Modi Fiddles While India Burns
What’s unfolding in India is a devastating carnage precipitated by its self-enamored leader.
On Jan. 28, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory against COVID-19. Addressing a virtual summit of the World Economic Forum, he sought applause for saving “humanity from a big disaster by containing the coronavirus effectively.” Three months on, India is the epicenter of the pandemic. The country’s health care system is on the precipice of total collapse. In New Delhi, patients are suffocating to death, relatives are scrambling for beds, the most advanced hospitals have been reduced to begging the government for emergency supplies of oxygen, and crematoriums—blazing nonstop—have run out of room and wood. Social media is inundated with agonizing pleas for help.
Some have buried their dead in their gardens. Others have cremated them on makeshift pyres erected on pavements. In the neglected countryside, a local reporter in southern India rang to tell me, “People are dropping like flies.” Hardly anybody knows anyone who hasn’t been ravaged by this contagion. The official death toll, which surpassed 208,000 on Thursday, is a scandalous undercount. By some estimates, the true figure could be 20 times that number. A thriving black market for oxygen and essential medicine has emerged, and a nation acclaimed in 2015 by the International Monetary Fund as an economic powerhouse poised to overtake China is now lobbying for emergency foreign aid.
What is unfolding in India is more than a crisis triggered by a pathogen. It is a carnage precipitated by the conduct of its self-enamored leader. After Modi’s Davos speech, his administration went out of its way to lull Indians into the suicidal belief that the worst was behind them. In February, Modi’s Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party passed a florid resolution praising his “leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID-19.” “It can be said with pride,” the resolution proclaimed, that India “defeated COVID-19 under the able, sensitive, committed, and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
Then, in early March, Modi’s health minister announced that India was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. That same month, thousands of unmasked cricket fans poured into a stadium in Gujarat named after Modi to watch matches between India and England. Many thousands more were bused to crowded political rallies for elections in four states in eastern and southern India. The Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela—the world’s largest religious gathering that ordinarily convenes every 12 years—was allowed to be brought forward by a year in deference to Hindu priests, who decreed that 2021 was an auspicious year for it. On April 12 alone, more than 3 million pilgrims took a communal dip in the Ganges River in the holy city of Haridwar.
Five days later, just as India’s reported daily new infections surged past 230,000, Modi bragged to a swarm of supporters in West Bengal that he had “never seen such crowds at a rally.” The pandemic, as far as Modi was concerned, was over. The hectic electioneering doubled as a victory lap. Just as he had feted former U.S. President Donald Trump a month before the first wave of the virus washed over India, Modi was eagerly preparing to host British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for a summit. Johnson’s abrupt decision to cancel his tour in response to the rising infections in India jolted Modi. Denying reality was no longer feasible. But by the time he acknowledged what was happening, it was too late.
Modi had claimed in January that he had equipped India with “COVID-specific infrastructure.” Where was it as Indians began perishing in record numbers? The man who had seduced voters in 2014 with promises of smart cities and abundant jobs had once again hoodwinked the country with a rhetorical Potemkin village: Behind the facade, there was only desolation and death.
India might have been spared this humanitarian crisis had Modi not neglected his duties and vilified those who offered him constructive counsel. He had the time, means, and access to expertise to proof the country against this inferno. As early as last November, a parliamentary committee had issued warnings of a second wave and urged the government to stockpile oxygen. But rather than bolstering India’s capacities, Modi used the virus to burnish his cult and pillage the country.
Last March, days after plunging India into chaos by announcing a nationwide lockdown with a four-hour notice, he sought tax-free donations for a fund called PM CARES to help the poorest of the poor, buy personal protective equipment, and build oxygen plants across India. The equivalent of more than a billion dollars flowed into it during the first week. What did Modi do with all that money? Nobody knows—and nobody is allowed to know. Because despite offering tax subsidies to contributors and using government organs to promote the fund, PM CARES cannot be reviewed by the state auditor because it is structured as a private trust.
Modi has belatedly shared plans to use some of the money to build more oxygen facilities. But by the time they are operational—next month at the earliest—tens of thousands more Indians will likely have lost their lives. It is no longer tenable to measure Modi against the performance of previous prime ministers: He has broken into the malign ranks of India’s British colonial overlords who went hunting while Indians starved in mass famines.
India’s dire condition today is a consequence also of Modi’s methodical demolition of the institutional safeguards bequeathed by the country’s founders. Concentrating authority in his own hands and erecting a cult of personality unmatched in the democratic world, Modi has dismantled virtually every institution that might have impelled him to react swiftly to this calamity. The Indian Supreme Court is one of the most interventionist in the world, habituated to upbraiding governments for failing the people. Yet it has not uttered a word against this regime’s appalling mishandling of the pandemic. India’s most popular news media, co-opted early on by Modi, have provided cover to him by demonizing his critics as traitors. The state broadcaster, Doordarshan, has devoted itself to portraying Modi as India’s savior. India’s diplomats, meanwhile, are exhibiting their fealty by dashing off furious letters to editors of foreign newspapers for failing to recognize Modi’s “universally acclaimed approach” to COVID-19. Twitter and Facebook have been ordered to take down posts critical of the government. Even in this apocalyptic hour, safeguarding the cult of Modi remains the most pressing priority of his government. And so deep is his contempt for common decency that, even as foreign governments airlift aid to India, his own party persists with mass political congregations. Indians, of course, have no means of confronting Modi—he has not held a single press conference in the past seven years.
Modi, who botched India’s inoculation drive by failing to order a sufficient number of doses in advance, has devolved the responsibility of vaccinating Indians to financially strapped state governments, which must now negotiate prices and purchase shots on the open market. There’s a scarcity of lifesaving jabs in a country that is the world’s largest vaccine-maker, and most Indian states are not in a position to execute the task. COVID-related mortalities in the past two weeks have exceeded the combined fatalities from all the wars India has fought since its independence. If India survives at all, it will be due entirely to the civic commitment of its front-line workers and ordinary citizens, who have stepped in to do the duties of a government that has abandoned its people.
These are the people whose interests and well-being have been overlooked by successive governments pursuing a delusional quest for international status and global recognition as a great power. Over the past two decades, a spate of books heralding India as the world’s next liberal superpower appeared even as the country degenerated into what the Princeton University political scientist Atul Kohli calls a “two-track democracy,” where “common people are only needed at the time of elections, and then it is best that they all go home, forget politics, and let the ‘rational’ elite quietly run a pro-business show.” This pandemic has incinerated the vanities that have animated India’s ruling elites since the 1990s—the vanities that can somehow abide a state of affairs in which the richest 1 percent of Indians hoard nearly half the national wealth while the government commits a trifling 0.34 percent of GDP to health care.
So is this end of Modi? Will the despair coursing through India, already curdling into rage, bring down the prime minister? Modi has a long record of surviving backlashes against him. Months after being appointed the chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, he presided over some of the worst sectarian violence in India’s history: At least a thousand Muslims were slaughtered on his watch by Hindu mobs. The blowback was fierce: He was treated as a pariah in much of the country, likened to Adolf Hitler by Anglophone secularists, and banned from entering the United States. Yet not only did Modi absorb the outrage directed at him; he even succeeded in recruiting India’s industrialists to deodorize his reputation and recast him as a modernizing technocrat.
His decision in 2016 to abolish high-denomination currency notes detonated the economy and destroyed the prospects of countless Indians. But it did nothing to diminish his hypnotic hold on the minds of a sizable number of voters. Months after the debacle of demonetization, his party swept to power in India’s largest state. The horror now unfurling before our eyes is unlike anything that has come before. Modi cannot evade the blame for it, nor can he bring himself to accept responsibility for it. Nothing, certainly, can induce him to quit his job.
The next general election is three years away, and for all the blood they shed to settle ancient historical scores, Indians are a forgetful people when it comes to the misdeeds of politicians. Modi will count on their forgetfulness. If the past is a guide, the possibility of losing power eventually will not demoralize or weaken him; it will energize him and make him more dangerous. He is the first Hindu nationalist to govern with untrammeled authority, the most formidable Hindu ruler of India in many centuries, and the father of what his ideological acolytes call “New India.” If he departs the scene, that idea, hollow as it is, will shatter to pieces. It was the prospect of being removed from office that prompted another prime minister, Indira Gandhi, to declare a state of internal emergency, suspend the constitution, and rule as a dictator almost half a century ago. Modi, who has never tasted electoral defeat in his life, may attempt to emulate her example if he believes his defeat is on the horizon.
The national breakdown that is now exposing his incompetence and recklessness may also supply him with the most impeccable justification for the suspension of democracy. Such a regime, far from being unthinkable, would amount to a formalization of what in many respects is already an undeclared emergency. This plague is the worst tragedy to strike India since Partition. Modi may yet convert it into an opportunity.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.