Modi Owns India’s Unfolding Covid Disaster
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- India’s healthcare system is buckling under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic: The country registered more than 1,500 deaths and nearly 300,000 infections on Monday alone. Videos of crowded mortuaries and funeral sites, and grief-stricken relatives outside packed hospitals, are circulating among middle-class Indians. The Lancet says India could suffer more than 2,300 deaths every day by June.
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 missteps.
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 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.
The case of Donald Trump, the most prominent political casualty of the pandemic, might seem to offer a warning. Trump, too, never ceased to project an image of superhuman potency against the virus, melodramatically yanking off his mask after his own bout with Covid-19. Like Modi today, he refused to give up campaigning during some of the worst weeks of the pandemic, fulsomely congratulated himself on his response to the crisis, and blamed his political opposition and state-level leaders for any missteps.
Yet, while Trump lost to Joe Biden in large part because of his callous and clueless handling of the pandemic, the margin was disturbingly narrow. Other strongmen look more likely to survive politically — and to continue to add to the toll of needless deaths.
For his part, Modi not only enjoys much higher approval ratings than Trump ever did. He has also survived, already, blunders that would have wrecked any other political career: demonetization in 2016 and a botched lockdown last year that caused the biggest and most desperate internal migration witnessed in India since 1947.
Modi has flourished with the help of something Trump never had and the likes of Boris Johnson only sporadically enjoys: a compliant media. Indeed, one reason why complacency about the virus spread so widely in India is that Modi personally asked owners and editors of press and television in March last year to focus on “positive” stories. Evidently, as his website put it, “it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumor.”
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 — 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.
Still, it would be unwise to predict an early or full liberation from conceited and maladroit ideologues in India, or, for that matter, anywhere else. Johnson’s popularity, for instance, has rebounded because of the U.K.’s successful vaccine rollout.
Leading a shambolic Tory government, Johnson has presided over the premature deaths, unprecedented in peacetime, of more than 100,000 Britons. The break-up of Britain is fast becoming a real possibility as pro-independence sentiment peaks in Scotland, and one corruption scandal after another has erupted in recent months. Yet his approval ratings are now positive again and the Tories have extended their lead over the Labour party.
Johnson’s example suggests that not enough voters are ready to diagnose and punish outrageous incompetence in their leaders. The last few years have given us a grim warning that the spell cast by the demagogues of our times is profound.
It is based on fear and loathing of internal and external enemies, and secured by close personal identification with and deep psychological dependence on charismatic figures. As such, it transcends all conventional political calculations, and may not be broken by even a calamitous death toll.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.