Modie with PMs
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India interacts with Chief Ministers to strategise for tackling COVID-19 Image Credit: PMO, India

The coronavirus has killed close to 600 Indians. But is the worst over for the country?

Some states (Haryana, Kerala), have partially lifted the lockdown as of April 20. Others will follow suit in a matter of days. The curve is flattening. In containing the disease, the Modi government has done well.

No other leader in his place could be realistically expected to do a better job under India’s straitened circumstances.

But a plague, like a king, never comes alone. There is always a retinue attending it. Compared to the West, say, the US (with over 40,000 deaths), or Spain (over 20,000), the loss of lives has been minimal.

Again, unlike the rich West, India has had to battle another front of coronavirus by default: poverty.

Anchor of the extreme right-wing Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, went on air and made it easier for the BJP government to initiate the idea of economic nationalism, which primarily means the State intervening in the dynamics of a free market


Thousands of daily wage workers in industries like construction and hotels have realised how fragile their condition is. Many of them have done the first thing we all do in distress: go back home.

Not that home is waiting, rich in hospitality and food. It is just a psychological thing, one of those myths we associate with where we are born and brought up. And because we associate hardship with places of work and earning a living.

Some of the Indian workers, with their luggage and kids, have had to trek thousands of kilometres as trains and buses do not ply.

For all we know, many are still on the road. And by the time they rest and then hit the return trail, weeks if not months would be lost, throwing the industries into a tailspin.

This possibility combined with India’s ongoing crisis in banking, manufacturing, and employment is likely to be the beginning of the second phase of the coronavirus: from a crisis in health to a crisis in the economy.

Emergency like scenario

And, therefore, a more fertile ground for big social and political unrest. And that in turn facilitating even harder and more divisive government policies on the emergency-like scenario, which would be justified according to the Modi government.

In fact, I would expect the prime minister to exploit the situation and to declare an economic emergency of sorts around the first week of May when the lockdown is scheduled to be lifted. And what more opportune an occasion than May 1, when the world celebrates Workers’ Day?

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Already there is talk about economic nationalism. Last week, for example, India’s only true TV personality and the owner and anchor of the extreme right-wing Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, went on air and made it easier for the BJP government to initiate the idea of economic nationalism, which primarily means the State intervening in the dynamics of a free market.

(Incidentally, it is important that one watches Goswami on TV. What he says today has a good chance of happening tomorrow as he is the only media personality that the very top in the government trust and talks to.

This is a symbiotic relationship. Goswami gets to break news. The government gets a forum to legitimise what could be, in normal times at least, considered unwarranted and incorrect. Hindu nationalism being one of them.)

More protection for businesses

That means Indian businesses will enjoy more protection in the face of global competition.

China is a good example of aggressive economic nationalism. Last week, the commercial ministry of India made Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from China subject to the Indian government’s approval, fearing China would, in an effort to rev up their economy following the Covid-19 setbacks, to venture into India for investments and takeovers.

Under the circumstances, this may seem reasonable, which only further nuances the situation.

In earlier columns, this writer has said that contrary to what angels of the Indian left and Arundhati Roy advocate — often livid with passion — the post-Covid-19 world will not turn egalitarian, loving and trusting with the added benefit of Universal Pay jangling in each individual’s pocket.

It will be, on the contrary, a more protectionist, more insecure and more isolationist world, discouraging outsourcing and bringing back industries and businesses to home shores.

If only because it offers one sure way to consolidate the power of those already in authority. A crisis tends to favour the strong.

Reverse side of patriotism

The Modi government would have already seen the political advantage in economic nationalism as it is the reverse side of patriotism.

The economic nationalism debate would further deepen the division between nationals and anti-nationals, the last being a euphemism of sorts for those who differ with the government’s views.

According to an Oxfam report, India’s richest 1 per cent holds over 40 per cent of national wealth, while the bottom 50 per cent, the majority of the population, owns 2.8 per cent.

That 1 per cent has every reason to support the cause of economic nationalism. The convergence of the ruling party’s interests and those of the oligarchs would further reinforce Modi’s power.

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 movie, Nostalgia, one character tells the poet-hero, “When I don’t know what to say, I ask for a cigarette, though I never learnt to smoke.”

In the coming days, India is going to smoke a lot, as a crisis in health almost inexorably regresses into the old politics of national pride. We are back where we started.

— C.P. Surendran is a thinker and senior journalist based in India