NEW DELHI – His Covid-19 task force has not met for months. His health minister assured the public in March that India had reached the “final game” of the pandemic. A few weeks earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasted to world leaders that his nation had triumphed over the coronavirus.
India “saved humanity from a great catastrophe by effectively containing a crown,” Mr. Modi said at a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum in late January, three background tricolor Indian flags.
Now, a second wave has made India the most affected country in the world.
India’s great turnaround, from declaring victory to the worst state of emergency in decades, has forced national accounts centered on Mr Modi.
Experts around the world once wondered how the country seemed to have escaped the worst of the pandemic, dealing with explanations for the relative youth and health of the population that Mr Modi and his government accepted if they were not encouraged. Even now, Mr Modi’s supporters say India has been hit by a global phenomenon and that more time is needed to trace the causes of the second wave.
But independent health experts and political analysts say Mr Modi’s overconfidence and his dominant leadership style carry a huge share of responsibility. Critics say his administration is determined to portray India as a roadmap and open to business, despite the protracted risks. At one point, officials rejected warnings from scientists that India’s population remains vulnerable and has not achieved “herd immunity,” as some in its administration have suggested, people familiar with the talks said.
The growing distress in this country hated Mr. Modi’s aura of political invulnerability, which he won by leading the opposition and using his personal charisma to become India’s most powerful politician in decades. Opposition leaders are under attack and its central government is increasingly turning it into sharp criticism online.
After parliamentary elections three years later and no signs of resignation from his government, Mr Modi’s power seems secure. His government has stepped up efforts to provide supplies for desperate patients and extended the right to participate in scarce vaccines to more age groups. Yet analysts say his dominance means more people will hold him personally responsible for illness and death exploding across the country.
“Most of the blame lies with Modi’s style of governance, where senior ministers are chosen for loyalty rather than expertise, where secrecy and image management are privileged over transparency,” said Asim Ali, a researcher at the Center for Political Science. research in New Delhi.
“In such a framework,” he added, “when Modi drops the ball, as he did to Kovid, it can have catastrophic consequences.”
At various times in recent months, officials have made decisions that have returned to pursue India.
Although India is a vaccine power plant producing vaccines to protect the world, it has not bought enough doses to protect itself. Instead, while vaccination levels remain low at home, New Delhi is exporting more than 60 million photos to strengthen its position on the world stage.
Even as infections increased, Mr Modi decided to allow large groups to come together to help his ruling party, Bharatiya Janata, and burn its Hindu nationalist qualities. His government allowed a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers. He is campaigning for state elections without masks at rallies of thousands of masked supporters.
Mr Modi has surrounded himself with allies, not experts, analysts say. Officials felt too intimidated to point out mistakes, analysts say, or to question his claims that the pandemic was over. His party and its allies have also silenced critics, ordering Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to remove critical posts and threatening to arrest ordinary people for asking for oxygen.
Mr Modi’s party, known as the BJP, and the government declined to answer specific questions, but listed actions taken by the government, including Mr Modi, who held more than a dozen meetings in April with Air Force officers, pharmaceutical executives and many others. others.
In a statement, the government said it “maintains a steady pace of coordination and consultation to prepare an adequate response.” It added that in February, the administration “advised states to maintain strict vigilance” and “not to leave their guard”.
Any Indian leader would face challenges. Hundreds of millions of poor people live on the cheeks, easy targets for a highly contagious virus. India has long neglected public health, spending less than $ 100 per capita a year, says the World Bank, less than many developing countries – a problem that preceded Mr Modi.
On Saturday, the country reported more than 398,000 new viral infections and more than 3,500 deaths. Evidence shows that official figures significantly lower tolls. The country’s largest city, Mumbai, simply stopped all vaccinations because it was essentially over.
Analysts say Mr Modi performed much better in the first wave. A longtime politician with modest roots and a penchant for dramatic moves, Mr. Modi, 70, has embraced masks and social distancing since his earliest days.
On March 24, 2020, when there were less than 600 reported infections in India, Mr Modi ordered his country to enter one of the strictest blockades in the world after four hours’ notice. Looking forward to guidance, most people obediently stay indoors. When Mr Modi asked citizens to stand on their balconies and break pots and pans in solidarity with health workers, millions did just that.
Experts acknowledge that blocking, while insufficient, is slowing the spread. But the restrictions were economically devastating, leaving tens of millions out of work and undermining many of Mr Modi’s greatest ambitions, including making India a global power. He was afraid of being locked up again.
After he eased many restrictions, infections rose to nearly 100,000 a day in September, but the health care system survived. In early 2021, as infections dwindled and the economy began to recover, Mr Modi and his team made concerted efforts to signal India’s return.
Many Indians take off their masks. They returned to the markets and socialized. Even more restrictions were lifted. The Covid-19 centers created during the first wave were dismantled.
In February, his party leadership said India had “defeated Kovid under the skilful, sensitive, dedicated and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi”. In early March, Harsh Vardhan, India’s health minister, announced that India was “at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Those who were not so sure were removed. The Indian working group Covid-19, which includes about 20 health professionals, met at least twice a month. But between January 11 and April 15, the working group did not meet at all, according to three people who know about their discussions. Two said the government simply believed the threat was over.
Some scientists have been concerned about the official line that India, a country of 1.4 billion, is approaching herd immunity, or the point where enough people are immunized – either through vaccinations or earlier infection – that the virus is already cannot be easily distributed. VK Paul, head of the Covid-19 task force, said in January that “most of our highly populated areas and cities have survived the pandemic.”
According to concerned scientists, the three were repulsed. They said serological tests did not necessarily support the idea. Two people familiar with the study said that the government’s results, selected from cherries, suggest a shift to immunity to the herd.
The vaccination program lost steam when complacency occurred. The Modi administration has begun exporting vaccines made in India to win the favor of neighbors who may be tempted to get vaccines from China, New Delhi’s regional rival. The government has approved only two vaccines, both made in India, promoting the country’s self-sufficiency. Less than two percent of the population received two doses.
Rajeev Chandrasekar, a BJP spokesman, said there was no shortage when the government exported vaccines and that “the government has actively expanded production and supplies from alternative sources”.
While the vaccinations were being sprayed, Mr Modi followed in the footsteps of the campaign. Several countries have held elections, and he is focusing specifically on West Bengal, a country controlled by an opposition party. By mid-April, Mr. Modi and Amit Shah, the interior minister, were ruthlessly campaigning, attracting thousands of crowds, many of whom were not wearing masks and were tightly packed. The results of the vote are expected on Sunday.
Although health experts warned of risks, Mr Modi, an energetic campaigner, seemed to be drawing strength from the rallies. He told one in mid-April, when India reached 200,000 new daily infections, how happy he was to “see only people and people and nothing else.”
Although several factors play a role and new, more dangerous variants of viruses may be involved, many blame the election. During a recent hearing, a judge told a lawyer from the Indian Election Commission that “your officers should be appointed on murder charges.”
At another hearing in Delhi, after a lawyer representing the local government complained that Mr Modi’s administration was not doing enough to help with the acute shortage of oxygen, the country’s Advocate General replied: “Let’s try and let’s not cry. “
Mr Modi is likely to retain power, thanks to weak opposition and his ability to set fire to his Hindu nationalist base. Even his image has changed; Mr. Modi has lost the baseball cap and chic sunglasses he wore a year ago and has grown long with his hair and beard, reminiscent of some of the Hindu sages.
“He is just a unique political animal,” said Milan Vaisnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He has this charisma, attractiveness, magnetism, a very convincing personal history and has great personal trust among the average voter.”
Even now, Mr. Vaishnava added, “people like Modi will find ways to justify it.”