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Modi urged Indians to light lamps to express unity in fight against the coronavirus pandemic Image Credit: PTI

Last week I stumbled upon a word, ‘apeirogon’, a shape with an infinite number of sides that can be counted. It also happens to be the name of a hybrid novel, melding documentation with imagination, by Colum McCann.

Apeirogon sums up India’s Covid-19 Age and the politics the plague brings, as it were, to each home. Everyone has (still) an opinion, though over a hundred have already died.

On Sunday, at 9pm, in accordance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s instructions, Indian citizens switched off their lights and lit a lamp or flashed the torch of their mobile phones in a symbolic gesture of unity against the virus and its psychosis.

Narendra Modi is doing no other prime minister of India has ever done: making people behave, move as one. It is that, or fall ill, die


Many went a step ahead. They burst crackers, blew on conch shells, sang and danced, and many chorused, ‘Go Corona Go’, as in an exorcist chant, as if the virus was scared of noise.

Not much social distancing

Last week they had banged plates and spoons. There was not much of social distancing in the proceedings on Sunday. Indeed, all of it looked and felt like a Diwali celebration, an important Hindu winter festival.

In the place where I stay, they switched off the grid for a minute, just in case we forgot to swing the lights at each other. Every Indian is doing it, a neighbour said to his partner, we are one nation. This writer, incidentally, failed to fall in; his phone helpfully had conked out.

Compared to the toll in the US, or Spain, or Italy, the casualty figure in India is not high. Though writers like Arundhati Roy have heavily criticised the Modi government for not reacting with alacrity when the first coronavirus death was reported on January 30, the fact remains that India has done a rather good job of containing the contagion with a three-week lockdown that will end, as of now, on April 14.

Making people behave

The Sunday light-and-sound show was the second gesture of solidarity in a fortnight.

Narendra Modi is doing no other prime minister of India has ever done: making people behave, move as one. It is that, or fall ill, die. That is the truth, unfortunately.

Whenever the lockdown ends, there is certain to be yet another gesture of unity. The last two were heavily trolled by the liberals, the only active, if social media-driven, Opposition in India; political Opposition as represented by parties like the Congress has been long dead.

This obsession with the number 9 for the Sunday show (9pm, for 9 minutes), one wit said, was Modi flipping the devil’s number in the Book of Revelations (“Let the one with understanding reckon the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666.”).

It is, of course, easy to troll Modi. If you are hell-bent at all times to be seen doing the right thing at all costs, as a good leader presumably must, it is easy to make fun and come across as superior. Nothing is as easily laughable as an authority.

Consider Hitler and his endless mocking mimics. Heroism is essentially comic. But, as Modi’s power over his followers, a number swelling even as the virus spreads, making fun of it is the only way perhaps to experience a measure of control over one’s idea of independence of will.

As said in these columns earlier, the politics of Covid-19 will see the emergence of an even stronger Modi. In recent weeks, not only has he addressed the nation thrice, twice on radio and TV, and once on social media, the campaign against the virus is strategically seen as led by him.

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No other minister (not even federal Home Minister Amit Shah) or a medical scientist, or an administrator is anywhere in the frame.

Contrast this with the United States administration run by an authoritarian like President Donald Trump: Almost all news briefings are assisted by Vice-President Mike Pence, and Dr Anthony Fauci, in charge of the medical campaign against the epidemic. In India, it is Modi against the dragon of Covid-19.

Astute politician

The attention on him, as on the virus, is unwavering. As an astute politician, Modi must be all too aware of the advantages of this rather mythical binary confrontation, of good versus evil, that will accrue to him eventually.

And unlike the virus, Modi can speak. And be seen. He is putting both to good use. That there is a prime minister leading the battle from the front helps to inspire the multitude.

They are in any case tired of dereliction, and the general entropy in the Indian scheme of things. Modi knows the nuances of that condition by instinct: he shall macho-lead.

But the Indian intelligentsia — whose relevance is largely dependent on the chaos around them; surely, it is only then they can expound with legitimacy their sense of clarity — suspects that through the large symbolic gestures that Modi advocates successfully from time to time, he is cutting through the mind-boggling diversity of Indian society and identity-driven politics, and clearing a path toward a monolithic state, a national will.

They could be right for the wrong reasons. The Indian liberal is conditioned to have his say. He/she is a self-privileged entity and has benefited a great deal from their symbiotic relationship with earlier regimes in terms of position, power, and even property.

Changing the status quo

All that is in question now. Modi himself has said very often that he is determined to change the status quo. He uses calamities, natural (an epidemic), or man-made (war), to forge unitarian movements.

In this, his model is the Chinese State. But unlike China, India is a democracy, at least on paper. Given this limitation, and given Modi’s instinct for order, making common cause with the largest number of people is at the heart of his politics.

And it so happens, a majority of Indians are primed for his tough-love politics. On Sunday night there was a straight 27 per cent drop in power consumption for nine minutes.

It is summer now in India. If one factored in fans/ACs and other electrical appliances, most of India must have stayed in the dark. This then is possibly the longest nine minutes Indians together willingly shared their dark.

It must give a sense of unity and, indeed, order. The next General Elections is a long way off, in 2024. By then, Modi would have seen to it that there is not much distinction between the State and him. On the whole, the apeirogon is shrinking.

— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.