Why hasn’t Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an announcement about whether India is extending its lockdown yet?
On March 24, Modi appeared on television at 8 pm and told the nation that it was going to be locked down for the next three weeks to prevent further spread of the new coronavirus. The announcement was done without consulting the states, or indeed the Finance Ministry. It immediately caused chaos because Modi failed to explain how people would access essential goods or reassure migrants that they will be taken care of.
Those three weeks end on Tuesday night. Yet, as of noon on Monday, Indians still don’t know whether restrictions will remain after April 14.
Since 2016, it has become a staple of popular humour that speeches by Modi, especially if they are delivered at 8 pm, always generate anxiety. This is because the prime minister has a well-earned reputation for unpredictable (and, in the case of demonetisation, unexplainable) actions.
That may great for politics but it is terrible for policy, particularly in a situation that is as fraught with tension as the current coronavirus crisis.
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What the country needs at the moment is a steady hand and clear guidance – both on what the government is doing for the people, as well as what it expects people to do.
Modi seems to have perfected the second part, interrupting television broadcasts to ask Indians to bang pots and pans and to light candles, but he has failed at his first vital task.
If there is one lesson the prime minister’s communications team should have learnt from the last two primetime addresses he has given in recent weeks, on March 19 to announce the “janata curfew” and on March 24 to declare the lockdown, it is that this is not the time for last-minute surprises. Such actions only allow rumours and panic to spread. Have we forgotten how Modi had to tweet, in all caps, “THERE IS NO NEED TO PANIC” after his last prime-time address?
For days now, there have been rumours that Modi will once again speak to the Indian public, ahead of the three-week deadline. This has led to the unusual phenomenon of anonymous government spokespersons assuring citizens that their prime minister will not be speaking to them.
Modi did speak to chief ministers of India’s states over the weekend, and they appear to have concluded that he plans to extend the lockdown. Four states have unilaterally said that a lockdown will be in place until the end of the month, without waiting for the Centre to say anything. Others announced a national lockdown extension, even though Modi’s office remains silent.
An announcement is expected some time on Monday or Tuesday – the last day of the three-week period. Yet it will already be too late by then. Why would the government wait until the very end to announce whatever comes next, whether it is an extension or a staggered exit from lockdown restrictions? What does leaving an announcement until so late achieve other than to leave Indians unsettled until the very end?