By Fatemeh Fazli

India's Covid-19 crisis dents PM Modi's image

June 19, 2021 - 15:21

The devastating Covid-19 crisis in India has irreparably dented the well-crafted image of the country's premier, Narendra Modi, with questions being raised over his style of governance during the pandemic. 

Modi's nationalist government has come under fire for failing to manage the crisis that has shaken the world's second-most populous country, with a record number of deaths and infections reported in the past few months. The song and dance about India's growth story has come to an abrupt halt.

Stories emerging from the country's second Covid-19 wave have dominated headlines in global media in recent weeks and months, causing huge embarrassment to Modi, who had over the past eight years of his rule invested heavily in building his international image.

There have been harrowing accounts of people gasping for breath, waiting endlessly for critical care beds and treatment at government hospitals, especially the most vulnerable who can't afford state-of-the-art health facilities in private hospitals. 

Social media has been replete with images and videos of Covid-19 patients and their families scrambling for everything, from hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, doctor's attention, even a space for conducting funeral ceremonies for the dead. The struggle during life has continued even after death. 

The catastrophic pandemic wave has exposed the fledgling healthcare infrastructure of the country that prides itself on being a nuclear power and an economic giant. The healthcare system in the country has been under tremendous pressure, especially in major cities, with patients sharing beds and waiting in long queues in cramped hallways to receive treatment. In most cases, the wait has ended in death.

Even the crematoriums have been running full, forcing the people to hold mass funeral pyres in parking lots, on riverfronts, even on the streets. Amidst these tragic events, help has been missing. 

In a damming indictment of the country's rulers, popular Indian news magazine Outlook ran a cover story recently stating that the 'government of India' was missing amid the crippling coronavirus crisis. The magazine cover grabbed eyeballs everywhere, suggesting that the invincibility of the present government has been shattered. 

Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rose to power in 2014 after defeating its main rival Indian National Congress, has over the years made a concerted effort to project itself as a viable alternative to the Congress party's hereditary politics. 

It even succeeded in wresting control of some key states that were previously governed by the Congress party, mainly due to Modi's personal appeal and also due to appeasement of Hindu voters.

But it faltered on many fronts, mainly in the economic sphere. Experts blamed the Modi government for experimenting too much with the previous government's economic policies, announcing some bold but foolhardy measures that eventually backfired. 

In the decade between 2000 and 2010, when Congress was ruling the country, India witnessed a sharp surge in economic growth, clocking an impressive annual rate of 8.8%. Some even predicted India to become a fully developed industrialized country by 2020.

Soon after the BJP's rise in 2014, the country took a big hit, with widely criticized initiatives of the government like demonetization and new goods and services tax proving counter-productive. 

In 2019-2020, the country's growth rate plummeted to just 4 percent, but the worst was yet to come. 

The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns dealt a heavy blow to the economy, with India becoming the worst-performing global economy. However, the worst was still away. 

Then came the second wave of Covid-19 and suddenly, all hell broke loose. The second wave hit the country in March this year, bringing the big country to a grinding halt.

While the official death toll stands at 370,000, observes believe the actual toll could be much higher, with thousands of fatalities unaccounted for, mainly in small towns with ramshackle health facilities. 

The government's response has been so shoddy that a prominent Indian commentator in a newspaper article said, "India has transitioned to a failed state."

"The 'fiction' of India's health system is now exposed," wrote Yamini Aiyar, head of the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research in Hindustan Times. "And as hapless citizens struggle to find oxygen, basic medicines, hospital beds, the once sound and functional 'head', or more specifically the national government, is no longer visible. Indeed, it has abdicated from all responsibility, from leadership and governance."

UK-based news magazine Economist said the "state has melted away in India," while an Indian news magazine India Today, referred to India as "the failed state."  

Modi is not the only world power to have bungled in his response to the crisis. His long-time friend and former US President Donald Trump also paved the way for the catastrophe in his country, so did Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

But Modi failed to take lessons from countries like the US and Brazil, where the first wave hit before India. He even allowed a popular Hindu festival where millions of Hindu devotees assembled on the banks of the River Ganges for a dip considered holy. 

He also went ahead with the month-long election in India's eastern state of West Bengal, appearing without a mask during campaign rallies. His party eventually lost the electoral battle.

While his controversial policy decisions over the years may have been ignored by voters for different reasons, but his debacle in the battle against the cataclysmic virus will not be ignored or forgotten.

With his ratings at an all-time low, bouncing back from here will take a lot of doing for Modi.

 

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