San Francisco – Today exactly at 8.30 am in California, when it will be 9 pm in India, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a 9-minute blackout will be heeded by millions of Indians. Modi is blamed by many, much like US President Donald Trump is in the US, for theatrics and gimmickry that elicit popular (opponents decry it as populist) interest, following, and support.
Symbolism is vigorously and viciously decried by “sane” liberals who compare Modi, as they do Trump, to Nazi tactics and one living in denial of science. While one may differ, and agree or reject the charges, there is room to consider the role of faith in helping tackle a nation and in this case a world in crisis. In the grip of fear of innocently losing one’s own life or those near and dear to one, the helplessness the China pandemic has generated is as unmistakable as it is ubiquitous.
As we lose the sense of control we have over our lives, and begin to see our impending (perhaps even unstoppable) vulnerability to death occurring at any time, our blind trust in the miracles of science and medicine is shaken to its roots. Strangely, even as we doubt the validity of the claims to latest vaccine to cure the virus or spare the living from dying, we are unwilling to fully explore the power of united prayer.
Modi represents a refreshing class of political leaders who are not afraid to try any and all options to attack a vicious virus and pandemic, and its shattering impact on people’s psyche. He was speedy (some criticized him for being hasty) in shutting the country down in one swoop, but he felt shut down is the only or plausible way to minimize the contagion’s spread and in its wake, countless deaths and costly morbidity. India’s medical resources are sparse and much less equipped to deal with hospitalization and critical care in which context enforced isolation becomes the best preventive.
Even though costly in economic terms, it is a worthy choice as it may save lives. The not so subtle life and death choice between “life” and “livelihood” as we are experiencing in the US, is million or billion times more stark and painful for India’s masses. In desperate situations, turning to God and divine powers is hardly a new or untested weapon. That Modi is willing to test the power of faith only brings him closer to a lot of Indians. By urging citizens to light a lamp, candle or shine a mobile flashlight during the period, and switch off all power, he may well be the laughing stock of so-called deep thinkers, westernized Indian liberals, and the political and bureaucrat elites. But he knows the pulse of substantial sections of India’s populace.
On March 22, Modi first appealed to India’s citizens to clap, blow conch, or ring a bell for five minutes to commend the efforts of those fighting the pandemic. (New York’s firefighters did the same just yesterday.) His second appeal slated for tomorrow is to feel the power of prayer and to unite the people in a common endurance of the crisis (See Box below for his message). India is united, he asserts, in its fight against the pandemic. And this gesture of solidarity, as Modi reminds people, is not advocated at the cost of social distancing. Instead, as he suggests, people must maintain social distancing rules while undertaking the exercise.
So skeptics may well wonder, a la Shakespeare, “where for art though Modi?” Of what use is this gimmick? Will it save lives or merely bring him the support of more fans of Hindutava? Either way, no harm is done if one decides to light a lamp to drive away darkness. Rulers and conquerors throughout history have appealed to sages and bishops and popes to pray for their success and the prosperity of their kingdoms. The US Congress and UK and Indian Parliaments in our own times seek wisdom daily from the power of religion and the words of wisdom delivered by chaplains and ecclesiasts. Prayer’s power and its use cuts across religious divides as seen in case of India’s warrior leader Tipu Sultan who never forgot to seek the blessings of Hindu priests, seers and temples for the wellbeing of his kingdom and the success of his campaigns.
So come this evening, as expatriate Indians, we could do well by our two countries if we elected to light a diya or a candle and pray for our two countries and the world to be spared from afflictions.