Editor’s Note: Meenakshi Narula Ahamed is a journalist and author of “A Matter of Trust – India/US relations from Truman to Trump.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
By 2014, when Narendra Modi became prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, India had long shed her image being one of the poorest nations teeming with starving and sick people in constant need of foreign aid. Under a team of pro-western reformers, India underwent an economic transformation in the 90’s and by the early 2000’s was being hailed as an economic powerhouse and an attractive partner for the western alliance.
Today, the image of “India shining” — a publicity slogan the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried so hard to promote in 2004 when it was first elected — is in tatters as news outlets around the world and social media carry images of Indians dying of Covid-19 in the streets as hospitals have run out of beds and oxygen and have had to turn people away. And then there are the gruesome images of mass cremations in parking lots and on sidewalks.
India’s second wave of the pandemic has once again revived images of a country of disease and death. With its health care system collapsing under the strain, the government announced this week that is welcoming foreign assistance, after 15 years of rejecting foreign aid. Countries like Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom and others are sending supplies to India despite the country being a vaccine manufacturing hub. Many blame the Modi government.
In March 2020 when the news of a possible global pandemic made headlines, Modi acted swiftly and ordered a national lockdown and mandated masks and social distancing. As a consequence, the covid rates in India remained manageable until early in 2021. What went wrong?
While the prime minister can be congratulated for acting decisively during those first few weeks, his implementation was flawed and contingency planning for a future resurgence negligible. Several governments have made mistakes during the pandemic, but in India the mistakes proved to be disastrous due to the sheer scale of the population.
When Covid first hit, India faced a vacuum of leaders that previous governments had been able to rely on to provide the sort of contingency planning necessary to weather a crisis. Throughout his tenure as prime minister, Modi has consistently accused former public officials and previous administrations of being out of touch and corrupt. He has undermined the institutions of democracy by compromising the independence of the judiciary and has suppressed protests over the controversial 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act which fast-tracks citizenship to immigrants from neighboring countries — but not if they’re Muslim.
The handful of US trained Indian American professors who returned to India to serve under Modi’s government, like Viral Acharya and Raghuram Rajan, have left the administration.
Despite being one of the major vaccine manufacturers in the world, the government has failed to provide adequate funding to ramp up the needed supply of Covid-19 vaccines. Instead, 60 million vaccines manufactured in India were exported to other countries as part of a “vaccine diplomacy” initiative. Although the exports were stopped in March, it was insufficient to make up for the shortages. These measures have had consequences.
As of Saturday, only 1.9% of India’s nearly 1.4 billion population had been fully vaccinated. By comparison 30.3% of the US population is fully vaccinated.
But lulled into complacency by the declining rates of infection last year, Modi acted as if the battle had been won and made a series of critical mistakes. Instead of focusing on getting the country vaccinated and making sure the health care system had adequate supplies, the prime minister turned his attention to winning state elections. Amid an election year, massive political rallies were allowed to take place without ensuring Covid protocols.
Modi’s minister of home affairs, Amit Shah, who he relied on as his political strategist was on the campaign trail rather than fulfilling his duties handling the pandemic, as several news outlets in India reported. They pandered to their Hindu base and allowed the Kumbh Mela to take place, a Hindu festival where millions gathered to pray over two months defying social distancing as Covid cases spiked. Thousands contracted the virus as a result and the events were deemed super spreaders.
The prime minister’s reputation as an efficient administrator when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat convinced people he would bring the same skills to Delhi, but the pandemic has revealed his shortcomings in managing a vast and complex nation with its multicultural population. He also failed to protect the Muslim minority when his party blamed Muslims for spreading Covid in India last year.
Back then, the public was given just a few hours’ notice before the first lockdown, creating weeks of domestic havoc and enormous hardship to the thousands of poor migrant workers in big cities. Many of them were unable to return home when public transportation shut down and no public assistance had been provided for them.
Modi promotes himself as a man of the people, but his policies, from demonetization in 2016 and the 2020 lockdown, have adversely affected the most vulnerable population, displaying a remarkable lack of empathy for the very people he claims to represent.
The prime minister indulges in dramatic but empty gestures such as ordering the population to light candles and bang on pots and pans at a selected hour across the country to boost morale to convey that he is in charge.
He dresses in elaborate headgear and coats with his name embroidered on them and surrounds himself by religiously motivated people like him, disregarding science and experts. His health minister appalled the scientific community by suggesting cow urine as a potential cure for Covid.
Modi’s defiant march to reconstruct India into a Hindu nation, uprooting it from its secular constitution as conceived by the founders of modern India, has been a priority for him and his key advisers.
The extent of the damage to the basic institutions of government under Modi is becoming increasingly visible. With his authoritarian tendencies, he has become intolerant of dissent within the government. Ideas that run contrary to the party line are suppressed. Vigorous debate on policy issues is no longer permitted. The attempt to cripple India’s democratic institutions is evident everywhere. The BJP has intimidated the domestic press and has tried to have Twitter and Facebook remove posts critical of the prime minister. Modi even slammed Australian newspapers for criticizing his handling of the Covid crisis.
In response to this growing humanitarian crisis, President Joe Biden pledged to the prime minister that the US would provide “a range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials and therapeutics” to India. The first US shipment arrived in India Friday morning. Europe is also rushing to help with personal protective equipment, oxygen and ventilators.
Pleasing the US is one of Modi’s core foreign policy values. He was a constructive partner to President Barack Obama on climate change and catered to President Donald Trump’s ego by organizing a welcome ceremony that drew a massive crowd during his visit to the country in February 2020.
As defense cooperation between two countries continues to grow and their convergence of interests over an aggressive China find common ground, the partnership has enormous potential. The Biden administration is hoping that India will play a significant role in containing China in the Indo-Pacific as a member of the Quad group, comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US.
One of the key reasons why Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush courted India and changed the relationship into the partnership it is today was their admiration for India’s commitment to democracy.
During the many ups and downs in relations through the past 70 years between the two countries, it was the tie that bound them together. But as Modi becomes increasingly Trumpian, dividing the country, pursuing religious majoritarianism, suppressing dissent, and poorly handling the pandemic it could result in instability and make India not only a less reliable ally but a less desirable geopolitical partner.