Light and sound: On Narendra Modi’s 9-minute light ceremony

Symbolism has its place, but it must be part of a sustainable action plan

Updated - April 04, 2020 01:00 am IST

Published - April 03, 2020 10:46 pm IST

Full of sound and piety but signifying little, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s third and latest address to the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic hardly calmed frayed nerves. Anxieties triggered by the pandemic are on the rise among all sections of society. The lockdown enforced on March 24 has brought the economy to a halt: small businesses are bleeding, and companies are scurrying to keep their heads above water. Migrant labourers are stranded and hungry; health workers and security personnel are already stretched. The extent of the pandemic itself remains uncertain, meanwhile. It is only natural that 130 crore Indians, the audience that the Prime Minister calls out to in all his speeches, have a lot of angst regarding all this. They did expect a reassuring action plan from the Prime Minister and a clear picture of the challenge ahead. They expected some clarity on the post-lockdown course for the country. They hoped for more mitigation measures, beyond those announced by the Finance Minister and the Reserve Bank of India Governor. Chief executives of many democracies have personally addressed the people with detailed and material plans of action since the outbreak. They have also kept the interaction alive, and two-way. The political leadership at the Centre has largely remained aloof. Mr. Modi himself continues with his monologues, shunning all questions.

Rhetoric to rally the nation in a moment of crisis can actually do good. Unifying and galvanising the country is very critical in combating the pandemic. To the extent that it sought to achieve those goals, the Prime Minister’s message was purposeful. But gong and cymbals that drown out substantive conversations can be counterproductive. If the pandemic itself was not mind-boggling enough, now the country has a unique puzzle to resolve — which is about the nine-minute light ceremony at 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 5 , that the Prime Minister has called for. Unsurprisingly, an industry has instantly sprung up online interpreting the choice of number nine as a stroke of celestial genius, forcing the Press Information Bureau to issue a clarification. “Don’t fall for the rumours and unscientific reasoning on the appeal for lighting diya…,” it said. The Prime Minister himself has repeatedly asked people to stay away from rumours and misinformation about the pandemic, and rely only on trusted media platforms. Mr. Modi has a formidable following among the Indian public and his words carry weight. But no country can talk its way out of a pandemic and an economic collapse. If words are all one has, the virus is not going to be kind. Nor is an economy going to stop its free fall at the sight of candles. Symbolism is infused with meaning only through corresponding action.

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