IN MID-MAY, seeking to reflate his political buoyancy after weeks of covid-19 lockdown, Narendra Modi announced a new ideology. Henceforth, said India’s prime minister, the nation would strive for atmanirbharta, or self-reliance. It may be that North Korea’s unlamented Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, got there first with his slogan of juche, which means much the same thing. Yet the clunky Hindi word does seem to have caught on, albeit less with the Indian public than with their bureaucratic overlords.
Perhaps this is because Indian officialdom, ensconced in government housing and enjoying lifetime jobs with perks such as office peons and drivers, access to top schools and hospitals, and memberships of the best clubs, has a long tradition of insouciant independence from the mundane world of tradesmen, farmers, parents or other voters. Yet the current crisis has cast this divine detachment in even starker light than usual.
India’s bureaucrats issued well over 4,000 different rules during the two long months that they kept India’s 1.3bn other citizens shut indoors. Most of this torrent of instruction was well meant. Yet many of the rules caused as much trouble as they resolved. This is most obvious regarding tens of millions of migrant workers who were left without subsistence when Mr Modi imposed an instant and total nationwide lockdown on March 25th. As their desperation grew, many attempted to walk back to their villages, braving not just heat, hunger and exhaustion, but beatings from the police. By mid-May the bureaucrats changed tack and scrambled to arrange transport for stranded migrants, many of whom then carried covid-19 to the remotest corners of the country.
With the lockdown lifted and the economy restarting, the migration has already reversed, with workers trickling back to jobs in cities. Yet India’s Supreme Court has only just taken notice of their earlier plight. Enhancing a reputation as perhaps the most otherworldly of all the country’s institutions, on June 9th it issued a suo moto ruling (meaning one taken on its own initiative, in the spirit of atmanirbharta) ordering India’s states to transport migrants home within 15 days.
Some of the government’s lofty contradictions concern petty matters. Upon reopening parks, for instance, India’s capital decreed that citizens should be allowed in only from 7am to 10am and 3.30pm to 6.30pm, ensuring more crowding and less social distance. Residents of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, recently read this cryptic announcement: “All shopping malls will open but all shops in the malls will remain closed.” On the very day that Haryana, a state that abuts Delhi, reopened its border with the capital, Delhi closed its border with Haryana. Some 2m daily commuters between the big city and its suburbs have repeatedly been stuck in monster jams, caught out by such petal-plucking changes of mind.
The rules can prove deadly as well as irritating. Perhaps hoping to prevent crowding, Delhi’s government has banned some hospitals from testing for covid-19. Doctors say this is mad. It means they cannot tell, for example, if a baby born to a mother with covid needs to be kept isolated from other newborns, or if a patient being treated for another disease might have covid, too. Medical associations, including one of epidemiologists, have repeatedly condemned the government for hiding information and failing to consult experts, to no avail.
The authorities’ atmanirbharta can also have sinister implications. The Supreme Court earlier this month blithely delayed yet another attempt to secure the release of a former government minister who has been held without charge under house arrest for ten months. He is 82 years old, but has the misfortune to come from the restive Kashmir valley. Lower courts, for their part, have repeatedly denied bail to Varavara Rao, an 81-year-old poet awaiting trial in Mumbai with ten other elderly activists for supposedly inciting those at the bottom of the caste ladder to riot two years ago.
Even Amit Shah, the home minister, who as Mr Modi’s campaign wizard is reputed for sensing the national pulse, seems to be infected with atmanirbharta. Showing unusual detachment in a recent online election rally, he admitted that the government may have fallen short in its handling of covid-19. Then he added a question that rang particularly tuneless after six years in power with a crushing parliamentary majority: “But I want to ask the opposition, what did you do?”
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Circulars, directives and rules”