Ranjona Banerji: The Divide on PM Modi’s speech

20 Mar,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


Here’s a new divide. Journalists and media houses who felt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the night of March 19 was “statesmanlike”, “powerful”, “grave”, and so on. And those who asked questions beyond the rhetoric.

What did Modi tell the nation at his favourite time of 8 pm? He said Covid19 was a global pandemic, dangerous and we needed to be careful. He said that isolation and distancing were important. Panic-buying not necessary. He requested business to be compassionate and not cut wages. He said there were many measures. Also, that Sunday, March 22 would be a “test of self-discipline” with a voluntary curfew from 7 am to 9 pm. At 5 pm, the people of India have been asked to appear on their balconies and bang pots and pans and ring bells for five minutes to thank those in the medical community fighting the virus.

Now perhaps his demeanour was “statesmanlike” and full of gravitas. Maybe his tone was perfect. Maybe the expression on his face was scrumptious. But for some absurd reason, I still expect journalists to analyse the content of the speech instead of going goo-goo over the bells and whistles. I know, how stupid of me, right?

Where there any details about the measures? Er, no. In essence, the speech was about what the citizens had to do and not what his government was doing or about to do. There is still no clarity on travel. On whether isolation and distancing are enforced or not. On whether large social gathering are allowed or not. In fact, many state governments have been more active and engaged with the people than the Centre.

As it turned out, all this banging of pots and pans and clapping was picked up from other nations: Brazil, Italy, Spain, France. The internet has been full of videos of people in isolation singing, clapping and so on. The Brazil example is the strongest and most unfortunate: people banged their pots and pans in protest against their president Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid19, but never mind, we shall “borrow” an idea, whatever the context!



The refusal of the Prime Minister to address a press conference becomes significant when you have a crisis like a global pandemic. Because he will not answer questions, the public remains unaware of what his government has planned to tide us over. We must be happy with gimcrack gimmickry and applaud a statesmanlike demeanour. Like Donald Trump, who wants to be seen as a “wartime” president, there appears to be too much admiration for Churchillian rhetoric rather than any remote need to actually do any work.

Let me ask some of the questions I want answers to, that I expected senior journalists to have been discussing. I repeat myself because of the urgency of the crisis. Are we in lockdown? We don’t know. What measures are in place for potential lockdown? We don’t know. Have our contingency services been bolstered? We don’t know. How much travel within India is permissible? We don’t know. The Prime Minister is apparently going to speak to chief ministers today. But where was Rip Van Winkle all this while?

No, we cannot ask, we must not ask. We must bang our pots and pans.


The speech was in effect, ineffective. And it is hardly surprising that it has been taken over by news events. The hanging of the four convicts in the Nirbhaya case early on the morning of March 20. now dominates headlines. The heinous, gruesome gangrape and murder of the 23-year-old woman, known as “Nirbhaya”, in December 2012 horrified the world. The case took a long time to come to reach this end, regardless of your views on capital punishment.



Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal



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