NEW DELHI – His Covid-19 task force did not meet for months. His health minister reassured the public in March that India had reached the “final” of the pandemic. A few weeks earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bragged to world leaders that his nation had triumphed over the coronavirus.
India “saved mankind from a major catastrophe by effectively containing corona,” Modi told a virtual gathering at the World Economic Forum in late January, when three three-color Indian flags were displayed in the background.
Now a second wave has made India the hardest hit country in the world.
New infections have reached around 400,000 per day. The vaccines are running out. Hospitals are overcrowded. Life-saving oxygen is running out. Every day, cremation sites burn thousands of corpses and send out endless clouds of ash that turn the skies gray over some of India’s largest cities.
India’s stark reversal from declaring victory to the worst emergency in decades has forced a national reckoning with Mr. Modi at the center.
Experts around the world once marveled at how the country appeared to have escaped the worst of the pandemic and entertained entertaining statements about the relative youth and health of the population that Mr. Modi and his government welcomed, if not encouraged. Even now, Mr. Modi’s supporters say that India has been hit by a global phenomenon and that more time is needed to track down the causes of the second wave.
However, independent health experts and policy analysts say that Mr. Modi’s over-consciousness and his dominant leadership style bear a large part of the responsibility. Critics say his government is determined to paint a picture of India as being back on track and open to business, despite ongoing risks. At one point, officials rejected warnings from scientists that the Indian population was still at risk and had not achieved “herd immunity,” as suggested by some in his government, said people familiar with these conversations.
The growing hardship in this country has tarnished Mr. Modi’s aura of political invulnerability, gained by pressuring the opposition and using his personal charisma to become India’s most powerful politician in decades. Opposition leaders are attacking, and his central influence in power has increasingly made him the target of scathing online criticism.
With the parliamentary elections three years away and with no evidence of defections by his government, Mr Modi’s power seems certain. His government has stepped up efforts to care for desperate patients and expanded eligibility for scarce vaccines to more age groups. Still, analysts say his dominance means more people will blame him personally for the disease and death that are exploding across the country.
“Most of the blame lies in Modi’s leadership style, which selects top ministers for loyalty rather than expertise, where secrecy and image management take precedence over transparency,” said Asim Ali, a research scientist at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi .
“In such a governance framework,” he added, “Modi can have catastrophic consequences for it to drop the ball, as he did with Covid.”
At various points over the past few months officials have made decisions who have returned to persecute India.
While India is a vaccine powerhouse, making vaccines to protect the world, it hasn’t bought enough doses to protect itself. While vaccination rates at home remained low, New Delhi exported more than 60 million shots to help build its standing on the world stage.
Even as infections increased, Mr. Modi decided to bring large groups together to help his ruling Bharatiya Janata party and polish its nationalist credentials as a Hindu. His government allowed a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers. He fought in state elections without a mask at rallies by thousands of maskless supporters.
According to analysts, Mr. Modi has surrounded himself with allies rather than experts. Officials felt too intimidated to point out mistakes, analysts said, or to question his claims the pandemic was over. His party and allies have also tried to silence critics by instructing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to dismantle critical posts and threatening to arrest common people for asking for oxygen.
Mr Modi’s party, known as the BJP, and the government declined to answer certain questions, but listed measures the government has taken, including Mr Modi, who held more than a dozen meetings with Air Force officers, pharmaceutical executives in April and many others.
In a statement, the government said it had “maintained a steady pace of coordination and consultation in order to prepare an appropriate response”. It added that in February the government “advised states to maintain strict vigilance” and “not to abandon their vigil”.
Any Indian leader would have faced challenges. Hundreds of millions of poor people live cheek to cheek, easy targets for a highly contagious virus. India has long neglected public health, spending less than $ 100 per capita per year, according to the World Bank, less than many developing countries – a problem that existed before Mr Modi.
On Saturday, the country reported over 398,000 new viral infections and more than 3,500 deaths. There is evidence that the official figures greatly underestimate the toll. The country’s largest city, Mumbai, has just stopped all vaccinations because they have essentially run out of vaccinations.
Analysts say Mr. Modi did much better during the first wave. 70-year-old Modi was a longtime politician with humble roots and a penchant for dramatic movements. He advocated masks and social distancing from the start.
On March 24, 2020, when a total of fewer than 600 infections were reported in India, Mr Modi gave his country four hours to order one of the strictest bans in the world. Most people dutifully stayed inside out of fear for guidance. When Mr. Modi urged citizens to stand on their balconies and pop pots and pans in solidarity with health care workers, millions did just that.
Experts believe the lockdown, though flawed, slows the spread. But the restrictions have been economically devastating, leaving tens of millions of people unemployed, and endangering many of Mr. Modi’s greatest ambitions, including transforming India into a world power. He was afraid of being locked up again.
After easing many restrictions, infections rose and hit nearly 100,000 a day in September, but the health system persisted. By early 2021, when the infections had subsided and the economy kicked in, Mr Modi and his team made a concerted effort to signal that India was back.
Many Indians take off their masks. They returned to the markets and made contacts. Even more restrictions have been lifted. Covid-19 centers established during the first wave were dismantled.
His party’s leadership said in February that India had “defeated Covid under the capable, sensitive, dedicated and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi”. At the beginning of March, Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared that India was “in the final of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Those who weren’t so sure had to pause. The Indian Covid-19 Task Force, which includes around 20 health professionals, had met at least twice a month. But between January 11 and April 15, the task force did not meet at all, according to three people who knew about their deliberations. Two said the government simply believed the threat was over.
Some scientists have been concerned about the official line that India, a nation of 1.4 billion, is nearing herd immunity, or the point where enough people in the population are immune – either from vaccinations or from previous infections – that the virus can no longer spread easily. VK Paul, head of the Covid-19 task force, said in January that “most of our densely populated counties and cities have been hit by the pandemic”.
According to the three people, the scientists concerned pushed back. Serological studies didn’t necessarily support the idea, they said. Two people familiar with the research said the government selected results that suggest a move towards herd immunity.
The vaccination program lost steam as complacency set in. The Modi government began exporting vaccines made in India in order to gain favor with neighbors who may be tempted to take vaccines from China, New Delhi’s regional rival. The government approved only two vaccines, both made in India to help the country become self-sufficient. Less than two percent of the population received two doses.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a spokesman for the BJP, said there were no bottlenecks in the government’s export of vaccines and that “the government had proactively expanded production and procurement from alternative sources.”
When the vaccinations stuttered, Mr. Modi set off for the campaign. Several states held elections, and he focused specifically on West Bengal, a state controlled by an opposition party. By mid-April, Mr. Modi and Amit Shah, the interior minister, fought tirelessly, attracting thousands of people, many of whom were unmasked and packed tightly together. Voting results are expected on Sunday.
Although health experts warned of the risks, Mr. Modi, a staunch activist, appeared to draw strength from the rallies. He told one in mid-April, when India exceeded 200,000 new infections a day, how happy he was to “see only people and people and nothing else”.
While several factors are at play, and new, more dangerous variants of the virus may be involved, many people blame the choices. In a recent hearing, a judge told an Indian Electoral Commission attorney that “your officers should be booked for murder.”
In another court hearing in Delhi, after a lawyer representing the local government complained that Mr. Modi’s government was not doing enough to address the acute lack of oxygen, the country’s attorney general replied, “Let’s try not to crybaby to be.”
Mr Modi is likely to stay in power thanks to weak opposition and his ability to fuel his nationalist base in Hindu. Even his image has changed; Mr. Modi lost the baseball cap and chic sunglasses he wore a year ago, and his hair and beard grew long, reminiscent of a Hindu sage.
“He’s just a unique political animal,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia program. “He has that charisma, an attraction, a magnetism, a very compelling personal story, and he has tremendous personal credibility to the average voter.”
Even now, Mr. Vaishnav added, “People like Modi and they will find ways to justify this.”