With Janta Curfew, Modi overcame the state’s impersonality to strike a chord with citizens

He’s equipped with a mass following that democratic societies need so they can negotiate a consensus during times of chaos.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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One of the challenges of democratic leadership is to grapple with the everyday realisation that the state is too big for small problems, and too small for big problems. The increasingly impersonal and complex nature of the modern state has meant that it seems far removed from the immediate — and mundane — problems that people deal with in their daily lives. At the same time, it doesn’t inspire much public enthusiasm and confidence in its capacity to solve big problems of our time.

Even statism, or the presence of an overdeveloped state in the third world, as Hamza Alvi called it, doesn’t bridge this obvious distance.

Besides other factors, the degree to which a leadership can overcome this remoteness of the public sphere to the daily lives of the people reflects the strength of its political capital and the appeal of its messaging. It’s in this context that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to accomplish a political feat that puts him in a different league. He has been able to carry the communication from the big, fat Indian state to the domestic space.

In many ways, the response to his call for Janta Curfew on Sunday, and the five-minute expression of gratitude to essential services personnel, was a demonstration of how political capital and clear and effective communication, blended with socio-cultural references, can overcome the impersonal and distant state.

Given that the response to the coronavirus pandemic hinges on the state and its citizens acting in tandem in the public as well as domestic space, the leader having the largest and mostly receptive audience is definitely the need of the hour. As people from remote villages to cities responded to Modi’s call for voluntary observance, it’s evident that the prime minister wields remarkable political capital to play that role.

In hindsight, one may look back at 2014 to trace the strands of how Modi sought to employ his appeal to nurture a type of civic nationalism, upon which processes of participative governance could be promoted. The clearest statement of this orientation was in his first speech as prime minister from the ramparts of the Red Fort. On August 15, 2014, almost three months after being sworn in, Modi sought to strike a dialogue with citizens on issues closer to home, not on distant concerns of an impersonal state.

It was an important speech as it focused on what sociologist Dipankar Gupta aptly called the “domestication of national issues”. With a blend of elderly homilies and sense of urgency on issues ranging from lack of toilets and cleanliness, to chiding parents for pampering sons and not treating daughters well, Modi opened new lines of engagement with the citizens, besides continuing the usual focus on weightier issues of policy and governance.

At the time, a cross-section of opinion-makers identified a shift in how the prime minister was altering the grammar of communication with citizenry. Case in point is what three leading social scientists — Dipankar Gupta, Pratap Bhanhu Mehta, and Shiv Visvanathan — wrote in three leading English dailies, registering Modi’s outreach to the more immediate elements of civic conversation. One may remember, for instance, how Mehta saw the communication about cleanliness.

“In almost any other leader so far, talk of toilets or cleanliness, either carried the faint odour of a paternalistic elitism, or a grim reminder that we all want clean so long as someone else is doing it for us: cleanliness was something you escaped into, not a general condition for the country you desired. Privileged politicians exposed their elitism on their issue; less privileged ones wanted to escape the whole matter. If nothing else, Modi’s singular achievement has been politically and administratively mainstreaming this issue,” Mehta wrote.

In his reflection, Visvanthan saw how Modi was seeking to balance individualism and the social imperatives into a form of a national construct. In the context of the prime minister’s recent appeal to applaud people providing service, it’s interesting how Visvanathan interpreted his invocation of the pride that government servants must feel and justify when they say they are in “service” and not merely doing a job.

Visvanathan argued that Modi’s emphasis on service can be seen as civilisational — an idea that’s rooted in prioritising the other. Its actual connotation can’t be captured in English; when used in Indian context, service has a larger meaning than the individualism of careers.

Since 2014, Modi’s political messaging has somehow been an extension of the tone set by this speech. In the process, he has sought to craft a form of civic nationalism which can guide concrete acts of self-denials, such as by asking citizens to self-isolate in times of pandemic, as well as symbolic acts of solidarity. In his last address to the nation, these served as premises for an emergency response.

While the self-interest in protecting oneself from a deadly pandemic like COVID-19 should be the obvious trigger, a country with low law-compliance and lax enforcement still needs causes that are greater than the sum total of billion-plus. That’s the “shared public realm of mutual loyalty”, to borrow Roger Scruton’s phrase, that sometimes needs powerful but clear articulation — more so in times of crisis.

By all indications, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be a once-in-a-generation crisis. It’s important that Modi leverages his immense political capital to step up action for the larger battle ahead.

Implementing tough measures like lockdowns will largely depend on law enforcing agencies of the state government, but the Centre needs to be watchful of the intensity with which state governments are implementing restrictive measures, as well as using the available medical infrastructure to contain the pandemic and attend to the infected patients. As a leader who has sought to bring the impersonal state and political discourse closer to the immediate domesticity of concerns, Modi is equipped with a mass following that democratic societies sometimes need to negotiate a consensus in the face of differences and an order out of everyday chaos. A crisis of this scale warrants the latter to prevail over the former.

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