Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation invariably ratchets up the national anxiety level. Within minutes of the announcement, people begin wondering, what is he going to say now? For a change, in the hours preceding Tuesday's speech, people were less apprehensive. This may not be good news for Modi – the communicator par excellence.
Possibly, most reasoned that, with the Bihar election underway, the Model Code of Conduct would prevent him from 'giving' anything to people. Opposition parties may be critical of Modi for skirting economic issues, but it wasn’t possible for him to even cite what the government had undertaken and delivered so far due to the code.
Furthermore, Modi also could not be expected to say anything on India's military conflict with China, especially with Rahul Gandhi asking him to "tell the nation the date by which you will throw the Chinese out of Indian territory."
PM Modi, the ‘Tau’
Most reasoned that he would say something on the COVID-19 pandemic and it did not take knowledge of rocket science for people to figure out that he would serve a word or two of caution during the festive season.
In a conversation the other day, the discussion veered to what prefix would Modi like for himself when people refer to him in the future? If it was chacha for Jawaharlal Nehru and amma for Indira Gandhi (and beta or bhai that Arvind Kejriwal describes himself to people in radio ads), what would be Modi's preferred relationship tag?
The conclusion was tau, the universal elder uncle always ready with a word or two of gyaan or sagely advice for every occasion. This is a role in which Modi has revelled in, over the past six years.
It started with his maiden speech on Independence Day, when he addressed the nation from the historic ramparts of the Red Fort. Rape of women was among the issues he chose to talk about.
But, Modi had stated that if the victims were someone's sister or daughter, rapists too were sons or brothers of someone. His message was emphatic – families needed to be more responsible and take preventive measures in time.
Three Reasons Why Modi’s Advice Could Not Have Been More Timely
Modi sent out the same message, insofar as the coronavirus is concerned. This was not the first time that Modi broadcast the do gaz doori, mask hai zaroori slogan and certainly shall not be the last time. By no chance, is this an incorrect advice and certainly could not have been more timely for three reasons.
First, ever since the process of unlocking India began in June, a sense of complacency has been pronounced among people. Mask compliance levels are low in most parts of the country and physical distancing is hardly seen in almost every market. Modi, thereby, does no disservice to the nation by repeating this advice ad nauseam.
The second reason is more important. A couple of days ago, the government-appointed committee of scientists declared that coronavirus epidemic in India may have already peaked in mid-September. It further stated the disease will likely "run its course" by February next year, provided use of masks and physical distancing measures continue at the current level.
This well-publicised report added to people’s smugness and sent out the message that the disease was ebbing despite poor mask compliance and frequent overcrowding of public places.
Those fatigued by leading a restrictive life, would also find reason to be 'braver' and violate protocols in place. The report certainly was at odds with warnings being issued by several health experts, that the disease graph could rise abruptly with the onset of winters.
The government needed to recover its script and what better could be the way to do this than Modi-speak, for people at least listen to him although remaining deficient in following his instructions.
The third reason why Modi's advices are apt for the moment stems from the onset of the festive season. Durga Puja in eastern India and Dussehra in north followed by Diwali almost everywhere and then Chhat Puja, mainly in Bihar, traditionally bring everything to a halt.
The prime minister's advice to avoid overcrowding at pandals and festival grounds is appropriate. I continue to have a bone to pick at the list of festivals stopping at Guru Nanak's Birth Anniversary and not running till Christmas.
Modi rightly quoted the Kabir doha – that the farmer must not luxuriate at the sight of lush standing crop and instead be aware of anjhoo jhola or trouble, till the crop comes home. Tau Modi was correct to remind people that the "lockdown may be over, the virus isn't".
The trouble, however, with this these sagacious advices is the tau often doesn’t follow own homilies.
Recall for instance, the sordid episode involving a senior Haryana BJP's leader's son stalking a Chandigarh radio jockey, virtual role model of Modi's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, yet being defended by party leaders.
Not Leading by Example
Likewise, it is good that the advisory was issued to prevent religious congregations. But what about the other 'festival' that is running concurrently in Bihar? Public election rallies are being held by all parties despite the initial expectation, that the nature of campaigning will be predominantly virtual and poll messages would be delivered on mobile handsets.
Plans have been drawn for Modi to personally address several public rallies, the first of which is planned in the Durga Puja period that is enthusiastically celebrated in Bihar as well.
Party leaders will certainly leave no stone unturned to ensure large gatherings. Besides, Yogi Adityanath too is going to be a 'star campaigner' and his presence will add to the rush.
Leaders are expected to lead by example. Sadly, this has not been the case with the prime minister and several of his ministerial and party colleagues.
As a result, Tuesday's address, however timely and pertinent it may have been, runs the risk of being followed more in violation.
(The writer is an author and senior journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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