Anarya is haunted by her father’s last request as he lay dying in an Indian government Covid hospital, where doctors struggle with a deluge of critical patients. “The last clear words I heard from him were, ‘Get me some help. Get someone to attend to me’,” the 30-year-old art educator, who uses only one name, recalls.
She and her brother had hunted desperately for a hospital for their 67-year-old father, who was struggling to breathe at home despite having an oxygen cylinder. Delhi’s private hospitals were full, so they rushed by ambulance to a public hospital only to find it barricaded shut. “The hospital staff told us to leave because there was no bed available,” Anarya says.
They wound up at a makeshift government Covid isolation facility, with four junior doctors monitoring more than 100 patients. Her father got oxygen but no medication. Admitted to hospital two days later, he was left without oxygen or care for an entire night. When he finally got an oxygen bed, it was too late. “The harm was already done,” Anarya says.
Today, the young woman is overwhelmed with grief — as well as rage at her family’s ordeal. It is a fury pervasive in urban India, as citizens struggle to obtain medical care for ailing loved ones — and scarce vaccinations — amid an enormous wave of deadly Covid-19 infections.
This anger has exposed the first cracks in the armour of a charismatic strongman who had until weeks ago seemed all but politically invincible: Narendra Modi, India’s most powerful and popular prime minister in decades.
Modi — propelled to power in 2014 by promises to bring acche din or “good days” to aspirational Indians — now appears a diminished figure, presiding over what many see as the biggest disaster to befall the country since its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. His pledges to increase job-generating economic growth, deliver administrative efficiency — or “minimum government, maximum governance” as he called it — and boost India’s stature on the global stage remain unfulfilled.
Instead, many Indians struggling to keep Covid-stricken relatives alive in the face of daunting obstacles feel abandoned by a leader who appears strangely indifferent — if not paralysed — amid their suffering.
“It’s not our job to find medicine, to find oxygen, to find an ICU bed,” says Anarya. “Going from hospital to hospital — that is not what should happen. Our job is to pay taxes. It is the government’s job to provide basic facilities. They are failing the people. It’s criminal negligence.”
Tough questions are being asked of Modi’s pandemic management, including public health messages that suggested the virus threat had passed; the failure to heed repeated expert warnings of an imminent second wave; and a botched procurement strategy that has led to an acute shortage of vaccines.
Meanwhile, the planeloads of emergency medical relief supplies pouring in from around the world — including from countries such as Uzbekistan and Romania — have punctured many Indians’ proud perception of their country as an emerging global power.
“This is the first time in seven years that we are seeing a sense of public anger against Modi,” says Asim Ali, an associate at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “It is coming from the urban middle class, which is his most loyal base. These are people who shape opinion.”
Modi’s popularity is still at elevated levels that would make most other global leaders green with envy. According to data analytics agency Morning Consult, more than 65 per cent of Indians still approve of Modi’s performance, while just 29 per cent disapprove. But Modi’s standing has eroded significantly since late March, when his approval rating was 74 per cent and disapproval rating just 20 per cent.
The question now is whether the prime minister — who during his seven years in power has consolidated most decision-making authority in his own office — can divert public attention and deflect blame for the crisis, or whether disillusionment with his performance will deepen, gradually sapping his authority.
Ali says the premier’s carefully cultivated image as a self-sacrificing leader working tirelessly to serve the public has been badly hit by his intensive campaigning in state elections in West Bengal. He addressed more than 20 rallies, gloating about the huge crowds gathered to see him — even as India’s Covid cases surged and Delhi hospitals ran out of oxygen.
“The core of Modi’s image was of a selfless person, who wasn’t after power or money,” Ali adds. “This image has suffered. He was hankering after electoral power in West Bengal while people in other parts of the country suffered. He just seems like another politician to people now.”
Ronojoy Sen, a senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore, says Modi appeared caught off-guard as the second wave hit last month, creating the impression of a leadership vacuum.
“The certitude, the leadership qualities that the prime minister is famed for, and that he had shown last year — that seems to be missing,” says Sen. “They [ruling party officials] seriously believed India had really vanquished Covid. You had the health minister say in March, ‘We’re in the endgame’. Now, when things are probably at their worst, the central government seems to be either overwhelmed or missing in action.”
India’s next general election isn’t until 2024. But India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, now run by the controversial Hindu cleric Yogi Yogi Adityanath from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, will elect a new state government next year. The poll will provide an early test of voters’ opinions on the BJP’s management of the crisis.
Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University in the US, says the outcome will depend partly on whether Indians interpret the destruction and losses of the pandemic as the result of governance failures, or a force beyond any administration’s control.
“The question is, ‘How is suffering interpreted?’” Varshney says. “Some will say, ‘This is God’s punishment for your deeds’. [Others] will say this is excessive suffering and this is because of government mistakes and bureaucratic brutality. I can’t believe more and more people will not think this was inflicted by the government.”
Most analysts still believe Modi will be able to overcome his current woes, given his consummate political skills, the weakness of India’s opposition parties and his proven ability to maintain his standing in voters’ eyes despite inflicting disruptive shocks since he became leader.
His unorthodox plan to demonetise much of the country’s currency in 2016, and poorly executed adoption of a new tax system a year later, brought much public misery and severely damaged the economy. But voters kept faith, seeing Modi’s actions as well-intentioned efforts to shake up a rotten system.
At the start of the pandemic last year, Modi imposed one of the world’s most draconian lockdowns on just four hours’ notice. This created a humanitarian crisis for millions of vulnerable migrant workers, who were trapped in cities without earnings or forced to take arduous journeys hundreds of kilometres back home on foot.
Yet the urban middle classes — and even many migrants themselves — still thought Modi had taken a tough but necessary decision to protect public health.
Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University, says Modi’s resilient popularity has so far reflected his perceived personal qualities as a strong decisive leader, rather than on “accountability or an evaluation of the consequences of his action or inaction.”
But he believes Modi, and the BJP, will face a tough battle to regain control of the narrative about their handling of the crisis.
“The contrast between the projected image, and the actual capacities, has never been so stark,” Vernier says. “There is a sentiment of powerlessness that the government exudes that we haven’t been accustomed to before . . . There is simply no way that this situation can be spun into anything that is remotely positive.”
The true magnitude of India’s current Covid wave — and the human toll — may never be known or officially acknowledged. India’s testing capacity remains limited especially in small towns and rural areas, where the virus is spreading rapidly. According to official figures, India has recorded just over 250,000 Covid deaths since the pandemic began, still behind the US and Brazil.
Harsh Vardhan, India’s health minister, has repeatedly cited these official figures to argue the country has handled Covid far better than richer countries — a key mantra in the BJP’s rhetorical arsenal in the debate over its pandemic management.
India has recorded 23.3m cases, with the most recent seven-day rolling average of daily infections put at more than 380,000. But independent experts believe the true number of new daily infections is running at between 1.5 and 2m a day, with daily Covid deaths estimated at 25,000 to 50,000. Such a widespread trauma is unlikely to be forgotten easily, given the distressing nature of Covid deaths.
“You can ignore, fail to test for or undercount whatever disease you want,” Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter last week. “But you can’t ignore the dead. In India, the dead are telling us that the disease is much worse than the official statistics. And we have to listen.”
As crematoriums work overtime to dispose of the dead, the BJP is shifting into aggressive damage control mode, with party leaders likening the second wave to an unforeseeable natural disaster.
Jay Panda, national vice-president of the BJP, says senior government figures are “working close to 24/7 to tackle the problem” of oxygen shortages and boost vaccine supplies.
“The prime minister repeatedly appealed to people not to let their guard down,” says Panda. “The number of cases has surged far more than was anticipated by anybody. Nobody — not even the critics today — predicted this either.”
Scientists and public health experts counter that they warned in early March of the risks posed to India by more infectious new variants in circulation — and of the dangerous consequences of New Delhi giving the nod to mass political and religious gatherings, like the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival that drew at least 9m devotees to the banks of the Ganges up to the end of April.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand there would be a second wave,” says virologist Shahid Jameel of Ashoka University. “Look at every country in the world that peaked before India, they all had a second wave — why would India not have one? This really false narrative was built that Indians are somehow special — and everyone participated in that.”
However, the BJP is also using its extensive network of WhatsApp groups to discourage expressions of “negativity” that it warns could undermine public morale. Facebook and Twitter have been ordered to remove content critical of Modi’s government, while Uttar Pradesh police authorities have filed criminal complaints against hospitals and individuals publicly complaining about the acute shortage of life-saving medical supplies.
New Delhi is also trying to deflect blame for the crisis to state governments, even adopting a new decentralised vaccine procurement policy which could leave states taking the flak for the acute shortage of jabs.
It has also identified another culprit for the Covid calamity: the Indian people themselves. Officials have criticised people who failed to wear masks and started socialising intensively after Covid case numbers fell earlier this year.
“Instead of just blaming the government and instead of blaming institutions, I would tend to blame the people of India also,” Amitabh Kant, chief executive of Niti Aayog, the government’s main policy think-tank, told a recent FT Global Boardroom online event. “All of us need to be far more responsible. It’s very important that the people of India become disciplined.”
Yet the increasingly critical tone of India’s once deferential media reflects the furious popular mood. On the cover of its latest issue, the weekly news magazine India Today used a photo of a queue of corpses awaiting cremation, with the words “The Failed State”.
Gujarat Samachar, the most read daily newspaper in Modi’s home state Gujarat, compared Modi to Nero, fulminating that construction on his pet project of a new parliament building — and a palatial new prime ministerial residence — was continuing after being declared an “essential service” exempted from Delhi’s lockdown.
“PM is busy with his $2.9bn Central Vista Project,” the newspaper said in a recent front page headline. “While Indians swing between life and Covid death, our ‘public servant’ has turned dictator.”
Criticism of Modi’s pandemic management extends beyond India. In a withering editorial last week, The Lancet, the medical journal, said Modi’s government had “squandered its early successes” and warned the premier was at risk of “presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe”.
India’s struggling opposition parties — long overshadowed by Modi’s towering political persona — sense opportunity. Rahul Gandhi, de facto leader of the enfeebled Congress, last week wrote a scathing letter accusing the premier of “hubris” that has not just cost Indians their lives but imperilled global health.
Regional parties have been buoyed by the victory of West Bengal’s incumbent chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who withstood the full force of the BJP’s electoral machinery in just concluded state elections.
Modi, even if he has been weakened by the crisis, still appears well-entrenched. A 31-year-old sweet shop owner in an Uttar Pradesh temple town acknowledges the widespread public anger at the prime minister, but says India had no viable alternative as a national leader.
“Almost everyone has lost a loved one in this second wave,” says the man, a self-proclaimed Modi supporter who asked not to be identified. “But whenever people ask me about Modi’s leadership, I wonder, ‘If not Modi, who else?’ There’s no other eligible leader around.”