The wheel turns a full circle with the world sceptical of Modi's ability to steer the course

Western criticisms of Narendra Modi were brushed aside as carping by “self-appointed custodians of the world" but the pandemic has robbed him of the alibi, writes Amulya Ganguly

Representative Image
Representative Image

Amulya Ganguly

The wheel has turned full circle for Narendra Modi. Just as he was persona non grata in several Western countries, including the US, in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, he is again facing censure in Europe and America, mainly from the media if not so much from the governments.

If the earlier criticism of him was for his acts of omission and commission during the riots, he is now being excoriated for his administration’s failure to anticipate the second wave of the pandemic and ramp up the medical infrastructure in preparation.

The resultant shortages of hospital beds, oxygen, medicines and now of vaccines have led to numbing scenes of patients struggling for breath outside hospitals, rows of burning funeral pyres and bodies floating in the Ganga.

The Samajwadi Party leader, Akhilesh Yadav, has recalled the celebrated Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripahi Nirala’s poem about similar scenes during the 1918-19 Spanish flu. Now, in the 21st century, a Gujarati poem (which has been translated into several other Indian languages) about “Shabvahini Ganga” (Ganga as a hearse) is doing the rounds in the social media, much to the BJP’s dismay and anger.

It is known that following the post-riots condemnation of Modi, he sought to remake his image with sadbhavna (goodwill) fasts to reach out to the minorities and prepare for a national role – an enterprise which proved to be a great success and earned him praise for his transformation from a “hate figure” to an “avatar of modernity and progress”. The change of image helped him recover his position to a considerable extent worldwide and made him a darling of the diaspora as the ecstatic reception which he received during his visits to the US showed.

But it didn’t take long for the liberals to begin to pick holes in his armour, a trend which gathered pace after the abrogation of Article 370 granting special status to Kashmir. The farmers’ protests and the enactment of a citizenship law which ignored the Muslims were also not well received by the reputed Western publications.

But if the government could earlier dismiss such carping about India being only “partly free” as the views of “self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval”, as external affairs minister S Jaishankar said, it can hardly do so now when the country has had to depend on aid from 40-odd counties, big and small, to deal with the present calamitous situation.

Arguably, BJP’s success in tiding over the earlier crises caused by demonetization and the exodus of migrant labourers from the cities after a hasty lockdown has made it confident that it will be able to weather the present storm as well. This self-assurance has apparently made the party ignore the petitions signed by eminent Indian and international scholars against continuing with the “extravagant” central vista project to remodel the heart of the national capital.

But the high death toll and the prolonged duration of the pandemic are bound to raise doubts about the government’s and the party’s ability to ride out the apocalyptic situation. The fact that almost every family has suffered bereavement must weigh heavily on the minds of the leaders, especially in the context of elections.

The adverse impact of such grief on the ruling party’s fortunes has already been seen in the outcome of the U.P. panchayat polls where the previously unfancied Samajwadi Party has gone ahead of the aggressive BJP under a hardline chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. That the BJP is aware that all is not well is evident from a video put out by its energetic IT wing which claims that both the prime minister and the U.P. chief minister are working very hard to alleviate the misery of the Covid victims.

In 2002, neither domestic nor international criticism stopped Modi from winning elections in Gujarat. His gambit was to pit the critics against the state’s asmita (pride). In the present instance, too, the same objective was sought to be achieved by portraying India as the pharmacy of the world and exporter of vaccines. But the aim of highlighting the country’s asmita did not go according to plan.

Instead, the export of vaccines without first closely assessing the country’s needs has been seen as a foolhardy move. Even the BJP’s attempt to blame the critics for maligning India hasn’t passed muster with Twitter, which has branded ruling party tweets as “manipulated”, much to the government’s annoyance. As of now, it seems extremely unlikely that the BJP will be able to repeat its earlier successful electoral feats.

(IPA Service)

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