On March 19 at 8 PM, the nation was rife with anticipation as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to deliver an address on the horrid coronavirus that’s spreading around the globe – claiming lives, livelihoods and economies. Devotees and critics – both sizable camps when it comes to Modi – were speculating. National lockdown? New policies? Just a lot of fluff?
Exactly thirty minutes later, the country was as divided as any of his speeches leaves it. There were enthusiastic supporters of the suggested Janata Curfew and plate-banging, and those who thought it a sham and disappointment.
As a self-proclaimed liberal and frequent critic of this government, it was easy to see why the latter camp felt this way: A one-day curfew (that too on a holiday!) would achieve nothing. It was all theatrics and no actionables. It was a ridiculous stunt. All while other leaders – Angela Merkel (Germany), Justin Trudeau (Canada) and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand) – are announcing actual policies and packages. Shame! Indeed, during and after the speech, Twitter was rife with these arguments, and then some.
But critics are missing a larger point here: This speech was not for them. This was not for the op-ed-reading, Instagram-sharing, John Oliver-watching urban elite who knew about this virus since the day it was a small blip in Wuhan. If they felt it was, I can understand their disappointment.
The only way we’re going to fight this bloody menace starts with mass awareness about the virus and its potential to spread. This is a tough task, given our country’s vastness, disparate literacy levels and liberal approach to following the law. It’s also difficult because some facts are not straightforward and the virus lacks a precedent in India: The transmissibility and not the fatality rate is more dangerous. A single person can infect an entire city. Elders are more at risk. The asymptomatic may not even know they have the virus. Vaccines have not been found and are at least 18 months away. We need to flatten the curve.
Anyone who has tried to ram home these facts to a family Whatsapp group will know this is no mean feat – especially to those who seek refuge in simplicity and misinformation. Given that, Step One is to let people know just how damn serious this thing is, and what they can do at an individual level. On this front, the PM delivered. You cannot be a master of propaganda without being a terrific communicator. And there’s no doubt that 1.3 billion people went to sleep that night knowing the virus was deadly, could spread easily and they needed to restrict movement, even if they didn’t know exactly what it was about.
There. That’s Step One. Yes, it should have happened earlier, which is a very valid criticism. But you cannot skip this step. Not in a country as prone to chaos, misinformation and overreaction as ours.
Which now brings me to the next thing critics found an issue with – the “half-baked” one-day curfew. Now, if we had gone straight to full-lockdown mode, which many were hoping for (given the tactic’s efficacy in South Korea, China and Taiwan), it would have led to widespread panic and chaos, like the aftermath of a certain other late-night announcement by the PM in late 2016. Every rule of safety would have been thrown out of the window – there would be crowds scrambling to get their hands on medicines and masks, jostling on trains to get home, thronging to hospitals, and in one night, irreversible damage would have been done. Yes, there is no doubt a lockdown would have been more effective, but India does not have the machinery to enforce it. The takeaway would have been “we cannot leave home!” rather than “this virus is deadly!” – far too big a risk.
No, it was a far wiser strategy to inform people, get them to a state of calm and then later, enforce a stricter curfew, which will automatically be made easier, once people have had time to assimilate and learn how deadly the virus is. Moreover, by making it an optional curfew, people will feel a sense of personal responsibility – this of course, is an optimistic view and could boomerang badly (I write this on the day a Bollywood singer irresponsibly played truant and spread the virus, hiding from authorities) – but if there is one man who will be able to get through to some nincompoops, it’s Modi and his charisma. For once, his oratory is a superpower I would like on my side. Like when a former criminal is reluctantly recruited by a gang of lawmakers for a very special skill.
This, of course, will be a trial run for whether force is required, but has to be followed by a more stringent curfew should the virus spread. By letting citizens know this might happen, he has already primed them. Dare I say, Narendra Modi has made a future lockdown easier. Strategically, I find that sound.
Lastly, the issue that seems to have caught everyone’s attention – banging plates. Sure, it’s a gimmick but if helps drive awareness, so be it. Plus, if it achieves its purported goal of making doctors, cops, drivers and delivery personnel feel better, who are we to begrudge them that? It also adds a bit of levity to a moment of fear and stress. Bang those plates, I say, if it collectively reduces our BPs by a bit.
I find it very surprising to find myself writing an article in support of something Narendra Modi did. Most of my friends and readers of an unabashedly left-lib newsletter I co-author will know I think our current premier is a liar and megalomaniac driven by an evil ideology and a terrifying desire to quell dissent. But I will give credit where it’s due – and on March 19, 2020, he said the right things.
Yes, it was far from perfect – a bit of reassurance that funds are being allocated would have gone a long way in silencing criticism. But I too, will be devastated if this is the only thing he says over the next few days. This had better be followed up by announcement of policies, spends and a stricter curfew. This speech was only to catch the nation up. On that front, it succeeded. Nothing he said – shockingly enough – was a lie. If it means the bigoted uncles on Whatsapp groups are finally convinced that homeopathy will not help solve the virus, I’m all for it.
Like the co-author of my newsletter – another ardent critic of the BJP – said, this speech was not for the 1% who make jokes on Twitter.
Deepak ‘Chuck’ Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.