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Leader counts his votes, count our dead

Amid India’s record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen to turn his back on all responsibility and instead focus on electoral politics.

 Insiyah Vahanvaty

When Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014, it was on the mandate of development. After more than a decade of his leadership as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, which lies along the western coast of India, Modi was primed to take center stage in the country’s politics.

Having hard-sold the “Gujarat model of development” as the focal point of his campaign, he got himself nominated as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate of 2014 at a time when India’s public was immensely dissatisfied with the then-government’s dynasty politics.

The promise of development also dulled public hindsight, erasing from collective memory the Gujarat carnage of 2002, which took place during Modi’s tenure, killing thousands and displacing many more, for which he had refused to take responsibility.

And so, his ascent to the Prime Minister seat was met with ardent celebration. Protesting voices that remembered the 2002 massacre were few and far in between, drowned out by the frenzied chants of people delirious with joy at the prospect of a strong leader with a self-proclaimed 56-inch chest.

Seven years later, in 2021, the chants have turned into wails as people cling to their dead and dying.

India’s healthcare system, which is woefully under-resourced even in normal times, with only 5 beds per 10,000 people, has, over the past few weeks, been consumed by the second wave of COVID-19 and entirely collapsed under the weight of those gasping for breath. The acute shortage of oxygen cylinders across the country led to a countless number of entirely avoidable deaths and hoarding of breathable air that quickly became worth its weight in gold.

Lifesaving medicines flew off pharmacists’ shelves and into the stores of black marketeers, forcing people to empty out their savings in order to procure a single vial. Hospitals and government agencies threw their hands up in despair, announcing that they had neither hospital beds nor oxygen or medication for the teeming crowds that were dying in hospital parking lots while their loved ones ran from pillar to post, begging for a bed, a vial, a cylinder.

On May 19, 2021, India broke a frightening world record. In the span of 24 hours, the South Asian superpower counted 267,334 new COVID-19 infections and confirmed 4,529 deaths, the highest ever since the pandemic started in early 2020.

One might argue that while these numbers are certainly alarming, in the context of India’s massive population, they still do not explain the crematoriums that were bursting at the seams, the hundreds of people that lost their lives in hospital parking lots for the want of oxygen, and the COVID-19 medication that was being sold in the black market for exorbitant rates.

Many independent analysts, both domestic and international, have flagged the discrepancy between reality and the official statistics, and have pointed out that the Indian government may be intentionally fabricating figures in order to make the situation seem less severe than it actually is.

It has also been impossible to evade the mind-numbing images of piles of corpses being cremated in a blaze of flames on the streets and public parks that had been splashed across the front pages of nearly every international publication, amplifying India’s horrific position. By estimates of officials on ground, India is seeing upwards of 20,000 deaths per day, while the official numbers stand at one fifth that.

Defying reason and COVID-19 safety protocols, millions of people attend the Mahakumbh festival in India, risking a super spreader event.
April 2021. Defying reason and COVID-19 safety protocols, millions of people attend the Mahakumbh festival in India, risking a super spreader event. In the following weeks, case counts in the country shot up, contributing to its deadliest surge yet.

Polls before people

The Prime Minister, for all his strongman image, has, astonishingly, abdicated all responsibility towards management of the pandemic, focusing instead on electoral victories, thus exacerbating the calamity.

Insisting on conducting election rallies while crematoriums and burial grounds were piled high with corpses and loved ones were forced to wait up to 24 hours for a pyre, Narendra Modi’s astounding callousness has been difficult to comprehend.

The country, experiencing an unprecedented level of mass trauma, is struggling to grasp the extent of criminal negligence displayed by the government in hosting the Hindu festival of Mahakumbh in the city of Haridwar earlier this year, where a heaving mass of more than 3,000,000 mask-less attendees washed themselves in a river, thus turning it into a petri dish of infection.

On April 12, Modi appeared at a massive election rally in Bardhaman, West Bengal, a state near the eastern tip of India. The event was packed with thousands of supporters standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Face masks, it seemed, were not mandatory. On the same day, the country recorded more than 100,000 new cases.

Stunned, the world watched visuals of overflowing hospitals and crematoriums bursting at the seams on the one hand, and footage of the Prime Minister applauding the public for coming out in large numbers to attend his speeches on the other.

The irony of the average Indian’s position couldn’t be more devastating – while our leader counts his votes, we count our dead.

The Prime Minister’s overconfidence was on display for the world to see earlier this year at the World Economic Forum, where he was quoted as saying, “I am here to bring you a message of hope and faith from a nation with 1.3 billion people. They said that we will face 2 million deaths, but nothing like that happened. We are among the nations that have managed to save the most number of lives and we are on our way to significantly reduce the number of active cases.”

Taking a bow for saving humanity and exiting the stage, India’s bewildered citizens are left wondering: who, then, shall we credit this second wave to, which has engulfed us whole?

April 2021. As India’s COVID-19 death toll climbs to new, frightening heights, crematoriums and burial grounds across the country have clogged up, unable to handle the growing mountain of bodies. Families have had no choice but to build pyres on the streets just to say farewell to their loved ones.
April 2021. As India’s COVID-19 death toll climbs to new, frightening heights, crematoriums and burial grounds across the country have clogged up, unable to handle the growing mountain of bodies. Families have had no choice but to build pyres on the streets just to say farewell to their loved ones.

While it is true that this second wave was entirely avoidable if the Prime Minister had put duty before arrogance, it is impossible to ignore the fact that India’s second wave has hit a whole year after the first surge of infections, which should have given the government plenty of time to ramp up medical facilities and prepare for the outbreak.

During the government-imposed lockdown in 2020, the Prime Minster had appealed to the public to donate funds towards preparing the country for the fight against COVID-19 to the newly formed PM Cares Fund.

The Fund, which operates more like a private trust and is not subject to RTI rules, has been used for precious little by way of establishing medical infrastructure, oxygen plants, or healthcare facilities. The question that begs answering is, why has India’s Prime Minister shown such reluctance to use the people’s money towards saving their lives?

Modi’s assessment of the pandemic being over was made despite evidence of a second wave and the presence of mutants. It was also before establishing the effectiveness of the Indian-manufactured vaccines on new strains, and ensuring fulfilment of domestic needs, that Modi launched his “Vaccine Diplomacy” by positioning India as the “Pharmacy of the World” and exporting millions of doses to other countries.

Out of the 580 million doses that were exported, more than 800,000 were sent as gifts. Out of 71 countries, at least 37 have received vaccines from India for free. Having oddly forgotten that the components needed to manufacture the vaccine come from abroad, Modi exported more vaccine doses than he had left for India’s own, putting the country in the calamitous situation of having run out of vaccines before inoculating even 3 percent of the population.

Today, people throng vaccine centers only to be turned back as there is a severe shortage of doses.

“Let’s try and not be a cry baby.”

In a final display of abdication of every shred of responsibility, Modi placed the blame on the public. In an address on April 20, the Prime Minister resisted calls for a lockdown and instead encouraged people to just stay at home, even going as far as seeking help from teenagers to police the adults in their families who wanted to go out. He also told people to stop spreading panic about the country’s deadly wave. Bizarrely, there was not a word about oxygen, medication, financial assistance, or hospital beds.

Enraged and exhausted, deprived of medical care and leadership, Indians have been voicing their pain and despair through every channel possible, only to find their pleas falling on deaf ears, and sometimes met with outright hostility. A horrific example of this hostility was seen when the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath responded to a tweet by a young man begging for an oxygen cylinder for his dying parent, by filing a case against the young man. His tweet, allegedly, was intended to cause unfounded fear.

The message was loud and clear – if you’re in Uttar Pradesh, it is preferable to die quietly rather than appealing for help. Unsurprisingly, the man with the 56-inch chest maintained a complicit silence.

Responding to a leader who has been conspicuous in his absence, hundreds of thousands of young Indians took to Twitter and Facebook to demand the Prime Minister’s resignation with the hashtag #ResignModi, a phrase that was dutifully blocked by Facebook for a few hours to break the chain.

Further, on May 16, 25 people were arrested for putting up posters across Delhi questioning Modi’s response to the pandemic and his decision to export vaccines. Dissent has never been tolerated in Modi’s India, and it seems not even a deadly virus could change that.

Of all the things that have been taken from us during this excruciating time, our dignity has been the hardest to give up. The dignity that has been denied to our dead as we are forced to cremate them on the streets, the humiliation faced by those who fear they may succumb to the illness without so much as a little oxygen to ease their way, the humiliation of those out on the streets begging for a single vial of medication, and the loss of dignity endured by those forced to fight for a slot at the crematorium.

India is in the middle of an apocalypse, fighting an invisible enemy with no leadership. But as India’s Solicitor General famously stated to the Delhi High Court while appearing on behalf of the central government who had been accused of diverting oxygen supplies from the state of Delhi, thus causing multiple COVID-19 deaths in hospitals, “Let’s try and not be a cry baby.”

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