It was 8 pm. The stage was set. The Prime Minister was supposed to address the entire country on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country. As soon as the announcement was made, speculations were rife that we could be hearing about a countrywide lockdown. After all, Narendra Modi and 8 pm speeches have historically been high decibel.
WhatsApp groups were flooded with rumours of a nationwide curfew. Large groups hurried to grocery stores to stock, in anticipation of the same. However, what came our way was entirely different.
The Prime Minister, who’s always been a great orator talked about how the threat should be taken seriously. Reassuring yet authoritative, it was the perfect combination given the severity of the situation. No controversial statements, no jibes at the opposition. Only a call for unity, restraint and determination. A refreshing change indeed.
So what worked in his address? And did it miss out on something?
Appeal For Unity
One of the most evident aspects of his speech was his constant call for unity. The Prime Minister focused on using his considerable pulling power to advocate for people’s participation in fighting the virus. At a time when collective community involvement and precaution is the only way to stop the spread of the virus, Modi ensured that he garnered public support. This was especially useful at a time when many people are ignoring the threat the virus can pose to India.
By using his speech to preach practices of sanitation, personal hygiene and social distancing, he’s ensured that even those people that weren’t taking the pandemic seriously will now sit up and understand the gravity of the situation. His use of this address to emphasize on the importance of social distancing is also commendable. Social distancing is largely an alien concept and comes at great social and economic costs. But by ensuring that he spoke about it in his nationwide address, it’s now surely going to reach a lot more people than it was doing before.
Addressing All Stakeholders
Narendra Modi has understood that the virus doesn’t discriminate between caste, creed, gender etc. and he’s addressed this head-on. He actively focused on addressing each and every stakeholder affected by the crisis. The private sector employees were asked to slow down, work from home and requested a few weeks of their professional lives. The blue-collar workers and the daily wage labourers were assured that they’ll be taken care of, with the Prime Minister appealing their employers to support them financially in whatever way possible.
By calling for all citizens to come out and appreciate the health care personnel and support services fighting the virus, he’s also ensured that those in the front line of the battle doesn’t lose hope and morale remains high. By personally reaching out to each and every stakeholder, his message has been clear. The pandemic can only be fought if each and every citizen do their bit.
Allowing Other Departments To Take Center Stage
A welcome change in the Prime Minister’s address was also how he only used the time to address the citizens, rather than providing advice or suggestions in fields he’s not an expert in. In the past, he’s been accused of taking on too much of the limelight. He announced demonetization rather than the Finance Minister and was even seen offering military advice post the Balakot strikes. This time though was different.
Narendra Modi stuck to advocating scientific ways to prevent the virus. He announced the establishment of COVID-19 Economic Task Force, but that was about it. He even refrained from making any announcements with respect to the number of cases, or the testing procedures in place, as the Health Ministry and its office bearers are more suitable to handle and communicate that information. For the first time in a while, Narendra Modi has given a free hand to his ministries to deal with matters on their own jurisdiction and take charge accordingly, and that action should certainly be appreciated.
While his call for a “Janta Curfew”, a self-imposed curfew from 7 am-9 pm on 22nd March was initially met with suspicion and bore the brunt of several memes and jokes( I myself have been guilty of this), in hindsight the move seems to be an appropriate one. By referencing war times, blackouts and mock drills in his speech, Narendra Modi has made sure that people see the Janta Curfew as a mock drill as well. It will help in gauging public response, and will also provide the government information on the measures they may need to take in case of a potential nationwide lockdown. A self-imposed curfew may be a useful way to educate the public about lockdown like conditions, allowing them to prepare accordingly in case such drastic steps need to be taken in the future.
The Possible Negatives?
A few negatives of his address could be that the speech is coming to a tad too late. With several reports underlining India’s alarmingly low testing rates and fears that community transmission may already have begun, the Prime Minister’s address would have even been more effective if undertaken a couple of weeks before.
Also, by not addressing the calls for a nationwide lockdown, he’s shown an admirable trust in his health care personnel, the country’s health infrastructure and concerned ministries. The speech is the perfect nudge for the country to gear up in its fight against COVID-19. However, in order for it to be effective, it needs to be followed by targeted action. By not mentioning the efforts his government is undertaking to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus Or, how state governments and the Centre are working together in doing so, he’s taken a great risk.
If both the authorities and the people use the speech as a motivator to step up their efforts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, it will be regarded as the perfect address. If not, it will only be seen as a rare incident wherein the Prime Minister failed to take charge.