How ‘Poster Boy’ PM Modi is Turning into a Cautionary Tale

·11-min read

Sitting inside a mounted canopy, mike in hand, on a dead elephant. This was an illustration by cartoonist David Rowe for the Australian Financial Review describing Prime Minister Modi’s handling of India’s second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. A powerful and disturbing image but one among many pieces of coverage in the foreign media on what they describe as mismanagement by the Indian government in dealing with the crisis.

Even the 200-year-old science and medical journal Lancet wrote a damning editorial just a few days ago which said: “At times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic.” The Twitter reference itself was to the Indian government’s “request” to the social media platform to remove more than 50 tweets that criticised its handling of the second wave.

In the last few weeks, we have seen New Delhi often respond directly to some of these international media reports. The Indian High Commission in Australia wrote an official response to a piece first published in The Times and reproduced in The Australian titled ‘Modi leads India out of lockdown… and into a viral apocalypse’. The High Commission labelled the piece “baseless and slanderous.” The Indian government has attributed the negative reports on India to “western bias” or “lack of understanding of India.”

Also Read: India’s Foreign Policy Amid COVID: Why Govt & Oppn Shouldn’t Spar

PM Modi: Poster Boy to Cautionary Tale

Before I get further into international media’s coverage of India the last few weeks, let me begin with some context. While it perhaps needs none for most readers exasperated by what’s unfolding right in front of our eyes, it is still worth remembering why India went from being a sort of poster boy of how to deal with the pandemic to where we are today in just a couple of months.

After coming out relatively unscathed from the first wave, the Modi government proclaimed that we had rid ourselves of the virus when the world was still struggling to cope with it.

“India has been successful in saving so many lives, we saved the entire humanity from a big tragedy,” Prime Minister Modi had triumphantly said at the WEF Davos Dialogue end of January.

A severe lockdown that led to millions of immigrant workers losing their livelihood and somehow trying to get home to their villages, many dying on their way, didn’t count of course. We are a ‘New India’ where only the middle class matters but that’s another story. At least on paper, India had some reason to cheer - we had two covid vaccines in production – one licensed from AstraZeneca and the other homemade.

Of course, the minor detail that providing the vaccine to other countries was part of AstraZeneca’s contract with The Serum Institute didn’t matter either.

The government was on a PR overdrive. Promises were made to provide vaccines to the rest of the world and 66 million doses were exported. The “largest vaccination drive in the world” was launched with much fanfare and in fact even the vaccine certificates had the Prime Minister’s image prominently on it. Everything seemed to be going to plan.

India’s Great COVID Unravelling

Then things began to unravel very soon after that. There was a sudden spike in cases due to a new, more potent Indian variant officially known as B.1.617, which was detected way back in October. The vaccine drive itself was beginning to slow and then news starting trickling that there was going to be a shortage. The “pharmacy of the world” was running dry.

It later turned out that amid the generous giving away of vaccines, we forgot to order enough vaccines for ourselves – or at least that’s what the CEO of the Serum Institute Adar Poonawala claimed in an interview to The Times in London. The government has since disputed the claim and Poonawala has tried to mumble his way around it with new clarifications.

The spike in cases, meanwhile, became a flood. The healthcare infrastructure across many states, which was already stretched, broke down completely with shortages in everything – beds, oxygen, doctors. The government was caught unaware but more importantly didn’t react proactively to it either. The ruling party – and to be fair, all the political parties - continued with their large election rallies focusing on the election battles in five states and their outcomes.

Neither did the central government immediately stop millions from congregating at the Kumbh mela, one of the largest religious gathering of people on the planet though they finally cut it short under pressure. They even went ahead with cricket matches and had a glitzy opening of a new stadium named after Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself in his home state of Gujarat. The damage was already done.

As of writing this, we are registering more than 400,000 cases and 4000 deaths a day. And these are certainly undercounted and experts say it’s nowhere near its peak.

Also Read: After Kumbh, Uttarakhand Sees 1800% Jump in COVID-19 Cases

Slow Awakening of India’s Mainstream Media

Sections of the Indian media have been warning about the rising numbers and a potential second outbreak for a while now but it took a huge surge for lot of the mainstream media to catch up. Even then, most of the large media houses were muted in their criticism of the Modi government’s handling of it and some of the government aligned TV networks were even in denial for a while. But the story was too big to distract from, brush under the carpet or stay hidden behind any well-orchestrated PR blitzkrieg.

Everyone knew someone who had fallen seriously ill or died. This has hit home, become too personal. We have all lost friends and family. Soon, every media house was covering it in great detail. I have to add here that a lot of brave frontline journalists have been covering the story on the ground putting their lives at risk every day. Heart breaking stories of people dying due to shortages of oxygen and lines at crematoriums that contradict the official death count.

This government, which is known to not take well to any form of criticism, was suddenly facing it globally. International media started doing in-depth stories on the crisis and the gross mismanagement that led to it. The Times piece was just one among several pieces.

The Financial Times, Time, BBC, Bloomberg, New York Times, Le Monde, Washington Post, New Yorker among several others were covering the story from the ground and not pulling their punches. Images of queues of bodies at crematoriums and funeral pyres were carried as the top story of every major media publication and TV network in the world.

Stories of people dying without access to oxygen in states like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh were everywhere. These were juxtaposed against videos of Modi’s mass election rallies in West Bengal where he boasted about the size of the crowds and those of millions of people gathering for the holy dip at the Kumbh festival.

It also didn’t help that in the middle of all this, the central government decided to push ahead with the building of the Central Vista - a grand, multibillion dollar revamping of the parliamentary complex and seat of power, which includes a new residence for the Prime Minister of India. The government designated the project an “essential service” and continued work despite a lockdown in Delhi.

Also Read: Twitter Reacts to Central Vista as COVID Claims Lives Across India

A Dent in Modi’s Carefully Crafted Image

Modi’s carefully crafted international image was taking a beating. The Prime Minister, who often seemed Teflon coated for his ability to weather any crisis with his image intact, was being called everything from a modern-day Nero to being tone deaf and out of touch with reality. A leader whose image has adorned everything in the last seven years was suddenly not to be seen. The government has done everything to control the narrative, but it is becoming difficult to manage. It is struggling to communicate the reasons behind where we are.

Why did we run out of resources when we had ample time and money to prepare ourselves for a second wave which seemed inevitable judging by the trend in other countries. It initially blamed the states for not controlling the outbreak, then outright denied that election rallies and the Kumbh mela led to increase in covid cases even though the numbers say otherwise.

It even attributed the rise to people taking things lightly and dropping their guard even though the official line not long back was that we had beaten the virus. It, then, accused international media of not being sensitive to Indian sentiments.

Nothing Special in Criticism Landing at Modi’s Doorstep

Let’s put this coverage in perspective to point out that the Indian government isn’t getting some special tardy treatment from global media. Most global leaders from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson to autocrats like Tayyib Erdogan of Turkey and their administrations were heavily criticized for their handling of the crisis from the start. They all had a few things in common with the Modi government – their populist approach, deep sensitivity to criticism and denial when things got bad.

In India, there’s an added dimension where all success has been tied intrinsically to Narendra Modi’s image the last seven years while failure and defeat was attributable to everyone else including past governments and prime ministers.

This time round, there is no deflecting something that the Modi government already claimed success for in its first wave, even though reports are emerging they were warned early of a potential second wave.

Indian mainstream media lapped up those moments of victory and celebrated instead of questioning the government. If hard questions were asked then, we would probably have been better prepared to deal with the crisis.

Global Coverage Has Mobilised Aid

Instead of feeling victimized by the bad press, it would do well for the government to realize that the widespread global coverage of the crisis and the collapse of the healthcare system has led to a huge mobilisation of resources for the country.

Several nations have been sending emergency equipment from oxygen concentrators to ventilators; global companies from tech giants to banks have pledged hundreds of crores of rupees; the sprawling Indian diaspora have pooled resources from all over the world to help back home.

On the ground, people are helping each other in this hour of need even when, quite often, the government is absent. The international media coverage also has led to increased pressure on the Biden administration in the United States to wake up from its America-first slumber. The US lifted restrictions on sending raw materials that vaccine makers in India need to ramp up production. “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” Biden tweeted.

This would not have been possible without the relentless and bold coverage by the both the domestic and international media of the tragedy that was unfolding in the country. One of the few silver linings is that we are seeing some really good journalism at the moment. Nothing is being taken at face value.

The Modi government should stop living in denial and stop its knee-jerk reactions to every international news story or criticism that comes their way. They have been in power for seven years and it is at least time for them to reset and mature in their dealings with the media. It isn’t used to being held accountable or has so far not felt the need to communicate transparently about anything. Their instinctive reaction is to spin a narrative.

In circumstances such as these when people are losing loved ones every day, none of that works and it needs a certain amount of institutional humility to admit mistakes and correct course. India, under Modi, has been building a story of a self-reliant India – Aatmanirbhar. An India that needs the world less than it needs India. This crisis, if nothing else, has made it amply clear that we need the world a lot more than it needs us.

(Parry Ravindranathan is a global media executive and has worked for Bloomberg, Al Jazeera English, Network18, and CNN. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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