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India’s Second Wave: A Man-Made Disaster?

India’s Second Wave: A Man-Made Disaster?
 Christophe Jaffrelot
Senior Fellow - India, Democracy and Populism

In India, daily cases of infection due to Covid-19 have passed a record number of 350 000, the pandemic killing officially about 2,500 people every day, including young men and women. This humanitarian disaster is partly due to the way the Covid-19 virus has mutated: the new "Indian variant" appears to be both more contagious and more deadly. But this catastrophe is also man-made and reflects trends which had already been pointed out during the first wave, one year ago. On March 31, 2020, I had called the Covid-19 pandemic a "global time bomb". Issues I highlighted then need to be revisited again. 

The way the government of India dealt with the pandemic reflects three dimensions of India’s dysfunctional governance that were there before: the present crisis, like an acid test, accentuates existing features. It is revealing of the wandering of decision-makers and the grasp of Hindu nationalism over India’s politics and society, it shows that for the country’s rulers power can be pursued at any cost and that no institution can resist them, and finally, it highlights the crisis of federalism. 

Erring leaders and misgovernance in the name of traditions

Across the world, Covid-19 has shown that heads of state and ministers were sometimes not competent enough, partly because they missed technical skills. India is no exception, but here, scientists’ advice was not acknowledged either. 

On March 7, already fifteen days into the second wave, Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan declared: "We are in the end game of the Covid-19 pandemic in India". Vardhan also said that "Unlike most other countries, we have a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines…" In fact, India lacked vaccines, so much so that two weeks later, the government announced that it would stop exporting them. By then, 111 million Indians (out of 1.3 billion people) had been vaccinated.

Vardhan’s discourse was peppered with references to traditional medicine in spite of scientists’ opposition. In February 2021, Baba Ramdev, a guru and co-founder of a flourishing company called Patanjali that sold Ayurvedic medicines, launched Coronil in the presence of Vardhan, whose ministry had certified it. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) immediately issued a communiqué challenging Vardhan: "Being Health Minister of the country, how justified is it to release such falsely fabricated unscientific product to people of the whole country...can you clarify the time frame, timeline for the so-called clinical trial of this said anti-corona product?". Meanwhile, the government of India endorsed many other pseudo-remedies. 

Vardhan’s discourse was peppered with references to traditional medicine in spite of scientists’ opposition. [...] The government of India endorsed many other pseudo-remedies. 

Several Hindu nationalist leaders of the ruling party also claimed that sacred rituals like bathing in the Ganges ensured immunity - at least, those who performed these rituals could not be infected. On the basis of this assumption, the Indian government agreed to prepone the Kumbh Mela after astrologists pointed out that March 2021 would be more auspicious than the original timing in 2022. As a result, millions of pilgrims gathered inHaridwar in April, while the second wave was gaining momentum. The BJP extended its blessings to one of the most sacred functions of the majority community that it was supposed to represent and protect.

Between April 10 and 14, more than 1,600 positive cases were detected at the Kumbh Mela. Finally, after one week, Narendra Modi sent a tweet inviting the devotees to now perform a "symbolic" Kumbh, because saving lives was also "sacred". But this "super spreader" - to use the media’s formula - amplified the pandemic in many different ways, as people brought the virus back to urban and rural parts of the country.   

Elections at any cost and the decline of checks and balances

The Kumbh Mela was not the only "super spreader" - election meetings have played a similar role. State elections have been announced while the second wave was intensifying on February 26. They were supposed to last until April 29 in half a dozen states, including four big ones: West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam. The Election Commission of India (ECI) established an anti-Covid protocol that was untenable, simply because social distancing could not be observed during election meetings. Politicians themselves did not respect the rules that the ECI had issued, as almost nobody wore masks properly - including the candidates (two of whom died of Covid-19 in West Bengal). In all the election-bound states, the correlation between the election campaign and the explosion of cases from late March onwards has been documented. 

Why have elections not been postponed? Because the ruling party was adamant and could dictate its terms to the only institutions which could have resisted the BJP government. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah - his Home Minister who was the party’s chief campaigner in West Bengal - were particularly eager to win West Bengal, a state whose Chief Minister, Mamta Banerjee has become one of their most vocal opponents. If Narendra Modi cancelled his last meetings on April 22, Amit Shah continued to tour the state, even after the second wave was resulting in more than 300,000 daily cases. On April 19, while Rahul Gandhi announced that he would stop holding meetings, Amit Shah argued, as India’s Home Minister, that election rallies did not contribute to the spread of the pandemic. The ECI thought otherwise. But it did not initiate any sanction against anyone. It simply recommended that the election meetings should not be more than 500 people large - a clear indication of its submissive attitude vis-à-vis the government, a trend already obvious for years

The decline of the judiciary’s independence - another symptom of "the deinstitutionalization of India" - also helped BJP to exert power the way it wished. The situation of Uttar Pradesh, a state where local elections were also taking place in April, is a case in point. There, in reaction to the second wave, the High Court, imposed a lockdown in five major cities, because the BJP government remained idle. The said government appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court had by then had realized that several High Courts were intervening in similar manners, in order to correct recurring forms of mismanagement. For instance, the Delhi High Court, after several hospitals turned to the Court to get access to oxygen and to arrange the passage of oxygen tankers to Delhi from other states, intimated to the Centre: "Beg, borrow, steal [oxygen] (…) We are shocked and dismayed that the government does not seem to be seeing the reality… What is happening? Why is the government not waking up to the reality". Similarly, the "Bombay High Court, noticing the reduction in the oxygen supply by the Central government ordered for the restoration of the previous levels of supply in the state". 

The decline of the judiciary’s independence - another symptom of "the deinstitutionalization of India" - also helped BJP to exert power the way it wished.

In this context, the Supreme Court came to the rescue of the ruling party. It stayed the order of the UP High Court imposing lockdown on major cities and it decided to turn to the Union government in the name of the High Courts, which had already issued orders. For that, it appointed an amicus curiae, who is now assisting the court asking the Indian government for a "national plan". The Congress party immediately criticized an attempt by the Apex court to dilute the responsibility of the BJP government(s), to centralize judicial decisions and to develop an increasingly "incestuous circle of the Central government or connected/affiliated persona…". That was only one aspect of the growing politicization of the pandemic.

The politicians’ blame game and dysfunctional federalism

The crisis resulting from the second wave of the pandemic in India is accentuating the crisis of federalism. During the first wave, a major bone of contention had been the fact that Narendra Modi had decided a general lockdown without consulting the Chief Ministers, a decision that had precipitated the chaotic exodus of migrant workers. During the second wave, vaccination has become the main issue. On April 8, Harsh Vardhan accused three states, Maharashtra, Punjab and Delhi - all governed by opposition parties - of being too slow to implement a vaccination drive. The three states responded that they expected the central government to replenish their stocks of vaccines.

Tensions further increased after the main manufacturer of vaccines in India, SII, announced on April 22 that the states would have to pay Rs. 400 for each dose of Covishield, when the central government would have to disburse only Rs. 150. Several states resented this unprecedented differentiation of the cost of a vaccine that penalized governments which did not have the same resources as the Centre. Inequalities before vaccination deepened after three BJP-ruled states (Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir - under president’s rule) announced that they would provide vaccines for free - a stance Kerala had already adopted and reiterated.

The centre-states tensions regarding vaccination harks back to the politicization of the vaccination.

The centre-states tensions regarding vaccination harks back to the politicization of the vaccination. Not only has the BJP promised to support the vaccination drives in election-bound states like Bihar in 2020 and West Bengal in 2021, if it was voted to power, but the party was also accused of vaccination populism when the face of Narendra Modi appeared on the vaccines and the vaccination certificate. 


If, in India, the pandemic’s second wave is primarily due to the mutation of the virus, it has been amplified and has reached unprecedented proportions because of political factors. Indeed, it has had a magnifying glass effect on existing trends, like the grasp of Hindu nationalism over the state as well as society, the erosion of checks and balances and the decline of cooperative federalism.

While Narendra Modi stands above accountability, in his role as India’s patriarch, his party may be affected at the state level. The election results in the states where the first elections in times of pandemic will be completed this month will offer some indication in this regard. Certainly, mainstream media has tried to divert the attention of the public and the number of deaths has been under reported, something that will further undermine the general trust in official data and communication. But in contrast to what happened during the first wave - when migrant workers had been the first casualties -, this time the middle class has experienced the tragedy too, as they have been infected in large numbers, as even private, five-star like hospitals were lacking oxygens. It may make some difference.

International implications need to be factored in too. If India had initiated its own vaccination diplomacy by exporting 68 million doses in January-March 2021, it had to stop exporting vaccines and ask the rest of the world for help. Surprisingly, the US, in spite of a steady rapprochement over the last 20 years, did not express its support immediately. Whether this faux pas will affect the India-US relations remains to be seen. India, for sure, will count its real friends in the dire circumstances it is bound to experience for weeks and months, in sanitary, as well as in economic and financial terms.  



Copyright: Noah SEELAM / AFP

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