Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apology during his “Mann Ki Baat” address on Sunday has come from the heart. He was pained to see the helplessness of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers gathered at the Delhi-UP border, hoping to go home despite the clear advisory by the Centre to stay put wherever they were. The apology should be put in context. When he took the difficult decision on the three-week-long lockdown, PM Modi hoped his action would be supported by state governments and the country’s bureaucrats. But it seems they — particularly the Delhi government — failed to discharge their responsibilities efficiently. But instead of pointing fingers, the PM magnanimously apologised to the people, who he values the most.
A global crisis, such as the one posed by the coronavirus, comes rarely in one’s lifetime. It has brought many developed countries to their knees. Nations seem to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea — whether to take unpleasant steps to contain the spread of the virus at a considerable economic cost or face the tsunami of incalculable death and destruction by hesitating to take unpopular steps.
The situation was one of the biggest challenges of PM Modi’s long political career. A nationwide lockdown, never imposed in India’s history, was an option extensively debated among his colleagues. Sources suggest that many expressed apprehensions about it, saying it was unchartered territory, a step which would bring untold miseries to the poor and cause lasting damage to the economy. Experts and advisors preferred a partial lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. PM Modi must have agonised over it but he went for broke, like he has, successfully, on several occasions in the past. He disregarded vote bank politics and put the interest of the nation first. This is in sharp contrast to US President Donald Trump who kept worrying about being re-elected if the economy tanked.
Modi’s decision appeared to be well thought out, contrary to what his critics think. If the coronavirus spreads to thickly populated localities, our healthcare system will be overwhelmed and perhaps broken. The fundamentals of our economy, in contrast, are strong and the financial costs of a complete lockdown, though considerable, will not cripple the economy.
The decision on the lockdown must have been an exceptionally difficult one for PM Modi. It may have been prompted by the open violations of the janata curfew by a lot of misguided citizens. But he may have also seen that the majority appeared receptive to the idea of a country-wide lockdown. Indeed, by the evening of March 22, PM Modi had suggested that lockdowns over a longer period were a possibility. The janata curfew proved a dress-rehearsal for the 21-day lockdown. It was also an initiative to sensitise the people and educate them about the dangers posed by the deadly virus. It was about introducing the concept of social distancing in a country where people live cheek by jowl and where the concept is alien to them.
Staunch political adversaries, such as Rahul Gandhi and the Congress President Sonia Gandhi, have described the lockdown as a step in the right direction. It was welcomed by many other leaders at the Centre as well as in the states. Globally too it has been praised. The US and UK media have given it wide coverage. The decision has received a huge thumbs up from the Indian people, which include his critics, including critics in the media.
The tough decision was backed by priority-based announcements. First, a Rs 15,000-crore stimulus to strengthen the country’s fragile healthcare infrastructure. This was followed up by the government’s decision to provide flexibility to meet the statutory deadlines and also open the treasury to the poor and needy. The RBI has made a series of decisions to give a fillip to markets and corporates. There will be more help coming in the following days and weeks.
The first week of the lockdown is over. People are staying indoors. The problems of the small farmers and migrant workers have drawn the media’s attention. The government had envisaged these problems. The Rs 1.7 lakh crore financial stimulus will take care of these communities, thought it might take a few days for the cash to be deposited in their bank accounts.
The movement of migrant workers does present a grave problem. The state governments need to step up their efforts to help them with food and lodging. Home Minister Amit Shah has urged the states to ensure that the needs of these workers are met. Several state governments, such as Telangana, Punjab and Haryana, have risen to the occasion but other states need to scale up their efforts to help the poor and needy
Come May and we will see Modi’s decision for the nationwide lockdown being vindicated. We will continue to have a relatively low number of coronavirus cases — a situation which will easily be handled by our frontline warriors. The PM will need the support of the people and state governments to make this happen.
The writer is a national spokesperson of BJP. Views expressed are personal