A leader’s prime task during crisis is to keep the peoples’ spirit high: Friday’s appeal, unleashing the power of positivity, did just that.

 

 Listening to Narendra Modi’s video broadcast on Friday morning I was reminded of a stanza from a Sahir Ludhianvi lyric of the 1961 movie, Hum Dono: “Barbadion ka sog manana fazool tha, main barbadion ka jashn manata chala gaya” (it would have been inconsequential to mourn disaster, I preferred to celebrate each downturn). In this hour of national peril the Prime Minister, perhaps taking a leaf out of Winston Churchill’s exhortation during the Great War, was boosting the morale of the people and inducing them to stand united and face the dark days by lighting a lamp or flash a torchlight while switching off electric lights at home on the night of 5 April to portray India’s resolve to overcome the calamity, which the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described as the biggest ever crisis facing humankind since the Second World War.
The “thaali and taali” moment of 22 March evening had seen India respond in unison to Modi’s call for applauding the effort of health personnel who are at the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus calamity. This perhaps prepared the nation for the hard days which followed when the lockdown was clamped. Cynics had pooh-poohed the 22 March event. These worthies perhaps overlooked that a few days later, prior to going into quarantine as he too had contracted the virus, Boris Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street in London and clapped his hands to applaud UK’s medical staff. Modi’s Friday appeal has been described by Shashi Tharoor as a “feel good moment” and Ramchandra Guha said it was a “farce at the time of tragedy”. A leader’s prime task during crisis is to keep the peoples’ spirit high: Friday’s appeal, unleashing the power of positivity, did just that.
Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has described the present times as “coronacoma”: “economic equivalent of a medically induced coma in which some brain functions are deliberately shut down to give patient time to heal”. The lockdown can be understood in these terms. The fallout has been tedious. It has caused untold hardship, especially to the migrant labourers, who, in the absence of proper communication, decided to trek on foot to return to their home and hearth in the villages. In Delhi, local authorities even provided transport to the Uttar Pradesh border and that created abashment. Had a communication package been put in place prior to the lockdown, perplexity could have been avoided. When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was enforced then too lack of elucidation caused disorientation. One stark reality that has emerged in recent months during the impasse is the total absence of political machinery to disseminate proper information and in the present case, to provide succour. Total dependence on overstretched official resources has its limitations. Political organisation ought not be limited to mobilising votes during elections. In times of crisis, be it war, natural calamity or disease, petty politicking should be circumvented in the altar of concord.
Earlier there used to be a robust civil defence network. Those born prior to the 1960s may remember that every morning at nine a siren used to be sounded by civil defence: people used it, besides the evening nine o’clock beep from the All India Radio, to calibrate their watches. The sirens were sounded to ensure that the disaster warning system was functional. Those who have lived through the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars may recall the air-raid sirens and the blackouts. Civil defence volunteers used to be at hand to provide information and relief. In recent years, this remnant of the War years has been done away with. The 2004 tsunami brought in its wake the National Disaster Management Authority and the National Disaster Management Force. This machinery has rendered yeoman service during floods and earthquakes since. However, the disaster of a pandemic was perhaps not structured into this relief mechanism—corona may induce the change.
Speculation that the lockdown may go beyond 14 April has been repudiated by the government. In his video conference with Chief Ministers on 2 April, Prime Minister has discussed ways of staggering the lifting of the lockdown. Calamity and disease do not strike as per almanac: so far India has managed to contain the pandemic to levels below the catastrophe in many developed countries. A long haul lies ahead. On 1 April, the government has issued orders to ensure the manufacturing of essential goods and secure the supply chains of such activity. Pre-lockdown inventory has sustained the supply of essentials. Formulation of protocols for availability of essentials and medicines will be an uphill task.
Faith, and not misanthropy, is the need of the hour.

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