Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not one to show any sign of weakness. So his apology to the Indian people on Sunday, after five days of chaotic attempts at a national lockdown to combat the coronavirus, was bound to earn headlines.

“When I look at the poor people, they must be thinking, what kind of prime minister is this who has put us through this hardship,” Modi said on Mann ki Baat, his fortnightly radio show. “I especially apologise to them.”

Ever since Modi had announced a three-week lockdown, the lack of planning that went into the nationwide restrictions has been evident. The police have used violence to keep people off the streets, even if they are doctors or providers of essential services, the lack of provisions for poor migrant workers sparked off a mass exodus towards India’s villages and broken-down supply chains have left food stocks in part of the country dangerously low.

The absence of forethought made itself immediately evident when Modi, in his speech announcing the three-week move, failed to clearly assure Indians that they would be able to leave their homes to buy food and medicines during the lockdown. The result was immediate panic-buying at grocery stores around the country, achieving exactly the opposite result that one hopes to when announcing social distancing efforts.

Sorry, not sorry

All of this meant that Modi’s apology on Sunday was much needed and might even have reassured some people that the government would implement more compassionate policies going forward.

Unfortunately, those people were not listening closely.

This is the rest of what Modi said:

“Some of you may be unhappy with the lockdown. But in order to combat coronavirus, this was the only option. It is a battle for life and death, which we have to win. That is why such strong measures had to be resorted to.”

And then, in classic “not-really-an-apology” fashion, Modi went on to say, “My conscience says you will forgive me.”

While it is true that many are unhappy with the lockdown, a far greater number of Indians are upset about the way the Modi government has implemented the three-week shutdown.

This is an important difference.

Nearly everyone who understand the sheer scale of the coronavirus crisis is aware of the challenge it poses, and knows that the government has had to take some very hard decisions. But the first case turned up in India on January 30, since the end of February it has been clear that the virus had expanded far beyond China and by mid-March it was clear that India would have to contemplate some sort of shutdown at some point.

A policeman hands out a packet of bread to migrant workers in Delhi. Credit: Reuters

Haphazard planning

Yet the Centre seemed to work on how to implement the shutdown only after it was announced. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman admitted as much when she said that her ministry had “responded immediately within 36 hours” of the shutdown, and had formulated a welfare package to help people affected by it.

Why weren’t those policies announced alongside the shutdown – to reassure Indians that they need not be worried about accessing food despite the extraordinary stay-at-home orders?

Why wasn’t a simple system of identifying essential goods devised?

Why weren’t police across the country told not to use violence?

Why did the policy not have a solution for the easy-to-predict pattern that thousands of migrants would attempt to get home if their work came to a grinding halt?

Modi did not apologise for any of these mess-ups. He did not acknowledge the tremendous failures of planning, despite his government choosing to announce one of the harshest, most widespread, lockdowns in the world, with days if not weeks to potentially plan.

Patriarch Modi

Instead, his tone was that of the patriarch, telling his family that he had made tough decisions on their behalf and that any pain they had to deal with as a result was unavoidable and for their own good. Modi’s words were hardly an apology – they were a justification.

Why does this matter? Because a genuine apology would have been an admission from the government that its policies have caused unnecessary pain and that it would now correct its course.

Even the harshest, most clinical policy decisions need to be taken with compassion. The difficult task of shutting down the economy could have been made easier if only more planning and forethought had gone into it. But Modi’s penchant for grand announcements, rather than careful policymaking, doesn’t allow for this.

Criminal treatment

The attitude has influenced actions on the ground. even as the authorities continue to treat the poor as if they are all criminals.

On Monday, video footage emerged of returning migrants in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly being doused with disinfectant meant for use on vehicles. Some needed medical treatment after this.

On the same day that Modi apologised to the poorest, the state of Haryana issue notifications calling for all the migrants attempting to get home to be treated as violators of the Disaster Management Act. It said large indoor stadiums could be used as “temporary jails” to hold them. A compassionate response would, of course, have been to order these stadiums to be turned into shelters for the travellers.

The note from Haryana's director general of police.

After emphasising that the authorities should follow a “zero tolerance policy towards anyone who violate the lockdown guidelines”, it adds almost as an afterthought that district authorities should establish shelter campuses for people who do not have a home to go back to.

Along the route and back in their home villages, these migrants now run the risk of facing the wrath of the police, the anger of locals, and the likelihood of being treated as criminals – all because the government ordered a lockdown without making adequate measures for their livelihoods.