England is due to host the next football World Cup, and in preparation for this most prestigious of sporting events, the stadium in Wembley has undergone a makeover. The refurbished stadium is ready a year before the tournament is scheduled to kick off. The Football Association’s chief executive boasts that this is now the largest football stadium in the world, seating more people and far more comfortably than any such venue in Berlin, Rio de Janeiro or Barcelona.
A friendly match against old rivals Germany is arranged to show off the new premises. The Queen is invited by the FA to attend the event. She accepts, since she likes an outing. The chancellor of the exchequer is also asked, and is likewise happy to come. Just before kick-off, the chancellor requests the Queen to declare the new stadium open. The monarch pushes a button, which lifts a curtain to reveal a plaque embedded into the stadium’s entrance. The plaque reads:
This tale is, of course, made-up — even though we know Boris Johnson to be publicity-hungry and ever flirting with controversy.
But change the names, the city and the sport, and what seems farcical and fantastical turns out to be entirely true. On February 24 this year, the Narendra Modi Cricket Stadium was inaugurated in the city of Ahmedabad, just before a Test match between India and England. The honours were done by Ram Nath Kovind, the president of the republic, whose role as defined by the Indian constitution is closely modelled on the British monarch’s (except that the post is not hereditary). Standing next to President Kovind was Amit Shah, home minister of India and second only to prime minister Modi in power and influence in the Union government.
By having a sports stadium named after himself within his lifetime, Modi put himself in the worst possible company, including Kim Il Sung and Saddam Hussein. Yet what truly made it in bad taste was that India had just come through a dire 12 months. Although the Covid-19 pandemic had not yet caused as much loss of life as in Europe and North America, the economy lay in ruins. Gross domestic product contracted by 23.9 per cent between April and June 2020. By some estimates, more than 100m people had lost their jobs.
Admittedly, the Covid curve had flattened in the final months of 2020, with cases and deaths coming down quite substantially. Still, with all that India needed to do to rebuild its economy and restore its ever-fragile social fabric, was this the time for its prime minister to so extravagantly allow a public massaging of his ego?
As I write this, safe and thus far fever-free in my home in southern India, my country has become the new epicentre of the virus. Anxious messages pour in from friends overseas as they read of how every day India sets a world record for the most cases recorded in the previous 24 hours.
These are “official” figures, issued by a government notoriously economical with the truth. One CNN report cited an expert who suggested deaths are under-reported by a factor of between two and five, meaning we may have already had 1m Covid-related deaths instead of the roughly 200,000 reported so far. And with the surge predicted to continue at least till the end of May, the magnitude of the disaster is almost impossible to contemplate.
As stories of oxygen shortages and photos of burning funeral pyres are carried across the world, the culpability of the Modi government becomes ever clearer. From the time the first reports of the virus emerged, our prime minister has consistently ignored the danger signs while focusing on building his own personal brand and image.
Like other populists, Modi has been sceptical of experts’ advice, saying he much prefers “hard work” to “Harvard”. Where previous Indian prime ministers actively consulted scientists and economists in the making of public policy, Modi has preferred to trust his own instincts. The professional civil service, and even the diplomatic corps, have become more and more politicised, with growing emphasis on loyalty to the leader and his ideology. The pandemic has in many ways brought into sharp focus a more existential crisis for India — the creeping erosion of its democratic traditions and values.
Let me take you back to February 2020, exactly a year before the inauguration of the Narendra Modi Stadium, when the prime minister visited Ahmedabad in the company of the then US president, Donald Trump. The virus was making its presence known, but the leaders of the world’s richest and largest democracies were unconcerned.
Modi wanted praise from Trump, and Trump wanted Modi to get Indian-Americans to vote for him in the 2020 presidential election. In Ahmedabad the two populist demagogues made a show of respect towards Mahatma Gandhi, visiting his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river. Then Modi took Trump to New Delhi, where, while they chatted and feasted, riots broke out in India’s capital, in which Muslims suffered disproportionately.
Throughout February 2020, Modi’s attentions were devoted to planning the visit of his friend from America. Throughout much of March, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party were focused on bringing down a government ruled by the Congress party in the state of Madhya Pradesh, offering inducements to legislators to defect.
On March 11 the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The death toll was rising alarmingly in Europe. While now belatedly aware of the virus, Modi still wanted to wait to have the state of Madhya Pradesh in his hands. On March 23, a BJP government was sworn in in the state. The prime minister said he would address the nation the following evening. What might he say? Ever since he had announced, in November 2016, that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes (amounting to 86 per cent of the value of currency in circulation) would be rendered unusable in four hours’ time, the PM’s every speech had been awaited with a degree of nervous trepidation.
When speaking at public rallies, while canvassing votes for himself or his party, Modi works in the polemical mode, loudly mocking his rivals in an ever-increasing cascade of insults. When speaking on television, as prime minister, Modi adopts a gentler, paternal tone. He speaks softly, offering homilies to his fellow citizens. The sting is generally at the end. And so it was on the evening of March 24 2020, when he began by talking of the crisis that Covid-19 posed, before suddenly announcing that all of India, in just four hours’ time, would be locked down for three whole weeks.
With their jobs taken away from them at one fell swoop, and no buses or trains running any more, tens of thousands of workers began to walk back to their villages. Photographs of poor Indians walking with their belongings on their head, and of their being stopped and brutalised by the police, went viral. Several commentators remarked on the chilling similarities between these images and those of refugees during the Partition of India.
For our prime minister, Covid-19’s arrival in India became a further opportunity to reinforce the cult of personality. The choreographed speeches were one manifestation — with public broadcasting network Prasar Bharati crudely boasting that more people had tuned in to hear Modi speak than had watched the final of the hugely popular cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League. A second manifestation was the creation of a new fund with a diabolically well-crafted name — PM CARES, the acronym standing for Citizens Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations. Modi’s own photograph was prominently emblazoned on its website, and would be on the publicity collateral and perhaps on the packaging of the supplies bought with it too.
The fund’s operations were opaque — nobody knew how much money was collected, or how it was to be spent. An appeal to the Supreme Court of India to mandate financial transparency was rejected. As 2020 progressed, a sense of complacency set in about the pandemic itself — not merely in government, but among the public at large.
Some experts had claimed that India would be ravaged by the virus, with several hundred million people being affected; but when the number turned out to be far fewer, they were scolded by our prickly patriots. “Our drains are not filled with bodies, our hospitals have not run out of beds,” wrote one prominent Delhi editor. “Our crematoriums and graveyards are not out of wood or space. There is not even a cricket field-sized sliver of India anywhere that might help you make a convenient or macabre comparison with the Spanish Flu of 1918.” He added “that good news, or absence of expected bad news, is the truth that so many in the international community, and also within India, seem unable to handle.”
In December 2020, the Indian cricket team defeated Australia in a Test series played Down Under. The next month, in an address to university students, Modi invoked this sporting victory as a prelude to the nation’s apparent triumph against Covid. “The Indian cricket team suffered crushing defeat, yet recovered equally fast and won the next match,” he said. Likewise, “this self-confidence and absence of fear in trading the uncharted path and young energy has strengthened the country in its fight against corona . . . India took fast, proactive decisions instead of compromising with the situation and effectively fought with the virus.”
This sort of arrogant complacency permeated the Modi government’s actions and decisions. In the wake of the pandemic, a “Covid task force” of scientific experts had been constituted — yet there was no meeting of the body through February and March 2021. For the prime minister had given the signal that the virus had been defeated by Indians, just as the Australian cricketers had been.
It was by now well known that all countries, even the richest and with the best-equipped healthcare systems, had experienced a second wave of the virus, often worse than the first. “Had we anticipated this,” writes one distinguished Mumbai physician, “we could have buttressed our defences and increased our resources.” But “perhaps the powers that be felt that we are God’s chosen country and this could not happen to us”. And so, powered by faith in their living god, some 55,000 people, mostly maskless, came to cheer India play against England at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad in the last week of February.
Throughout February and March, Modi and home minister Amit Shah were busy with assembly elections in the state of West Bengal. They addressed large rallies in which they, like the audience, scorned the use of masks. On April 11 2021 the Covid task force finally met, after it was clear that a second wave had hit India. Modi remained focused on the West Bengal election: on April 17, he spoke at a rally in the industrial town of Asansol. “Maine aisi sabha pehli baar dekhi hai” (“I have never seen such big crowds at a rally”), he proclaimed.
By now, India’s crematoriums were out of wood and its graveyards out of space, and yet the prime minister was bragging about how loved he was.
Tragically, though, the boastfulness was not without foundation. Despite his failures on the economic front, despite his mishandling of the pandemic, Modi remains enormously popular among voters. An opinion poll conducted in late January showed “NaMo” as having approval ratings of above 70 per cent. Events of recent weeks may have caused a slide, but this is likely to be modest, rather than precipitous.
How does one explain this disjunction between performance and popularity? One reason for Modi’s appeal is that his ideology of Hindu majoritarianism is widely shared by voters, particularly in the populous states of northern India. The BJP has been especially successful in getting lower-caste Hindus into their fold, by offering them cultural superiority over Muslims.
India once stood out in south Asia for affirming — at least in theory, if less emphatically in practice — that faith and state were distinct in public matters. Now, under Modi, India is increasingly becoming a Hindu version of Pakistan. (In Covid times, this glorification of Hindu pride has revealed itself in the decision to allow a congregation of millions of worshippers in the Kumbh Mela, with costs that will steadily mount as infected devotees return to their towns and villages.)
Modi’s political success has also been enabled by a weak and fragmented opposition. Particularly culpable here is the Indian National Congress, once the great party of the freedom movement, now the property of a single family. In the general elections of 2014 and 2019, the BJP won easily because Modi was pitted against Rahul Gandhi, an entitled fifth-generation dynast with no administrative experience; he is also an indifferent orator. Yet it may still be Gandhi who leads the Congress into the 2024 elections.
Finally, Modi has been able to do what he wants because of the capitulation of the democratic institutions meant to keep authoritarianism in check. The principal culprit here is the Supreme Court, whose conduct in recent years has been nothing less than supine. Successive chief justices have refused to protect individual liberties and minority rights, been insensitive to the savage suppression of dissent by the state, and facilitated a secretive electoral bonds scheme whereby the ruling party can collect money from businesses in return for favours.
One constitutional scholar describes the Supreme Court of the Modi years as an “institution that speaks the language of the executive, and has become indistinguishable from the executive”; a second writes that the “Supreme Court has badly let us down in recent times, through a combination of avoidance, mendacity, and a lack of zeal on behalf of political liberty”.
Back in 2012, I exchanged a series of emails with a young entrepreneur, who, disgusted with the Congress party in power, desperately wanted Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, to become India’s next prime minister. The correspondence was long and instructive, but here I must quote only snatches. Thus my friend wrote: “Specifically, Narendra Modi could be our own Deng Xiaoping, unwedded to any ideology except economic growth. As a natural democrat and argumentative dissident, I shudder at that analogy, which is barely an unmixed compliment. But, as far as choices go, that will be my pick.”
The comparison of Modi to Deng provoked this anguished response from myself: “No, no, no, do not be so simple-minded and see Modi as the leader we need or want. What is good for business is not necessarily good for India. Deng was a genuine patriot, Modi is a bigot and megalomaniac.”
It turned out I was wrong on one count: Modi has been good for a few businessmen, not for business as a whole. During the pandemic, even as tens of millions of Indians lost their jobs, a handful of billionaires made windfall gains. Among them are Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, both coincidentally from Modi’s state of Gujarat, and also, surely coincidentally, with their names emblazoned on the new Narendra Modi Cricket Stadium, where overs are bowled alternatively from the Adani and Ambani ends.
Modi may (or may not) win a third term as prime minister. But from what he has done so far, it seems pretty clear that the republic has been ill-served by his rule. Incompetence, sectarianism and the cult of personality — these are the three defining traits of his regime.
In the present wave of the pandemic, the city of New Delhi has been the worst affected, yet the sufferings of its citizens have not deterred Modi from going ahead with a vanity project dearer to his heart than any other. This is to radically reshape the landscape of the capital, so as to supplant the glorious architectural heritage of the Mughals and the British with the personal imprint of the new emperor of India. While shortages of oxygen, beds, medicines and vaccines abound, while the dead are being cremated in parking lots, a construction company has been instructed to get on with building a brand new house for the prime minister, their activities given legal protection under the “Essential Services Act”.
From cricket to Covid, no sphere of human life has escaped our eagle-eyed prime minister. Although India was slow off the mark in vaccinating its population, its programme will be unique in one respect — each certificate of vaccination carries a portrait of Modi. One Indian posted a photo of his certificate with the sarcastic line: “Sir Modi jee knows what to do, when to do, how to do”.
Another commentator was more brutal, tweeting: “Just as there is a photo of Modi on the vaccine certificate, there should also be a photo of Modi on the death certificate of those killed by Covid.” Grim and even ghoulish, this statement may yet serve as an appropriate epitaph for the reign of Narendra Modi.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include ‘India after Gandhi’ and ‘Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World’. He lives in Bangalore
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