More important than the message in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on Monday was the timing.
In the seven years of his prime ministership, he has never been challenged and cornered in a way as he is now. The second wave of Covid has washed ashore intense popular anger against Indian authorities in general, the Modi government in particular. The electoral defeat in Bengal and the ensuing violence against BJP workers has left even the party’s core supporters disillusioned and bitter, wondering if it really cares for those who risk their lives and limbs for it.
To add salt to the wounds, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has openly insulted the prime minister and got her chief secretary to defy him too, chipping away at his image of invulnerability.
Twitter has done pretty much the same, refusing to comply with the nation’s new intermediary rules under the IT Act. By lecturing the Modi government on freedom of expression and playing victim internationally, it has virtually dared the government to act against it. This Big Tech defiance has further eroded Modi’s strongman identity.
Punjab arthiyas and middlemen are trying to step up their protest against the farm laws, which the government has put in the freezer for 18 months. It is yet to implement the bold Citizenship Amendment Act it passed in 2019.
While Modi’s famed ‘doer’ image is under attack, the Opposition led by the Congress has for the first time found a real weapon against the prime minister’s popularity in, unfortunately, the pandemic.
Covid has officially claimed over 350,000 lives in India, but given the vast and largely unmonitored expanse, the actual figure would be much more. All of us can tell at least half-a-dozen close or known people we have lost in the pandemic.
This has been a tragedy of unfathomed depths. While the healthcare system of the states has been drubbed hollow, the Central government of the day will have to soak in a great deal of people’s anger.
It is at this juncture that the prime minister chose to come out and address the nation.
While it was no doubt a full-frontal political attack, it was in retaliation to sustained politics of slander, crass opportunism in misery and lies by some of the Opposition leaders.
Modi exposed the doublespeak and constant shifting of goalposts by Opposition-ruled states. When the government was giving them the vaccine for free, they wanted the power to purchase it themselves. When the Centre allowed that, they failed to arrive at deals and wanted the Centre to restart central purchase of vaccines. On Monday, Modi obliged them by doing just that, but telling the people the full story.
He also attacked his critics and media for promoting vaccine hesitancy and not reporting adequately on the states’ failures while singularly blaming the Centre. Covishield vaccines purchased at Rs 309 were being sold at Rs 1,560 in Congress-ruled Punjab, and in Rajasthan where Rahul Gandhi’s party rules, vaccines were thrown in the garbage.
Besides taking on the Opposition’s relentless negativity narrative and hypocrisy, Modi’s speech comes at a time when India has started administering close to 5 million vaccines a day and there are massive stockpiles arriving on the shelves.
The prime minister’s timing is an indication that India is finally getting a grip on the virus. Because Modi usually steps out of his crease when he is certain of a boundary. And that is good news for the nation.