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50 Million People Allowed at Superspreader Festival so Modi Can Secure the Hindu Vote

Yashraj Sharma, Bhat Burhan
·5-min read
Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

In an apparent effort to secure votes for his party in India’s upcoming state elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has allowed at least 50 million Hindus to take to the Ganga river for a holy dip in a religious festival that has turned into an unprecedented COVID-19 superspreader event.

The Kumbh Mela, or the pitcher festival, is a mega Hindu gathering that takes place every 12 years along one of four riverbank pilgrimage sites, where millions of people bathe in the Ganga, also known as the Ganges, hoping to wash away their past sins and achieve salvation from the cycle of life and death. The month-long festival has been linked to at least 2,000 coronavirus infections so far.

The celebration involves ascetics draped in marigold flowers and carrying tridents—a principal symbol in Hinduism—leading hordes of ash-covered followers to the riverbanks. Crammed together, the festivalgoers sing, dance, and hug each other after taking dips in the water.

Despite the obvious public health hazards, Modi has allowed the festivities to continue uninterrupted. Appearing more concerned with bettering his party’s election odds, the prime minister has even promoted potential superspreader events of his own. With five Indian states heading to the polls through April, his de facto deputy—the home minister of India—has been jumping from one venue to another, addressing thousands of people in election rallies and leading grand road shows.

Meanwhile, all across the country, patients are laying outside hospitals and gasping for breath before dying unattended. This month, India’s largest crematoriums ran out of firewood as land space fell short in cemeteries. On Wednesday alone, 200,000 Indians tested positive for the coronavirus. Adding to this, India, long celebrated as the “world’s pharmacy,” is running out of vaccines for its own people. Several states have complained of stock shortage while the country's top vaccine manufacturers, Covishield and Covaxin, have decried a lack of resources.

Experts fear the current infection rate triggered by the festival is only the tip of the iceberg. After the festival ends, millions will be returning to different parts of the country, where they risk infecting others.

<div class="inline-image__title">1232270216</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">XAVIER GALIANA</div>

Dr. SK Jha, the chief medical officer of Haridwar province—home to one of the festival’s riverbank sites—told The Daily Beast that “the cases are rising here every day and we are expecting more infections in coming days at Kumbh Mela. The devotees have come from many parts of India where already cases are surging.”

The government had earlier promised several layers of screening to curb the spread as ash-smeared ascetics took over the town, but health authorities eventually pulled back the COVID-19 testing crew, fearing a stampede-like situation.

Two months ago, Modi had declared an early pandemic victory: “At the beginning of this pandemic, the whole world was worried about India's situation,” announced Modi in a chest-thumping virtual address. “But today, India's fight against [coronavirus] is inspiring the entire world.”

That is clearly no longer the case. Last month, a newly detected variant was searingly downplayed by the government. As cases began to rise again, the government refused to budge on the Kumbh festival, apparently fearing backlash from religious leaders in the Hindu-majority country and securing his Hindu vote bank.

Modi’s handling of the superspreader festival has also raised concerns about his government fueling religious fanaticism and Islamophobia. Last year, India’s Muslim community was vilified after 4,300 positive cases were linked to a religious gathering. Members of the community were jailed, tried in the courts, and subjected to a smear campaign run by the pro-government national media.

Critics have compared the media coverage of the Muslim event with the Kumbh festival, condemning the government’s apparent double standards and wilful ignorance when it comes to the Hindu festival.

Responding to the criticism, the chief minister of Uttarakhand—the state hosting the festival—said: “They [Markaz attendees] were all inside a building and here it is out in the open, near the Ganges. The flow and blessings of Ma Ganga (Mother Ganga) will ensure that coronavirus does not spread. The question does not arise of a comparison… The devotees attending Kumbh are not from outside but our own people.”

<div class="inline-image__title">1231641382</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">PRAKASH SINGH</div>

Though the current pandemic crisis is focused on the handling of the Kumbh festival celebrations, Modi’s planning and policy implementation has fallen on its face before. Last year, when India had around 525 cases, Modi announced an abrupt total lockdown overnight. The unplanned lockdown sparked an exodus of millions of laborers working in metropolitan cities, returning to their homes in the countryside on foot and spreading the virus that was then only limited to the cities.

Still, Modi has managed to champion the game of optics and sell his failures as essential steps and successes to the electorate. Modi’s party has relied on his public messaging to appeal to voters—a tactic focused on political leg-pulling and the flaunting of his largely unmasked “massive” rallies. He is unwavering in his celebration of the crowds that flock to him, and dares not dampen the mood by asking voters to adhere to safety precautions.

As other politicians follow suit, the Hindu nationalist leadership appears collectively hell-bent on showcasing an illusion of normalcy and preserving its religious sentiments. Meanwhile, the death count continues to soar as India’s historic health crisis spirals out of control.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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