Tone-deaf Indian government fans flames of COVID-19 crisis

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India’s dire COVID-19 plight is a tale of two realities for Modi’s BJP government and its devotees. Even as the world looks on in horror at the severest escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic to date, the Indian government has buried its head in the sand, poking up momentarily only to tear down its detractors and stamp out PR spotfires. This has long been the approach of choice for Modi: to him, image is everything. In doing so however, Modi’s government has achieved only one remarkable feat: single-handedly destroying India’s global reputation, more so than any of its predecessors since the nation won independence in 1947.

This should be an uncontroversial statement. After all, part of the arsenal of PR weapons at Modi’s disposal is a complete denouncement of critical international commentary on his government. It is this weapon that was taken up by his supporters as international celebrities such as Rihanna recently commented on the plight of farmers in India, including eerily similar and seemingly orchestrated remarks by the hugely influential likes of Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar, who, along with leading Bollywood personalities, stuck their collective proverbial middle fingers at the world.

The irony is stark. These are the same supporters who feted former US President Donald Trump with 120,000 raving fans in a newly-constructed cricket stadium in Ahmedabad (since renamed the Narendra Modi stadium). These are the same supporters who exulted when their leader claimed victory over COVID-19, braying that other governments could learn from his example. And sadly, these are the same supporters who now grieve their loved ones, blind to the government’s hand in those deaths.

READ ALSO: India’s staggering COVID crisis could have been avoided

It is difficult to individualise the fanatics who underpin Modi’s voter base for two reasons: foremost is that Modi’s base remains enormous, and the country’s politics increasingly polarised and positional. Second is the stunning uniformity with which his supporters defend his government.

If there was ever written evidence of this groupthink, it was in the letter penned by the Indian High Commission to The Australian newspaper, in complaint against an article critical of Modi’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter may as well have been a comment by someone on Facebook; it was bereft of fact and echoed long-parroted claims which are now laughably untrue, including that the Indian government’s approach to the COVID pandemic is “universally acclaimed”, that the government has “probably saved hundreds of millions” of lives both in India and overseas, and that the surge “will be contained very soon”.

And yet, with apparently no semblance of self-awareness, Deputy High Commissioner P.S. Karthigeyan’s letter concludes with a perhaps unintentional acknowledgement that the war against the pandemic is “humanity’s common fight”.

This is the crux of the issue: the pandemic is global. In a global pandemic, there is no room for insularity or mediocrity. There is no room for navel-gazing or deflection. And there is certainly no room for a dereliction of duty by the highest office in the land. Yet in demanding that Twitter delete tweets critical of his government, in directing his diplomats to baselessly attack free foreign press, and in singularly focusing on his own grip on power, to the detriment of his citizens, Modi has wantonly disregarded not only these principles, but indeed his own promise: “I want this government to be criticised. Criticism makes democracy strong”.

If Modi thought it apt to claim credit when India seemed to be on top of its first wave of the coronavirus, he should now welcome with open arms any criticism as the country’s response falters. In stamping out and punishing criticism within the country, and in directing that foreign criticism be denounced and discredited, then by Modi’s own admission, all that is left is the tatters of democracy.

Whether Modi or his government will face any accountability for their colossal failures in managing the pandemic remains to be seen. For although the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will require a gargantuan effort and will take many years, recovering from Modi’s brand of politics – and his lust for power – may just eclipse it, with the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah waiting in the wings.

Democracy in India is hanging by a thread, much as was America’s a few months ago. India’s populace would do well to recognise that the world’s largest democracy is under siege – not from outside, but from within.

READ ALSO: Australia’s Indian community pitches in for COVID relief

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Ritam Mitra
Ritam Mitra
Ritam is an award-winning journalist and lawyer based in Sydney. Ritam writes on domestic and global politics, human rights and social justice, and sport.

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