Posted by: John Elliott | May 26, 2021

Modi completes seven years in power, lost in India’s Covid crisis

PM tries to rise above criticism for his government’s failings 

Cases and other tatistics easing but no end in sight for the pandemic

Mired in India’s Covid crisis, Narendra Modi is marking the seventh anniversary of becoming prime minister with emotional speeches, on one occasion seemingly moved near to tears. He is trying to rise above his government’s failed management of the pandemic and show himself sharing the country’s pain in the style of a non-executive president or religious leader.

With over 300,000 dead because of the pandemic – and maybe as many as one million or more by July – this is Modi’s attempt to side step his failure to run the country in April when Covid cases soared. Instead of organising health crisis facilities and a stable supply of vaccines, and encouraging mask wearing and social distancing, he and Amit Shah, the powerful home minister, addressed closely packed mass rallies during state assembly elections.

Political power, not governance, is Modi’s top priority. After showing that in April, he again illustrated it on May 24 when he is reported to have called a meeting of top government and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders to plan how to recover politically in time for state assembly elections, even though they are nine months away. The NDTV news channel said that the main focus was Uttar Pradesh, an authoritarian BJP stronghold, where a multitude of Covid deaths has even led to hundreds of bodies floating in the sacred River Ganges.

Seven years ago today (May 26 2014), Modi was sworn into office (below) after a triumphant general election. Voters saw him as a new style of leader who would leave behind the failures of the Gandhi-led Congress Party and drive the country into job-creating growth. He was sworn in for a second time two years ago next Sunday, May 30 2019.

Modi set out to build his own personal image at home and abroad as a strong populist leader, driving economic growth along with his Hindu nationalist agenda.

Now, the image abroad has been crippled by his failure to focus and manage the pandemic. Economic growth fell to around 5 per cent even before Covid hit early last year, and recovery this year is uncertain. The Hindutva agenda has been largely stalled by the current crisis.

Modi and the government are being widely criticised, even by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organisation that embraces the BJP. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, said on May 15 that the government was among those that had “dropped their guard” after last year’s first wave of the pandemic. The remark sounded mild but, coming from Bhagwat, it was a sharp reprimand that Modi and Shah cannot ignore. 

The government seemed inert at the peak of the crisis in April when Modi and Shah disappeared from public view for at least two weeks. Modi’s most emotional speech came on May 4.

“This virus took away so many people who were close to us. I offer my deepest condolences to their families,” he told health workers in a virtual address, halting for many apparently emotional pauses when he seemed to be fighting back tears. The media broadly reported the emotion, but Modi was mocked by opposition leaders who doubted his sincerity.

The speech skated above the surface of the pandemic with generalisations and unachievable exhortations. Officials were told to ensure that rural India was Covid free, which is impossible, and to spread awareness in rural districts so that the pandemic could be curbed in villages.

This was in line with a general aim to shift responsibility and blame from central government ministers to officials, state governments, and the country’s (inadequate) institutional systems.

Having been criticised for imposing an economy-crippling national lockdown in March last year, Modi avoided being blamed again and passed responsibility for restrictions and closures to the states.

Responsibility for Covid vaccinations was also passed partly to the states, which are constitutionally responsible for health. The central government however continued to exert authority and was accused of discriminating in the allocation of scarce resources against states that have non-BJP governments such as Delhi.

The states now share half the vaccination supplies with private sector hospitals and there are different price levels. This has led to confusion over allocations, plus bureaucratic delays in placing orders. Manufacturers have rejected approaches from some states.

A Mumbai vaccination queue – ANI photo

Approaching 200m doses have been administered, the equivalent of one vaccination for 14% of the 1.4bn population – two doses have gone to only about 3%. The pace of vaccinations is slowing because of a slump in supplies, even though India is the world’s largest vaccine producer. There is also considerable resistance to the jabs, especially in rural areas where people fear vaccinations will make them sick and maybe die. 

Other complications are emerging because of a lack of medical expertise and a shortage of doctors and hospital beds. There have been outbreaks of mucormycosis, or black fungus, that spreads quickly from the nose to the eyes and brain and can cause rapid death. Specialists say this has been caused by indiscriminate use of steroids in people’s homes and crowded hospitals, plus possibly incorrect application of oxygen cylinders.

Basically, the health system is grossly inadequate. It has been under-funded and under-developed by consecutive governments for decades – India ranked 155th out of 167 countries for hospital bed availability in the 2020 UNDP Human Development Report.

The Covid problems are too large, complex and rapidly changing to be managed by India’s heavily bureaucratic systems. Modi’s apparent inability to inspire and lead the government machine, while concentrating power in his office and demotivating ministers and officials, has added to the crisis.

Restrictions introduced by Modi last year to control foreign donations to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have hampered the flow of aid and equipment such as oxygen cylinders. The government believes NGOs restrict development, for example by opposing environmental approvals for highways and industrial projects, but it did not take into account what would happen when urgent help was needed.

A group of 116 former senior bureaucrats and diplomats signed a statement on May 20 calling for government action and criticising the Modi administration for being “more concerned with managing the narrative of ‘efficient’ management of the Covid crisis rather than addressing the crucial issues at stake.”  

An editorial in the Lancet medical journal said, “Modi’s actions in attempting to stifle criticism and open discussion during the crisis are inexcusable”. This referred to statutory and other attempts to block criticisms of government actions on Twitter and other social media outlets.

The pandemic’s growth seems to be decreasing overall, though it varies around the country and the situation is worsening in some states in the north-east and south. Official figures showed 196,427 new cases and 3,980 deaths yesterday (May 25), down from more than 400,000 new cases daily and over 4,000 deaths at the beginning of May.

These figures are however seriously under-stated because of inadequate reporting. They  are even more unrealistic now than they were earlier because cases are spreading fast in poorly administered smaller towns and rural areas where accurate records are unlikely.

The total official death toll is now over 300,000. The real figure however is estimated by many specialists to be considerable higher, maybe over 1m, given extensive reports of unrecorded cremations and burials.  

If 1m (or more) is correct, it brackets the pandemic with India’s two most serious disasters in the past 80 years – the Bengal famine of 1943 and the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, each with estimates of 1m to 2m deaths.

This is not a record that Modi wants to be remembered for. His dream has been to drive growth and establish India as an internationally strong and respected Hindu nation, so that he would go down in history as the country’s greatest modern leader, rated above Jawaharlal Nehru, the first post-independence prime minister.

Modi now has to find a way to govern and revive at least some of what he hoped to achieve. BJP leaders have been told not to celebrate this week, but to try to show people that the government is coping well.

This article is on the Asia Sentinel news website


  1. No mention about the State where 1/3rd of people died?
    No mention as to who govern 5 States which account for half the infections?
    No mention of any responsibility of any State Government?
    Article is written as if India is a unitary Government and not a federation of 30+ States.
    Is this the bias mind with predisposed conclusion of just plain ignorance?

  2. This blog is essentially a commentary on Modi’s seven years, not a full Covid analysis – see earlier blog pieces for more detail. I do say health is a state level issue within a federal constitution. Modi is open to criticism for abandoning while in Bengal, and later, the national leadership role he should exercise as prime minister. Which state with one-third dead are you referring to?

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