Modi's Icarus Moment
The Greek philosopher Aristotle describes the archetypal tragic hero as one of noble stature— “good, though not perfect.” After all, heroes must be on a pedestal before their tragic fall.
At the center of this theory of tragedy is the hero’s downfall, undone by a personal, fatal flaw dubbed as hamartia, from the Greek hamartanein, i.e. when an archer misses their target. A common flaw is hubris, depicted in literature from Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s Macbeth to modern works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Even Icarus in Greek mythology and Jatayu in India’s Ramayana reveal their hubris by flying too close to the sun.
There is an important caveat: while fate may play some role, the tragedy is of the protagonist’s own making, a result of the hero’s hamartia.
What is politics today if not a stage, and what better describes India’s current situation than a tragedy?
In India’s case, the protagonist is the head of government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has been on a pedestal since first taking office in 2014, with his image polished repeatedly as a noble leader who can root out corruption and bring vikaas (progress).
Now, that image has been tarnished.
Modi’s disapproval rating, which stood at an extraordinarily low 11 percent after the 2019 election, when he was elected to a second term in a landslide, reached 32 percent on May 8, 2021. And that is because of his government’s catastrophic response to a second wave of COVID-19.
After declaring victory over the pandemic earlier this year, New Delhi suddenly confronted a rapid rise in cases, fueled in part by a highly infectious variant detected in October 2020. Modi, however, continued to encourage large political and religious gatherings, and his government refused to admit there was a crisis until it was too late.
By early May, daily COVID cases crossed 400,000, setting new world records. The country faced shortages of everything from hospital beds and vaccines to medicines and oxygen supplies. In several major cities, including New Delhi and Mumbai (the political and financial capitals, respectively), hospitals were completely overwhelmed. Many were denied care, and some died outside hospital facilities. Images of bodies burning in India’s crematoriums became common on television screens and newspapers around the world. Crematoriums have reported far higher numbers of COVID-related deaths than have official tallies, to the tune of between 3 to 100 times more than government figures. Today, while the number of new cases has started to decline, nearly half of India’s COVID cases are now in rural areas—where public health infrastructure is even more fragile than in cities. India is not out of the woods yet.
Modi’s hamartia: hubris
As Rakesh Sood, an Indian diplomat-turned-scholar, outlines in a recent article, India’s current predicament is attributed to “hubris, the fatal flaw in leaders, consumed by arrogance and overconfidence.” He adds that “hubris made our leaders blind to what was happening in February in Maharashtra, and later in March and April.”
This hubris was manifest through numerous actions over the past five months. Four particular instances are worth mentioning.
On January 28, 2021, Modi addressed the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue, exclaiming that “we transformed the fight against coronavirus into a people’s movement and today India is among the most successful countries in saving lives.” He added that “India is sending its vaccine to several countries and helping in developing the infrastructure for successful vaccination.” In reality, the vaccination program, projected as the last cog in a well-oiled machine, was merely a work-in-progress. The central government’s hubris was evident in three specific decisions:
- refusing to place advance-purchase orders in 2020 and the beginning of 2021, instead depending on a piecemeal approach entailing orders of 16.5 million doses in January and 14.5 million in February
- casting aside international suppliers like Pfizer and Moderna, and instead priding itself on two “made-in-India” vaccines (one of which was developed by Oxford–AstraZeneca), part of its larger Atmanirbhar (self-reliance) policy
- prohibiting India’s massive private sector and its 36 states and union territories from procuring their own vaccines
The result? India has fully vaccinated only 3 percent of its population after four months, and the responsibility has now been passed onto the states and private sector, which are left scrambling in a seller’s market with rising prices.
Premature Proclamations of Victory
On February 21, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed a resolution stating that “it can be said with pride that India not only defeated COVID under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, but also infused in all its citizens the confidence to build an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat.’” The resolution adds that “despite the sudden need for healthcare equipment, PPE kits, testing kits, masks, oxygen cylinder, ventilator etc, a shortage of the same was never felt.”
This premature celebration reeked of overconfidence. Indeed, many experts, including a parliamentary committee in November 2020, had previously drawn attention to the lack of oxygen cylinders in India, strongly advocating for price caps and an increase in oxygen production. But the government paid no heed to such advice. Today, India has struggled with shortages of oxygen cylinders and medicines.
Promotion of Massive Religious Gatherings
On March 21, Modi personally invited citizens to the Mahakumbh, an enormous religious gathering, through front-page advertisements in newspapers. For several centuries, epidemiologists have cited the Mahakumbh as a hotspot for the spread of disease (from 1867 onwards, including a World Health Organization monograph on cholera in 1959). This year, the event saw 9.1 million visitors. The public health impact was especially stark in the host state, Uttarakhand, where new daily COVID cases rose from 128 before the event to 9,642 in just a month. Additionally, there was no protocol to track participants returning home to other states. Not surprisingly, the state of Madhya Pradesh reported that 99 percent of returnees tested positive for COVID. A mass gathering of this scale, promoted directly by the head of government and organized by a state government, would have been unthinkable in any other country during a pandemic.
Presiding Over Crowded Election Rallies
Finally, on April 17, Modi exclaimed with great jubilation while addressing an election rally in Asansol in the state of West Bengal: “Wherever I look, I see only people, nothing else.” When he uttered these words, India had crossed 200,000 daily cases just two days prior. Modi himself addressed 24 large rallies in West Bengal, and all major political parties campaigned for assembly elections in five states with a combined population of 250 million. These rallies saw huge turnouts with no regard for COVID protocol. The bitter irony is that the BJP, which expected to trounce the opposition, lost in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala states.
Modi, who enjoys extensive popular support and a full majority in both houses of parliament, could have easily banned mass gatherings. He also could have easily followed the advice of scientific experts to empower states and the private sector to procure vaccines from the very beginning. He would have received no pushback whatsoever. Instead, like Icarus and Jatayu, he flew too close to the sun.
The final acts
This brings us to the latter stages of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, particularly when the audience is left with a feeling that the “punishment exceeds the crime.”
It is not Modi but the broader Indian population that has paid a heavy price for its leaders’ hubris. Official figures put the number of COVID-related deaths since April 1 at 140,793, with the 7-day average on May 24, 2021 at 4,190 deaths per day. Independent estimates, such as one produced by the University of Washington, which calculate excess deaths in comparison to previous years, estimate the number of COVID-related deaths will reach 1 million by June 5, 2021.
The central government’s main line of defense is that India’s tragedy is part and parcel of the world’s struggle with COVID. In contrast to the Greek concept of hamartia, where the protagonist is flawed, Indian tales of tragedy, specifically mythological works and Sanskrit dramas, are fundamentally different. As Sukumari Bhattacharji, one of the world’s foremost Indologists, notes, “if there is a conflict it is rarely between good and evil within the hero’s consciousness but between a good and evil character.” This seems to be the thought-process within the BJP, which has spent the last month trying to convince the larger populace that it remains “good,” while painting everyone else—protesters, states, the opposition, the media—as “evil.”
More edifying, however, is the next step in our theory of tragedy: The tragic fall is “not a pure loss,” and results in “increased awareness.”
The hamartia of hubris has left us with some important lessons for India’s remaining battle against COVID.
India’s top priority remains vaccinations—a proven method of quelling the spread of COVID. It would cost the government only 0.5 percent of GDP to procure vaccines for the entire adult population. This should take precedence over all else. After initially snubbing international producers Pfizer and Moderna, the central government has now been forced to set aside its hubris and import COVID vaccines from both foreign companies, which categorically stated they will only negotiate with federal – not state – governments. Meanwhile, India should also immediately approve local candidates like ZyCoV-D, a DNA-based COVID vaccine produced by India’s Zydus Cadila, and rescind requirements of local trials for Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine, which can be manufactured by India’s Biological E.
While Mumbai and Kerala implemented varied measures to fight COVID, one common element with both was a devolution of power and responsibility to the local administration, which resulted in a highly customized (rather than a one-size-fits-all) approach.
The government can also take a cue from the relative successes of cities like Mumbai and states like Kerala, and follow a more decentralized model that devolves power down to the smallest political unit, i.e., wards in cities and panchayats in villages. While Mumbai and Kerala implemented varied measures to fight COVID, one common element with both was a devolution of power and responsibility to the local administration, which resulted in a highly customized (rather than a one-size-fits-all) approach. The central government’s control of the entire value chain—from testing and vaccines to contact tracing and medications—has proven to be a futile task.
Finally, the most obvious lesson is to increase India’s healthcare capacity. Government expenditure on healthcare is a paltry 1.2 percent of GDP (the central government’s share is only one-fourth of this, while state governments make up the rest). Even with private spending, it is only 3.6 percent of GDP. In comparison, Brazil spends 9.2 percent of GDP on healthcare (though Brazil also faced a catastrophic COVID crisis, despite spending an average of 8.4 percent of GDP on healthcare since 2000). India’s healthcare spending is likely to determine how prepared it will be for future pandemics. If the Modi government succeeds in this endeavor, it could provide some “catharsis”—the final step in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, in the years to come. That said, increased healthcare spending is the bare minimum. India will also need more doctors, more hospital beds, and better medical equipment to prepare for future pandemics.
Just as audiences seek catharsis at the end of a drama, so too do the people of India. Nothing would provide a more cathartic release for Indians than Modi’s admission of errors. This would entail, at a minimum, an acknowledgment of wrongdoing by his government. But ideally a catharsis would also take the form of actions that improve India’s future health prospects—particularly by working closely with the US, the UN, and other global bodies to strengthen pandemic preparedness, and by setting aside differences with opposition-controlled Indian states to partner with them to ensure better overall health outcomes.
Hari Seshasayee is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and a trade advisor with ProColombia, a Colombian government agency. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Colombian government.
 Only two vaccines are readily available in India—one produced by the Serum Institute of India (developed in partnership with AstraZeneca and Oxford University), and another by Bharat Biotech. A third vaccine candidate, Sputnik V, developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute, was recently approved and is expected to be available in June.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
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