Is Narendra Modi really bad

Two populists in power: Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro

India recently pushed Brazil out of the headlines with its corona numbers. In both countries, the number of infections and deaths had reached national highs in recent weeks. Nevertheless, both governments currently do not want to impose a lockdown in order to contain the respective corona epidemic.

The similarities do not stop there: Both belong to the BRICS countries, a group of large, supposedly emerging economic nations. The income differences are large within the two countries: In addition to a tiny, extremely rich elite and a small middle class, poverty and misery are widespread. And both are governed by a right-wing nationalist government, which is sawing the democratic institutions of the state in league with religious zealots.

Hard lockdown vs. Corona skepticism

The parallels are obvious, but Amrita Narlikar, President of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), warns against hasty conclusions: "There is a tendency in the so-called liberal West to lump the countries of the global south together. But analysts and observers have to be very careful when suggesting similarities. "

Police in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir region, are monitoring the curfew in April 2020

Narlikar does not mean the obvious cultural differences. The differences are particularly glaring when it comes to dealing with the corona crisis: While Brazil’s president has never abandoned his position that COVID-19 is a minor flu and better to fight with a malaria drug than with a vaccine, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already said that March to May 2020 imposed perhaps the toughest lockdown ever and set up vaccine production in India. "In contrast to Bolsonaro, Modi recognized how high the human costs could be. However, today's situation shows that he did not use the time to prepare the country for the second wave."

With the corona numbers, the pressure is growing

The situation is accordingly in both countries: In Brazil, the infection rate has been at a significantly higher level than in India since the arrival of SARS-CoV-2 15 months ago. The seven-day incidence (infections in the last seven days per 100,000) according to Our World in Data in Brazil reached its previous high of 254 at the end of March 2021 and is now slightly above 190 (as of May 3).

After the lockdown in India, the number of infections there remained very low for a long time. Perhaps encouraged by this, Modi did nothing when they began to climb for the second time that March. Since then, the seven-day incidence in the 1.4 billion-inhabitant country has risen from twelve to 193.

Measured in terms of population, Brazil has over twelve times more corona deaths than India

In the meantime, Brazil and India are on par in terms of incidence. A number of countries report much higher infection rates - including Uruguay, Sweden and the Netherlands. But the vast majority of governments will take action against the spread of COVID-19 at the latest when the incidence reaches three digits. Accordingly, calls from the opposition and civil society for a national lockdown are now loud in India.

Modi firmly in the saddle despite the pressure

Criticism of Modi's government did not only arise with the second Corona wave: "Modi has been under enormous pressure since the end of 2020 due to ongoing farmer protests. The course of the pandemic is also eroding his popularity," says political scientist Jörg Nowak. On the national holiday in January, protests against a controversial agrarian reform escalated.

Nevertheless, says Nowak, Narendra Modi enjoys a relatively solid power base. Because with the Hindu nationalist BJP he has a grown party with a stringent ideology behind him. The party base includes the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu-fascist cadre organization, of which Modi himself belongs. When it was re-elected in 2019, the BJP was even able to increase its majority in parliament compared to 2014.

Bolsonaro's political backing is waning

Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro has also come to power with the support of religious zealots from among the Brazilian evangelicals. However, until then he was an unknown backbencher of a small party, with which he broke just under a year after taking office in 2019. As a non-party, Bolsonaro has to find a new majority for every law. And that is becoming increasingly complicated because he fell out with numerous political companions - including 16 exchanged ministers.

Now the president has to answer to a parliamentary committee of inquiry because of the more than 400,000 registered COVID-19 deaths. "Bolsonaro's power is noticeably eroding," says Nowak, who is currently researching at the University of Brasilia. "Nobody really knows what the government's line is, and there are different centers of power like the presidents of parliament and the senate, all of which have different agendas."

Indian rule of law in greater danger

In order to enforce their policies, both Bolsonaro and Modi are apparently ready to undermine the rule of law. While Bolsonaro has so far mainly threatened this - probably also because he lacks power - India's Modi can already show action.

Shortly after the 2019 re-election, the government withdrew its constitutional rights to self-government from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state with a Muslim majority. In 2020, the government's pressure on political opponents led the human rights organization Amnesty International to cease its work in India.

Last February, under pressure from the Indian government, Twitter deleted more than 500 accounts in connection with the farmers' protests. "Such a process would be unthinkable in Brazil - at least at the moment -" says the political scientist and BRICS expert Oliver Stuenkel from the Brazilian think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas. "The erosion of democracy in India is much more advanced than in Brazil."

Populism between economic and human costs

Stuenkel, on the other hand, sees similarities in the political style of the two state leaders: "Populists like Bolsonaro and Modi can't use bad news." That is why Bolsonaro consistently belittles the crisis. And Modi's BJP announced in February that it had defeated the epidemic in India.

Why the Indian government fails to admit its mistake and turn things around is a mystery to the experts. Even the decision on the extremely early and hard lockdown in 2020 was very intransparent, says Stuenkel, and that's how it is now again.

It is an assumption that Modi is concerned with not compromising religious festivals and election campaign events. Another is that Modi is now - like Bolsonaro in Brazil - eschewing the economic consequences of a lockdown. India's economic output slumped by almost a quarter in the second quarter of 2020. "In both countries, a maximum of a quarter of employees can work from home. The economic costs of distancing measures - at least in the short term - are relatively high." And many people who do not work during the day have nothing to eat in the evening.

On this point, GIGA President Amrita Narlikar also sees something in common between the two countries: "Both Brazil and India have a problem when the government imposes a lockdown, because they give their people the impossible choice between life and livelihood," says the political scientist. "It's different than in Germany, where you have to choose between life and lifestyle." Only, says Narlikar, it should not have come to this if both governments had consistently taken appropriate measures to deal with the pandemic.