India’s arrival as a global power is prematurely pronounced and is emblematic of a pattern replayed in recent years.

The scenes out of India these days are harrowing. Human beings lying on the pavement, begging for a bed in a hospital, or at the very least, some supply of oxygen. Space has run out not just for the dying, but also for the dead, as cremation and burial sites struggle to deal with the surge.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India as the “pharmacy to the world.”  And it was only a month or two ago that some in the international commentariat proclaimed India as an early victor in the vaccine diplomacy race. But India’s vaccine exports have since come to a halt. As its death toll soars, India is now seeking vaccine supplies from countries like the United States.

The Imagined India meets the Real India

India’s Covid-19 crisis is not just a nightmare of mass human suffering. It is also a massive systemic failure. Indeed, it is emblematic of a pattern replayed in recent years: India’s arrival as a global power is prematurely pronounced — often by Western voices eager to see New Delhi’s aspirations realised — and then this Imagined India is shown to be hollow when struck by the Real India. 

When India conducted airstrikes in Pakistan in February 2019, it claimed that it hit “terror camps” and killed hundreds of terrorists. India’s assertions were readily accepted by South Asia watchers in the West, some of whom hailed it as establishing a new normal in the region with India supposedly developing the capability to conduct Israeli-style strikes in Pakistan at will. 

But then India’s claims were rubbished by the international media, which made clear that the only casualties were “some pine trees” and “a crow.” And, later that month, Pakistan’s air force knocked down at least one Indian air force jet. Prominent US media outlets disproved claims by New Delhi — parroted by the Indian media — that it took down a Pakistani F-16.

Many within India and its boosters abroad continued to see its global rise as inevitable. But India’s great power delusions were dealt yet another blow last year when it was blindsided and hit hard in clashes with China in the Galwan Valley. India has not only faced setbacks in clashes with adversaries, but it has also lost influence to China in more friendly countries in the region: Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

Indiscipline and punishment 

The ongoing crisis in India has brought to fore its governance challenges and the extent to which it lags behind China on this critical element of national power.

To be clear, India is a vast country with significant regional disparities. States like Kerala have witnessed admirable gains in human development and public service delivery in the past generation. But, in contrast, places like Uttar Pradesh — India’s most populous state — remain stuck in another era, with characteristics of a failing state: crumbling public health and education systems, rampant corruption, and frequent mob violence. Continued Hindu nationalist rule at the center risks the Uttar Pradeshisation of India.

Uttar Pradesh is ruled today by Yogi Adityanath, an authoritarian Hindu militant monk seen as a potential successor to Modi. Adityanath — the founder of an anti-Muslim vigilante organisation — embodies a Hindu nationalism that is as brutal as it is empty of ideas and values. He has threatened to use national security laws to detain individuals pleading for oxygen supplies on social media

As human beings in his state gasp for oxygen, Adityanath has ordered every district to set up “help desks” for cows and ensure that shelters for the animals are equipped with “oximeters and thermal scanners.” 

India’s majority community is now the target of Adityanath’s wrath, which had largely been exclusively focused on Muslims and was the basis for his popularity

The Hindutva Mediocrity Trap

Beyond bullying and brutalising Indian and Kashmiri Muslims, there’s little else India’s Hindu nationalists excel at. They are a motley of anti-science thugs, mediocre at governance, and unable to stand their ground in confrontations with India’s foreign adversaries.

When Covid-19 first struck India last year, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and mainstream Indian news outlets blamed the Muslim Tablighi Jamaat missionary organisation. They depicted the Tabligh’s annual India gathering —held in March 2020 before a ban on public gatherings — not only as a superspreader event, but as part of a planned “Coronajihad” conspiracy. Innocent foreign Tablighis were held in detention for months. Some were made to sleep next to dead bodies in a hospital

As it turns out, a Hindu festival would be one of India’s true superspreader events. This year, well into the pandemic and in spite of what the world has learned about the virus, the BJP allowed the Kumbh Mela to take place, with at least six million Hindu devotees attending just in April alone. 

The festival, along with the many election rallies held in recent months, could have been postponed. India’s crisis is a manmade catastrophe with the BJP’s fingerprints all over it.

The BJP has not only allowed superspreader events to go on, but its senior officials have also promoted quack science as coronavirus cures.  

Last year, Adityanath claimed that yoga can serve as a remedy. And amid the current wave, Baba Ramdev — a billionaire, pro-Modi yoga guru with a massive ayurvedic products company — appeared on major Indian TV channels promoting his herbal supplements as Covid preventatives. India’s health minister endorsed Ramdev’s herbal treatment this February — a flagrant dereliction of duty.

Modi’s disapproval rating shot up by eight points over April, but he remains a popular figure despite the suffering he’s brought to his people with his poor handling of the deadly second wave and his sudden announcements of demonetisation in 2016 and the first Covid lockdown in 2020

Until recently, Modi’s charisma as a champion of a muscular Hindu identity made his reputation impervious to his government’s many policy failures. There now appear to be real dents in his armour. But there is little competition to Modi and the BJP at the centre. They will continue to rule India for the foreseeable future, but the country’s aspirations to serve as vishwaguru or “teacher to the world” will remain a fantasy.

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