Surely, it must have been around for quite some time.
In the second half of 2019, we heard first reports of a new deadly virus in a remote town of China-Wuhan. But our adolescent patriotism/nationalism felt probably appeased that one of our ever trouble-making neighbors was at the receiving end. Towards the end of 2019, reports started trickling in that the virus had crossed over entire West Asia and had begun menacing West Europe and the United States: main beneficiaries of 19th-century colonialism. As such, it was a distant unknown thing; yet to be christened COVID-19 and India could continue with her all-too-common brand of politics and culture. Maybe we felt that like so many other previous threats to mankind – like AIDS of 40 years ago and the so many ‘flue’s of recent decades- if the onus of starting the epidemic (yet not called ‘pandemic’) lay on China, Europe, and the US would willingly get busy with finding solutions and remedies. There also could have been optimism of the little-informed that somehow the menace would bypass India. Till the first cases surfaced as a New Year gift, the country and the government were taking things easy.
Not that we had nothing to do: Maharashtra, now rightly named the epicenter of the COVID-19 in India, was infected by a political virus just as deadly: keep the BJP out of power. All cunning and energy of whoever mattered in state politics were channelized to this one-point action plan. Sharad Pawar and his NCP did a Gulwan to Devendra Fadnavis and BJP as astutely as China did to India: reducing Fadnavis to sing the song in Sangam - Dost Dost Naa Raha! Everybody missed the irony that the hotchpotch to grab power in the state like a limpet was made by putting together the perpetrators and supporters on the infamous Emergency of 1975-77.
At the center in Delhi, the already in shambles opposition was looking for a leader who would at least deter the Modi-Shah steam-roller. But with Rahul Gandhi abdicating leadership of Cong-I and an ailing Sonia trying to hold together things that were rapidly falling apart, and Mamata et al too small in the national arena, the Modi-Shah juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Despite the BJP getting shocks at the state elections, it was sitting pretty in Delhi ensuring a major, future consolidation of Hindu votes through their attempts to secularising Muslims (Talaq Bill) and integrating Kashmir with rest of the country. To their welcome surprise, the Supreme Court judgement on Ram-temple in Ayodhya had taken the sting out of the 30-year-old imbroglio.
The four months after Diwali are traditionally the best season in India. The first crop has been harvested, while the second is almost in hand. Cultural and sports events are held with great enthusiasm. People travel all over the country, students and teachers take a breather before the exam season to start in March (Feb in some cases); Sahitya Sammelans, Music conferences, lecture series are abounding; books are bought (read?).
Barring the inconvenience caused by the local politicians who are in a hurry to spend development funds sanctioned for their ward/constituency (mostly digging and resurfacing of roads), all is well. The only serious activity, if at all, is expected at the economic policy-making level because of the impending budget. But even that can be predicted to be populist if the state/national elections are to take place soon. God is in heaven, Modi-Shah are on the ground, all is well with the world; should the sky come down, this duo will hold it; sic like Lord Krishna holding the Govardhan-Parbat on his grazing stick/little fingers.
Suffice it to say that the last three months have shown these two Biggies for the little fingers they are! The pair that appeared invincible (at least to the majority) since 2014, despite so many policy blunders and waterloos, looks lost, tired, confused, and blind - the proverbial babes in the wood! Shah has gone on the back foot already; ‘Hamne galatiyan ki hogi lekin hamari niyat saaf thee.’
Barring PMs coming from the Nehru-Gandhi family, Modi was the luckiest so far: all others- Moraraji Desai, AB Vajpayee, VP Singh, Chandrasekhar, Ik Gujral (Deve Gowda is best left alone)- had found the seat too hot and survived on personal goodwill and political (in)convenience. Narsimha Rao-seasoned doyen of Congress and Man Mohan Singh (lonely babe in the wood?) were no exceptions.
Modi had everything going in his favor. He was the darling of Lady Luck; GST was a bitter pill but the business class swallowed it. Demonetization was another policy hoax in that the black money stayed put. And just when questions started sticking over the Raphael Deal, Pulwama and Balakot not only bailed him out but also strengthened his hands, thus emboldening him to take on the Muslims head-on. It also encouraged him to set his eyes on the Common Civil Code where he was going for a 2/3rds majority in Lok Sabha - finally fulfilling the dream of Syama Prasad Mukherjee.
All of a sudden Lady Luck felt enough was enough! Initially, he too was unaware of this about-turn by his Guardian Angel and started doling out his standard patriotic homilies to one and all- sic Mann Ki Baat! India was a great country, Indians loved their country and their fellowmen, no challenge was too formidable for our patriotism. Like so many other wars, India would win the war on this virus. Since this virus was coming from outside, India would stop it at the borders as very few patients were found. The virus had not entered India, since it spread by touch. Hence, staying at home and stopping all activity was the ONLY way out.
Yes, there would be unemployment among migrant labourers, but no price was greater for survival. The government would take care of all-lodging, boarding, treatment, and any other needs. Just stay where you are, do not demoralize the policy-makers with questions, and do not throw them out of gear by suggestions.
Absolutely logical, isn’t it? Now ponder this…..
The greatness of a nation/society and patriotism are universal myths -never to be put to test. No people would call themselves lesser beings. Further, India’s greatness, if at all, has nothing to do with which party is in power and who is the PM; it was, is, and shall be there permanently. Indians’ patriotism rarely gets translated into a love for fellow Indians because socially speaking, Indians are more comfortable with family, clan, caste, community, and so on - in that progression. Even now there will be very few who would answer ‘I am an Indian’ when asked, ‘who/what are you?’
There is no point in denying this; it is a fact of life. Moreover, the idea that we had to launch a war on the virus was patently silly: an unknown virus is not an enemy- it is a threat coming with its vagaries. This ill-conceived idiom was just one step behind the silly slogan that this war would not be over until the last patient was found and treated.
Epidemics start, peak, claim their costs in human lives and then subside as people develop immunity. Sadly, our leaders did not have the wisdom to see this basic reality. They indulged in stupid bravado over fighting an enemy they knew almost nothing about.
Lockdown at a stroke of the pen was the biggest blunder: it also betrayed that the colonial hangover was still around. We locked down because the UK had done it - notwithstanding the difference between the work culture and habits of the two societies. Work from home would be practical in a truly modern society like the UK. It was bound to fail in India where there is an overwhelming presence of manual workers who have to go to their place of work daily.
This lot was reasonably healthy because it spent little time at home in their congested slum dwellings. Forcing them to stay in localities like Dharavi would be sure to help the virus to spread. But the state had resolved (PM’s intuition?) that this labour was not infected so far and only needed to be isolated. Infection was coming from outside; the Tablighis endorsed this theory by their pig-headedness.
Yet another blunder was totally misreading the migrant workers’ mindset: most of them are proud, skilled, and like to live by the sweat of the brow. They would look at the free meals served by the state/NGOs/religious bodies as the last resort for a day or two. They would not cram the service points like beggars. Naturally, this lot suffered the worst repercussions of a policy blunder committed blindly by the PM and his lot of cronies.
Worse was the haste which made a tremendous amount of waste. It was like the first two months of the ill-conceived demonetization of 2016-17 when there had been a spate of ordinances- averaging more than once a day.
Our PM and his think tank are never short of cheap symbols: clapping, lighting lamps, beating thalis, shouting the standard remedy ‘Bharatmata ki Jai' etc. The response of an elite brand of adolescent patriotism went to Modi’s head and he led the country into the Chakravyuha of continuing lockdowns - knowing only how to enter, and without any knowledge of the exit and how to reach it!
(The writer has been working in the public sphere of Maharashtra for the last five decades. His versatile personality has several dimensions, but the primary ones remain to be that of an established writer, journalist, editor, critic, activist, and teacher.)
Part 2 of this article can be read here.