INDIAN PRIME MINISTERS are not known for frivolity with air time. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the country for a second time in less than a week, anxiety was palpable in the hours before his address. In the event, some had anticipated his message. The volunteerism that is the hallmark of his public policy efforts from the Swachh Bharat campaign onward was flagging in spirit during the current viral outbreak crisis.
In the event, Modi announced a total lockdown for 21 days, one that was to be enforced strictly. His ‘janata curfew’ experiment, he said, had garnered widespread public support but there were many people who did not heed it. In a pandemic where the virus is spreading at terrific speed, even a handful of violators could undo the efforts of many millions.
Since then a vigorous debate has ensued on social media and in the press: were there options other than imposing a drastic lockdown? Will India end up saving its people but killing its economy? These are important questions that have plausible, and realistic, answers but ones that have been drowned under partisan squabble.
There is sufficient data from across the world now to show that the coronavirus spreads at a very rapid pace. Very often, the number of infected persons doubles in three days. In countries where this speed has been brought down, exceptional measures have been necessary. China, where the virus originated, imposed a very severe lockdown after hiding the nature of the virus for months. Ultimately, the number of infected persons fell to near-zero. In South Korea, it was an extraordinary testing effort, involving more than 350,000 tests across the country, among the highest in per capita terms in the world.
India does not fall in either category: it lacks the political will to impose a Chinese solution and it does not have the means to ramp up testing along South Korean lines. Juxtaposed with the number of people living in India and the very high population density, a catastrophe was only a matter of time. In the event, Modi chose a compromise of sorts: a limited-period lockdown.
This has, for obvious reasons, not gone down well with a section of the intellectual class. The refrain now is that he could very well end up killing the Indian economy. Interestingly, just days before, the same class was hyperventilating about the absence of a lockdown. Goes without saying, this is an elite perspective where the ‘economy’ matters more than human lives. There will undoubtedly be a severe economic contraction in terms of consumption and investment. But that begs the question: what is an economy? If there are no people left, consumption and investment are meaningless.
Modi has quietly reaffirmed a classic political science truth: the first duty of a state is protecting the life of its people. The liberal answer had upended this proposition by adding livelihood—food, incomes, etcetera—to the matrix and Modi is being criticised from the latter perspective. But even as the lockdown was being announced, state governments were busy finishing details of a protective package for the poorest of the poor. Now a similar, India-wide, package is expected from the Union Government.
There remains the pressing question of civil liberties that many intellectuals have raised. The fear being that a crisis will be used to push through draconian legislation curbing these vital freedoms. A simple riposte is sufficient: Parliament is not in session and an ordinance to curb freedoms is hard to imagine. But if a difficult situation arises—say some kind of social unrest—then there are ample administrative powers available with governments.
Where there is ground for valid criticism it is in the rather poor initial coordination between different authorities to permit movement of essential goods and the provision of essential services. Planning for exigencies—an art the British colonial authorities had bequeathed to their democratic Indian successors—has been lost over time. The developmental streak of Indian governments never had any imagination for necessary action during situations like the current pandemic. Here is where the Prime Minister ought to put his energies: reinventing the administrative state that has withered away in India.
A Prime Minister is as efficient as his government machinery will allow him to be. In that sense, Modi picked a pragmatic option out of a rather thin slate of choices he had. That is hard for many to understand.