No political crisis from days of yore or elections past has been a harsher test of Narendra Modi’s leadership than this Chinese virus. So, I waited for the Prime Minister to speak before sitting down to write this. Like you, I will tonight turn the lights off in my house for nine minutes at 9 pm and light a candle to show nationalist solidarity in the war against this invisible enemy. I must add, at the risk of having the BJP once more ask for this column to be shut down, that I had hoped for more.
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The Prime Minister has a view of the battlefield that is more panoramic than we have under curfew so I would have liked to hear him tell us whether his strategy to win the battle against COVID-19 is working. I would have also liked to hear his views on how he plans to mitigate the terrible economic crisis that already looms. Those who survive on daily wages openly admit that their choice is to die of hunger or die of the virus. India faces the same problems in this extraordinarily terrifying moment in time as every other country, but the difference between us and developed western countries is that more than 80 per cent of our economy is in what is called the ‘unorganised sector’. We know that in the US nearly ten million Americans have already registered as unemployed, but we have no way of knowing how many Indians have become jobless and are likely to remain jobless till this virus is defeated.
Political leaders everywhere face the ultimate test of their leadership today, but Modi’s test will be harder not just in trying to save us from economic collapse. But, also in trying to destroy this ruthless killer because all he has are primitive tools. As I write this come stories from Mumbai about people testing positive in Dharavi. In normal times foreign visitors are taken for poverty tourism to Dharavi as it is famous for being Asia’s largest slum. In normal times it does indeed have a grotesque sort of charm but now it has become so dangerous a place that those who live in fine buildings in the city are ordering their drivers, maids and other domestic employees to stop coming to work.
They are terrified that if they come they will bring the virus with them from the slums in which they live. If they avoid getting it in their crowded, windowless tenements they will surely pick it up on the trains.
It is very, very important to stop the virus from spreading exponentially but is this even possible? If its trajectory follows the pattern that we have seen in Europe and the United States, how will we cope? If the most efficient health services in the world are running short of ventilators and masks how will our public hospitals manage where even soap is a luxury and where dangerously sick patients will have to try and survive in filthy, crowded wards. We thanked our frontline corona warriors in advance on the day of the Janata Curfew by ringing bells and banging our ‘thalis’ but can we now ensure that they have the protective equipment they desperately need?
Speaking of our frontline warriors I have to say that the most dreadful story last week was of healthcare workers being beaten up by mobs in Indore, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Those who did this should be jailed as should the head of the Tablighi Jamaat when he is caught and charged with criminal negligence leading to mass murder. Islamic preachers are the worst enemies of the Muslim community always but this time they have endangered all of us. From the Tablighi Jamaat I received in my mailbox a missive explaining the reasons why the preachers’ convention had gone ahead despite WHO declaring a pandemic on March 11.
It was a meaningless attempt at whitewashing a grave crime since Maulana Saad’s speeches, that I have listened to carefully, indicate in the clearest terms that he encouraged his flock to keep going to congregations in mosques. He assured believers that if they died at prayer in a mosque they would go straight to paradise and those 72 virgins. Views of similar stupidity have been expressed by Muslim preachers from Gaza to Lahore. And, the PM of Pakistan. It horrified me to hear Imran Khan say that what would save Pakistanis from COVID-19 was their faith.
Our Prime Minister has said more than once that our religious teachers must guide people in the right direction but so should he. In these days of curfews and uncertainty he needs to lead from the front. Instead of deputing lowly officials in the Health Ministry to hold a daily briefing, this is something he should do himself. It is something that must also start being done daily by our chief ministers. There is not much reassurance they can give against this unseen enemy but it might in some measure make ordinary Indians confident that there are people at the very top who have taken charge and that everything that can be done is being done to ensure that we win this war. Turning off our lights at 9 pm tonight for nine minutes and lighting candles is a good gesture of solidarity but that is all that it is. A gesture.
This article first appeared in print edition on April 5 under the title “Fifth Column: More than gestures needed now”.
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