For Modi, the most powerful Indian prime minister in five decades, it is a moment of reckoning. He is facing what appears to be the country’s biggest crisis since independence, a calamity that is challenging his vision of a proud, self-reliant nation.
Modi’s own lapses and missteps are an increasing source of anger. As coronavirus cases skyrocketed, Modi continued to hold huge election rallies and declined to cancel a Hindu religious festival that drew millions to the banks of the Ganges River, despite pleas from health experts.
Rather than making urgent preparations for a second wave of cases in an already weak health-care system, the government put much of its focus on vaccinations — a campaign too limited to blunt the oncoming disaster. The government repeatedly chose self-congratulation over caution, publicly stating that the pandemic was in its “end game” in India as recently as last month.
Modi swept to a landslide reelection victory in 2019, offering Indians a muscular brand of nationalism that views India as a fundamentally Hindu country rather than the secular republic envisioned by its founders. He has cultivated an image as a singular leader capable of bold decisions to protect and transform the country.
Now that image is “in tatters,” said Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist at Ashoka University in the northern Indian state of Haryana. Modi and his governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) built a formidable machine for winning elections, Sitapati said, but their mind-set of continuous campaigning has come “at the cost of governance.”
The governing party rejects such criticisms. Modi’s government has been working “round the clock” to fight the pandemic since the start of 2020, said Baijayant Panda, the national vice president of the BJP. “By the beginning of this year, the number of active covid-positive cases had dwindled to a trickle. … The suddenness and scale of the present surge has taken everyone by surprise.”
Modi has acknowledged that the country is fighting “a colossal battle” against the coronavirus. India was successful in confronting the first wave of cases, he said in a radio address this week, but “this storm has shaken the country.”
The prime minister’s office, the minister of information and broadcasting, and two health officials in Delhi did not respond to requests for comments on criticism of the government’s handling of the second coronavirus wave.
Modi’s approach to India’s current surge stands in contrast to his actions last spring. Last March, he ordered a strict nationwide lockdown, the world’s largest, with four hours’ notice at a time when the country had recorded about 500 coronavirus cases. The lockdown caused extreme economic hardship: More than 100 million people lost their jobs. Among them were millions of migrant workers who began leaving cities on foot to return to their home villages.
The lockdown slowed transmission of the virus and gave India time to scale up testing and other capacities to fight the pandemic. Infections surged in the fall as restrictions were loosened across the country but receded early this year for reasons that remain unclear.
Modi’s national government as well as state authorities “went into the comfort zone of believing the pandemic has passed,” said Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “That illusion came to settle in the minds of most people and clouded their judgment.”
A national task force of experts and scientists set up to advise the government on its response to the pandemic did not meet at all in February and March, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the panel’s behalf. The task force met twice in April, and another meeting is scheduled for this week.
In March, the government allowed an enormous month-long Hindu religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, to proceed in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Earlier this month, the state’s chief minister, a member of Modi’s party, said that because the gathering was held on the banks of the Ganges River, which Hindus consider holy, “there should be no corona.”