India has set an unenviable new world record. More than 348,421 new infections were recorded on May 12, and another 4,205 deaths. The death toll now stands at more than 254,000 people. It is widely thought that these numbers may even be vastly underestimated.
Meanwhile, as the body count continued to rise exponentially, the Modi administration held a workshop on May 5 for hundreds of top officials on “effective communication”, where they were asked to “create a positive image of the government”. This included setting up a “positivity strategy” to deflect criticism of government-handling of the pandemic.
What is happening in India is as much a political crisis as a health crisis. It connects directly to Narendra Modi’s leadership and judgement, where he has privileged image over substance and accountability. The ongoing catastrophe is not in spite of, but because of, his leadership style. From the demonetisation in 2016 to the constitutional coup in Kashmir in 2019 to the current pandemic disaster, Modi’s callous and authoritarian style of leadership has cost millions of people their lives or livelihoods.
When people died trying to access their money in late 2016 because Modi’s sudden announcement made 86% of the country’s paper currency worthless overnight, he joked about his policy. When Kashmir was downgraded from being a state to a federally administered union territory and had a complete communications blackout imposed without seeking any consent or allowing any dissent in 2019, Modi made a speech about the potential of shooting Bollywood films there.
In 2021, so far Modi has not even acknowledged in a tweet the thousands of Indians dying needlessly every day.
Modi has not held a single press conference since coming to power in 2014. There has been no direct way to confront him about why he did not plan to prevent masses of migrant workers perishing from starvation and thirst on the way back to their villages in 2020. Or why he did not learn from other countries and ramp up medical capacity in the last year.
The Indian prime minister hasn’t had to answer questions on why he ignored warnings from opposition parties, and allowed crowded election rallies and religious gatherings. About why he prioritised vaccine exports over essential domestic coverage. Or about why the Indian COVID-19 taskforce did not hold even one meeting in February and March 2021 as the cases surged.
Media management by the Modi government is extreme. In December 2020, the Information and Broadcasting ministry circulated a 97-page document, Report of the Group of Ministers on Government Communication, which included the suggestion that journalists be colour-coded as pro or anti-regime – or as fence sitters. It is not known how many of the measures in this “tool-kit” have been implemented.
To oppose the government is to be labelled “anti-national”. Dattatreya Hosabale, the general secretary of the Hindu supremacist group RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) – of which Modi himself has been a long-time member – suggested that criticisms are part of an “anti-Bharat” conspiracy to “create an atmosphere of negativity and mistrust in the country”.
“Bharat” (literally, the Hindi word for India) is the Hindutva – or Hindu nationalist – version of India that stands, not just for the country, but also connotes an idyll of pure Hindutva morality where there is no westernisation or its associated ills. Modi himself habitually refers to dissenters as “tukde tukde gang” (a gang wanting to break-up the country), “pseudosecular”, “liberal”, “urban naxal” (intellectual terrorist), “andolanjivi” (career protester), and so on.
Modi: perception and priorities
Alongside Islamophobic sentiment, Modi’s success has long relied on a mix of scapegoating minorities, populist mobilisation, institutional capture, and suppression of dissent through the use of money and media.
As an academic, I have studied the rise of the right in India for several years and believe that Modi’s “myth” functions through projecting him as ascetic, paternal and efficient. Part of his popularity among his supporter base derives from an idea of his credible image abroad. His extensive foreign trips before the pandemic aimed to reinforce this through high-profile events in US and UK – from where the cheering crowds, but not the protesters, were shown to his followers back home.
Modi’s spending priorities have displayed a distinctly authoritarian penchant: in 2018, the tallest statue in the world was built in Modi’s home state of Gujarat as a US$467 million (£330 million) monument to a right-wing Hindu Indian independence leader. In 2020, the largest cricket stadium in the world was named after Modi himself.
India is a rare democracy where every vaccine certificate carries a picture of Modi. Yet now, when there is an urgent need to allocate resources to healthcare, Modi is pressing on with his “Central Vista” project, which involves tearing down central Delhi parliament and government buildings.
Among the buildings being constructed to replace the heritage architecture will be new residences for himself and his deputy. Work continues on it even now, risking lives and costing the equivalent of US$3 billion. Incredibly enough, amid this pandemic, this project has been designated as an essential service.
A huge temple to a Hindu god (Ram Mandir) is being built in Ayodhya, at a site of longstanding conflict over religious claims between Hindus and Muslims in the most populous north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The state is governed by the far-right Hindu supremacist leader Yogi Adityanath – a crony of Modi’s. The construction of this temple is a crucial part of the narrative that confirms India as a Hindu nation. The foundation was laid by Modi on August 5 2020, on the first anniversary of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s loss of statehood and revocation of autonomy by the Modi government.
Meanwhile, as these grandiose and narcissistic monuments rise from the ground, people are dying for want of oxygen and beds, and dead bodies are washing up on rivers.
Nitasha Kaul is a Reader (Associate Professor), School of Social Sciences, University of Westminster