The writer, global chief strategist of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, is the author of “ The Ten Rules of Successful Nations ”
Over the past month, even as the pandemic raged, nearly 150 million Indians voted in five national elections. The ruling party, Bharatiya Janata, wanted to divide the vote into several phases so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi could appear as widely as possible. He has made more than two dozen personal appearances in West Bengal’s only key battlefield.
Rarely has a party tried harder to take control of a single state government. The BJP mobilized its vast political machine with a generously funded cadre army. Yet when the final tally was announced on Sunday, it had failed to oust West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In later stages of the ballot, the BJP lost momentum as the virus got out of hand, showing that Modi’s government was far behind the curve.
In the past six weeks, India has suffered one of the strongest outbreaks of Covid-19 that any country has seen, with an increase in cases of around twelve times, according to official figures. The actual numbers are probably much worse. A crisis of this magnitude would strain even the best health care system in the world. In India, he revealed a pre-existing fragility – a broken state.
A few developed countries, such as France and Italy, have also suffered rapid outbreaks of cases during the final waves of the pandemic. Even so, they managed to lower death rate from the first wave when their health systems had prepared for the shock. In India, on the other hand, the second wave brought about scenes of devastation reminiscent of the dark ages.
When I look video clips with overwhelmed hospitals blocking their doors and leaving desperate patients to die, I am haunted by the thoughts of my grandfather. He died of a heart attack in similar circumstances, turned away from a public hospital where there was no overnight doctor, and a nurse tried but failed to install a pacemaker. But that was in 1993. India’s underlying tragedy is how little progress has been made since.
Among the 25 largest emerging markets in the world, India ranks last for the number of hospital beds per 1,000 population, fifth for physicians and fourth for nurses and midwives. Even if you ditch the richer emerging markets and compare India to other large countries with an average per capita income of between $ 1,000 and $ 5,000 – which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh – India still looks poor on these metrics. basic health.
Public spending generally increases as a proportion of the economy as countries get richer. Indeed, India spends about as much as a typical nation in its income category, or about 30 percent of gross domestic product. So the problem is not the size of the Indian state, but how it spends.
When Modi came to power in 2014, he mocked the social populism of his predecessors. Yet within a few years he rivaled them in his promises of generous gifts, from gasoline to food or homes. Today, social spending represents 9 percent of GDP – far higher than the miracle economies India would like to emulate, such as South Korea and Taiwan, when they were at similar levels of development.
Modi, meanwhile, hasn’t done much to modernize the Indian state, which in many ways still operates in a way reminiscent of British rule. The model of many state agencies dates back to the late 1800s, the health care system to the 1940s. In previous elections, I traveled thousands of kilometers on India’s back roads and seen too many understaffed public health clinics – operating theaters without surgeons, x-ray machines without radiologists – to be surprised they have now failed.
Modi promised “maximum governance”. But rather than reform the antiquated state of India, he centralized power like no other leader in India’s democratic history. He set himself up as the savior of the nation, which would solve all its problems. But even a Formula 1 driver can’t make much headway in an Ambassador, the old Indian-made jalopy. The reality is that the BJP can no longer claim to offer a superior governance model. This loophole is now starting to show up in the polls.
The good news is that private groups, as so often, have rushed during this pandemic to deliver what the government is not doing. Expats send money and medical resources from abroad. Residential associations provide everything they can to sick neighbors. So far the Indian scholarship barely flinched at the rising death toll. This is likely due to a collective hunch that India will survive this crisis as well – but it won’t be because of its leader or the broken state.
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