As Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his speech and called for a “janata curfew” and clapping in unison, I read comments from young people. On the curfew, “what’s this gimmick?”, on the clapping, “this is absurd”. “Government is checking how much we obey”. “Exactly. An obedience test”. “Are we obedient cattle?” “Savvy political move to show how everyone listens to Modi”.
Speeches, when a leader demands behaviour change from his people, have become pivotal moments in history. PM Modi’s was a classic leadership speech: It had inspirational rhetoric a la Winston Churchill before the world war, and a dash of Mahatma Gandhi’s call to collective action. Modi knows he’s facing the Herculean task of convincing us to follow rules. What he introduced to the nation is a unique and radical concept for Indians. If there are rules, our first instinct is to figure out how to break them. A red light is optional. A queue sets into motion ideas on how to jump it. If entry is barred, there’s a way to get in. The government banned spam messages, but it took only two days for companies to find their way around it.
Amazing ways to cheat in exams have been found. Dodging taxes has been the norm. Stealing from your company has been normal. During demonetisation, wealthy people opened accounts in their domestic helps’ names. Black money or taxes too high for you? Become an NRI.
Hinduism does not have the Ten Commandments or fatwas. Hinduism does not have a founder. We do not have to obey. Hinduism is left for every Hindu to interpret, which accounts for the common occurrence of two priests fighting at a wedding ceremony. The Bhagvad Gita is a dialogue and an argument. There are many interpretations of it and it is left for us to decide who is right. The Vedas set no rules. At their crux is philosophy and lifestyle suggestions. There is a strong Hindu tradition of questioning authority. If there is a debate on Hinduism, it is rare to find a space where all agree. We have an innate culture of individualism, and for centuries, we have learned how to beat a crippling bureaucratic system as a means of survival.
Now, Modi has demanded a behaviour change from us in reference to social distancing in his call for a “janata curfew” on March 22. His second move, asking the nation to clap together, is to demand that we function in unison in a disciplined manner.
Obedience is anathema to us, particularly this generation, and is taken as curb on personal freedom. Obedience is also anathema to the wealthy and privileged. Both groups like to be “special”. Obeying and doing one thing together makes both groups feel reduced and feel like sheep. We have seen irresponsible behaviour — running away, hiding, and infecting other people. Modi has taken on the impossible task of bringing obedience and discipline to our culture. In war and crises such as this one, making people obey rules is essential.
What he has also asked us to do is practise, which is another thing we hate. Why practise? We’ll just do it when the time comes. Guess what? Maybe it’s not about you this time. Maybe it’s about doing everything like everyone else and not feeling that you are losing your individuality or freedom. The larger good means celebrating being ordinary and like everyone else. Your freedom and individuality can be used for unusual methods of social distancing and making creative sounds while clapping.
The clapping call is about learning how to do something together in unison without feeling diminished or silly for obeying. Yes, clapping is silly. But, therein lies the teaching and the lesson. Do it because you’ve been asked to, like everyone else, even if you’re not a Modi fan.
With the economy heading for a battering, job losses, and businesses closing down, Modi is preparing the nation for when he will ask for sacrifices from the people. A sense of nationalism inspires sacrifice, just as when a nation is at war. That’s what he’s setting the ground for. And maybe people will now listen. With due respect to Arundhati Roy; this is not the time for a Republic of One. This is the time for One Republic.
The writer is a senior journalist