IN HINDSIGHT, the Janata Curfew on March 22nd and the 5 pm expression of public solidarity was a dress rehearsal for the drastic 21-day national lockdown that Narendra Modi announced on March 24th. The sheer scale of the lockdown is absolutely mindboggling. I don’t think anyone, either in India or overseas, ever imagined that a democracy—once described as a ‘functioning anarchy’—would have managed to put together such a project. If India is successful in flattening the curve and pushing back the advance of the coronavirus, it would have achieved the impossible.
Predictably, while there has been astonished support for the lockdown project, particularly from those who were aware of the magnitude of the threat confronting India, there has also been shrill attacks on Modi. This is also to be expected since the Prime Minister’s style of communication and his methods of securing endorsement—a combination of hope, celebration and sacrifice—isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The banging of thalis and blowing of conch shells was ridiculed by those who have a rarefied view of the ‘scientific temper’ that we are meant to imbibe. Others faulted the Prime Minister for not providing operational details of dos and prohibitions for the 21 days, quite forgetting that these are for local administrations to spell out. And finally, there were those who thought the economic consequences of the 21-day lockdown were too much for India’s poor to digest.
I guess that it is undeniable that the lockdown—quite unprecedented in scale for a somewhat chaotic democracy—is a monumental gamble based on what the experts say is the only way to beat the pandemic. Frankly, no one can be certain that every Indian will follow the curfew rules rigidly. It requires only a handful of entitled idiots or a few uninformed souls to do something spectacularly stupid and ruin everything. That danger is real and should not be discounted. Equally, some particularly cussed local official in a district may lack imagination and flexibility and cause so much local grief that there is social tension—which defeats the very purpose of social distancing.
On March 17th, for example, some citizens of Kolkata circulated a video of the street scene in a vast swathe of Rajabazar—a Muslim-dominated locality. There, the notion of social distancing had been replaced by a business-as-usual
approach that included street urchins playing cricket on the streets. It is reassuring that once the videos were brought to the notice of the Kolkata Police, there was some action and the roads and markets were cleared of those who imagined that a lockdown was not very different from a holiday.
Fortunately, these are exceptions to the rule. Yes, the cruel reality of rigid distancing isn’t fully understood by many. I, for one, find it galling that I cannot go out and visit an ailing 80-year-old friend who lives by himself just 1.5 kilometres away. But there are some unpleasant things we have to do for a larger objective. If anything, this 21-day retreat into our fox holes will certainly imbibe the importance of civic virtues in our citizenry. As a garrulous and community-minded people, Indians don’t naturally appreciate social distancing. Most Indians also have a very feeble notion of what constitutes privacy. The 21-day lockdown in that sense goes against our national character. If we manage to overcome these character traits, then it suggests that we are destined for bigger things.
The importance of leadership should not be underestimated. It required the bulldog approach of Winston Churchill to rally an isolated Britain to persist in the fight against a rampaging Hitler in 1940. I often wonder what would have happened to India if the pandemic had hit the world in the days when we had fragile coalition governments headed by individuals that lacked authority and mass following. It would have been disastrous. First, we would have lacked the will to take firm but unpleasant decisions; and, second, even if some outside pressure forced us to take as momentous a decision as a 21-day lockdown, would the country have adhered to the restrictions without chaos? I know these are hypothetical questions, but a 21-day leisure period is appropriate to contemplate counterfactual history.
Also, for those interested in a spot of history, please try to get your hands on the early episodes of Foyle’s War, centred on the experiences of a police officer in the coastal town of Hastings between 1939 and 1945. The early episodes are instructive and tells us that evaders, shirkers and even fifth columnists aren’t something uniquely Indian. Decency and bravery always have to rub shoulders with ignominy.