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India’s COVID-19 Apocalypse Was Years in the Making

India must go much further than just survive this pandemic. A political culture of communalism and vengeance led to opaque governance and misplaced policy priorities. Many Indians voted for false communal pride, but as the pandemic hit, they found that they needed oxygen instead.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in The Telegraph in London.

As over 3,000 Indians were dying helplessly from COVID-19 each day late last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an appeal on Twitter: “Last phase of the 2021 West Bengal elections takes place today. In line with the COVID-19 protocols, I call upon people to cast their vote and enrich the festival of democracy.”

It was a sobering reflection of what India’s fabled democracy has been reduced to: an empty electoral charade, devoid of governance. Despite cases rising rapidly in the state of West Bengal, the Election Commission refused to cut short its long-drawn eight-phase polling schedule in the state.

In New Delhi, diplomatic missions (most publicly, of New Zealand and the Philippines) were appealing to volunteers from the opposition Congress party for oxygen cylinders. Meanwhile, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar alleged on Twitter that the demand for oxygen cylinders was fake and the Congress’ volunteers were merely staging it for “cheap publicity”. Days earlier, he used a meeting with top Indian diplomats to prioritise the management of headlines in the world press, which he called a “one-sided” narrative.

The collapse of India’s public health system is all the more unforgivable, given that India had much advance warning and long months to prepare. A parliamentary committee report warned the government of a second COVID-19 wave as far back as in November and highlighted shortages in medical oxygen and hospital beds. But ministers publicly declared that India had won its war against the virus, as they turned to electioneering in multiple states.

A triumphalist media bought the narrative and began running jingoistic stories on how India had handled the pandemic far better than the West, blindly citing data on low mortality rates that had long been marred by the undercounting of deaths.

The lack of accountability did not begin there: As the pandemic began last year, Modi created a crowdsourced fund called PM-CARES, which was deliberately kept out of the purview of state auditors and constitutional authorities. Despite several months having passed, there is still no public database on the amount of money the fund contains or how it has been used.

Vaccination has now been opened to all citizens over the age of 18, but several states have said that they will not start the initiative yet since they have no vaccines available. Yet, the government has made no long-term plan for how and when it will meet this need.

In place of policy planning and preparation, political leaders continue to prioritise image management, threatening to throw journalists in jail for clicking photographs of funeral pyres and exposing the gross underreporting of deaths by authorities. Meanwhile, countless Indians run in desperate search of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders every day.

The Long Trail to COVID-19

India’s COVID-19 catastrophe has been many years in the making. In the midst of a pandemic, a country requires the full strength of its state institutions and civil society to function. But the Modi government’s style of politics and governance has weakened and destroyed both.

State institutions have long been under stress in India. A former Chief Justice of India was nominated to Parliament, after he had spent his term in the judiciary passing several orders that were politically favourable to the government. Elsewhere, a High Court judge was accused of bribing her way to a state governor’s post.

Such political appointments are not a new phenomenon; previous governments have also been guilty of trying to win over independent state institutions likewise. However, these are made far worse today by the fact that Modi runs a single-party majority government for the first time since the 1980s. The force of his personality cult and popularity have subdued checks and balances against him in the Indian democratic system, allowing his government to cover up difficult realities much more effectively than many of their predecessors. The result has been an absence of accountability and course-correction during the pandemic.

Hindu nationalism has also had its impact on India’s COVID-19 response. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has followed a politics of identity polarisation that has encouraged competition between communities, rather than cooperation. In Gujarat, leaders from the BJP objected to the presence of Muslim volunteers in Hindu crematoria.

Such deeply suspicious politics has sowed a beggar-thy-neighbour attitude in Indian society over the last seven years – groups fighting each other for reservation quotas; a temple being built in place of a mosque; communities raising the alarm when their share in the total population decreases even slightly.

By contrast, investment in public health infrastructure – which would have benefited all communities – was made politically unimportant. While the Modi government has mobilised billions of dollars for grand statues, opulent temples and communally-inspired citizenship registries, India spends a little more than 1 percent of GDP each year on healthcare (or even lesser, by some estimates).

The Hindu nationalist inferiority complex has also affected India’s scientific community. Hindu nationalists have long believed that India’s ancient civilisation does not get its fair share of praise in global discourse. To remedy this, Modi and others have advanced several unfounded mythological claims, including that ancient Indians flew guided missiles and performed plastic surgery.

During the pandemic, this phenomenon became far worse, with several quack cures being promoted for the virus. Modern scientific opinion, by contrast, is widely scoffed at. Earlier this year, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan was lambasted by the Indian Medical Association, after he publicly endorsed an unproven Ayurvedic medicine for COVID-19 promoted by Baba Ramdev.

Last year, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath – long a poster boy of militant Hindu nationalism – claimed that yoga can cure COVID-19. This year, his state became the stage for one of the most horrific scenes since the start of the pandemic, with several unidentified bodies found floating along the River Ganga.

Voting for Branding and Imagery

How did India get here?

A decade ago, India seemed to be on the cusp of greatness, having recorded many years of almost double-digit economic growth. In international politics, it was spoken of as the next great democratic superpower. The United States had made a special exception and endorsed its status as a nuclear power.

Then, a series of high-profile scams brought down the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Corruption became the buzzword; people seemed to have grown tired of several decades under Congress rule; and Modi swept to power as the alternative.

Of the many charges that were made against Singh, one stood out: He was derided as an uncharismatic, wooden-faced orator who could not hold an audience. Although Singh’s public addresses were never doubted for being erudite and scholarly, his delivery left much to be desired in the eyes of many. That public image was extrapolated to mean that he was not assertive enough as a leader. Many of Singh’s cabinet colleagues were implicated in scandals, even as the prime minister himself was considered honest and clean.

Modi was presented as a stark contrast. The BJP declared him as their prime ministerial candidate for 2014, even as the Congress went into those polls without an official prime ministerial candidate of its own. One of the BJP’s campaign ads on television went: “Without a captain, the team [Congress] will lose. This time, it will be the Modi government.”

Branding and imagery, therefore, became all-important in the BJP’s political playbook – perhaps even exclusively important at the cost of substance on policy. Along with deriding Singh’s wooden oratory, the BJP also took on the fact that he was one of India’s most academically decorated political leaders of all time. “Hard work is more powerful than Harvard,” Modi declared. Technocratic expertise was dismissed as being not just unimportant, but also burdensome and obnoxious. Technocratic intellectuals were portrayed as snooty elites, cut off from the grassroots and unrelatable to the masses.

As a result, Modi decided to pick the most charismatic (or malleable) policymakers in place of the most qualified. In the early days of Modi’s first term, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, was personally targeted and sent back to the United States without a renewal of his term in office. His successor, Urjit Patel, a Yale economist, received even more acrimonious treatment and had to leave midway through his term. Patel was replaced as central bank governor by a Finance Ministry bureaucrat with a degree in history.

Modi also learnt from how the media had crucified Singh and helped bring him down. India’s vibrant journalistic culture had unearthed scams and scandals, asked difficult questions of the Congress-led government, and conducted searching television interviews that destroyed political careers.

Instead of similarly turning itself into prey, the BJP decided to co-opt the media into its political propaganda. In seven years, Modi has never held an open press conference, but the assault on the media as an institution has gone further. With a series of carrots and sticks – including heavy government expenditure on advertisements and ruthless clampdowns on dissenting voices – the Indian television media has been subdued and turned into an arm of the state. Many prominent television journalists who were seen as being inimical to the government, including Barkha Dutt, Karan Thapar and Sagarika Ghose, were curiously found off-air overnight.

The result has been stark. In place of asking questions of the government during primetime debates – as they had done diligently under Singh – television anchors attack opposition spokespersons and fan jingoistic euphoria, even as the government takes several questionable decisions. In 2016, when Modi demonetised 80 percent of the cash in circulation in the country overnight, the sufferings of common citizens were portrayed by primetime journalists as the necessary sacrifices of a nation transforming itself into greatness.

Meanwhile, BJP leaders are lionised. As the ongoing second wave of COVID-19 gripped the nation in early April, one television anchor tweeted: “It’s past 1 am. Party men around [Home Minister] Amit Shah say meetings till 2-3 am are common. Followed by early morning starts. Success doesn’t come easy. Whoever wants to beat BJP needs to show similar political passion and intensity of effort.”

On social media, the BJP runs a well-oiled propaganda machine. It still rides on widespread fatigue with Congress rule and employs whataboutery to cover up for every crime. Outrage over clampdowns on freedom, shutdowns of the internet and the imprisonment of journalists is deflected by repeatedly citing the Emergency under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977.

Such excuses from the past have made electoral accountability impossible. The strategy is to deliberately mislead voters into believing that they are condemned to enjoy no alternatives to Modi, because the Congress had at some point done just as badly or worse.

Can India Recover?

India’s apocalyptic second wave is now an international crisis. The virus is mutating and new variants can threaten to prolong the pandemic worldwide, by potentially making vaccination less effective. India has to urgently find ways to stem the transmission of the virus and stop the slide.

But India must also go much further than just survive the pandemic. A political culture of communalism and vengeance led to opaque governance and misplaced policy priorities. Many Indians voted for false communal pride, but as the pandemic hit, they found that they needed oxygen instead.

The public also bought the need for strongman leadership and underestimated the importance of independent state institutions. In 2017, a Pew survey revealed the shocking result that a majority of Indians polled – 53 percent – support military rule. At least 55 percent of Indians also backed a governing system “in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”. In fact, the support for autocratic rule was higher in India than in any other nation surveyed.

The pandemic serves as a reality check for India, necessitating political and social change. The confrontational trend in Indian society and politics over the last few years was not sustainable. Voters across communities must now come together to build a more inclusive future – demanding public services and infrastructure rather than petty ego wins over one another.

The challenge is to build a more enlightened opposition to the prime minister, to embody this more inclusive brand of politics. Modi took identity polarisation to a nationwide level – on a scale that has not been seen in India since the painful creation of Pakistan in 1947. But he did not start this phenomenon. Indian politics has been defined by narrow caste and tribal calculations at the regional level since at least the 1980s, when a new generation of caste-oriented politicians in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rode a wave of caste-based resentment to establish themselves.

Voters must now shun identity battles; but that also means social reform at the grassroots to actively weed out discrimination based on caste, religion and other markers.

Intellectuals must come together too. In 2014, reform-minded economists became apologists for many dark impulses, willing to overlook the political, social and institutional damage that Hindu nationalism always threatened to do. They too must now recalibrate.

Many Hindu nationalists propagate the idea that the world is against India. To the contrary, the world needs India to succeed – not just so that the pandemic can end soon, but also because India has long been the world’s best advertisement for democracy in the developing world. Indians must reclaim their legacy.

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Mohamed Zeeshan is a Founding Partner and the Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Gazette. He is the author of Flying Blind: India's Quest for Global Leadership (Penguin 2021). He is currently a foreign affairs columnist for The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Haaretz, and writes 'The Z Factor' - a monthly Sunday column in the Deccan Herald. He has previously worked at the United Nations in New York and with the global consulting firm Kearney in Dubai. He is a graduate of International Affairs from Columbia University.