Few could have predicted the severity of India’s catastrophic second wave of COVID-19 infections, which has completely overwhelmed the healthcare system in a country that last year seemed to have suppressed the coronavirus to an admirable extent. In mid-February, India was recording about 11,000 cases a day, and the daily deaths related to COVID-19 on a seven-day rolling average had stayed below 100. As of this article’s writing, India had reported more than 300,000 daily cases for more than 10 consecutive days, and the Health Ministry recorded 3,417 deaths on Monday, taking the total COVID-related deaths in India to 218,959.
Experts have pointed to a number of converging factors, concluding that the “second wave was fueled by people letting their guard down, attending weddings and social gatherings, and by mixed messaging from the government, allowing political rallies and religious gatherings.” (The ASEAN Post)
Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival by the Ganges, was probably a super-spreader event. Because of this widespread complacency, vaccinations were declining and the vaccination drive, which had aimed to inoculate 250 million people by the end of July, slowed. The perfect storm awaited, especially with the B1167 variant that seems to be particularly contagious and is hitting young people hard.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for his potent mix of “majoritarianism and welfarism” (BBC News) as well as religiously driven politics. However, this bread and butter of his magic, from his Hindutva rallies to his Samvad Buddhist diplomacy, risks a high price for his government’s mismanagement and negligence. The state of Uttar Pradesh, which is predominantly Hindu but has one of the four major holy sites associated with the Buddha’s life (the Deer Park), is one of the hardest-hit spots. Modi is the member of parliament in Varanasi, one of the constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, and in this region and beyond there are noticeable discrepancies between the official statistics and numbers on the ground, such as cremations counted at funeral pyres in towns and villages.
It would be premature to predict sweeping or major electoral losses for Modi’s BJP, particularly in the face of his static and divided opposition. However, there is no doubt that two critical components of “Modi Magic” have been adversely affected: Indian vaccine diplomacy, which cannot be removed from the geopolitical context of India’s strategic competition with China, and his less prominent but long-term Buddhist diplomacy. Both face an uncertain future in the midst of the second wave.
China’s approach to suppressing COVID-19 has been fundamentally different to India’s, with the leading US expert Dr. Anthony Fauci telling an Indian newspaper that China’s anti-coronavirus strategy, from strict lockdowns to makeshift hospitals, were worth learning from: “We know that when China had this big explosion [of cases] a year ago, they completely shut down. And if you shut down, you don’t have to shut down for six months. You can shut down temporarily to put an end to the cycle of transmission.” (The South China Morning Post)
Both Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping demonstrated decisive leadership in extraordinarily difficult times last year. From the outset, the Chinese government implemented measures that received varying degrees of criticism at the time. Likewise, India had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, incurring some international criticism for how sudden it was. India was so successful that in January, at the World Economic Forum, Modi effectively claimed that the nation had defeated COVID-19. In hindsight, it was China that has remained vigilant while India relaxed its approach far too soon.
With only minor, sporadic outbreaks in the past 12 months, China is in a better position to consolidate its international diplomacy, including any Buddhist-related projects in its Belt and Road Initiative. The same cannot be said of India. Past events by groups such as the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) helped to bring together Indian Buddhist leaders to hold court—in New Delhi and in other places such as Nalanda—with Buddhist leaders and organizations across Asia and the world. It is likely that the notion of Buddhist organizations traveling to attend future IBC events will very much depend on assurances that India will never suffer a mismanagement of crisis like COVID-19 again. Without such assurances, the goodwill and political capital built by India in the past few years—since Modi launched his Samvad project—could stagnate.
With the IBC as his main channel, Modi inaugurated Samvad in 2015, with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation, as the primary vehicle through which to build a “Buddhist alliance of democratic Asian countries.” Japan was India’s primary partner through former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe, and it is unknown if Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, will match Abe’s enthusiasm about this aspect of cultural diplomacy. It was not too long ago that this initiative contributed to warming Indo-Mongolian relations in September 2019, along with a string of other successful soft diplomacy outreaches over the years in Myanmar, Thailand, and elsewhere in Asia. In the face of a worldwide pandemic upending much of what was considered normality, the much longer-term ideal of a “Buddhist democratic alliance” seems a relatively low priority.
India’s vaccine and Buddhist diplomacy are not necessarily doomed to failure. Although religious events are being blamed as super-spreaders, with the right kind of social distancing and mask wearing—along with accelerated vaccinations—IBC events for a domestic Indian audience, which have continued without issue since last year, can continue to be held. Furthermore, the forced transition of Buddhist diplomacy to online conference calls has hardly been unique to India. Buddhist travel, events, and conferences as a whole have been decimated since 2020, and everyone, including China’s Buddhists, have been victims of a major reduction in regular activity. If India can weather its present crisis more deftly and decisively, the work of the IBC and other groups need not be in vain. In fact, with the right support and method, it could even accelerate in a post-COVID world, particularly if Asia enjoys an economic recovery. But for now, all efforts must go to saving the Indian people from the coronavirus.
COVID: How India Failed To Prevent A Second Wave (The ASEAN Post)
Human toll of the second wave of coronavirus in India (CGTN)
West Bengal election: Modi loses a battle in the ‘war for Indian democracy’ (BBC News)
Covid in Varanasi: Anger rises as coronavirus rages in Modi’s constituency (BBC News)
China plots regional influence push as India battles Covid crisis (Financial Times)
India can learn from China’s experience fighting Covid-19, says top US adviser Anthony Fauci (The South China Morning Post)