Last month Narendra Modi, India’s strongman prime minister, performed the religious rites to consecrate the building of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque whose destruction two decades ago sparked deadly nationwide riots. The ceremony saw Mr Modi appropriate the role traditionally performed by Hindu kings. “The entire nation is under Ram’s spell today,” the prime minister told his audience. “By God’s grace, a golden chapter is being written by India.” The message that a bright future is to be divinely blessed has not reached the heavens.
India used to boast of having the world’s fastest-growing major economy. It now has the fastest-growing coronavirus crisis, with almost 100,000 new infections reported each day. Its GDP has contracted by almost a quarter. The country makes up one third of the world’s new Covid cases and appears to have underestimated the disease’s prevalence. India’s youthful demographics help keep its Covid mortality rate low. However, in absolute numbers the country’s coronavirus death toll is only surpassed by Brazil and the United States.
The pandemic is not Mr Modi’s fault, but he owns his government’s dysfunctional response. He imposed a draconian lockdown in late March with no warning and no planning. The prime minister seemed to revel in the drama of a primetime announcement and its muscular message. But the national shutdown, which ended in June, destroyed millions of people’s livelihoods. Many of the most affected sit on the bottom rungs of Indian society, who were forced with no notice to leave cities for distant villages. Although the national lockdown has been lifted, local versions continue in many states.
One way of dealing with the economic crisis would be to boost India’s job guarantee scheme. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is designed to offer any citizen in rural India 100 days of work with (admittedly low) minimum wages provided by the government. The world’s largest public works programme kept India’s vast countryside economy afloat after the 2008 global financial crash. Yet Mr Modi resists wholesale adoption of the scheme and adequately financing it. Experts warn NREGA’s funding will run dry this month. Mr Modi appears unable to reconcile his dislike of a programme (it was introduced by his Congress opponents) with its obvious utility. Broadening and deepening the scheme – so that it could expand naturally to accommodate anyone who demands work at a living wage – would provide a timely fiscal stimulus to keep people in work when the urban economy cannot soak up labour.
Mr Modi’s short-sightedness will cost India dear. The country’s second Covid wave may strike harder than the first. Initially its major cities, which have the best hospitals, were hit by the virus. Now cases are taking off in rural areas, which have poor medical facilities. With tax revenue a fraction of normal levels, regional governments struggle to provide more than symbolic care or relief. This has been exacerbated by the central government’s refusal to send states the money it owes to them. The cash trail is deliberately obscured and Mr Modi should come clean about Covid spending to dispel concerns about corruption.
Rather than rebuild India’s social fabric, Mr Modi wants to build a panopticon. Critics of his government’s woeful performance have already been muzzled or locked up. A cold war with China blows dangerously hot in the Himalayas. To buttress support Mr Modi stokes Hindu nationalism. The temple ceremony is a way of stirring the emotions of Mr Modi’s fanatical supporters. It also reveals the depths of his denial about India’s Covid crisis.