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Foreign Policy

India’s pandemic catastrophe has lastly slowed Modi’s unstoppable rise

May 12, 2021, 9:01 a.m.

After the spectacular failure of the US-sponsored Cuba invasion of the Bay of Pigs, then President John F. Kennedy did the honorable thing: he took full responsibility for the fiasco. “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” he told the nation. The Americans valued Kennedy’s openness and rewarded him with an unexpected increase in his approval ratings.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone the other way and will be punished in the elections. In the face of an even bigger disaster – a devastating COVID-19 outbreak with an estimated 1 million deaths by the end of July due to a lack of ambulances, oxygen and vaccines – Modi blames everyone but himself. His lack of leadership likely played an important role in the recent elections in West Bengal, India’s fourth-largest state, where voters were hit by a resounding defeat for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was the state he coveted most and where he had fought tirelessly and held irresponsible public rallies while the virus multiplied across the country.

Modi was very popular with Indians, but public criticism is now sharpest across the country. He has not been seen in public for the past few weeks. He has continued to work as if nothing has changed, including his personal prestige project to advance the Indian capital with monuments such as the residence of a new palatial prime minister at a time when the country clearly has different priorities. And he hopes the next national elections in 2024 are so far away that Indian voters have put the trauma of the pandemic aside and come back in support of his Hindu nationalist party. While the political opposition is still divided and not yet ready to face a national challenge, the pandemic has opened a floodgate of public criticism in a way that Modi has not done since he took office in 2014.

It shouldn’t be like that. At the World Economic Forum in January, Modi patted himself on the back and mocked those who feared India would be swallowed up in the COVID-19 tsunami. India has coped with the crisis so well that it can afford to help other countries by donating vaccines, even if scientists warned of shortages in India. India’s national COVID-19 task force didn’t even meet in February or March. In the absence of urgency, the government ordered vaccines a few months after the US, European Union, Japan and Brazil had secured supplies. The hospitals in India had started to reduce the additional capacities that they had set up preventively. As a result, the country was disastrously unprepared at the time of the current crisis.

But in Modis India, the money keeps rolling and settling comfortably where the prime minister believes the guilt should be. That is hardly unusual. Modi never failed to recognize the accomplishments of others, nor did he assume the blame for various disasters during his seven-year tenure. Now, with India’s worst public health crisis in nearly a century, Modi’s luck may finally be exhausted.

Modi’s determination to win West Bengal was real. The elections were split into eight phases over a month, and Modi addressed many rallies without social distancing during the election campaign. He only canceled the last few after all. When the votes were counted from the 292 seats at stake, the BJP won 77, a significant improvement over the three seats in 2016. However, the resounding winner was the All India Trinamool Congress, the Conservative party of the incumbent West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who won 213 seats – two more than in the last election. (Two seats remain controversial, the final polls will take place on May 16, but they won’t change the result.) The BJP’s gains have been impressive but at the expense of a decimated left.

The election campaigns weren’t the only ruthless moves by the Modi government that made the pandemic worse. Every 12 years, millions of devout Hindus gather at the Kumbh Mela Festival in Haridwar, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. In large numbers they take a ritual bath in the Ganges, which they consider to be a sacred river. Hosting such a festival during a pandemic is persistent – especially since it was brought forward from its regular date in the next year based on an astrological prediction. Uttarakhand’s prime minister was concerned and said people would be safe – before he was later infected.

Modi said nothing about why massive rallies for the elections were allowed to take place. He meekly asked the followers not to go to Haridwar, a half-hearted request that most of them ignored. Modi took no blame. But now the public mood has turned from despair and sadness to anger. Magazines publish pictures of corpses waiting in crematoria. The Indian Medical Association has taken the unusual step of criticizing the Prime Minister. The Indian Supreme Court has convicted the government of threats to persecute someone who uses social media to seek medical help, allegedly to prevent the spread of misinformation. A prominent publisher, usually pro-government, retweeted approvingly from a rival newspaper columnist who wrote critical of the government. Modi’s most virulent and vehement public supporters have either remained silent or half-heartedly blamed the opposition-ruled states for the disorder.

When the pandemic didn’t hit India as badly last year, Indians believed they had immunity due to warmer climates, suspected genetic protection, or specific dietary habits. Key opinion leaders mocked experts who predicted a worse pandemic outcome for India. The government imposed a severe lockdown that created significant difficulties for Indian armies of migrant workers. But then the country relaxed and the government was found dormant behind the wheel.

The Indian crisis was expected. While it couldn’t have been averted, the impact could have been minimized. Any worst-case scenario will come true: the country’s health infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals reject patients. Fans are in short supply. Hospitals are frantically posting appeals for oxygen on social media. Ambulances are not available if necessary. A doctor who worked in an intensive care unit to treat COVID-19 patients hanged himself. Crematoria ask the bereaved for patience, as they cannot handle it. In some crematoria, the number of corpses cremated every day has increased tenfold. Makeshift pyres are built in nearby parking lots where grieving relatives have limited time to say goodbye to loved ones. There is a shortage of wood, stoves are red hot and melting, and disputes have broken out over suspicions that some people are skipping the line in crematoria. There is no indication when this apocalyptic scenario could end.

But instead of accepting guilt and firmly assuming responsibility, the government is criticized by the courts. In addition to various allegations, the Supreme Court has begun determining the amount of oxygen that must be supplied to hospitals in various states. Government supporters are now complaining about legal interference. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar urged diplomats to counter the negative publicity caused by the pandemic, urged them to write rejections, and accused foreign media of propaganda in screeds following Maoist or Stalinist templates.

But the money keeps rolling. BJP leaders have alternatively accused China, an Indian Muslim community, and opposition-controlled states. Modi’s health minister, who has promoted dubious esoteric remedies, claims there is no shortage. New Delhi has left it to the states to arrange for vaccine imports themselves. Modi’s supporters ruthlessly reduce the number of deaths by saying it is a small percentage relative to the Indian population. But it doesn’t take a genius to realize that in a great country like India even a fraction of a percent can mean millions of people.

The apocalyptic scenes now unfolding in India have not only tarnished Modi’s reputation abroad, but also severely damaged Modi’s image domestically. West Bengal wasn’t the only state that brought bad news to Modi. In other state elections, which ended in early May, the BJP failed to win a single seat in Kerala, where the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was re-elected. In Tamil Nadu, another southern state, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a conservative party that was nationally allied with the BJP, lost power to the Secular Progressive Alliance.

After seven years, at least voters in some Indian states have had enough and are reacting in the only way Modi seems to understand: by ousting his party and its allies from power. As a result of the pandemic, the inexorable march of Modi and the BJP has finally slowed – but only at a tragic cost in human life. India continues to count the dead and government supporters are still downplaying the crisis. But the overworked crematoria and pyrenees on the streets paint a far more terrifying picture that no distraction of guilt can erase.

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