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'This Government Has Failed Us': Anger Rises In India Over PM Modi's COVID Response

In New Delhi on Monday, family members cremate the body of a person who died after contracting COVID-19.
In New Delhi on Monday, family members cremate the body of a person who died after contracting COVID-19.

MUMBAI, India — Outside an upscale Indian hospital last week, Baljeet Asthana put her phone on selfie mode, propped her eyeglasses on her head so she could stare directly into the camera, and hit record.

Through a white polka-dot mask, she described her family's ordeal: Her 82-year-old mother was inside the hospital "struggling for her life," Asthana said. Her mother desperately needed an intensive care unit bed, but the hospital — Fortis Hospital, one of the best-equipped private facilities in the capital, New Delhi — was full. Officials told the family to look for an ICU bed elsewhere.

"My mother is slowly dying," reads her tweet accompanying her video.

Near the end of her video, Asthana addresses Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. She asks them for advice on where she should take her dying mother and closes with a chilling request.

"If you cannot advise me, sir, I would request you to legalize mercy killing in India, because you have no idea what the common citizen of India is going through at the moment," Asthana says into the camera. "We are struggling to get basic things like oxygen, medicines, hospitals. Please legalize mercy killing in India."

"Let us die with dignity," she adds. "Thank you very much. Jai Hind" — long live India — she says.

At a cremation ground in New Delhi on Tuesday, relatives wearing personal protective equipment mourn during the cremation of a family member who died after contracting COVID-19.
Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images
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At a cremation ground in New Delhi on Tuesday, relatives wearing personal protective equipment mourn during the cremation of a family member who died after contracting COVID-19.

Asthana's video is one of the more polite and restrained expressions of anger that have been boiling in India as the country records the world's highest daily tallies of coronavirus infections. There have also been more profane outbursts on social media and in-person arguments as people's frustration mounts.

Authorities have confirmed more than 300,000 coronavirus cases daily for nearly three weeks. On Friday, they confirmed 414,188 new cases, a global record since the coronavirus pandemic began. And scientists say the real numbers are likely much higher.

India's health system has collapsed. There are shortages of hospital beds, medical oxygen, antiviral drugs and vaccines. People are dying in hospital parking lots, unable to get care, or at home, unable to get an ambulance. Many Indians say they feel abandoned by their government.

Citizens are increasingly directing their outrage at Modi himself. His pre-pandemic slogan, Aatmanirbhar Bharat — Hindi for "self-reliant India" — no longer resonates in a country now struggling to process tons of international coronavirus relief supplies landing daily at New Delhi's airport. India's neighbors, including Bangladesh and Bhutan, which had just months ago been recipients of COVID-19 vaccines donated by India, are now sending aid in the other direction.

Anger grows against India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi amid surging coronavirus cases. At least one poll has logged a decline in his public approval rating.
Kiyoshi Ota / AFP via Getty Images
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Anger is growing against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi amid surging coronavirus cases. At least one poll has logged a decline in his public approval rating.

These scenes challenge the idea of India that Modi sought to sell: a proud new global power with an ancient Hindu culture and a booming economy that had put its impoverished past behind it.

India's quick descent into COVID-19 chaos, along with the resulting public ire, now amounts to the biggest challenge yet for the country's most powerful and popular leader in decades. Observers say they've never seen such anger against Modi, and at least one poll has logged a decline in his support.

Mixed messages from Modi

The prime minister hasn't given a televised speech to the nation since April 20. That was when he ruled out another nationwide lockdown (he had previously imposed one in March 2020) but urged Indians to take precautions to halt the coronavirus's spread.

"Discipline is needed to win the battle against corona," Modi said, asking Indians to stay at home if they can. "With your courage, patience and discipline, the country will leave no stone unturned. Together we'll change the conditions."

But three days earlier, Modi had held a massive political rally with thousands of attendees in West Bengal, a state that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was trying to win in local elections.

"In every direction, all I can see is people! You are wonderful!" Modi exclaimed to the crowd.

That day, India confirmed 234,692 new coronavirus cases — more than 20 times its daily tallies from late January and early February. Nevertheless, there were few masks and scant social distancing in Modi's crowd. At the time, West Bengal had none of the pandemic restrictions reimposed in some other Indian regions.

For weeks, Modi's Hindu nationalist government had also refused to halt the huge Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, in which millions of people gathered to bathe in the Ganges River throughout April. An Indian investigative magazine has since reported that a state official who urged that the pilgrimage be restricted was summarily fired by Modi's government. (Modi later advised that the festival wrap up early, but by then, thousands of pilgrims had already tested positive for the coronavirus and at least one religious leader died.)

Naga Sadhus (Hindu holy men) take a holy dip in the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela festival, in Haridwar, India, on April 12.
Money Sharma / AFP via Getty Images
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Naga sadhus (Hindu holy men) take a holy dip in the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, India, on April 12.

"Politics overrode any concern about the health crisis that was unfolding," says Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi think tank.

About six weeks before Modi's April 20 televised speech to the nation, his health minister had declared that India was in the "endgame" of the pandemic. Case numbers had been creeping up, but officials didn't want to believe it, Aiyar says.

"There was a sense that we had crossed the hump and Indian exceptionalism was winning the day," she says. "As [a] consequence, many crucial lessons we could and should have learned — what we needed to do to strengthen the health system and prepare for a second wave — were simply not learned."

When cases plummeted this winter, India disassembled extra coronavirus wards it had set up in 2020. It made no additional efforts to stockpile medical oxygen and antiviral drugs — which are now in severe shortage. Indian diplomats celebrated the country's role in exporting COVID-19 vaccines, but the government didn't order enough to be manufactured and distributed to the domestic population.

Aiyar says the government failed to bolster a public health system that's already one of the world's weakest, even in the best of times. India invests less in public health in proportion to its economy than many other large countries like Brazil and the United States.

Criticism from within the party

As thousands of Indians die of COVID-19 every day, even some of Modi's staunchest supporters are angry with him. Some of the governing party's social media forums are buzzing with criticism.

In India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, a lawyer who has worked for the Bharatiya Janata Party for nearly two decades told local media he'll never support Modi again.

"This government has failed us," Arun Goyal said. "I just saw a patient die right in front of me. We're all on our own now."

His mother-in-law had a severe case of COVID-19, he said. He took her from hospital to hospital in what has become an all-too-familiar tale: Hospitals didn't have room, and his mother-in-law died.

Patient Adila Ebadi, 58, who has been suffering from the coronavirus is treated by volunteers at a makeshift clinic providing free oxygen outside the Gurdwara Damdama Sahib in New Delhi on May 3. India is struggling with shortages of oxygen for patients as well as medicine and hospital beds.
Rebecca Conway / Getty Images
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Patient Adila Ebadi, 58, who has been suffering from the coronavirus, is treated by volunteers at a makeshift clinic providing free oxygen outside the Gurdwara Damdama Sahib in New Delhi on May 3. India is struggling with shortages of oxygen for patients as well as shortages of medicine and hospital beds.

"I'm ashamed to call myself a BJP worker," Goyal said.

NPR contacted seven spokespeople for Modi's government or party to comment on the criticism. Two were sick with COVID-19. Another said he didn't want to talk. Four others did not respond to interview requests.

Meanwhile, the government has been asking Twitter and Facebook to block certain posts it deems as critical of its handling of the pandemic.

India's external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, has addressed some of the criticism. "When a pandemic hits a society very hard, there are questions, there are arguments. There is a lot of second-guessing," Jaishankar told reporters May 5 in London. "You know, 'You should have seen it coming,' 'We could have told you so,' etc. — it's not unique to India."

Jaishankar was in London last week for a meeting with foreign ministers from the G-7 advanced economies. (Although not in the G-7, India and several other nonmember countries were invited.) Some Indians were surprised Jaishankar would travel abroad during such a crisis. (While India is on the United Kingdom's travel ban "red list" of countries with high coronavirus rates, diplomats are exempt.)

While in London, two members of his delegation tested positive for the coronavirus. So the whole Indian team had to self-isolate and participate in those meetings virtually — which, as many Indians pointed out on Twitter, they could have just done from India. Photos have since emerged showing that the delegation did not self-isolate and still held meetings in groups without masks — prompting more angry tweets from observers back home.

Dip in the polls

In the end, Modi's party did not win the elections in West Bengal that he had campaigned for so aggressively. Out of five Indian regions that held local elections in April, the BJP retained political control in only one, the northeast state of Assam. But it's unclear whether voters penalized the party for its pandemic response, because the voting was held in several stages, with some ballots cast in late March and early April, before the extent of the current coronavirus wave was clear.

On May 5, the national BJP president, J.P. Nadda, held a news conference in West Bengal to talk about post-election violence in which some of the BJP's poll workers were allegedly attacked by supporters of a rival party. He was asked about COVID-19 and whether the party and prime minister were concerned about it.

"We are equally concerned and we are fighting it. Prime Minister Modi is taking meetings, discussing, taking very proactive steps," Nadda told reporters.

Still, Modi's pandemic response has struck many Indians as inadequate, observers say. Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., says he hasn't seen this level of outrage at Modi at any time since the prime minister was first elected in 2014.

"It's the ferocity of the virus, coupled with what people perceive as mismanagement, as a lack of empathy, as a prime minister who's usually leading from the front but seems to be receding into the background," Vaishnav says.

A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along the roadside amid the coronavirus pandemic in Ghaziabad, India, on May 2.
Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images
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Under a tent installed along a roadside in Ghaziabad, India, a patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 2.

That's surprising for a leader who has so centralized power. Modi has been India's most popular prime minister in decades. He was reelected in 2019 with an absolute majority in both houses of Parliament.

Modi's approval rating didn't budge much when India's economy shrank 24% last spring under a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. Nor did it falter after a border standoff with China and clashes with Chinese troops that killed 20 Indian soldiers last year. Nor even when Modi abolished most of India's bank notes in 2016 during his so-called demonetization policy, which most economists now say was a debacle.

While political opinion polling in India is often unreliable, a poll by the data analytics company Morning Consult shows Modi's approval rating fell in April. The poll tracks similar ratings for 13 global leaders. Modi remains the most popular, compared with President Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and 10 other global leaders. But Modi's approval rating dropped from 74% on March 31 to 65% on May 4. Similarly, his disapproval rating rose from 20% to 29% over that same period.

But Modi is also a master of reinvention, Vaishnav says. And the next national election is still three years away.

"One of his greatest skills is the ability to spin a yarn, to shape a narrative. In 2014, he [was democratically elected] on the promise of reforming India's governance and revitalizing the economy. Five years later when he was up for reelection, he hadn't fulfilled those promises and instead he campaigned on welfare programs and nationalism," Vaishnav says. "So come 2024, you can bet that he will have reinvented the narrative once again."

Arguments roll on

In the meantime, as India breaks world records for daily coronavirus cases and its death toll mounts, shock across the country is turning to sorrow, and sorrow is turning to more anger.

Opposition politicians have tried to capitalize on that anger. Rahul Gandhi, head of the opposition Congress party, tweeted Monday that if Modi's government had "done its job, it wouldn't have come to this."

Anger and political arguments could focus next on Uttar Pradesh, a state where COVID-19 is raging. Next year, the state will hold legislative elections — which will be a key test for Modi, whose close confidant is the head of the state's government.

Last month, a political argument broke out at a crematorium in Uttar Pradesh.

Video filmed at a crematorium in the city of Meerut and posted to Twitter on April 30 shows an argument between a family that had just cremated their loved one, who died of COVID-19, and another man who interrupts the family and scolds them for bemoaning the government. He tries to convince them that none of this is the government's fault. They all wave their fingers at one another, as funeral pyres burn around them.

One man pleads with the other: "Let's just not argue! Not here, not now. Not in this, of all places," he says.

NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report from Hyderabad, India.

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