‘All is well’ and the lethal price of populism

What led to the transformation of the largest democracy of the world into an ‘ideal’ kingdom?

Haris Iqbal July 19, 2021
The writer is a Harvard graduate and is in specialty practice of endodontics in US. He tweets @HarisIq35680061

“The corpses spoke in one voice: ‘All is well, sab kuch changa changa’

Lord, in your ideal kingdom, we see bodies flow in the Ganga

Lord, your smoke belching chimneys now seek relief

Lord, our bangles are shattered, and shattered are our hearts

Lord, your clothes are divine; your radiance is divine

Flames rise high and reaches the sky, the furious city rages;

Lord, in your ideal kingdom, do you see bodies flow in the Ganga?”


Parul Khakkar with these emotional lines depicts a realm being ruled by Narendra Modi. It describes an emperor with no clothes while his sycophants insist that even the corpses in the Ganges declare all is well in the country. What led to the transformation of the largest democracy of the world into an ‘ideal’ kingdom? The populist leadership had weakened the opposition, institutions and media so the lies became the truth and the truth became fiction.

It all looked exciting in the beginning. Emotional slogans, charged crowds, and alternative realities; even the rainfall during Modi’s victory speech was hailed as auspicious. After election, Modi started believing his own hubris. India “has saved the world, humanity, from a major tragedy by effectively controlling coronavirus”, boasted the leader on January 28 at the WEF. On April 17, when the second wave was in full swing, he remarked at state election rallies, “I have never seen such huge crowds”. Kumbh Mela became a super spreader of Covid all across India. When the calamity of the pandemic started taking a toll across India, Modi could not be found anywhere. People had to fend for themselves to get oxygen, find hospital beds, and cremate their deceased. It is a rude awakening when the promised mirage is nowhere to be seen and the stench of death is everywhere.

India, Brazil, and the US are the top countries with the highest Covid casualties in the world. All had leaders which had one attribute in common — Modi, Bolsonaro, and Trump were masters in the game of populism. They all denigrated minorities, catered to their base, treated science as fiction, and insisted they alone had the keys to the ‘truth’. It was only when the death toll started to mount that the shine of their ‘truth’ started to wean off. Alas, it has been too late and millions of families are now without members.

The Covid carnage highlights the dangers of populism hijacking democracies globally. It points to the weaknesses in a democratic system where a leader can get away with mass casualties with no accountability. How do we prevent these tragic episodes from recurring? In the past, we have seen creation of commissions such as the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg to indict Nazi leadership and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to account for human rights violation during the apartheid. These trials are important as it restores trust in the democratic system and inhibits future populist leaders from exploiting their positions.

In our context, there has been a lot of criticism of the current ‘hybrid’ governing system in Pakistan. We have endless debates about the glories of democracy among the elites in the country. Yet, this ‘hybrid’ system led to the creation of NCOC in Pakistan. Recently, The Economist ranked Pakistan among the best performing countries for handling the pandemic. Reality is spoken by hard numbers of success and not empty slogans. Democracy without accountability is a façade which has led to Pakistan’s ruin. According to Unicef, 38% of our children under five are stunted due to malnutrition — one of the highest rates in the world. Should we not make a national tribunal to hold our past leadership accountable for crimes against its people?


Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2021.

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