It would probably not be entirely misleading to suggest that until Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s broadcast last Thursday, or at least a day or two before that, the magnitude of the Covid-19 threat wasn’t sufficiently grasped by large sections of Indians. The disruption of international travel and the cancellation of social and religious functions did certainly alert everyone of a looming threat. However, as the case of a bureaucrat’s son in Kolkata and the party in Lucknow involving singer Kanika Kapoor so vividly demonstrated, the fear of the pandemic was laced with an it-won’t-happen-to-us pig-headedness.
Maybe it won’t happen to us, after all. In the past six days or so, with partial lockdowns in urban India, the need to be careful has become paramount. Indians haven’t quite blockaded themselves in their homes, as many Europeans, quite understandably, have. But life is no longer normal, and no one is sure when normalcy will return. Yet, perhaps because of the touching faith in the pandemic being defeated by the scorching Indian summer, the scale of the danger was underestimated until even a week ago. Even now the belief that rural India will emerge relatively unscathed is recurrent.
There are divergent estimates of the numbers of Indians likely to be infected with coronavirus. Going by medical wisdom, it will depend on the extent to which Indians take to social distancing — something alien in a country where crowds are the norm — and act sensibly. However, even if the prognosis of an impending tsunami turns out to be politically motivated, there is little doubt that the stringent measures necessary to keep people Covid-19-free will take a toll on the economy. Indeed, the more drastic the precautionary health measures, the greater will be the fallout on the economy.
The challenge before the Modi government is formidable. It will have to deploy all the resources at its disposal to keep people pandemic-free and at the same time ensure that the livelihood of people is safeguarded, despite the inevitable contraction of growth.
More importantly, the real test of its political leadership will lie in its ability to combine firefighting with a simultaneous strategy of recovery. A passive approach aimed at merely surviving a global crisis that could stretch beyond a year will mean frittering away all the gains of the past two decades or more and reverting to a Third World status. The crisis management group Modi promised in his address last Thursday has to envisage the status of India in a post-Covid-19 world. Threats have to be met with spectacular audacity.
The climate is ripe for challenging yesterday’s conventional wisdom. As the global crisis escalates, it is now sufficiently clear that unfettered globalisation is not a blessing — its side-effects are simply unacceptable. The so-called Washington consensus that hitherto shaped economic prescriptions is unlikely to survive the Covid-19 earthquake. India has no reason to be bound by it. In fact, countries such as Germany, United Kingdom and even the US have jettisoned it without too much thought. India will need to do the same immediately and without inhibition. In the short term, the state will need to play a leading rescue role, but the nature and purpose of the state will have to change if there is to be a blueprint for recovery. The remodelling of a state that shuns statism — but guards national sovereignty fiercely — is a priority.
Secondly, India will probably have to depend on its own material and human resources to both absorb the shocks and chart the road to recovery. The popular appetite for an outside world that created the crisis in the first place is shrinking and will probably disappear in due course. Indians who imagined that the grass was greener elsewhere are already reassessing their futures and this trend must be encouraged by creating an environment conducive to creativity and entrepreneurship. The road to recovery will lie in junking the celebration of mediocrity.
Finally, as the world pulls down the shutters and begins the job of modifying its excesses, India should celebrate the fact that despite two centuries of colonial rule and a post-Independence record of self-flagellation, there was still enough of the national culture intact to approach a global crisis with self-confidence. The triumph of namaste and a large measure of social restrain over tactile exhibitionism is much more than symbolic. It suggests that a society is best safeguarded if it remains faithful to its basic civilisational values.
For too long, India experimented with mindless openness; with Covid-19 unsettling the world order, it is time to return home.