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A Smokescreen for Tragedy: The Human Cost of Populism

The ultimate cost of corruption, incompetence, division and myth is always there, waiting to be brought home – as it has been for too many people in India and around the world during the Coronavirus pandemic, writes Hardeep Matharu

Funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims burn at a crematorium in New Delhi on April 28 2021. Photo: Hindustan Times/SIPA USA/PA Images

Smokescreen for TragedyThe Human Cost of Populism

The ultimate cost of corruption, incompetence, division and myth is always there, waiting to be brought home – as it has been for too many people in India and around the world during the Coronavirus pandemic, writes Hardeep Matharu

When my Mum left India for Britain – homeland for motherland – in 1975, it was the beginning of a lonely journey. She was 26, a Master’s graduate and teacher from a town on the outskirts of Delhi, who gave up everything about the life she knew to come to London and marry my father.

Despite making her life 4,000 miles away, as the eldest of four siblings, she was – and still is – considered the wise and respected one by her family in India. As her parents passed, this became more so. Her three brothers, looking to her for counsel, would send air mail letters, have phone calls and then more recently WhatsApp conversations about developments in their lives. 

Her brothers had done exactly what their mother had wanted for them: to all live together in one house, as one family. When I visited them in 2018, that’s just what I found – each brother had a floor in the modest but bustling house for their family. There were now three generations living side-by-side; all so close that the three brothers were known as everyone’s fathers.

Within five days over the past week, my Mum found out that two of her brothers are now dead. They went suddenly and their bodies were cremated within hours.  

They were victims of what has been called India’s “humanitarian crisis” and “a crime against humanity”. A crisis which has laid bare, in all its ugly glory, the disregard for human life by nationalist-populist politicians seeking to divide; and the institutional corruption and poverty running through the country on multiple levels.

My uncles’ lives were not insignificant. But, to the Government of Narendra Modi, they absolutely were.

As with any aggressive populism, despite its name, it cares nothing for its people. And too many in India are now finding out its cost in the second wave of the Coronavirus devastating the country.

The body of a COVID-19 victim at a crematorium in India. Photo: Vijay Pandey/Zuma Press/PA Images

While India has officially recorded more than 20 million cases of COVID-19 and the official death count stands at 226,000 people, many of us hearing the horror stories emerging first-hand from India know that these are gross under-estimates. They do not take into account all those dying in their homes, on the streets or awaiting intensive care treatment. 

Despite the claims of senior ministers, hospitals in the capital and elsewhere have made desperate pleas after running out of oxygen. The sons of my uncles spent the last weeks of their lives rushing around a COVID-engulfed Delhi, queuing for hours for oxygen cylinders. Quackery, corruption and the black market is thriving in this chaos.

Meanwhile, the Hindu nationalist BJP Government of Modi continues its steady march to fascism. A complacency that India would not be hit with a second wave and warnings ignored about the lack of preparedness of the country have ushered in no new lockdown. There continues to be a lack of social distancing or mask-wearing and large public events are continuing to go ahead – including the famous Kumbh Mela on the banks of the river Ganges and elections in West Bengal. 

In Varanasi, where Modi is the local MP, a furious restaurant owner told the BBC that the “Prime minister and the Chief Minister have gone into hiding, abandoning Varanasi and its people to their own fate”.

“The local BJP leaders are in hiding too,” he said. “They have switched off their phones. This is the time people need them to help with a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder but it’s total anarchy here.”

In New Delhi, construction workers are being moved in to start on a new, post-imperial Parliament building in Modi’s image. As the Government prepares to erase the remnants of the British Empire, it is already executing the same approach towards minorities, in a bid to recast India’s civilisational history as that of an exclusively Hindu nation. 

Millions of Muslims have been stripped of their Indian citizenship under draconian new laws and detention camps have been erected in the state of Assam and elsewhere. Ethnically-motivated violence, often sanctioned by police, is a regular occurrence. Conspiracies and misinformation around the Coronavirus is also widespread, with Muslims being condemned for being carriers of the disease.

Many concerned about India’s precarious state believe that widespread bloodshed and genocide will follow in the years ahead. It seems that the Coronavirus crisis may be harnessed to accelerate this end.

Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi at the 2019 G7 Summit. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

Modi’s Government has been keen to emphasise that the health system – virtually non-existent for decades – has failed the country, rather than its governance and structures.

“Last time, the situation was different,” Modi told the nation as the second wave hit. “We didn’t have health infrastructure for fighting the pandemic. We didn’t have test labs, PPE kits, or knowledge about the treatment. But in very little time, we improved ourselves. Doctors have gained expertise and are saving more lives than ever.”

To me, such words have an echo closer to home, voiced by another shameless populist degrading democracy who has presided over the deaths of 150,000 people in the UK. 

Would collective international pressure on Modi help? Perhaps. But is it there?

Until two weeks ago, Boris Johnson was getting ready to fly to Delhi for his post-Brexit wooing of his Indian counterpart. Today, the UK Government has announced a new deal with India to fight people smuggling – part of the Home Secretary’s clampdown on immigration. For Priti Patel, Modi is “our dear friend” – a term of endearment she used after his 2019 election win.

In this age of British authoritarian populism, ‘historic ties’ mean nothing, exerting no sense of accountability or duty, just shared interests to exploit. Amongst debates about Empire, railways and Churchill in Britain’s confected ‘culture war’, no one asks why India, a country shaped so significantly by colonial rule, has ended up so corrupt. In the UK, we still feel it taboo to refer to the many investigations currently underway into the Prime Minister’s conflicts of interests as corruption. Corruption, outwardly, is not the British way.

Yet, the corrosive effect of corruption can be seen in the human cost of populism. Up close, I have seen its trauma and indignity in the past week.

Nothing has made me wake up more to the dangers of a disillusioned and disengaged democracy propped up by demagogues than the Coronavirus pandemic. In the face of a deadly virus, populists – with their symbols and fake history; hope and false promise; their ignorance and incompetence – inevitably require others to pay the price of their power. 

This ultimate cost is always there, waiting to be brought home. It was for me on Sunday when I heard my Mum’s anguished cries and the shocked, traumatised voices of my cousins down the line from Delhi – boys who stepped up as men to watch their fathers burn among so many others.

The next day, I visited The National COVID Memorial Wall, across the river from Parliament, in central London. 150,000 hearts for the 150,000 dead. And there I saw them – no truer words… heart is broken.

The National COVID Memorial Wall in London

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