May 19, 2021

IntelBrief: COVID-19 in India and Political Implications for the Modi Government

(AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Despite warnings of an impending second wave, Indian Prime Minister Modi has been widely criticized for mismanagement of the pandemic response. 
  • Rather than preparing for the second wave, Modi’s BJP government devoted its energy to campaigning in the West Bengal elections.
  • For the first time since Modi was elected in 2014, his government is facing criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.
  • Many experts feel that, notwithstanding the new more virulent strain, the current chaos in India is a result of the government’s own myopic policies.

Despite warnings of the impending second wave, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been widely criticized for mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. India reached the current disastrous state of the pandemic despite repeated warnings by scientists, including the Indian government's own expert body. The result has been a calamity of unprecedented proportions, with India's daily average of new coronavirus cases just below 400,000 during the second week of May. The real death count is unknown, but is widely believed to far exceed official government reporting. Media reports, accounts from epidemiologists, and anecdotal evidence suggests a massive underreporting of deaths and new infections. A recent study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has evaluated the minimum death toll as three times higher than the roughly 279,000 deaths being reported. The gross mismatch between the officially reported deaths and reports emanating out of crematoriums and graveyards serves to underline the enormity of the devastation while simultaneously eroding trust in the Indian government.

With no end in sight, the coming weeks may bring even greater catastrophe. The pandemic is now aggressively ravaging India’s vast countryside, with stories of death and disease emerging from rural villages, where two-thirds of the country’s population lives with minimal public health infrastructure. Last week, dozens of dead bodies of suspected COVID-19patients washed up on the banks of river Ganges in Buxar town of Bihar, causing unimaginable horror to the residents, with the images going viral in the international media. With no space left in the crematoriums and firewood used for burial cremations becoming scarce, people in rural parts of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, have begun to immerse their loved ones lost to the virus in the nearby rivers or bury them in the sand along the banks. The shocking videos of the dead floating in the Ganges river served to provide a glimpse of the havoc in the rural areas. Additionally, over 2,000 bodies were found buried along the banks of the Ganges in the rural districts of Uttar Pradesh. The local administration’s attempt to cover up both the mismanagement – and the scale of death by putting more soil over the dead bodies – was exposed by the untimely rains which washed away the soil and laid bare an apocalyptic view.

Despite pleading with detractors to refrain from politicizing the pandemic, it appears that this is just what the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was doing just a few months before the current crisis began. The BJP devoted its energy to campaigning and electoral management in the West Bengal elections rather than preparing for the pandemic by procuring oxygen and ventilators and increasing hospital bed capacity. Enormous resources were employed to ensure that large crowds gathered at the political rallies where Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah addressed supporters. In the month of April alone, Modi presided over twenty rallies in West Bengal and Shah addressed more than seventy public meetings. These rallies, where crowds were ferried in from nearby states, became super spreader events. The BJP’s political rivals also deserve a share of the blame, having conducted their own mega road shows. However, the explicit approval of the Prime Minister of India for citizens to attend the events facilitated such mass gatherings.

The West Bengal elections were widely seen as a litmus test for Modi’s popularity. Not only was the party routed by the incumbent Chief Minister, Ms. Mamta Bannerjee, but the defeat also struck a serious blow to Modi, whose popularity was largely unquestioned just two months ago. Moreover, the political backlash of the election loss is proving to be far more damaging than expected. For the first time since 2014, when Modi was elected, his government is facing criticism from all the sides of the political spectrum. Even the mainstream media, often under pressure to conform to government views, has published stories and visuals of the government's mishandling of the pandemic. However, despite BJP’s effective use of social media to its advantage generally, the government and the prime minister are being criticized harshly in this space. Online, thousands of citizens are sharing horror stories of their relatives dying, with reports of some dying on roads or outside of hospitals due to the absence of adequate medical facilities. These critiques have, by far, served as the most serious indictment of the government and its policies at any point to date. The challenge of responding to the pandemic is now being compounded by Cyclone Tauktae, which has pounded India's west coast.

Experts have widely ascribed the current crisis to government mismanagement, not just the virulent nature of the new COVID-19 strain. In February, when less than two percent of India’s population of over 1.3 billion was vaccinated, the government championed what it called “vaccine diplomacy,” exporting vaccines to other countries even as the vast majority of its own population was waiting to be vaccinated. This created an acute shortfall in vaccine availability domestically, causing many states to halt their vaccination drives. Beyond India, regional neighbors will also be watching developments and the impact on their own populations, raising questions about the impact on the security and stability of countries like Bangladesh and Nepal. Moreover, the crisis has highlighted and exacerbated stark inequalities in India – along religious, economic, and political lines – which will likely shape dynamics even after the current wave of the pandemic. As in every democracy, the real test of Modi's popularity will be the parliamentary elections of 2024, which are still three years away. To recover from this crisis, the BJP government will have to engage in significant damage control by effectively managing the pandemic and its after effects. But if the recent assembly elections, including the one in West Bengal, are any indication, Prime Minister Modi may not be able to reinvent himself in time for another victory.