Leadership During Coronavirus Times

Photo by Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock.com


After his “lockdown” address to the nation, Prime Minister Modi made two more appearances on national television to enthuse the populace to show solidarity in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

He stressed the need of “social distancing” and enjoined on all citizens to participate in symbolic gestures such as shutting off electric lights for nine minutes on the night of April 9. Earlier  he had called upon citizens to thump household utensils from their windows/balconies to applaud the work being done by medical staff fighting the virus on the dangerous frontlines.

Although there has been criticism that Prime Minister Modi had yet again taken to vacuous photo-ops rather than make any concrete announcements on how to tackle the destitution that  millions of Indians are suffering, many are willing to grant him a solipsistic cultism if that helps bring awareness to the country as a whole.

The prime minister’s repeated self-presentations may also convey to frontline corona warriors that they have the attention of the numero uno, although health-watchers also voice the view that such attention had best be translated into an active and speedy redressal of the inadequately protected conditions in which staff, nurses, doctors are now operating under, for the most part. Claims made by government that these lacunae are being expressly remedied have not seemed borne out by facts on the ground in health facilities across the nation. Not to speak of the attacks made by frightened citizens on doctors and nurses accused of spreading the virus as they have gone among some neighborhoods to perform their  asks of screening, or  just out buying provisions for their families—a shabby occurrence that may not, of course, be attributed to  governmental deficiencies.

There are also those, of course—women and men, all as concerned with the well-being of all Indians as the prime minister is—who have felt that the “lockdown,” although a necessary step, did not sufficiently analyze or care about the consequences of the suddenly announced measure for the vast masses of Indians who would find themselves evicted by their landlords, lose their wages, have little or no recourse to ameliorative arrangements either for their health care or economic sustenance. These consequences, as we see every day since the lockdown, have been traumatic in the extreme, as stories of unconscionable misery have been televised pertaining to hopeless and helpless thousands trudging from various parts of the nation.

Many have been inevitably reminded of the days and months following the declaration of “demonitization” some years ago—an event whose deleterious effects still bog the fortunes of  millions of citizenry, especially in the informal sectors of the workforce. As people died then in expectant lines in front of banks, so they have wilted in search of a home and succor, excluded  from the calculations of policymakers until their sufferings began to occupy media center-stage.

It may be noted that where the United States has set apart ten percent of their GDP for ameliorating the devastated living conditions of Americans affected by the virus, India has thus  far allocated no more than 0.5 percent of our GDP for the purpose, unaccompanied by any  viable plan of action detailing how even this meager amount is to be reached to those sansculotttes who are now caught in midways of cities and towns, not knowing what the next hour has in store for them.

Beawar, Rajasthan, India – A shopkeeper wear facemask as a precaution from coronavirus pandemic ‘COVID-19’ in Beawar
Photo by Sumit Saraswat/Shutterstock.com

That the U.S. has made a grievous mess of handling the pandemic overall, thanks in large measure to cussedly inept, if not criminal negligence, from their top leadership must also be noted, setting off Modi’s initiatives in better light. He has indeed drawn appreciation from the World Health Organisation for his active marshaling of measures against the pandemic.

Nonetheless, criticisms at home, it would be wrong to think, are driven by pique. It would be a sad day indeed when it is thought that those who speak for the wretched of the nation are conspirators against the glory of the realm.
The Indian prime minister may be commended for making visible his concern to the nation—a sort of salutary assurance that the  most powerful Indian is looking on, without understating  the gravity of the moment—unlike the American President.

But, here is the further point.

As in times of war, leadership is not so problematic when the dangers that confront us are of a universal nature. Be it a pandemic or a war, uniting the nation incurs few ideological conundrums, tactical ones may be, since those nut cases who may oppose measures taken against an invading enemy or a virus that makes no discrimination between citizen and citizen are universally seen as just nutcases, unless, of course, the wars and the pandemics be of our own making. Just to recall, the entirely gratuitous American assault on Vietnam was to divide  America as it had been divided at the time of the Civil War. Same with the American invasion of Iraq. Leaderships that engage in such blatantly expansionist acts of dominance then cannot but find it impossible to unite all their citizens behind unjust wars.

The real test of leadership has, however,  always been how they choose to meet national exigencies that tend to be born of divisive  perceptions and prejudices—times when bringing about national unity is of utmost importance and far harder to obtain.

This is the reason why a Churchill may have succeeded phenomenally in galvanizing England against the pernicious rise of fascism, his lack of ability or intent to do so against social evils left much to desire. It will be recalled that Churchill lost the favor of his own party after the war against Hitler was won, evidence that peace times make very different sorts of demands on leaderships that “heroic” wartime leaders do not always measure up to.

In the context of India’s very recent history, for example, it has remained a troubling question as to why Prime Minister Modi could not have addressed the nation with the same alacrity and concern as he does now, when brutal internecine killings were happening in the northeast of India’s capital city. Or indeed when unconscionable instances of mob lynchings were happening, or when gruesome caste and gender oppressions have come to the fore. Or, when scions from the prime minister’s ideological camp made public utterances of the most deplorable kind, wounding the prospects of national unity in far-reaching ways in contravention of the principles enshrined in the constitution which alone legitimize the state’s executive authority.  A minister in the central cabinet was heard in a pubic rally to provoke the crowd into saying how those protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act ought to be shot (https://scroll.in/video/951289/watch-anurag-thakur-minister-of-state-for-finance-lead-goli-maaro-saalon-ko-slogans-at-rally), and the President of the Bharatiya Janata Party, no less, was to exhort voters in local elections to so violently press the electronic button as to send a “current” to Shaheen Bagh were very old and young women, mostly Muslim housewives, had been sitting in protest dharna for months (https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/amit-shah-wants-vote-to-send-current-to-shaheen-bagh/cid/17398560). Yet Modi then thought nothing of such occurrences.

Kolkata, India — Effect of a nationwide lockdown to block the spread of COVID-19. The otherwise busy streets seen almost deserted

Photo by suprabhat/Shutterstock.com

Indeed, as we write, news comes from various states of India of renewed assaults on Muslims who are sought to be universally blamed for the blunder that happened at the Tablighi Markaz in Nizamuddin in Delhi. A ruling party Member of Parliament from Karnataka has spoken of an alleged “Corona Jihad Conspiracy” (https://www.news18.com/news/politics/pfi-says-will-file-criminal-case-against-bjp-mp-shobha-karandlaje-over-corona-jihad-remark-2566899.html), and an important spokesperson of the same party of an “Islamic insurrection.” The question that begs itself is this: Are such moves conducive to the national unity that the prime minister rightly seeks to firm up in order to combat the pandemic that  afflicts all creeds, castes, classes?  And, if that be so, may not the nation expect the prime minister to seize the moment to make an appearance on national television to nip such nefarious political activity in the bud?

After all,  it will be conceded that in the absence of leadership efforts and initiatives of a prolonged and determined kind, such divisive and hate-filled occurrences must continue to bedevil the sort of national unity that alone can lend inner strength and cohesion, as well as credibility to national unity. For example, in America, the suspect inability of political leadership to wage a credible and determined war against racism continues to render their national unity a fragile and unconvincing project. Not to speak of the fact that when political leaderships are found wanting or leaning  at times of such internal conflicts, those that man the country’s institutions take appropriate hints of how not to do what they are sworn to do.

The problem, of course, is that national leaders confronted with such divisions and fractures cannot credibly lead their nations to humanist unities unless they first revisit the ideological building blocks of which they happen to be products. And unless, in so examining their own ideological DNAs,  they find the courage and broad-mindedness to transcend their own inherited social and political constructions, their calls for national unity can hardly carry weight or effect.

Is it not therefore the case that just as a Donald Trump finds it self-alienating to denounce racism in America, Prime Minister Modi finds himself rather silenced when minority sections in India come under attack from majoritarian assertions?

And when top leaderships at such times seem on furlough, or, worse still, dormant in a sort of  quiescent assent, national unity goes for a grievous toss.

Such times indeed demand a shift in the icons that “heroic” leaders worship  in times of war or some  universal catastrophe—from a Churchill, as it were, to a Lincoln, a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Mandela—since these latter it is who left us models of how to lead  when internecine bigotries afflict the fate of peoples. Hardly as simple a thing to do as to lead nations when enemies are common and uncontroversial.

With respect to Prime Minister Modi, it may be that even as he draws positive comment from the WHO, for instance, for his alert attention to the corona problem with respect to India, a time may come when his approval among Indians also begins to transcend sectarian divides and  apprehensions, leading to his metamorphosis into a leader who may truly be depended on to unite all Indians behind values of universal equality and non-discriminatory justice at the hands of state institutions, when the last oppressed citizen may spontaneously expect that any and all social and inter-sectional atrocities will draw from him the same energy and conviction that is now on display.

Nothing indeed would seal his place in history as decisively as such a turn of his leadership content. That he has the percipience to understand his own problematic is without doubt.

Were that to happen, a time may come when Modi will remind us of Jawahar Lal Nehru, as much in terms of his international standing, which has happily been growing, as in the matter of credible and committed efforts to unite all Indians across social and sectarian divides with  personal initiatives of the kind that are now to the fore. As, indeed, in the matter of putting the welfare of the disenfranchised first among his national concerns.

Modi has quite some distance yet to get there, but if he does embark on that journey,  it will be an input to a more meaningful national unity than may be invoked only at times of peril that afflicts all Indians without regard to their placement in social, religious, or class terms.

Nehru may also be emulated in terms of the quality of our commitment to democratic principles and practices.
It may be useful to recall that an article titled “Caesarism,” severely critical of Nehru, once appeared  under the psuedonym Chanakya in a leading national journal, Modern Review, in 1937 when Nehru was elected President of the Indian National Congress for the third time, deriding Nehru as a man with dictatorial tendencies, and cautioning the people to be vigilant against this trait in him (https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/want-no-caesars-nehrus-warning). It came to be subsequently revealed that the author of the article was Nehru himself.

If, therefore, citizens of the republic sometimes voice critical apprehensions of their leaderships, the exercise of that fundamental right must not be viewed as enemy activity but constructive contributions to democratic  consolidation. Nor may leaderships in democratic states be inimical to facing interrogation from institutions like the media, or the intelligentsia at large, since only a transparent covenant of question and answer between leaderships and the led can truly constitute  unities of lasting firmness and yield legitimate hegemonies conducive to self-confident national strength.