Editorial : The Economist, May 17
OVER THE past seven years Indians have watched Narendra Modi’s neat hair and trim beard grow ever whiter and longer. There was no way to miss the change, because there was no escaping the prime minister’s image. He was everywhere: on television snipping ribbons, waving to adoring crowds and grappling foreign leaders; on posters doling out subsidised cooking gas or cheerleading for pilgrimages to Hindu holy sites; and even, in recent months, gazing benignly out of vaccination certificates next to the words “Together, India will defeat covid-19”.
Yet, as covid casualties climbed and then rocketed up in mid-April, the omnipresent Mr Modi started fading like the Cheshire Cat. One month on, newscasts still tell of “top level” prime-ministerial meetings, but without accompanying footage. His ever less frequent speeches sound droning and perfunctory. The billboards persist, but that is because under lockdown there is no one to paste over old advertisements. And those vaccine certificates grow rarer because fewer people are getting the jab: Mr Modi’s government has failed to procure enough doses.
As a catastrophic second wave crashes over them, Indians might have expected their prime minister to rally the nation. He is, after all, not only a popular and powerful leader but a skilled orator and famed showman, always ready with a flashy costume and a catchy soundbite. His personal talent for capturing the camera is aided by a mighty party machine, and boosted further by a fawning media claque. When things were going well in the fight against the virus, Mr Modi was happy to take the limelight. Now, with thousands dying daily, and many more failing to find life-giving oxygen or simply a dignified funeral for their loved ones, Indians are finding he has nothing to say. Instead of signalling solace or hope, in his rare appearances the now long-bearded figure continues to deliver finger-wagging homilies and boasts of his government’s achievements. “When we needed a warrior we see instead a Himalayan sage,” muses Karan Thapar, one of India’s most seasoned television interviewers.
Yet this is not the first time the prime minister has vanished amid a crisis. In other moments of turmoil Mr Modi has similarly chosen to step back rather than forward, and to let lesser officials deal with the problem—or take the rap for failing to. When anti-Muslim pogroms roiled the state of Gujarat in 2002, soon after he had become its chief minister, Mr Modi also vanished into “top-level” conclaves. He was too busy to respond to multiple appeals to rescue Ehsan Jafri, a prominent politician who spent five hours besieged in his home, vainly telephoning for help, before a mob burst in to burn him alive along with 68 Muslim neighbours who had taken refuge there. As prime minister, Mr Modi was absent for months as lynch mobs rampaged in the name of “cow protection.” When nationwide protests against new citizenship laws broke out in 2019, when sectarian riots exploded in Delhi a few months later and when more massive protests erupted again last autumn over new farm laws, the prime minister was nowhere to be seen.
In fact, the tendency to shy away from bad news has become a trademark not just of Mr Modi, but of his government. The prime minister himself has never held a press conference, and typically reserves interviews for servile reporters. His lesser ministers, too, have over time grown less accessible and less amenable to questioning. The government’s face in the fight against covid-19 is a bank of number-spouting technocrats, wheeled out for a weekly news conference. As the tide of tragedy has risen, officials appear to spend ever more energy attacking critics, or belittling private initiatives that put the government’s efforts to shame, rather than dealing with the crisis.
When a stage empties, other actors step in. Cartoonists, an increasingly harried profession under Mr Modi, are now on the offensive, picturing the prime minister hiding in his closet with his multicoloured “Modi jackets”, or playing a fiddle surrounded by funeral pyres. Many have attacked his government’s tone-deaf insistence on pursuing a $2.6bn vanity remake of the government complex in central Delhi in the midst of a pandemic. “And here is the secret bunker where you can hide from any national crisis,” says a cartoon architect, pointing at what others have derided as the “coffin-shaped” design of India’s planned new parliament building. Another cartoon inserts long white beards into a snakes-and-ladders board where the goal is to get vaccinated. Land on a wrong square, such as “government runs out of vaccine”, and you slide back down the beard.
Nor is it just professional funsters who are weighing in. On May 12th India’s biggest student union filed a missing-person report for Amit Shah, the home minister, on the grounds that Mr Modi’s closest henchman, who also happens to be the most feared person in India, has not been sighted for weeks during the worst phase of a pandemic. Around the same time, posters began to appear around Delhi questioning the government’s decision to send millions of vaccine doses abroad before securing enough for “our children”. When Mr Shah’s police began arresting those putting up the posters, thousands, including Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, promptly shared the posters on social media along with the words “arrest me too.”
But perhaps the hardest blow to Mr Modi’s image may be one from a less expected quarter. Writing in the prime minister’s native tongue, Gujarati, Parul Khakkar, a housewife-turned-poet whose verse is much-admired in the prime minister’s own Hindu-nationalist circles, penned a short, bleak poem addressing a king. Your promised “Ram rajya” or heavenly kingdom, she concludes every stanza, has made of the sacred Ganges a corpse-carrying hearse. And the king, his people now see, is naked.
After receiving more than 25,000 abusive messages, Ms Khakkar had to turn her Facebook page private. But her bitter diatribe has gone, for want of a better word, viral.