Thu | Dec 2, 2021

Virus surge damages Modi’s image of competence

Published:Thursday | May 6, 2021 | 12:17 AM
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India, in March.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India, in March.


India’s hospitals were packed with coronavirus patients, relatives of the sick scrambled to find supplies of oxygen, and crematoriums were running near full capacity to handle the dead.

Yet despite those clear signs of an overwhelming health crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pressed ahead with a densely packed campaign rally.

“I have never seen such a huge crowd before!” he roared to his supporters in West Bengal state on April 17, before key local elections. “Wherever I can see, I can only see people. I can see nothing else.”

As another deadly wave of COVID-19 infections was swamping India, Modi’s government refused to cancel a giant Hindu festival. Cricket matches, attended by tens of thousands, carried on, too.

The catastrophic surge has badly dented Modi’s political image after he drew praise last year for moving quickly to lock down India’s nearly 1.4 billion people. Now, he’s been called a “superspreader” by the vice-president of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Navjot Dahiya.

With deaths mounting and a touted vaccine roll-out faltering badly, Modi has pushed much of the responsibility for fighting the virus on to poorly equipped and unprepared state governments, and even on to patients themselves, critics say.

“It is a crime against humanity,” author and activist Arundhati Roy said of Modi’s handling of the virus. “Foreign governments are rushing to help. But as long as decision-making remains with Modi, who has shown himself to be incapable of working with experts or looking beyond securing narrow political gain, it will be like pouring aid into a sieve.”

The 70-year-old, whose image as a technocrat brought him deep approval from a middle class weary of corruption and bureaucratic dysfunction, has been accused of stifling dissent and choosing politics over public health.

When the official COVID-19 death toll crossed 200,000 – a number experts say is a severe undercount – Modi was silent.


His government says it is on a “war footing,” ramping up hospital capacity, supplies of oxygen and drugs.

“The present COVID pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar told The Associated Press. “All efforts are being made to overcome the situation by the central government in close coordination with the state governments and society at large.”

When Modi won national elections in 2014, he presented himself as someone who could unlock economic growth by merging business-friendly policies with a Hindu nationalist ideology.

Critics saw him as craving power over the national welfare and catering to his Hindu nationalist base. They blamed him – although courts exonerated him – in the bloody 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state, where he was chief minister.

The economy tumbled after his government overhauled India’s cash supply and introduced a goods and services tax. Yet, he easily won re-election in 2019 on a wave of nationalism following clashes with archrival Pakistan.

Despite a second term marred by a souring economy, widening social strife, and deadly clashes with neighbouring China, “Modi has proven to be incredibly politically resilient,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

When the coronavirus hit, Vaishnav said Modi took an approach different from former President Donald Trump and current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

“He never called the virus a hoax. He took it seriously. He encouraged mask wearing, social distancing. He encouraged the sorts of things health authorities everywhere have been calling for,” he added.

The strict lockdown, imposed on four hours’ notice, stranded tens of millions of migrant workers, who were left jobless, and fled to villages, with many dying along the way. But experts say the decision helped contain the virus and bought time for the government.

Cases rose when the country started reopening in June 2020, and the government developed emergency infrastructure plans. When the wave receded and reported cases plummeted over the winter, many officials saw it as a triumph. States dismantled makeshift hospitals and delayed adding ICU beds and ventilators.