For journalists acutely aware of the rampant misgovernance that has defined India’s Covid response this year, the lockdown has been a double whammy. Besides a spate of layoffs in the media industry, which has left young journalists disillusioned with the profession, there are daily battles to be fought against the scourge of fake news and right-wing radicalisation when it comes to families and friends.
The realisation hit home when I spotted my father’s hateful comment on a Facebook video posted by a Muslim man in support of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. I knew about my father’s deep-seated approval of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. The comment wouldn’t have been an issue if he had criticised the man for supporting Banerjee’s politics and debated her performance as CM.
Instead, my father abused the man’s Muslim identity. I’m ashamed to reproduce his full comment, which was in Hindi, here. Just know that it would be enough to get a student suspended from school.
Worryingly, this wasn’t the first instance. So addressing this tendency of his isn’t a matter of nipping a bad habit in the bud.
Many men of my father’s generation voted for Modi in 2014 because of their distrust of the earlier regime and frustration with an era of scamsters siphoning off taxpayers’ money. Modi was the messiah promising development and all the right things. I remember teachers in school waxing eloquent about Modi’s administrative experience as Gujarat CM. Who wouldn’t vote for him?
However, two years into his second tenure, people – like my father, who are known as ‘bhakts’ in common parlance – support Modi for very different reasons.
Modi isn’t the man who means business anymore, as a TIME magazine cover in 2012 had claimed. India’s falling GDP numbers and rising unemployment rate offer irrefutable evidence. Instead, Modi’s core promise today is of a Hindu rashtra, where those of other faiths are to be shown their place as second-class citizens. This, through no chants from Modi himself – he has largely been mindful of the dignity of the PM’s office, except when on the campaign trail. After all, India does need aid from Muslim-dominated Gulf states in times of distress.
The promise of a Hindu rashtra mutates every day, courtesy right-wing trolls on the payroll of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT Cell, corrupting the minds of educated adults – like my father – with communal poison. Enough poison and the tenets of human decency are thrown out the door, making my father forget his many Muslim friends who’ve been generous in their hospitality. He now fights online for an imaginary cause, abusing strangers on the internet without provocation.
I know that this struggle is not mine alone. Others of my ilk, journalists, struggle to come to terms with the irony that is our lives. Our work day consists of separating fact from fiction, double-checking every bit of news to ensure that our reports are factually correct. But, while scrolling through Facebook or WhatsApp, we see our family members as vectors of misinformation, convinced that the Taj Mahal was once a Hindu temple and many other unfounded allegations spouted in public by those like Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath.
Adityanath claims that his state has been successful in fighting off the second wave of the Covid pandemic. This, even as Hindus are forced to dump their dead in the Ganges because of a shortage of wood needed for funeral pyres. Hundreds of corpses have washed ashore every day for the last week or so in the interiors of UP, being gnawed on by dogs. For the poor who’ve fallen prey to the invisible enemy, there’s little dignity to be found in UP.
As I write this article, a WhatsApp forward from a ‘bhakt’ family member employs sarcasm to drum up support for the BJP government. “We should curse Modi,” it reads, “because he built 15 AIIMS hospitals, launched two Covid vaccines, increased the country’s health budget, ensured oxygen supply,” and finally, because “he works day and night”.
Those moderately acquainted with the news of our times would realise the laziness of this attempt to rally gratitude for the PM. India’s health infrastructure has proven woefully inadequate. Rural areas, even in North India where the BJP’s core support base resides, lack primary healthcare facilities and are reliant on quacks. Hundreds have died because of a lack of medical oxygen in metro cities, resulting in some of the most heart-wrenching visuals to have come out of India this year.
India’s two vaccines have been produced by two private companies, who’ve invested their own funds in research and development and production. The government’s claimed fiscal support, a debt through state-run banks, to these two companies came much later. Its primary task was placing orders with these firms for securing vaccines. But India’s vaccination drive, touted as the largest in the world, is faltering on several counts because the government failed to place enough orders at the right time. Now, as the country scrambles to procure vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, we realise it may be too late as these manufacturers have their order books full.
Several news reports have highlighted that despite warnings last year about an impending shortage of medical-grade oxygen, the BJP government failed to ramp up infrastructure. In October 2020, the Centre sanctioned setting up over 160 oxygen plants. Until April, only 33 were functional. Perhaps, if the prime minister’s days weren’t spent rallying for his party for the assembly elections in West Bengal, the need to work whole nights wouldn’t have been felt.
Tragic is the fact that these lazy WhatsApp forwards find takers. ‘Bhakts‘ love to blame state governments, their favourite targets being Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray.
As my father expresses his unending support for the Modi government, I see the same apathy in his eyes that has defined the response of Indian lawmakers to the second wave of the pandemic. Our politicians, ensconced in their safe havens, their wide avenues and Amaltas in full bloom, fail to sympathise with the plight of the larger public who are losing loved ones by the day. After all, AIIMS will have a bed reserved when our leaders complain of Covid or acidity. My father too hasn’t had to fight for hospital beds and essential medicines for his loved ones. So he bides his time by chiding Modi critics as those with agenda, even abusing them in full view if the impulse beckons.
He’s convinced that Modi will return for a third term. But the thought that a leader so visibly flushed with self-pride and arrogance could retain power in 2024 scares me – much, much more than the virus.
Harshit Rakheja is a 24-year-old journalist based in Delhi. He has previously reported on sports, business and technology. You can find him on Twitter @HarshitRakheja