Modi missing in action during nation’s deadly crisis

Modi missing in action during nation’s deadly crisis

May 17, 2021

New Delhi: During the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cultivated long white hair and a flowing beard, a look associated with a philosopher-sage or seer. Indians have been divided on the new look but the question preoccupying them right now is whether the “seer” has taken a vow of silence?

India’s second wave has been brutal. Hardly any families have remained untouched either by suffering or bereavement. The population has watched in horror for more than a month at the shortage of hospital beds, the fires of crematoria burning day and night, doctors begging for oxygen, patients suffocating outside hospital gates because of lack of treatment, and decomposing bodies floating in the River Ganges, dumped there probably because of overwhelmed crematoria.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in March.Credit:AP

To date, Modi has not expressed a single word of sorrow, sympathy or compassion. Nor has any other minister, not a single one. Modi has held no press conference to explain what went wrong and how he plans to fix it.

Modi, the inveterate tweeter, has not tweeted his grief. The renowned orator has not addressed the nation. There has been no press briefing to communicate with the nation up until press time. No one in the government has stated the obvious – that mistakes were made. Amit Shah is responsible for home affairs but appears not to understand that a pandemic comes under his watch.

It is unheard of for a prime minister to witness a national disaster of this magnitude befall his country and remain for the best part silent. During his monthly monologue on national radio called Mann Ke Baat (Inner Thoughts) he said simply that India had been “hit by a storm”.

Indian PM Narendra Modi speaks during the US-hosted virtual Leaders’ Summit on Climate in April.Credit:Bloomberg

“The most tragic aspect of the crisis is the absence of leadership,” said political analyst Arati Jerath. “There is no indication that he understands what people are going through or condolences for the loss of so many lives. His attitude is almost Trumpian – close your eyes and pretend there is no crisis.”

It was only on Friday, finally, while addressing farmers, that Modi, en passant and six weeks after the surge started, referred to the distress of ordinary Indians. While urging them to continue taking precautions, he said: “The pain that the countrymen have endured, the pain that many people have gone through, I feel the same pain.”

Modi’s supporters argue this has been his style throughout his six years in power, namely, that he chooses when to speak very carefully. Beyond a couple of pre-vetted interviews with sympathetic interviewers throwing him soft balls, he has never spoken to the Indian media. He has never held a press conference. He prefers to let his image as a hard-working (he has not had a day off since 2014 although he is 70), vegetarian, teetotalling ascetic speak for itself.

The Outlook Magazine cover is direct.

Yet when giving speeches to large crowds, he has always been a powerful communicator. He knows the power of the catchy phrase, as in the promise of “Achche Din” (Better Days) with which he bewitched voters in the 2014 general election. He knows exactly how to work a crowd.

“Yet in this crisis, the loquacious Prime Minister has become a Trappist [monk],” said political commentator Parsa Venkateshwar Rao jnr.

The silence has continued despite the drubbing he has been getting from his enemies at home, from social media, and from the international media, including UK medical journal The Lancet which described Modi as presiding over a “a self-inflicted national catastrophe”.

Indians have flooded social media with images of Modi as Nero, twiddling while surrounded by burning pyres. They have complained of his monumental blunders, hubris and insensitivity. “If these are ‘better days’, bring back the bad days,” said one post.

Another read: “India has 121 languages. There is no one who knows all 121. But there is one who has been abused in all 121”. In its latest issue, the cover of news magazine Outlook has the words “MISSING” on an empty white background.

Ever since he first became Prime Minister, a cult of personality has been spun around Modi by his followers and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). According to this cult, the man can do no wrong.

Volunteers prepare oxygen cylinders, provided by Khalsa Help International, for COVID-19 patients in the Indirapurma township of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday.Credit:Bloomberg

But the death toll and suffering from the second wave may end up scorching Modi. His image has taken a beating. There is no other explanation why otherwise belligerent BJP leaders and spokesmen have been uncharacteristically quiet. “They can sense the public mood of anger,” said an angry doctor on COVID duty in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

Susurrations of disquiet have begun. Well-wishers such as commentator Makarand R Paranjape called on Modi to show “more humanity and humility” or risk losing six years of goodwill.

One of Modi’s most effusive supporters, Bollywood actor Anupam Kher whose wife is a BJP MP, shocked the party by saying on television that the criticism of Modi was valid. “It is time for [the government] to understand there is more to life than image-building,” he said.

Political analysts say it is far too soon to speculate on how Modi will fare in the next general election which is three years away. But two events suggest he is in some trouble. Despite strenuous efforts by Modi and Shah, the party lost to a regional rival in the state of West Bengal this month. It was a huge blow because they threw everything at it.

In the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP fared badly in the village council elections last month. This result is significant as elections here are only one year away.

But political analyst Sanjay Kumar refuses to draw any big conclusion from either event. “West Bengal was about state issues. The Panchayat polls were about local grassroots issue. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Modi’s image and popularity have been dented because his handling of the second wave was so different from the first wave,” he says.

In the first wave last year, Kumar adds, Modi took control of the pandemic, addressing the nation five to six times and making it clear he was in control and working to protect Indians against the virus.

“People are hugely disenchanted with him because this time he hasn’t been seen or heard. Modi has been absent, he hasn’t taken control of the situation. He hasn’t connected with the public in any way. For help, people have had to turn to social media to find a bed or oxygen while watching him campaigning in West Bengal,” says Kumar.

Despite the mishandling of the second wave, the BJP returned to power in Assam. “That is why I say that he is by no means finished but his fortunes are likely to be dented. Things will only become clearer next year when BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and, later in the year, Gujarat state go to the polls,” says Jao jnr.

Jerath agrees, saying that while there is a tremendous amount of anxiety within the BJP that it will pay a heavy political price for Modi’s bungling, this will only be tested in these two elections, most importantly in Uttar Pradesh.

“Modi is an MP from the state, from Varanasi. A defeat in Uttar Pradesh, which is largely responsible for the BJP’s dominance, will be a disaster,” she says.

Kumar believes it would be a mistake to underestimate Modi’s ability to turn things around in his favour as the emergency gradually subsides and the coronavirus cases and death toll come down. Indians who have lost their loved ones, he says, are unlikely to forgive or forget.

“But this group is a small group in terms of electoral arithmetic. It’s possible that those who didn’t suffer bereavement or end up in ICU – a much larger group – may be prepared to give Modi the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

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