Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity is continuously mounting, and it seems he is unstoppable despite a massive discrepancy between his words and actions amid the Covid-19 pandemic in the world’s second-most-populous country.

All his aides including Amit Shah, his trusted henchman and hawkish minister of home affairs, are nowhere on the scene. In addition, the people of India have supported successive Hindutva-promoting publicity stunts during the pandemic. The Indian media, as always the leading cheerleaders of Modi’s agenda, have jumped wholeheartedly on to the bandwagon.

Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown on March 24 with little advance notice, and it became effective the following day. The majority of the people of India supported Modi’s call for this illogical, draconian and complete lockdown.

However, the opposition parties and economists drew a parallel with Modi’s hastily announced annulment of the legal tender of the 1,000- and 500-rupee banknotes, later known as demonetization, on November 8, 2016. Another parallel drawn was the hasty and unplanned implementation of the goods and services tax, passed by a constitutional amendment act on July 1, 2017. India has faced an economic slowdown, which many commentators say is the impact of the demonetization and GST, since 2018.

Modi comes across as inexperienced and impulsive in this context and seems to have failed to learn from the mistakes of the past, which are evinced in his hasty decision to declare a complete lockdown, which was followed by mass migrations on foot from the nation’s capital by daily-wage earners and shortages of daily essentials across the country. 

Many economists and experts believe that Modi’s announcement of the complete nationwide lockdown was superficially calculated, based on emotion, not facts and figures, and hasty by any standard as compared with any other country affected by the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

India’s case is strange for several reasons. First, experts believe India has a much less severe public health crisis due to Covid-19 than many peer emerging-market economies, as well as advanced economies. Second, the lockdown does not guarantee prevention of the spread of the virus, and even it works well, there will be a relatively minimal benefit in the reduction of the spread of infection.

Modi’s call for “social distancing” has not been maintained because of the mass exodus of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometers to their homes from major cities in every state of India. 

Third, the economic, social, and human cost is enormous as compared with the benefits. India will face widespread hunger and the likelihood of the deaths of millions of people if  the lockdown continues to the end of April.

The period mid-March to mid-April is the season for harvesting the rabi crops and sowing of the zaid crops in India. The rabi crops include wheat, barley, oats (cereals), chickpea/gram, mushoor (red lentil), linseed and mustard and comprise almost 57% of India’s agricultural gross domestic product. The zaid crops, sown immediately after the rabi harvest, include watermelon, cucumber, muskmelon, sunflower, sugarcane, bitter gourd, pumpkin, bottle gourd, and green leafy vegetables and also contribute significantly to India’s agricultural GDP.

If rabi crops are not harvested, and zaid crops are not sown on time, India will face a severe food crisis in the future. If these crops are not harvested or planted right now, farmers will have only the next year to look forward to.

Modi looks as if he doesn’t want to learn from past mistakes. Any effective public policy is always based on scientific logic, the most recent and reliable facts, figures, and plausible and cogent evidence. However, Modi’s announcement of the complete lockdown seems totally baseless and impulsive.

On the real coronavirus frontline, state governments are struggling to manage medical and other supplies and are mostly coping with their own resources and means. They are facing severe shortages of testing kits and personal protection equipment (PPE), medical masks, and other essential supplies.

Many states have accused the disbursement of the prime minister’s Corona Care Fund of being opaque, and many have yet to obtain their share of the funds. However, Modi, quite characteristically, claims all the credit for any good work done by state governments.

‘Challenge the darkness’

Modi, again quite characteristically, doesn’t care about these facts. Through a video message on the ninth day of the nationwide lockdown, he urged the people of India to switch off their household lights for nine minutes at 9pm on Sunday and to light diyas (traditional Hindu lamps), flashlights, candles and mobile-phone lights in a symbolic act to “challenge the darkness spread by the corona crisis.”

“Listen carefully, on April 5, at 9pm, turn off all the lights in your homes, stand at your doors or in your balconies, and light candles or diyas, torches or mobile flashlights for nine minutes,” Modi said in the video message. “This collective spirit of yours, of the nation, can be seen manifesting itself during these times of lockdown.”

A majority of urban Indians turned off the lights in their residences and lit diyas, lamps, candles, and flashlights at their balconies and doorsteps last Sunday to respond to Modi’s call to “challenge the darkness” spread by the coronavirus crisis. Despite opposition leaders and other prominent people of India questioning Modi’s move and terming it superstitious, he has succeeded in promoting his Hindutva agenda even in the pandemic.

Modi often portrays himself as an ardent devotee of the Hindu god Shiva. He worshiped and meditated at the Kedarnath Temple of Uttarakhand during the general election last year to impress voters. I consulted a professor of astrology at Nepal Sanskrit University to understand why Modi chose that particular time and date for his “challenge the darkness” call and was surprised by the answer.

The professor, on condition of anonymity, told me an interesting fact about the date and timing that Modi chose. He said that April 5 was the Pradosha Vart (a fast to propitiate and appease Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati) date for devotees of Shiva. According to the Hindu calendar, there are two Pradosha Vart dates every month. It is celebrated on the 13th day of both the full moon and crescent moon.

It is no coincidence that the same day was also Bhanu Pradosha Vart. When a Pradosha Vart falls on a Sunday, it is called a Bhanu Pradosha Vart. The Bhanu Pradosha Vart is observed by worshiping Lord Shiva for good health, longevity, and a peaceful mind, according to the Hindu texts. Similarly, on Bhanu Pradosha Vart night, people recite the Shiva Tandav Strotram and Shiva Pradosh Strotram – incantations that propitiate Lord Shiva.

The timing of the Pradosha Vart last Sunday was 7:24pm to 8:59pm in New Delhi, and as Modi called upon the nation to light diyas, candles and flashlights a minute after the Pradosha Vart, he made many people unwitting devotees of Lord Shiva.

Modi is a master of political communication, and he can even use adversity skillfully to make the Indian people feel that their PM is doing all he can for the nation, and the people support him by taking part wholeheartedly in exercises such as the one seen last Sunday. Modi has the capacity to rally the people when he thinks his popularity needs to be raised despite severe deficits in what his government actually delivers.

Modi organizes publicity stunts to make Indian people believe what he wants them to believe. He leaves no stone unturned in this regard, with skillful manipulation of the citizenry. Modi’s move was not to challenge Covid-19 but to promote his Hindu agenda in a crisis and to enhance his political popularity despite the sub-optimal performance of his government in combating the crisis.

Modi focuses on increasing his reputation through symbolism rather than by anticipation, performance, and resilience in combating the Covid-19 crisis. The tragedy is that the Indian people have fallen hook, line and sinker for these stunts and rationality has been abandoned by both ordinary people and sycophantic media.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.