Prime Minister Modi, Photo: Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, linked at bottom of article Prime Minister Modi, Photo: Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, linked at bottom of article

A far-right government and its ‘muscular’ leader provide an object lesson in how not to fight the pandemic, writes Susan Ram

On August 7, India mounted the podium of the international Coronavirus stakes. The addition of 62,170 new covid-19 infections in the previous 24 hours had been enough to carry total confirmed cases in the country beyond the two-million mark. Of that total, one million cases had been added in just 20 days.

Although lagging behind frontrunners Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, leader of the most far-right, divisive and toxic government to be inflicted on India since independence, now holds the bronze medal spot in the contest for the worst governmental response to the global pandemic.

As in Washington and Brasilia, dismal government performance has been greeted with denial, bravado, and diversionary moves.  Just two days before India broke the two million covid case barrier, on August 5, Modi was to be found in Ayodhya, a town 330 miles to the east of Delhi. Attired in saffron, the prime minister of a constitutionally declared secular state sat cross-legged amid a gaggle of Hindu priests, playing master of ceremonies for the religious rituals prescribed for the laying of a temple foundation stone.

It was as if the coronavirus were no longer blazing across the land, firing an endless chain of new hotspots while disrupting every aspect of life for countless millions of people. For Modi, performing his priestly role in front of the TV cameras and the world’s press was for ‘loftier’ ends: building a temple to the god Ram on the rubble of a destroyed medieval mosque — the centrepiece of his political strategy to transform India into a Hindu religious state.

Covid in India

At first sight, the scale of India’s covid caseload seems unsurprising, given the country’s 1.35 billion inhabitants and high population density. Thus far, too, recorded deaths from covid in India, at c.46,000, remain well below the totals notched up in the USA (164,000)  and Brazil (103,000).

What is disturbing about India’s experience is the unparalleled speed at which the virus has spread: the two million case barrier has been breached faster here than in any other country, including the US and Brazil. Despite robust official and media efforts to put a gloss on the situation, the upward trajectory continues.  

All the evidence suggests that a great deal could have been done to slow the progress of the virus, mobilise the country’s powerful social networks and human resources and keep the people safe from infection. In the southwestern corner of India, the state of Kerala, ruled by a Left Front government, has shown the the rest of the country and the world what is possible even under India’s testing socio-economic conditions. Here, efforts to combat the pandemic have rested on harnessing the creativity and social solidarity of ordinary working people – with inspiring results (for example, confirmed cases well below the national average and just 120 deaths as of August 12).   

Other values reign at the national level, within Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.  Arrogance; incompetence; unwillingness to heed scientific or expert opinion; the tendency to lurch from one policy option to another; unflagging reliance on top-down governance: these are the qualities that, from day one, have characterised the Modi government’s response to an unprecedented public health emergency. 

Draconian lockdown

The first case of covid-19 recorded in India, on January 30, involved a student returning to Kerala from Wuhan. Two more cases followed, but during February there was no significant rise in transmissions. In early March, new cases included  members of a visiting Italian tourist group; at this stage, all transmissions were traceable to people with a travel history to affected countries. During the first three weeks of March, confirmed infections rose to a total of 550.

Then, on March 24, via an impromptu televised address, Modi imposed an immediate lockdown on the entire country. Warning Indians not to step out of their homes – “whatever happens” – for the next 21 days, he declared this to be “the only way before us.”

Thus, with just four hours’ notice, the world’s second-most populous country was effectively shut down. Virtually all economic activity, including manufacturing, logistics, public transport and most healthcare, came to a near-total standstill. In the absence of planning, millions of vulnerable workers were simply abandoned.  

Worst hit of all was India’s vast army of rural-to-urban migrant workers; the hugely exploited backbone of entire sectors of the economy, from construction to mining. Desperate and with no transport to travel home, thousands took to the roads, their daytime trudging through the heat (night walking banned by curfew) captured on camera and in media reports. En route, they faced abuse, beatings, detention, and being sprayed with disinfectant. When special train services were finally started, nearly two months into lockdown, more horror ensued. “Conditions on these trains,” notes the Marxist economist Jayati Ghosh, “were often so appalling, with delayed journeys in intense heat without food and water provision, that in just 10 days in May 80 people died on board.” More than one thousand people would fall victim to what has come to be known in India as ‘lockdown death’.

Spreading the virus

In the end, the “biggest lockdown in the world”, which Modi promised would reproduce on Indian soil measures adopted in China and elsewhere, fell flat on its face. As Amy Kazmin notes in the Financial Times, “for all the human suffering and economic damage it inflicted, India’s lockdown failed to flatten – or even slightly bend – the country’s coronavirus curve.”

In the absence of planning and preparation, and with only a patchy system in place to test, track and trace, India’s lockdown was never likely to achieve much — beyond boosting Modi’s ego and reinforcing his image (among the wealthy and sections of the middle-class) as a ‘muscular’ leader ready to apply the smack of firm government. 

In fact, lockdown, Modi-style, has proved an effective transmission belt — a means to spread covid-19 to every corner of the country. Abruptly imposed, it sent the country heading for economic collapse. Then, with equal abruptness, it was lifted; Indians were told to learn to live with the virus, and get back to business. In the resulting maelstrom, millions of people have been on the move, forced to retreat to rural areas as urban work dries up and meagre resources dwindle away. 

Dramatic gestures; on-the-hoof policy making; Hinduism-inflected publicity stunts performed for the purposes of quasi-fascist political mobilisation: this is what matters in the world of the Indian far-right and its abrasive leader. Meanwhile, the 100 million tonnes of food grain stocks held by India’s public distribution system remain off-limits to millions of hungry, desperate people. Treatment for tuberculosis, the biggest killer of the poor in India, has been cut off for many patients; child immunisation programmes are in melt-down; hospital births (vital in a country with high maternal and infant mortality) are down by 40 percent.  

Recent polls suggest that support for Modi is holding up. But the storm clouds are gathering. The economy is already headed for its worst slump in more than four decades, with the International Monetary Fund estimating a 4.5 percent drop in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) this year, and experts predicting the biggest drop in economic activity since independence in 1947.

As for covid-19, it continues to flourish in the perfect petri dish conditions provided by Narendra Modi’s inept, inhuman and criminally negligent rule.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.