Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi lighting the lamp Image Credit: Agencies

India lit diyas (lamps) on Sunday night, responding to an appeal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to light nine diyas at 9pm to showcase unity in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Like the earlier thali banging to appreciate front-line fighters - doctors and nurses, which saw people break the rules of social distancing by mingling together, the diya event witnessed people letting off firecrackers and taking out processions.

Call me a sceptic, but letting off fireworks to fight a respiratory disease is a sign of a mind in thrall to a cult. The air quality in India had improved dramatically post the 21-day total lockdown, but the fireworks have now added to the pollution.

Modi’s hallmark is big bold decisions, dramatic in nature with little planning of the aftermath and the consequences. L.K. Advani, one of the founders of the BJP, had caustically described Modi as a “good event manager”.

But in the time of corona do these events help or hinder in the battle against the disease?

Modi has addressed the nation twice during the pandemic, much in the way of a paterfamilias setting India tasks - thali banging for five minutes and the nine diyas at 9pm. Psychologically it is brilliant strategy - it gets the citizen personally invested in Modi’s efforts and makes her feel that she owns the strategy.

Two things, however, are hugely worrisome. Thousands of desperately poor people took to the road after Modi announced the world’s biggest lockdown with a four-hour notice. The potential for contagion and infectious spread are still to be assessed.

Yet, this reverse migration to the villages complete with police excesses found no mention in Modi’s address or plans.

Modi in his sixth-year as a two-term prime minister is yet to address an open press conference, which is an urgent exigent requirement as a global pandemic rages.

The poor planning and abrupt announcement of the lockdown caused the village migration, which some have compared to what happened during the partition of India.

Modi leaves officials scrambling as they hear the latest diktat and get into damage control mode. This time around it was feared that the entire electricity grid would collapse as people switched off their lights collectively in obedience to Modi.

It is debatable whether a prime minister should add to the chaos in India’s response to coronavirus. As is the norm now in India, government departments sent out directives to ensure the success of Operation Diya. Should a voluntary event in a democracy seek such compliance from the government?

Modi, of course, participated in his own event, wearing dramatic colours and putting out pictures. It was lights, camera, action in 7 Lok Kalyan Marg as the Pradhan Showman did his bit.

Earlier, such Modi events were choreographed by Apco Worldwide, a transnational, which managed Modi’s image when he was Gujarat Chief minister. This time around, Modi an ace at image management, does not seem to need professional image consultants. A spokesman for Apco worldwide said they were no longer working with Modi. Apco worldwide probably needs to take lessons from Modi, who has now built his reputation as India’s patriarch.

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Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president, may have been prescient in his repeated warnings on the coronavirus disaster for India, but Modi with his events, has taken back the advantage with the middle class, which by and large, sets opinions in India. This section, which is involved and invested in Modi’s tasks, have no complaints.

The near cult like admiration for Modi has also seen these tasks such as the one-day Janata curfew seem like dry runs for Modi’s plan - an informal poll based on task compliance.

Unfortunately, the only way to defeat coronavirus is via more testing, more hospitals and providing protection equipment to the real coronavirus warriors - the doctors and nurses.

In the middle of the 21-day lockdown, Modi’s tasks do give people a sense of purpose. But a country is not a reality show and we are not living in Modi’s Big Boss house.

India needs to eschew dramatics and move fast -the coronavirus is immune to events.

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