How Narendra Modi’s government is losing control of the Covid narrative

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According to certain social media accounts, Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, has handled the pandemic successfully. 

The world’s great powers have shared their precious cargo of oxygen concentrators, PPE, vials of Remdesivir and ventilators as a gesture of friendship with this South Asian great power; vaccinations are in full swing (‘the World’s largest and fastest vaccination drive’ 17 crore vaccines in 114 days), and the government is intent in increasing the country’s ‘manufacturing capacity of Covaxin production’. 

On June 2, Amit Shah, India’s home minister and Modi’s right-hand man, said that ‘India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi successfully fought the battle against COVID-19’ and that ‘the speed of India’s vaccination drive is the fastest in the world’

Yet, India is still going through its worst Covid crisis. On May 19 it recorded just under 300 thousand new cases and 4529 new deaths, the world’s worst record. Again. Pictures of smouldering funeral pyres, of distressed and grieving relatives, and of long lines of bodies outside crematorium were splashed on the world’s front pages for weeks. Even India’s domestic press, usually docile, has started to point the finger to the government. This spin is obviously necessary. 

The humiliation is palpable. For a country that had projected itself as the next superpower and that only a few months ago was boasting of having defeated Covid, this loss of credibility at the national and international level stings. After all, this is the first time that India has accepted international assistance since it proudly made the transition from aid recipient to provider of development assistance at the peak of its rise in the mid 2000. After celebrating the coming of age of an Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-sufficient India) assistance has come not just from wealthy donors but also from smaller states such as Bhutan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh. 

The Prime Minister and his government are facing growing criticism and widespread backlash for their handling of this second Covid surge. Their mismanagement has thrown into relief their unpreparedness and the limits of India’s frail and inadequate health infrastructure. For weeks, Indians have struggled to find hospital beds, oxygen and critical medicines.   

Covid-19 supplies arrive in New Delhi

The first glimpses of a decline in popularity of the PM were already visible from the recent state and local elections where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates did not perform as expected. But anecdotal accounts of the loss of support even among Modi’s most vocal and energetic cheerleaders (the urban middle class) were confirmed by two recent Polls released last week.  Morning Consult (a US firm) and CVoter – an Indian polling agency – showed a sharp decline in Modi’s popularity rating. This is the first time in seven years when those unhappy with Modi government performance outnumbered those happy with it. 

A huge PR operation has since been put in place in the attempt at producing good news as the government’s ‘scramble for an effective (positive) narrative’. In early May, a 90-minutes virtual workshop on ‘Effective Communication’ for reserved for top Central government officials was held to boost the image of the government. More recently, A ‘Positivity Unlimited’ conclave was organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the right-wing Hindu paramilitary Hindu organisation to which the BJP belongs to – and Modi’s himself asked his Twitter followers to send inspiring stories to ‘celebrate the power of positivity’ for the next episode of Mann ki Baat – his own monthly radio show (it didn’t take long before the Tweet got slammed and got quickly redacted). 

At the same time, the joint secretary at the Health Ministry – Lav Agarwal – at a press conference in mid-May said that ‘we have been able to contain the spread to under 2 per cent of the population’ (obviously disregarding the fact that many of the figures may be grossly underestimated). 

And if that wasn’t enough, attempts have also been made to crush dissent and systematically address the criticism of Modi’s management of the pandemic by the global and domestic media. As early as December 2020, a 97-page document/toolkit circulated by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry recommended – among other things – to blacklist and whitelist journalist according to their support of their government or not

Last week it was announced that the Indian national broadcaster – Doordarshan – will launch a new international channel. Modelled on the BBC World Service, the new channel is set ‘to tell India’s story to a global audience’ and become the authoritative global media source on India

But there’s very little to be positive about, even as parts of the country seem to emerge from the worst of the second wave. The epidemic has now moved to the countryside – where health infrastructures and hospitals are even less able to cope. The coronavirus crisis has also taken its financial toll. Data recently released showed that India’s GDP contracted by 7.3 % in the financial year 2020-21, the worst performance in 4 decades. This economic decline has pushed about one-third of Indians out of the middle class while pushing tens of million back into poverty, undoing years of economic gains. The impact of the second wave has yet to be recorded but the prospect of recovery seems distant. 

Since Modi came to power in 2014, spectacle and image management have replaced governance. For a man who projected himself as an efficient technocrat and administrator, the ‘messianic saviour working for the national interest‘, the damage of this devastating second Covid-19 wave to his image is enormous. Yet, it may be too early to write Narendra Modi off. In politics, often perceptions are more important than facts. 

View of ongoing construction work for Central Vista redevelopment project

While India is literally burning, the Modi government is intent of building a new Central Vista, a 200bn rupees controversial redevelopment plan of the wide ceremonial boulevard in the centre of New Delhi that links the presidential palace to the war memorial at India Gate. This monstrous monumental project that includes a new parliament, new homes for the vice-president and the prime minister and new high-rise office buildings, has been given perverse priority despite the crisis and the lockdown. Not only, it is also pursued at breakneck speed to meet its established deadline: 2022 for the new prime minister residence and 2024 for the whole project – curiously in time for two key upcoming elections. The populous and key state of the Uttar Pradesh is expected to go to the polls in 2022, while the next round of general elections is planned for 2024. 

Modi is the first leader in the world to have a building named after himself while still alive (the world’s largest cricket stadium in Gujarat, his home state). Now he is joining the ranks of other authoritarian leaders (like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan in Turkey) who are hoping to leave a legacy by investing in extravagant narcissistic vanity projects.  

If the UK election – which has confirmed the popularity of Boris Johnson and his party despite accusations of corruption and nepotism and his mismanagement of Covid crisis – are anything to go by, Modi may be able to dodge this bullet. It won’t be the first time. After all, Modi is a ‘master of reinvention’ and the general elections are still three years away. The memory of the electorate is notoriously short.

Dr Simona Vittorini is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS.

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