Uncritical support for Modi paved the way for India’s COVID-19 crisis

A man wearing personal protective equipment runs past burning funeral pyres during a mass cremation of COVID-19 casualties at a crematorium in Delhi, on 26 April 2021. The next day, India recorded 3,286 deaths, its highest number of COVID-19 fatalities so far, taking the total number of deaths in the country since the start of the pandemic to 201,187. Adnan Abidi / Reuters

India is a veritable chamber of horrors right now. Every day appears to mark a new record-highest number of daily cases, with the country witnessing 3,52,991 new COVID-19 cases and 2,812 deaths on 25 April. Patients are dying due to a lack of oxygen in hospitals—at least 24 patients died in a hospital in Nashik, in Maharashtra, on 21 April, and another 25 died in Delhi, the national capital, two days later. The next day, on 24 April, the solicitor general Tushar Mehta lied to the Delhi High Court that the central government had “ensured that nobody in the country was left without oxygen.” Meanwhile, oxygen tankers are being blocked by state governments, and people have resorted to looting cylinders. This medical horror unfolding in the country was inevitable, given the leaders and the ideologies that India chose for herself.

It is also an experience of déjà vu. In August 2017, over 60 new-born babies, with chests the size of an adult human’s palm, died in less than a week in a district hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state, led by the chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht—more commonly known as Adityanath—denied that the deaths were a result of a shortage of oxygen, and maintains this narrative till date. A paediatrician at the hospital, Kafeel Khan, had accused the state government of not paying the hospital’s oxygen supplier, which led to the shortage and the deaths.

The state then arrested Khan and led a farcical investigation against him, as evidenced in the order releasing him on bail and the departmental inquiry absolving him of negligence. But the state did not conduct post-mortem examinations of the infants, did not hand over their medical records to their families, and sought to erase its negligence. As if the injustice did not matter until it was provable on paper. This greed and cruelty normalised under the BJP leadership is cancerous, and the scale at which it has infected the country is on display during this ongoing second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has taken the difficult task of organising a pandemic response in a poor country like India and made it impossible. In April last year, after the pandemic hit India, the Modi administration extended a brutal lockdown without consulting the nation’s top scientists, adding an economic as well as humanitarian crisis to the medical emergency. As I reported for The Caravan earlier this month, the prime minister did not consult the national taskforce of India’s leading scientists in February and March this year either, despite the surge in cases.

After imposing the lockdown, Modi then invoked a draconian colonial-era law, the Epidemics Act of 1897—enacted during the bubonic plague of 1896—that focuses not on controlling the disease, but on cracking down on its subjects and suspending civil liberties. The Modi administration, of course, presented a narrative that it was using the law only in instances where healthcare workers had been targeted. As noted previously in The Caravan, the centre did not, however, enact several better legislations introduced the previous year that sought to protect healthcare workers.

The lockdown, Indians were told, was to flatten the curve. Lav Agarwal, the joint secretary in the union health ministry, had stated shortly after that a Rs 15,000-crore package by the centre would be used for, among other things, “building resilient national and state health systems for future disease outbreaks.” But tenders for oxygen plants were not released till October 2020—eight months into the pandemic. That month, the centre issued tenders for 150 oxygen plants. As of April 2021, only 33 of them have been set up.

As India suffered its most devastating COVID-19 surge, its political parties and leaders—including Modi and his top lieutenant, the home minister Amit Shah—spent the last month focussed on an ongoing, eight-phased, gruelling blood sport of an election in West Bengal. The prime minister boasted of the large rallies he commanded—and gleefully catcalled the state’ incumbent chief minister Mamata Banerjee during one of them—with no apparent concern about the pandemic still ravaging the country. The polling in West Bengal began on 27 March. Within two weeks, the state recorded its highest-ever single-day spike with 5,892 new cases recorded on 14 April. Eleven days later, the state recorded 15,889 cases, and its capital city of Kolkata reported a positivity rate of approximately 50 percent.

On 21 March, amid the rising second wave, India's national dailies saw full-page ads in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited people to attend the Maha Kumbh in Uttarakhand.

Modi’s apparent lack of concern about the pandemic did not stop at electioneering. On 21 March, India’s national dailies showed a front-page full-size advertisement showing Modi and the Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat welcoming devotees to the Maha Kumbh, a weeks-long Hindu religious festival. The previous day, Rawat had proclaimed, “Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.” Devotees attended in the millions, and soon began testing positive by the thousands. On 1 April, the day the super-spreader event began, the state recorded a total of 1,863 cases. On 26 April, it recorded 35,864 cases.

The pervasive grief felt by Indian citizens is only matched by the knowledge that they are on their own. On 20 April, in his first national broadcast after the onset of the second COVID-19 wave in the country, the prime minister appeared to confirm this knowledge without any sense of irony. “I request young colleagues to create small committees in their societies, localities and apartments and help others in following the COVID discipline,” Modi said. “If we do this, then governments will not need to create containment zones, impose curfew or lockdown.” The prime minister did little to explain or reassure the citizens about what his government was doing to help them.

As Modi noted in his address, without acknowledging his own failure, Indian citizens have come together to save themselves. All across social-media platforms and WhatsApp groups, users are inundated with desperate requests and leads to find their own oxygen cylinders, medications, tele-consult with doctors, and find a hospital bed. To the best of their availabilities, they respond with leads, noting the date and time that the information was verified. But as citizens discover with alarming regularity, there are no beds, no medicines, and no hospitals. There are no hearse vans to carry the dead to the graveyards. There is no wood to burn the pyres.

India's failed pandemic response is an inevitable consequence of the blind support, over two elections, to the anti-intellectual government led by Modi and the BJP.  As I recently argued in The Atlantic, this is the greatest moral failure of our generation. It is India’s collective moral failure before it is the BJP’s political failure.

 The blame for this cannot stop at one man, no matter how unfit for office he may be. It lies just as much at the feet of people who voted for this incompetence twice thinking it will never affect them, assuming their bubbles of concrete will keep them safe from the chaos being inflicted on others. The structure and actions of the Modi administration has stood in mockery of the citizens who ever placed their faith in it. And yet, the leaders of this administration have been rewarded with blind hero-worship, and that was the last blow to Indian democracy.

Since 2002, I’ve seen Modi rise to power with a dropped jaw. His career is a monument to treachery, to the power of majoritarianism in India, and to the horrors forgiven by the country to protect those who champion such majoritarianism. He has spent people’s lives as pocket change as he failed his way upwards, into the highest office in the land.

Throughout his career, Modi has shown an insatiable appetite to jail and threaten his own citizens, and let them die on his watch without accepting any responsibility. His two terms have been an era of derangement, through which he has asked us, the people of India, to turn a blind eye to the bloodletting in Kashmir, rampant gang-rapes of women, lynchings of Muslim minorities, caste atrocities against Dalits, and the spectre of detention camps in Assam. As if all of this was not bad enough, in this process, we have also made a Faustian bargain in signing up to hate our own neighbours, friends, and colleagues.

Today, as graveyards run out of space, we cannot pin it on Modi without a critical self-inventory of the role BJP voters played in this tragic story. It is a difficult conversation to have in a country filled with strife but it can no longer be avoided. Neither can the link between morals and politics be evaded.

The BJP secured 37.4 percent of the votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections—the highest ever received by the party in its history. A nation gets the government it deserves and, in small and big ways, every one of BJP’s voters who could make their peace with poor people dying in the name of economic prosperity contributed to this tragedy, particularly the upper castes, upper class and middle class.

The kind of people who quote scriptures from the Bhagavad Gita and discuss theories on free-market capitalism as they short-change their oppressed-caste domestic workers whom they refuse to give weekly offs. The kind who do not see the inhumanity of children begging at their BMW’s window as they drive to work, where they will not speak up against systemic corruption. The kind who find women “angry” when they bring up the sexual violence and turn a blind eye to the rampant practice of manual scavenging prevalent in the country.

Most of all, with their hearts full of cynicism and indifference, and theirs sleeves stained in blood, they award certificates of nationalism based on religion, gender and caste. They preferred WhatsApps that repeated convenient falsehoods over factual news reports that showcased the unpleasant realities. Their collective will and wilful apathy—towards the poor, the sick, the minorities—is the cement that holds this government together. They valourise greed, demonise the fight for social justice, and advise us to remain calm, after handing over power to a party that has no interest, and no skill, in the art of  governance. 

They handed power to the BJP, and now they chastise those who did not for bringing politics into everyday conversations, and without irony want us keep things positive instead of focussing on the viral apocalypse we are in. By aiding, abetting or ignoring one injustice at a time, they helped Modi subvert democracy in favour of authoritarian regimes. Through their fogged lens of good intentions and morally neutral positions, they are directly responsible for degrading out institution—courts, police stations, and hospitals. 

The rich and middle-class citizen  was entirely alright watching children choke to death in Gorakhpur, assuming that would never happen to him. Once the pandemic levelled the system, and the privileged found themselves without privilege for the first time, they fled, with no regard to the medical apartheid unfolding in hospitals created for the poor. They now act shocked when confronted with the fragility of their bubbles.

The cynical political decisions taken in the past seven years have come back to haunt us this last month. We have, as people, been wilfully unaware of the state of our health infrastructure for so long because it was claiming lives that did not matter to us. That bubble has now burst.   

Our small and big moral failures have added up to design India’s pandemic response. On 27 April, India recorded 3,286 deaths, its highest number of COVID-19 fatalities so far, taking the total number of deaths since the start of the pandemic to 201,187. We created this veritable chamber of horrors.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tushar Mehta lied to the Supreme Court about ensuring oxygen supply. Mehta had lied to the Delhi High Court. The Caravan regrets the error.