A Wavering Wager
“Modern India” has always been a gambit. Not because modernity in this part of the world remains hobbled by obdurate traditions, as some would have it, but because such a project has to navigate logistical as well as libidinal challenges that seem virtually insurmountable.
While external impressions of India have oscillated between extremes, from a beacon of postcolonial potentialities to a rogue nuclear state, a certain indulgent optimism has congealed into the dominant global disposition. Feted documenters of the country’s squalor and misery, from Margaret Bourke-White to Danny Boyle, have marveled at the ordinary Indian’s vitality and ingenuity; iconic figures across the political spectrum, from Nelson Mandela to Octavio Paz, have found inspiration “in light of India.” Because of India’s status as a pinnacle of decolonization and because of its professed adherence to democratic ideals and institutions, global civil society and its media have found it expedient to extol the country’s virtues from time to time, and to reaffirm its promissory value for the rest of the world.
Over the years, Indian thinkers/leaders of both nationalist and critical persuasions have found reasons for hope and perseverance. They have forged ideals, drawn up plans, and implemented programs to tackle the country’s intractable problems. These pragmatic-performative agendas have helped people dream in the face of political malfeasance, skewed priorities, and bureaucratic inefficiencies. From the austerity of the early decades after independence, to the contemporary rush to become an economic superpower, India’s journey has been, at best, convulsive. And yet, it has been possible to hold onto a broad and supple consensus about the viability of a modern, secular, and democratic India.
That default optimism has withered in the course of the covid pandemic. Engulfed by a pervasive sense of crisis, the current historical conjuncture asks us to parse the Indian situation and to reflect on the country’s possible future(s). “India, Perchance” is our collective response to that felt obligation; this dossier seeks to explore, understand, and perhaps move beyond the sense of loss, uncertainty, and indirection that seem to have taken over national life.
Right now, all questions of the covid-and-India genre come thoroughly overdetermined by the twin historical forces of neoliberal capital and fundamentalist Hindu nationalism. How the pandemic has unfolded in India, what short- and long-term effects it has had on the country, cannot be tracked in isolation from the tectonics of globalization and populist mobilizations rooted in Hindutva, an essentialized and chauvinist Hindu identity. Therefore, as a forum, “India, Perchance” seeks to analyze and challenge, in both concrete and speculative terms, the current national administration’s attempts to exploit the crisis scenario, so as to 1) deliver the country’s people and resources to the extractivist modes of global capital, on the pretext of accelerating economic growth and enhancing efficiency, and 2) centralize power in Delhi to the detriment of existing federalist arrangements, subjugate political oppositions and alternatives, and foreclose entire worlds of possibilities, all in the name of national stability and security.
The impossibility of isolating India’s pandemic experience from the colossal shifts already underway may well be the point of a striking artwork (see above) that appeared online in mid-2021. Attributed to Twitter user @Shailesh_BR, the piece centers on the photograph of a human right hand. The forefinger, bearing an “indelible election dye” stain, indicates that the individual has cast their vote; the finger is also marked “2014,” the year when the right-wing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the national elections decisively and formed the central government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Clasped onto the middle finger is an oximeter, the medical device that gained unnerving salience with rising infection and hospitalization rates; it registers no readings for the oxygen saturation level or the pulse rate, just a graphic indicating that the patient has flatlined. Also inscribed on the middle finger is the legend “2021,” the year when the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus precipitated India’s deadly second wave. The image suggests a direct link between the Modi government’s ascension to power, and the Indian state’s catastrophic failure to contain the infection or to mitigate its effects. While the causality it suggests remains contestable, the image is quite effective as political satire, underscoring the Indian electorate’s dashed hopes for acchey din or “better days” (the core slogan of the BJP’s 2014 campaign) under the new political dispensation. And the semiotic correlation between 2014 and 2021, the “gallows humor” articulation of the scarcity of medical oxygen with an abundance of corpses, does reflect sentiments prevalent in post-second wave India—sentiments that combine voters’ remorse with a loss of confidence in the state, that slide from the panic during a health crisis to a more profound pessimism.
As the editors of the present dossier struggled to make sense of the images and reports coming out of India around May-June 2021, it was the word perchance, expressing the unsettled nature of future possibilities, that emerged as an expedient hook. An unlikely one, too, this synonym of “maybe” and “perhaps” as the pivot around which the jumble of half-thoughts and visceral reactions might begin settling into order and meaning. Beyond the standard rhetorical equivocation that the term performs, its distinctly Shakespearean reverberations conjure Hamlet, confronted with the rotten state of his kingdom. In contemporary global-popular imaginations, this tragic narrative functions as a frame of intelligibility for situations in which acts of betrayal call for balancing acts of retribution/reconciliation to restore a sense of justice. While it is neither possible nor obligatory to map out an exact correspondence between the play’s plot elements and contemporary Indian trends, a few speculative parallels may be sufficient to make the allusion stick. For many Indians, the current political dispensation marks the return of extremist political forces—specifically the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS), a Hindu fundamentalist corps with massive grassroots organization—to the mainstream of national politics, as crucial supporters of the NDA coalition. It was a member of the RSS that assassinated Gandhi, already venerated in his lifetime as Bapu, the father of the nation, in 1948. 2014 marks a willful forgetting of this patricidal moment and a new willingness for the nation (habitually figured as “Mother India”) to consort with the Hindutva brigade. Already enmeshed in a matrix of political-libidinal schisms and disillusionments (from the two-nation theory and the Partition of 1947 to the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid), the majoritarian embrace of Hindu fundamentalist agendas in two consecutive election cycles (2014, 2019) raised the specter of fresh perfidies: the proposed deletion of “secular” and “socialist” from the list of guiding tenets in the Preamble to the Constitution of India; the abandonment of the five-year economic plan as a framework and tool of state-led development; ending special dispensations for minority communities while placing new restrictions on their citizenship rights; shedding all pretensions about promoting transparency in governance, democratic institutions and processes, or anti-oligarchic regulation. It is noteworthy that Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider (2014), to date the most compelling Bollywood film that addresses the ongoing political betrayal in Kashmir (with August 2019 having marked a new low point), is an inventive adaptation of Hamlet set in the beleaguered state. That Bharadwaj chose a modified ending to this familiar storyline is not so much out of commercial concerns, to provide that crowd-pleasing fantasy resolution, as it is out of a recognition that hope, even the faintest strain of it, is indeed a potentiating resource in the face of intractable adversities. And for a great many Indian, hope is getting increasingly difficult to muster.
More than providing a context for the pieces that constitute this forum, this introduction offers a few preliminary musings, as provocations for further conversation, on the pandemic-syncopated time of the national. One of our objectives here is to mourn, and to parlay the charge of mourning into generative energies and future action plans. We seek not so much to sleep as to dream: to speculate not just on the continuing viability of the gambit called India, but also on the possibility of an inclusive, equitable, and singularly progressive India. To dream that the light from the India of a not-so-distant future will, perchance, help illuminate non-fascist pathways for the entire world.
The Second Wave: A Fatal Farce
Late in the spring of 2021, roughly a year after photographs of jobless migrant workers trekking across the vast Gangetic plains back to their villages had coalesced into one of the iconic moments of the current pandemic, images of suffering and death from the second wave in India stunned the world once again. The mid-range shots of patients gasping for breath, of remote aerial imagery revealing rows and rows of funeral pyres and hastily wrapped bodies abandoned in shallow waters, confronted global publics with a searing force associated in recent memory with photographs from the Haiti earthquakes, the Somalian famines, or the genocides in Kosovo and Rwanda. What made these pandemic images so striking was not just their graphic content, but also their point of origin. While India continues to experience disasters of mindboggling dimensions, with the intensity of storms and floods rising in recent years, the country’s notoriety as yet another chronic hotspot has been superseded by more affirmative perceptions: the world’s largest democracy, the third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, and arguably an unbound, emergent superpower, not to mention the self-anointed “pharmacy to the world.”
Despite the narratives of national advancement relentlessly orchestrated by the public relations machinery of the current ruling bloc, the numeric economic indicators had begun to slow down for India well before the health crisis. Erratic policy measures adopted by the BJP-led national government (of which the sudden demonetization of higher denomination bank notes in late 2016, ostensibly to eliminate “black money” reserves procured via illicit deals or tax evasion, remains a glaring example), social unrest fomented by right-wing Hindu fundamentalist groups (including the lynching of Muslim and low-caste individuals by vigilante cow-protectors), and the flagrant suppression of any form of dissent (notably the targeting, even murder, of activists and journalists, and the prolonged incarceration without bail or trial of political opponents, including protesting Dalits, farmers, and university students, invoking colonial anti-sedition statutes) had fostered an unusually innervated domestic arena. Only the most ardent votaries of the current regime could unequivocally celebrate the pathway that this new India seemed to have set for itself, strikingly indexed by the abandonment of principles and strategies (secularism, state economic planning) that were once indispensable to most postcolonial nation-building agendas. Simultaneously, the new political dispensation confounded post-liberalization aspirations with fresh, often incommensurate demands on the citizenry, the high decibel culture wars obscuring urgent social problems, and recurrent state failures.
The arrival of COVID-19 in this volatile context triggered a meltdown of governance, revealed the inflated nature of claims about contemporary India’s techno-economic prowess, and showcased the extreme yet unheeded dimensions of socioeconomic disparity. If this moment of danger exposed the cynicism and apathy with which elite and middle-class groups benefited from such inequities, it also showed up the same groups’ hypersensitivity to the dip in India’s profile, internationally and at home, as a techno-scientific leader. Prominent political leaders demonstrated more irresponsibility and indifference than empathy, holding massive campaign meetings leading up to the 2021 state elections, before the deadly second wave had fully subsided. Bollywood and cricket stars, like all groups with exceptional privileges, connections, and means, rushed to secure their passage to the less crowded, vaccine-rich pastures of Europe and North America; and alongside common acts of uncommon kindness, care, and bravery, there were many shocking instances of cruelty and chicanery, adding to the general unpredictability and anguish.
In India, the pandemic induced nothing short of an existential crisis. It was a crisis that shook the country’s citizenry to its core and made it doubt the very possibility of individual and collective futures. But for the country’s political leaders and captains of commerce, those “great men” who usually usurp the position designated in modern political philosophy as “the subject of history,” the crisis unfolded primarily as a series of fresh, immediate opportunities. In their rush to monetize various aspects of the disaster, to fully capitalize on the short-term contingencies, they aggravated problems as well as the social suffering. The spectacular nature of this experiential gap, the sensation of hurtling in opposite directions across incommensurate scales, could only amplify the existential crisis—even for those who experienced the crisis mainly as explosive accumulation and self-aggrandizement.
An Existential Crisis
Beyond the immediate threat to life posed by the mutating virus, beyond the chilling isolation induced worldwide by public health measures, and beyond the state of exception that appears intrinsic to every modern body politic, for many Indians the experience of this singular emergency was overlaid with the sheer panic that sets in when the familiar coordinates of one’s assumptive world— the anchoring political institutions, the shared cultural heritage, even the fundamental social contract—disappear fast and furious, leaving one stranded in uncertainty.
While Indians are not alone in feeling beleaguered, reevaluating their priorities, and experiencing pessimism about the future, such reflections emerge here within vernacular-popular frameworks rooted in cosmological concepts such as maya (illusion), kismet/bhagya (fate), and mahakaal (deep time), endowing the phenomenology of crisis with cultural specificity. Whether such reappraisals will merely frame their predicament as yet another chunauti (challenge) or a pareeksha (test) ordained by fate, a perspective insistently promoted by the Hindutva leaders, or lead them to political mobilization demanding guaranteed minimum livelihood and better public health infrastructures, remains to be seen. In our conversations with mostly middle-class relatives, friends, and neighbors in India during the latter half of 2021, a common theme emerged: the failure of the national administration to take timely steps. Even pro-BJP media outfits could not help question the state’s operative logics and actions in dealing with the crisis. Why was there such a shortage of medical supplies, most glaringly oxygen cylinders, a year after the onset of the pandemic? Was the state too complacent about the low infection rates the previous year, too quick to declare victory over the unpredictably evolving virus? Why were vaccines produced in India sent abroad, before ensuring that the domestic population, especially the most vulnerable demographic groups, were inoculated? Why did the BJP administration squander its political energies and national resources on controversial policies such as the 2020 Farm Bills, or vanity projects like the capital’s Central Vista Redevelopment, instead of focusing on what the prime minister himself has described as a once-in-a-century public health crisis?
As the country was placed under total lockdown, initially without any countervailing measures to make up for the loss of basic livelihood, the poorest—with practically no rights or opportunities to muster survival-level “entitlements” (Amartya Sen’s celebrated analytic for tracking poverty) in such a socioeconomic limbo—were hit the hardest. Ironically it was the migrant laborers, whose essential work in the informal sector sustained everyday urban life, that got most abruptly dismissed, causing one of the largest reverse migrations in human history. (See Anustup Basu’s essay in this dossier.) On their way back home, they were harassed, castigated, and interned in cramped spaces, breaking all public health protocols. After the impulsive lockdown, which sought to safeguard the upper classes and white-collar workers with disposable income as well as to demonstrate the Modi regime’s decisiveness in an emergency, the central government appeared practically non-functional at the most critical moments. Except for carefully staged photographs released to the media, top leaders in Delhi disappeared from public view for weeks at a time. When Shramik Special trains were eventually organized for the migrants, no provisions were made for food or drinking water on board, causing illness and death in the sweltering summer heat. Except for in a handful of provinces (primarily Kerala and Maharashtra), public health services proved to be thoroughly inadequate in handling the pandemic. In general, information was not disseminated or updated in a clear, effective manner. Spokespersons for Hindu fundamentalist groups, religious leaders, as well as elected officials kept making unproven claims in public about the superior efficacy of traditional preventatives and cures in fighting covid, stoking hope and confusion at once. From the expected news reports about immunocompromised people jacked up on root extracts with medicinal value, to the more extreme images of Hindutva zealots covered head to toe in cow dung, claiming the “holy” excreta to be a natural prophylactic against microbial infections, the media sphere bristled with the anxieties of a nation that could no longer depend on its state apparatuses for reliable information or directive.
During India’s second surge, the aggressive Delta variant caused severe pulmonary problems, leaving the afflicted gasping for breath. (Bishnupriya Ghosh’s essay for this dossier elaborates on the politics of breathing.) Then into the pandemic’s second year, the country faced an acute shortage of medical oxygen, a fatal snag partly ascribable to the antiquated practice, following the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940, of regulating thirty-seven significant medical devices as “drugs.” The statute, which did not always work well for non-pharmaceutical medical gadgets and made the process of obtaining official clearance for equipment unnecessarily complex, was amended just before the pandemic broke out, only to include all medical equipment under the category of drugs. The central government showed little understanding of how a viral pandemic might unfold or what unanticipated public health contingencies might arise, focusing entirely on vaccine production while neglecting to prioritize the expansion of emergency medical equipment manufacturing. In populous Uttar Pradesh, when desperate relatives sent out queries about oxygen cylinders on Twitter or WhatsApp, there were several instances of political goons tracking them down and beating them up on charges of circulating “fake” news and spreading panic. Yogi Adityanath, the state’s chief minister, threatened to put these hapless “miscreants” beyond bars and to seize their properties.
There is something farcical about all of this. The current regime demands convoluted yet single-minded performances from everyone, according to a script conjured by its ideologues and spin doctors. Whatever the reality on the ground, it expects all Indians to shore up the state’s triumphalist claims even when they ring hollow. Migrant workers are expected to follow the lockdown directive, even if its abruptness does not give them a chance to get to a proper shelter where they can actually remain in place. In the past, when asked about climate change, Modi had relativized the inclement weather patterns, explaining away the harsher conditions in terms of the people’s spoiled habits and weakening tolerance levels. This line of reasoning, taken straight out of the neoliberal playbook, continues to provide a core operational logic for the BJP-led government. Instead of extending empathy and care, the Indian state now subjects its citizens to absolutist interdictions, insisting on their individual responsibility, stoic acceptance, and patriotic sacrifice. This administration has yet to suggest, let alone promote, modalities of public mourning for the bereaved; it has felt no obligation to help a shell-shocked nation reckon with its ongoing ordeal. Ironically, the same regime has discerned, three quarters of a century after the South Asian partition of 1947, an enduring need to mourn that loss of national unity. On August 15, 2021, in his ceremonial Independence Day speech from Delhi’s historic Red Fort, Modi declared that August 14th, Pakistan’s Independence Day, would henceforth be India’s “Bibhajan Bivishikha Smriti Diwas,” or “Partition Horrors Memorial Day.” Purporting to correct a long-standing oversight, this edict deepens the institutionalization of the Hindu Right’s anti-Islam politics, while seeking the displacement of the ongoing collective suffering via the invocation of an older trauma.
In the course of the pandemic, India seems to have turned into a theater of cruelty.
A Theater of Cruelty
In the present context, the direct reference of the phrase is to a national arena where cruelty—understood as callous indifference, brutality, or behavior that causes physical and mental anguish while deriving pleasure from it—appears to have become a dominant mode of interaction, overshadowing and transforming the contract between the state and its citizenry. (Ajay Gudavarthy elaborates eloquently on this shift in his piece here.) If the national is understood as a series of stylized performances whose purpose is to endlessly reassemble a collective self, the reference takes on a second sense. In Antonin Artaud’s surrealist conception, a theater of cruelty seeks “to wake up the nerves and the heart,” hoping to unleash a cathartic encounter with one’s self. What might the pandemic-era performative gestures of the country’s present political dispensation, of its most prominent political leader in particular, reveal about what mainstream political discourse might refer to as India’s “national character,” its “guiding ethos”? What, more to the point of this dossier, might the performativity of the central top brass suggest about the nation’s potential futures?
Before we explore this question, we want to make clear that by no means are we suggesting that the pandemic would have been a cakewalk for India if another political party or coalition were in power at the center. The infrastructural, logistical, and regulatory hurdles would still have been intractable. But the current administration compounded the problems with its specific mode of governance, its goals, and its strategies, especially its vision of a collective future that shifted quite sharply from earlier imaginations of the nation. What sets this regime apart from its predecessors in Delhi, including the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition government (1999-2004) headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, include: 1) a greater readiness to auction off key segments of the economy to colossal corporations that can restructure entire material worlds according to their interests, without much regard for what happens to communities of established producers, farmers, and traders, even the biggest of whom cannot scale up to compete with the handful of oligopolistic national players and transnational conglomerates; 2) more aggressive and virulent expressions of reactionary Hindutva politics, with its cadres, emboldened by the ruling bloc’s reelection in the 2019 national polls, laying down the law with brazen impunity, terrorizing minorities and Dalits, as well as academics, journalists, and civil society functionaries; and 3) particularly odd for a populist regime, an aloof insensitivity to people’s suffering, its leadership preoccupied primarily with the consolidation of the party’s power, securing election wins in the provinces via staggeringly expensive campaigns, or usurping power by paying off legislators from rival parties (the BJP being the richest Indian political organization, with “assets more than double the combined wealth of next four parties”).
Any narrativization of India’s pandemic experience has to contend with the enigma that is Narendra Modi, “NaMo” to his millions of acolytes, and dwell on his handling of the crisis. With his carefully cultivated hagiography of having risen from the streets, his promise of a bright future for all Indians, his weekly broadcasts, the tone of which channels a self-help guru as much as a wily statesman, and his big-splash projects to fight corruption, sanitize the country, or renovate or rebuild sites of great affective-symbolic charge, Modi has become the icon of a robust aspirational politics with considerable street cred. At the same time, as sovereign leader of the Indian state, he remains ultimately accountable for recent public health mismanagements and the failure to provide the barest social security provisions in an emergency. Modi is often fronted as a palliative patch to cover up structural shortcomings, incompetence, and missteps; over time, without necessary attention and remedial action, hyperbolic projections of success will not stop high-stakes problems from getting more out of hand.
The vaccine fiasco of 2020 illustrates this point well. The initial shortage occurred because the country’s corporate-state nexus failed to anticipate demand and to have strategies in place for the quick expansion of production and distribution capacities. Many questioned the logic behind India’s “vaccine diplomacy,” wondering why shots were being sent abroad without inoculating Indians first. The CEO of Pune’s Serum Institute of India, the primary manufacturer of AstraZeneca (marketed in India as CoviShield) vaccines, fled the country after getting death threats. Critics within India argued that to the leaders in Delhi, international image had become more important than the domestic population’s wellbeing; people abroad questioned India’s growing status as a pharmaceutical powerhouse because of its failure to supply doses at contractual levels. Voicing a mounting sense of the country’s (Third World-ish) unreliability, Germany’s Chancellor Merkel regretted having “allowed” India to become the hub for global vaccine production. Of course, the unwillingness of Western nation-states and pharmaceutical companies to waive intellectual property rights on covid vaccines and drugs, or to share patents with vaccine manufacturers in the Global South, also made the bottleneck in vaccine supplies worse. However, as a former joint secretary of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare argued in a 2021 interview, India has never nurtured “an ecosystem” for basic research and development, nor has it fostered the translation of lab knowledge into market-ready configurations accessible to patients. When the infection rates dipped in late 2020, Modi started gloating about his government’s success instead of using the reprieve to build up medical infrastructures. When the national vaccination program finally took off, the “proof of vaccination” cards were emblazoned with the prime minister’s photo. This readiness to mark any state achievement as his personal triumph, and to downplay or deny all missteps, makes Modi’s leadership unsavory for those who fact-check partisan talking points. But the ubiquitous and relentless propaganda does its work: as the public health situation improves, a large proportion of Indian voters are ready to accept and move beyond the regime’s pandemic-era lapses, Modi’s familiar visage becoming inseparable from the medical protection that the card confirms.
If Indian techno-nationalism has lost some of its sheen because of holdups in the biotech industries, the domain of e-governance appears to have made considerable use of the country’s capacities in software design. A series of digital apps—CoWin (“enables your interaction with participating healthcare providers, and allows you to receive your digital lab reports, prescriptions and diagnosis seamlessly”), Arogya Setu (contact tracing and alerts about nearby infection hotspots), AirSuvidha (self-declaration form intended for all international passengers arriving in India)—have been introduced to track, coordinate, and make necessary interventions as “viral immunity” becomes a rapidly shifting objective. As Lawrence Cohen shows in his contribution to this forum, the apps come with their own quirks and limitations, not the least of which is minimum literacy and some familiarity with basic mobile device operations. While their efficacy remains an open question, the apps take on significant performative functions. Allowing users to contribute to crowd-sourced tracking, the apps provide citizens with a sense of empowerment by participation. More crucially, the apps conjure an alert and up to date public health network with the state in control, countering any possible impression of the authorities not doing enough.
The Government of India’s cluster of covid-related apps constitutes a rather telling example of the spectralization of the state in late capitalism: here, the “government” appears to have been rethought in terms of digital affordances, as something like a virtual platform for app-based services. Note the broad purchase of the IT-inspired initiative “India Stack,” branding a national digital infrastructure of “open APIs and digital public goods” purported to “promote financial and social inclusion.” This pioneering Indian materialization of an emerging FinTech imaginary seeks to coordinate and realize an array of techno-nationalist fantasies: presence-less universal identity card, cashless payments, paperless markets, and so on. This reconfiguration of different aspects of life in terms of financial objectives and modalities, seeking their integration within a global financial order, warps national priorities and limits the set of strategies available to the state for effective intervention in diverse emergency scenarios. In a public health emergency, digital infrastructural innovations geared toward financial speculation, inter-sectoral fungibility, and economic “participation” cannot make up for the paucity of material infrastructures and services for medical care; nor can they stand in for timely, decisive, yet conscientious leadership. In the pandemic, claims and projections about the constitutive virtuality of contemporary life come up hard against the really real.
Of course, virtuality is not at fault here; the problem lies in the phantasmatic expectations surrounding digital affordances, in how such capacities are invoked and operationalized. Uses of the digital easily devolve into abuses; in the intensely political arena of governance, the search for public legitimacy and legislative support leads quickly to sleight of hand tactics. An intent to dupe the public has gathered force in many democratic polities because the new digital technologies facilitate and proliferate gaslighting practices. Moreover, online platforms shape a distinctive populist politics of affective engagement in which political fantasies come to congeal around—and, hence, political authority gets “increasingly rerouted” via “religious and charismatic channels” to—”the figure of the leader.” It was Narendra Modi’s much-touted successes as the chief minister of Gujarat that catapulted him to national prominence; but the performance narrative of the so-called Gujarat model remains highly ambiguous, a primary point of contention being the divergent records provided by a narrowly construed economic growth rate and more holistic indicators like the Human Development Index, implying critical policy tradeoffs. From the innovative use of Modi’s holographic images, allowing him to address multiple gatherings simultaneously, to the fraudulent incorporation of glossy images of urban amenities with no connection to Gujarat in a video showcasing Modi’s spectacular successes in that state, the prime minister’s winning national campaign of 2014 was mired in controversies. Critics also speculate that the narrative of Modi’s rise from mere chai-wallah (tea vendor) to the highest echelons of power was embellished to anchor his appeal as a “slum-dog politician,” so that his anti-elitist rhetoric would find credence despite his close ties to the country’s moguls. It becomes difficult to separate what is put out by Modi and his party’s PR teams, and what is concocted by the motley, dispersed, and unauthorized bands of Modibhakts (Modi devotees). Many of the links to the largely online, topically geared publicity maelstrom, furnished as evidence in newspaper and magazine accounts, subsequently appear to be broken; bracketing the posts lost to the digital junkyard in the folds between abandoned apps and operating systems, the material has either been removed by social media platforms wary of disinformation, or has been deliberately expunged by its source group once it has served its purpose in the public sphere. What remains, what has indeed proliferated, are the political and social satire platforms such as #TheDeshBhakt: with the “relentless corporate makeover of news media” and the “concomitant decline in public trust in journalism,” satire now provides a vibrant mode of engagement with the political arena.
In April 2021, as the nation reeled from the second wave, the prime minister took to the airwaves to extol the selfless, high-risk servicers of doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers in his monthly radio program Maan ki Baat (Message from the Heart). In the course of the broadcast, he characterized the unfolding tragedy as a toofan (typhoon, storm), thereby naturalizing the disaster and downplaying the sociopolitical exacerbation of the crisis, effectively absolving his administration of any responsibility for the scale and intensity of suffering. Otherwise, Modi remained absent from public view for nearly two months, prompting Rahul Gandhi, leader of the parliamentary opposition, to quip that the PM had disappeared along with the vaccines and oxygen cylinders. Modi’s only public darshan during this period consisted of a few carefully staged videos and still photographs, citing recognizable tropes associated with the vernacular-modern calendar art aesthetic. These representations place the leader in lush garden settings with birds, animals, and trees, as if the natural calamity warrants a surrender to nature, perhaps in the hope of resuscitating a more benevolent and life-sustaining avatar of it. Modi’s long white beard, draping shawl, and composed demeanor channels not Bhima, the muscular prince-warrior of the epic Mahabharata with a massive torso (not unlike Modi’s legendary fifty-six-inch chest), but Bhisma, the wise elder statesman of the clan who has risen above earthly desires and conflicts. As if Modi is casting himself as the latest in a long line of India’s politician-saints, although one would be hard-pressed to find the attributes of austerity, penance, and renunciation that have characterized such figures traditionally. While these potent cultural-civilizational allusions draw on a lifeworld that is presumably Hindu, it is possible to interpret the semiotic layers as gesturing towards a state of reclusive introspection. It is also possible to read the images as subtle projections of grief and mourning, but Modi’s public persona is not rooted in subtleties, and he did nothing to facilitate any form of collective reckoning. (See Paromita Vohra’s piece here on public mourning.) Besides, understated maneuvers and expressions are not the best communication modes in an emergency; when thousands are dying from an infection each week, the sovereign has to speak with clarity and act with a sense of purpose. It was only on Independence Day, August 15, 2021, when the worst phase was over, that he was back exhorting his countryfolk to embrace the crisis as an opportunity. A year later, in 2022, he called upon all Indians to begin work in earnest so that in twenty-five years (which he hailed as Amritkaal, the ideal time for glorious achievements), by the centennial of its independence, the country would reach its pinnacle. One has to wonder if such a clarion call inspired a new resolve in his audience, or came across as a form of disavowal in the context of an anguished nation desperately in need of immediate and pragmatic leadership rather than dreams and promissory notes for the future.
A Rotten State
Malfeasance signifies corruption, wrongdoing, a breaking of public trust. Commentators have suggested that the Indian state’s manifold lapses in the last couple of years verge on the criminal. The regime is not forthcoming with transparent accounts: despite all the contract tracing and tracking, its routine response to focused queries is “no data available.” (Lack of information seems to be a common refrain of this administration: as one commentator notes, tongue in cheek, no data means no opposition, no questions.) On December 5, 2022, the official count of covid-associated deaths stands at 530,633; because of the difficulties of tracking incidence in the interiors, and with many families misreporting covid fatalities as caused by other ailments (to avoid social stigma and panic, and the seizure by local authorities of the dead bodies of loved ones for mass cremations), the actual numbers have been estimated to be around four million. When non-state agents manage to gather evidence on their own and write accounts documenting the suffering across the nation, they are likely to face official sanctions on charges of acting against “national interests.”
Ironically, it was the Modi government that endangered the security of its citizenry when it ignored the scientific community’s cautionary anticipation of multiple waves of peaking infections and fatalities and started premature celebrations of its victory against the virus; when it denied clear signs of the beginning of a second wave in February and early March of 2021, with the Union Minister of Health declaring that India was nearing the end of the pandemic; and when, in the spring of 2021, the Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that draws a few million devotees to the waters of the Ganges once every four years, was green-lighted.
Allowing the Kumbh Mela during the pandemic had to be one of the most egregious instances of public trust violation in the seventy-five-year history of postcolonial India. With pilgrims and enthusiasts congregating from all over the country, the Mela was widely expected to be a mega-spreader event. Many public figures and medical experts warned of the grave consequences of allowing the event in 2021, instead of the original dates in 2022, just to appease Hindu religious leaders whose astrological calculations had determined the early schedule. In late March of 2021, Mela organizers encouraged the public to join the “clean” and “safe” gathering in Hardwar with full page ads in newspapers featuring a photograph of the prime minister. The local chief minister even claimed that a dip in the holy waters would eliminate all viruses.
The BJP came to power on promises of eradicating nationwide graft; some of its most high-profile policies—demonetization of larger denomination currency notes, the cleaning up of the country and of the river Ganges—have rested on rhetorics of sanitization and, more sinisterly, purification. Perhaps the most evident efficacies of these policies thus far have been ideological, in the way they have conjoined anti-corruption and clean-up operations with segregating and cleansing programs targeting religious and ethnic groups. The pandemic appears to have become yet another resource in such a politics of hoodwinking: Muslims have been blamed for spreading infections on multiple occasions, including when a minute fraction of the number of Kumbh Mela attendees went on Haj pilgrimage.
Meanwhile, the Modi regime has parlayed the overwhelming sense of crisis into an excuse for the centralization of power. It has consistently held the states responsible for local health services; and yet, even though various states had requested cooperation as early as February, it did not consult them while deciding on the March 2020 countrywide lockdown. As the country comes out of the crisis, this administration seems keen to expand the state of exception indefinitely. Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency episode of the mid-seventies, when most civic and political rights were abrogated in order to fight alleged forces of destabilization, appears to have made a quiet return; only this time, a de facto emergency has alighted upon the nation on the wings of the pandemic, without any formal declaration. This opportunistic manipulation of a public health crisis to expand the powers of an increasingly absolutist state, a move that is clearly not in the public interest, constitutes a grave instance of multipronged state malfeasance.
Speaking in June 2022, in the midst of yet another controversy surrounding Agneepath, the government’s new scheme for the limited recruitment of young military personnel without guarantee of subsequent employment or benefits, the senior officer in charge described the pandemic as a “godsend,” a two-year hiatus allowing the military to work out the details. No case for contextual pertinence can mask the insensitivity of this enunciation, a disposition fairly typical of the current ruling bloc. Coupled with the Indian state’s abandonment of the nation’s neediest in a crunch, this inconsiderate characterization of a fatal pandemic suggests an unstated necropolitical slant. Home Minister Amit Shah’s brazen statement that “Western” paradigms of “human rights” do not work in India, albeit made in defense of police atrocities, leaves one wondering if the regime’s second-in-command would consider the right to livelihood, or the right to basic sustenance, just as alien and dispensable.
What stares us in the face is a tacit but widely prevalent policy that can only be characterized as a Malthusian culling of population. It does not require explicit articulation; in the absence of robust official measures countering disease, deprivation, and death, it becomes a policy by default. Recently, a globally influential publication may have come close to articulating this point from a different angle; while extolling Modi for his “realistic approach to things which governments can and cannot do,” it enigmatically acknowledges that such realpolitik may be “based on truths which Mr. Modi would never publicly affirm.”
Two qualifications are in order. First, the implicit orientation of the Modi regime, which shapes a default necropolitical policy, is not sustainable without the broad acquiescence of the Indian electorate. In this sense, the blame lies not just with the current government, but with the hegemonic power bloc. Second, the trend is by no means specific to India, it is global. As commentators have stated, it is what happens when the powerful “do nothing.” Today’s India, in that sense, may be seen as the portent for a global future, a here and now casting its ominous light on the rest of the world.
Underlying the two observations is a newfound awareness of long-term accountabilities and obligations. A concern about the future haunts humans as they reckon with staggering environmental shifts, increasingly legible in the strange weather patterns, ravaging “natural” disasters, and species-jumping microbial hazards. Feeding off an all-encompassing existential anxiety, these novel preoccupations are recasting modernity’s scalar registers—local, national, global—and their myriad entanglements. Crucially, the futures of these once sanguine territorial imaginations have become progressively ambiguous and unstable in relation to an unsettling apprehension of the planetary with the speeding up of geological time. To remain relevant, to have even a modicum of effectivity, national politics has to reorient itself to the planetary; the present political dispensation in India, obsessed with resuscitating a mythic past, a Hindu utopia that supposedly already was, loses sight of this pressing remit. Anticipating the political stakes of remembering the pandemic many decades later, Banu Subramaniam’s piece here speculates on the potential contours of a national-planetary conjunction in the future. The lamentation that marks her musings suggests for us that 2020 and its aftermath will not guarantee any 20/20 vision for the future. History, most likely, will teach us nothing. However, there is a slight possibility that it just might. While the inability to learn from the past compromises all prospects for assembling ethical, habitable worlds, a sliver of potentiality might endure, perchance.
What made the project of India seem particularly fragile during the pandemic was the apathy of its elites in the face of so much suffering. It is no secret that this palpable indifference is anchored in keen elite class interests and global ambitions, but transparency does not render such cynical, blinkered pursuit of power any less scandalous. The pervasive sense of careening out of control over the past two years has been amplified by the ideological-institutional disruptions wrought by the state, a key shift being an unprecedented willingness to auction off the country—a neoliberal “Scramble for India,” as it were, among select “crony” oligarchs such as the Adanis, the Ambanis, and the Tatas–without much consideration for the masses. The recent Hindenburg Report on the Adani group corroborates this impression. To the Economist magazine, a premiere organ of late capitalism, India figures as a colossal market and a vast reserve of potentialities that might help lead the crisis-prone global system out of its pandemic doldrums. From this narrow instrumentalist perspective, the publication can bracket its reservations about the country’s political regression, and find reasons for optimism in the Modi government’s efforts to consolidate a “unitary national digital infrastructure” as well as “a single national market” more amenable to being folded into “the modern financial system.”
In contrast, the point of this introduction is that India’s pandemic experience has been akin to being hit by a thunderbolt. Beyond the immediate deprivations, its eerie death light has illuminated the desertions and duplicities in the current renegotiations of the contract between the Indian state and citizenry (an argument made forcefully by Anustup Basu in this forum). In parsing India’s covid experience, our contributors focus on the troubling aspects downplayed or left out by partisan fabulations of national renewal (Amritkaal being the latest of that genre). A focus on the pandemic’s contingent ramifications may have led this forum to dwell on the endemic nature of India’s state of exception, and to conjure a gloomy future. But the “perchance” this dossier invokes, that holds together the ruminations assembled for it, remains open and attentive to nascent signs of political promise in the mobilizations by Dalit-Bahujan communities and farmers, Muslim women, and civil society activists as precarious yet potent stirrings of hope.
Cover image by Shailesh B. R., courtesy of the artist.