A monkey crosses the road near India’s Presidential Palace during a 14-hour curfew on Sunday, a curtain-raiser to the three-week curfew declared a few days later. Photo: Reuters
by C. Uday Bhaskar
by C. Uday Bhaskar

After Xi’s China and Trump’s America, Modi’s India is stepping up to battle the coronavirus

  • Modi has declared a 21-day national curfew and started a South Asian emergency fund, displaying leadership when global coordination against Covid-19 is lacking
  • India’s success could help disprove the idea that authoritarian regimes are better placed than democracies to tackle a pandemic
India has taken an unprecedented and tectonic step to deal with the Covid-19 public health crisis. A nation-wide 21-day curfew has been imposed that will affect almost 1.3 billion people. In a televised address on March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “There will be a total ban on venturing out of your homes.”

The decision was taken following a spike in coronavirus infections that has now reached 562 cases, and 10 deaths. The numbers, alas, are climbing by the hour.

Panic buying of food and essential goods has ensued across India since Modi’s announcement and given the vast number of Indians at the poverty line or below it, considerable social unrest is expected.

While the government has sought to allay fears that there will be no shortage of essential services, the next few days will be critical. Will the coronavirus be the bigger threat to citizen safety or the curfew?

Earlier, in a remarkable display of national solidarity to avert the public health crisis triggered by Covid-19, more than a billion citizens complied with Modi’s appeal to remain indoors as part of a janata (people’s) curfew on Sunday.
This voluntary 14-hour curfew, when India was eerily empty of its teeming demography and strangely silent, was unprecedented. The mass compliance was a clear demonstration of confidence in Modi’s leadership and may have been the curtain-raiser for the current 21-day nationwide curfew.
India is on a critical cusp in terms of the spread of the coronavirus and, compared to other large nations, the number infected is relatively modest. However, experts warn that rapid community transmission could queer the pitch very quickly and some dire exigencies have been outlined – including fatalities in the million plus.

India’s worst-case scenario is two in 10 infected with coronavirus: expert

Resolute and calm political leadership is what citizens seek globally, and for now, Modi has stepped up to the plate in an impressive manner. Most experts agree that India had to take such a draconian step – though how it will be implemented effectively remains opaque.

Modi’s leadership was also in evidence when he convened a March 15 video conference of regional South Asian leaders under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He proposed a modest regional Covid-19 emergency fund, with an initial contribution by Delhi, and this has been welcomed.

His call for a regional Covid-19 effort is pertinent, given that South Asia is home to 1.8 billion people, or a fifth of the global population, but has very inadequate public health infrastructures.

The region has not (yet) been severely affected by the pandemic but leaders and experts agree that if the virus balloon goes up, the collective security of millions will be severely endangered.

Modi’s call for collective deliberation to deal with the pandemic has been endorsed by other leaders, and has encouraged G20 chair Saudi Arabia to convene a video summit on Thursday.

India’s effort to catalyse a regional/global effort to address a trans-border, collective security issue is a work in progress, but it illustrates a global leadership void in relation to the Covid-19 challenge.

If Trump is a wartime president, as he claims, he’s falling far short

Professionally, the World Health Organisation is perceived as less than effective in identifying the gravity of the challenge. Some quarters accuse it of deference towards Beijing, in failing to get to the pandemic source and to call out China’s omissions.
Politically, the United Nations Security Council is in near paralysis due to the stand-off between China and the United States over Covid-19. US President Donald Trump’s earlier references to the “ Chinese virus” and Chinese officials’ disparagement of the US on social media illustrate the bitter divide.
China, seen as where the virus emerged, is projecting itself as the earnest fire-fighter. Despite notching more than 81,000 cases and 3,200 deaths, the narrative is that President Xi Jinping has been a calm and effective leader.
In contrast, US President Donald Trump is seen as having bumbled through the crisis with his impulsive tweets and off-the-cuff statements, with more than 54,000 cases and 700 deaths. Experts in the US fear the rising numbers may soon overwhelm the health infrastructure.
The debatable inference being advanced is that a firm, authoritarian regime, such as in China, with little transparency, is better placed to deal with a pandemic, while democracies where dissent is inherent to the polity tend to flounder. This conclusion is counter-factual if the experiences of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Iran are reviewed objectively.

For now, Western democracies have been found to be less than effective in dealing with Covid-19. The cognisance of what constitutes collective interest is a significant determinant.

Along with China and the US, India is one of the world’s three most populous nations and the next 21 days will be critical in determining which coronavirus scenario will play out in the world’s largest democracy.

Whether India can play the role of an effective sherpa apropos of Covid-19 is moot, given its domestic vulnerabilities. But it merits recall that almost 70 years ago, a fledgling and newly independent India was a valuable mediator in the Korean war, between Washington, Moscow and Beijing.

The coronavirus challenge needs the major powers to cooperate and pool their resources and expertise. Perhaps Modi can catalyse a constructive Trump-Xi pandemic dialogue devoid of a vituperative turn of phrase.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi

Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Modi’s leadership contradicts the authoritarian theory