Every Autocrat Loves A Good Pandemic

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The chaotic conditions of Germany after the World War I became a catalyst for the rise of Hitler and his Nazi Party. The panic that was caused in 1933 by the incident of burning of the Reichstag building, enabled him to seize power. Panic, confusion and chaos are great crops for autocrats, as they enable them to seize power or consolidate control.
These lessons from the rule book of the fascists are not forgotten as the world is caught in the grip of a global pandemic. While some regimes have dedicated themselves to fighting coronavirus, the authoritarian regimes are far busier using the pretext of the pandemic to exercise control. In Israel, the Netanyahu government has tightened its surveillance on the mobile phones of “suspected coronavirus patients and those close to them”. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to shoot civilians who don’t adhere to the government’s strict lockdown orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, after protests erupted over food shortages. In USA, Donald Trump is using the coronavirus logic to strengthen border controls that he has long wanted to impose. Hungary’s right-wing prime minister who has capitalised on invoking the terror of immigrants has now brazenly spoken about a link between the migrants and coronavirus.

India’s authoritarian regime is not to be left behind. Instead its juggernaut has been accelerated to the optimum level. It has used the coronavirus pandemic, the connected panic and the lockdown for bringing down a government in Madhya Pradesh, demonising women protesting against Citizenship Amendment Act, virtually creating a narrative that Covid-19 is a doing of the Muslims, disowning the poor and the migrant workers of the country, invoking a domicile law that militates against the popular aspirations of people of Jammu and Kashmir and starting a separate PM Care Fund for Coronavirus with no transparency or accountability mechanisms.

The first coronavirus case in India was reported on January 30 and by February 3 there were three cases. All had originated from China. The transmission escalated in the beginning of March, after several cases were reported all over the country, most of which were linked to people with a travel history to affected countries. On March 13, the Delhi government forbade all gatherings of more than 200 people. On March 24, the Indian government announced a complete country-wide lockdown for 21 days, setting a deadline of four hours and sending people, particularly the poor and the migrant workers into a tizzy. For three weeks before that when the positive Covid-19 cases began to escalate steadily, the government did not get its act together in terms of stock-piling medicines and protective gears for doctors, procuring test kits, even as India’s testing rate remains among the lowest in the world. While healthcare workers in India looking after Coronavirus patients have been facing a shortage of Personal Protective Equipments (PPE), India did not stop its exports of protective equipment till March 20, when the government banned export of surgical and disposable masks, all ventilators and textile raw material used for making masks. By then, global experiences of sudden exponential growth of Covid-19 had necessitated greater seriousness on part of the government. So far this seriousness has only come in the form of a lockdown without enhancing testing rates which are imperative because many virus infected and carriers have been found to be asymptomatic and without ensuring adequate provisions of food, essentials and shelter for the poor. The reasons for this callousness are not difficult to locate.

Politics has taken precedence over health concerns. The ruling BJP was more pre-occupied in rocking the Madhya Pradesh government, starting from March 9 and finally clinching the throne on March 23. The lockdown came only a day later.

After demonising the Shaheen Bagh women protestors and connecting them to Coronavirus terror, the BJP-government and its loyalist media has found a new enemy – Tableegh-i-Jamaat. Needless to point out that the religious organisation’s huge international congregation, which began on March 1 and lasted till March 15, at a time when fears of coronavirus outbreak were becoming real was irresponsible. But the conference, many of whose participants have no tested positive, had all the clearances from the government. No efforts were made to stop it or screen the participants for Covid-19 even as Delhi, where it was organized, banned an assembly of more than 200 people on March 13. The right-wing hegemony, exercised through the amplifying voices of the lap-dog media, has served to create the dominant narrative of the culpability of Jamaat, even Muslims, in organizing large gatherings and endangering the lives of other people. It is a sign of the authoritarian powers using their might to give a spin to the story and singling out the Muslims as the villains. The truth is that pilgrimages to Tirupati, where thousands congregate, Vaishno Devi and many others were banned only few days before the lockdown. The Madhya Pradesh political drama that continued to descend on the roads for days and culminated in a grand swearing-in show on March 23 with leaders not just joining hands in a display of victory but also constantly hugging each other, besides BJP celebrations in many parts of the country. On March 22, during the Janata Curfew by prime minister Narendra Modi, to his call for ‘taali bajao’, many Indians, in their moment of exuberance broke the curfew four hours earlier and went dancing on the roads or marched in processions. Pertinent also to point out that Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Adityanath, held an event, attended by VHP activists and priests, at Ayodhya a day after the lockdown.

Almost eight months after Jammu and Kashmir special status was scrapped and its statehood robbed, the government brought in the contentious order laying down domicile rules at a time when there was no pressing emergency. Though the order was revised two days later, following some public criticism and opposition by some political groups including sections of BJP leaders in Jammu and Kashmir, it makes little difference the situation. Merely reserve all government jobs for J&K’s domiciles, when the criteria for attaining domicile rights has been so relaxed is hardly a relief. The revised order also does not address the concerns with respect to land rights. Scrapping of Article 370 and Article 35A was a fait accompli. The domicile order simply adds clarity to what was lost on August 5, 2019. To issue the order at a time when people are caught in a lockdown and panic emanating from a pandemic is a devious and vile ploy to ensure that the opposition and criticism to it remains muted.

The political dramas apart, the authoritarian writ of the Indian government is also on display through the creation of a separate PM Care Fund, in the name of attracting micro and speedy donations, when a Prime Minister Relief Fund already exists and has similar provisions of attracting huge and quick donations. The transparency mechanisms of the PM Care Fund are not clear and the fund has been created as part of a trust with only three other trustees – home minister, defence minister and finance minister. Rest of the accountability has been stonewalled through press censorship, which now has the seal and approval of the Supreme Court. A criminal case has been lodged against, which is critical of many government policies, for a ‘fake news’ about Adityanath’s Ayodhya event, even though it is based on facts and reported by a large section of the media. A top police officer in Srinagar warned public against criticism of the J&K domicile order, calling any opposition as instigation. The action against health workers and doctors who have demanded adequate protective gear for fighting Coronavirus fully reveals how a pandemic is adding to the might of an already over-powerful government.

Whether or not India’s fight against coronavirus is successful in containing the spread of contagion soon or not, the panic that the pandemic has evoked and the lockdown has served the interests of an authoritarian regime to further strengthen its vertical expansion and centralized control.