Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Modi’s pandemic gambit

A health calamity is unfolding, yet the government boasts about the best recovery rates in the world. Sound familiar?

Passing the time in Chennai during lockdown, 29 June 2020 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Passing the time in Chennai during lockdown, 29 June 2020 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 23 Jul 2020   Follow @eddroy

As the world tries to make sense of the daily debacle of Donald Trump’s response to Covid-19, there’s another democratically elected leader moving in a similar trajectory.

India’s Narendra Modi, the man who 15 weeks ago placed his country’s 1.3 billion people under lockdown, is today looking at a public health calamity that’s seen new cases spike to 40,000 a day. As of now, there are more than 1.2 million cases nationwide, with over 29,000 deaths.And the numbers keep going up.

Modi had previously urged his citizens to bang pots and pans to ward off the virus, ordered the country’s air force to drop flower petals to honour health workers and claimed that yoga would be a good deterrent against the disease. This week he went further, claiming that India has one of the best recovery rates in the world and had extended medical and other assistance to over 150 countries in the fight against Covid-19.

Unlike Trump though, Modi has never once fronted the media to answer questions about his response to the crisis – or anything else for that matter. So there was no way to enquire as to where exactly he got these figures.

Anyone opposed to Modi’s vision has been branded anti-national. And without a strong opposition, a robust media and solid institutions, Modi’s vision of a Hindu autocracy is not far off.

Consider this: the World Health Organization recommends one doctor for every 1000 patients. India has only one for every 10,926 people. In 2016, a report found that India needed more than 50,000 specialists for critical care. It has just 8350. It does not take a pandemic to work out that the country’s healthcare system is in no position to cope.

Add to this the fact that – much like Trump – Modi shows a disdain for experts, scientists and academics. He has promoted and continues to promote traditional medicine, yoga and homeopathic treatments. The lockdown may have helped flatten the curve and bought authorities some time, but a lack of resources and an unwillingness to take decisive action have allowed the virus to expand rapidly through the population.

Again, like Trump, Modi has improvised his response to the pandemic every step of the way. Having announced a nationwide lockdown with a four-hour notice, Modi has made grand public announcements of relief and stimulus packages which, when examined closely, fall far short of what he’d promised. He also announced the formation of a “PM CARES” fund, which has until now accumulated over US$1.2 billion, mostly from donations and the public purse. And, like Trump and his billion-dollar bailout package, this one is also hidden from public scrutiny.

India’s metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, New Delhi and Calcutta are teeming with horror stories of crowded hospitals turning away patients. Doctors are overworked, wards congested and morgues overflowing with corpses.

Barring a few intrepid journalists, India’s once-vibrant press has been cowed into reporting the official version of events.

A stadium in New Delhi temporarily converted into an emergency care centre for Covid-19 patients, 17 July 2020 (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Having shut down the country and left millions of unskilled labourers to fend for themselves, the Modi government has effectively abdicated its responsibilities. Meanwhile, it’s been intent on silencing any dissent. India’s Supreme Court has now directed the media to publish the government version of events along with any independent report of an issue. Journalists across India have been summoned before the courts under anti-terror legislation. They have been accused of, among other things, publishing anti-national posts on social media. Some 55 journalists have cases pending against them since March of this year.

Among the more prominent are Anand Teltumbde, a 70-year-old author, academic and champion of the rights of untouchable Dalits. 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. Another is the Maoist ideologue and poet Varavara Rao. In prison for the past two years, he is 80 years old and is reported to have contracted Covid-19.

Just as Trump has sent in federal officers to Portland, Modi has been, with the help of a pliant police force and state administration, stifling any attempt at dissent. In the six years since he was first elected to office, Modi has taken India closer and closer to authoritarianism. The coronavirus has made it easier for him to cover up his incompetence. Anyone opposed to his vision has been branded anti-national. And without a strong opposition, a robust media and solid institutions, Modi’s vision of a Hindu autocracy is not far off.

Unlike Trump, however, his numbers have not fallen. Poll after poll shows that he is still a vote winner. He has managed to sell the distorted story of how successful his administration has been in tackling the virus, just as he was successful in selling demonetisation and the GST. A consummate publicity machine, Modi has so far been able to convince the same people he hurt so badly with his disastrous economic policies that this virus too is under control. The economic wreckage this pandemic will leave behind will be immense. But the distractions with which Modi will convince those who vote for him will come at a heavy price.

Under cover of the pandemic, Modi’s gambit appears to have gone unnoticed. It’s time the world paid more attention to the world’s largest democracy.

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