Days before his arrest on April 14, 2020 in the Bhima Koregaon case, I spoke to Anand Teltumbde. “They have destroyed the constitution,” I said, trying to offer consolation about the lack of justice in the Narendra Modi regime. “No, they have destroyed India itself,” he replied.
Now, when there is extreme rage and near-universal consensus that Modi’s regime did little to nothing in preparing India to face the second wave of the COIVD-19 pandemic, I want to argue that this was no oversight. Instead, his government was actually pursuing the destruction of the Indian nation.
The Modi government’s wilful negligence pushed this nation’s healthcare system to collapse, led to rampant infection and tens of thousands of preventable deaths. Simultaneous to this project of official apathy, the BJP government was pursuing a dangerous agenda of national restructuring – inching closer and closer to a Hindu Rashtra, the corporate Hindu supremacist state envisaged by the RSS.
If Narendra Modi’s first priority was to use the pandemic to crack down on the many student, women and Muslim activists protesting the discriminatory citizenship laws in New Delhi and elsewhere, his next priority was to capture power in as many states as possible. An oncoming second wave. The fear of bodies piling up. Health infrastructure being absent, broken or in profit-making private hands. The shady PM CARES fund not being made transparent. None of this mattered to Modi and Amit Shah because the aim was to make as many states into BJP-ruled states before foisting their ‘One Nation One Election’ dream upon all of us.
Political commentators have shed light on how the BJP government under Narendra Modi has toppled nine democratically elected non-BJP state governments in the past seven years. In March 2020, BJP was bust orchestrating a behind-the-scenes coup against the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh. This resulted in the resignations of 22 Congress MLAs, and they lost their majority during a floor test. All rebel MLAs joined the BJP on March 21, 2020, three days before the nationwide lockdown. On the eve of the lockdown, the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan took oath as the new chief minister. This undemocratic political capture of state power involved months of political intrigue, but a lockdown was announced with a four-hour notice forcing tens of millions of India’s migrant workers to walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes.
While the nation was going through an extreme and unprecedented crisis, the right-wing party did not give up its shameless power-grab across the country. Riding high on the success of political manoeuvring, the coronavirus was the least of the BJP’s concerns. In July 2020, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot alleged that the BJP was trying to topple the Congress government there while he was “trying to bring the state back to normalcy from the coronavirus outbreak.” The BJP used Central agencies for their political machinations: tax raids targeted Gehlot. Fervent critics of Modi-Shah, like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, pointed out the BJP was keen to create a ‘One Nation One Party’ system. “When the country is busy fighting the COVID pandemic, the BJP is busy destabilising the elected governments in Rajasthan and West Bengal after Madhya Pradesh,” she said.
In their ruthless quest for expansionism by any means necessary, in February 2021, barely two months before Pondicherry was meant to face elections, the BJP, which did not have a single elected representative in the legislative assembly, brought down the Congress government through organised defections, horse-trading and engineered resignations. Such depravity in the middle of the pandemic speaks to the BJP’s callous disregard for people’s lives – looking at them only as short-term expendable vote-banks. And where people did not vote them into power, the party made systematic efforts to undermine electoral democracy.
In September 2020, Modi’s government passed the three controversial farm Bills that were later signed into law by the president. His regime threw the Indian constitution and its promises of federalism out of the window by legislating on agriculture, a state subject that can be regulated and legislated only by India’s states, and not by its Union government. These three laws pushed Indian farming into the free market – a euphemism that doesn’t capture any of the devastating consequences. The price of procurement of farm produce – no longer at floor prices fixed by the state, or the mandi system – would be directly fixed by private players, who could hoard even essential produce leading to massive inflation, taking away the fig leaf of food security.
Farmers noted that corporate farming and the consolidation of small holdings would lead to a loss of livelihoods, and made-to-order farming could destroy food security. Allowing private players into foodgrain storage (read: Adani’s silos) would weaken the state-run Food Corporation of India (FCI), which is the backbone of the Public Distribution System (PDS) through which most poor Indians gets subsidised grain for their everyday sustenance.
These farm laws have been called a death warrant to India’s food security because they will eventually lead to collapse of the PDS. Beginning in November 2020, farmers have been holding sit-in protests at various borders of the national capital and have vowed not to budge until the farm laws are repealed. More than 300 farmers have died protesting. In these intervening months, they have met the full force of Modi’s state machinery head on: barricades, tear gas, police violence, arrests and detentions, misinformation campaigns, roads being dug up or having nails planted to them ostensibly to stop the tractors, cutting off electricity and water, a veritable siege by paramilitary forces who refused to allow even parliamentarians to meet the farmers. Modi’s government responded to these protests by calling farmers anti-national and separatists, labelled activists as ‘andolan jeevis‘ and manufactured claims of an international conspiracy against India.
For a nation which ranked 94 on 107 in the Global Hunger Index in 2020, with the highest prevalence of wasting and stunting among children in the entire world, and which now must brace itself to face a recession head-on owing to the pandemic, messing about with food security was a catastrophic decision. The arrogance and adamancy of Modi’s government has been unmatched. In the face of these protests, it has not repealed the laws but merely bought time by keeping them in abeyance for a period of one and a half years. That Modi would choose to introduce these neoliberal reforms to please his big business backers unmindful of the centrality of agriculture to the economy, employment and food security shows how much this regime cares only about its own political ambitions and the super-rich.
Under the pretext of the ease of doing business, Modi’s government passed three crucial enactments in September 2020 to replace 29 existing labour laws without holding any consultations with trade unions. These codes were passed by a voice vote with barely three hours of discussions, taking advantage of the absence of opposition party members who were boycotting parliament to protest the notorious farm laws. These new codes make it difficult for unions to be recognised, for strikes to be called, and for jobs to be afforded protection, apart from leaving more than 75% of India’s industrial workforce exposed to a hire-and-fire regime. On November 26, 2020, heeding a call given by ten central trade unions against these “anti-people, anti-worker, and anti-national laws”, 250 million Indian workers went on a general strike, possibly the largest in history. To a workforce reeling from the deadly lockdown and staring into a recession, for an economy that had shrunk 24%, for a nation where unemployment was at a 45-year high even before the onset of the pandemic, such disastrous legislation could not have come at a worse time.
Alienating both farmers and workers at the same time was Modi’s masterstroke in the year of the pandemic. They were not the only ones left disgruntled by Modi’s sweeping embrace of neoliberal policy changes and Hindu supremacist politics since the onset of COVID-19. The utter disregard towards frontline health workers can be seen in the many strikes by Indian doctors across the country owing to non-payment of wages, non-availability of masks and PPE equipment. What provoked mass outrage by India’s medical fraternity was a new nationwide rule to allow traditional doctors (practicing indigenous systems of medicine like Ayurveda) to perform surgeries. On December 11, 2020, one million Indian doctors went on a nationwide strike to protest this decision of the Modi government. In the name of reclaiming Indian healing systems, there is a state policy to encourage pseudo-science, especially those centred on the cow’s urine and dung. These are classic features of Hindu nationalist revivalism.
This hankering back to a glorious past is an insidious exercise – for, much of the glory of this past lies in Sanatana Dharma or the caste system of graded inequality. On the one hand, ridiculous aspects of this revivalism – such as the national cow science exam originally scheduled in February 2021 – were mocked on social media because of claims that cow urine had traces of gold or that cow slaughter caused earthquakes. On the other hand, discriminatory aspects of the rightwing’s foray into education created a lot of furore among the oppressed sections of society, most notably the Dalits. When Modi’s government unveiled a National Education Policy (NEP) in July 2020, Tamil MP Thol. Thirumavalavan said that its stress on hereditary education was an attempt to reinforce and reintroduce the caste doctrine of education, and the decision to hold public examinations at the third, fifth, eighth, tenth and twelfth standards were attempts to create massive drop-outs and filter out students from the most marginalised sections. These policy decisions reflect an outright adherence to the system of caste – allowing education to become only a privilege of a few already privileged castes, and keeping Dalits and most oppressed sections from accessing it.
Modi regime’s harsh neoliberal policies have met with resistance, and more protests and strikes. In the budget proposal for 2021, Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced plans to sell off 23 state-run Public Sector Undertakings to the private sector in order to address a deficit budget. Having set itself a disinvestment target of Rs 1.75 lakh crore ($40 billion), the proposed budget was an exercise in reckless disinvestment. A million bank employees and officials went on a two-day nationwide strike on March 15 and 16 2021, protesting the selling off of the largest nationalised, public sector banks. Earlier, the decision to allow private players to operate trains by allocating 109 routes to the private sector (June 2020) invited stringent opposition from India’s Left and trade unions who saw this as the first step towards the complete privatisation of the railways sector. The railways, a vital public service, are one of India’s largest employment providers, and the only means of long-distance transport for the poor citizen.
In March 2021, weeks after the BJP budget was announced, Congress president Sonia Gandhi warned against the distress sale of public sector units and banks, writing that Modi’s government was using the economic downturn caused by the pandemic “to rush headlong into its mission of handing over large portions of India’s wealth to its favourite crony capitalists.” Her claims of crony capitalism are not unfounded: Gautam Adani, the most visible sponsor of Modi’s election campaign in 2019, saw his wealth surge by $19.1 billion this year during the pandemic, while the other billionaire close to the BJP, Mukesh Ambani saw an increase of $16.4 billion in his net worth. There is nothing in India that Adani doesn’t seem to own: ports, airports, energy (coal and green energy both), resources, logistics, agribusiness, storage silos, real estate, trains, financial services, gas distribution and defence. Even as the tentacles of Adani and Ambani spread, India’s poor continued to be penalised. In February 2021, NITI Aayog, the public policy think tank of the Indian government, recommended that coverage under the National Food Security Act must be curtailed from 75% to 50% in rural areas, and from 60% to 40% in urban areas. This is the kind of decision that would hit the poor where it would hurt the most.
Not all the devious schemes of a fascist ruling apparatus can be catalogued in the space of one article. On issues where Modi and his Union government could not legislate directly without facing revolt from the states, the task of hate politics was sublet to the respective BJP-ruled states. More than concentrating on developing their healthcare infrastructure, the states appear to have taken pains to bring about anti-religious conversion laws after floating rumours of ‘love jihad’. In the RSS-BJP hate-speech world, this myth refers to Muslim men luring Hindu women to convert under the guise of love to increase their population. Such toxic legislation has led to young men being lynched, couples being detained and beaten up in police stations, and given rise to vigilantism against Muslim men. Existing already within a deeply casteist, patriarchal structure, such state-sanctioned hate and patriarchy has further enslaved and shackled women.
Elsewhere, door-to-door campaigns by RSS-BJP cadres collecting funds for a disputed temple for the Hindu god Ram at Ayodhya have not only been super-spreader events but were also a coercive mechanism to force people to pay or run the risk of being singled-out in their immediate neighbourhood. The tally for temple-building stood at $720 million (Rs 5457 crore) in the first week of April, in what was more door-to-door victimisation than a fundraising drive. Rakesh Tikait, a prominent leader of the farmers’ protests, wryly remarked, collect funds to build hospitals not a temple.
To worsen things, this government advanced the celebration of a super-spreader event like the Kumbh Mela by a year – and it had disastrous consequences. A year ago, Modi-friendly media sought to make the pandemic a communal issue and went wild about ‘Corona Jihad’, stoking horrendous Islamophobia. There has been muted silence about the go-ahead given to the Kumbh Mela where more than 9 million pilgrims congregated. More than 99% of Kumbh returnees in just one district have tested positive for the virus.
In the last year alone, Modi’s regime has left every single institution, structure, and aspect of life in India not only gasping for breath but in a state of bloody disembowelment. Why did these massive onslaughts against dissenters, against the workers, against the democratic functioning of institutions, against the oppressed and marginalised sections of society not achieve international headlines? In many ways, the pandemic gave the Modi regime much-needed cover. People could not take to the streets to protest as the right to assembly remained suspended for several months, and those who breached it were booked under various laws. Drawing out a pattern, Sukanya Shantha in The Wire, reported how in the states where the BJP was in power, local police were used to profile and target critical voices, and in other states, Modi’s government deployed Central agencies like the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to target activists. These crackdowns received global notoriety when 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested because her toolkit in support of the farmers’ protests was tweeted out by Greta Thunberg.
The deadly virus has ended up showing that India under Modi is a failed state. The haunting images of mass cremations show us how people are dying because of the lack of preparation. These absolutely avoidable deaths are the result of Modi’s inaction, ineptitude and deliberate policy. In this season of death and lamentation, we are grieving for our losses everyday: relatives who die gasping for breath, friends dying without getting access to hospital beds, the interminable wait at crematoriums. At a time like this, it is impossible to not be a pessimist and think also of the impending non-COVID deaths that India is set to face because of Modi’s actions in the last year – farm laws that threaten the last remnants of a welfare state and food security, labour codes that rob away any wage protection.
Even if we were to imagine a world where this pandemic did not exist, Modi’s report-card from March 2020 till today shows a ruthless power-hungry juggernaut that wants to establish a corporate Hindu Rashtra at the cost of minorities, women, Dalits, farmers, workers, and the poorest, most marginalised citizens. If anything, the pandemic has allowed Modi’s regime to accelerate a right-wing agenda. India’s opposition might not have the numbers in parliament, but this should not deter them from channelling people’s rage and giving them necessary political direction. Tragedy has spared no one: Every Indian family has had a funeral and/or a hospitalisation, and these devastating personal catastrophes have made people alert to the larger dangers of the BJP. People are clamouring for change, and they still will be, when the second wave ends. It is the need of the hour for India’s opposition parties to provide urgent, uncompromising and robust leadership that will halt and reverse the damage perpetuated by Modi’s neoliberal, fascist Hindu nationalism.
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist.