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#ModiMustResign: As India’s coronavirus crisis deepens, its leader faces a growing backlash

As India battles one of the worst humanitarian crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s is facing increased scrutiny and criticism over its handling of the second wave.

India’s official count of coronavirus cases surpassed 20 million on Tuesday, nearly doubling in the past three months, while deaths officially have passed 220,000.

Experts have estimated the figures for both infections and deaths could be much higher.

Social media feeds are filled with footage and photos of crowded cemeteries, dying patients being loaded onto stretchers, overrun hospitals and bodies being burned on makeshift pyres out in the open.

As the virus continues to ravage India, Mr Modi’s government is cracking down further on social media, particularly over any criticism over its response.

Indians are using the hashtags #ModiFailsIndia, #ResignModi and #NoVoteToEvilModi as the catastrophe continues to unfold.

COVID-19 patients who are suffering from breathing difficulties in New Delhi, India.

India is setting almost-daily records for new infections and deaths as the virus crisis engulfs hospitals in cities and spreads into rural regions.

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A sense of complacency

India was among the first countries to enforce a nationwide lockdown in March 2020 – a move that saw millions out of work and caused extreme economic hardship, but meant coronavirus cases were successfully brought under control.

At the start of 2021, India maintained a low daily infections rate while countries like Brazil, the United States and the United Kingdom buckled under growing surges of the virus.

Only two months ago, in early March, India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan triumphantly declared that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic, bolstering the country’s “steady supply of vaccines” and praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership in containing the deadly virus.

Associate Professor Peter Meyer, who specialises in international relations at the University of Adelaide, said India’s containment of the virus up until recently led to a sense of complacency.

“The way things were in January and February, it looked like they really had it nailed down. Daily cases were down. People were being encouraged to go out, which was self-congratulatory about what a good job they’d done. People thought they could relax,” Professor Mayer told SBS News.

Meanwhile, Mr Modi was appearing at rallies and in televised speeches, publicly hailing India’s success at controlling infections and containing the virus.

The trouble, Professor Mayer said, was that neither the people nor the government thought to prepare for a possible resurgence – and never could have foreseen one this bad.

“I don’t know whether anybody could have fully anticipated if more could have been done,” he said.

Politics over health

As the second wave worsened, Mr Modi continued to campaign in various states, where he addressed massive rallies and praised people for turning out in large numbers.

“Everywhere I look, as far as I can see, there are crowds,” he said at a rally in eastern India on 17 April. “You have done an extraordinary thing.”

By this point, the country was already recording more than 200,000 new cases a day, oxygen and hospital beds were running short, and crematoriums were becoming overwhelmed.

Professor Meyer said that, at this time, Mr Modi saw politics as being more important than the worsening pandemic.

“(Modi’s) attention was elsewhere – on other issues. There were elections, especially this one that’s just been counted in West Bengal. The COVID-19 pandemic just didn’t get his full attention.”

At the same time, people weren’t wearing masks or social distancing as frequently as they should have.

“People became careless. I think people didn’t really take cognisance of what was going on in the rest of the world as carefully as they should have.”

Kumbh Mela festival went ahead

The Kumbh Mela festival, one of the world’s largest religious festivals, is held in the holy city of Hardiwar every 12 years and attracts millions of pilgrims.

In March, the government allowed the month-long Hindu celebration to proceed in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

The Kumbh Mela festival, one of the world’s largest religious festivals, is held in the holy city of Hardiwar every 12 years.

The Kumbh Mela festival, one of the world’s largest religious festivals, is held in the holy city of Hardiwar every 12 years.

AP

In April, the state’s chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat – also a member of Mr Modi’s party – said that because the gathering took place on the holy Ganges River, the virus should be kept at bay.

“Ma [mother] Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow [of the river]. So there should be no corona,” ANI news agency quoted him as saying.

“If Kumbh Mela had fallen now, they would have likely cancelled it,” Professor Meyer said. “But when the decision was made to go ahead, it didn’t seem like it was going to be this big of a catastrophe.”

Vaccine diplomacy

In the wake of the rising case numbers, the Indian government has been criticised over its handling of the vaccine rollout.

The country is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of vaccines, yet vaccine distribution centres were running short of supplies from April. Now there aren’t nearly enough jabs to go around to the country’s 1.36 billion people.

The Modi government prioritised its vaccine diplomacy initiatives over stockpiling vaccines for its own people.

According to local media, India had exported more vaccines – 60 million doses to 76 countries – by late March than it administered to its own citizens.

Indians in Austrlia

India is facing an acute shortage of oxygen and beds in hospitals.

AAP Image/Naveen Sharma /SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Professor Mayer said the vaccine exports were a way for the Modi government to build influence and positive relationships with India’s neighbours.

“The exportation of vaccines was an exercise in soft power and a response to China being kind of big brotherly to neighbouring countries and places in Africa,” he said.

He said by this point, however, cases hadn’t hit the spike they’re at now. “It looked as though it wasn’t an urgent need, because at that point it looked like they had things under control.”

Will this impact Modi’s legacy?

Professor Mayer says it’s too early to determine whether India’s second wave will tarnish Mr Modi’s reputation for good.

“He’s got time – he doesn’t have to go to the polls until 2024,” he said. “And he is clever and relentless.”

However, he noted that Mr Modi taking credit for the country’s previous success at handling the virus outbreak means he also has to take responsibility when it fails.

“It’s kind of dangerous for his party that he’s kind of a solar figure. The rest of the tiny planets scurry around him and say, ‘Yes boss, whatever you want’. So it’s really hard for him, in a sense, to escape responsibility for it.”

Professor Mayer said it’s possible Mr Modi will announce a drastic policy-change to draw attention away from the crisis, at least once the worst of it is over.

“In previous situations like this, Modi has responded by doing what we call ‘acts of mass distraction’ – sudden, unexpected, headline-grabbing policy initiatives.

“The second wave has certainly dented his reputation. Whether it’s fatal – I think that’s too soon to tell.”

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