Blame game over India's Covid-19 handling leaves Modi government unscathed

Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked on the massive turnout at his recent rally even as India logged over 200,000 fresh cases.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India's latest Covid-19 crisis has cast scrutiny on the government's handling of the pandemic, with critics noting that super-spreading events such as election rallies and festivals should not have been allowed to go ahead. Even so, there has been no political fallout for the Modi government, said analysts.

On Saturday (April 17), Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a massive public rally in poll-bound West Bengal, where he remarked on the massive turnout even as India logged over 200,000 fresh cases.

Under heavy criticism from the opposition, which has said it would not address large rallies, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also decided on Monday against holding any more in West Bengal, where multi-phase elections will end on April 29.

Similarly, the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival in Uttarakhand state in which maskless attendees flouted safety measures, was allowed to carry on till Mr Modi intervened and shut it down two weeks ahead of schedule. By then over 2,000 devotees had tested positive with states quarantining those returning home.

On Tuesday evening, Mr Modi in an address to the nation urged states to impose lockdowns only as a last resort. He appealed to people to stay indoors as much as possible and said the government was working to overcome the shortage of oxygen in hospitals.

“We should not lose hope or be afraid... we have to take the right call at the right time... this is how we will win this battle,” he said. 

Analysts noted that Mr Modi has so far been safe from any political fallout.

Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice-chancellor of the Jagran Lakecity University, said: "I don't think this will impact the popularity of the government. We have done studies that showed people were not satisfied but when it comes to voting, they will vote for the government."

Political analyst and writer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said the government had been able to deflect attention from such missteps with its "majoritarian" Hindu agenda that appealed to nationalistic sentiments.

Still some see this as Mr Modi's biggest challenge to date.

"It is bigger than any security threat, external or internal, or even the economic attrition of 2020," said Mr Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief and chairman of ThePrint in a column.

India has logged over 15 million cases and is adding 250,000 new infections every day, putting pressure on its health infrastructure.

As the world's largest producer of vaccines, it is facing international scrutiny over its handling of the pandemic, which has an impact on global supplies of the vaccine. Already it has tightened exports.

A combination of Covid fatigue leading to large gatherings, government messaging that India had conquered Covid-19 and a new deadlier variant are seen to be behind the new upsurge in cases.

States are now reintroducing lockdowns with capital city Delhi introducing a week-long lockdown on Monday, while the vaccination roll-out is still proceeding at a snail's pace.

Dr Shastri said both the federal and state governments were blindsided, and have been overwhelmed by the competing demands of containing the spread of the virus while not causing further damage to the economy.

Decision-making needs to be further decentralised so that districts can react more quickly to an evolving situation instead of waiting for direction from the state or federal governments, said Dr K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

In the meantime, the Modi government has underlined how other countries are also facing a surge and placed the blame on state governments.

Home Minister Amit Shah said that there was "no choice" but to go ahead with the elections and that the government had acted to convert the Kumbh Mela into a "symbolic" gathering. "There is no dilution in the seriousness of the fight against Covid. The surge which is happening in India is not taking place only in India. England, America and Italy are all seeing surges. India's surge started later."

Mr Shah added: "We are fighting this battle very well. This is our top priority. The Prime Minister has not ignored any aspect of the fight."