May 13, 2021 - World

Modi humbled by India's coronavirus crisis

Still looming large, in New Delhi. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty

After mishandling the worst domestic crisis India has faced in decades, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval ratings have plummeted … to 63%.

Breaking it down: While that’s down from 74% before India’s second wave struck, per Morning Consult’s tracker, it still makes him perhaps the most popular leader of any major democracy. But despite his enduring popularity, Modi no longer appears invulnerable.

“The palpable sense of outrage, of disgust really, with the government's handling of the pandemic is very real,” particularly among middle-class Indians who form a key component of Modi's support, says Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment.

  • And for a strongman leader who built his reputation on competence and bold decisions, Modi has been largely absent from the political stage as India has become the global epicenter of the pandemic.
  • Senior officials in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have tried to deflect blame from the prime minister onto state governments, particularly those it doesn't control.
  • But images of Modi addressing massive political rallies and allowing huge religious festivals to proceed as case numbers climbed are difficult to explain away.

Modi has two enduring advantages: A deep connection with ordinary Indians — linked in part to his “David vs. Goliath” personal narrative, Vaishnav says — and a fractured opposition.

  • Even as the BJP fell short of expectations in state elections last month, the “scattershot outcomes” of various regional parties securing victories “reinforced the point that the opposition has no common platform and has no designated leader,” Vaishnav says.

The state of play: India set grim new records for coronavirus deaths this week, recording over 4,000 per day.

  • Bhramar Mukherjee, a statistician at the University of Michigan who has been modeling India’s outbreak, says the actual number of daily deaths is perhaps four times higher.
  • Her model suggests that infections are peaking this week. “I expect things to decline over May, but it will take a while to reach a state of containment over all Indian states,” Mukherjee says.
  • According to her models, the number of daily deaths would be dramatically lower if the government had imposed even limited restrictions — banning large indoor gatherings, for example — as the second wave arrived.

But Modi was not alone in ignoring the threat of a second wave.

  • During the long lull that followed last summer’s smaller first wave, global health experts looked to India for indications of why certain countries had been spared the worst.
  • Life in India had returned to normal. “People who [earlier in the pandemic] were taking the utmost caution and washing their hands 10 times when they weren’t even seeing anybody, they didn’t even wear masks when they went to weddings in January,” Mukherjee says.

Modi’s government helped stoke the narrative that India had not only defeated the virus at home, but it also emerged as a global vaccine powerhouse.

  • But when the cases climbed, most vaccine exports stopped. Even that wasn’t enough to keep up with demand.
  • Due at least in part to complacency, India hadn’t purchased nearly enough doses for its massive population, and it didn’t have a clear plan to distribute those it did have.
  • “The biggest shortcoming I think is the lack of a vaccine strategy,” Vaishnav says.

What’s next: India won’t have a general election until 2024, but there are crucial state elections approaching in early 2022.

  • Opposition parties have started to “smell blood in the water” and discuss opportunities to form a united front against the BJP, Vaishnav says.
  • For now, if the opinion polls are to be believed, most Indians are standing by their prime minister.
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