Brand Modi slips as Covid crisis hammers India
NEW DELHI, May 8: "Modi leads India out of a lockdown and into a Covid apocalypse," declared a recent headline in the UK Sunday Times. The Australian newspaper re-published the story with a scathing summary: "Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions, critics say, as India's crowd-loving PM basks while citizens literally suffocate."
Modi's popularity has fallen during India's deepening Covid crisis, according to an opinion poll, as the country reports more than 400,000 daily infections in a brutal second wave. The prime minister's approval rating fell to 65 per cent on May 4th, down from 74 per cent at the end of March, according to Morning Consult, the US data company - the lowest level since the agency began tracking Modi's rating in August 2019.
The Indian leader's disapproval rating also rose to its highest level since the tracker was launched, climbing to 29 per cent from 20 per cent. Modi's approval rating remained high compared with other global leaders, but the country's health and humanitarian crisis has taken a toll. The prime minister has a strongman reputation but has been accused of indifference in the face of the Covid-19 disaster as he campaigned in state elections even as the outbreak worsened.
Stories from India's punishing second wave have dominated global news and social media feeds - people gasping to stay alive as they wait for critical care beds and treatment; desperate families scrambling for everything, from oxygen cylinders to a doctor's appointment; mass funeral pyres and parking lots turning into crematoriums to accommodate the rising number of dead.
Coverage the world over has pinned the blame on Mr Modi - a man who has often presented himself as an able administrator with an eye for detail, who is now floundering as India's daily cases break records.
"If competence was his calling card, many people are calling that into question," political scientist Milan Vaishnav says. "It's not just that the government seems to be fumbling or absent, it's that they actively contributed to exacerbating the situation."
Modi is far from being the only leader to have bungled his Covid response. But his fall from grace is so pronounced, Vaishnav says, because, unlike former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, he was not a "Covid denier". And yet he failed to prevent what happened, despite the warning signs.
Modi allowed a Hindu festival where millions gathered on the banks of the Ganges river over several weeks for a holy dip. He insisted on a month-long election in West Bengal state and campaigned unmasked at massive rallies, marvelling at the size the crowds.
"These displays of negligence or defiance were shocking to see from parts of the world which had seen lockdowns recently," says Alex Travelli, The Economist's India correspondent.
They were also a vivid reminder of Modi's brand - a strong, popular leader of an overwhelmingly Hindu country - and the Indian exceptionalism that he touted to the world in January.
"For foreign observers, his nationalist impulses were always paired with a sense of technocratic competence. But technocratic competence has been entirely missing from the [Covid] response," says Christopher Clary, assistant professor of political science at the State University of New York. -BBC