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September 14, 2021

‘Brand Modi’ and India's Policy Concerns

Modi image

Photo by; licensed under CC BY 4.0

As India was struggling with its devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, help poured in from expected and unexpected corners of the world. For the first time in 16 years, India began accepting assistance not only from its friendly strategic partners like the US and Russia but also from its fiercest economic and geopolitical competitor, China. However, India has been reluctant to acknowledge the help provided as “aid”. Instead, India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, has referred to it as “friendship and support” and as a favour returned for the earlier COVID-19 assistance India provided the world. Even as its socio-economic, public health, democratic freedom and other indicators continue to plummet, India wants to be seen as an equal partner, not in need of aid but rather only “support”. As India resumed trade talks with the UK, EU and others, it continued its wordplay by emphasising the ideal of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (“the world is one family”) as Modi’s catchphrase Atmanirbhar Bharat ("self-sufficient India") conveniently took a backseat. Such moves reveal India’s excessive preoccupation with maintaining its image both domestically and internationally. What is troubling though is that this posture within India’s ruling elite has also led to the mismanagement of covid crises. The state risked the lives of many by allowing mass religious and political gatherings, irrational vaccination policies, undercounting and underreporting of covid cases and the like. This post delves into why the Modi government is engaging in semantic manipulations to protect its image and how such manipulations harm India.

One possible reason for the BJP bending over backwards with its wordplay is to defend its “Vaccine Maitri” initiative. The initiative, which provided vaccines to countries of the global south, met with immense criticism as India faced vaccine shortages amid its devastating second wave. Two months after the initiative was launched, the government proudly proclaimed in the parliament that more shots were sent out of the country than were administered to its citizens. Thus, as the government was being condemned, framing the aid as a favour returned was essential for party interests, especially as state election campaigns were underway. The government needed to vindicate itself by arguing that the aid it provided was a beneficial foreign policy investment for India.

However, such a defence of vaccine maitri needs to be viewed from the broader BJP agenda of protecting “Brand Modi”. Since the 2014 national elections in India, Hindutva realism has become a mainstay of the BJP’s playbook. The BJP emphasises a strong centralised leadership and a doctrine of self-help or self-reliance. Modi has become the face of BJP’s Hindutva realism. The 2016 demonetisation of Indian currency, the surgical strikes across the Line of Control, abrogation of special status to India’s only Muslim majority state, imposition of a nationwide lockdown with only a few hours’ notice, and Atmanirbhar Bharat are only some projects the government undertook to portray Modi as a fearless leader working for India’s integrity and sovereignty. Even the recent cabinet reshuffle, which saw some of BJP’s top-leadership lose portfolios, was not shown as the government’s acceptance of its failures but rather portrayed Modi as a dynamic Prime Minister, who could punish his own ministers for poor performances. Despite running a heavily centralised administration, where every major policy decision requires his approval, Modi is seen shifting the blame onto his aides.

The BJP government was also pressured into paronomasia due to its obsession with building its brand. As Modi began to depict himself and India as a strong and rising power, Indians in India and abroad began to feel emboldened and prematurely succumbed to the vision of India as a vishwaguru (“ a teacher to the world”). Thus, as India, in a matter of days, was reduced to an aid recipient from its cultivated image of an aid donor, Indians and the Indian diaspora were embarrassed. They were ashamed and resented that the country was brought to its knees. Therefore, in a move to prevent its supporters from feeling disaffected, the BJP began terming the aid received as “friendship”.

The cost of BJP’s rhetoric has been high for India. Firstly, by denying and downplaying the crisis, the Indian political elite had allowed itself to be blindsided in its handling of the crisis. In January this year, instead of preparing for the second wave by ramping up testing and vaccine production, Modi was busy claiming to the world during the 2021 WEF summit that he had crushed the COVID pandemic. As the state can’t fix what it doesn’t recognise as a crisis, India underwent critical failures in governance and administration. Modi proclaiming his victory over the pandemic in both the international and domestic arena also made matters worse as it infused irrational confidence among Indians. Ordinary citizens and political leaders alike, taking Modi’s claims for granted, threw caution to the wind and began attending gatherings in hoards. Millions worshipped their gods at the Kumbh Mela, and their leaders in political rallies with no social distancing or masks putting lives at risk.

Modi’s BJP did not only fail to prevent a crisis, but it failed to mitigate one when it inevitably arrived. The government’s ministries surrendered national interest, democratic freedoms and civil liberties to protect the regime’s interest. As the living begged for oxygen and the dead for a space to lay their bodies, the Government showed little concern for its citizens. It hid its cases and resorted to draconian laws to suppress criticism. The External Affairs Minister also called on his diplomats to counter the apparently “one-sided” criticism of the government by international media. To make matters worse, BJP indulged in medical humbuggery. Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of the national party's foreign affairs department, encouraged the consumption of bovine urine and turmeric as possible cures. Furthermore, reacting to the criticism over the Kumbh Mela, the Uttarakhand chief minister declared on March 20, “nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.” National and Global networks need credible data to assess damages and determine disease dynamics and such actions by the government only make policymaking weaker and more difficult. As The Washington Post's aphorism goes, “democracy dies in darkness”.

In the realm of foreign policy, India’s failures have only played to China’s advantage. Not only have China’s doors to South Asia been left unguarded, but Modi’s obsession with image building and photo-ops has made him a liability in dealing with China. Modi had become tone-deaf to Chinese aggression as Xi Jinping met him at least 18 times since 2014 to give him the photo-ops he wanted. This only led to BJP making extremely bold statements such as their intention to take back Aksai Chin from China rather than be vigilant of Chinese transgressions at Eastern Ladakh last year. Instead of taking action, the government was busy denying Chinese occupation. This only let China take control of the public narrative. Though Modi appears to be taking a hard stance on China now, the damage has already been done.

Expectedly, Modi’s excessive preoccupation with protecting his image first and the party’s image second has only decreased India’s standing in the world. As India silences criticism and dissent, with an ever-tightening iron fist, and turns a blind eye to tragedy amidst a “once in a century crisis”, the international and domestic community has now begun to doubt India’s long-standing credentials as a liberal democracy. Modi needs to stop worrying about his image and start working on reality. The BJP is agitated, and perhaps understandably so. However, to save face by sticking its head in the ground is only going to exacerbate the situation.

Author Bio

Manjeeth S P is a Masters student in Political Science and International Relations at Indira Gandhi National Open University in India. His areas of interest are Indian foreign policy, political philosophy, political economies of marginalised communities, climate policy and education. He is currently preparing for the Civil Services Examination in India.

July 27, 2021

Labour in the time of Covid–19: the intersecting struggles of India’s return migrants

Labour in time of Covid

Photo Credit: Sunil Kumar Aledia

Written by Avinash Kumar

Due to the global crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, almost every country in the world placed restrictions on economic activities and curbed the movement of people through the imposition of lockdowns. Migrant workers in the informal economy have faced immense challenges during this period of economic uncertainty and restricted mobility. What impact do job losses in the city have on their household incomes? What struggles do migrants face if they decide to return home? How do their households cope under these circumstances? This piece attempts to explore some of these questions drawing on interviews with return migrants across different states of India.

Perilous journeys to uncertain futures: migrant narratives

In India, a tragic situation arose during the first lockdown announced in March 2020. For internal migrant workers, many of whom are employed in the informal economy with no social security, lockdown implied immediate loss of jobs and shelter. Without access to proper transportation and resources, these workers were left with no choice but to return home on foot. The physical strain of these long journeys caused a huge loss of life among migrants and their families, including pregnant women, infants, and elderly people.

Recently, I conducted telephone interviews with ten returnee migrants based in different states in India with the aim of understanding how migrants manage their livelihoods after coming home from cities.[i] Many of the research participants discussed their treacherous journeys from cities to their homes. A resident of Uttar Pradesh described how he still feels the physical consequences of the journey. He said:

“Even after one year passed, I am still not well and there is a swelling in my leg because of the long journey on foot. I didn’t get food properly for 22 days while I was traveling. How do I work and feed my child and other members of my family? (March 28, 2021).

Others I spoke to mentioned that they have resumed agricultural work but are unable to make ends meet with such jobs. One said:

“The situation is getting worse because of unavailability of work. Sometimes I work as an agricultural laborer on someone else’s land and in return get Rs.60 a day which is not enough for survival with three children along with mother and wife” (May 17, 2021).

Many migrants informally employed in cities belong to Schedule Castes (SC), Schedule Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC)—groups with the least landed assets in the country. None of the return migrants I interviewed owned more than one acre of land, which is insufficient to produce the amount of grain needed to feed the family. A migrant, from Bihar said:

“I don’t have agricultural land so I work as a construction worker but work is not regularly available. It’s very difficult to manage the everyday household expenditure by working alone. Therefore, my wife also works on someone else’s land and in return gets some amount of grains” (March 15, 2021).

These narratives corroborate the fact that India faces a deep crisis in rural employment. Evidently, this crisis worsened during the pandemic in 2020. According to monthly Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data, the rural unemployment rate in India shot up 7.69 percent in June 2019 to 21.11 percent in May 2020. This explains why most people I spoke to confirmed that they do not have any choice but to return to work in the cities.

Gendered impacts of reverse migration

The impact of reverse migration has notably affected the women of the household, their burden of housework and domestic violence has increased. The women I spoke with didn’t disclose their experiences of domestic violence[ii], but many spoke of an increased burden of housework. A woman resident of West Bengal explained,

I am the only person who does all the household and agricultural work. I also have to take care of animals in the house. We have three children and mother in law to be taken care of” (May 17, 2021).

Another woman from Bihar working as a primary teacher in a government school explained that even though she is currently the sole-breadwinner in her family, providing unpaid reproductive labour is still expected of her.

“I am a school teacher but along with it, I also have to do all the household work. I have one child to be taken care of. My husband was working outside but he quit his job because of the covid crisis, no I am only earning member in my family. We cut our expenditure on food, traveling and clothes to manage the day-to-day household expenditure” (April 3, 2021).

Some women reflected upon the patriarchal norms that ensure that the burdens of day-to-day household work are not divided equally between women and men. A woman resident of Jharkhand argued:

What does a man have to do? He only has to earn money. We have to do all the housework and look after the needs of the house. We also have taken care of our children” (May 18, 2021).

Concluding thoughts

The difficulties faced by migrants and their households during the Covid-19 pandemic provide an opportunity for policymakers to refocus their attention towards the wellbeing of migrants. For socially disadvantaged communities, staying at home renders them more vulnerable due to the unavailability of employment and being landless. Most SCs, STS and OBCs suffer due to their economic and social conditions despite various affirmative action programs. The government needs to prioritise the provision of special protection to them through caste-based social security support within existing labour laws in India. Similarly, women in the household are also victims of patriarchal discrimination; they are considered as free labourers at home and paid less in the workplace. Special emphasis on social, economic, and legal protection for women through various social security measures are needed to curb domestic violence and economic dependency on male members of the family.

Author Bio

Avinash Kumar completed his master’s degree in Development Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi in July 2020. His master’s dissertation titled “Migration, informality, and conditions of existence: A focus on Delhi”, examines the participation of socially disadvantaged groups (SCs, STs and OBCs) in informal migrant work and to examine their housing and living conditions. Currently, he is applying for PhD programmes.

[i] This research was conducted as part of a pilot study for a planned research project involving WICID researchers and collaborators. I worked under the supervision of Saba Joshi. All research participants gave their consent for interviews to be digitally recorded and to be quoted in research outputs developed from the pilot study.

[ii] Being a male interviewer, I found that women respondents were hesitant to openly talk to me about issues such as domestic violence. Conducting interviews over the phone also hindered discussions on these topics because I could sense on many occasions that women’s’ husbands were also present when they spoke to me, making it harder for them to speak openly about conflicts within the family and gender-based violence.

December 15, 2020

COVID–19, Women and Water in Urban India

Oleg image Covid and water

(Image by Oleg Malyshev, 2016)

Written by Mansha Marwah

The first case of COVID-19 in India was reported on 30 January 2020 and a lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020. On 3 April 2020, the Central Government produced an advisory for the state governments: “Advisory for ensuring safe drinking water during lockdown and effective management of pandemic caused by Corona Virus”. This statement, however, does not reflect reality. India has the largest number of people in the world living with water scarcity- approximately one billion people. UNICEF and WHO data from 2017 illustrate that only 44 percent of India’s population has access to piped water. Additionally, those living in poverty, in informal settlements and rural populations, lack access to any clean water, which is essential for frequent hand washing to protect from, and prevent the spread of, COVID-19. For the majority in India, water of adequate quality and quantity is unavailable, intermittently available and/or inaccessible, rendering people in these situations particularly susceptible to infection.

Many households in India do not have access to water supply within their homes and often depend on shared sources of water. These are usually households in urban informal, low income and insecure housing areas. Residents here tend to deal with exacerbated stressors due to government neglect and a lack of proper infrastructure for basic amenities. An analysis of five of India’s most populous states, which accounted for 46% of all COVID-19 cases, as of June 10, found that in informal areas and poorer neighbourhoods, a lack of exclusive access to drinking water and distance to the source of water meant that proper hygiene and handwashinghabits were a challenge for households. These areas are usually densely populated so social distancing is hard, especially if residents share a water source. Hence, preventing theinfection also becomes a challenge. Due to the infrequent and intermittent supply of water, the household priority is often cooking food and drinking water, often at the expense of hand washing and other essential hygiene behaviours.

The experiences and effects of the pandemic affect women more harshly. Even though studies find that men are more vulnerable to losing their lives to the virus, women are disproportionately affected by its political, economic and social consequences. Instances of domestic violence across the globe are increasing, as has historically been the case in contexts of uncertainty.These women are moreover forced to continue with their everyday household labour and responsibilities while simultaneously dealing with this violence. The pandemic has highlighted the need for and value of this unpaid labour, termed by feminists as “social reproduction”.

Women bear the brunt of water scarcity simply because they are responsible for finding water for their family’s everyday needs. They are often the ones that have to stand in long lines to wait for water and walk long distances to collect it.Before the pandemic, a woman in Chennai described how her wait for water began at 4am in the dark, and how she spent her mornings looking for water and then rationing it for washing, bathing and cooking. A report from 2019 stated that Indian women on average spent 16 hours a day doing this kind of unpaid care work.

The need for this reproductive labour has increased during this pandemic especially due to the heightened demand for water in the household. “It’s been three days since the water tanker came to our area and, without, you can see that this place is a mess,” Kumudhashri R, a woman in Chennai was reported as saying. Since the lockdown was imposed, she has been locked at home with her family and complains, “Since everybody is at home now the demand for water is more, but what we are getting isn’t sufficient at all”. None of the 500 families on her street have access to piped water supply. The residents are completely dependent on the water tanker that comes to their area twice a week and they are not allowed to fill more than three pots per family. The women have been walking 3-5 kilometers daily to fetch more water. Less water makes cooking, cleaning and managing household health more difficult, responsibilities largely assigned to women. Much of the burden to reduce water use therefore falls on women, who have to carry out the same duties with fewer resources.

Water, along with other resources is unequally distributed in a household due to women’s lower status within family and society, and the perception of their labour being of less worth. This, along with the increased demand for water in the household might mean that many women are unable to meet everyday sanitation needs especially those related to menstrual hygiene. Even before the pandemic, women and girls in many parts of India struggled with menstrual hygiene, owing to a lack of clean water, a lack of access to safe menstrual hygiene products and taboos around menstruation. COVID-19 has intensified these struggles, illustrating another example of how it is disproportionately affecting women in India.

Moreover, the nationwide lockdown that restricts mobility would have had an adverse impact on unpaid care work carried out by women across the country as many would have been unable to move freely outside of their homes to, for instance, collect water. These women would have then been forced to break rules of social distancing in order to fulfill daily survival needs for their families, risking not only contracting the virus and their health but also, in some cases, state violence.

Women, in the context of this pandemic, are experiencing amplified responsibilities with regards to unpaid labour at home. These tasks such as fetching water or cooking are essential for the smooth functioning of a household. This dependence on women’s altruism shifts the responsibility of survival and maintaining the status quo during disasters and pandemics onto women, which often affects women negatively causing what has been termed as “depletion” of their health and general wellbeing. Holding women responsible for this survival obscures the role of the state in addressing issues and inequalities that lead to these issues in the first place.

The consequences of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting women in urban informal settlements in India. Due to the sexual division of labour, it is women who are responsible for carrying out daily household tasks that are essential for the reproduction of everyday life. These responsibilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, resulting in potential mental and physical harm to women’s health and overall wellbeing. Care burdens must be shared both by men and women, not just in disasters and pandemics but in everyday life. This will need gender responsive policies targeting social and cultural change that help families adopt and adapt to a more equitable way of living. Moreover, strategies to mitigate effects of COVID-19 must take into account an analysis of gendered experiences.

With regards to water challenges, the government must immediately enact and implement enforceable policies and strategies on the provision of emergency water in all water-scarce areas for all people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to water should be available regardless of tenure or settlement status. In the long term, COVID-19 should act as a lesson and the government should strengthen infrastructure facilities to be able to provide access to clean, safe water for all. This will require sustained political commitment, increased budget allocations for health, and improved physical infrastructure.


The Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development addresses urgent problems of inequality and social, political and economic change on a global level.

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