hen Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014, members of the Indian diaspora who had settled in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates were especially jubilant. Most of them still had families back home, and they rejoiced in the idea of a new, muscular India headed by Modi.
These non-resident Indians (NRIs) have not shied away from displaying their collective weight, which in the last several years they have unabashedly put behind India’s chief executive. Influential and well-heeled, these overseas Indians have been very vocal in their support for Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, demonstrating this in various ways, including showing up in droves at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event in 2019, a diaspora rally held by the Trump administration ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections.
The NRIs may have puffed their chests some more in 2020, when India seemed to have its COVID-19 cases under control while Europe and the United States struggled to handle the pandemic. With a strict lockdown in place, India was managing to keep its COVID-19 numbers impressively low.
This year, however, the second wave of COVID-19 engulfed India, threatening to bury the country under a pile of corpses. And as the international image of a rising India crumbled, Indians abroad watched as the country’s supposedly strong, capable leader suddenly turned into a largely silent one who abdicated responsibility during the most serious crisis of his tenure.
This has given not only the Indian privileged class, but also the diaspora, a rude jolt. NRIs who were once able to afford the best of private healthcare for their relatives were shaken to find their position and privilege no longer enough to help their struggling families in India. Hospital beds and oxygen cylinders were simply unavailable across the country, no matter the amount of money offered. Once wooed by the Modi government, NRIs quickly found that they had been abandoned — unable to extract either support or assistance from local leadership in their time of need.
Modi’s competence in question
With NRIs grappling with the dark nightmare of possibly losing their loved ones back home, there has been a definite dent in the Modi-led euphoria that marked the Indian diaspora’s belief in the Prime Minister’s competence. Indeed, the catastrophic health situation in India has led to many fingers being pointed at the Indian government’s poor handling of the pandemic and its lack of wisdom in allowing mass gatherings like the Hindu festival of Mahakumbh and election rallies in West Bengal. Says Anupama Kripanidhi, a 38-year-old NRI in Florida, USA: “What was the need for allowing these superspreader events? And why weren’t they better prepared for the wave of infections this would cause? All central government actions so far have simply been reactive instead of pro-active.”
It didn’t help that with borders all but sealed, NRIs like Kripanidhi could only watch with grief and helplessness as their loved ones were struck not only by the virus, but also by the collapse of the Indian healthcare system and the lack of political will. Kripanidhi, for instance, learned her mother had tested positive and needed to be moved to an ICU the day before the United States announced restrictions on passengers traveling from India. That meant she couldn’t fly to India to be with her parents.
“It was terrifying,” recalls Kripanidhi. “All I wanted to do was get on a flight, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to return to my kids in the U.S. and I didn’t want to get infected by the mutant strain myself. My fear and anxiety hit a new level, mostly because of how helpless I was feeling.”
Kanika Gupta (not her real name), a 33-year-old NRI in Toronto, Canada, is still in shock. Her uncle was declared positive for the virus on 9 April, and quickly took a turn for the worse. While her relatives in India were using all their influence to find a hospital bed for her uncle, Gupta was up all night, contacting medical establishments, NGOs, and even strangers on Twitter for an oxygen cylinder. It took her more than 12 hours before she found a half-filled cylinder that her family was forced to buy for Rs70,000 (US$942). The next day, her uncle was moved into a small hospital at the cost of Rs100,000 (US$1,346) per day.
Twenty days later, Gupta’s uncle passed away while waiting for an injection that was available only in the black market. The family paid Rs12,000 (US$121) for transporting his body to the crematorium, where they waited for nine hours for a slot to open up and a pyre to become available.
“I’m so angry with the Indian government,” says Gupta. “I lost someone I loved to something that was entirely avoidable. It was the worst day of my life. We are honest, taxpaying citizens. We didn’t deserve this treatment. I didn’t sleep for four nights after I received the news. I’m on anti-anxiety medication at the moment.”
No preparation, no action
In truth, the Indian government has no excuse for being so ill-prepared. The second wave hit nearly 10 months after the first one – giving the government enough time to build additional medical facilities, set up oxygen plants, and vaccinate a substantial portion of the population. There is no lack of public funds either, as contingencies exist, such as the PMCares Fund, which contains generous donations from resident Indians and diaspora alike. Comments Kripanidhi: “If individuals like (actor) Sonu Sood can import oxygen plants in this time of emergency, why can’t the government do it? Shouldn’t that be the first thing to do when there is such a shortage of oxygen in the country?”
Gupta agrees, pointing out, “Langars (community kitchens) are helping people by setting up free oxygen facilities but the government can’t do such simple things with all their powers?”
When it became clear that no government action was forthcoming, anxious NRIs tried to source oxygen concentrators and medication from their countries of residence to ship back home to their families. Kripanidhi unsuccessfully tried to procure one. She recounts, “There was such a mad scramble for concentrators that when I enquired, they were back ordered by 16 weeks. And they refused to send me one without a local prescription.” Eventually, her family bought a concentrator off the Indian black market for Rs. 300,000 (US$4,037).
Kripanidhi says the Trump government’s failures in handling the pandemic in the United States pale in comparison to those of the Indian government. “In the U.S., we weren’t surprised at the state of affairs, mostly because expectations from a President that denied the existence of the virus were pretty low to begin with,” she says. “Even so, they managed to impose quite a lot of precautions and also vaccinate people. But the Modi government’s complacency has been distressing. It was just too soon to announce victory,” she says, referring to the Prime Minister’s speech at the World Economic Forum in January, where he claimed the pandemic was in its endgame, saying, “India has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing Corona effectively.”
Modi made his pronouncement despite evidence that almost all countries have faced second waves at some point. Then, rushing to launch his vaccine diplomacy by positioning India as the “Pharmacy of the World,” Modi did not even pause to ascertain the efficacy of the Indian-manufactured vaccines on new variants. More importantly, he failed to ensure enough doses for India’s own population; exporting nearly all available stocks. When the second wave hit India, the country had almost run out of vaccine doses and had been forced to halt vaccine drives.
A lack of vaccines and missing numbers
In a recent Right to Information (RTI) revelation, it was found that India exported vaccines to 47 countries at rates cheaper than the local one. In all, India has exported 58 million doses, of which 37 percent were given as gifts. When the rate of infections was at its peak, India had inoculated less than two percent of her population.
The irony of India running out of a life-saving vaccine produced locally because of a botched diplomacy drive has not been lost on the diaspora. Kripanidhi says, “It’s so unfair that my mom wasn’t offered the second dose of the vaccine before the second wave hit even though she falls in the vulnerable category, while I got vaccinated months ago in the U.S. There is fresh guilt associated with this.”
Indians at home and abroad have also taken note of the allegations made by international publications and journals that official numbers were being fudged to cover up the true intensity of the COVID-19 calamity. For sure, the official record high of 4,529 deaths in one day is horrific enough; unofficial records, however, reveal numbers to be in the vicinity of 25,000 per day at the peak of India’s second COVID-19 wave. Placing a serious question mark on the official figures as well were the visuals of stacks of bodies being cremated in public parks and parking lots.
Further, the Indian government has tried to tamp down criticisms of its handling of the COVID-19 crises. In Canberra, the Indian High Commission had written a strongly worded letter to The Australian, taking exception to an article that pinned the blame for the crisis on the Indian premier. But even the once loyal NRIs are unconvinced. A fuming Gupta says, “Don’t believe a word the government says about how things were under control in India through the second wave. All the official numbers are fabricated. I’ve experienced the reality first-hand. They have time to manage their image, not to help dying people.”
“Look at local leaders here, like Doug Ford in Ontario,” she adds. “He releases reports of vaccines, data, models for strategy, and regulations every single day. Did Modi speak to the Indian public even once during the peak of the second wave, offering any help or assistance?”
Unable to hold their loved ones in this time of grief, or offer any kind of assistance, NRIs are angry and frustrated. Many are reassessing their views of Modi and his brand of leadership which has come at great cost to resident Indians as well as the diaspora that worries for its family back home.
“I used to be very vocal in my support for Modi,” says Gupta. “I admired his leadership, his vision. But never again. I can’t support someone who is responsible for so many avoidable deaths.”
“I am scared that when the borders open and we are finally allowed to go home,” she says. “Will there be anyone left to greet us?”
The once jubilant NRI is grieving today – helpless, frustrated and forced to reevaluate. ●