Prime MInister Modi lights a flame[Photo from Prime Minister Modi's Twitter feed]

[This article is based on an original blog which appeared on the author’s India-focused current affairs blog, Riding the Elephant.  Opinion articles do not reflect the position of the Round Table Editorial Board.]

People follow Modi’s call to light candles and lamps to demonstrate unity

India has always existed, and survived, in a state of turmoil. The sheer noise and clamour, the surging crowds, with apparent disorder at every turn, suggest to an observer that the country is in a state of chaos.

But it is not chaos because, in normal times, people know their place and their role in the system. They know their prospects or lack of them, and what they have to do day and night.

That applies to everyone, from the beggar on the street corner and the tailor sitting on the sidewalk with his sewing machine or the small shop keeper in a busy bazaar to the tycoon sweeping by in his Mercedes or Lamborghini, and the politician strutting importantly through the crowds. It also applies to the ordinary people scraping a living, visiting the bazaar for milk and vegetables where the police use lathis to thrash those that appear vulnerable.

This disorderly order can survive localised natural catastrophes such as floods or man-made disasters like railway crashes and fires in overcrowded slums. Central and state governments instantly award cash compensation and mount semi-successful attempts to rescue and help. People rebuild their lives, until the next time when the cycle repeats.

What this way of life cannot cope with so smoothly is sudden unexpected action on a countrywide scale that immediately creates a new and inescapable crisis.

Narendra Modi triggered one of those crises on a personal whim in November 2016 when he gave four hours notice that 85% of India’s currency was being removed from circulation. His action broke the system and caused economic chaos. The influential behaved normally and used the system to bribe bank officials who accepted their money, but tens of millions of people running one-person and other small businesses lost out and the economy has not recovered.

Last Sunday (April 5) Modi tried to bring order and a sense of unity following the potential devastation of the system caused by the coronavirus and by a consequential curfew and virtual economic shutdown that he ordered on March 24.

At his request, people across the country lit candles, torches and other lamps in homes and other buildings for nine minutes to demonstrate the country’s determination to win the fight against coronavirus.

Candlelight vigils are usually staged by crowds as signs of respect or protest, but Modi’s call chimed neatly with people recently singing from balconies and lighting candles in Italy to offset the loneliness of a lockdown, and families clapping outside their homes in Britain twice in the past two weeks to thank the country’s National Health Service and home care workers.

Though there were inevitably some gaps, the country-wide display demonstrated Modi’s unique leadership appeal. He lit a ceremonial lamp in Delhi and was supported by official and party organisations elsewhere.

Once again he showed that he has the pulse of the people and, tapping into Hindu philosophy, can win support and motivate people, not just in elections and battles with Pakistan, but in a human crisis.

In some homes, it was the staff who led the moves, proudly going to the gates of homes. Indians living abroad who support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party also joined in. Some people really believed Modi had found a way to defeat the virus. In some places fireworks sounded like a replay of the annual Diwali festival. Hindu devotional songs, mantras and national anthem were also played.

Modi is being criticised for constantly appealing to people to make sacrifices without saying enough about what the government can and will be doing. Yet last Sunday, he won the support of the people.

His mass appeal as a leader is strong. As Shekhar Gupta, a prominent media editor, put it in the Business Standard on April 4, Modi is “able to speak directly and convincingly to a large enough section of Indians who will take his word for gospel, and his order like a papal bull.” No prime minister since the 1980s had been able to do that.

Modi’s aim was to bring some sense of unity and calm at a time when the real impact of the virus has yet to emerge for the country’s 1.3 billion population. The numbers of confirmed cases continues to rise, now topping 5,000 with about 150 deaths, and a surge seems inevitable as urban slums and other densely populated areas are hit.

So far the most widespread impact has been economic. Millions of people instantly lost their livelihoods on March 24 when Modi went on television, demonetisation-style, to announce an immediate three-week national curfew.

That killed urban jobs for migrant workers who are part of what is known as India’s massive informal sector, moving from rural areas to urban centres to earn a living and sending money home to their families. Instead of staying off the streets, they swarmed in thousands out of cities and began travelling, many on foot, across the country to their home states (some closed their borders), almost certainly spreading the virus on the way.

Modi has been widely attacked for triggering that panic without any apparent preparations for helping the poor and jobless. He astutely asked “for forgiveness” on television a few days after ordering the shutdown and justifyied his lack of warning and pre-planning by saying, “India with its 130 crore population has no choice but to take the steps that have been taken”, thus side-stepping personal responsibility.

Nevertheless, while there have been criticisms, especially of brutal police action against the homeward bound migrants, Modi has been praised for taking decisive action and the curfew has been widely enforced and obeyed.

The risk of mass infection is however serious. This was demonstrated by a gathering from March 13th to 15th of some 2,000 people at a centre run by the Tablighi Jamaat, a leading Muslim missionary movement, in the Nizamuddin West area of Delhi. Some of the attendees came from abroad and there was then a mass exodus to destinations across the country, spreading the virus.

This has triggered emotions against Muslims, and there has been a nationwide hunt to track down those who were at the conclave and people they have been with since they left Delhi. Over 9,000 people have been found and quarantined so far, with some arrests for alleged misbehaviour. More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed linked to the event.

The government has launched a mobile app called Aarogya Setu (A Bridge of Health) to help people assess their risk of becoming infected and to alert authorities if they have come in close contact with those who are ill.

There was been widespread speculation about Modi’s choice of April 5th for the celebration of lights. It coincided with Vamana Dwadashi, a Hindu festival when, pundits say, the candles and other lights focussed into a powerful beam and strike at the heart of the coronavirus. Also noted was the coincidence of the auspicious figure nine – Modi made the announcement on the ninth day of the lockdown, calling for the vigil to begin at 9pm and last for nine minutes.

The prime minister’s three-week lockdown has undoubtedly had a major impact by curbing the spread of the virus so far, but it has hit an economy that is already in bad shape.

Modi talked last week to chief ministers about formulating “a common exit strategy to ensure staggered re-emergence of the population once lockdown ends”, but it looks like being extended when it runs out on April 14. Given India’s poor sanitation and health care, the risks of early relaxation would surely be too great.

The huge challenge for Modi, and for governments in the states, is now to find ways of containing and managing the virus while getting some life back into the economy – and providing help for the poor – so that the daily system of life in India does not break down.

John Elliott is a member of the Round Table’s editorial board.