The seventh anniversary of his government finds Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity ratings slashed by half (going by opinion polls) and the trust deficit between citizens and the ruling dispensation wider than ever before. Can he come back from this grievous loss of public confidence?
He can, provided the Modi of old is back in command. Confident and hands-on in the first wave, he has come across as a vacillating, sepia version of himself in recent months. In public perception, he has been virtually MIA at a time when citizens most needed metaphorical hand-holding.
Failure at multiple levels
If Modi has not met public expectations, it is because he, in turn, was failed by those entrusted with advising the government and shaping its response to the pandemic. The mishandling of the second wave and the concomitant vaccination rollout is a failure at multiple levels, from international governance institutions to local bodies. It is for him to hold them accountable, including and specially his own ministers, chief ministers, bureaucrats and advisers.
The vaccination flop is the result of a lack of foresight in placing timely orders, unconscionable delays in approvals and pass-the-buckism by Indian public health authorities on the one hand and the games played by pharma companies right under the noses of government agencies on the other. There’s really no justification for vaccine shortages entailed by refusal to share technology, or sitting on exclusive manufacturing and distribution arrangements.
Impossible immunisation goals
By August, reports say, India will be in a position to vaccinate an astounding 10 million people a day. But the continuing bottlenecks in domestic manufacturing and the global availability scenario make one wonder if that target is at all feasible. For instance, why is Covaxin, developed through a public-private collaboration, not being produced across the country by multiple entities with the requisite expertise? And given the failure of state governments to procure vaccines from global markets, shouldn’t the Centre step in and negotiate on their behalf?
As for the inevitable meltdown of public health infrastructure, surely the trinity of scientists entrusted with steering India’s pandemic response should have seen it coming? ICMR chief Balram Bhargava (cardiologist), NITI Aayog member Vivek Paul (paediatrician) and principal scientific adviser K VijayRaghavan (developmental biologist) were the face of India’s battle against Covid. In retrospect, an epidemiologist or vaccinologist with hands-on experience of infectious diseases would have done better.
Admittedly, a politician is not a public health specialist. Faced with an epidemic, he is wholly reliant on the advice of domain experts. If PM Modi believed that India had beaten back the pandemic at the beginning of the year, it is because they told him so. While Raghavan has said that no one had anticipated the intensity of the second wave, he also admitted that Covid-inappropriate behaviour was a significant factor.
Covid norms flouted
Either the experts failed to specifically warn the Centre and states against holding political rallies in the run-up to assembly elections, allowing large gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela and ignoring lapses in mask discipline, or their advice was ignored. To be fair, serious shortfalls in the Covid responses of the World Health Organisation, the US and European nations also figured in the Independent Panel for Pandemic and Response report released this month. Had they acted earlier, the pandemic would never have escalated into a crisis of historic proportions.
The failure of communication is both spectacular and ironic, given that PM Modi is regarded as a great communicator. A lack of clear information on treatment protocols and vaccination has led to over-medication, outright quackery and vaccine hesitancy. A run on drugs and therapies of doubtful efficacy was seen throughout the second wave. Doctors handed out steroids and antibiotics to even moderately ill patients, thereby triggering other problems like fungal infections.
Fed alarmist reports of toxic side effects on social media around the clock, many uninfected people are still evading vaccination, thereby putting themselves and others at risk. The government’s own Press Information Bureau (PIB) did not help matters by tweeting a warning on potentially lethal blood-clotting “within 20 days after receiving any #Covid19 vaccine (particularly Covishield)”.
The communication gap has particularly affected villages, where cases are either hidden for fear of social opprobium (or being declared a containment zone), or go undetected until it is too late. Bodies pile up until disposal becomes problematic and the real extent of seropositivity and fatalities go unreported, leaving public health workers hamstrung for lack of accurate information.
Nothing attests to the erosion of Brand Modi more than the unrest within the Sangh Parivar. Rank-and-file swayamsevaks have suffered quite as much as anyone and are increasingly critical of the Centre’s Covid response. RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s recent acknowledgement that the government, administration and public had all dropped the ball on Covid evoked mixed responses. Some were satisfied by his oblique criticism of the Modi government, while others were disappointed that he hadn’t been more explicit. Either way, the consensus is that heads must roll.
In the coming months, the health crisis will snowball into an economic one, with millions of people pushed into poverty. More than ever, the nation needs Modi to revert to his solid, reassuring self and exemplify hope and resilience.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.