The trending of #ResignModi on Indian Twitter this week may have been a sight for some sore eyes. But it was much more than that. It finally signalled that the Covid pandemic had become political.
In the first year of its devastation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ever the strongman, had prevailed over the pandemic. Survey after survey demonstrated eye-watering popularity ratings that no other democratically elected political leader on the planet let alone in India could rival. This was not because the first Covid wave was any less challenging. But rather Indians had responded with collective conformity to resolutely affirm Modi.
India’s latest world record of over 3,00,000 fresh Covid cases in a single day will perhaps be less forgiving of the Prime Minister. Less-than-flattering Twitter trends, irreverent memes and widespread helplessness are the first, if unreliable, indicators. Fury now seems to be competing with, if not replacing, fear. Tellingly and perhaps sensing this shift, Modi appealed for national discipline in his latest national address.
Historically, pandemics and catastrophic disasters have had an uneven and unpredictable relationship with politics. The British empire’s devastating legacy in its peak years of unalloyed power was the cycle of deathly famines — notably the Deccan Famines of 1877-78 in the 19th century — infamously dubbed the ‘Victorian holocausts’ that killed millions. Through a battery of draconian measures including then newly enshrined sedition law, the colonial state sought to depoliticise a restive Indian society. The Indian National Congress emerged in this context. Yet, this politics was largely polite and ultimately unthreatening as no single organisation or individual was prosecuted under the sedition law between 1870 and 1890.
By contrast, in the Bombay plague of 1895-96, with its epicentre also in western India, far fewer people died. Yet that pandemic was a turning point for India’s political history, inciting and inaugurating mass politics. It finally broke the long passive impasse of Indian politics.
The famines had been deathly and dehumanising. Yet, it was the visibility of plague deaths and hospital camps strewn across the urban centres and peripheries of India’s commercial capital and beyond that created a consequential anti-colonial convulsion. Unlike famines, neither social entitlement of caste, class nor religion protected against the equality of the attack of the killer bacteria.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak emerged as the first mass leader during the plague years precisely because he articulated an anger that had trumped obedience. In doing so, Indian politics was irrevocably transformed with the end of empire written on it. The key instruction from the past is that death by bacteria was an equaliser like no other.
Modi and national obedience
Ever since he became Prime Minister in 2014, Modi has been the touchstone of emotional events and elections. His own rhetoric, always delivered in the form of a monologue from the high and distant pulpits of the stage or the screen, chooses piety and polemics over the dry direction of policy. Whether it was the demonetisation in 2016 or the national lockdown in 2020, the PM’s dramatic declarations have demanded national obedience.
This national obedience knitted Indians into a new bond forged out of shared suffering and sacrifice. Modi had prevailed precisely because he instrumentalised this emotional grammar of nationalism equalising suffering, which demanded individual sacrifice in the pursuit of higher and loftier sentiments of national duty to fight corruption or Covid.
Last year, when Covid-19 first struck, millions of India’s migrants and labouring poor made long and difficult journeys back to the rural hinterlands because the city, economy, and political process united in abandoning them overnight. Such a mass exodus had not been witnessed since the blood-soaked year of India’s Partition and Independence. Yet, in the continuous election cycle of India’s politics, Modi held sway even in the migrant heartland of Bihar, which delivered his ally to political power.
A tipping point
The recent call for the Prime Minister to resign trended on the very day that images of funeral pyres of those killed by the virus overwhelmed screens and collective senses. This imagery alone of mass funeral pyres burning across the country as the BJP held political rallies to sway voters in a state election represents a tipping point.
The very potent sentiment of collective suffering that Modi commanded had been rendered sectional. Death by the equalising force of the coronavirus, combined with callous neglect, has finally tipped the pandemic as a political issue. The pandemic is no longer about only its management. One year on, the pandemic is set to extract a political price.
Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @shrutikapila. Her podcast on the politics of the Bombay Plague with Sir Christopher Clark can be heard here. Views are personal.
Edited by Neera Majumdar