(Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP) (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

How Modi turned Covid-19 into a cash machine

For the Indian premier, the virus is a deus ex machina

To Narendra Modi, Covid-19 is not so much a disease as a deus ex machina. Before he announced the largest lockdown in human history on 24 March, the Indian prime minister was submerged in a pool of self-engineered crises. Citizenly protests against his legislative disfigurement of Indian secularism had erupted in every major city, more than four dozen lives were devoured at his doorstep in February in the worst religious bloodletting in Delhi since the 1984, unemployment was soaring, and the economy was poised to post the slowest pace of growth in a decade. Modi’s “New India” appeared to be on the precipice of an implosion precipitated by the malevolence and incompetence of its own progenitor. Then came the saviour from China in the guise of a pathogen.

Modi did not at first pay attention: in February, as the coronavirus began claiming lives in India’s neighbourhood, he was busy hosting a lavish reception for Donald Trump and toppling a democratically elected state government in central India. Nor did he do much by way of preparing India once casualties began mounting in Europe: in late March, there was only one isolation bed for every 84,000 people, one doctor for every 11,600 patients, and one hospital bed for every 1,826 Indians. The first orders for personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers were made only hours before Modi appeared on television to announce a total lockdown. It was an improvised performance: virtually no thought had gone into it.

Their exodus on foot was redolent of the horrific migrations at India’s partition in 1947

Within days, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men and women who serve the needs of first-world India—as servants, cooks, cleaners, construction hands—set off on a homeward march from the cities to the countryside. Modi had abandoned them. And their exodus on foot was redolent of the horrific migrations at India’s partition in 1947. By mid-April, some 200 people had died as a consequence of the lockdown. Some dropped dead of exhaustion as they walked, others killed themselves as a way out of loneliness. The lockdown in India succeeded not only in suppressing the spread of the disease but also effectively in suspending the world’s largest democracy. To criticise Modi’s mismanagement is to invite accusations of lèse-majesté in a national emergency. To obey and exalt him is to qualify as a dutiful citizen.

Days into the lockdown, Modi began soliciting tax-deductible donations for an opaque trust established, he said, for the purpose of aiding “the poorest of the poor”. With a brazenness that would have made Papa Doc Duvalier blush, he christened the fund “PM CARES”. Nearly a billion dollars flowed into it in the first week. Staff at government departments were “encouraged” by circulars to give a portion of their salary to it. Private corporations paid tens of millions into it while denying salaries to their low-wage workers. One company sacked a thousand employees days after diverting more than half a million dollars of its cash reserves into PM CARES.

Where has all that money gone? That question is impossible to answer because PM CARES is structured as a private trust and cannot therefore be reviewed by the state auditor. The flagrancy of the enterprise catches the breath: while his counterparts abroad panicked, fumbled, growled, and pleaded with their people, Modi utilised the worst public health crisis in more than a century as an opportunity to stage the most audacious swindle in the democratic world. Modi, of course, is spectacularly vain but not personally venal. And yet the fact that the cash he has collected will not be stashed away in Swiss bank accounts is hardly comforting for anybody who cares about the future of democracy. The cash will likely be put to more sinister uses: to corrupt others, to shop for elected officials who have not yet capitulated to the prime minister’s sectarian ideology, to outspend his rivals in an already extortionately expensive electoral market, to vandalise the residues of checks on his power.

What of the “poorest of the poor”? Modi’s myrmidons began discovering important uses for them immediately after the government extended the countrywide lockdown for another two weeks on 1 May. In Bangalore, emergency train services were halted to prevent mazdoors from going home. The decision to terminate the most rudimental rights of the most destitute Indians was explained away by one of Modi’s MPs as a “bold and necessary move” to “help migrant labourers who came [to Bangalore] with hopes of a better life to restart their dreams”. The local government, lobbied by construction barons, had intended to put the absconding labourers to work on construction sites. The ensuing public outcry prompted the government to let them go. But the regime that was so eager to “help migrant labourers”—some of the poorest people not only in India but the world—could not bring itself to pay the cost of their train tickets. In a grotesque irony, the publicly owned Indian Railways, which insisted on collecting the full fare, had days before given £16 million to PM CARES.

In central and northern India, meanwhile, at least two state governments run by Modi’s party are attempting to regenerate the economy by revoking the most elementary legal protections accorded to workers. To get a sense of what this means in practice, consider that factories in Bhopal—the scene of the worst industrial disaster in history—are to be made exempt from safety checks. If bringing up that past seems alarmist, then consider this: only last week at least 11 people died in a gas leak from a polymers factory on the Coromandel coast in southern India.

Covid-19 has become an alibi for the formalisation of the squalid social arrangement that has always flourished under the surface in India

Covid-19 has become an alibi for the formalisation of the squalid social arrangement that has always flourished under the surface in India. And it isn’t just saffron-robed Hindu nationalists who are setting fire to labour laws. The high priests sanctifying this technocratic endeavour are liberal economists. They are, like the Brahmins of old India who withheld liturgical knowledge from the lower castes by conducting their services in unintelligible Sanskrit, incomprehensible. Their language is freighted with jargon and euphemism because their business is selling the political disenfranchisement of the poor as economic prudence. The dream of the technocrats has always been to convert India into what the Princeton academic Atul Kohli calls a “two-track democracy”, where “common people are only needed at the time of elections, and then it is best that they all go home, forget politics, and let the ‘rational’ elite quietly run a pro-business show”.

Covid-19 is resurrecting Modi as their redeemer. Raised in poverty, the prime minister radiates the arriviste’s disdain for the poor. The last budget set aside more than a billion dollars for a pair of bespoke Boeing aircraft to fly the “poor man’s son”. The intensifying distress of Indians has done nothing to provoke Modi to redirect the tens of billions he has earmarked for projects conceived with the sole ambition of burnishing his personality cult. His megalomaniacal plan to erect a new New Delhi as a monument to his rule is progressing briskly. For six years, Modi’s malice, hubris, and ineptitude have managed to ravage India in every conceivable way. Instituting indentured servitude is now his idea of healing it.

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