India’s COVID response has been exactly how it was planned to be

Claiming atmanirbharta, forged in the idea that India has and can produce all solutions, while millions of migrants walked home unseen, unheard and un-helped was an irony, not a surprise

(Photo by Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
(Photo by Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Raj Shekhar Sen

As an Indian living in America, it has been interesting to witness the development that is currently happening in the US. After all, America is perhaps the only major democracy that has undergone a change of guards during the pandemic and while there is a lot of nuance to how governments have dealt with the pandemic.

The marked shift in the story of US around the pandemic, pre and post the 2020 elections has been particularly impressive. But to see that shift in the light of the horror stories coming in from India, becomes even more enlightening.

Since the start of the pandemic to up until the last few months the US has been one of the worst actors at the global stage in terms of the numbers of cases and deaths due to the virus. And while US still has a long way to go, the US vaccine strategy seems to be turning around the covid situation in the country. To contrast that, India in this second wave is rapidly becoming one of the worst covid situations any country has seen since the pandemic began.

So, what changed in the US and what happened in India? The answer perhaps lies in the underlying philosophy of governance between the two regimes.

A breakdown of conservative and liberal traditions

Conservative politics, at least how Burke or Buckley understood it, essentially wants to maintain a society's traditions and internal hegemonies as is. Take Michael Oakeshott’s famous definition in his essay “On Being Conservative”: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Using this definition of what constitutes conservative philosophy the current regime of the BJP in India and the Republican party in the states can be termed as the rule of conservative right-wing politics while the Democrats in US if not wholly progressive liberals do seem to encompass liberal values and ethos.

While these political brackets can never be hand in glove for any political outfit less so for one that comes from the chaotic mesh of caste and class in India. The reason we can ascribe the BJP as adhering to conservative ideals can be perhaps understood in the words of one of her own leading intellectual, KR Malkani who was the editor of Oragniser the mouthpiece of the RSS in the forties and fifties and was also one of the prominent figures in the founding of the then Bharatiya Jana Sangh which later became the BJP we can clearly see where he’d put his political affiliations for the BJS.

He said, “If…the unity of the country is to be made stronger and more integral, ancient foundations must be reinforced and amplified and suitably modernized….The principal of this reorganization in Hindustan can only be “Hindutva”… Communism can be combated and conquered in Hindustan by the Hindus only through Hindutva,”. On the other hand, liberal progressive ideals have traditionally pushed for broad spectrum changes, conservatives have always liked the neatness of status quo. So, when liberals historically marched for civil rights or weekends or women suffrage, anti-draft or pro-LGBTQ rights, conservatives stood with whatever the status quo was and, in most cases, reacted against these progressive causes. In India, progressive movements have been very small and usually sprung as a reaction to a conservative policy move like the recent CAA-NRC which aimed at disenfranchising Indian Muslims of citizenship in the guise of providing citizenship to the persecuted minority of the neighboring Muslim countries. Most Indian progressive movements from IPTA or progressive writers’ associations or even the JNU and Jadavpur versions have mostly been inspired by the communist-Marxist tradition.

Meanwhile, Indian conservative movement has not had any coherent philosophy unlike the west that had a Burke or a Buckley as their idealogues. Even the idea of integral humanism theorized by Deen Dayal Upadhyay and espoused by the Sangh is a word jumble at best and therefore the most common denominator seems to be the essential core that India should be a state for Hindus.

These ideas of conservatism and liberalism help us to contextualize the current governments and their leaders along with their political approach to policy issues. For example, both in the manifestoes of the Jan Sangha or in the post 1984 avatar of BJP, ideas like the abrogation of article 370 have always existed. Article 370 is special as it deals with special provisions for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in the union of India.

The article is similar to the article 371, providing similar special statuses to states in the north east of India and some other states like Karnataka. While, the BJP, Jana Sangh and the broader Sangh family have been vocally against 370, article 371 has never been an issue for them. Looking at the history and present of the Sangh and BJP one can safely conclude the reasons being rooted in ideas of Hindu nationalism and the historical idea of India as a Hindu nation.

Conservatism, political idea of past grievances and future blindness

The conservative status quo helps the conservative in some way shape or form and even if it does not, status quo at the least means, it will favor those who have institutional and structural advantage against those who are protesting and shouting for one. This is why it is so easy for the conservative ideology to fuse into majoritarian tendencies if it is not already part of it. This can be seen all across the world but for the sake of neatness we can see this happening in the Republican party which enjoys widespread support of the white people in the US or the BJP in India which caters primarily (if not only) to her Hindu vote bank or a more interesting case study in Pakistan of the PTI which came into existence as an ideology-less center party now being co-opted by the majoritarian tendencies.

Since, conservatism aspires to preserve the system, if not outright tweak it in their favor, it gets very difficult for them to grapple with any new, unforeseen challenges. Add to this the general disregard for any specialist advice because by nature these specialists too are usually trying to forge a collective path ahead puts them in a strange spot where the only allowable policy movement is a press backward toward an imaginary golden period for whatever community that commands them. In US, it was making America great again not unsurprisingly right after America had elected a black man as their president and in India conservatives gained real momentum after the liberalization which allowed a lot of people to participate in mainstream political activity and became especially rapid after the 2004-14 period in which India was able to pull the largest number of people out of poverty in her entire history.

Covid came unannounced and caught almost all countries off guard. Both in India and the US the initial reaction was lax which in case of India changed into one of the harshest and perhaps the most unimaginative lockdown that did not accompany any significant planning around tracking and containing of the cases in India. After which came the Atmanirbhar speech when the unintended migrant crisis unfolded in large swathes of India. The Atmanirbhar speech was a slap on the faces of the millions of Indians struggling to get by telling them essentially that they were on their own. It was also an example of how Prime Minister’s world view was truly bathed in a strange conservative majoritarianism.

Atmanirbharta or self-reliance is forged in this idea that India has and can produce all solutions, all science is rooted in the ancient Indian texts and any future path that India takes has to be designed using only these tools provided by ancient Indian wisdom. It is similar to what conservatives in other countries have tried to do, when Trump wanted US to again become a manufacturing hub or levied extra taxes on China. He was trying to do something similar except that he did have a strong state machinery behind him. India on the other hand is still categorized as a low-income country and has had a major dip in her economic numbers since this government took over. However, the general hubris of the conservative mind is at the same time of the firm belief that their ideals are the best and also blind toward the statistical reality of economic numbers facing them. This is the same kind of vanity that feels proud by building tall statues or by copying the West in thanking healthcare workers by clapping but without having the forethought for any concrete policy measures.

Conservatism is reactionary and lacks problem solving aptitude

To look at the history of conservatism in India or even the US is to see how conservatism beneath all of its shiny accoutrements has primarily stood in reaction to either a perceived slight of history toward them or a change in demographic shift that threatens to topple the current structures of power. Something that thinker and writer Corey Robin describes rather well in his The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, when he says, “For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” In India, be it the article 370 which is essentially state sanctioned protection to a minority-majority state for Muslims as part of concessions made during independence. While the right assumes it’s a special status to Muslims in a Hindu state who they do not see as a minority but as an outsider enemy or even the ram mandir which is a movement to correct a past slight or uniform civil code which they see as again giving Muslims a special status.

When the foundation of this philosophy is rooted in looking back and never forward. It isn’t a surprise then that while the last seven years have been superlative in ensuring the Hindu majoritarian of India have been able to not just correct the historical sins but also conjure up new ones like Love Jihad, legislated it and acted in an efficiency usually unseen in the slow moving Vogons of bureaucracy. But when it comes to looking into the future and current challenges be it in the economic area or the covid pandemic they have not just been failures but have in fact dragged the country back to that ancient time they are so nostalgic about.

So, while in the Left’s framework, we are the cause of all the world’s problems. And the only way to resolve the problems is to look inward, examine the society and push toward more equity. For the right, it is always everyone else who is the cause of problems and we’re the solution. So, the US conservative under Trump was either minimizing the impact or blaming China while the India variant was and is indulging the vanity of her impressively vapid leader by bangling plates, lighting candles and doing community festivities filled with cow based delicacies as cure. Then US out of her sheer good luck had a change in command and therefore her fate. Meanwhile India moved onto Tika Utsav.

Therefore, my hypothesis is that India’s covid response is exactly how it was always supposed to be. For while the cosmetic solutions around wearing masks and lockdowns was employed as a bare minimum, the deep rooted problem around India’s covid planning that would have included examining our economic realities, our large, chaotic population and most importantly the understanding that when a pandemic sweeping the globe has hit us, the response to it will have to involve a global collaboration with specialists in the field was beyond the capacity of India’s conservative instincts.

To top it off, claiming atma nirbharta and vocal for local as virtues while millions of migrants walked home unseen, unheard and un-helped was an irony beyond the imagination of any satirist.

( The writer is a consultant based in San Fransisco. Views are personal)

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