“Modi has staked out for himself the role of not just the political leader of India, but also its social, moral and spiritual leader, in the mold of Mahatma Gandhi,” Ali said.
But his second-term aspirations to revitalize the economy now seem more distant than ever due to the pandemic. As it continues to batter the Indian economy, analysts say it’s unclear if the populist leader can emerge politically unscathed.
“You have seen how the most powerful nations have become helpless in the face of this pandemic,” Modi said in a live televised address to the nation, as he announced the lockdown, warning that India could be set back decades if the outbreak was not dealt with properly.
“There is no other way to remain safe from coronavirus … we have to break the cycle of infection,” he said.
By taking drastic action early, Modi reaffirmed his image as a decisive leader who is able to take strict, politically tough measures for the sake of the country, said Ali, the researcher at the Center Policy Research.
He is seen as a “saintly figure who means well and always acts in the larger national interest,” said Ali.
Indian public health experts, however, have differed on their support for the timing and effectiveness of the lockdown. Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, said it was essential because infections were increasing rapidly at the time, and that it helped decrease disease transmission.
Others, including virologist T. Jacob John, argue the lockdown was imposed too early and too widely, when cases were still low and concentrated in specific regions. Consequently, more people were impacted by the resultant economic slowdown than needed to be, and not enough resources were available to support slum areas, for example, where lockdown measures including social distancing were impossible.
The unsustainable nature of the nationwide lockdown merely delayed the spread of the outbreak.
“Now, looking back it was clearly a mistake. We should have waited for longer. Because we didn’t stop the pandemic,” said economist and Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee.
“A few days of advance notice would not have hurt the lockdown, but would’ve helped small traders plan their stocks, helped people get to places where they could be prepared to stay for a longer period of time, and big companies to shift to alternative ways of working,” said Laxminarayan.
“What’s the point of surviving Covid-19 only to die of starvation or to be stranded without work?” he said.
India’s Labour Ministry says there is no state-wide data available on deaths of migrant workers during the lockdown.
No real opposition
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has insisted the lockdown was effective and necessary. “Had we not announced the lockdown when we did, the numbers would have been very different today,” said BJP’s national spokesperson, Syed Zafar Islam.
India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said Monday the lockdown was a “bold” decision that had prevented as many as 78,000 deaths.
“It has been estimated that this decision prevented approximately … 37,000 to 78,000 deaths,” the minister said.
The BJP’s landslide victory in the national elections last year left the biggest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, dispirited and gripped by an unending leadership crisis, as well as rebellions from within. Due to a weak, fragmented opposition, Modi hasn’t faced concerted criticism, analysts said.
Political observers also pointed to the lack of critical coverage from India’s media.
“Television news stations rarely cover India’s crumbling health infrastructure in the face of the fast spreading pandemic,” Ali said. “For weeks, India’s most watched television networks have been obsessively focused on a Bollywood actor’s suicide even as India became (a) leading global hotspot of the pandemic.”
Unlike other democratic leaders, Modi rarely gives press conferences. Interactions with the media are usually left to his government ministers.
Instead, he addresses the nation directly on live television and radio, making emotional appeals to the public to follow his lead.
“However, for the sake of your country, you are fulfilling your duties like a disciplined soldier. This is the power of ‘We, the People of India’ that our constitution talks about.”
Compared to his predecessors, Modi has made a much bigger effort to speak directly to ordinary Indians. On the last Sunday of every month, he hosts a radio program called “Mann Ki Baat” — or “inner thoughts” — which usually touches on cultural issues.
Some migrant workers who lost their livelihood in the lockdown have refused to blame Modi for their predicament.
Subhash Das had been working as a driver in a city southwest of New Delhi for 10 years when he was sacked less than a month into the lockdown. He had no choice but to return to his home village in eastern India, and has been struggling to provide for his family.
He said the lockdown was necessary and helped to control the outbreak, even though it had upended his life.
“I don’t blame the Prime Minister for my situation. It’s due to coronavirus that people like me are suffering,” he said. “I love Modi. He’s done so much for my village. He’s provided (us) electricity and concrete homes.”
Ritika Oberoi, who lost her job as a senior manager at a travel agency in May when the company went out of business, also doesn’t hold Modi responsible either. ”It’s Covid-19 that hit the travel industry severely,” she said.
Laxminarayan, the public health expert at Princeton University, said it was never possible for India to contain the epidemic due to its underfunded health system, high population density and lack of public health awareness.
“Social distancing is a luxury that was simply never available to most Indians,” he said. “At this point the epidemic is uncontrolled and will run through the Indian population until we reach some semblance of population immunity.”
The economic fallout
While some Indians may not blame Modi for the escalating coronavirus outbreak, experts warned that the economic fallout of the pandemic could eventually cost Modi politically.
“Modi has consistently presented himself to the Indian electorate as a ‘development messiah,’ who will somehow transform India through his leadership from a low income developing country to some kind of a socially and economically advanced country,” said Sumantra Bose, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.
“He’s been selling this dream for the past 6 years. However … that makes him vulnerable to a really serious downturn in the economy.”
When Modi was first elected in 2014, he promised to overhaul India’s economy and create millions of jobs for young people.
But even before the pandemic, the Indian economy was already faltering.
Some of the greatest economic damage was caused by some of Modi’s signature policies. In November 2016, he abruptly banned the two biggest banknotes in circulation, making 86% of the country’s cash worthless.
While the aim was to crack down on black money and tax evasion — which many experts said was misguided, given that most untaxed wealth is not believed to be stored in cash — the move wreaked havoc on the cash-dependent economy and brought several sectors to a halt.
And now, the coronavirus lockdown has plunged India into a historic recession.
While these incidents have been mostly isolated, the virus seems to be amplifying existing prejudices, playing into growing Hindu nationalism which in recent years has seen India’s Muslim societies increasingly marginalized.
But Bose said Modi’s nationalist policies ultimately won’t be enough to distract people from the reality of the economic crisis for long. Many Indians are simply too confused and worried about the pandemic and their livelihoods to express their political outrage right now — put simply, their disenchantment hasn’t manifested itself, he said.
“The unraveling of the Modi aura has begun, it’s perhaps not manifest yet, but it’s there,” he said. “People are not really thinking about Modi or party politics, or the next election right now. In that sense, it’s really in a way premature to say that Modi’s standing is unaffected.”
India’s next general election is still four years away in 2024, and there are no term limits for the position of prime minister in the constitution.
But Modi and his BJP will soon face a litmus test on their popular support — the upcoming legislative assembly elections in the eastern state of Bihar, home to millions of migrant workers who were deeply affected by the lockdown and economic nosedive.
The Bihar elections, scheduled to be held in October, could serve as a microcosm referendum on the Modi government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the economy.
“The states are the building blocks of the national politics,” Bose said. “The outcome of that election will be a reliable barometer.”