Last Saturday and Sunday, March 14 and 15 to be precise, I was preoccupied with a mass contact programme organised by the West Bengal unit of the BJP centred on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The programme took me to Cossipore and Behala — two extreme ends of Kolkata. Naturally, as happens in any political programme that has one eye on elections — the elections to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation were due in late-April — the visits were concentrated around slums where there are big concentration of voters.
That weekend, in Kolkata at least, there was minimum mass awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic that had begun unsettling large parts of the world. I did not sight individuals with masks and the notion of social distancing seemed a non-idea in localities where the idea of privacy was notional. Although I kept a small bottle of hand sanitiser in my pocket, I was afraid of being seen to use it since, for the other political workers, it was business as usual. People occasionally stuck out their hands and it was courteous to reciprocate. The alternative was to appear stand-offish.
I mention this experience in Kolkata for two reasons. First, it is clear that news does not travel at the same speed. In a large and diverse country such as India, a state of heightened panic in one part does not mean a similar response in another part. Last weekend, when the numbers infected by coronavirus in India was still below 100, the feeling that it-won’t-happen-here was widespread. Secondly, it took Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s broadcast last Thursday evening for the whole country to be aware that the COVID-19 pandemic was a real threat that affected every citizen. Modi has been criticised by those who hate him politically for mouthing platitudes and not offering any concrete package. They miss the point. The important first step was to spread awareness. I believe that in announcing the Janata Curfew for Sunday, March 22, Modi succeeded in reaching out to the whole of India.
It is always difficult to gauge how far precautionary measures will work in India. Many of the cases of coronavirus have resulted from wilful negligence on the part of those who ought to have known better. In Kolkata, the son of a senior bureaucrat was so overcome by a sense of entitlement, that he failed to get himself tested after returning from London. Instead he continued his social interactions as if life was normal. In Lucknow, some privileged people threw a big party that included a singer who had also returned from London and not got herself tested. This lapse has resulted in large numbers of politicians being exposed to the dreaded disease. It is broadly the same story in Bhubaneshwar and Bhilwara.
Whether it is elite culpability, official negligence or plain ignorance, the threat from COVID-19 is now very real. There are umpteen forecasts that proffer doomsday scenarios. One Indian-American expert is being wheeled around from studio to portal to suggest that at least a million Indians will die from the pandemic. The reason for this warning is, however, transparently political: to broadcast the assertion that the Modi government is inept and incapable of doing anything to safeguard the well-being and livelihood of people.
Any government finds itself having to make very difficult choices. If draconian measures — the most extreme being the Wuhan model — are put in place, there is certain to be an immediate knock on effect on the economy. The less the health measures, the less will be the economic consequences — at least in the short term. For any government to try and manage the right balance between safeguarding lives and safeguarding people’s livelihood is difficult. Whatever is done will invite rebuke from people who may have some other agenda. Yet, the fact is that in moments of crisis and even panic, people invariably look to the government to show the way.
Take the case of the evacuation of Indians stranded overseas. In normal circumstances, individuals should try and make their own arrangements to either protect themselves wherever they are located or find their own way back to India. However, the expectation is that the government must charter an Air India aircraft and fly the stranded Indians back home, free of cost. To some extent the government has already evacuated Indians from China and Italy but there are demands from the Philippines and even from Lithuania, to name just two, for evacuation.
The demands prompt a difficult question: would these demands have arisen if Air India wasn’t government-controlled? And if Air India is pushed into fulfilling national obligations, why should we look at its bottom line? In the face of such an emergency, will the government be right to press with its total privatisation?
There are no clear answers but it is now apparent that ordinary rules of the game are not applicable in dealing with a crisis that could escalate dramatically in the coming weeks. Should the government, for example, suspend all principles of fiscal responsibility and spend lavishly to protect, as far as possible, the livelihood of people. They have done so in the UK with the government guaranteeing at least half the wages of those who will be made redundant after the lockdown of cities. Can India afford such a measure, especially since revenue collections are likely to fall dramatically with the truncation of economic activity?
The Prime Mpinister will have to take a call urgently. These are exceptional situations and it won’t do to adhere to the rule book. India will have to establish new frontiers for this new abnormality. The government will have to take giant strides to cope. The unresolved question is: how much sacrifice are citizens prepared for? There are no precedents to guide us.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee
to the Rajya Sabha.