — believes that the coronavirus is as deadly a disease as smallpox, cholera or plague and is living in a state of panic. The address was woefully short on information and assurance. The PM did not inform his listeners that fatality rate in Covid-19 is 2 per cent or lower. Modi did not share facts about the government’s level of preparedness, nor did he comfort the public regarding the quality of our doctors and medical researchers. He did not explain what would be permitted in this “curfew-like” lockdown, resulting in a late night raid on markets. Worse, he did not offer any assurance to the most vulnerable people that the government would look after their food and other basic requirements, resulting in an exodus of the poor migrants. Modi’s address to the nation managed to turn a state of public health crisis into a state of collective paranoia.

An unprecedented decision like na­tionwide lockdown demanded an un­precedented level of proactive response by the state. This was not impossible for a bureaucracy that manages the Kumbh mela and elections. Instead, the government has focused only on managing isolation through law and order measures. For everything else, the central government is in a recusal mode.

For a PM quick (and right) to invoke the authority of the central government under the National Disaster Ma­na­ge­ment Act, Modi has been strangely reticent to accept the responsibility of his government for providing support to those at the receiving end of the lockdown. The Union government is still trying to push the responsibility of looking after the migrant workers on to state governments. Or else, the PM talks of NGOs and civil society organisations.

In the middle of this emergency, the government is more focused on headline management than crisis management. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is more invested in padding up numbers than in helping the needy. Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has barely spoken about what’s on the plate for farmers. Far from informing the public about coronavirus in a credible way, the I&B ministry is focused on distractions like TV serials or on using this opportunity to gain greater control over the media.

The assiduous cultivation of the personality-cult has succeeded in diminishing everyone else within the BJP and the government. One person’s flaws have become systemic weaknesses. At the height of a national emergency, the system is focused on PR rather than governance. This is a disastrous approach to disaster management.

All this is reminiscent of the aftermath of 2016 demonetisation. Yet, Na­rendra Modi got away with that historic blunder. But as they say in Hindi: “Kaath ki handi baar baar aag par nahin chadhti (you can’t put a wooden pot on fire again and again).”

My Hindi teacher did teach me this one.
By special arrangement with ThePrint

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel