by Khurshid Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 4, Shawwal, 1442)
With surging infection cases and deaths, India has become the epicenter of the global pandemic. Aspiring to global power status, its surging cases have exposed India’s extremely inadequate healthcare system and other structural weaknesses.
Infections have soared past 28 million and some 330,000 people have died according to official figures. Medical experts say these figures are grossly under-reported. The actual rates may be 10 to 30 times higher. The British medical journal, The Lancet wrote that India “could hit one million cases by August 1 and one million cumulative deaths.”
People are dying outside hospitals because of acute shortage of beds. Lack of oxygen has resulted in people gasping for air and virtually suffocating to death. The poor have suffered the most. In a society with a rigid caste system, people at the bottom of the heap are discriminated against at every level. The wealthy and well-connected are able to get into hospitals although even that has been a huge challenge since hospitals simply do not have beds.
Most people in India hold Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly responsible for the pandemic and his failure to provide healthcare support. Since becoming prime minister in 2014 and re-elected in 2019, he has personalized governance. He basked in the glory of India’s economic growth, albeit uneven, claiming it is the direct result of his style of hands-on approach.
Modi’s other signature mark has been to whip up Hindu chauvinism commonly referred to as Hindutva, targeting India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims. They have borne the brunt of Hindu chauvinism, suffering public lynchings and destruction of their properties. Yet with surging Covid infections, Modi has gone into hiding.
Last year, many Muslims were burnt alive by Hindu mobs yet today Hindus are finding it difficult to cremate their dead. Bodies have been buried in shallow graves along the banks of the Ganges River. Many others were simply dumped in the river.
In January 2021, when India’s Covid cases declined somewhat, Modi boasted at Davos that Indians had conquered the pandemic and India (meaning, he) had saved the world from the pandemic! Indians were not as “soft” as people in the west, presumably because of his muscular policy toward minorities, he boasted.
Despite Modi’s self-serving bombast, a second more deadly wave had already hit India last year. Six new variants were discovered. Some of them, especially the B.1617, have spread to other countries as well, necessitating ban on flights from India. The World Health Organization has declared B.1617 as a variant of concern. Modi did not save the world; he has plunged it into a new, more deadly crisis that may have serious consequences for the global fight against the pandemic.
Sushant Singh, senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India and previously a lecturer in political science at Yale University, wrote that Modi
“who has consistently campaigned on virulent nationalism captured by the slogan “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (or self-reliant India), has been forced to abruptly change policy… With images of people dying on roads without oxygen and crematoriums for pet dogs being used for humans’ last rites as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the country, his government accepted offers of help from nearly 40 other nations.”
Indian diplomats have tried to justify the begging-bowl approach under the rubric of an “interdependent world”. That may be so but as Sushant Singh pointed out, “After seven years as prime minister, Modi’s hyper-nationalistic domestic agenda—including his ambition of making the country a “Vishwaguru” (or master to the world)—now lies in tatters.”
Nothing has captured India’s plight more graphically than the night glow of funeral pyres burning in Delhi, the capital city. Crematoriums cannot keep up with demand. Some chimneys collapsed because of the intense heat generated by running 24/7. Wood to burn the dead is also in short supply.
Parks have been turned into cremation grounds. The authorities have given permission to cut trees in parks to burn bodies. Graveyards for Muslims are running out of space. The government has said people can bury the dead in their backyards.
As resentment against Modi’s mishandling of the pandemic spread, people took to social media to vent their anger. Instead of addressing such concerns, Modi demanded that Twitter ban posts critical of his regime. To its great shame, the social media platform complied. He may be able to ban criticism at home, the Indian-doting Western media has started to report on Modi’s unpopularity.
Modi’s plans to turn India into a global power not only lie in ruins, the country has always been part of the third world, regardless of self-serving slogans. It will remain there for many more decades despite Modi’s bombasts and the West’s attempts to project it otherwise. The brunt, as always, is borne by the 400 million or more Indians that live in absolute poverty. Perhaps, Modi believes that the pandemic will cull the poor for whom he has no regard anyway!
Pity the poor of India.