The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Covid-19 and the ‘idea of India’

Modi seems not to be concerned with the highly critical coverage in the Western press of his handling of the pandemic

Shahid Javed Burki May 10, 2021

For several decades after what is now Pakistan was carved out of Britain’s Indian colony as a predominantly Muslim state, India was seen as an example to be followed. While it proved impossible for what was original Pakistan to build a viable nation-state out of ethnic diversity, India was able to absorb much greater ethnic, language, castes and religious differences and create a functioning national system. A quarter century after becoming independent, Pakistan lost its “eastern wing” that separated and emerged as Bangladesh. Now, more than half a century later, after the breakup of original Pakistan, India is fast becoming a case-study of politics that demonstrates how work against the welfare of the citizenry can destroy nationhood. Instead of practising what the historian Sunil Khilnani had called the “idea of India” the country is moving rapidly towards becoming a nationalist Hindu state. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who with overgrown facial hair began to look like a Hindu “sadhu”, there is little space in the country for those who don’t believe in Hindutva, the Hindu philosophy of governance. Modi and his political associates are so preoccupied with the task of creating a Hindu state that they have neglected the task of looking after the welfare of the citizenry. This is one important reason for turning India into the worst affected country in terms of the toll taken by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the spring of 2021, India was hit by the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the end of March, the country reported the world’s largest single-day spike, with more than 300,000 Covid-19 cases in 24 hours and more than 2,100 deaths. The toll taken by the disease continued to increase. By the end of April, India was reporting 400,000 new cases per day. Many experts believed that the number was much higher; both the number of new cases and deaths were approaching levels the country was not in a position to handle. Many experts believe that by mid-summer this year, India would have lost one million people from the disease. According to the columnist, Barkha Dutt, these numbers “do not even tell us the truth”. Her column in The Washington Post of April 25, 2021 painted a picture of complacency and incompetence. “In 2020 it was the sight of millions of daily-wage workers walking on the national highways of India, fleeing cities for their villages, that defined the Covid-19 crisis in the country. Now, in 2021, the country’s blundering, callous and shortsighted response to a second wave is chillingly captured at overrun graveyards and burial grounds. The second wave of Covid-19 is sweeping through India with the ferocity of an inferno; misplaced triumphalism has brought us to our knees.”

Continued Dutt: “The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made many fatal errors. It had no contingency in place for the pandemic’s second wave. The vaccine rollout was inexplicably slow. Bureaucrats dragged their feet on clearances of foreign-made vaccines, losing two months. So confident they were of having fought off the first wave that vaccines were exported or gifted to smaller countries, making people, including me, feel a misplaced sense of pride when we could ill afford it.” India, where the election season never ends, large rallies were being held where the attendees clustered together without many wearing masks.

Even intensely patriotic scholars of Indian origin such as Sumit Ganguly, who is a distinguished professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, held the Modi government responsible for the Indian pandemic crisis. In an article contributed to the Sunday, May 2 edition of The Washington Post, under the telling title of “Modi’s Pandemic Choice: Protect His Image or Protect India: He Chose Himself”. Ganguly is deeply concerned about the future of the country of his origin. He argues that rather than deploy the government to save India from becoming a total health disaster, the prime minister is resorting to familiar tactics. “Now that public parks are becoming temporary crematoria, patients are lying on sidewalks outside, and ambulances (when available) lack oxygen, Modi’s associates have resorted to more drastic, albeit familiar tactics. They argue that the government’s critics are merely seeking to sow nationwide discord. Delhi is now pressuring social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram to take down posts that are critical of its handling of the crisis,” he wrote.

But some experts are of the view that the government’s incompetence and relative indifference may not be the entire reason for the ferocity of the second wave. At Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, the largest health centre in Delhi, the Indian capital, 37 fully vaccinated doctors came down with Covid-19 in early April. The reason for this may be an exceptionally virulent variant of the virus that was behind the second wave. “The current wave of Covid has a different clinical behaviour,” said Dr Sujay Shad of the Ganga Ram hospital. It may be a more contagious variant that dodges the immune system. “It is affecting young adults. It is affecting families. It’s a new thing altogether. Two-month-old babies are getting affected.” The country is doing a poor job of studying the impact of variants on sickness and deaths. In December 2020, the government tapped a group of 10 laboratories and set an ambitious target to sequence 5% of samples across the country every month. However, by the end of April, less than 1% of samples collected had been sequenced. A report in The Wire, and Indian online publication, pointed to logistical challenges, bureaucratic red tape and the lack of funding. According to Dr Celine Gounder, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Bellievue Hospital in New York who knows India well, Indians “simply aren’t well resourced enough, as sophisticated as their scientists and doctors might be.”

While a variant may be responsible for the crisis that is hitting India, the failure of the health system is an important additional reason. India had just scraped the surface in terms of vaccinating its vast population of now 1.4 billion people. Less than 2% have been fully vaccinated.

Modi seems not to be concerned with the highly critical coverage in the Western press of his handling of the pandemic. Instead of having the government take steps to reduce the spread of the disease, he has spent time addressing large rallies in the four states where elections were held on May 2. He also allowed a massive Hindu religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, on the banks of the holy Ganges River that routinely attracts more than a million people and lasts for three months. The rallies and the festival were guaranteed to spread Covid-19. Rallies did not win votes; the BJP government’s mishandling of the crisis lost them. The BJP lost three of the four states that voted on May 2.

One lesson for the developing world in the way India has tackled the pandemic: give a higher priority to citizens’ health than to politics. In what way will India be affected by the pandemic? And how will the effect on India, influence its neighbours, in particular Pakistan? It is too early to give satisfactory answers to these important questions.


Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2021.

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