India’s COVID Nightmare

The second COVID wave has hit the country mercilessly — and with it, Narendra Modi’s grip on power

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India’s COVID Nightmare
Family members and relatives carry the body of a victim who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus amid burning pyres of other victims at a cremation ground in New Delhi on April 26, 2021/Jewel Samad/ AFP via Getty Images

The corpses in zipped bags came in one after another on an atrociously hot April day as the fires at a crematorium continued into the night and the stench of burning human flesh filled the smoky air. It was India’s apocalyptic moment brought on by the failure of its demagogic Prime Minister Narendra Modi to foresee the coming catastrophe.

It was the worst day, recalled Sameer Chaudhary, a volunteer at Seemapuri crematorium in India’s capital, New Delhi, where 120 dead men and women, young and old, were brought in for last rites on April 24, their bodies lined up in lengthy queues.

“They would have rotted in the heat if we would not have hurried,” Chaudhary said. “Hindus don’t cremate during the night, but since the cause of death was COVID-19, we had to cremate them as their families could not have taken them home or anywhere,” he said.

As the pyres were lit round the clock, Chaudhary went home at dawn the next day for a brief break to bathe and eat breakfast. Delhi was quiet and somber, mournful and desolate. “So many bodies have come in the last one month, some days a hundred, some days more. … It is so tragic,” he said.

The two back-to-back waves of the pandemic have devastated India’s economy and health care facilities as the world’s second-most-populous nation recorded 40,000 official deaths in April, even as more deaths remained unaccounted. In the first week of May, the numbers were staggering: 2.7 million people were infected and 26,000 died.

The pandemic’s second wave was merciless, due to the emergence of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant. India’s metropolises became open memorials of death and anguish, the suffering belying cracks in the invincible and messianic image of Modi, who became diminished in his darkest hour.

Modi is one of the most populist leaders that modern India has ever seen, and he commands divine reverence among his followers, as he aggressively adopted a vicious brand of ultranationalism and Hindutva politics.

For the first time since Modi came to power seven years ago, promoting himself as an efficient task manager and a troubleshooter for all India’s problems, his grip and influence appears to be waning, his approval ratings falling, and the master orator going silent.

Last year, when India’s total infections were 564 and 12 people had died, Modi ordered a nationwide shutdown on a few hours’ notice. This triggered a massive migration of the labor class who had to walk hundreds of miles to their homes and left millions jobless.

Now, as India has become the world’s pandemic capital and more than 400,000 people are testing positive for COVID-19 and several thousand are dying daily, Modi has run out of economic stamina to order a renewed lockdown, leaving the infection to ruin bustling cities and penetrate deep into the rural landscape where health care facilities are nearly nonexistent.

The horrendous second wave of infections crashed India’s health care system and left desperate residents begging for oxygen and treatment on social media sites. As it was unfolding, Modi, who has a prolific presence on social media with more than 67 million followers on Twitter, showed utter disregard for the population’s suffering and focused instead on sharing videos of his massive election rallies.

At the crematorium in New Delhi, Chaudhary, 29, said he had never imagined the scenes he witnessed as dead bodies came day and night. “I just wish now no more bodies should come,” he said.

In normal times, before the pandemic upended life in India, Chaudhary was an accountant at a private company. The renewed lockdown in New Delhi in April forced the company’s closure, and he went to volunteer at the crematorium, where he now maintains the stocks of wood and assists in setting up pyres.

Every day since India became a grim epicenter of the pandemic’s second wave, five to six trucks of firewood are consumed at Seemapuri crematorium, as on average, 100 dead bodies are brought in daily. “Each truck carries around 150 quintals of wood,” Chaudhary said. One quintal weighs approximately 220 pounds.

In another part of New Delhi, Mohammad Waseem, a frail, 36-year-old hafiz, a memorizer of the Quran, spent the entirety of April managing the burials of COVID-19 patients. In between the burials, he took pauses and removed the protective suit to cope with Delhi’s searing heat. “It is heartbreaking,” Waseem said.

“Last year we would get seven to eight bodies, 10 would be maximum; but this time we got up to 50 bodies every day,” he said.

As the bodies lined up at the cemetery in the Delhi Gate neighborhood where Waseem is employed to perform last rites, an earthmover was called in to save time and dig the graves. The graveyard is near capacity. “There is very little space left now,” Waseem said.

The COVID-19 crisis has been so devastating in New Delhi that it has left thousands of people gasping for breath as hospitals ran out of everything essential: oxygen, medicine, beds, ventilators, and intensive care units.

Delhi is a historical city, introduced to the world by regal Muslim kings who came from the valley of Fergana, now in Uzbekistan, and made this city, with its torturous humid summers, the capital of their empire.

Since the 17th century, Delhi has remained India’s symbol of power. In 1857, the last king of the depleted Mughal Empire led a hopeless fight against the fearsome British Empire and its East India Company, which defeated the king, banished him to Myanmar, and razed Delhi — it was the last time the city had witnessed death on such a scale.

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Urdu’s most renowned poet who read verses in the court of the last Mughal king and lived through the fall of Delhi, was depressed by the city’s destruction. “There were some friends, some students, some lovers in Delhi, all of them are dead. … So many have died that if I die now there is no one left to cry for me,” Ghalib wrote to a friend. Though centuries old, this description could be applied to present-day India.

The new version of Delhi was constructed by the British, who ruled India for nearly a century and made a palatial Imperial Legislative Council, which was transformed into a parliament in post-independence India.

“It is a matter of pride for us,” Modi told lawmakers at the parliament in February, boasting that the world was skeptical but India survived.

Modi, India’s 14th prime minister, made the victory speech against the “unknown enemy,” as he described the coronavirus, and thanked doctors, nurses, and citizens.

“No one was sure what to do … the world had doubts that India would not survive; as such, the credit goes to 1.3 billion Indians, and we should trumpet it before the world,” he said.

Modi was basking in glory for avoiding the worst effects of a deadly pandemic that had ravaged the world’s foremost health care systems. When he was speaking at the parliament, India had overcome the pandemic’s first wave and had suffered fewer than 155,000 deaths — a fraction of its population. India recorded 11,067 infections the day Modi announced victory, and deaths across the country were at 94; a major improvement from the peak month of September 2020, when on average, 1,000 people died every day.

The lockdown Modi ordered during the first wave led to the fall in the number of infections but devastated the economy, which contracted sharply by almost 24% in the second quarter from April to June 2020 — the months of the lockdown.

Modi ordered a gradual opening of the country, and by the time he spoke boisterously in the parliament, that process was complete. He then flew for whirlwind tours of West Bengal, Assam, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala — states in different corners of India that were scheduled to hold elections. His rallies were massive. He also allowed a Hindu festival to go ahead that lasted several weeks and was attended by millions.

In the northern Indian city of Jalandhar, Dr. Navjot Singh Dahiya, who is also vice president of the Indian Medical Association, was terrified during the first months of the pandemic. But as the world began to understand the virus, Dahiya gained confidence.

Dahiya explained that, as the election rallies were telecast across news channels and religious festivals were attended by millions, some people stopped believing in the virus’s existence. “My friends, my relatives, would tell me if nothing happened to these people, what would happen to us,” he said. The fear of the virus was gone.

Dahiya said that most Indians followed religious and political leaders. “They don’t follow science,” he said. “All political and religious leaders are to be blamed … more the stature, more the blame,” he said. “Our prime minister contained the first wave so well, and he received appreciation for that. Now he should also shoulder the responsibility for the second wave,” he said.

“He never followed what he preached,” Dahiya said, describing Modi as the “superspreader” of infection.

Modi’s rise in Indian politics has been meteoric and flabbergasting. He was born to a tea seller in the nondescript village of Vadnagar in western Gujarat state in 1950, a momentous year as India became a republic, adopted a constitution, and established a supreme court.

As a teenager, Modi was recruited into Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — a supremacist organization with the goal of forming a Hindu nation, and he continues to embrace these ideals.

For decades, the RSS and its affiliated political group the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) survived on the fringes of India’s political landscape, which was dominated by the centrist Indian National Congress and left-socialist parties.

The BJP, for the most part, was a party of fundamentalist Hindu rabble-rousers who in 1992 demolished a Mughal-era mosque in the central state of Uttar Pradesh, claiming it was built on the site of a temple destroyed by Babur, the 16th century founder of the Mughal Empire. The event galvanized Hindu right-wing voters, but their numbers were insufficient to make major inroads for the BJP, which Modi joined in 1987.

The Indian National Congress party, which had been a leading force in India’s government since its independence from the British in 1947, was increasingly losing its grip on power and becoming rudderless as its fourth generation came of age. The large-scale corruption during the coalition governments led by the party further worsened its affairs.

In 2014, a sophisticated media campaign backed by the groundswell of opposition to the centrist party had changed the flavor in favor of Modi — who was increasingly projected as a messiah for the Hindus.

Modi had experience of governing the western Gujarat state for 13 years, during which he oversaw its radical infrastructure development but was also accused of allowing a massacre of several thousand Muslims. In a country where the enmity between Hindus and Muslims is generational, Modi emerged as a demigod.

“I have not seen god,” an ailing woman told Modi last year as she praised his health care scheme, “but I see god in you.”

Modi’s image has been carefully orchestrated over the years, and he has been projected less as a minister and more as a savior, a virtuous man fighting many evils, a man of great wisdom who knows it all — from religious scriptures to radar technology.

Amid the pandemic in 2020, he was photographed in choreographed settings — in a pensive mood, in reader mode, taking a stroll — reflecting an aura of calm and wise leadership.

Modi made himself central to India’s internal politics and diplomatic engagements; became the face of his party’s gigantic election machinery and the government’s welfare and development projects; and transformed formal meetings with world leaders into a friendly and promotional affair as he reshaped India’s parliamentary politics into a presidential-style governance.

On his official website, a curation of write-ups invariably describes Modi with a halo of spiritualism. “Over the years he embarked on a unique path,” reads an excerpt from a chapter titled “Humble Beginnings,” “that took him across India in pursuit of the larger mission to serve humanity.”

Smriti Zubin Irani, a minister in Modi’s government and a former television actor, wrote in The Indian Express newspaper and shared on Modi’s official website that “his core remains rooted in ground realities” and “his practical knowledge emanates from the earthly wisdom that forms the bedrock of Indian civilization.

“One wonders how one of the most powerful men in the world … still finds time to share a piece of his life’s collected wisdom with children,” she wrote.

When Modi made the pandemic victory speech in the parliament in February, it was his moment of acclaim, and next on his ambition list was becoming the vishwaguru, the leader of the world.

“(In) post-corona, a new world order is going to emerge. What shape, what form it will be, who will initiate it, time will tell,” Modi told the parliament. “In such a scenario, India cannot stay isolated; it will have to emerge as a formidable player,” he said.

Modi soon busied himself in grandstanding before the world as he allowed shipments of 66 million vaccine doses to 95 countries even as the country was about to fall short of doses for millions of its citizens.

Modi’s euphoria was short-lived as he went to address a series of election rallies attended by tens of thousands and allowed the festivities of Maha Kumbh to proceed. The festival, which is celebrated only once every 12 years, sees millions of Hindus converge on the banks of Ganges, a river revered in Hinduism as a deity, for a ritualistic bath.

On April 17, in Gangarampur in West Bengal, while India was in the midst of the ferocious second wave, Modi praised his audience for attending and continued his nonstop travel to mobilize people in support of his party.

In another rally at Asansol city the same day, Modi took off his mask as he stood at the podium in front of a massive crowd. “Wherever I can see, I see only people. What wonder have you done!” he said.

It was the beginning of a catastrophe, and Modi was at the heart of it.

Yashwant Sinha, who served as India’s finance and external affairs minister during the BJP-led governments when the party first came to power two decades ago, said the celebrations began too soon despite the warnings by experts.

“The government, somehow, appeared dependent on their good luck and not on good preparedness, and good luck did not last enough,” said Sinha, who quit the BJP three years ago and has been critical of Modi’s policies.

Sinha said he believes the situation “could have been better” if Modi was not at the helm and blamed his style of governance as part of the problem. “He does not delegate powers,” he said. “He likes to run the show himself, and that is where he seems to have gone wrong,” Sinha said.

Modi was elected as India’s prime minister for a second consecutive five-year term in 2019, when he won a strong mandate, winning 303 seats out of 543, with his party winning 200 million votes. It was a resounding victory in the era of coalition politics. His admirers and opponents called it the “Modi wave.”

As soon as Modi returned to power, he lost no time in implementing his party’s ideological agenda. It began with Kashmir, an idyllic, Muslim-majority, Himalayan valley where anti-India sentiment is deep-rooted. Just four months into the second term, Modi’s government scrapped a seven-decade-old law that had granted limited autonomy to Kashmir.

The decision was implemented with a massive crackdown that saw hundreds of political detentions and a communication blockade so severe that even the archaic landline phones were disabled. Modi’s approval ratings had touched 82%, according to the Morning Consult, a U.S.-based global data intelligence company that tracks the popularity of 13 world leaders.

The moves in Kashmir were followed by a court’s decision to grant permission to construct a temple in Uttar Pradesh on the site where the Hindu mob had destroyed the Mughal-era mosque in 1992.

In January 2020, Muslims across India protested as Modi’s government enacted a discriminatory law that granted citizenship rights to refugees from neighboring countries but excluded Muslims. A verification process to prove citizenship was also planned by the government. The protests, however, ended when the pandemic’s first wave arrived.

The first sign of the severely infectious second wave appeared in the western state of Maharashtra, home to India’s celebrated film industry, Bollywood. Thousands fell ill and hundreds died in March, a month after Modi’s victory declaration.

Gautam Harigovind, a doctor and medical activity manager with Doctors Without Borders in Maharashtra’s capital Mumbai, in a memoir published on the aid group’s website, described the scene at the 1,000-bed makeshift emergency hospital as “like walking into a huge ship.”

“It’s excruciatingly hot. And working in a protective suit for six hours; it’s unimaginable,” he wrote. “I’m scared of building relationships with patients. At first, I did that, and then I would come back for my next shift and see their empty bed, and that would break my heart.”

The crisis was worsening and engulfing major cities and states in the country. On May 4, the high court in Uttar Pradesh described COVID-19 deaths as “a criminal act” and “not less than genocide.” In the populous state with 200 million people, many suffered devastating consequences because of the lack of oxygen supplies for patients. Happymon Jacob, an associate professor at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies, said Modi’s image will “definitely be dented.”

“His image will be affected in a fundamental way … even within his party’s support base, there are doubts now whether Modi can handle the situation of this kind,” he said.

Jacob said the results of the recent elections, in which Modi had rallied extensively but failed in four out of five states, constituting 16% of India’s population, is an indicator that the prime minister’s influence has waned.

He said an election next year in the kingmaker state of Uttar Pradesh can mark the “beginning of the end” of Modi’s rule if his party loses or its share of seats is “substantially reduced. … There are so many variables, but the sheen of Mr. Modi, the glamour around him is receding. … It doesn’t feel like he is invincible now,” he said.

“Modi has reached his high point, and the only place he can go is go down,” Jacob said. “Modi still is powerful, an opposition leader may not be able to defeat him, but coalition politics can defeat him,” he said.

Modi now faces criticism at home and abroad as the structures of government have collapsed to the extent that several foreign embassies in New Delhi had to post SOS messages on Twitter and seek help and oxygen from nongovernmental aid groups.

In an editorial on May 8, the reputed medical journal The Lancet suggested that India will see a staggering 1 million deaths due to COVID-19 by Aug. 1 and stated that “Modi’s government would be responsible for presiding over self-inflicted national catastrophe.”

As despair and death grows across India’s poor and middle classes, the decision of Modi’s government to go ahead with the construction of a new parliament and a new residential complex for the prime minister at the cost of $1.8 billion has drawn backlash and comparison to the burning of Rome and fiddling Nero.

Morning Consult noted that Modi’s approval rating in the first week of May had fallen to 65%, the lowest since the data intelligence company started tracking him two years ago.

Sinha, the former BJP minister, said even as Modi’s die-hard followers may still “see only good,” the COVID-19 crisis has brought a “great deal of disrepute” to him.

“He is completely self-centered; he thinks he alone can and has the ability to tackle everything. He is not known for teamwork, he depends on select subordinates — that may work in normal times, but that doesn’t work in emergencies.”

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