I write this article while scouring the Indian and international media, as I do several times a day, hoping that the most recent iteration of the news will be less grim than the last one. Like many immigrants of Indian origin who live overseas, I am deeply alarmed for the well being of family members, friends, and Indian society, as a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic devastates the country and its healthcare system teeters on the brink of collapse.
The current situation is a complete reversal from barely a few weeks ago, when the anomaly of the Indian experience was being celebrated at home and lauded abroad. Not only had India managed to contain the virus, we were told, but armed with an effective vaccine rollout plan and ample supplies we would soon be helping much of the developing world tame the Covid-19 monster.
Hindsight is 20/20, and there is no triumph in pointing any of this out. But the Indian miracle had seemed a little too good to be true. Anecdotes from friends and acquaintances, shared as early as mid-2020, about high rates of Covid-19 infection in hospitals among patients checked in for any ailment, cavalier attitudes toward wearing masks, and suspiciously low figures put out by official authorities all seemed to suggest that something was not kosher.
The image of maskless crowds watching cricket, a mere five weeks ago, in Ahmedabad’s freshly renamed Narendra Modi stadium perfectly captured this sense of a picture at odds with an underlying reality.
The dam crumbles
The dam has now burst. Public health experts are right to point out that having seemingly contained the virus, Indians got too complacent too quickly. Yet, the crisis is not just the result of lapses in the last two months. It is also rooted in two ugly and intertwined truths. The first is the style of paranoid, authoritarian governance practised and perfected over the last seven years by Narendra Modi and his team that has become an effective reason of state in India.
The second is a malaise endemic to Indian society, whose very worst impulses of indifference to the plight of others are embodied in the figure of Modi and his followers.
Like with the fiasco of demonetisation, Modi played his cards close to his chest about the initial 21-day severe lockdown to which he subjected the nation with effect from March 24 last year. No ministries or state governments were consulted, nor possibly were any public health experts. The government also refused to share information about the decision in response to RTI requests filed by the BBC.
The absolutist nature of the decision caused immense collateral damage, triggering a mass exodus of migrant labourers back to their villages, leading to colossal financial hardship, and pushing millions out of India’s burgeoning middle classes back into a position of greater precarity. Modi rightly calculated, though, that the lockdown would play well among elites, the professional classes, and the middle classes as a difficult decision taken by a strong leader in the national interest.
And as with practically every decision that Modi has taken since ascending to the Indian prime ministership in 2014, the emphasis was on controlling the narrative and ensuring the right optics to ensure the sheen did not get taken off his image. No wonder, then, that Modi supporters and admirers proudly circulated compliments of his supposed achievements with gusto on social media. Modi was not just touted as a great national leader but a visionary international stalwart, succeeding at home and abroad where Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and others had failed.
But that image was partly an illusion anyway. Right before the start of the lockdown, Modi had ordered media owners and editors to ensure positive coverage of the crisis; a thinly veiled warning, no doubt, that they should not tarnish his government’s image. And well before the pandemic, the quality of Indian statistical data, long considered reliable in the global community, had been compromised by the Modi government and its de facto mouthpiece, Niti Aayog.
With the best of intentions and integrity, Covid-19 related deaths would be difficult to estimate in India, given problems of reporting, tracking and tracing, and comorbidities. But the counts of infection and deaths both seemed exceedingly low, by any measure. Instead of investigating this, the media seemed to celebrate the somewhat pointless metric of the “recovery rate”, which, in any event, would be skewed for all the reasons just mentioned.
Add to that the track record of the Modi government in massaging and fudging numbers, a tendency no doubt emulated by state governments eager to show they were dealing with the situation at hand, and the Indian exception was not quite a puzzle but a pretence of one.
But information about a deadly virus and its impact is hard to contain within a political narrative. Covid-19 cannot be shouted down by pro-Modi trolls. Nor can coverage of the very real tragedy unfolding in India – of deaths mounting, overrun hospitals, and crematoria literally melting from running nonstop for days – be blamed on an anti-India international press or crackpot conspiracies such as the crackpot theory of a deep Indian state out to get Modi. If the living in India did not speak, the dead did not remain silent.
The callousness displayed by Modi and Shah in holding rallies unmasked, and decisions such as letting the Kumbh mela proceed (with the convenience of having the Uttarkhand chief minister be the fall guy) are not unique to the political class though. Our politicians, to an extent, reflect who we are. In that sense, Modi was right in calculating that the relatively well-off sections of Indian society would, in the instance of the first lockdown, see their interests as distinct from those of the “servant” classes, as they are charmingly called.
Never mind that it was wealthy Indians returning from vacations abroad who first brought the virus into their posh apartment complexes, not the class of service workers who tend to the needs of the former. The muted response of the media in offering any criticism of the poor decisions of the Indian government reflects the same instinct for myopic self-preservation at the cost of the lives of others.
Even now, though, Modi, his yes men and his fans refuse to take or ascribe responsibility for the toxic combination of incompetence and authoritarianism, as Ramachandra Guha put it, that marks most actions of the government. The circle of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders that rushes to perform its loyalty to Modi have palmed the blame on to state governments. The double mutant Indian strain is also being described as the prime cause of the surge, though whether it is the sole or prime factor is not a foregone conclusion.
Manmohan Singh’s suggestion of policy principles that the government could follow was met by a defensive rant from Harsh Vardhan, the Minister for Health and Welfare. Hopefully, this time around, Indians will not be asked to ask light candles and bang pressure cookers to scare away the Covid-19 virus.
Indian society is just struggling to stay afloat and get through the crisis at the moment. But when we are past this and the dust settles, it will remain to be seen if they will keep buying into the Modi myth or think of an alternative that represents their better, more compassionate, and less narcissistic selves.
Rohit Chopra is an Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University