How The Pandemic Could Shake Up India's Political System

The coronavirus crisis could reshape how the country's leadership goes about its business.

Demonstrators burns an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest against the encroachment of Nepal border by India.
Demonstrators burns an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest against the encroachment of Nepal border by India.
Ronojoy Sen


NEW DELHI — Some of the world's finest minds have begun contemplating the far-reaching impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while there is unanimity that the pandemic will have a disastrous impact on the global economy and shake up the international order, there is less consensus on the kind of politics that the pandemic will spawn.

We are already seeing the pandemic's impact on national politics in different parts of the world. South Korea, for example, held its parliamentary election and recorded the highest turnout in nearly three decades — even as the world was reeling from the impact of the pandemic. The ruling party won a landslide victory on the back of the government's coronavirus response, which has been hailed globally as a success.

In the United States, the November presidential election is likely to turn on President Donald Trump's response to the catastrophic impact of pandemic. The crisis has also trained the spotlight on American federalism where, contrary to Trump's initial bluster, the states have shown that they have considerable leeway in policy matters.

In India, the situation is very different. Indian federalism is a very different beast compared to that of the United States, with much less elbow room for the states. Despite health coming under the purview of the states, the Centre has used the National Disaster Management Act to impose a nationwide lockdown from March 24.

While most state governments have toed the central line, some have been pulled up for deviating. Indeed, opposition-ruled states like West Bengal – where chief minister Mamata Banerjee is the strongest critic of the Narendra Modi government and where elections are due next year – have been singled out for criticism despite BJP-ruled states like Gujarat also faring very poorly. Some states, on the other hand, have criticized the Centre for prohibiting the sale of liquor, one of the biggest sources of revenue, during the lockdown's first phase.

The poor and marginalized have borne the brunt of the lockdown

There has been a wide variation, too, in the response of the different Indian states to the pandemic. States like Kerala, with its strong public health care system and high levels of literacy, have tackled the pandemic well while others have been laggards. A study has shown that the case fatality ratio was the lowest in Kerala and the highest in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The rate of testing, the enforcing of social distancing and health infrastructure possibly explains the variation.

In the wake of the pandemic, some commentators have pointed to a temporary abatement of conventional politics in India. But the way the crisis is being handled is itself intensely political. There is a concerted effort by the central government to show that the pandemic, particularly the number of infections and fatalities, is under control and by state governments to do the same, even if that means massaging numbers.

Surveys show that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's handling of the crisis has enhanced his popularity, at a time when he was confronting an economic slowdown and protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The BJP has not passed up the opportunity to publicize the positive ratings with Home Minister Amit Shah tweeting that Modi was streets ahead of other global leaders in this regard. There has been a clear class bias, however, in the government's decision-making. The poor and marginalized have borne the brunt of the lockdown with thousands of migrant workers stranded in their place of work or on highways.

Modi has used the opportunity to address the nation on multiple occasions. By labeling the threat of the virus as a war, demanding sacrifices of the Indian people and invoking the Mahabharata, Modi has adroitly rallied the country around the flag. He has also used the pandemic to show that he can effortlessly make the Indian public bend to his will, not only by making them stay at home but by also getting them to make noise and light lamps at appointed times.


A women police officer on duty during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown. — Photo: Prabhat Kumar Verma/ZUMA.

Given the nature and scale of the pandemic, any crystal ball gazing on the long-term impact on politics in India is hazardous. It is, however, worthwhile to consider the fallout of the last truly global pandemic: the Spanish flu of 1918. While its role in ushering in revolutionary changes to public health and universal health care is acknowledged, its bearing on politics was less clear cut.

Some believe that the Spanish flu, which by some estimates claimed roughly 6% of India's population, might have indirectly contributed to Indian independence. Laura Spinney argues in her book on the 1918 flu that the pandemic not only caused immense disenchantment with British rule, but also enabled Mahatma Gandhi's rise as the undisputed leader of the Indian nationalist movement.

If one were to recall recent events, there are parallels between the lockdown announcement and Modi's dramatic decision on demonetization in 2016. As in demonetization, the hardest hit by the lockdown were the poor, migrant laborers and daily wage earners, for whom no measures were initially put in place. It was only when the media and some chief ministers highlighted the plight of India's internal migrants did the Indian state provide succor, first for shelter and food and later transportation. The skewed impact of COVID-19 has similarities with the 1918 Spanish flu, which inordinately affected the poor and the villages of India, a point made by historian David Arnold.

In the current context, the impact of the pandemic might be felt most in the expansion and reach of the state and the centralization of power. Both these trends had been visible in India over the past few years, but the pandemic is likely to accentuate them. For one, the enormous increase in state surveillance in the wake of the pandemic, which has happened worldwide, is unlikely to be rolled back in a hurry. More significantly, we are likely to see a much bigger role for the state and state-owned enterprises. Contrary to what many saw as the free market and reformist leanings of Modi in 2014, he has shown little inclination to cut the bloated Indian state to size.

It is often said that the shambolic Indian state rises to the occasion during emergencies.

Centralized decision-making is also likely to outlive the pandemic. Modi's decision to impose a nationwide lockdown on March 24 came at a few hours notice and there was no evidence to show that he had consulted widely. Some chief ministers complained that had they been taken into confidence before, and not after, the prime minister's decision, the situation might not have been so dire regarding the migrant laborers. It was only after the big lockdown announcement that Modi consulted with chief ministers and gave federalism its belated due. Indeed, some have pointed out this was smart politics with Modi taking credit for the lockdown, leaving the chief ministers to tackle the messy aftermath of the exit strategy, which has proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare. Going ahead, India's federal structure is likely to face severe political and financial stress.

It is often said that the shambolic Indian state rises to the occasion during emergencies. The response to the pandemic partly bears that out. The lockdown might well have saved lives, but also had a disastrous impact on livelihoods, the extent of which is yet to be worked out. The government, which so far has not announced any big stimulus package, will now have to deal with the economic fallout of the lockdown and the life-threatening impact on the poor.

Modi has shown that he is willing to disrupt or rewrite the traditional rules of politics in India. The pandemic's aftermath will test whether Modi is capable of systemic changes to the Indian state to ensure better and equitable governance.

*Ronojoy Sen is senior research fellow, ISAS & SASP, National University of Singapore.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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