With each Modi pronouncement, an army of BJP activists floods social-media…
The lockdown has transferred the burden of the coronavirus pandemic almost entirely onto the shoulders of the poor and marginalised. It is clear from the videoclips on social media of ordinary people expressing their anger and helplessness that most see the lockdown as a calamity far greater than Covid-19 itself. This may be partly because the full force of the epidemic has yet to arrive, while state mitigation of the lockdown’s effects has been pathetically inadequate. But their arguments cannot be so easily dismissed. India’s young population and the heavily age-biased nature of this disease means that the fatality rates of the coronavirus could be somewhat lower than in the West, especially amongst poorer communities with generally lower life-expectancy. Put brutally, workers may starve to save the primarily middle-class elderly from dying. And for anyone who doubts that the possibility of starvation is real, it’s worth noting that the Chief Minister of Kerala, widely praised for his response to the pandemic, felt the need to explicitly reassure people that he would not allow anyone in the state to starve to death as a consequence of the lockdown.
From one point of view, the lockdown has already been a success. A characteristic of the Modi government, shared by other far-right regimes, is a tendency to see every event in terms of its propaganda impact. The BJP derives its legitimacy from the vocal or tacit support of a large section of the upper-caste Hindu middle classes, and it is to this audience that Modi primarily addresses himself. With each of his pronouncements, armies of BJP activists build consensus around the new policies within this class, flooding social-media feeds with ‘national-interest’ memes and attacks on critical voices. Now, however, something was amiss. By mid-March there was considerable middle-class restlessness about the response to Covid-19 and some, including apologists for the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist project, had been calling for ‘decisive’ action for a while. Many of the loudest voices showed little understanding of epidemiology or pandemics, and in a sense the calls were a cry of helplessness in the face of an incomprehensible impending menace. Something needed to be done to address this discontent. A nuanced, wide-ranging set of measures to slow the disease, protect the most vulnerable, shore up India’s fragile health infrastructure and mitigate the economic effects would have been more effective. But a single dramatic announcement had far greater propaganda value. The lockdown may be causing working-class people untold misery, but the middle classes, including many liberal and left-leaning commentators, have largely been supportive. Aided by a pliant media, Modi and Shah have been busily constructing a narrative of ‘timely’ action—shored up, ironically, by downplaying the pandemic itself.
Image by Vijay Barot via Wikimedia Commons (cc)