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Did COVID-19 dent India’s global image?

After a harrowing month of May, the number of COVID-19 cases in India have started to decline, with the latest numbers showing a rise of less than half of the peak figures last month.

With vaccination numbers starting to look healthier as well, it is possible that the worst is behind us. Public memory is short, and soon those apocalyptic scenes of bodies floating in the rivers, rows and rows and funeral pyres, the lament of those who lost their near and dear ones, is likely to be lost in our minds.

Yet, if we do so, we would be faltering on a great lesson of history — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana said.

Freeing up shackles of state-sponsored capitalism

India, for sure, has made immense strides in the last seven decades since its independence, and especially more so in the last three decades when the shackles of state-sponsored capitalism were removed.

Before the pandemic hit, the country’s economic growth was more than double that of the developed nations. Investors were making a beeline to enter the country.

Our towns and cities were shining with new glitzy real estate projects, shopping malls and automobile showrooms. Anything that was available elsewhere in the world was also available almost simultaneously in India. The ubiquitous Ambassador car, the symbol of upper class mobility, quietly gave way to the multinational car brands on the roads. Our youth started dressing in branded multinational clothes, driving flashy cars and bikes.

This optimism spread to the corporate sector too. Indian business houses were snapping up legacy businesses in the West as the new economic boom created unheard of levels in consumer spending.

India’s venerated industrial house, the Tatas, bought Corus Steel and Jaguar Land Rover in England. Another non-resident Indian tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal, through a series of acquisitions, took over the mantle of the world’s largest steelmaker.

The great India story

The media went into a frenzy with these global powerhouses, with headlines like “The Empire strikes back!” In fact, when Hurricane Katrina struck the US, we celebrated the fact that India was sending aid to the Americans, a stark reversal from the 1960s when Washington sent food aid to India.

It seemed at the time that there was no stopping the Indian juggernaut. At the diplomatic level, a clamour was being made that India, along with Germany and Japan, be allowed a permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council, which was (and still is) a manifestation of the winning combination of the Second World War. Time had come, analysts said, to right the historical wrongs.

And yet, among all this glitzy, shiny exterior, the India of yore — the mud-caked huts, the dusty roads, the millions queuing up for paltry services at overburdened state hospitals, farmers still depending on their bullocks to till the land, waiting for the annual monsoons to water their fields in the absence of a comprehensive canal irrigation system — still remained present.

But we, the urban ‘intelligentsia’, and those of us bred in the limelight of the metropolis, chose to live in denial of this mismatch between town and country — where the toiling millions scarcely saw any change in their lot over the years, liberalisation or not.

This dark, ugly reality of India — which the urban populace had conveniently brushed under the carpet for the last three decades — has now found its way back again to the fore, thanks to the ravage that was spread by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A big crisis of supply

Hospitals running out of supplies, people dying due to the sheer inadequacy of our public health care system to cope with the overwhelming numbers, have bared out our realities to the rest of the world. Where we were celebrating donating vaccines to the world less than three months ago, now we are helplessly waiting for the developed world to give us some of their extra stockpiles.

Most importantly, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has once again brought to the fore what the country really is — an underdeveloped, Third World nation. Despite all the glitz and glamour of our cities, our rural-urban divide is so stark that we remain on the lowest rungs of the Human Development Index, one some counts even lower than some of the poorest nations in the world. All the talk of India being the next superpower has been dashed to the ground.

I can only hope that the experience of the last month is a lesson for our policymakers. Instead of grandiose projects of beautifications, let us first take care of the basic needs of the starving millions in India. Let us try to provide basic health and sanitation, electricity and safe drinking water first.

Once that is done, the vistas of overall progress are bound to follow, and India then will take its rightful seat on the global stage as a leader of nations, not just with its urban growth, but by the universal standards of living.

Is that too much to hope for?