“I’ve never seen such huge crowds” a jovial Indian Premier Narendra Modi tweeted after witnessing a massive crowd at an election rally in Asansol, West Bengal last Saturday (24), the day country recorded more than 234,000 new Covid-19 cases and thousands of deaths mainly due to lack of oxygen in hospitals for the suffering patients.
It was barely a month ago, delivering a public speech in Colombo, I highlighted the popularity of Prime Minister Modi with special reference to his efforts in combating the pandemic. But, we are now witnessing how a hugely popular politician becoming ‘hero to zero’ in less than a month mainly due to his erroneously calculated political decisions against a national health calamity.
By the beginning of this year, PM Modi was commanding an unprecedented popularity of 74%, even after seven years in power, in his second term. Maintaining popularity of an elected political leader is a tough challenge whereas the popularity starts diminishing from the day two in his or her office. But, Modi has proved this logic untrue. His Hindutva ideology and craftsmanship in touching the cultural and religious sensitivities against liberal democratic values has kept him on the top of the popularity indexes. Laying of the foundation stone to the Ram temple in Ayodhya last August brought him further up in the popularity ladder – albeit his alleged involvement in the demolishing of Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. Though his critics were skeptical about his policies on Covid-19 interventions, many believed he was doing well until mid-April.
I highlighted the popularity of Prime Minister Modi with special reference to his efforts in combating the pandemic. But, we are now witnessing how a hugely popular politician becoming ‘hero to zero’ in less than a month mainly due to his erroneously calculated political decisions against a national health calamity
Ironically, the global epicenter of the pandemic was shifted to India through its second wave in the country, which has since grown into a tsunami, setting records for the world’s highest number of daily cases. Most of the deaths were due the shortage of oxygen and other medical facilities, as medical experts and Delhi Chief MinisterAravind Kejriwal claimed. In other words, most lives of those who have been subjected to mass cremations on streets have been saved if oxygen supplies at critical hospitals were available.
To my mind, PM Modi over estimated his popularity and paid much attention to playing politics by increasing his vote base in states like opposition-led West Bengal during this election period than adopting policy decisions to combat a fast spreading deadly virus. He was much interested in campaigning in elections held five states West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puduchcheri against paying attention to i ncreasing the production volumes of the vaccine in the world largest drug producing nation. In a nutshell, PM Modi took his massive popularity for granted, I would argue.
“At this crucial time he is fighting for votes and not against Covid,” said Panchanan Maharana, a community activist from Odisha, who previously supported Modi’s policies but will now look for alternative parties to back, as The Economic Times reported. “He is failing to deliver — he should stop talking and focus on saving people’s lives and livelihoods,” it added.
Another widely claimed reason to the upsurge of the pandemic is the vast gathering for Kumbh Mela religious festival in Haridwar that continued since April 14 with at least three million Hindu devotees. Though hundreds were tested positive in Haridwar including top Hindu priests during the festival, religious leaders continued with the ritual claiming “Mother Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow of the river. So there should be no Corona virus.” The two-month long ritual had hurriedly been wrapped up given the rising pandemic crisis, but the damage has already been done.
Many including the right wing political entity Shiv Sena criticized the government for not taking prompt actions against the religious festival but when reading the mindset of Modi, he would not dare banning the event during a time of a crucial election. Political victory in decisive five states would be more crucial for the nationalistic hardliner, but now it has boomeranged against his own popularity. Social media was full of negative comments against the most popular politician in South Asia for the past few weeks while many hashtag campaigns on twitter demanded the immediate resignation of Modi.
In response, the Indian government has demanded the social media tech giants to take down dozens of social media posts critical of its handling of the pandemic. It has already ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to remove hundreds of posts that has criticized the government and demanded resignation of Prime Minister Modi. The government has said that the posts could incite panic, used images out of context, and could hinder its response to the pandemic The New York Times reported. Any non-compliance to such requests or orders from the regime may risk the staff of these tech giants in India of possible arrest, experts say. However, the companies have complied with the requests for now, in part by making the posts invisible to those using the sites inside India.
India is not alone in this pandemic crisis when considering the regional context. Pakistan and Bangladesh are also trying to strike a balance between politics and the pandemic in a deadly environment of a third wave. “Pakistan has the highest death rate in a day since the beginning of Covid pandemic. Our progress is only happening in funerals,” wrote on Sunday (25) Adnan Rehmat, a well know Pakistani media experts on his Facebook. The government has been subjected to heavy criticism over its poor handling of the health crisis, mainly given the current critical stage.
Islamabad hospital has become over occupied, while patients with other illnesses left with no options for treatments. The government has ordered 500,000 doses of vaccines for a population of 216 million due to the lack of financial resources, but in contrast, it has successfully completed four long-range nuclear missile tests spending millions of dollars for the past four months of this year. “Thus, Uranium has become the most important factor to our government compared to Covax or Oxygen,” said a senior commentator who wanted to remain anonymous. Interestingly both India and Pakistan remained among the top ten weapon importers of the world in 2020, ranking second and tenth places respectively, according to Swedish think tank SIPRI at a time when their people were dying in hundreds of a fast spreading virus. On top of these developments, both countries continue to engage in their usual empty rhetoric strictly adhering to their longstanding animosity. Pakistan refused to accept the Indian offer of 50,000 doses under Vaccine Maithree to South Asia. A few days ago, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi offered “everything possible including ventilators, X-Ray machines and masks,” but Indian response would be pretty obvious for anyone’s guess.
In Pakistan, domestic politics also plays a major role in responding to the deadly virus. The country’s four states has four different political parties in power, thus, power struggles between each state and the centre has become an issue in deciding national policies of health response. Also, the state response of the Imran Khan government for public criticism on social media was no different from that of India. But, unlike in India the blocking came through a more legitimate and ‘justifiable’ entity, National Counter Terrorism Authority (NCTA). It said more than 19,000 social media had been taken down for inciting hate and spreading terrorism in the country. Google, Facebook, and Twitter had taken down the 19,727 accounts involved in spreading hate and terrorism, the counter-terrorism agency said, as reported by The News.
However, it is interesting to analysis the behavioural politics by seasoned politicians during a deadly pandemic. Most of them are heavily sandwiched between health restrictions and socio-economic impacts. Either way, a decision may result in a heavy price on their popularity. To my mind, the best crisis management strategy for any politician at this crucial hour would be – honest to your people (do not seek short-term political gains), tell the truth to the public (do not cover up things with lies) and accept mistake (keep aside the ego and accept the fact that deadly virus is in no one’s control). But, in contrast we continue to witness petty political games at the cost of human lives numbering hundreds or thousands.