Second wave of Coronavirus in India. Second wave of Coronavirus in India. Photo: Flickr - Ninian Reid / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Narendra Modi and his far right government stand foursquare at the heart of the horror unfolding in India, argues Susan Ram

There are times when words fall short of the task of capturing a given situation, of lending shape to its distinctive anguish, texture, and emotional charge. No more so than in the case of the colossal tragedy currently unfolding before our eyes in India.

How to begin to grasp what is happening there?

We could start with numbers: the fact, for example, that India is now generating stratospheric daily levels of new Covid-19 cases (360,960 on April 28 alone; a current seven-day average of 340,140). In short, a million new cases every three days, placing India in a world-beating position of sorts: that of contributing one in three of the world’s new Covid cases.

As for the official death toll (generally believed to be a gross underestimate), as I write it stands at 205,000. 

To these grisly, unimaginably hard-to-grasp statistics we can add the visual evidence currently spilling across the globe: the images of shrouded bodies ablaze on pyres in makeshift open-air cremation grounds; of desperate families seeking non-existent hospital places for their loved ones; of patients gasping their way to death as the oxygen cylinders run out.

For those of us with family and friends in India, there are the first-hand accounts that reach us every day: the death, in Mumbai, of a comrade’s son, aged just 34; a Delhi-based academic reporting the number of colleagues now struggling with the virus, and the fact that in many instances entire families are infected.

How to account for the relentlessness of it all? The way in which each day’s mayhem trumps that of its predecessor? The wildfire rapidity with which the virus is leaping from urban metropolises outwards, to remote villages and to neighbouring countries,  Nepal and Bangladesh in particular?

And perhaps the most important question of all: does all this constitute some inevitable playing out of second-wave Covid in the teeming, poverty-wracked realities of contemporary India: still the world’s largest concentration of human misery? Or could this epic-scale catastrophe have been averted?

The ‘perfect storm’

The prevailing narrative, as far as mainstream explanations go, invokes the metaphor of the ‘perfect storm’, where a convergence of multiple factors results in a cataclysmic outcome.

The rapid spread in India of the UK Covid variant B.1.117 and the emergence of the Indian double-variant lineage B.1.617 form part of the mix. However, information regarding the impact of these variants remains scanty, with some experts arguing  that emerging variants account for only a small part of India’s surge in infections.

The inadequacy of India’s vaccine coverage, despite the country being home to the world’s largest vaccine producer (the Serum Institute of India) has also been highlighted: thus far only 130 million jabs have been administered, with fewer than 1.5 per cent of recipients receiving two doses. Vaccine scepticism remains high, especially in rural areas.

‘Perfect storm’ story lines have also drawn attention to generalised complacency and a steep rise in unrestricted social interactions over recent months which have reinforced a premature, lethal return to what passes for ‘normality’ in India.

But there’s a problem with this type of ‘multiple factor’ analysis: its tendency to overlook, or play down, the capacity for human action in the face of looming disaster. In the case of nations, governments constitute (or should constitute) the frontline of such efforts; they are in fact tasked with this responsibility. 

More than anything else, it’s the abject, verging on criminal, failure of Narendra Modi and his far right government to step up to the challenge that lies at the heart of this immense ongoing catastrophe.

Modi: the charge sheet

As with the people of Trump-ruled America and Bolsonaro-blighted Brazil, Indians have found themselves cursed with the worst possible government to take on the multiple challenges posed by the pandemic. Far right politics infused with ultra-nationalism; an unswerving commitment to neoliberal ‘solutions’; disdain for science and expertise; boundless bombast and hubristic levels of self-confidence: these are the defining qualities of the killer governments of the Covid crisis.

In the case of India, the inability – or refusal – of  Modi and his Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to assume its duty to protect the people was evident from the early days of the pandemic.

Lockdown, Modi-style

First came Modi’s travesty of a lockdown. Slapped down without warning in March 2020, its main effect was to strip millions of rural-to-urban migrant workers of their livelihoods while making it impossible for them to return to their villages other than on foot. When special train services were finally started, nearly two months into lockdown, delayed journeys in intense heat with no provision of food and water resulted in more than a thousand people falling victim to what came to be known as ‘lockdown death’: a specifically Indian addition to the Covid lexicon.

In the absence of planning and preparation, and with only a patchy system in place to test, track and trace, lockdown was never likely to achieve much – beyond burnishing Modi’s image as a ‘muscular’ leader ever ready to apply the smack of firm government.

Then, with equal abruptness, lockdown was lifted. Indians were told to learn to live with the virus; the priority now was to get the nation ‘back to business’.

While Kerala planned ahead…

In other circumstances, and with a different government in place, the end of lockdown might have been the occasion for some serious forward thinking, including planning ahead for a resurgence of the virus.

In Kerala, the small south-western state ruled by a Left Front government, this was precisely the response of a people-oriented administration which had notched up considerable success in restricting the spread of the first wave. Anticipating the likelihood of a second wave, the government set about boosting the state’s production of liquid oxygen by setting up oxygen plants in ten of Kerala’s medical colleges.

This has resulted in a 60 per cent increase in oxygen production, establishing Kerala as the only state in India with a surplus of oxygen and enabling it, in the current crisis, to supply neighbouring states such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. 

… Modi opted for reckless triumphalism

Back in Delhi, however, little was being done to prepare for a second wave. On the oxygen front, the Modi government was woefully slow to place orders with local manufacturers. Steeped in ‘vaccine nationalism’, it slowed the approval of proven foreign vaccines for Covid, such as the BioNTech/Pfizer jab, while promoting a more experimental Indian-designed vaccine.

It was soon evident that an agenda rooted in overweening triumphalism and claims of ‘victory’ over the virus was fuelling government actions.

In the face of scientific advice and multiple calls for caution, the regime flung open the doors of workplaces, markets and shopping malls. It encouraged a surge of big weddings, each one an extravaganza involving thousands of guests, as part of the project of restoring business as usual.

With elections looming in a number of crucial states, including the former leftist  stronghold of West Bengal, where the BJP has been plotting a major advance, crowds have been permitted to gather indoors and outdoors for political rallies – without masks or social distancing. Strongman Modi has made a point of addressing a number of these gatherings in person – invariably without a mask. “I’ve never seen such huge crowds”, he declared with delight at an election rally in West Bengal on April 17, the day India achieved a world record of sorts: that of hitting 230,000 new infections in 24 hours.  

Mela madness

The jaw-dropping recklessness of this approach achieved its apogee this spring, when the Kumbh Mela, a gargantuan Hindu religious gathering held once every 12 years, was allowed to go ahead – one year ahead of schedule – on the say-so of astrologers. Through its cynical connivance with ‘holy men’, the Modi government thus succeeded in injecting a megaton super-spreader event into what was already a rapidly building second wave of Covid. The government even saw to it that special trains were on hand to carry millions of pilgrims to Haridwar, the centre of festivities based on mass ritual bathing in close proximity.

In India, the gap between the horror of people’s everyday experience and the pantomime antics of a criminally negligent government is widening by the day. As the pyres burn and imams in countless mosques sing soaring prayers to departed souls, angry voices are on the rise. 

On 26 April, Dr Navjot Dahiya, national vice-president of the Indian Medical Association, described Narendra Modi as a “super spreader” of the coronavirus for his reckless encouragement of mass gatherings. Writing for the Sunday Times, British journalist Philip Sherwell, headlined his story ‘Modi leads India into viral apocalypse’. A just-published sulphurous attack on the Modi government’s handling of the crisis by Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy unhesitatingly invokes the phrase “crime against humanity” in an attempt to encompass both the horror and the culpability.

On past form, Modi will respond with indignation, defiance and threats of legal action. This is the measure of the man presiding over India as, day by day, it descends deeper into hell.

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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.