As India’s devastating second wave of COVID-19 continues to batter the country and overwhelm its health infrastructure, both netizens and the media from various quarters of the world are leaving no stone unturned to call out Prime Minister Modi for what many say is his part in escalating the crisis.
His silence on the crisis and that of other ministers in the early stages of the second wave – when the party took the decision to continue election campaigning – was perceived as apathy and has been a bone of contention for many.
The Power of Social Media
One of the conduits through which PM Modi remains visible and present in the minds of citizens is his active presence on Twitter, through three handles – Narendra Modi (@narendramodi), PMO India (@PMOIndia), which is the official handle of the Office of the Prime Minister of India, and @narendramodi_in, which is the Twitter handle of Modi's personal website and the Narendra Modi Mobile App.
While these handles regularly tweet out updates from the PM, such as his activities and blow-by-blow details of any speeches he is delivering, multiple Union Ministers also regularly mention him (read: tag) in their tweets about the activities undertaken by their respective ministries, general decisions taken by the Union Government, activities undertaken by the PM, as well as praise him for leading the country successfully.
The effect of all their combined tweets? Amplification of PM Modi’s already burgeoning presence on social media and increased visibility of the prime minister.
But at a time when his visibility as prime minister is placing him in the line of public ire, at least online, are some of his Union Ministers mentioning him less and less in their Twitter activity?
The Quint tracked tweets posted by three Union ministers – between 8 April to 7 May – in the last 30 days and our findings show that this could very well be a possibility.
Dr Harsh Vardhan
A look at Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan’s tweeting pattern from 8 April shows a definite drop in mentions of the prime minister in his tweets.
A prolific tweeter, Dr Harsh Vardhan has mentioned PM Modi a total of 115 times in his tweets between 8 April and 7 May, but the bulk of those were posted till 25 April. At this point, there appears to be a definite drop in mentions, with zero mentions on five separate days.
The highest number of mentions of PM Modi came on 20 April, the same day as the PM’s address to the nation on the COVID surge, when the health minister also tweeted chunks of the address along with the video. But the time we tracked also begins with the second highest number of mentions of PM Modi, with 13 mentions on 8 April.
A large number of mentions of the PM by the health minister were in tweets which spoke about the PM CARES Fund, as well as where he lauded the government for decisions. However, of late, Dr Harsh Vardhan appears to be tagging PM Modi less and less in such tweets, and instead choosing to only mention the PMO handle.
Another prolific tweeter, Union Railways Minister Piyush Goyal and his Twitter timeline also seem to show a similar trend in this period.
Earlier, Goyal would mention PM Modi in a large number of his tweets about the government (“government led by PM Narendra Modi”), daily updates about the Oxygen Express as well as all tweets with the #MeraFasalMeraPaisa. Now, the former tweets about Oxygen Express lack a direct mention of PM Modi, but the latter still finds him mentioned.
Our mapping of Goyal’s tweets show that his tweets between 8 April and 7 May have a total of 91 mentions of PM Modi; but once again, the bulk of those also came till 25 April, after which a gradual decline may be seen, flattening out to zero mentions in the last four days.
Goyal’s peak came on 9 April and then on 20 April, when he mentioned PM Modi a total of 9 times.
Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’
Overall, Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ appears to mention PM Modi in his tweets less than the two other ministers discussed so far, with regard to the period of time studied. However, even with his less frequent mentions, a declining trend may be noticed.
Of a total of 60, Pokhriyal’s mentions of PM Modi in his tweets peaked between 19 April and 25 April. While 20 April was the PM’s address to the nation, which was widely shared by his ministers, 25 April was Modi’s latest episode of ‘Mann ki Baat’, an event which also sees wide amplification on Twitter. But even prior to 19 April, the education minister kept up a regular flow of mentions of Modi in his tweets.
Post 25 April, Pokhriyal, who mostly mentions PM Modi while lauding the efforts and initiatives of the government, seems to have set a declining trend in this regard.
Is There a Trend Here?
Going simply by data from the last 30 days, there does seem to be a trend of mentioning PM Modi less and less – in other words, less visibility for him.
It may be noted that this period coincides with India seeing an unprecedented surge in daily COVID infections and deaths and a direction of public ire at the government.
Could this be a mere coincidence? While this is possible, it is also unlikely since three union ministers appear to have reduced their mentions of him on their Twitter handles post 25 April.
Peak mentions on 25 April and 20 April beg the question – could this declining trend be linked to a lack of activity by PM Modi on other days and since 25 April? This too, is unlikely, since PM Modi, while not visible on the ground like several other politicians, appears to be taking action on other fronts, such as chairing high-level meetings with experts, union ministers and chief ministers, as well as appearing for commitments with international leaders.
Why Could This be Happening?
If this is indeed happening, what could be the reason?
Well, for starters, it is obvious that PM Modi’s brand image has taken a hit in recent times. As people scramble for basic medical requirements such as hospital beds, oxygen, drugs like remdesivir and still see their loved ones die, many have turned their anger on PM Modi for what they see as a failure on his part to steer the nation out of the crisis.
Instead of controlling the crisis, PM Modi continued to hold election campaigns and lauded huge crowds for turning up; he also waited too long before appealing for the Kumbh Mela to be curtailed, by which time the damage had been done.
Visuals of an unmasked PM Modi roaring to huge crowds gathered without wearing masks stand in stark contrast to people crying for deceased loved ones, workers endlessly cremating the dead, and exhausted doctors appealing to the country’s people.
Modi has since been called a “super-spreader” by the vice president of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Navjot Dahiya, while author and activist Arundhati Roy has termed Modi’s handling of the crisis “a crime against humanity”.
His image as a strong politician unafraid to take bold decisions and govern the country well is “in tatters,” says Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist at Ashoka University, according to The Washington Post.
Calls for Resignation
A hashtag calling for the resignation of PM Modi on Facebook was blocked for several hours on Wednesday, 28 April, censoring over 12,000 posts critical of the ruling BJP government. Any Indian netizen looking for the hashtag was flashed with a notice saying that such posts had been “temporarily hidden here” as some content in those posts went against the website’s “Community Standards.”
Meanwhile, prior to that, Twitter had by government order censored over 50 tweets that criticised the Modi government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Amid the resurgence of anger against him, could it be possible that PM Modi has chosen to be less visible and less lauded for ‘effective governance’ by his own ministers on a social media platform like Twitter, which people have been using as the chosen medium for SOS calls as they desperately search for help?
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