Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-03-24 14:55:15 Published on Mar 24, 2020
Leadership in the time of Corona

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation regarding coronavirus last week and its public receptivity has been largely positive. His was a calm and composed reassurance befitting the leader of a populous democracy that while the governmental machinery is doing its best, the responsibility also lies with the people themselves to make sure that things do not get worse. He was also direct when he suggested that even though it might seem that India has been relatively protected from the Covid-19 outbreak, it was an illusion that he tried to break by underlining India as a developing country with a massive population. But even as he put the stark realities before the people, he also gave them a sense of national purpose by bringing them together for the ‘Janata curfew’ and asking them to publicly acknowledge the role of those on the frontlines of this struggle with the deadly virus – our doctors, medical personnel, cleaning staff et al.

Of course, the critics will find things to criticise as they should in a democracy but Modi’s role in managing the crisis so far needs to be acknowledged. At a time when the paucity of global leadership is palpable across the world, Modi has been one leader who has managed to bring his domestic requirements and global responsibilities in sync. He has been communicating with Indians regularly and directly from the very beginning and has not been shy of articulating that this pandemic would also need effective global response. Compare this to the shambolic performance of Europe in managing this crisis within its boundaries or of the US President Donald Trump who has been all over the place in his attempts to come to grips with this tragedy or of the Chinese leadership whose irresponsible behaviour led to the crisis in the first place and one can assess how effective Modi’s leadership of India has been at this critical juncture.

India has quietly, but effectively, responded to this pandemic at multiple levels. Domestically, with all its resource constraints and population pressure, Modi government’s graded response in gradually scaling up its policies without causing undue panic has ensured that the people have largely rallied behind government’s efforts.

But even at a time when the world is consumed with internal problems and most countries have been focusing more and more inwards to fight the viral contagion, India decided to challenge these assumptions when Modi called the SAARC nation conference on Covid-19. Calling for a coordinated response among the SAARC neighbours to effectively combat coronavirus in the region, Modi proposed the creation of a Covid-19 emergency fund with India making an initial contribution of $10 million. Despite knowing well that Pakistan would do its best to politicise even this endeavour, which it eventually did by raking up the Kashmir issue, Modi was categorical that it was imperative for South Asian nations to work together and that the region “can respond best to coronavirus by coming together, not growing apart.” Modi also proposed setting up of rapid response teams of doctors, specialists and arrange for testing equipment, besides imparting online training to emergency response staff so as to build capacity to fight such challenges across the region.

This was the first time when during this crisis world witnessed a nation rising beyond its immediate national concerns. Modi’s initiative came much before any other such regional initiative and drew a positive response not only from regional states but also from countries like the US and Russia as well as the World Health Organisation. Modi also became the first global leader to call for a G20 summit via video conferencing to advance “a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its human and economic implications.” This was accepted by Saudi Arabia, the chair of the G 20 this year.

India has been evacuating a significant number of its nationals from coronavirus hotspots like China, Iran and Italy as well as stranded students in places like Manila and Singapore. Those evacuated include not only Indians but also citizens of countries as wide-ranging as Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, US, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru. Requests for emergency medical equipment from Bhutan and the Maldives have also been responded to by India.

These are tough times of global crisis when leadership has been in short supply. It is in times like these that nations need steady hands. For India, Modi has so far been successful in providing that right mix of authority and reassurance. Days ahead will be tough and the scale of the problem facing India is huge. From managing the immediate fall out of the crisis in the short term to thinking about re-building its science and technological base to ensuring the sustainability of its multilateral medical outreach towards the wider South Asian region and reassessing the national security implications of relying on others in key economic sectors, Indian policy makers face daunting long term challenges. Indian leadership has done well so far but going forward it will need the support of the people if the nation is to weather this storm effectively.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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