Covid Catastrophe and the Decline of Brand Modi

India’s unprecedented health crisis has completely dismantled Narendra Modi’s carefully crafted public image. Sheer ineptitude of the Prime Minister and the colossal failure of policymaking under his leadership, has resulted in a mayhem of disastrous proportions.

Narender Yadav
Narender Yadav

Narendra Damodar Das Modi, the 14th and current Prime Minister of India, is the ‘first’ Prime Minister to have been born after India’s Independence. Modi is also the ‘first’ Prime Minister who called himself “Pradhan Sevak” at his maiden Independence Day speech on August 15, 2014. Five years later, Modi added another ‘first’ to his credentials as he prefixed “Chowkidar” to his name, and changed his Twitter handle from Narendra Modi to Chowkidar Narendra Modi on March 17, 2019. All these ‘firsts’, barring the first one, have been used time and again by PM’s PR machinery to provide glossy finish to his carefully crafted and expensively maintained larger-than-life public image. However, the ghastly brazen behaviour of PM Modi during the last one month, his glaring incompetence in handling the situation and his repeated tendency to dodge critical conversation with other political parties and media has undermined his brand image substantially. The international media has further taken the veneer off his concocted image of a ‘strong’, ‘action-focussed’ PM, leaving him without any cover.

India’s out-of-control catastrophe, due to a devastating second wave of the pandemic was avoidable – to say the least and causalities could have been much less. However, for that to happen, a responsive and functional government machinery was required at the helm of the affairs. Something, India completely lacked after the first wave subsided towards the end of 2020. Unlike ‘Statue of Unity’ and ‘Central Vista’, Modi did not make “fighting Covid-19“ his pet project. Infact he remained confined to his imaginary world of successfully defeating the virus without even fighting it! In January 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left the world flabbergasted, when unabashedly, he gave a pat on his own back at the World Economic Forum’s Davis Dialogue. In his address, the PM said, “In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” He added, “India has also fulfilled its global responsibility at this time of crisis by practicing thousands of years old invocation सर्वे सन्तु निरामया, i.e., may the entire world remain healthy.” Back home, India’s Health Minister announced in March 2021 that the pandemic had entered the “endgame”, oblivious of the Covid tsunami that was about to hit the country most severely. An editorial in the reputed medical journal The Lancet has said, “The impression from the government was that India had beaten COVID-19 after several months of low case counts, despite repeated warnings of the dangers of a second wave and the emergence of new strains.

In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address during World Econominc Forum’s Davis Dialogue in January 2021

Myopic decision making and lack of serious thinking at the highest level ensured government remained terribly unprepared for any health emergency. No Covid-19 related infrastructure was developed and no attempt was made for any advance preparation for any future waves of Covid-19. The consequences are in front of us – health-care system of the country has completely collapsed, as hospital beds are unavailable, doctors and medical staff are at breaking point and black-marketing of essential medicines is at its peak. As per an investigation by Scroll, Covid-19 patients are dying because the government wasted time in augmenting its oxygen supply. “It took eight months to invite bids for over 150 oxygen generation plants costing just Rs 200 crore. Six months later, most still aren’t up and running,” investigation revealed.

Covid-19 vaccination roll out was also transformed into a global PR exercise for Modi, instead of utilising it as an opportunity for health crisis management. While the Prime Minister continued to boast about millions of vaccines being sent to other countries under “vaccine diplomacy”, back home, the vaccine is hardly available. The grim reality is that India has fully vaccinated only 1.4 percent of its people and only 8.3 percent have been partially vaccinated. This is despite the evidence with the government which suggested herd immunity is a distant dream for Indians. A sero survey by the Indian Council of Medical Research in January suggested that only 21% of the population had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

What further eroded people’s trust in the government was the yawning gap between what the Prime Minister preaches on television screens and what the government does on the ground. While the PM continued to harp on maintaining Covid Appropriate Behaviour, in reality, PM was seen addressing massive public rallies in Bengal, where he himself rejoiced after seeing the unparallel crowd. Instead of addressing the growing concern about increasing Covid-19 cases in the country, PM was seen in full election mode, keeping all Covid guidelines at bay.  Governments’ complicity in organising and encouraging super-spreader events, like Kumbh Mela, permitting millions to bathe in the river Ganges, and then take home the virus, eventually proved fatal for the country.

However, even amidst this open ‘conspiracy’ to spread virus, Indian media continued to lie in an ostrich like position, with its neck buried deep in the political swamp. It was the clamour for help on social media and sharp criticism by international press, which actually started dismantling Modi’s multi-layered image one-by-one, and left Government of India red faced. In a rage, government tried its best to control the social media criticism of government’s mishandling of the situation. The Lancet rightly observed in its editorial “At times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic.” Facebook, temporarily blocked posts with the hashtag #ResignModi. More than 12,000 posts calling for the resignation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were removed on April 28; which was later called as a “mistake” by the Facebook spokesperson. However, international Press remained steadfast in its criticism of Modi. The Guardian, Time, Washington Post and the Australian made scathing attack on Modi, questioning his ability to handle the crisis. The Australian made a direct attack on India’s PM and wrote in its editorial “Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions in India, with its crowd-loving PM basking while citizens suffocate.” Indian diplomats have now been asked by the MEA to ‘contain’ negative publicity of the PM in international media.  

Covid catastrophe has showed how the Prime Minister of India, who calls himself Pradhan sevak and Chowkidar of 1.3 billion Indians, has completely abdicated his responsibility. At this critical juncture, Indians have been left to fend for themselves. It’s upto Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) now whether they would like to go ahead with a leader who has lost people’s trust or find a successor to head the government.

(Author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal)

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