On January 22, Indian Premier Narendra Modi buoyed the spirit of Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) that had helped India secure victories in two major battles: on the cricket field against Australia and in the pandemic. This state of self-inflicted exuberance did not even fade amid clear warnings of epidemiologists and health experts that the second wave of Covid-19 was doorsteps away. Amid these serious warnings, instead of taking preventive measures, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, unequivocally, passed a resolution hailing the “visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi” in turning India into a “victorious nation in the fight against COVID” and Modi was heralded a “vaccine guru”. However, it didn’t take much time to realize what unrelenting perils were on its way to set ablaze the world’s largest democracy.
Human Catastrophe and Public Health Emergency
In less than a month, the euphoria began to evaporate as such India’s Covid crisis has painfully surpassed the scale of devastations elsewhere during the pandemic. As the famous Time Magazine illustrates on its insightful report titled ‘India’s COVID-19 Crisis Is Spiraling Out of Control’ on April 28, 2021, “For six of the seven days beginning April 21, India set new global records for daily COVID-19 infections, repeatedly surpassing the 300,000 tallies previously set by the U.S. Its total confirmed cases – more than 18 million – are second only to that of the U.S”. According to official estimates, more than 200,000 have already died, and on average, around 3000 people were dying in the peak of the second wave. However, the true daily death toll is a minimum of twice higher, argues Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. By modeling of data from the first wave, his study reveals that the caseload is likely at least ten times higher than the previous wave. If the runway infection was not checked, India could be recording more than 2,300 deaths every day by first week of June, according to another intriguing report by the Lancet Covid-19 Commission.
Of now, the world’s largest democracy is in the destructive grips of a public health emergency. Social media feeds are flooded with videos of death funerals at crowded cemeteries, mourning relatives besides dead relatives, long queues of ambulances carrying gasping patients as well as long queues for treatment in corridors and lobbies of hospitals, where hospitals are running out of oxygen supplies, ventilators and beds. There are panic-striken calls for assistance for beds, medicines, oxygen, essential drugs and tests.
According to experts, India’s stride against ‘beating’ the epidemic – younger population, native immunity, a largely rural population – and declaring victory on the virus turned out to be cruelly premature as such official arrogance, ultra-nationalism, and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis,” said Mihir Sharma, a columnist for Bloomberg.
Good Days (Acche Din) Becoming Doomsday
Criticisms and questions have been flooded in India by vindicating Modi regime’s pandemic management, including public health messages that suggested the virus threat had passed; the failure to heed repeated expert warnings of an imminent second wave; indifference towards public welfare, insatiable thrust for power in the recent elections and a flawed procurement strategy that has led to an acute shortage of vaccines.
Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi came to power in 2014 by upholding promises to bring acche din or “good days” and he successfully managed capitalize his popularity for almost 7 years. However, due to his regime’s debacle in withstand Covid-19 crisis, it deems that the once ‘self-sacrificing’ leader is becoming a diminished figure, presiding over what many consider as the biggest disaster upon the nation since its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. In other words, Modi’s polemic of ‘acche din’ has started to fade away from the Indian minds and people have started to express ire to the Modi regime for leading them to the doomsday (buure din).
“In seven years, this is the first time where a sense of public anger has grown against Modi. More significantly, the anger is coming from the urban middle class, which is his most loyal base,” asserts Asim Ali, Research associate at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. Moreover, the Indian Premier’s carefully cultivated image as a self-sacrificing leader working tirelessly to serve the public has been badly hit by his intensive campaigning in state elections in West Bengal. The Premier addressed more than 20 rallies, enchanting the huge crowds who gathered to see him – even as India’s Covid cases surged and Delhi hospitals ran out of oxygen.
Therefore, the ‘selfless’ image of Narendra Modi suffered severely as such he was hankering after electoral power in West Bengal while his countrymen were suffering across the nation. Meanwhile, the planeloads of emergency medical relief supplies pouring in from around the world – especially from developing countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Uzbekistan and Romania – have punctured many Indians’ proud perception of their country as an emerging global power. The ‘dependency’ for medical aids from the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, Israel, European Union and aforementioned developing countries hurt the very spirit of atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India).
Impervious to Warnings and Gross Pandemic Mismanagement
On May 1, whilst Reuters released a story headlined “Scientists say India government ignored warnings amid corona virus surge”, which unravels that scientists and practitioners on genome-sequencing from the government-owned national laboratories, had “warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the corona virus grasping within the South Asian country”. “Like many other countries, India should have begun careful genomic surveillance in January to detect variants and we learnt of new variants in February from reports from Maharashtra. This was initially denied by the government authorities, which was a significant turning point,” Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology of Ashoka University opined. True, a second wave might have been inevitable, yet the Delhi regime could have delayed it and lessened its impact, if the government authorities had taken serious notes from these ominous warnings.
Crucially, the complacency was encouraged by the government’s “mission-accomplished mentality,” postulates Sumit Chanda, an infectious-disease expert at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in California. India’s leaders prematurely ignored the clear warnings and the news of variants circulating in other countries as such by early March it was really starting to be clear, and by late March, there were flashing red lights of devastating second wave. In response, instead of intensifying public-health messaging and ramping up interventions like banning mass gatherings and encouraging mask wearing, the incumbent regime did the opposite. BJP held mass rallies ahead of elections and tens of thousands of people were following their leaders to election rallies. The Modi-Amit Shah duo was contemptuously shouting “O Didi” “O Didi” referring West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee, whilst the pandemic had assumed alarming proportions.
On April 17, after India had overtaken Brazil to become the second worst-hit country in the world, Modi told Asansol rally in West Bengal that he was “elated” to see such a large crowd. The Indian authorities, yet, were in no mood to impose any social restrictions to control the deadly contagion. To make matter worse, Modi government promoted the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage that drew millions of worshippers to a single town – which experts dubbed as “one of the biggest super-spreader events in the history.” Meanwhile, amidst this the death and despair, the world’s most money-spinning cricket tournament – Indian Premier League (IPL) was being played behind closed doors every evening, with great pomp and celebrations. Instead of facing the truth, the ruling party started to prosecute even social media posts about COVID issues under the draconian National Security Act. For instance, prominent journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem and popular activist Erendro Leichombam were alleged under the NSA for their Facebook posts – cow dung or urine cannot cure COVID-19. In the meantime, hoarders stepped in to sell Oxygen and concentrators at exorbitant prices. Even en fire-extinguisher cylinders were sold as oxygen cylinders, reported by India Today on May 6, 2021 titled as ‘Fire extinguishers painted and sold as oxygen cylinders, 3 arrested.’
Often, Modi regime dubbed India’s COVID-19 vaccination program as the “world’s largest”. Moreover, Indian government takes enormous pride as their companies are manufacturing and exporting COVID-19 vaccines to the rest of the world. However, despite manufacturing vaccines for other countries, India is facing a shortage of vaccines for its own program. Because, prior to the second wave, Indian government had approved only two vaccines for fighting pandemic, naming – Oxford-AstraZeneca (Serum Institute manufactures it as Covishield) and Bharat Biotech invented Covaxin.
The combined efforts of these two pharmas could only produce less than 100 million doses per month. On the other hand, Serum Institute was bound to export half of its vaccine in accordance to the contracts with other parties. Thus, Modi’s insistence on atmanirbhar Bhara (the principle of self-reliance) also made India sluggish to approve and procure foreign vaccines, including Pfizer-BioNTech’s, in favor of its own Covaxin. Following Modi’s vision, India – the self-proclaimed “pharmacy of the world,” – started to export doses even as it vaccinated only 0.2% of its population per day. Therefore, it is no difficult to comprehend that had the Indian government pre-ordered nearly 300 million doses instead of 100 million doses prior to second wave and administered them in February and March very fast, the scenario might have been very different from now.
To conclude, these pandemic predicaments halted the very version of India that Modi sought to sell: a proud new global power based on Hindutva ideology and a booming economy that had put its impoverished past behind it. India’s trembled descent into COVID-19 chaos, along with the resulting public ire, now set to pose the biggest challenge for the country’s most powerful leader – Narendra Modi and his populist Hindutva party BJP.
*Hassan Ahmed Shovon is an independent researcher. He graduated from Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka. He is interested in South Asian Politics, Security Affairs, Religious Extremism, Political Economy and International Development. He can be reached at [email protected]