Why PM Modi Didn't Announce An Economic Package, Yet Again

When he first appeared on our televisions this morning, the PM had wrapped his scarf around his face. This was the first image he presented pulling it down as he began to speak. It was a symbolic gesture to depict how disciplined he is in following the do's and don'ts of the lockdown. Five minutes into the speech, Twitterati began to complain that the PM needs to get to the point instead of a long-winded introduction. One popular handle, with 1.3 million followers, quipped that "Modi-ji's speech should come with a 'Skip Intro' button".

I would argue that most had missed the point. The long intro was a way to set up the relationship between PM Modi - who in effect is the state - and his subjects. Mr. Modi began by invoking the idea of tapasya and tyag, two connected concepts that translate into austerity, penance and sacrifice, often identified with the figure of the sadhu. In our public culture, these terms also describe the ideal sanskaari individual who sacrifices personal gains and faces hardships for the betterment of others, usually dependent members of their family.

This notion, of an entire people sacrificing for collective good, is immediately followed by the enumeration of those sacrifices and hardships. The PM said that he knows that some people aren't getting enough to eat, some are stranded and suffering far from their homes and families. This is a smart tactic to disarm criticism of the way the government has handled the lockdown. Social media is full of stories and videos of the poor facing severe hunger, migrant workers begging to be allowed to go home, and record unemployment. The PM has acknowledged that this is a reality. But he prefaced that admission by presenting it as a willing and collective act of sacrifice - "Aap logon ne kasht sahkar bhi apne desh ko bachaya hai. Hamaare is Bharatvarsh ko bachaya hai."

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PM Modi said citizens had persevered and confronted every difficulty to ensure that India was ahead in the fight against coronavirus 

It is here that Mr. Modi introduced another crucial trope to reset the character of citizenship. He said, "You are performing your duty for the nation like a disciplined soldier. I respectfully salute you." This is a crucial move because it equates the citizen with a disciplined soldier, and the nation as an army, fighting a war. A citizenry that performs its duties in an unquestioning disciplined manner, keeping the greater good of the nation in mind, deserves the same respect as the soldier who lays down his life for the nation. In effect, it is a call for citizens to be defined by their duties and not their rights. Is this redefining India's constitution? No, because, according to the PM, this is what the shakti of 'We the People' in our constitution is all about.

Once the citizen has been reconstituted as a duty-bound sacrificing soldier, it is not difficult to answer critics with questionable 'facts'. Over the past few weeks, several journalists, domain experts and analysts have pointed out that India was initially slow in acting against the coronavirus pandemic, the screening of passengers was poorly implemented, the lockdown was imposed abruptly where there was more than a month to prepare for it, we aren't testing enough and our disease data is not transparent. Without acknowledging such criticism, the PM asserted that India acted much earlier than any other country, and is doing much better than other nations which started off in a similar situation about a month ago.

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There are concerns that India's economy, which was already growing at its slowest pace in six years, will take a severe hit amid the lockdown

His assertions will be repeated by large parts of the mainstream media, they will be quickly tweeted by ministers, ruling party politicians, government-friendly celebrities. These 'facts' will be turned into memes and distributed through WhatsApp. They will be turned into quasi-funny, quasi-passionate rants on TikTok. In short, these 'facts' about how great the Modi government has been at dealing with coronavirus will inundate public discourse and overwhelm all criticism. And it will be the duty of the soldier-citizen to accept it unquestioningly. Skepticism and criticism will, once again, become a form of traitorous, anti-national insubordination.

There's one other way in which the PM's speech chips away at the idea of the free, independent, individual citizen. P.M. Modi held out a carrot, that districts that do well in containing the spread of COVID-19, might see some amount of lockdown relaxation from April 20. The exact opposite will happen to districts where the virus spreads quickly. The individual is effectively being identified, not just with a collective, but by a geographical space. The state is resetting the idea of citizenship itself - from the individual to the collective. 

But how long can such manufacturing of consensus pay dividends? Sooner than later, people will start bristling about roti, kapda and makaan. The initial estimates that economists made about job losses caused by the lockdown was mostly about daily wagers, who make up about 40 percent of India's working population. But, in the past week, we are hearing reports of job cuts in the organised sector, including of white collar workers. Several companies have slashed salaries and others have put a chunk of their employees on furlough, which means their employment is suspended though they can still use health insurance. Small businesses have had to shut shop and have had no revenues for the past three weeks. The economic impact of the lockdown is now inside middle class living rooms and not just on their TV screens.

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Migrant workers are the worst hit due to the lockdown

Some expected PM Modi to address these anxieties by announcing the broad contours of an economic package for industry and the middle class in today's speech. He had very good reasons not to. In times of natural disasters - floods, earthquakes or pandemics - people expect the government to do things for them. They consider it the government's duty to provide relief, distribute food, treat the afflicted and then oversee an economic recovery. Governments know this and try to make political capital of such efforts by pasting photographs of political leaders and guiding relief operations in close coordination with local party cadre.

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Mr Modi intends to change this one-way relationship. An economic package that is announced as part of the state's duty towards its citizens is politically useful, but it is less potent than one where the government is seen as doing a favour to the citizens. The government must appear as a saviour and a patron for maximum electoral gains. We have seen this happen in the manner in which the Modi government distributes handouts to the poor through its various schemes, each of which directly identifies the PM as a benefactor. So, the economic package, if and when it comes, will be targeted to specific groups, with clear messaging attached to it. Each future benefit will be choreographed to a media chorus. A bland announcement in a TV speech will not have the same effect.

Critics will see this as an inept government which does not have a plan. Some will see it as cynical politics at a time of India's biggest-ever economic crisis. It will not affect the rank and file of India's ever-expanding body of citizen-soldiers, who will rally behind the leader as he gives them a sense of purpose in rethinking the nation-state. 

(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.