People responded to his call for a ‘janata curfew’ in all the seriousness and earnestness that it deserved, without the need for police and security personnel to keep themselves indoors. Later, the appeal to families to ring bells and tap plates to express their gratitude for the selfless work of health workers, ignoring the threat of going down with the dreaded virus, also drew overwhelming response. It was a cause that made every decibel thus created worthy of approval.

But Modi’s latest in the series, the light show, asking people to switch off all lights and emerge on the balconies to light diyas, lamps and flashlights on their mobile phones has surprised even his most ardent admirers.

Critics have been less than charitable to Modi on his latest light show symbolism. While the prime minister and his die-hard fans see it as an appeal to the collective conscience of the nation in this great hour of national crisis, opposition Congress and its leaders have torn it apart, saying they are deeply disappointed by the lack of content in the Prime Minister’s gesture.

Shashi Tharoor was not wide off the mark when he described Modi as ‘Pradhan Showman’ and ‘Photo-Op Prime Minister. In fact, he has read deeper meanings into Modi’s latest call. “This is no accident: the PM spoke on Ram Navami at 9 am for 9 mins, asked us to light diyas & candles on 5/4 at 9 pm for 9 mins. He is invoking all the auspicious elements Hinduism associates with number 9. Back to Ram Bharose?! #COVID19 must be more serious than we thought,” he tweeted.

Appeal to the nation’s collective conscience is fine, but that by itself is not good enough to fight the coronavirus. There is no doubt that his strategic move to enforce a national lockdown has greatly helped India to do better than many other countries, some of them in the category of the most developed nations, but it has not been accompanied by any thoughtful measures to absorb the shock created by the lockdown.

This has prompted comparison of the lockdown to demonetisation, which has turned the clock back for the Indian economy as well as the people by at least a decade. Just as demonetisation was embarked on as thoughtless adventurism, the lockdown has had totally unexpected results, for which neither the government nor the people were ready.

It is widely believed that the numbers given out by the government about the instance of the disease’s strike, which are really impressive, provide a real picture of the problem. Our numbers are based on highly selective tests of those possible suspicious cases, rather than random test of the vulnerable, which would be the real indication of the spread of the virus. With limited number of tests, the results would also be limited in scope.

In fact, the long marches by migrant labourers from various industrial centres to their villages in the remote corners of the country have defeated the very purpose of the national lockdown, which was meant to achieve social distancing, a fancy term that has caught Modi’s imagination. It is a different matter that social distancing is difficult to practice in a country where the majority of people live in pitiable conditions, without even proper access to water, not to talk about the required space.

This is no surprise to people who are familiar with Modi’s penchant for symbolism is well-known. He also has a fancy for acronyms, many of which became popular, although some like Make In India were poorly coined and had equally non-descript results. Some of his expansions such as good and simple tax for GST, First Develop India for FDI, Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile for JAM have stuck, but many other schemes with fanciful names have been forgotten as soon as they were announced.

Modi has no doubt launched a number of well-meaning initiatives to improve living conditions in different parts of the country. The initiatives for cleanliness, sanitation, education of girl children etc, are all laudable, but the sad fact that is these schemes have touched only the periphery while the core issues remained outside their realm.

In fact, this has been the main weakness of the Modi government, both in its first tenure as well as its current term. There is a clear failure to address the real issues of the nation, its economy and the people. It is not possible that Modi and his entourage are unaware of this failure. But the sad fact is that they have so far proved themselves unequal to the challenge.

In this context, the opposition parties cannot really be faulted for asking Modi to ‘get real’ and stop solving problems through symbolism. (IPA Service)