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India’s Pandemic Disaster Has Finally Slowed Modi’s Unstoppable Rise

The populist leader is blaming everyone but himself. Voters aren’t buying it.

Modi campaigns in West Bengal
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a rally ahead of the West Bengal Assembly elections in Barasat, India, on April 12. Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

After the spectacular failure of the U.S.-sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, then-President John F. Kennedy did the honorable thing: He took full responsibility for the fiasco. “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” he told the nation. Americans appreciated Kennedy’s candor, rewarding him with an unexpected rise in his approval ratings.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the opposite path and is getting punished at the polls. Faced with an even bigger disaster—a devastating COVID-19 outbreak with a projected 1 million deaths by the end of July amid shortages of ambulances, oxygen, and vaccines—Modi is blaming anyone but himself. His lack of leadership likely played a major role in recent elections in West Bengal, India’s fourth-most populous state, where voters handed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a resounding defeat. It was the state he coveted most, and where he’d campaigned relentlessly, holding irresponsible public rallies even as the virus was multiplying across the country.

Modi has been immensely popular among Indians, but public criticism is now at its sharpest across the country. He has been absent from the public eye in recent weeks. He has continued to operate as if nothing has changed, including pressing forward with his personal prestige project of rebuilding the Indian capital with such monuments as a palatial new prime minister’s residence at a time when the country has clearly different priorities. And he hopes that the next national elections in 2024 are sufficiently far away that Indian voters will have put the trauma of the pandemic aside and returned to supporting his Hindu nationalist party. While the political opposition is still divided and not yet ready to mount a national challenge, the pandemic has opened a floodgate of public criticism unlike anything Modi has faced since he took office in 2014.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. At the virtual World Economic Forum in January, Modi patted himself on the back and ridiculed those who had feared India would be swallowed by the COVID-19 tsunami. India was handling the crisis so well, Modi said, that it could afford to help other countries by donating vaccines, even as scientists warned about shortages in India. India’s national COVID-19 task force didn’t even meet in February or March. Lacking urgency, the government ordered vaccines several months after the United States, the European Union, Japan, and Brazil had already secured supplies. Hospitals in India had begun winding down the extra capacity they had preemptively put in place. As a result, the country was disastrously unprepared when the current crisis hit.

Modi took no blame, but now the public mood has turned from despair and sadness to anger.

But in Modi’s India, the buck keeps rolling, settling conveniently wherever the prime minister believes the blame should lie. This is hardly unusual. Modi has never failed to take credit for achievements belonging to others, nor has he accepted blame for the various disasters during his seven-year rule. Now, with the worst public health crisis for India in nearly a century, Modi’s luck may have finally run out.

Modi’s determination to win West Bengal was real. The elections were spread over a month in eight phases, and Modi addressed many rallies without any social distancing measures during the campaign. He eventually canceled only the last few. When the votes were counted, of the 292 seats at stake, the BJP won 77, a significant improvement over the three seats it held in 2016. The resounding victor, however, was All India Trinamool Congress, the party of incumbent West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, which won 213 seats—two more than in the last election. (Two seats remain contested, with the final polls to be held on May 16, but they won’t change the outcome.) The BJP’s gains were impressive, but they came at the cost of a decimated left.

The election rallies were not the Modi government’s only reckless moves that worsened the pandemic. Every 12 years, millions of devout Hindus congregate at the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, a town in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. In dense crowds, they take a ritual dip in the Ganges, which they consider a holy river. Hosting such a festival during a pandemic is callous—the more so because it was brought forward from its regular date next year based on an astrological prediction. Uttarakhand’s chief minister pooh-poohed concerns, saying people would be safe—before he later got infected.

Modi has been silent about why massive rallies were allowed to take place for the elections. He meekly asked devotees not to go to Haridwar, a halfhearted plea most of them ignored. Modi took no blame. But now the public mood has turned from despair and sadness to anger. Magazines are publishing images of dead bodies waiting at crematoriums. The Indian Medical Association has taken the unusual step of criticizing the prime minister. The Indian Supreme Court has condemned the government for threatening to prosecute anyone using social media to seek medical help, ostensibly to prevent the spread of misinformation. A prominent, normally pro-government publisher approvingly retweeted a columnist from a rival newspaper who wrote critically of the government. Modi’s most virulent and vehement public supporters have either been silent or halfheartedly blamed opposition-ruled states for the disarray.

When the pandemic did not hit India ferociously last year, Indians thought they had immunity because of the warmer climate, some presumed genetic protection, or specific dietary habits. Key opinion-makers ridiculed experts who had predicted a worse pandemic outcome for India. The government did impose a severe lockdown, causing significant difficulties for India’s armies of migrant workers. But then the country relaxed, and the government was found asleep at the wheel.

The Indian crisis was anticipated. While it could not have been averted, the effects could have been minimized. Every worst-case scenario is coming true: The country’s health infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals are turning away patients. Ventilators are in short supply. Hospitals are desperately posting appeals on social media for oxygen. Ambulances are unavailable when needed. One doctor, who had been working at an intensive care unit treating COVID-19 patients, hanged himself. Crematoriums are pleading with the bereaved to have patience as they cannot cope. At some crematoriums, the number of bodies cremated daily has risen tenfold. Makeshift funeral pyres are being built in parking lots, poignantly close to one another, where grieving relatives get only limited time to say farewell to their loved ones. There is a shortage of wood, furnaces are red-hot and melting, and fights have broken out over suspicions that some people are jumping the line at crematoriums. There is no sign when this apocalyptic scenario might end.

The unstoppable march of Modi and the BJP has finally slowed—but only at a tragic cost in human lives.

Yet instead of accepting blame and firmly taking charge, the government is at the receiving end of criticism from the courts. In addition to various accusations, the Supreme Court has begun to mandate the amount of oxygen that must be supplied to hospitals in different states. Government supporters are now complaining of judicial interference. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has been urging diplomats to counter the adverse publicity stemming from the pandemic, asking them to write denials and accusing foreign media of propaganda in screeds that follow Maoist or Stalinist templates.

But the buck keeps rolling. BJP leaders have alternatively blamed China, an Indian Muslim congregation, and states controlled by the opposition. Modi’s health minister, who has promoted dubious esoteric cures, claims there are no shortages. New Delhi has left it to the states to arrange for vaccine imports on their own. Modi’s supporters callously discount the number of deaths by saying that relative to India’s population, it is a low percentage. But it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that in a large country like India, even a fraction of a percent can mean millions of people.

The apocalyptic scenes now playing out in India have not only deflated Modi’s reputation abroad but also severely dented his image at home. West Bengal wasn’t the only state to bring Modi bad news. In other state elections that concluded in early May, the BJP failed to win a single seat in Kerala, where the Left Democratic Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was reelected. In Tamil Nadu, another southern state, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a conservative party allied with the BJP at the national level, lost power to the Secular Progressive Alliance.

After seven years, voters in some Indian states, at least, have had enough and are responding in the only way Modi seems to understand: by driving his party and allies from power. As a result of the pandemic, the unstoppable march of Modi and the BJP has finally slowed—but only at a tragic cost in human lives. India continues to undercount the dead, and government supporters still downplay the crisis. But the overworked crematoriums and pyres in the streets present a far more harrowing image that no deflection of blame can erase.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.