While Trump and Bolsonaro are worried about the virus’ impact on their nation’s markets, economies and, by extension, their political future, Modi was open enough to admit that the pandemic would have economic costs, but saving lives was more important for him and his government, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor
By Tarun Basu Mar 29, 2020
Three nationalist, nativist leaders, three “good friends” bound by ideology and mutual admiration, and of a similar political disposition, and yet one of them, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seems to have taken a vastly different stance to the coronavirus pandemic than the other two – US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
While Modi could not have done better in driving home the gravity of the situation that warranted an immediate, unprecedented 21-day lockdown in India, a country of 1.3 billion people – a measure that China also was not able to implement nationwide – Trump said: “Our country is not built to shut down.
“Our people are full of vim and vigour and energy. They don’t want to be locked into a house or an apartment or some space. … You can destroy a country this way, by closing it down.”
Bolsonaro called the pandemic, which has registered a terrifying eight-fold rise in a week in his South American nation, as a ” little flu” and railed at governors who had shut down their provinces/cities by saying, “the people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus.”
Yet, in New Delhi, “friend” Modi had this to say to the nation Tuesday, in his second such address in five days: “In order to protect the country, and each of its citizens, from midnight tonight, a full ban is being imposed on people from stepping out of their homes. All the States in the country, all the Union Territories, each district, each municipality, each village, each locality is being put under lockdown……This is a necessary step in the decisive fight against the corona pandemic. The nation will have to certainly pay an economic cost because of this lockdown.”
However, he added, “to save the life of each and every Indian is mine, Government of India’s, each state government’s, each local unit’s topmost priority.”
In contrast, Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who The Washington Post says has Trump’s ear and is believed to be among a cast of right-wingers urging Trump to scale back the restrictions, had this to say about his implicit endorsement of the Darwinian dictum of survival of the fittest. “I’m not in any way disparaging the public health people. They are vital to this process,” Moore told The Washington Post. “But you can’t have a policy that says we’re going to save every human life at any cost, no matter how many trillions of dollars you’re talking about.”
Contrast this with what Modi said, that it was his government’s responsibility “to save the life of each and every Indian….”
Why has Modi seemingly broken away from the nationalist ranks and their let-the-markets-decide worldview? While Trump and Bolsonaro are worried about the virus’ impact on their nation’s markets, economies and, by extension, their political future, Modi was open enough to admit that the pandemic would have economic costs, but saving lives was more important for him and his government.
“The next 21 days are of critical importance for us. As per health experts, a period of at least 21 days is extremely critical to break the infection chain of coronavirus. If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, the country and your family could go back 21 years. If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, several families will get devastated forever. Hence, you must forget what going out means for the next 21 days. Stay inside your home, stay inside your home, and do just one thing – stay inside your home.”
Unlike Trump, who faces an imminent election and is worried about the pandemic’s deleterious impact on the economy, whose good health he has taken full credit for, Modi is a political long-distance runner. He knows the social and political impact of mass deaths, if these were to happen, and knows that saving lives, and showing compassion in a society which places a lot of religious premium on it, is much more important to him than saving the economy, which globally is headed for a recession anyway, as per the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
So despite being global ideological fellow-travellers of the conservative right, Modi has his ears to the ground more than Trump and Bolsonaro seem to have. The US situation seems to be spinning out of control and Trump’s measures might be too little too late. There are mounting protests in Brazil demanding Bolsonaro, who came to power with a surprise majority in January 2019, step down as he was a “clown” and “unfit to be president”. Bolsonoro was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in India in January, a rare honour that India bestows on its ‘friends’ abroad.
It remains to be seen if the Modi government – which also has been accused of acting late – is able to contain the pandemic in India or whether it leads to a social, economic and political apocalypse whose consequences are too frightening to imagine.
(The writer is President, Society for Policy Studies)