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22 March, 2020 12:44:52 AM

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The Indian VIP

This time, too, there was speculation, of course with a silver lining
KUMKUM CHADHA

Panic gripped the nation following an announcement that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would address the country. Some waited with bated breath; others counted hours. Women flocked to grocery stores to buy stuff for homes. It was, they reasoned, time to stock up. After many weeks markets were suddenly abuzz. If the Prime Minister is addressing the nation it must be something big, people felt. Memory took them back to 2016: the dreaded year for many when the Government of India announced demonetization of banknotes of Rs 500 and 1,000. It was nothing short of a bombshell. The economy is still to recover from that onslaught.
This time, too, there was speculation, of course with a silver lining. People knew that Modi would be talking about the deadly Corona Virus or COVID-19. What they failed to fathom was what he would say?
Fear was at its peak: will he announce a complete lock down? Will everything be shut? Would borders be sealed? Would there be severe shortages? Is there a national medical emergency? Are we headed for disaster?
The Prime Minister did speak for around 30 minutes. It was conciliatory, reassuring and a kind of confidence build-up for the people.
While exercising caution he warned against complacency; awareness and alertness; a resolve to fight; exhibit restraint by social distancing and avoiding hoarding. In the same breath he assured the nation that supply of essential goods like milk and rations will not be hampered. He asked employers to be humane and not deduct salaries of their work force: “"Please take care of their health and do not deduct their salaries for this duration as they also need money to keep their families safe and buy medicines”. Modi alsoasked  everyone to stay at home as much as it is possible.  

Reassurance came by way of Modi telling the people that the government has set up a COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force under Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The task force will remain in regular touch with all stakeholders and take decisions  regarding the economic implications of coronavirus after consulting with them.  

The Prime Minister spoke like one common man to another: a fellow Indian sharing the pain of another. This precisely is the reason why his speech touched a chord with most.

Consequently when he asked people to observe a janata curfew: a self-imposed curfew by the public, for the public - on March 22 between 7:00 am and 9:00 pm, everyone was more than willing. No citizen, barring those in essential services, should get out of house, Modi said.

He also asked people to salute those working in essential services, in the times of coronavirus, by standing in their doorways and clapping and ringing their bells.

 "For the past two months, millions are working day and night in hospitals and airports and those serving others by not taking care of themselves. On March 22, at 5 pm, we should stand on our doorways, balconies, in our windows and keep clapping hands and ringing the bells for five minutes to salute and encourage them," PM Modi said.

 Even while India  geared up to do both, the Janata curfew call has alerted some. Many feel it to be the beginning of what is yet to come: a total lock down in coming weeks. The curfew call, they feel,  is  a precursor and we are headed towards tough times both medically and economically. The Prime Minister, by asking for a self-imposed curfew is preparing the country for a government imposed lock down in the near future: an iron hand in a velvet glove kind of an approach.

 Having said that one cannot deny that the Modi government has, so far, contained and controlled the virus rather well.

The World Health Organisation has praised India’s response even as the government has embarked on an aggressive programme to contain the virus beginning with screening at airports, stamping patients with indelible ink and mandating home quarantining. Ofcourse there are issues with facilities but these are challenges which one must learn to cope with in an emergency like situation. Therefore those crying foul over the lack of facilities need to hang their head in shame and accept that the pandemic has come unannounced and caught us unprepared. Despite odds, the government has been on top of it and responded remarkably well. Its selective testing may be an issue but with private labs now being allowed to test, the situation may soon begin to improve.  

But one cannot ignore that there are critics and villains within: politicians slamming the government and VIPs skipping tests.  

For starters, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said that the Modi government was ill-prepared to deal with the economic tsunami that is going to be exacerbated because of COVID-19: “I am trying to tell the Prime Minister get your head out of the sand. Your head is right now in the sand, pull it out, look around what is going on” he said as he accused Modi of “sleeping at the wheel” over his handling of the economy and the coronavirus outbreak.

This is one part. The other and worse are those  violating norms and putting the public at grave risk.

The first  COVID-19 case in West Bengal, for instance,took the state  administration by storm, forcing top civil servants to go into self-quarantine and the state secretariat building into sanitisation mode. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was hopping mad.

It all started with  an 18-year-old student returning from the United Kingdom last week. He was tested positive for coronavirus. The infected student is the son of a senior official serving in the West Bengal home department.

Despite getting information that some of his  friends in London had tested positive for the disease, his mother chose to attend office and evaded getting her son tested. The student was advised to go to hospital at the airport itself, but he ignored the advice.

Decrying it as completely irresponsible behaviour, Banerjee said that she would not tolerate any “VVIP, VIP  culture” adding that, “Nobody has a reason to think that he has someone very influential in the family who can help to evade the medical tests. This is irresponsible behaviour. They tend to infect so many people.”

West Bengal is not alone. In Uttar Pradesh too the VIP culture was evident when Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor attended three parties immediately after returning from London. Best known for her songs Baby Dolland Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan, she tested positive for the virus on Friday. According to sources, she refrained from informing authorities about her travel history.

 Yet the one who tops the list of violators is none other than a BJP MP, Dushyant Singh and his mother and former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. Both attended the same party that Kanika Kapoor had attended. Even while Raje tweeted that both she and her son haveself-quarantined, the fact remains that  Dushyant Singh reportedly attended Parliament the next day and was sitting next to two MPs in the Central Hall.

 Even while the government is on a war footing to come to grips with the situation and PM calling for isolation, its own MPs partying and making merry is a sad commentary on the state of affairs. Even while the state government is reportedly registering an FIR against Kapoor, the government could do well to take strict action against one of its own MPs otherwise PM’s call for the people to unite to fight the deadly virus would sound hollow.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent.

She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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