Questions About Modi: Domestic Despair Defines International Image

For a government obsessed with its image, the problem now is of a different order of magnitude.

4 min read
Illustration of PM Modi used for representational purposes.

The questions are hushed and tentative because no one wants to be blunt at a time of India’s greatest crisis for fear of appearing insensitive and politically incorrect. India’s friends and admirers are deeply disturbed by images of choked hospitals and abandoned rural clinics, by bodies floating down the Ganges or simply hiding on its banks, and by the growing distance between the rulers and the ruled.

Almost too scared to lay blame and too afraid to untangle the web that brought India to a place of pity from a place of pride, the conversations have an element of surprise and shame.

Surprise because the country stands exposed at too many levels to count and shame because democracies are supposed to do much better by their people.

Hesitation Around the ‘M’ Word

Indian Twitterati and chatterati were less charitable when New York hospitals were stacking bodies in refrigerated trucks. They laughed at Donald Trump’s daily delivery of word salads and dangerous recommendations. Americans – not the journalists and headline writers – are too shocked to ridicule as they examine the failures, the triumphalism and the boasts of the Indian government over the past few months. Perhaps, they worry about the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers in their own midst. Perhaps, they remember their own government’s struggles.

So they ask indirectly, going around the roundabout before hesitatingly taking the road to the “M” word. It’s as if they too have been hit by the wave of fear, where merely raising your voice constitutes a crime against the government.

But they read the newspapers and listen to the radio and the ledger of India stories is grim.

Foreign newspapers are letting Prime Minister Narendra Modi have it in spades. They are not intimidated as large parts of the media in India where a saffron-clad chief minister slaps criminal cases against people asking for oxygen and goes after journalists for telling stories of hardship.

But let’s be clear there’s nothing the foreign press has written that hasn’t been reported by brave Indian journalists. And they have zero “White privilege” and can’t barge into hospital wards. They won’t win Pulitzers and more likely die in service.


Does Modi Have Real Admirers Beyond Dedicated Diaspora?

It’s also useful to remember that outside the dedicated diaspora supporters, Modi didn’t have real admirers, only polite hopefuls. That’s the honest truth. The brigade of hopefuls across policy makers, corporate titans and academics has waited for the “Gujarat model” to work. May be Modi would be the one to push and pull India by inspiring millions of unemployed young to nation building. He would be the one to light a fire under stagnant institutions.

With the second wave of Covid overwhelming the country and the government’s crisis mismanagement in full view, that wait is over. Now the quiet question is – will he stay in power? Equally quietly I answer – there are three years between now and the general elections. That’s an eon in politics and a lot can happen.

As a good friend and an astute observer of BJP politics told me recently, “Just wait, people carrying oxygen cylinders on their backs will become a shining example of self-reliance by 2024. They will boast they carried their own burden.”


Modi Government’s International Image Has Taken a Beating

No question that India’s image has taken a severe beating – it does periodically when corruption or calamity hit the country big time. But for a government obsessed with its image, the problem is of a different order of magnitude. It’s harder to bear, almost harder than the climbing death toll and vaccine shortages.

Covid has distanced all leaders from their people in some manner but Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems uniquely distant for a democratically elected leader. We don’t know how much information collected by independent journalists, doctors, rural health care workers and bureaucrats he is “allowed” to see by his gate-keepers. The landscape of death would impel a politician to be with his people, to meet them, to console them. In person.

But Modi doesn’t do real engagement – only choreographed appearances or election rallies. What would it take for him to go to UP or Bihar and meet villagers who are dying uncared and uncounted? Even if the supporters believe only half the information coming out of hospitals and villages, that still leaves one half that is compelling.


Not Owning the Problem, But Silencing the Critics

Deployment of words like “baseless,” “slanderous” and “malicious” by government spokesmen against newspaper reports only serves to highlight the million tragedies. Try as the Hindutva warriors might to insist the second wave started in Delhi and Maharashtra because the general janata had let their guard and masks down, it is the Kumbh mela and election rallies that stick out. And they will because the hand of the central government and of the leader was all over those super spreader events. Like it or not, fair or unfair, the buck stops with the leader. That’s how democracy rolls – even in a debilitated state.

Not owning the problem spawns more stories about the leader’s vanity, hubris and mismanagement. But the Modi government takes time out from the 24x7 job of getting the pandemic under control to go after critics, opposition youth leaders and journalists. Change the reality on the ground and the critics will automatically shut up.

The less said about the “central vista project” at a whopping $2.8 billion, the better. This ultimate vanity project will rob Delhi of its history and aesthetics and give “mithai” kitsch in return. But protests against such a massive assault on Delhi seem to make no difference to the rulers. But then what does?

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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