NEW DELHI — As he surveyed the thousands of people gathered at an election rally in eastern India on April 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared jubilant. “Everywhere I look, as far as I can see, there are crowds,” he said, his arms spread wide. “You have done an extraordinary thing.”
At the time, India was recording more than 200,000 coronavirus cases a day. In the western state of Maharashtra, oxygen was running short, and people were dying at home because of a shortage of hospital beds. In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, crematoriums were being overwhelmed by the dead.
Those scenes were just a prelude to the devastation now unfolding in India. It is recording more infections daily — at last count 379,000 — than any other country since the start of the pandemic. Hospitals are turning away severely ill patients, and their relatives are frantically searching for medical oxygen.
For Modi, the most powerful Indian prime minister in five decades, it is a moment of reckoning. He is facing what appears to be the country’s biggest crisis since independence, a calamity that is challenging his vision of a proud, self-reliant nation.
Modi’s own lapses and missteps are an increasing source of anger. As coronavirus cases skyrocketed, Modi continued to hold huge election rallies and declined to cancel a Hindu religious festival that drew millions to the banks of the Ganges River, despite pleas from health experts.
Rather than making urgent preparations for a second wave of cases in an already weak health-care system, the government put much of its focus on vaccinations — a campaign too limited to blunt the oncoming disaster. The government repeatedly chose self-congratulation over caution, publicly stating that the pandemic was in its “end game” in India as recently as last month.
Modi swept to a landslide reelection victory in 2019, offering Indians a muscular brand of nationalism that views India as a fundamentally Hindu country rather than the secular republic envisioned by its founders. He has cultivated an image as a singular leader capable of bold decisions to protect and transform the country.
Now that image is “in tatters,” said Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist at Ashoka University in the northern Indian state of Haryana. Modi and his governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) built a formidable machine for winning elections, Sitapati said, but their mind-set of continuous campaigning has come “at the cost of governance.”
The governing party rejects such criticisms. Modi’s government has been working “round the clock” to fight the pandemic since the start of 2020, said Baijayant Panda, the national vice president of the BJP. “By the beginning of this year, the number of active covid-positive cases had dwindled to a trickle. … The suddenness and scale of the present surge has taken everyone by surprise.”
Modi has acknowledged that the country is fighting “a colossal battle” against the coronavirus. India was successful in confronting the first wave of cases, he said in a radio address this week, but “this storm has shaken the country.”
The prime minister’s office, the minister of information and broadcasting, and two health officials in Delhi did not respond to requests for comments on criticism of the government’s handling of the second coronavirus wave.
Modi’s approach to India’s current surge stands in contrast to his actions last spring. Last March, he ordered a strict nationwide lockdown, the world’s largest, with four hours’ notice at a time when the country had recorded about 500 coronavirus cases. The lockdown caused extreme economic hardship: More than 100 million people lost their jobs. Among them were millions of migrant workers who began leaving cities on foot to return to their home villages.
The lockdown slowed transmission of the virus and gave India time to scale up testing and other capacities to fight the pandemic. Infections surged in the fall as restrictions were loosened across the country but receded early this year for reasons that remain unclear.
Modi’s national government as well as state authorities “went into the comfort zone of believing the pandemic has passed,” said Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “That illusion came to settle in the minds of most people and clouded their judgment.”
A national task force of experts and scientists set up to advise the government on its response to the pandemic did not meet at all in February and March, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the panel’s behalf. The task force met twice in April, and another meeting is scheduled for this week.
In March, the government allowed an enormous month-long Hindu religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, to proceed in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Earlier this month, the state’s chief minister, a member of Modi’s party, said that because the gathering was held on the banks of the Ganges River, which Hindus consider holy, “there should be no corona.”
As infections in the country climbed — including at the Kumbh Mela — Modi asked the religious leaders to consider making the rest of their observances symbolic in nature. Still, about 25,000 people took part in the final bathing ritual held Wednesday. More than 3 million devotees took part in one on April 12.
Meanwhile, Modi threw himself into several state election campaigns, including a crucial one for his party in the state of West Bengal. Although the state was not one of the hardest-hit in the second surge, experts say the continued rallies sent a bad message.
While health officials were reminding people to wear masks and maintain distance, Indians saw “their prime minister doing just the opposite on national television every evening,” said Navjot Singh Dahiya, national vice president of the Indian Medical Association. Modi’s biggest failure is that “his government kept misleading people during such a huge tragedy. Now people are paying with their lives.”
The current desperate struggle for oxygen across much of India has revealed a lack of preparation by the government for a new surge. Although India launched a bidding process to build more than 160 new oxygen plants at hospitals across the country in October, only a small fraction had been installed as of April, according to a report by Scroll.in, an Indian media outlet.
In the past two weeks, the government has announced plans to build hundreds more oxygen plants across the country using money from a discretionary relief fund set up by Modi to tackle the pandemic. The fund’s donors and its precise outlays have not been disclosed.
India launched a nationwide vaccination drive in January but sent more than 60 million doses of domestically produced vaccine to other countries, both through commercial deals and as gifts in a form of vaccine diplomacy. Such exports were halted in late March as case numbers began to rise in India. More recently, the government announced that it would open vaccinations to everyone over the age of 18 — but it not clear that it has the supplies to do so.
Now anger is growing, even among Modi voters. Shivashankarappa, a 60-year-old in the southern state of Karnataka who goes by one name and works at a wholesale agricultural market, has been a Modi supporter for years. He thought Modi handled the first wave of the pandemic well but said he was disgusted to see him on the campaign trail as deaths began to rise.
“Isn’t there value for human life? Is an election more important than people?” he asked. If Modi “takes credit for the first wave going away, he has to take the blame now.”
For BJP supporters whose relatives died trying to find treatment for covid-19, the sense of betrayal is acute. Arun Kumar Goyal is a lawyer in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and has been a BJP party worker for nearly two decades. His mother-in-law was turned away from a hospital after hospital on April 25. She received a few hours of oxygen at a site run by volunteers but died at home the next morning, Goyal said.
“I will never support the party again,” said Goyal, 53. “The government is completely absent. They have left the people to fend for themselves.”
Shams Irfan in Srinagar, India, and Mohit Rao in Bangalore contributed to this report.