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With a historical average of just $13.78 per capita health expenditure in a country of over a billion people, India’s battle against COVID-19 was going to be challenging, irrespective of the ruling party at the helm. But it could have only gone from bad to alarmingly worse with the right-wing Narendra Modi regime. Undeniable links exist between the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to saffronize the country, its neoliberal policies, and overcrowded funeral sites.
The constitutional conspiracy
After getting a thumping victory in 2019 from a populace growing terrifyingly comfortable with authoritarianism, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party appeared to see the period of 2019-2024, the current five-year term of the government, as an unmissable opportunity to push through some of its closely held goals, including the rapid liberalization of the economy and establishing the grounds for a ‘Hindu rashtra’. The pursuance of the latter goal is integral because while it is an end it also serves as a means to supply constant distractive emotional opium to the Indian masses while the BJP undertakes the project of irreversible structural changes in state, society, and constitution.
The pursuit of these goals propelled Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the party’s two patriarchs, to rally in West Bengal and several other Indian states in March and April, despite India clocking hundreds of thousands of Covid cases every day.
Last year, their aspirations had collided headlong with the pandemic but once BJP leaders saw the numbers decreasing early this year, they hurriedly declared premature victory and wasted no breath — quite ironically — in pursuing their mission. Despite limited stocks, 66 million vaccine doses were distributed, often given away, to over 90 countries. Although this move helped the global south, it was part of a strategic foreign policy move on the part of the BJP government. The leadership, however, lacked foresight and disregarded expert advice. Not only did it fail to anticipate a new lethal variant, but it also brushed aside the British variant that was already circulating early this year. The CEO of the Serum Institute, in charge of producing millions of vaccines, indicated his apprehension over vaccine supply, but the BJP leadership, inebriated by triumphalism and exceptionalism, set itself on an image-sanitizing self-congratulatory path.
This bid to distribute vaccines internationally was calculated to further the BJP’s image for the polls. A government in West Bengal would have been the BJP’s 19th out of 28 states. If the BJP were able to score and win in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two of the other four states that went for elections, the victories would bring the BJP’s states to 21. The party had little probability of forming a government in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, given the lack of political polarization in those states and their ideological left. Puducherry, where President’s Rule was put in place after the state assembly’s dissolution in January, was another tossup state, but it was not as coveted as West Bengal, which sends the fourth-highest number of delegates to the Indian Lower and Upper Houses.
May 2’s election results delayed the BJP’s hopes of a Hindu rashtra. The BJP alliance was only able to win in Puducherry and Assam, extending its control to 19 states. In West Bengal, even though Mamata Banerjee, matriarch of the Trinamool Congress, lost her seat, her party was able to register more than two-third of assembly seats, expanding the party’s vote shares. Still, the BJP was able to make some inroads there. Buoyed by the last election’s results and inflationary polls conducted by a compliant media, the BJP thought it had a chance, and so its high-ranking players campaigned feverishly. For a party that did not exist in the legislative assembly of West Bengal until 2016, and with just three humble seats that year, the BJP gaining more than 75 seats in the recent elections demonstrates that the Saffron wave has entered a region once dominated by communists. However, in order to get there, the BJP was forced to fake popularity, engineer crises, throw Rohingyas, Burmese, and Bangladeshi migrants under the bus, bring in the ghosts of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens to scare Muslims, send Modi to Bangladesh right before the election, and conduct massive roadshows.
The BJP was anticipating a victory right when Covid cases began to climb. Unable to risk losing years of labor and political chess, Modi and Shah went all in. On April 17, Modi addressed a large campaign rally in West Bengal, where he gloatingly said “I have never ever seen such huge crowds at a rally.” That day, India registered more than 200,000 new cases of the coronavirus. The party’s greed, its misplaced priorities, and its pursuit of a Hindu rashtra cost the lives of thousands.
The desperation to accumulate more states runs deep in the BJP. Indian state elections are important because many fear that if the party acquires two-third seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and the Rajya Sabha (Upper House), it can amend even the salient features of the Indian constitution. Certain constitutional features have already seen a metamorphosis in their character, or at least their interpretation. The last remnants of ‘socialism’ evaporated in 1991 under the same party that fought to enshrine it in the constitution: the Indian National Congress (INC). After coming to power in 2014, the BJP too worked to interpret ‘secularism’ in its way — equating the word with a Hindu rashtra, where the Hindu majority would ‘allow’ other religions to exist. The classical definition of secularism—the principle of the separation of the state from religious institutions—has seen a constant onslaught.
According to Article 368 of the Indian constitution, there are three ways to amend the constitution of India. The one currently under scrutiny by the opposition requires a special majority from both houses of Parliament and support from State Legislative Assemblies. With enough support, any ruling party can declare emergencies, remove supreme court judges, and pass almost any law that modifies the federal structure. The precedents are many, from Indira Gandhi’s emergency powers to adding more clauses for Anglo-Indian reservations, with some like the latter going as far as to dilute fundamental rights. The desperation to win, or at least score as many seats as possible, in West Bengal state elections, is clearer now. It would have served the same purpose in two ways—by ensuring more BJP members in the Upper House, who are elected by the Members of State Legislative Assembly, and by potentially scoring another state. The BJP might have lost elections in West Bengal, but has, in no way, abandoned the attempt to secure control over it.
After the Ayodhya case verdict in 2019, when a feeble Indian Supreme Court caved in to not hurt the majority’s sentiments, saffron-clad cadres and BJP supporters put Ram Temple stickers on the walls of Muslim homes and forcefully solicited donations for the temple’s construction. Prashant Kishor, a political strategist, said in an NDTV interview that “Jay Shree Ram” was a popular chant in the West Bengal elections. Lynchings over cow slaughter have risen, and in an increasingly intolerant India, the BJP-administered IT cell and growing radicalized populace constantly police, scrutinize, threaten, and punish anyone and everything from corporate ads to dancing videos. The future is being shaped through changes to curriculums and right-wing propaganda. In Gujarat, textbooks have become selective in showcasing history and even posit Indian Hindus as better vis-a-vis other races.
In its tenure, the BJP has torn apart democratic and civil spaces. It has hollowed out democratic institutions and co-opted the mainstream media, which parrots the government’s narratives. Colonial-era sedition charges are slapped on any critics who dare to question the government. When clout-holding public figures speak out against the Modi government, raids are concocted to threaten them. Through new legislation accompanied by brazen violence, the BJP has been quite successful at muzzling critical voices. In the absence of checks and balances, extreme right-wing ideas blossom with little resistance.
Modi has not supported radical ideas overtly but many of his activities and speeches are laced with Hindutva symbols. Mid-rung and low-rung leaders have picked up the batons, amplified the ideas, tested the “waters,” and slipped them into the party’s election manifestos. Through “democratic” means like elections, the BJP seeks to legalize such ideas.
As early as the 1950s, ardent followers of Hindutva politics who would later take shelter in the BJP wanted to de-privilege Jammu and Kashmir from its special statehood status. In the 1990s, LK Advani, through his violent anti-Muslim Rathyatra, injected the toxic Hindutva into mainstream politics. Advani’s goons demolished the Babri Masjid with hammers and the 2001 Gujarat riots marked the entrance of Narendra Modi into the country’s national imagination as a Hindu protector and messiah. Though initially disliked by the media, foreign governments, and civil society alike, Modi was able to win the support of these crucial parties, which cast aside their sentiments on the Gujarat riot, and gave Modi “the benefit of the doubt.”
Since coming to power in 2014, Modi and his BJP have made slow and steady attempts at sensitizing and socializing Indians with their extreme ideas, shrewdly shifting goalposts to the right. In doing so, the BJP has achieved most of its goals, including establishing a Ram Temple where a mosque once stood and scraping off Jammu and Kashmir’s privileges. However, these goals have come at a complete disregard for democratic space, intellectual autonomy, experts’ advice, and the butchering of science, preparing the groundwork for the ongoing crisis.
A closer look over the union budget illustrates the thesis that the Indian ruling party is tone deaf. In 2014, while the Finance Minister dedicated a $3.1 billion tax cut to appease the middle class and upper-middle-class, only $67 million, for five All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), was dedicated to expanding the existing healthcare infrastructure. The same saga continued in 2016 and 2017. The Ayushman Bharat insurance program was launched in 2018, but could only reach 10 percent of the people it was supposed to until 2020; yet Modi still found it marketable enough to boast about.
Over the course of the Modi administration, seven AIIMS were established, but almost none of them have any autonomy. This, contrasted with the hurried construction of the Ram temple, historic tax breaks for big corporations, and a radical quotidien political shift, tells a larger story of misplaced priorities. Whether all BJP voters want a Ram Mandir is arguable, but it would be naive to consider that the electoral mandate was given to provide tax breaks. The truth is that the former ruling alliance, UPA, in 2013 alone delivered better health infrastructure than what the NDA (of which the BJP is a part) did in its first four years in power.
One may question, in a country with 364 million people living under the poverty line, why is a tremendously popular government like the BJP not serving the voting public? The answer may be more nuanced than one may anticipate, but one thing is for certain — the mandate was given for superficial, even half-witted, issues and confronted with a crisis, the BJP has failed to adapt.
In a country with a staggeringly complex and effective bureaucracy, where nothing short of extraordinary makes the cut, the failure of governance during the pandemic has been shameful. Narendra Modi is a blessed man to be able to retain power despite the country collapsing all around him.
Indian support for Modi is not at all docile or comprehensive. Different sections of Indian society — students, women, Muslims, tribal groups, Dalits, and farmers — have sprung to protest several times in the last seven years. Despite all these protests, the BJP has not only been able to scuttle them but win elections at the state and federal levels. From Muzaffarnagar to Munger, studies have shown that after every grim riot, the BJP almost always consolidates power. The protests themselves have become tools for the BJP, its state machinery, and party apparatuses to wield more violence and capture more states.
Despite a loss in the West Bengal elections and continued domination of regional parties in the south, the saffron wave has not receded. The Hindu rashtra agenda did not fizzle out with Savarkar, one of Hindutva’s earliest ideologues. If anything, the Modi regime is the golden phase of Hindutva and BJP will consider the recent loss as a small bump in its upward trajectory. Modi remains popular despite his mishandling of the Covid crisis. As per a May 4 Morning Consult poll, Modi enjoys the support of 65 percent of Indians. To make up for any seeming loss in popularity, the Modi government takes up a nationalist stance and beefs with China or Pakistan.
The BJP threatens the secular fabric of India. In its pursuit of Hindutva goals, the party continues to endanger the health of billions of citizens, and many more in the neighborhood and the world.
Vibhu Walia Walia, a native of Kurukshetra, India, currently studies at the University of Strasbourg, France.
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