India's virus surge damages Modi's image of competence

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FILE - In this Nov. 11 2020, file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves after a function at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters following a state election in New Delhi, India. Despite clear signs that India was being swamped by another surge of coronavirus infections, Modi refused to cancel campaign rallies, a major Hindu festival and cricket matches with spectators. The crisis has badly dented Modis carefully cultivated image as an able technocrat. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

NEW DELHI – India’s hospitals were packed with coronavirus patients, relatives of the sick scrambled to find supplies of oxygen, and crematoriums were running near full capacity to handle the dead.

Yet despite those clear signs of an overwhelming health crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pressed ahead with a densely packed campaign rally.

“I have never seen such a huge crowd before!” he roared to his supporters in West Bengal state on April 17, before key local elections. “Wherever I can see, I can only see people. I can see nothing else.”

As another deadly wave of COVID-19 infections was swamping India, Modi's government refused to cancel a giant Hindu festival. Cricket matches, attended by tens of thousands, carried on, too.

The catastrophic surge has badly dented Modi’s political image after he drew praise last year for moving quickly to lock down India’s nearly 1.4 billion people. Now, he’s been called a “super-spreader” by the vice president of the Indian Medical Association, Dr. Navjot Dahiya.

With deaths mounting and a touted vaccine rollout faltering badly, Modi has pushed much of the responsibility for fighting the virus onto poorly equipped and unprepared state governments and even onto patients themselves, critics say.

“It is a crime against humanity,” author and activist Arundhati Roy said of Modi’s handling of the virus. “Foreign governments are rushing to help. But as long as decision-making remains with Modi, who has shown himself to be incapable of working with experts or looking beyond securing narrow political gain, it will be like pouring aid into a sieve.”

The 70-year-old, whose image as a technocrat brought him deep approval from a middle class weary of corruption and bureaucratic dysfunction, has been accused of stifling dissent and choosing politics over public health.