COVID Second Wave: Why BJP’s Toolkit to Tackle Flak Isn’t Working
From using unknown blogs to blaming ‘everyone’, BJP has tried every trick to escape criticism. But it’s not working.
The Narendra Modi government seems to be struggling in an aspect that has been its strongest skill over the last seven years – controlling the narrative. The government has been facing a great deal of flak over its alleged mishandling of the second wave of the COVID pandemic. Reports in the international media, in particular, are said to have caused immense embarrassment and no response that the government is coming up with seems good enough.
So what exactly is going wrong for the government?
This article will try and answer this by breaking it down into a number of components.
- Government's narrative-controlling steps that backfired.
- International criticism and the threat to Modi's image abroad.
- Increasing resentment domestically.
- Confused messaging by the government.
Steps That Backfired
The Union government took several steps to control the narrative and stem the criticism, which ended up backfiring.
1. Blog vs The Lancet: In response to a critical article in the premier medical journal, The Lancet, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan shared a post from a blog titled ‘Pankaj Chaturvedi Thoughts’. That India's health minister shared an unknown blog to counter The Lancet was itself embarrassing. What added to the criticism were a number of claims made in the article, raising doubts over vaccines. Even though it was later pointed out that Pankaj Chaturvedi, the author of the blog, is a doctor, the damage had already been done.
2. By BJP, for BJP, of BJP: In response to criticism that PM Modi and his government aren't doing enough to tackle the pandemic, Union ministers shared an article from The Daily Guardian, claiming that the "PM is working really hard". It turned out that this was an opinion piece written by a BJP media cell member named Sudesh Verma.
3. Real or Fake Toolkit? BJP leaders shared two documents with a Congress letterhead – one criticised the Modi government's Central Vista project and the other contained points on how the Modi government can be embarrassed using the pandemic. Congress denied having prepared any such 'toolkit'. A fact-check by Altnews showed that the second document, which laid down a plan to target the Modi government using the pandemic, was on a forged letterhead.
4. Positivity overdrive: The BJP, RSS and many pro-government influencers are trying to push a message of ‘positivity’ amid the pandemic. The PM's ‘Mann ki Baat’ handle, put out a tweet asking people to share inspiring stories and "celebrate the power of positivity". But after a great deal of trolling and ridicule, the tweet had to be deleted.
Then the RSS held an event titled 'positivity unlimited', which also sparked social media outrage and jokes with many asking whether ‘positivity’ meant the rising number of positive COVID cases.
A big problem for the Modi government's spin doctors is that the PM's carefully crafted international image has taken a severe beating. Take these examples.
The Guardian called it "India's Descent into Covid Hell", The Australian said that Modi is leading India to a "viral apocalypse". The Economist made Harsh Vardhan appear like Mary Antoinette with the headline "Let Them Eat Dark Chocolate" a dig at the health minister's advice to have dark chocolate to beat COVID stress. Le Monde accused Modi of "lack of anticipation, arrogance and demagoguery".
Then the reports of ruling party leaders, like Sadhvi Pragya advocating cow urine as a cure for COVID, and visuals of people applying cow dung for the same purpose ended up reinforcing some of the worst western stereotypes about Indians.
However, it may be wrong to attribute Modi's falling international stock purely to the pandemic. The farmers' protest - which gained a great deal of international attention - also played an important role.
The defeat of Donald Trump in the United States Presidential elections has also strengthened the narrative against authoritarian populists, a category that Modi is seen to be a part of, along with others, like Brazil's Jair Bolsanaro and Hungary's Viktor Orban.
It's not just the international press, even the domestic media has begun turning the heat on the government regarding the pandemic. Take for instance the Dainik Bhaskar Group, which was once accused of being soft on the BJP. Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar and the group's Gujarati daily, Divya Bhaskar, have been carrying some of the most scathing stories against the BJP's handling of the pandemic. A story in Divya Bhaskar indicated a massive underreporting of COVID deaths in Gujarat, possibly to the tune of tens of thousands.
For Indian media houses, particularly regional media, it’s not competition with foreign media that creates the pressure. The pressure to do stories, laying bare the truth about the COVID situation also stems from their readers/viewers.
"When the situation is so bad and our readers are getting affected, we cannot afford to downplay the reality," a senior editor with a Hindi daily told this reporter.
This may be leading to at least some loss of political capital for the BJP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hit his lowest approval rating since the beginning of the COVID crisis.
However, Modi still has healthy popularity despite the fall. But BJP's chief ministers are suffering more.
"The PM will survive this crisis politically because he has presented himself as distant from it. But CMs are likely to suffer more," a BJP leader said.
Four Shades of Confused Messaging
One reason contributing to the government's problems is the confused messaging from its own side as well as from its larger ecosystem. This can be seen from the following narratives that were pushed:
1. ‘India Has Defeated COVID’
A few months ago, the government's main narrative was one of triumphalism, much in line with PM Modi's speech in Davos, in which he claimed that India had defeated COVID.
This led to a belief that India is going to escape the second wave.
When the wave hit in early April, the first response of the government was denial. The BJP's main focus seemed to have been on the West Bengal elections, in which it fancied its chances.
2. Look for Scapegoats
Once the numbers kept rising and the corpses piled up, the BJP seemed to have started looking for scapegoats. Its social media head tried to blame protesting farmers for the spike in COVID cases, while many other talking heads blamed state governments.
The Uttar Pradesh government even went to the extent of booking people complaining of a shortage of oxygen. According to reports, this is still happening in the BJP-ruled state.
3. ‘Everyone Is to Blame’
But when the situation worsened and the criticism also intensified, the establishment tried a softer approach – admitting to some failures while asserting that it was trying its best.
RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat said that there were mistakes on the part of the government, but also added that doctors, hospitals and others were also to blame.
"Everyone is to blame" became the new narrative, to shield the government from at least part of the failure to control the crisis.
This approach might have appeared less distant compared to the previous ones, but it didn't entirely solve the government's problems.
4. ‘Conspiracy Against Modi’
Then came the Congress toolkit allegation – that the Congress, along with its cronies in the media, was trying to create a narrative against PM Modi.
This is a tried-and-tested formula and was used against the Opposition following the surgical strikes in 2016. "Why is the Opposition asking for proof?" was the refrain.
However, this may work on a matter of national security, in which nationalist emotions run high. But at a time when tens of thousands have died, if not lakhs, and the corpses are there for everyone to see, blaming the Opposition or alleging a conspiracy may not quite work.
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