Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India appears to have taken the worst page from Donald Trump’s pandemic playbook. In late January, he declared at the World Economic Forum in Davos that India had defeated COVID-19 and saved the world “from a major tragedy.” Soon after, his government allowed a Hindu festival that drew millions to the Ganges River and state elections to go forward without basic health precautions. The virus roared back, and now India is the global epicenter of the pandemic, breaking world records for new daily cases as the smoke of funeral pyres cloaks the streets of Delhi.
The Biden administration has joined other world leaders to aid the Indian people — exporting personal protective gear, vaccine supplies, and oxygen — amid the current catastrophe. Harrowing accounts of Indian hospitals running out of oxygen, leaving COVID patients to choke to death, have rightly captured the world’s attention. But this is not a natural disaster; it’s a political one. And what the inhabitants of the world’s largest democracy need from the United States, along with gear and medicine, is a willingness on Biden’s part to be a bulwark against their political system’s slide toward authoritarianism.
The humanitarian and health disaster unfolding in India, where vaccine access remains limited, is not only a “major tragedy” but a threat to the entire world. Letting the virus run rampant in a population of more than a billion people poses the risk of new variants that could pierce through the protection of existing vaccines, setting the world back in its efforts to contain COVID-19. And India, a major vaccine producer, has suddenly reneged on its pledges to export vaccines to other nations now that the Modi government has belatedly discovered the urgent need to reach herd immunity within its borders, potentially leaving thousands of the world’s poor vulnerable to COVID-19 infection in countries with health care systems unmatched to the task. Modi has thus far failed to institute a national lockdown in 2021, even as infections skyrocket.
In democracies, it’s transparency and accountability via the electoral system that pushes political leaders and institutions to course-correct and to get better at fighting disasters and protecting their citizens. In 2020, President Trump’s downplaying of the risks of COVID-19 and failure to deal with the pandemic in the United States turned out to be a fatal flaw when it came to his re-election. Voters instead put Joe Biden in office, where he is overseeing a successful vaccine distribution effort that has the United States on the path to some semblance of normalcy (as long as new surprises or new variants don’t thwart that progress).
But in India, the Modi government is censoring criticism and dissent online, insisting that social media platforms take down posts critical of the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic and images of people receiving medical care in the streets outside overburdened hospitals. (The social media companies, for their part, say they must adhere to the Indian government’s laws in order to operate in the country, even though such policies have recently emboldened the Modi government to censor online speech and curb “defamation” of the government, including by journalists and elected officials of other parties.) Earlier this year, Twitter suspended and blocked accounts critical of the government’s new agricultural laws that were linked to farmer protests outside Delhi. In February, the Modi government tightened regulations on what could be posted on social media, with the ostensible rationale of cracking down on misinformation. The self-correcting mechanisms of democracy won’t work if voters are deprived of uncensored information about their government.
The Modi government and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) it represents have also made moves to attack religious freedom and principles of nondiscrimination. In 2019, the Indian Parliament passed a bill that fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslim religious minorities from the predominantly Muslim countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, a move that was likened to President Trump’s 2017 “Muslim ban” that has been challenged in federal courts. Protests were met with an aggressive law enforcement crackdown. Modi and the BJP have further marginalized the country’s 200 million Muslims, including by celebrating a court ruling that would allow a Hindu temple to be built on the site of a centuries-old mosque that was razed by a mob.
The Trump-Modi bromance left little room for challenging India — and even if the former White House had been so inclined, the United States lacked the standing under Trump to credibly challenge India for undermining free expression and threatening religious minorities. But the United States under Biden’s leadership is rebuilding its moral authority to uphold democratic principles around the world, and it has leverage through trade and aid to insist on the protection of free speech and religious minorities in India. It’s time for the White House and the State Department to step up to that task.
Last week, President Biden said in his address to Congress, “We have to prove democracy still works.” The comment seemed directed at the differential success in addressing the pandemic being witnessed by the world, with China and other authoritarian nations having declared victory over the coronavirus even as democracies in Europe and the Americas have struggled.
India’s current catastrophe is not a great testament to the power of democracies to solve problems. But even more troubling is that its political system is in a precarious state, tilting toward more authoritarian rule. Unchecked, Modi could seize the crisis of the pandemic to further undermine freedom of speech and more, imperiling not only the case for, but also the fate of, democracy around the world. The United States should do what it can to prevent that.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.