Modi has not called the army onto the streets. He has not denied people any fundamental human rights. The lockdown instructions were largely voluntary and for the public good
Viktor Orban felt that the Parliament impeded his fight against COVID-19. The prime minister of Hungary used the majority he enjoys in the parliament to secure emergency powers for himself. He can now run Hungary through decrees without any judicial oversight. Any criticism of his measures will attract imprisonment up to five years.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, some justifiable. But critics argue that some leaders are using the public health emergency to usurp all powers and are emerging as authoritarian regimes. We are not talking about Russia or China. Even traditional democracies like Britain and Israel are compelled to turn to emergency measures in their battle against the pandemic. The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has ordered the courts to be shut down (some criticise this as a measure to evade his own prosecution), authorised his internal security agencies to carry out extensive surveillance on citizens, and is punishing violators of the lockdown with six months’ imprisonment.
The United Kingdom, with well-established democratic institutions and practices, had to push through a pandemic-related bill that gave sweeping powers to different ministries for detaining and arresting people indefinitely. Health Secretary Matt Hancock, while presenting the Bill to the parliament, admitted that it was “a departure from the way that we do things”.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha of Thailand have been granted supreme powers by their respective governments. Italy and Spain have had to turn to their militaries for quarantining thousands of people. Hungary, Lebanon, Malaysia, Peru and many other countries too have brought their armies to the streets to implement the restrictions. Even Germany and the UK have turned to soldiers for help. The UK has formed a “COVID Response Group” with about 20,000 soldiers.
In the US, initial efforts by the Donald Trump administration called for sweeping powers to detain people indefinitely without trial and end legal protection to asylum seekers. However, the US Congress intervened and forced the Justice Department to dilute its wish-list. President Trump is constrained by the fact that under the US constitution, governors of various states enjoy exclusive powers in matters of lockdown.
Compare all that with what Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing in India. He has neither asked for nor invoked any emergency powers. He has not resorted to any draconian measures like censorship or detention without trial. The cacophony about gagging the media is misinformed. All that the Supreme Court had asked of the media is to be careful with fake news and give space to official figures and numbers.
Modi has not called the army onto the streets. He has not denied people any fundamental human rights. The lockdown instructions were largely voluntary and for the public good. Not that harsh measures were not suggested to him. Yet, Modi decided to depend not on authoritarian but on democratic means. He came out as a committed democrat upholding basic human rights in a “world war-like situation”, as he has described it.
In his fight against the coronavirus, Modi’s weapon is the trust of 1.3 billion people of India. Shashan, Prashasan aur Janta Janardhan — political leadership, bureaucracy and the divine people — was how he described his combat coalition in a recent address to the nation. Although half of the state governments in India are ruled by non-BJP parties, Modi didn’t face any opposition. It shows the level of his credibility. It is appropriate here to recall the recent spat between President Trump and the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.
This is the most significant dimension of the Modi government. We often hear platitudes for democracies like “Of the people, for the people, by the people”. However, in most democracies, things are hardly ever “by the people”. Modi has changed that. He has not seen people as mere voters or spectators. He has made them stakeholders in governance. Starting with his first major campaign for cleanliness — Swachh Bharat Abhiyan — right up to the present fight against the pandemic, Modi has displayed the unique skill of increasingly making people active participants.
Francis Fukuyama makes an interesting distinction between the rule of law and the rule by law. Democracies are run based on the rule of law where the rules framed by the constitution are supreme. Authoritarians try to resort to rule by law, a complete deviation from the democratic spirit. Modi has clearly shown his commitment to the rule of law. Not that there were no provocations. There were incidents like the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz — a deliberate violation of lockdown restrictions by certain religious groups, and situations like the large-scale flight of migrant workers. There were also instances where state governments themselves were seen violating lockdown restrictions.
Yet, Modi didn’t discard his model. He continues to invoke the innate goodness of the people. In his latest address, he described them as Isvar (God) and called for the manifestation of their maha shakti (mighty power) and the virat roop (omni form). That the people of India are solidly behind him has been manifested in how they responded to his calls, such as applauding the corona-fighters or lighting a lamp for them.
Modi has taken his fight against the pandemic to a different level. He has used scientific methods, deployed technology in a big way and made 1.3 billion people stakeholders in his fight. Through his unique and visionary handling of this situation, Modi has presented a new mantra to the world: “Human-centric development cooperation.”
(The article was originally published in Indian Express on April 7, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)