The past few days have witnessed influential — though not representative — voices arguing passionately for the lifting of the lockdown that began on March 25. From leading members of India Inc such as Rajiv Bajaj and Narayana Murthy to sundry English-language journalists who have milked dry the miserable plight of desperate migrant workers, there is a demand to put an end to the state-imposed restrictions and moving immediately to the new normal. The demand is most vociferous in the old Congress ecosystem and the insistence on moving to a post-lockdown world is laced with the conclusion that the entire exercise has failed — India has, after all, crossed China in the tally of people infected with coronavirus — and that the blame for the failure must rest squarely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The PM is being blamed for forcing a lockdown without the necessary preparations, for not doling out more cash into the hands of the poor and vulnerable, for not getting migrant workers back to their homes earlier, for communalising the fight against COVID-19 and for not ramping up India’s testing capacities earlier. One professional litigant has even approached the highest court demanding that the use of the Disaster Management Act be declared illegal and unconstitutional. There are many other complaints and they include heaping ridicule on the thali bajao and diya jalao spectacles. But the overall conclusion is obvious: Modi has failed.
As of now this accusation of failure hasn’t been accompanied by a corresponding appreciation of the man who has tried to show that he is capable of conversing with celebrated non-resident economists, but that too will happen. In short, the disappointments of the 2019 general election verdict has found another expression.
The demand for lifting the lockdown is understandable. There has been a similar debate in the West and even public protests against leaders who have been more cautious about removing restrictions. It is the Left that has protested against Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Libertarian Right that has demand free movement in the US. The ideological divide has been hazy.
What I have found interesting is that the demand of India’s corporate and intellectual worthies have not been echoed by the Chief Ministers, including those who haven’t lost any opportunity to pillory Modi for allegedly short-changing the states and being over-bearing with the implementation of the Disaster Management Act. As usual, Mamata Banerjee has been the most vocal but Congress Chief Ministers have also been critical, albeit with more parliamentary use of words.
Yet, it is significant that during last week’s interaction of the Chief Ministers with the Prime Minister, there were no demands for the immediate lifting of the lockdown. On the contrary, most of the states seemed quite insistent that the lockdown be extended till the end of May. Of course, there are regional variations of the terms of the lockdown and the general belief is that there must be a gradual relaxation but no abrupt change of direction. The terms of the relaxation will naturally vary depending on the extent of the spread of the coronavirus. As of now, metro cities such as Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi, not to mention places such as Ahmedabad and Surat will have to be extremely careful. In West Bengal, particularly the Greater Kolkata region, there is a unique problem of containment zones multiplying but little or no attempt by the authorities to actually enforce restrictions.
What explains the reluctance of the Chief Ministers to join the chattering class in demanding an instant end to the lockdown? To put it bluntly, it is the fear that with normal life and the absence of physical distancing that normal life inevitably entails, the infection will spread at a galloping pace. As things stand, there is already concern over returning migrant workers bringing the infection with them and spreading it in villages that have been so far relatively insulated from the illness. In Odisha, a state where the containment strategies were remarkably successful, there was a setback when returning workers from West Bengal and Gujarat tested positive. Most state governments are naturally concerned that this new challenge be handled before any form of normalcy can be contemplated. The West Bengal government’s slow response to getting back nearly 38 lakh migrant workers from different parts of India isn’t necessarily born of indifference but a real fear of what impact the influx may have on the public health system which is already in shambles.
Finally, what is also unsaid but quietly understood, is the challenge posed by the violation of lockdown and social distancing norms by minority communities in some parts of India, particularly Maharashtra, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar. Whether this is linked to the forthcoming festival or is an aspect of some assertiveness is a matter of debate.
However, there is little or no doubt that this unwillingness to follow norms has resulted in the infection spreading and, worse, social tensions in communities. Last week, for example, the rapid spread of the coronavirus in a minority dominated Mohalla in Chandernagore, West Bengal, led to tensions and culminated in vicious communal violence in the neighbouring town of Telinipara. The violence was ignored by the mainstream news media and internet connection in Hooghly district was suspended. But the suppression of news has turned out to be woefully counter-productive. The bush telegraph has taken over and coloured and distorted versions of what happened in Telinipara has further widened the communal divide.
The tendency to compare India with China is facile. In India, the attempt is to persuade people to act responsibly and then wave the lathi when this proves difficult. But in India there is no inclination to impose a lockdown with the aid of guns. Because we are a democracy, our task is all the more challenging. Someone will be held accountable for all shortcomings and this doesn’t include those who feign righteous indignation in the media.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.