India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is, if nothing else, a showman. His cult of personality, and the governing style of his far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), emphasize spectacle and image management. For many years it seemed that no matter what controversy he got into, or however lackluster his party’s performance, Modi could spin his way out of it and emerge more popular than ever. This has been true since Modi’s early days in national politics, as he escaped the sobriquet “butcher of Gujarat” (due to his alleged complicity in anti-Muslim riots in 2002) and rebranded himself as a champion of economic development, with the help of a US lobbying firm.
More recently, during the early days of the coronavirus-induced lockdown, Modi introduced a new look: the wise, long-bearded Hindu sage-turned-ruler. But now, India — and the world — is seeing other images and hearing stories that are drowning out Modi’s careful brand curation: cities having to build impromptu crematoria in parks and empty lots to handle a sharp spike in COVID-related deaths; huge shortages of critical health equipment, particularly oxygen; angry crowds outside vaccination centers, where doses are in short supply; and countless stories, on social media, in the news, and in person, of untold suffering and death.
How did India get to this point? It is sobering to read Mike Davis’s early reflections on the pandemic, back in March 2020. He noted that in the 1918–19 pandemic, 60 percent of all deaths worldwide occurred in India, then under British colonial rule. “This history — especially the unknown consequences of interactions with malnutrition and existing infections — should warn us that COVID-19 might take a different and more deadly path in the dense, sickly slums of Africa and South Asia.”
It didn’t have to be this way. When India gained independence in 1947, nationalist leaders pointed to the UK’s newly created National Health Service as a model, a “definite goal the attainment of which, at the earliest possible moment, is vital for the nation’s progress.” However, even at the height of post-independence Nehruvian socialism (somewhat of a misnomer given the strength of private capital during this period), the ruling Congress Party failed to build a universal health system.
Starting in the 1980s, with the turn to neoliberalism, this model was abandoned entirely, as the public sector increasingly retreated from its responsibilities as a provider of health care. In recent years, compared to neighboring countries, India’s public spending on health has been abysmally low — roughly one percent of GDP.
Since coming to power in 2014, the Modi government has only deepened these trends. Even if his government had wanted to confront the COVID crisis with foresight and care, it would have been severely constrained by the state of public health infrastructure. Perhaps knowing how vulnerable the country was, Modi actually seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously in its early days, especially compared to his hard-right nationalist counterparts like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.
While these figures were pretending the pandemic didn’t exist, Modi was implementing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. This early, proactive response was still marked by Modi’s preference for theatrics over detailed planning. He gave only four hours warning before imposing the lockdown, and roughly a hundred twenty million migrant workers suddenly found themselves out of work and far away from their village homes. He put in place precious few protections or supports for the country’s exceptionally mobile and extremely precarious working class. Migrant workers trying to return home — often traveling hundreds of miles on foot — found themselves targets of police violence and state apathy.
Besides all the unnecessary human suffering this caused, the lockdown did not even fulfill its main public health purpose. Public health experts noted at the time that while it was successful in temporarily slowing the spread of the virus, “the lockdown in itself became the solution rather than a time umbrella for strengthening public health services.” Modi started to believe his own hype as COVID numbers declined in the early months of this year, and the pronouncements of Modi and his government turned increasingly Trumpian. Meanwhile, the government did little to prepare for a potential second wave, even as information about potentially worrisome mutations appeared as early as October 2020.
That unearned confidence continued well after the second wave hit. As captured in a widely tweeted illustration, the BJP’s health minister declared on March 7 that the country was in the “end game” of COVID, and on April 17 Modi exclaimed at a rally that he had never seen such huge crowds. His Trump-like comments suggested the government’s real priorities: When it should have been focusing on the coming public health emergency, it was instead pouring all its energy into elections in West Bengal, a state where the BJP has never held power, but where its Hindu nationalist agenda is rapidly gaining ground.
This same agenda was evident in the government’s decision to allow an enormous Hindu pilgrimage called the Kumbh Mela to take place in recent weeks. It quickly became a super-spreader event, but — given the regime’s ideological tendencies — it did not face anything like the vicious, stigmatizing backlash directed at the Islamic group Tablighi Jamaat, which held an event in the early days of the pandemic. As in many other countries, the pandemic has only deepened social fissures, and in India, the schisms have opened up along religious, gender, and caste lines.
But the second wave has now became impossible to ignore, and the Modi government has started doing what it does best: attempting to divert blame and forcefully silence its critics. The central government recently asked Twitter to take down dozens of tweets criticizing its handling of the pandemic, and on Wednesday Facebook temporarily blocked a hashtag calling for Modi’s resignation.
More disturbingly, Yogi Adityanath, the hardline chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, has directed authorities to seize the property of those who “spread rumors” (read: tell the truth) about oxygen shortages in the state. Meanwhile, the government has liberalized its vaccine pricing policy, allowing vaccine manufacturers to charge higher rates to state-level governments and private clinics and thus wrack up the super-profits they are demanding, while making it prohibitively expensive for many working-class people.
Of course, the disaster in India cannot be pinned solely on the BJP. The current world order, marked by vaccine nationalism and vaccine apartheid, is also implicated. As cases in Indian began to rise, the United States refused to lift its ban on the export of materials needed for vaccines; it only reversed course under significant pressure. And the United States and other countries continue to stonewall India and South Africa’s demand that the World Trade Organization suspend patents and other intellectual property restrictions on COVID vaccines.
In the face of this national and international negligence, ordinary people, activist groups, and various civil society organizations in India have rushed to fill the gap, organizing a wide range of formal and informal mutual aid efforts. For instance, even as the Modi government continues to demonize the farmers’ protests that have been encamped on Delhi’s borders (in response to neoliberal agricultural laws rammed through the legislature during the early days of COVID), farmers’ groups have offered to use these encampments to provide aid to migrant workers now struggling with a second round of lockdowns.
Such efforts suggest a sense of solidarity and basic human decency that is sorely lacking in the government’s horrendous COVID response. The growing anger at the government’s “crimes against humanity” mingles with a sense of grief at the enormous human toll of the crisis. As the poet Meena Kandasamy wrote a few days ago, “We mourn for the dead, we mourn for our numbness. We mourn for the lost pride that let us say each day, India is my country, to which we feebly add, my country is a crematorium.”