Come-and-gone PM’s address to the nation may well give no clue to the surprise in store

Given the suddenness of demonetisation and corona lockdown, bringing a trail of miseries in past, the sheer mention of Modi’s address to the nation always makes people to keep their fingers crossed

PM Modi (Photo Courtesy: ANI)
PM Modi (Photo Courtesy: ANI)

Abid Shah

It’s not only Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s little overgrown and further greying beard but also his tone and tenor through his Tuesday evening’s address to the nation – to warn about a possible resurgence of COVID-19 epidemic during the current festival season – that looked somewhat moderate than before.

Modi’s similar exercises through the now nearly seven-month long lockdown that was first imposed in March this year had sounded a lot more assertive than what surprisingly turned out to be the case on October 20.

Thus, the question that begs for answer is why and how this change? Or what does it really signify? And, thus, what is in store for most Indians in times of current uncertainties brought by a hitherto worst kind of pandemic?

There can be any number of guesses in this regard. But the fact is that for the first time in the list of festivals mentioned by the Prime Minister while concluding his address, Eid too was included alongside others. He said, “I once again greet all the countrymen on the occasion of all the festivals including Navratri, Dussehra, Eid, Deepawali, Chhath Puja and Gurunanak Jayanti.”

This is rather unusual since Modi has generally avoided mentioning any Muslim festival in the past in his talks except making occasional reference to such events in his social media posts. Yet, this time he referred to Eid-un-Miladun-Nabi that marks both the birth and death anniversary of Prophet Mohammad as it is going to be observed towards the end of this month.

This is significant when viewed in the light of Modi’s changing appearance that possibly points to a kind of image makeover by the Prime Minister and the government he runs. This is not confined to him alone but may hold true for his point-man Amit Shah too. The Union Home Minister recently differed from Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari on his choice of words that were made in a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. The Governor’s letter virtually taunted Thackeray’s ‘secular shift’ while asking the CM to reopen temples in Maharashtra.

This and a few other assertions made by Shah like with regard to the recent uproar against an advertisement highlighting inter-faith marriages and media trial to boost TV channels reach as seen in the case of death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput point to a sort of mellowing down on his part. This is so from what used to be the case in the past. For the reason behind this, one has to look at the long and consistent economic losses not only during the pandemic but since before its outbreak. Amid this, the image of the country beyond its confines, or globally, has taken a beating as the international media has linked economic reverses with the growing internal strife on sectarian, communal and caste lines.

Not just this but the overall mood in times of festivals is depressing and there is no early end of pandemic’s scourge and revival of economy in sight. The government policies and moves are under attack from the Opposition and the chances of this striking a chord among voters in the forthcoming state elections in Bihar and later in West Bengal are high. Thus, there is a palpable need for not only an image makeover on the part of government and its higher ups but a need for changing tracks too may well be felt and put into effect.

The news from Bihar of huge crowds thronging the rallies of the leaders of Opposition alliance led by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) are so worrying that Modi inadvertently mentioned of ‘pictures and videos’ of people’s gathering though without marking them as political or cultural in nature. He pointed out in his 12-minute address on Tuesday that “in recent times, we have all seen various pictures and videos in which it is clear that many people have now stopped taking precautions, or have become too careless. This is not good at all”.

The remark does not distinguish between festive and other kinds of gatherings. But in case of West Bengal, Modi is himself expected to address Durga Puja gatherings in Kolkata and elsewhere in the state though through virtual mode. Thus, the distinction between festive and political gathering is not as hard as it used to be in the past. This is so due to the increased participation of leaders in Bengal’s religious congregations. Durga Puja is generally a community affair but this time a few Pujas are also being organised by what BJP calls to be its cultural wing, or front organisations. Even the virtual interaction of people with VVIP participants is bound to draw sizeable gatherings of people before TV screens to watch the guest speakers.

So the caution sounded by Modi on Tuesday against hazards that the current phase of festivity may entail due to unrestrained participation by people looks more of a formal stand rather than giving any idea as to what may eventually happen on the ground and what the government can do to steer the country out of the crisis. This may also see that blame is pre-empted in case anything goes wrong.

It is obvious that next month Diwali is going to take place under the unprecedentedly grim clouds cast by the pandemic. The festival has an economic significance as it marks turn of year’s accounting for most traders and businessmen.

Four years ago, it was a few days after Diwali, or on November 8, 2016 to be precise, that in an address to the nation Modi had announced demonetisation of currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000. This had a disastrous effect on the economy which has now been further worsened because of COVID-19 and other reasons before it. The ill-conceived GST is the foremost among them. So Modi’s speech this time well before Diwali appears to be timed to take care that it does not revive the memory of what had once happened around the time of Diwali.

Given the suddenness of demonetisation and corona lockdown, bringing a trail of miseries in the past, the sheer mention of Modi’s address to the nation always makes people to keep their fingers crossed. Though this time it has not been so, one never knows what the government may have in its mind since its moves, including some of the drastic ones, may not necessarily always come with Prime Minister’s address to the nation.

The three farm bills recent enacted by the Centre may serve as a case in point, that, among other things, led to huge protests by farmers in parts of the country amid fears of worsening the corona crisis.

Thus, none can say what comes next.

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