First, there was the second wave of Covid-19 that resulted in thousands of untimely deaths. Apart from the large numbers who are reduced to faceless statistics in natural disasters and epidemics, these now include Indians from elite and middle-class families. In short, people we either know or know about.
Initially, there were severe shortages of oxygen cylinders for Covid patients. Although this was eventually managed, and in a short time, there were subsequent hiccups associated with the demand for anti-Covid vaccinations far exceeding supply. Although in absolute terms, 195 million Indians had received at least one jab by May 25 — second only to the United States — this accounted for merely 3.1% of the population, suggesting a long haul ahead.
In democratic societies, there is a tendency to pillory the government for anything short of super-efficiency in crisis management. Since the mainstream media is dominated by those whose inclinations are visibly Left-liberal and, increasingly, woke, the quantum of disquiet tends to be amplified in the case of governments with different orientations.
President Donald Trump was, of course, the biggest casualty of this phenomenon although, to be fair, the bigoted denial of Covid by some of his pig-headed supporters made his administration a delicious target.
In Britain, where, after a period of hesitation and confusion, the Boris Johnson government moved resolutely to vaccinate as many as possible, the criticisms have not waned. Yet, as local body polls and parliamentary by-elections have shown, there is a striking mismatch between carping media voices and the popular mood. This may not be a universal principle, but it does suggest that the loudest voices may not be the most representative ones — as was demonstrated during the 2016 demonetisation.
In India, Covid-19 management hasn’t yet become an electoral issue but if the media narrative is any indication, the impression is being fostered that Narendra Modi’s government has made an almighty mess and forfeited its moral right to rule. From conjuring imagery reminiscent of the 1943 Bengal famine to suggestions of ineptitude at all levels, it is being gleefully suggested that India is back to the days when its sufferings sustained the West’s sense of cultural superiority. The emergency medical assistance from overseas has been held up as proof of the demise of Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat aspirations.
To the accusations of faltering in the face of the second wave, has been added the fulminations over the Central Vista project in Delhi. The exercise has been described as ‘tasteless’, a show of ‘vanity’ and an example of arrogance and misplaced priorities. Aesthetics has been added to the anti-Modi grudges.
Finally, the Indian government’s spat with Twitter, Facebook and other transnational companies over adherence to domestic norms has been presented as evidence of authoritarian impulses and a threat to basic freedoms.
The three very different issues have coalesced in a larger political operation — to secure the political defeat of Modi in 2024, with next year’s Uttar Pradesh election as the curtain-raiser.
It is not a coincidence that most of the social media stalwarts who have been fulminating about Modi having lost the plot are those who were loudest in warning India against him in 2014. The global ‘woke’ fraternity has been egged on to disregard national sovereignty on the ground that a conflict will erode foreign investor confidence. The anti-Modi battles have been cheered on by Indian academics overseas who feel exiled from the power structure in New Delhi.
Confronted with this assault, it would be wrong for the government to develop a siege mentality. The Modi government has hitherto been on top of the game by focussing single-mindedly on governance and capacity building. This must not change. Perceptions are important, but at the end of the day they depend almost entirely on the lived experiences of ordinary people and not on who screams the loudest. What is, however, also necessary is clarity over policy, complete sincerity of purpose, a willingness to engage with the larger public and, above all, humility. Mistakes must be admitted and rectified.
It was only to be expected that the ousted Old Establishment would leave no stone unturned—including cynical alliances with foreign entities — to attempt a comeback. They will have to be determinedly countered with imagination, sobriety, and exemplary performance. India is still looking to Modi to overcome challenges and uphold national self-esteem.