The pol­i­tics of Modi’s Gal­wan, Covid si­lence

The PM does not ap­pear to see any prospect of eco­nomic up­turn and em­ploy­ment re­gen­er­a­tion be­tween now and the end of Novem­ber. Hence the prom­ise of free ra­tions un­til then.

The Asian Age - - Edit - Parsa Venkatesh­war Rao Jr The writer is a Del­hibased com­men­ta­tor and an­a­lyst

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s sixth tele­vised ad­dress to the na­tion on June 30 — the other five were on March 19 and 24, April 3 and 14, and May 12 — was con­spic­u­ously silent on the three most burn­ing is­sues fac­ing the coun­try: Covid-19, the eco­nomic cri­sis trig­gered by Covid-19 and the stand­off with China in east­ern Ladakh’s Gal­wan Val­ley. In­stead, he spoke about how there will be stress in peo­ple’s spend­ing be­tween July and Novem­ber be­cause of a se­ries of fes­ti­vals like Jan­mash­tami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Onam, Dussehra and oth­ers. Also, the Prime Min­is­ter an­nounced that the free ra­tions for the poor, that was first an­nounced in the last week of March in the wake of the ini­tial Covid-19 lock­down and the con­se­quent eco­nomic paral­y­sis, will be ex­tended till the end of Novem­ber.

He men­tioned in pass­ing the need for peo­ple to ob­serve the manda­tory wear­ing of masks and so­cial dis­tanc­ing, and warned in the tone of a pa­ter fa­mil­ias that peo­ple had been flout­ing the Covid-19 norms dur­ing Un­lock-1, which be­gan on June 1. He didn’t voice con­cern or explain the ex­po­nen­tial rise in the num­ber of Covid-19 cases in May and June, and how it seemed that the increase in the pan­demic num­bers would con­tinue for a while. He just said the re­cov­ery num­bers were good and bet­ter than the rest of the world. He did not think it im­por­tant to speak about the hu­man tri­als of the coro­n­avirus vaccine that the In­dian

Coun­cil of Med­i­cal Re­search (ICMR) and its af­fil­i­ate, Pune’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Virol­ogy (NIV), was con­duct­ing in part­ner­ship with the Hy­der­abad-based vaccine man­u­fac­turer, Bharat Biotech Ltd.

In con­trast to his March 19 and 24 speeches, where he talked about meet­ing the chal­lenges posed by Covid-19, and how the na­tion of 130 crore can de­feat the virus, by the time he spoke for the fifth time on May 12, it seemed that he re­alised the coro­n­avirus can­not be de­feated and that we must learn to live with it. He shifted his rhetoric to his new coinage of “Atma Nirb­har Bharat” Ab­hiyan as a way of grap­pling with the eco­nomic chal­lenges posed by Covid-19. It seemed the Prime Min­is­ter was afraid of look­ing closely at the sit­u­a­tion aris­ing from Covid-19 and the eco­nomic dis­rup­tion caused by it. He was look­ing to spin a new po­lit­i­cal yarn, and the “Atma Nirb­har Bharat” rhetoric served that pur­pose.

It has be­come clear by now that Mr Modi is un­com­fort­able with the nitty-gritty, and with de­tails. He is happy to forge new slo­gans and in­dulge in pep talk and asks his Cab­i­net col­leagues and bu­reau­crats to work out the de­tails. It would seem that it is a fair di­vi­sion of labour, and that as leader of the gov­ern­ment and the coun­try, he would throw up the big ideas and fo­cus on the big pic­ture, while the oth­ers would do the in­evitable spade­work. But, of late, the Prime Min­is­ter has got into the habit of not re­fer­ring to the big is­sues at all — the prover­bial ele­phants in the room.

In his June 30 speech he did not talk about the three big is­sues: Covid-19, the econ­omy and the Chi­nese im­broglio, in which 20 In­dian sol­diers were killed in the vi­o­lent stand­off of June 15-16. More than on the other two ques­tions, the Prime Min­is­ter has scrupu­lously been avoid­ing re­fer­ring to the China prob­lem as though that if he were not to talk about it, it would not ex­ist. The Prime Min­is­ter’s aides are sure to ar­gue that it is Mr Modi’s pre­rog­a­tive to choose the is­sues he would talk about, and that if he does not men­tion some­thing, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that he is de­lib­er­at­ing on them.

It can be con­ceded straight­away that sen­si­tive as­pects per­tain­ing to se­cu­rity can­not be dis­cussed in pub­lic, and that con­fi­den­tial­ity is the essence. What the peo­ple want to know is that the Prime Min­is­ter is deal­ing with the big is­sues even though it would not be pos­si­ble for him to share the de­tails.

Mr Modi has cre­ated an im­age of him­self as a man who speaks his mind. And when he does not seem to be do­ing so, it be­comes a mat­ter of con­cern to the peo­ple. The in­fer­ence is in­escapable that the Prime Min­is­ter is find­ing the is­sues to be too prickly, and he does not know how to speak about them be­cause he has got into the habit of talk­ing about suc­cesses and achieve­ments, which he knows how to cap­i­talise for elec­toral gain. But he finds him­self in a tight spot when there are set­backs. A leader’s test is when he can speak out about prob­lems with­out los­ing his cool.

His lat­est ad­dress to the na­tion gave the im­pres­sion that he was speak­ing in terms of a bu­colic In­dia, which is gov­erned by the rhythm of sea­sons, when there is not much work dur­ing the rains and it re­sumes at har­vest time in Novem­berDe­cem­ber. He does not ap­pear to see any prospect of eco­nomic up­turn and em­ploy­ment re­gen­er­a­tion be­tween now and the end of Novem­ber. Hence the prom­ise of free ra­tions un­til then. If this is in­deed the case, then the gov­ern­ment as well as the peo­ple are in for hard times.

Mr Modi and his col­leagues in the gov­ern­ment and in the rul­ing party are not un­duly per­turbed as there is no cred­i­ble po­lit­i­cal al­ter­na­tive to them in the coun­try. Their complacenc­y and in­com­pe­tence, and it is not hid­den any more, might how­ever prove fatal in the long term, but they are rul­ing the roost un­chal­lenged right now. The state of the Op­po­si­tion par­ties, and par­tic­u­larly that of the Congress, is pa­thetic, to say the least.

The peo­ple then are left to fend for them­selves. They must get the econ­omy go­ing as much as they can on their own. Thanks to the im­pres­sive food­grain out­put of the last sea­son, and the prom­ise of a good mon­soon this sea­son, it should be of some help but it alone can­not re­vive the econ­omy. It is the big in­vestors and big busi­nesses who will need to show some pluck to get out of the eco­nomic shal­lows. Mean­while, Mr Modi can con­tinue to in­dulge in his al­most solip­sis­tic so­lil­o­quies as the peo­ple strug­gle to get their lives back on track.

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