India’s Covid-19 crisis shakes Modi’s image of strength

NEW DELHI – Its Covid-19 working group has not met for months. Its health minister assured the public in March that India had reached the “endgame” of the pandemic. A few weeks earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had boasted to world leaders that his country had triumphed over the coronavirus.

India “saved mankind from a great catastrophe by effectively containing the crown,” Modi said during a virtual rally at the World Economic Forum in late January, three Indian tricolors displayed in the background.

Today, a second wave has made India the worst affected country in the world.

New infections have reached about 400,000 per day. Vaccines are running out. Hospitals are inundated. The oxygen that saves lives is running out. Every day, cremation sites burn thousands of bodies, sending endless plumes of ash that turn the skies gray over some of India’s largest cities.

India’s brutal overthrow, from declaring victory to the most serious emergency in decades, has forced a national judgment, with Mr. Modi at its center.

Experts around the world once marveled at how the country seemed to have escaped the worst of the pandemic, receiving explanations of the relative youth and health of the people that Mr Modi and his government embraced, if not encouraged. Even now, Mr Modi’s supporters say India has been hit by a global phenomenon and it takes more time to trace the causes of the second wave.

But independent health experts and political analysts say Mr. Modi’s overconfidence and overbearing leadership style bear a huge share of the blame. Critics say his administration was determined to portray India as on the right track and open for business despite the lingering risks. At one point, officials dismissed warnings from scientists that the Indian population remained vulnerable and had not achieved “herd immunity” as some members of his administration suggested, people familiar with the conversations said. .

Growing distress across this country has tarnished Mr. Modi’s aura of political invulnerability, which he gained by rolling the opposition and leveraging his personal charisma to become the most powerful politician in the country. India for decades. Opposition leaders are under attack, and his central grip on power has increasingly made him the target of harsh criticism online.

With legislative elections in three years and no sign of defections from his government, Mr. Modi’s power seems assured. His government has stepped up efforts to supply desperate patients and expanded eligibility for rare vaccines to more age groups. Still, analysts say his dominance means more people will hold him personally responsible for the disease and death exploding across the country.

“The bulk of the blame lies in Modi’s style of governance, where key ministers are chosen for their loyalty rather than their expertise, where secrecy and image management are privileged over transparency,” said Asim Ali, researcher at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. .

“In such a governance framework,” he added, “when Modi drops the ball, as he did on Covid, there can be disastrous consequences.”

At various points in recent months officials have made decisions that have come back to haunt India.

Although India is a vaccine powerhouse, producing vaccines to protect the world, it has not purchased enough doses to protect itself. Instead, as vaccination rates remained low in the country, New Delhi exported more than 60 million vaccines to strengthen its position on the global stage.

Even as infections increased, Mr. Modi decided to let large groups come together to help his ruling party, Bharatiya Janata, and strengthen his Hindu nationalist credentials. His government authorized a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers. He campaigned in the maskless state election at rallies of thousands of unmasked supporters.

Mr. Modi surrounded himself with allies rather than experts, analysts said. Officials felt too intimidated to point out errors, analysts said, or to question his claims that the pandemic was over. His party and allies have also moved to silence critics, ordering Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to remove critical posts and threatening to arrest ordinary people for advocating for oxygen.

Mr. Modi’s party, known as the BJP, and the government declined to answer specific questions, but listed actions taken by the government, including Mr. Modi who held more than a dozen meetings in April with air force officers, pharmaceutical executives and many others.

In a statement, the government said it “maintains a steady pace of coordination and consultation to prepare an adequate response.” He added that the administration in February had “advised states to maintain strict vigilance” and “not to let their guard down.”

Any Indian leader would have faced challenges. Hundreds of millions of poor people live cheek by jowl, easy targets for a highly contagious virus. India has long neglected public health, spending less than $ 100 per capita per year, according to the World Bank, less than many developing countries – a problem that predates Modi.

The country reported more than 398,000 new viral infections and more than 3,500 deaths on Saturday. Evidence suggests that official figures grossly underestimate the toll. The country’s largest city, Mumbai, simply halted all vaccinations because it was essentially depleted.

Analysts say Mr. Modi performed much better in the first wave. Longtime politician with humble roots and a penchant for dramatic movements, Mr Modi, 70, embraced masks and social distancing from early days.

On March 24, 2020, when India had less than 600 infections in total, Mr Modi ordered his country to place itself in one of the strictest lockdowns in the world on four hours’ notice. Concerned about being guided, most people dutifully stayed inside. When Mr Modi called on citizens to stand on their balconies and bang pots and pans in solidarity with healthcare workers, millions of people did.

Experts attribute this lockdown, although imperfect, to slowing the spread. But the restrictions were economically devastating, putting tens of millions of people out of work and jeopardizing many of Mr. Modi’s greatest ambitions, including making India a world power. He was afraid to shut up.

After loosening many restrictions, infections rose to nearly 100,000 a day in September, but the healthcare system held on. In early 2021, when infections had subsided and the economy was starting to come back to life, Modi and his team made a concerted effort to signal that India was back.

Many Indians abandon their masks. They returned to the markets and socialized. Even more restrictions have been lifted. The Covid-19 centers set up during the first wave have been dismantled.

His party leadership said in February that India had “defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi”. In early March, Harsh Vardhan, India’s Minister of Health, proclaimed that India was “at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Those who were not so sure were dismissed. India’s Covid-19 task force, which includes around 20 healthcare professionals, met at least twice a month. But between Jan. 11 and April 15, the task force did not meet at all, according to three people familiar with their deliberations. Two said the government simply believed the threat was over.

Some scientists have worried about the official line that India, a nation of 1.4 billion people, is approaching herd immunity, or the point at which enough people in the population are immune – either through vaccination , or by early infection – that the virus can no longer spread. easily. VK Paul, head of the Covid-19 task force, said in January that “most of our densely populated districts and cities have experienced their series of pandemics.”

Affected scientists have pushed back, according to the three people. Serologic studies don’t necessarily support the idea, they said. Two people familiar with the research said the government-chosen findings suggested a move towards collective immunity.

The immunization program has lost momentum as complacency sets in. The Modi administration has started exporting vaccines made in India to gain favor with neighbors who might be tempted to take vaccines from China, New Delhi’s regional rival. The government has only approved two vaccines for use, both made in India, touting the country’s self-sufficiency. Less than 2% of the population received two doses.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a spokesperson for BJP, said there was no shortage when the government exported vaccines and “the government has proactively increased production and purchases from alternative sources.”

As vaccinations stammered, Mr. Modi took to the campaign trail. Several states were holding elections and he focused specifically on West Bengal, a state controlled by an opposition party. Until mid-April, Mr. Modi and Amit Shah, the Home Secretary, campaigned relentlessly, drawing crowds of thousands, many of whom were not wearing masks and crowded together tightly. The results of the vote are expected on Sunday.

Although health experts warned of the risks, Mr Modi, an energetic activist, appeared to draw strength from the rallies. He told one in mid-April, as India surpassed 200,000 new daily infections, how happy he was to “see only people and people and nothing. other”.

While several factors are at play and more dangerous new virus variants may also be involved, many people blame the election. In a recent hearing, a judge told an Indian Election Commission lawyer that “your officers should be charged with murder.”

At another hearing in Delhi, after a lawyer representing the local government complained that Mr Modi’s administration was not doing enough to address the acute oxygen shortage, the country’s solicitor general responded : “Let’s try not to be a crybaby.”

Mr. Modi is likely to retain power, thanks to weak opposition and his ability to inflame his Hindu nationalist base. Even his image has changed; Mr. Modi has lost the fancy baseball cap and sunglasses he wore a year ago and has grown his hair and beard long, reminiscent of a Hindu sage.

“He’s just a unique political animal,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He has that charisma, allure, magnetism, a very compelling personal story, and he has tremendous personal credibility with the average voter.”

Even now, Vaishnav added, “people love Modi and they will find ways to justify it.”


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