Modi’s Manufactured Crisis: An India Out Of Breath

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes India hostage, the nation’s healthcare infrastructure has been stretched thin. While the blame lies squarely on Modi and his government, this is time for self-inventory: why have we stayed complicit for so long?

May 2, 2021

Over the past week, I have lost, within my extended circle, six people. I find myself reaching for my phone every five minutes. To check up on family and friends at home. To incessantly read any and all reporting on India’s Covid-19 crisis. To reload Twitter — in almost reflexive fashion — and be greeted by a deluge of desperate, pained tweets begging for leads on oxygen cylinders, which happens to be India’s new currency. It’s tiring: to worry, to wonder who in my circles will be infected next, whose eulogy will need to be written, how much more loss we will incur. Our imaginations run dangerously free, and as we turn and toss in our sleep, it breaks us.
As The New York Times’ front page has let the world know, India’s funeral pyres burn. There aren’t enough hospital beds, vaccines, PCR tests or medicines. There isn’t enough oxygen. The health care infrastructure is completely overwhelmed. In Delhi, and elsewhere, families of those sick run from one hospital to the other, chasing Twitter “leads” for oxygen, for hospital beds, for ventilators. Some make it in time, others don’t. The wealthy and powerful try to pull strings. But lately, even for them, there are not many strings left to pull. The systemic collapse has been — though not necessarily equalizing — absolute in all sense.
Official reports — for the little they are worth — indicate that India has recorded over 18 million cases. There have been over 350,000 cases reported per day over the last week. Over the course of the pandemic, the death toll — which is undoubtedly severely undercounted and purposely fudged by the right-wing, fascist Hindu nationalist Modi government to contain a PR crisis — has been over 200,000.
There’s safety and comfort in precision. But it’s only an illusion: crematoriums and graveyards across the nation have run out of space, and independent reporters on the ground consistently suggest death tolls 30 times higher than the official count. Gravediggers work around the clock to bury victims. As if that were not tragic enough, Delhi seems to have run out of firewood. And so bodies continue to pile up — in our homes, in our streets and in our crematoriums — left cold, with no firewood to carry out last rites, and with both tradition and dignity, and the dignity imparted through tradition, stolen from the departed and their families. As cold bodies obscenely decorate our streets, as we wonder who we will lose next, a heavy stench hangs: of the Modi government’s complacency and complicity.
Let there be no confusion: this is a manufactured crisis. Or as Arundhati Roy put it: “we are witnessing a crime against humanity.” At the heart of this spectacle stands Prime Minister Modi — his grotesque incompetence and complacency only matched by his repulsive arrogance and moral illiteracy. It is this man and his cabal of blind followers that have led us into this crisis. They have curated, with an intentionality only they can muster, the greatest moral failure of our generation.
And to this point he has led us meticulously. Every policy decision, every rally, every Mann Ki Baat over the last year has led us precisely to this moment. If an epidemiologist were asked to simulate a pandemic of disastrous proportions, India — under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership — would be exhibit A. In 2020, the government declared the strictest national lockdown in the world. With a four hour notice, it left migrant workers stranded in cities, while others walked hundreds of miles to their rural hometowns. It broke the back of the urban worker, leaving them hungry, unemployed and homeless. The following few months — as any public health expert would say — were pivotal in shaping India’s strategy to tackle the pandemic.
And pivotal they did prove to be. Instead of ramping up on health infrastructure — increasing testing capacity, accumulating ventilators and hospital beds, powering a national vaccine campaign — the Modi government took an alternative approach. It embarked upon an orchestrated pursuit to dismantle the remaining vestiges of Indian democracy. In that, it did succeed. Students, activists and journalists — all non-Hindu minorities — were prosecuted and jailed. The Ram Temple in Ayodhya was inaugurated — another decisive win in the government’s larger Hindutva project. In true Modi fashion, and in an authoritarian overreach of the highest order, the government rammed through the parliament new farm bills that aimed to liberalize agriculture at the expense of the small, rural farmers. Of course, in an astonishing turn of events, this birthed a farmers’ movement of unprecedented scale and intersectionality — Prime Minister Modi then proceeded to dedicate his energies toward a violent suppression of said movement. In that, his usual tactics — flirting with lathis and teargas — seem to have failed.
Even now, as bodies are strewn on the streets, amid a ravaging pandemic, Prime Minister Modi and his government play politics over burning pyres. In the state of West Bengal, over the period of a month, the BJP’s star campaigners descended to hold election rallies of massive scales. Then there was the Kumbh Mela, which brought millions of Hindu pilgrims to bathe in the Ganges to purify themselves.
In an unsurprising turn of events, the BJP government is still not ready to let go of the air of triumphalistic nationalism that dominated political discourse after it seemed that the first wave had been contained. It has arrested threatening journalists and demanded that social media institutions like Facebook and Twitter clamp down on any and all content that is critical of the government. In Uttar Pradesh, the Chief Minister has gleefully declared that depleted oxygen and lack of ventilators is a non-issue. If hospitals oppose this claim, they will face legal action, and if civilians pose a challenge in Yogi Adityanath’s U.P. property seizure and lynching is a long-lived political tradition.
This is dystopian. While Mr. Modi holds election rallies and calls them the festival of democracy, Indians must realize that their nation is being held hostage by a narcissistic lunatic that could not govern a zoo if he were tasked to. There’s a degree of comfort in clinching to our status as a democracy, but open your eyes, and look around. There’s nothing democratic about India. If anything, the disguise of democratic tradition is the greatest weapon in Prime Minister Modi’s arsenal.
It is absolutely terrifying to live in this era of derangement. And to pin the blame on Modi and the BJP is far too convenient. To pin the blame on capitalism, on Adar Poonawalla and the Serum Institute of India is far too easy. No single manufacturer should be reasonably expected to fulfill the vaccine demands of 1.3 billion people. We can blame intellectual property laws and Western hypocrisy — as we very much should — but more than anything, this is a political failure.
While there is serious political deficit, we cannot exonerate ourselves quite so easily. This crisis calls for serious self-inventory. At some point, we struck a convenient deal with the Prime Minister’s hateful politics. We were blinded by our complicity, as long as it afforded us comfort. Our neighbors, our friends, and our colleagues became disposable. We were so cynical that we did not care to care. Those of us who knew better remained indifferent. As we now wake up from our extended coma of indifference and cynicism, we feign shock. All of a sudden, now that my Islamophobic relatives' bubbles of safety are threatened, like many of us, they wonder where they went wrong. But today, just like Prime Minister Modi, as a medical apartheid unfolds before us, our sleeves are stained with blood and no number of essays, reshares of Instagram stories or donations to grassroots support organizations will cleanse them.
Vatsa Singh is Opinion Editor. Email him at
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