The Coronavirus Is Hastening Modi’s Transformation of India

New Delhi is invoking the pandemic to accelerate its suppression of the press.

By Kapil Komireddi, the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
A man stands in front of a billboard displaying an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wearing a scarf as a facemask.
A man stands in front of a billboard displaying an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wearing a scarf as a facemask in New Delhi, India, on June 15. Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Fifteen weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed his country under probably the most stringent coronavirus lockdown in the world. It was the only way, Modi explained, to avert an apocalypse. To stay put was to stay alive. For those who could afford it, it was a price worth paying. But no assistance was extended to the hundreds of millions of people who could not: Their predicament did not even occur to the prime minister. Now, as India begins to reopen, a public health calamity is unfolding. Despite enduring a shutdown that ravaged the economy and ruined the livelihoods of millions of Indians—estimates suggest 1 in 4 Indians lost their jobs in March and April—India finds itself in the uppermost ranks of the countries most severely stricken by the coronavirus. At more than half a million, India’s known coronavirus caseload is exceeded only by the numbers in Brazil and the United States. Fatalities have soared as the lockdown has eased, but India is still nowhere near the peak of the pandemic.

It is possible, of course, to argue that this outcome was inevitable in a country with some of the world’s most densely populated cities, where soap is a luxury, and social distancing and physical isolation are privileges available only to a minority. India, at any rate, could not afford to remain interminably shut. But none of this disproves the utility of the lockdown in suppressing the spread of the virus. It only demonstrates the failure of the Indian government to utilize the time afforded by the lockdown to scale up India’s capacities to cope with a post-lockdown spike. At every step, Modi improvised his response. His announcement of an India-wide lockdown came in a brief speech delivered at 8 p.m. on March 24 and went into effect that midnight. How did the blindingly obvious complications of ordering a population of 1.3 billion people to stay at home for three weeks with a four-hour notice escape him?As India begins to reopen, a public health calamity is unfolding.

The most charitable answer is that the prime minister is human and therefore capable of error and oversight. But human fallibility is precisely one of the reasons why India’s founders devised a system of government by cabinet. Modi, however, cannot be seen to consult or defer to others. To do so would, as the Indian academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta has noted, rupture the myth that he is the “sole vehicle for [India’s] manifest destiny.” The misery that has washed over the country over the past three months is inseparable from the authoritarian and self-mythologizing personality of the prime minister. He used the pandemic to solicit more than a billion dollars from Indians into a secretive fund that is beyond public scrutiny; indulge his addiction for spectacle (people were instructed to bang their pots and pans and light candles on their balconies, and the Indian Air Force was pressed into service to “salute corona heroes” by showering flower petals from the skies); and gull the public with announcements of grand relief and stimulus packages that, on closer examination, turned out to be a fraction of what the prime minister pledged. Modi is now seeking to alleviate the social and economic woe aggravated by his own mismanagement of the lockdown by serving up Indians to the virus.

India’s big cities abound with horror stories of crowded hospitals turning away critically ill patients, congested wards stacked with dead bodies, and worn-out doctors and paramedics striving to function in unfathomable conditions. After subjecting people to the most invasive abridgement of liberty in this century, the government is now striking a libertarian pose. It has effectively abdicated its responsibilities. And its energies appear to be channeled not into aiding those desperate for its help—but into silencing and punishing those who dissent from and defy the Modi regime. Repression is the main feature of the state that has flourished during the pandemic. The pandemic, in fact, was invoked early on to sanctify a brazen attempt by the government to muzzle the press: A week after imposing the lockdown, Modi sought a directive from the Supreme Court of India requiring the press to self-censor and turn itself into a bulletin board for government propaganda. The court, meeting Modi halfway, directed the media to publish the “official version” of events alongside independent coverage.

That was the warmup act. In the weeks following, police departments up and down the country began properly harrying journalists. In Kashmir, cases were filed under an oppressive piece of anti-terrorism legislation against Gowhar Geelani, the author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason, for apparently “indulging in unlawful activities” by posting on social media content “prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty, and security of India,” as well as Masrat Zahra, an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, for publishing “anti-national posts” on her Facebook page. In New Delhi, the distinguished journalist Siddharth Varadarajan was summoned to appear at a police station 435 miles from his home at the height of the lockdown because a quote in an article in the Wire, the independent publication he edits, had been misattributed to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The mistake had been corrected almost instantly, but Hindu nationalists evidently take journalistic accuracy extremely seriously. Police across India have lodged cases or opened investigations against at least 55 journalists since March—the worst record of any democracy.

On the campaign trail, Modi has often bragged about his big chest. Indians, meanwhile, pay the price of his thin skin. Over the past six years, dozens of people have been hauled into prisons for the offense of being insufficiently deferential to the man exalted as the father of what his acolytes call “New India.” The trend began even before Modi was sworn into office. In the summer of 2014, after Modi’s Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party was declared the winner in that year’s general elections, a shipbuilder in Goa became the first Indian to be picked up by the police for posting a comment on Facebook critical of the incoming prime minister. Then, on the day of Modi’s inauguration, five students in southern India were arrested for sharing a meme mocking Modi in a private WhatsApp group. In the years since, the list of offenders has expanded to include teachers, businessmen, reporters, and an auto rickshaw driver. Institutions that could once be counted on to protect ordinary citizens have withered away. The cabinet has been reduced to a fawning court. Parliament, functioning as a rubber stamp, has granted oppressive powers to the government and stripped the presumption of innocence from individuals accused of terrorism.The government’s energies appear to be channeled into silencing and punishing those who dissent from and defy the Modi regime.

Consider the plight of Anand Teltumbde, a 70-year-old author, management consultant, academic, and champion of the rights of Dalits, the people deemed so impure by scriptures that they are placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system. In April, he was thrown in jail to await trial in a case in which he is accused, among other crimes, of plotting to assassinate Modi. The poet Varavara Rao, one of the 10 other alleged plotters, was arrested two years ago and turned 80 in prison last year. And incarcerated in a different part of India, the lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, who has spent decades working with India’s tribal populations, is not allowed to speak to her daughter in spite of a court order. The coronavirus is raging in India’s prisons, and thousands of inmates have been freed to decongest them. Such reprieve, however, is withheld from Modi’s elderly critics. The case against them is so plainly risible that it is bound to fall apart in court. But that is beside the point: The objective is to break them over the long years that it takes for cases to wind their way through the courts in India and hold them up as an example for others wishing to emulate them.

India under Modi had already traveled a considerable distance in the direction of authoritarianism before the coronavirus seeped into the country. If the pandemic assisted the prime minister by derailing the nationwide protests against his amendment to India’s citizenship law, it also debunked the myth of Modi as a competent administrator: The dire state in which India finds itself today is the direct consequence of his ineptitude. Modi, it is now abundantly clear, is not up to the job. A healthy democracy can find the means to countervail executive incompetence. Indian democracy, however, is sick. And it is this sickness, manifesting itself in the culture war waged over the past six years by the government machinery in which skeptics of the Modi dispensation have persistently been branded as “anti-national,” that sustains the cult of the prime minister. It is by escalating that war—by inciting the wrath of the people against an assortment of imagined quislings and fifth columnists—that Modi will seek to distract the angry public as they survey the economic wreckage of the pandemic. The coronavirus has exposed Modi’s staggering shortcomings. It has also, tragically, created the conditions for him to quicken the conversion of the world’s largest democracy into something akin to a plebiscitary autocracy.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.