Modi government incompetence is largely responsible for India’s pandemic disaster, as infections and deaths mount at a terrifying pace in India, the prime minister’s team culpability for the crisis has become startlingly clear. A literate leader might have saved India from this manmade disaster?
India’s healthcare system has collapsed under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country registered more than 3500 deaths and nearly 400,000 infections daily, off- course the official figures are always inaccurate. Videos of crowded mortuaries and funeral sites, and grief-stricken relatives outside packed hospitals are circulating among middle-class Indians on social media. This is after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory against COVID-19 in Jan 2021. 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 and completely on its knees. The country’s health care system is on the precipice of total collapse, 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 hospital room and cremation wood. Social media is inundated with agonizing pleas for help, leading to 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.
India might have been spared this humanitarian crisis had Modi and his team not neglected their 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.
As in so many of the pandemic’s worst-hit countries, this tragedy was avoidable and is largely the fault of a boastful and incompetent government. Yet, judging by the fate of other bungling far-right politicians such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the U.K.’s Boris Johnson, Hungary’s Viktor Urban, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may well suffer few political consequences for his devastating misdeeds.
Like those other leaders, Modi has spent more time diminishing the pandemic’s seriousness than combating it. In early March, even as cases in India rose alarmingly, he again boasted that the country would serve as “the world’s pharmacy,” churning out vaccines for developing nations. His health minister judged India to have entered the “endgame” of the pandemic. In a new cricket stadium named after Modi, tens of thousands of largely unmasked people turned out to watch matches between India and England last month. Many more unprotected people turned out for Modi’s recent election rallies in the state of West Bengal, and an estimated 3.5 million people have attended, with the encouragement of Modi’s Hindu nationalist colleagues, the Kumbh Mela religious festival.
The result? Faced with a crushing case load and an acute shortage of vaccines, India has stopped exporting doses and is importing new jabs from Russia. Indian states are desperately fighting over the supply of something as basic as medical oxygen. He has also survived, already, blunders that would have wrecked any other political career: demonetization in 2016, hasty GST implementation and a botched lockdown last year that caused the biggest and most desperate internal migration witnessed in India since 1947.
The current crisis does seem more serious than others Modi has faced. Until now, his claims for instance, that Indian airstrikes in 2019 killed scores of terrorists in Pakistan or that withdrawing almost all currency notes in circulation punished corrupt businessmen with an exception of his favorite Gautam Adani could never be adequately tested against reality, especially because Modi skillfully constructed each time an alternative reality with the help of loyal journalists and social media trolls. The facts of extensive death and bereavement among India’s middle classes, and shortages of hospital beds and oxygen, cannot be denied so easily; they require no external verification. Even an illusionist as masterful as Modi will find it difficult to spin them to his advantage.
An ex-bureaucrat revealed his ‘control freak’ nature, his deliberate bypassing of his ministers. Modi soon sized up his secretaries, not necessarily correctly, and his permanent scowl started sending cold shivers. He then resorted to his unabashed mode of operating through favorites namely PK Mishra and Ajit Dowal, both bureaucrats given cabinet minister status, which demoralised other equally or more talented officers. The latter had not crawled to ingratiate themselves. Lightning transfers became commonplace, and the PMO controlled every appointment to senior posts, as well as to boards and committees. Though inputs were taken from the RSS, the Intelligence Bureau and the spy chief, the NSA, mattered more. Stalinist shadows grew longer and head-less organization’s suffered when appointments took years. Babus and businessmen, however, learnt to fake everlasting loyalty and started wooing Sanghis.
But no government could function with just handpicked cheerleaders, and experienced bureaucrats stopped sharing their lifelong experience, out of fear, and the political savvy of ministers was treated with contempt. Modi brilliant idea of 75+ retirement to remove experienced politicians from the active politics backfired. He can tolerate 75+ PK Mishra and Ajit Dowal but he has an aversion for 75+ politicians. As the Cabinet system crashed and responsibility became opaque, India’s performance ranking in all internationally comparable indices started tumbling, every year. And the inviolability of statistics disappeared, as fudging began. Officers realised that only style and spectacle mattered, not substance.
Covid 19 broke the spine of an already badly slip-disced economy. Just because the home minister was/is Modi’s most trusted factotum, all decisions, even those well beyond its limited competence, were decided by the lathi-wielding home ministry, not the health ministry. Regular imperious edicts flowed, without consultation. Relief work has always been an integral part of Indian administration, but since the two leaders maintained an eerie silence on the plight of migrant workers, no relief camps came up to alleviate such an enormous human tragedy.
While every sensible nation planned the production, import and distribution of vaccines and oxygen several months ago, India illiterate leadership backed by mediocre RSS ideological guidance woke up to issues like pricing, supplies and international obligations only a couple of months ago. Even simple arithmetic of supply versus demand was hardly understood, advice from specialists received lower priority and the regime let its defenses down.
The invincible ‘spell’ is finally breaking, but what we need immediately is fire-fighting and imaginative response, not vengeance. Today, India has become the new global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with daily infections surpassing 400,000 per day and the official death toll—likely a massive underestimate—nearing a quarter of a million people. Hospitals are being overrun with patients, and the crisis is exacerbated by a devastating shortage of oxygen. The Indian judiciary has gone as far as threatening capital punishment for anyone caught trying to divert shipments of oxygen from around the country to affected areas. There have been dozens of deaths documented directly tied to a lack of oxygen. So, what happened?
Modi government suffered from “arrogance, policy paralysis, incompetence, and no efforts to learn from the past year.” A government with a religious fundamentalist ideology that has taken aim at minority groups and elevated a form of mediocre fascist Hindu supremacy has failed its people spectacularly.
Modi has also refused to negotiate with tens of thousands of poor farmers who began a mass occupation on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi last year in protest of new harsh privatization farm laws. While the number of farmers protesting declined during the annual spring harvest as they returned to pick crops on their farms, an estimated 15,000 still remain, many more are ready to return if needed. “What choice do the farmers have at this point?”. “The farm laws will kill them in the next few years, and, heaven forbid, if the virus comes, it will kill them quickly. So, death is on both sides.
In spite of being the world’s largest manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines, India has exported far more doses to other nations than were deployed internally. Modi has been accused of engaging in “vaccine diplomacy,” giving away millions of vaccines to other nations to shore up his international support. The “vaccine has been put on the open market with limited provision from the government to inoculate citizens.” In other words, poor Indians have to wait far longer to obtain the vaccine compared to wealthier Indians who can walk into a private clinic and purchase a dose.
In the meantime, Indians continue dying in numbers so large that the capital New Delhi glows at night from the fires of mass cremations. The state governments have let down the country badly. Health is a state subject, yet ordinary leadership largely propelled by Mandal commission aftermath with zero competence fueled the disaster. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh (post Panchayat Elections), Rajasthan, Gujrat state leadership remained clue less despite there is a gap of 14 month between the first wave and second wave. Delhi Joker Chief Minister was crying for oxygen and medicine when the people started dying on the street. As the hashtag #ResignModi began trending to new heights, at least, Modi to save his face must sack his cabinet and PMO to bring fresh faces to tackle the crisis with a new approach and prospective. However, the narrative has consolidated with the large section of Modi supporters that “the government has failed on all accounts.”
(The writer is Prashant Tewari, Editor-in-Chief of The Opinion Express Group)