View: With tough lockdown, Modi upturns the belief that lives in India are cheap


There has been a minor political storm in the United Kingdom over the propriety of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s colourfully abrasive political adviser Dominic Cummins sitting in on meetings involving the country’s top scientific advisers. The controversy seems bizarre. The idea that the war against coronavirus can be waged by scientists, epidemiologists and other men (and women) in white coats — the so-called experts — strikes me as being naive. Just as war is deemed to be too important to be left to the generals and the economy too crucial to fractious economists, the war on Covid-19 cannot be solely entrusted to those with mathematical modelling skills.

The reason is obvious: human behaviour cannot be anticipated in either laboratories or even with algorithms. Simply put, the experts are not infallible. In the UK, to cite a random example, the initial belief that much of the population would acquire ‘herd immunity’ sounded terribly logical on paper but had to be quickly abandoned in view of the unacceptable human costs. They even appear to have miscalculated the trajectory of the deadly virus in Singapore — the last word in clinical efficiency. Here, the resumption of life-as-usual after an initial lockdown led to a second wave and the imposition of a draconian second lockdown.

In the case of India, early March saw a spate of doomsday projections, including one that suggested that between four and eight million would need ICU treatment and that, in the worst-case scenario, some 60% of the Indian population would be infected with coronavirus. It is possible that these scary projections were politically driven. In the event, the imposition of a national lockdown on March 25 resulted in yet other experts arguing that the cure would be more devastating than the disease itself.

Scepticism over conflicting ‘expert’ advice shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of Mamata Banerjee’s strategy of beating Covid-19 by wilfully underplaying the phenomenon and encouraging medical apparatchiks to be miserly in certifying coronavirus deaths. If some countries chose to be slaves to experts, West Bengal opted to either write their scripts or flaunt them as decorative pieces.

However, Mamata isn’t quite the maverick her utterances make her out to be. Her strategy to deal with a novel public health emergency was centred on political calculations. By her understanding, the people of the state — particularly that section which she regards as her voter base — would not countenance drastic restrictions on their normal lives. She felt it was necessary to combine the public appearance of purposefulness — hosting daily media briefings, rushing to different parts of Kolkata,and even instructing shopkeepers on social distancing — with a manufactured tale of resounding success through contrived statistics and global endorsements. She genuinely felt that if she kept her nerve and focussed on optics, the storm would pass, leaving her to focus on the Assembly elections of 2021.

If Mamata represents the most extreme disregard of experts, Narendra Modi is an example of tailoring expert advice with political drive. As opposed to many world leaders who see politics as the art of the possible, Modi has his eye on what is necessary, even if it involves taking huge political risks. There were a range of options available to him in mid-March. Some of these would have lessened the economic costs but added to the human costs of a pandemic. He could also have chosen a disaggregated approach and left it to the states to do the right thing. Instead, he opted for the most drastic option of a total national lockdown, including the suspension of public transport.

Whether this was the most appropriate response or not will be endlessly debated in the years to come. However, what is significant is that Modi has sought to transform the battle against coronavirus into a national mission that demands active popular involvement — the maintenance of social distancing, the mass lighting of diyas and the obligation to feed the hungry and the stranded — and, above all, personal sacrifice. There are obvious similarities between the present lockdown and the demonetisation. Both have involved popular participation and sacrifice — themes that have overridden personal inconvenience. Notwithstanding reports of distress caused to migrant workers and resistance from some minority communities, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lockdown has been hugely effective, not least in the rural areas. As of now, the PM’s approval ratings have touched dizzying heights.

For a country with a history of mass deaths from famine and epidemics, Modi appears to have upturned a conventional wisdom: the belief that human lives in India are cheap and dispensable.

Source : Economic Times