The unmaking of India | Free to read
The country’s catastrophic Covid response has exposed a creeping erosion of democratic values and traditions under Modi
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:
BORIS JOHNSON STADIUM,
on February 24 2021 by
HER MAJESTY ELIZABETH II
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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.