Few scholars have left more of a mark in the field of development economics than Amartya Sen. Awarded the 1998 Nobel prize in economic science, Sen’s work reoriented mainstream economic thought and diagnosis on issues such as collective decision-making, welfare economics, measuring poverty, gender inequality and social justice.

Amongst his more popular works, Sen is well-regarded for his work on famine and for explaining what causes them. Just as we associate Adam Smith with the phrase “invisible hand”, Joseph Schumpeter with “creative destruction”, Sen is famous for his assertation that “famines do not occur in democracies”.

“No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”, he argued in his book: Development as Freedom. Sen grounded this explanation in the fact that because well-functioning democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, they have a strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes”.

Covid-19 and India

What is presently happening in India amid the wrath of a second Covid-19 wave may push us hard to reflect on Sen’s assertions. This is not a famine, but in effect, it is surely India’s worst catastrophe since Independence – measurable in countless deaths.

Images of people running from pillar to post to find a hospital bed for their loved ones, many dying helplessly outside hospitals, dead bodies being cremated in parking lots, hospitals facing oxygen shortage across states, all of this reflects a systemic breakdown of India’s health and governance machinery.

Grief often looks for a victim to blame and a cause to relate to its effect. In the current situation, it is India’s democratic backsliding over the last few years.

The autocratic rise of majoritarianism under Modi-Shah’s Bharatiya Janata Party, a callous disregard for public welfare, weakening of public institutions and media, a submissive judiciary and a dysfunctional political opposition, have all contributed to the current colossal disaster.

It may well be compared with the Great Chinese Famine when tens of millions died under Mao Zedong’s rule between 1958-1961. It took years after Mao’s rule ended to unearth the truth behind the famine (till this date, we do not know the exact number of deaths due to the state-administered famine).

In India, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 saw as many as 30 lakh deaths. The actual deaths from the Covid-19 in India are likely to surpass that figure. Like China’s famine, we may just not know “the truth” ever.

The question of how we got here, with a year in hand for preparing our medical system across states for a second wave, is not divorced from the issue of liberties, of the independence of media and ultimately of democracy.

A mass cremation of those who died due to the coronavirus disease in New Delhi. Photo credit: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Even in the decades after the independence, India saw deaths from malnutrition, chronic hunger and starvation. Yet, it was never at such a scale. The situation never became so bad that a government in power stopped caring about protecting its own citizens’ life.

Gujarat model

Under Modi-Shah leadership, India is more invested in redesigning the Parliament (the Central Vista project), arresting a 22-year-old environmental activist, rendering an entire state to become a Union Territory and railroading Bills without political consensus. Anyone who understands Modi’s leadership style since his term as Gujarat chief minister might even argue that all of this was long seen coming.

Modi won 2014 General Election on the promise of scaling the Gujarat model to the entire of India. He has done just that. Gujarat had one of the lowest shares of public spending on the provisioning of basic healthcare for the entirety of Modi’s term as the chief minister. Jammu and Kashmir as a state did far better than Gujarat in terms of access to basic social opportunities (healthcare, education).

Gujarat is now one of the worst-performing states in terms of Covid-19 infections, hospitalisation and deaths. Back then, no one within the system could question Modi as all the public institutions became subservient alongside an ineffective Opposition.

All of the above is happening on a pan-India level now – not just in Gujarat.

Media and election rallies

At a time when the surge in infections was peaking, the prime minister and his party were busy organising mass rallies in West Bengal, appealing to voters to come out in “large numbers to vote”, facilitating a Kumbh in one of its own states and showing absolute disregard and ignorance for following Covid-appropriate behaviour.

A BJP rally in West Bengal amid Covid-19 surge in India. Photo credit: West Bengal BJP/ Twitter

The mainstream media did nothing to highlight either of these follies at a time of a public health emergency. Instead, it was absorbed in reporting mass rallies in its typical propagandist tone, as if the pandemic was long over. The toothless Opposition remained more active on social media platform than protesting against the government’s inactions and callousness on the ground. Even now, the Opposition remains visibly absent.

“Developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development,” Sen said. “Among the great variety of developments that have occurred in the twentieth century, the most preeminent development of the period is the rise of democracy…”

India’s case, according to Sen, despite being an “ungainly, unlikely, inelegant combination of differences, nonetheless, survived and functioned remarkable well as a political unit with a democratic system”.

This remarkable story of a chaotic nation championing democratic conduct in political propriety appears like a legend of the past. Our country’s political core now resembles an autocratic China, where discourse is not shaped by public-participation or in the interest of safeguarding civil liberties, fundamental rights, but is rather built around a story of lies, propagandistic rhetoric, fed and further (re)enforced by the oppressive hands of a supreme commander.

Deepanshu Mohan is an Associate Professor of Economics and Director at the Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University.