Janine Jackson interviewed author and editor Vijay Prashad about India, Covid and Modi for the May 28, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: If you read recent U.S. corporate news media coverage of India, you can see that the country is in peril—with some half a million new Covid cases a day, and terrible shortages of oxygen and vaccines—and you can glean that the country in peril is an official ally, not an enemy.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. readers are told, handled Covid’s first wave well, but subsequent “lapses” and “missteps,” like declaring victory over the virus in January and holding massive rallies, are now “an increasing source of anger.” Modi’s “aura of political invulnerability” has been tarnished, we’re told; the death and suffering of millions is “challenging his vision of a proud, self-reliant nation.”
US media devote considerable, if problematic, attention to the Middle East, to Central and South America. But with India, it’s different: As with Sub-Saharan Africa, press attention is…erratic. And if you don’t hear about a place in a regular way, well, forget about getting a range of views, or building any kind of complex understanding with which to view emerging events.
Here to help us put U.S. media’s current moment of focus on India in some kind of broader context is historian Vijay Prashad, executive director at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, chief editor at New Delhi–based publisher LeftWord Books, and author of many titles, including The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Vijay Prashad.
Vijay Prashad: Great to be with you. Thanks a lot.
JJ: Along with a truncated historical timeline, U.S. corporate news media generally reflect a “Great Man” theory of history, and of current events: You know, Modi might be hurt by Covid; Modi didn’t play it right in West Bengal. Events happen involving millions of actors, but U.S. readers hear it all through a specific kind of prism.
It’s a big opening question, but if you’re trying to explain current crises in India to someone, where do you start? What do you see as the most important context for something like Modi’s actions in the pandemic, for example?
VP: Well, there’s two ways to approach that question. One is the long-term way, of course, and the other is the short-term. In the long term, I think it’s important to register that everything doesn’t lie in Modi’s lap. The Indian governments, over the last 25 to 30 years, have really worked out a policy of austerity when it comes to public health. So India spends ridiculously low amounts—the government spends under 2% of the GDP—on healthcare; it’s a ridiculously, ludicrously low amount.
There’s a program, called the ASHA program, of ASHA workers; these are accredited social health workers, essentially public health workers. Now, ASHA workers, almost 100% women, go from house to house in villages, small towns, cities and so on, and they check to see if children have been inoculated, if there’s any health problems…. They play an essential role in the fabric of the health of the country. Still, they’re not even paid as workers; they’re treated as volunteers, and they’re given an honorarium. They receive no training, they receive no equipment, nothing.
During the pandemic, for instance, they had to work without protective equipment, they had to work without gloves, they had no masks, nothing; they had to make it all themselves, and on top of that—paid an honorarium. I’m just putting this example out there to show you the long-term attrition of healthcare, the privatization of healthcare, in India is extreme!
India has the world’s largest out-of-pocket healthcare system. That means that when you go to see a doctor, you’re paying more out of your pocket than anywhere else in the world. There’s barely any social insurance—forget “healthcare for all” and so on.
So that’s a long-term thing, Janine, that predates the Modi administration, although Modi’s government, since 2014, has accelerated this policy of privatization of healthcare, the destruction of public health. And then, the cost of public health management placed on these working-class women—it’s been extraordinary.
Secondly—and more, I think, around Modi himself—is that he took a very callous attitude towards the pandemic from the beginning. They suggested that people should go bang pots and pans and scare the virus away; they suggested that you could just drink cow urine, and that somehow was going to immunize you from the virus—fake, callous, almost stupid, incompetent, dangerously incompetent, statements.
Then finally, after the pandemic had emerged, by, say, February, March, of 2020, the government literally did nothing, nothing, to hasten the production of, say, medical oxygen, ventilators, beds, emergency hospitals; they did nothing. So that when the second wave came in early 2021, suddenly the country was out of something as elementary as medical oxygen.
You don’t require rocket science to make medical oxygen; you merely require small little machines that are decentralized; but they had made no attempt to upscale hospitals, to make sure every hospital had its own medical oxygen production unit. They did nothing; that’s the level of incompetence that’s really almost criminal, if you don’t mind me saying so. People have been saying “We would like to see a tribunal that studies this total incompetence, callous incompetence, of the government in this regard.”
But I want to emphasize again that, yes, this government totally sat on its hands, is responsible for the carnage that befalls the Indian people. It’s not just this government; it’s been a long policy of the attrition of healthcare, of public healthcare. And the weight of all this placed on the workers, who have had to work under extraordinarily difficult conditions—heroically. They get praised in rhetoric, but nobody’s talking about their salaries being raised; nobody’s talking about their conditions being improved.
JJ: I think if anybody just tuned in halfway through that, they might imagine that you were talking about the United States, you know? Long-term underinvestment in public health; anti-science, let’s call them, “ignorant” statements from powerful public leaders. There’s a lot of resonance there, I think, for a lot of listeners.
And then I learned that Indians who got vaccinations got a certificate with Modi’s face on it, and it just kind of sounds a lot like Donald Trump in some ways. And also the point about understanding what predated this particular leader. How meaningful do you find that comparison? Is that a useful comparison, internationally, in terms of, maybe, resistance?
VP: It’s an interesting comparison. Of course, it has immense resonance, whether you’re looking at Modi, or, well, let’s say Trump again—and I’d like to say a few things about that—but also Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and so on. There’s an incredible resonance there, of course; without a doubt, that’s true.
But I do want to say that it’s not just the resonance of those broad features that are there. The underlying situation is equally important, which is this really studied devastation of public health, as you say, in the United States, in India and so on, that decimation of public health, anti-science approach. The Modis, or the Trumps, or the Bolsonaros, come out of the wreckage of neoliberal policy, the wreckage of austerity; they are the product of that.
I don’t see Modi as the product of anything other than the wreckage of austerity, long-term austerity; that’s what produced him. He personally comes from an anti-Muslim, very hateful ideology, in the same way that Trump is, in a sense, a standard bearer of white supremacy. But it wasn’t actually white supremacy that propelled Trump into the presidency: It’s the decades of attrition of public life, the destruction of social life, the destruction of bonds, and so on. That’s what gives the opening for these people to arise.
Look, in the United States, Trump loses the election, you have Mr. Biden appear. Mr. Biden comes with a different kind of agenda. But on so many of these issues, you’re going to see the continuation of those conditions. You’re not going to see the attempt to create a bigger public sector in medical care, and things like that. You’re certainly not going to see any internationalism.
At the root of a different kind of approach to medical care is not only, public spending should rise in the medical system, but we need a more internationalist medical system, because other people may have had discoveries that we should be able to learn from. That’s why, for instance, in the case of vaccines, it’s important to have a waiver on intellectual property. I personally believe that intellectual property actually stifles innovation; it stifles the advance of human development.
We are right now in no position to make an argument for abandoning intellectual property; we’re not powerful enough for that. But at least we can start by having a waiver on the vaccine. India produces 60% of the world’s vaccines, but the Indian population at the current rate will not be vaccinated before February 2024. Now, Janine, it’s important to remind people that we’re living right now in 2021, you know. People may forget that—
JJ: Yeah, yeah.
VP: —because in a pandemic, a certain haze sets into your brain; you don’t fully remember which year it is, let alone which month or whatever. But I’m talking about February 2024, Janine, not February 2023, not February 2022—February 2024, at the rate of vaccination; that’s despite the fact that India produces more than half the vaccines in the world.
VP: So you need both more public spending in each country, but we need an internationalist approach; we can’t have this national approach. So what Mr. Biden is promoting now, in that sense, is a Trumpian solution to the crisis: Let’s just have America first, and then we’ll see about the rest later. This is all very narrow-minded and short-sighted.
And it’s an appalling situation, wherein as a consequence of that, India cannot even begin to exit this crisis unless vaccination rates go up. Currently, between 2 and 3% of the population is vaccinated. Think about that.
JJ: It’s incredible. And part of a baseline to having things change, because the narrow conversation is within the media, and the official conversation that we’re hearing, and you and I both know that lots of folks are having an entirely different conversation, outside and around these dominant narratives. And the question is, how much are we allowed to affect the broader dialogue? And so it’s about, “Who do we hear from?”
And that brings me back to media—where lots of folks are getting their information—that top-down frame. So, for example, the New York Times is describing this month’s victory by the All India Trinamool Congress Party in West Bengal; they describe that as “dealing a blow” to Modi, because that state was “a prize” that his party “desperately wanted to win.” You’re not hearing, in other words, what the people of the state wanted to win, desperately or otherwise.
And I’m wondering, if media coverage were multivocal, even just to include other Indian politicians, even just to include other Indian voices—you’ve written about the southern state of Kerala as a kind of counterexample to things—if we were hearing more voices from India, how could that shift folks’ understanding, or thoughts about what’s happening and what’s possible?
VP: Of course, I’m 100% in favor of broadening the conversation, having more voices come in, listening to different things that are happening in India. I understand that, look, India is far from the United States; it’s not going to be coverage that most people would follow closely, or anything like that. I understand that. It’s crazy to imagine that they would have a rich and multivocal coverage of what’s happening in India. On the other hand, I also think that there’s a way in which it could be not as bad as it is.
VP: So yes, I mean, look, the story on West Bengal—which is my state, I was born, brought up in West Bengal—Mr. Modi’s party actually made enormous gains; it’s become the leading opposition there. That needs to be understood: not that it suffered a defeat; it didn’t suffer a defeat, it actually gained. He made enormous gains. They didn’t win the government, but they made enormous gains. That’s chilling; that’s worrying for people. People are worried about that. Into West Bengal, they brought a kind of Hindu right-wing politics, they’ve made it OK to say, “I’m a Hindu, I don’t like Muslims,” things like that. It’s troubling.
It’s in the same way, Janine, as in the United States, after the last presidential election, there is this assumption that somehow Trump has disappeared, that all those supporters of Trump, all the people who voted for him, they’re gone. Why? Because it’s first-past-the-post. “Who’s won” now represents the country. That’s a total misunderstanding of what’s happening in the United States. There’s still the grip of Trump amongst large sections of the population; that exists, the social conditions that produced Trump still exist.
We have to look reality in the eye, it can’t be saying, well—especially the liberal media, so quick to declare victory for liberalism, when liberalism today is so weakened by its incapacity to face the fact that there’s no answers to the economic crisis.
In a country like India, why is the Congress Party, the liberal political party, why aren’t they able to come out and make a robust statement about the need to fully fund the ASHA worker program, for instance? Why don’t they come out there and demand that the government just say, “Look, we’re not going to heed intellectual property on this vaccine; we’re just going to ramp up production, because we don’t care, the primary thing now is to save the lives of our people.”
No, the liberal political party will sit on the whole thing about the importance of international law, when it comes to this vaccine question and intellectual property. When it’s about international law and the bombing of Iraq, or international law and sanctions on Venezuela, nobody invokes international law. You know, it’s the goose and the gander.
VP: International law is upheld when it comes to the interests of economic elites. International law is not upheld when it comes to serious political matters, such as warfare and intimidation of other countries. Why is it that, on one hand, you’re so committed to international law; and on the other, you’re not?
And I think that kind of thing is what the media need to bring out. I get it; you can’t get all the details straight about every part of the world. But at least don’t be hypocritical in the way you cover some of these issues.
JJ: I just wanted to finally say that I want to turn people on to alternative sources of media because of the structural, built-in limitations that you’re just describing. And I wanted to just offer, as an example of that: The Washington Post, the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” Washington Post, their backgrounder thumbnail graf in a recent story characterized things this way:
Modi swept to a landslide reelection victory in 2019, offering Indians a muscular brand of nationalism that views India as a fundamentally Hindu country, rather than the secular republic envisioned by its founders. He has cultivated an image as a singular leader capable of bold decisions to protect and transform the country.
And that’s just kind of the Washington Post’s “If you’re gonna think about a thing about Modi, here’s what you think about Modi.”
JJ: And I just wonder, I know it’s too big to end on, but I don’t think the Post is thinking that “muscular nationalism,….” I don’t think they’re trying to telegraph that as a bad thing. So, despite “democracy dying in darkness,” despite their saying that they’re super-critical of Donald Trump and all that he stands for, it just seems like this theory of the Great Man is inviolate in media, and is going to affect coverage of India, no matter what, going forward.
VP: In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger said it plainly: that it’s good for South America to be ruled by military dictatorships, but we don’t need to have a military dictatorship in the United States. In the same way, liberals in the United States will say, “Well, we don’t want the appearance of a strong man leader in the United States, we don’t want a Trump. But maybe in India, they need it, and it’s good for them. And that’s the nature, that’s the level of their democracy.”
There’s a lot of this sort of racist understanding of political development and so on: that you don’t want the appearance of a strong man inside the advanced capitalist countries, but having a strong man in India, or having a military rule in Thailand, well, that’s just the way they are, that’s their level of social development and so on.
It’s an offensive way of looking at the world, because they wouldn’t say “muscular nationalism, good for the United States,” certainly not the Washington Post. That’s not how they understand themselves.
But I would like to say that, you want alternative or independent reporting, there’s a ton of it. I work for a project called Globetrotter; we produce tons of reporting done by people who live in different countries, whether they’re in Chile or Palestine or wherever, and these are syndicated stories.
Our problem isn’t that we’re not writing stories. Our problem is we just can’t break through the blockade. There is a news blockade. It’s not just on social media; it’s not just on the web, meaning Google search engines and so on. We just can’t get discovered. People automatically assume that the majors are the only game in town.
And for us, discovery is really difficult. And we don’t promote each other in the way of discovery, and that’s a problem. We’ve got to break our own barriers, our own intellectual property hangups. You’re at FAIR, I’m writing for Globetrotter. We are putting these things out together; there’s no competition. We’ve got to have a way of having discovery being the thing that we walk through, and not allow ourselves to be always intimidated by the majors, who are the only ones, they suck up all the air in the atmosphere.
JJ: I’m going to end on that up note. We’ve been speaking with Vijay Prashad. He’s executive director at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, chief editor at LeftWord Books and author of, among many other titles, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global Sout h. Thank you so very much, Vijay Prashad, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
VP: Thanks a lot, Janine. Great to be with you.