In early 2020, it would have been hard to argue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government were not focused squarely on the challenge posed by the novel coronavirus. Of course, there was the shoddily planned national lockdown and distracting spectacles, like pot-banging and helicopters being deployed to shower petals on hospitals. But at a time when some other global leaders were downplaying the dangers of the virus, it was at least evident that Modi’s government was not ignoring it.
A year later, the Indian healthcare system is bursting at the seams with Covid-19 patients, as new cases climb to more than 200,000 per day, fueled in part by a little understood Indian variant of the virus. Social media is chock-full of requests for help and hospital beds, crematoriums are struggling to handle the number of dead bodies turning up and migrants are beginning to head for home yet again.
And where is India’s leadership?
The abiding impression is that the country’s leaders are all campaigning in West Bengal, where a high-profile state election is set to continue until the end of the month. There, they are happy to hold large rallies gathering enormous numbers of people with no physical distancing or masks even as Covid-19 cases spike across the country. Modi occasionally turns up in an adminstrative context and puts the onus of managing the virus on the ordinary Indians, asking “each one” to “treat one”.
There is little sense that the Centre is giving the massive, tragic second the urgent attention it needs. Instead, headlines have been dominated by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders defending the huge crowds at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, saying that faith trumps Covid-19 restrictions and the Centre playing politics over vaccine shortages.
Even as local authorities begin to put restrictions on mobility in the hope that they can halt the wildfire-like spread of the disease, the impression coming from Modi – by far the country’s most popular leader – is that mask-less crowds are fine, that he will not step in if people use religion as an excuse to violate Covid protocol and that the reported vaccine shortages are unimportant.
A perfect encapsulation of the current situation comes from Lucknow, where a day after the scale of the crisis became apparent from visuals of the cremation ground, tin sheets were put up to obscure the view.
Another prime example: the head of the BJP’s IT Cell arguing that low case counts, relatively speaking, in West Bengal and Uttarakhand was an argument to allow large crowds to gather in those places.
The second wave cannot be blamed entirely on the Central government, of course. But Modi and his ministers appear to have entirely abdicated their roles, downplaying the danger of variants, politicising vaccine shortages and encouraging large crowds to gather.
How are local authorities supposed to tell individuals to not step out for work when everyone can see videos of thousands gathering at election rallies and on the banks of the Ganga? Why is there no recognition that today’s rising case counts will lead to increased fatalities in two weeks’ time? How can Modi boast of a “Tika Utsav”, a vaccine festival, when the period actually saw fewer people being vaccinated than on previous days, probably because of shortages?
Put aside the question of whether the election schedule should be changed, which involves more legal complexity. Even if elections were allowed to proceed in West Bengal, Modi’s government – which is responsible for the whole country – could have still gone into the “mission mode” that it frequently claims to utilise in crises.
But the prime minister, who has always been prasied for his communication skills, seems entirely unwilling to convey the impression that the country is in the midst of a severe crisis, lest it dent his party’s chances of winning in West Bengal. What else could explain the unwillingness to speak honestly about the severity of the second wave beyond putting the onus on states and the people? How else is one to understand the politicisation of vaccine shortages and the silence on large religious gatherings?
In 2020, there was much debate over whether lives should take precedence over livelihoods, with Modi touting the fact that he could take the hard decisions to protect his countrymen. In 2021, it seems, votes appear to trump both.