The Big Change In This, Modi’s Fourth Speech – And Why

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his fourth address to the nation on the Wuhan Coronavirus, but one that was subtly different than those that had gone before. There was no call, this time, for some sort of exhibition of solidarity. Our balconies were left alone for once. Instead, there was a stark warning that communities had better monitor and police their own reaction to the lockdown - and those that did so more effectively would be rewarded by an earlier relaxation of the more stringent lockdown regulations.

There was another big change, too. The Prime Minister emphasised that the decision to extend the lockdown came with the assent of - indeed, one might say at the behest of - state chief ministers. This follows ample publicity of his weekend meeting with Chief Ministers, as well as leaks and statements that they had asked for the extension.

What's going on here? Modi doesn't normally like to have other people take credit for his decisions. But if you put that together with a bit of political patting of his own back about the speed of India's reaction to the emerging virus threat, a picture begins to emerge. There seems to be genuine concern that the lockdown, while initially popular, is hurting. And that an extension of the lockdown might have been politically dangerous if Modi tried to carry it on his own political charisma alone. That's why there was a summary of what he has already got right, and the reminder that this, for once, is not just his decision.

There are some things worth worrying about regarding this extension, though nobody can claim to have all the answers. The first is this: what, precisely, has the government done with the time it has bought? The Prime Minister said that healthcare has been spruced up, some hospitals have been dedicated to COVID-19, and so on. Not of all of this is directly substantiated. For example, saying you have COVID-dedicated hospitals does not necessarily mean that you have increased overall intensive care capacity, which is the real constraint. The PM pointed out that India now has more than 220 testing labs, but the question remains why we have such a low penetration of tests. Indians need to know that the time that their sacrifices have bought means that India is not just "flattening the curve" of infections, but also that it is better prepared to isolate and treat the outbreaks.

The next question that we should ask is about the nature of the local re-openings and how hot-spots are being identified. This must be a transparent system. There is legitimate concern, given rhetoric from the government and its supporters, that areas with more marginalised and minority individuals will be singled out. After all, it has already misused testing data - which, given the pattern and scale of testing, is not a good representation of the prevalence of the coronavirus in the population at large - to give the impression that it is Muslims who are responsible for spreading the disease. The notion that the Nizamuddin cluster was the only such cluster of infections is unlikely. Some in the Indian media, who have never met a crisis they could not turn into a Hindu-Muslim battle, are complicit in spreading this disinformation. It is vital that the government correct this rhetoric, or any "harsh" measures to control the virus' spread will prove divisive. Unlike, say, the BJP chief minister of Karnataka, the Prime Minister did not use this opportunity to push back against the blame-Muslims narrative. That's unfortunate.


Finally, the Prime Minister has said that new guidelines on easing the lockdown are being made taking into account the needs of the poor, and those earning a daily wage. That's another change - the original lockdown decision didn't seem to anticipate the effect on the livelihood of India's most vulnerable groups. But the fact remains that, in this speech, the PM did not give us an idea of what the next step to protect and revive India's economy would be. According to the IMF, India's growth this year will be around 2 per cent, its worst in decades. This might be an unavoidable consequence of the battle against the virus. But any such economic crisis must have a speedy government response - not simply more spending, but a comprehensive plan that ensures people have enough to eat and that companies can survive the months of downturn. Simply asking them not to fire workers, as the Prime Minister did, is hardly an economic plan. That's asking for charity - and, when push comes to shove, for-profit businesses are not going to be charitable, whether a popular Prime Minister would like them to be or not. 

Everywhere across the world, it is understood that it is government policy that will have to step in to put the economy in the deep freeze to preserve it - whether by scaling up payments to unemployed workers, lending directly to small businesses that maintain their employee strength, or something else. It is not clear what India's government has as its equivalent plan. The Reserve Bank of India has stepped in to ensure large borrowers can still borrow, existing welfare schemes have been marginally increased. But that is simply not enough. If the Prime Minister is genuinely worried about the impact on Indians of the lockdown - and, judging by the careful way in which he presented this decision as a consensus one, he is - then his government should show it through taking actual action on both the economic front and in terms of increasing testing and ICU beds. Perhaps that needs a fifth speech? 

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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