India’s hospitals were packed with coronavirus patients, relatives of the sick scrambled to find supplies of oxygen, and nearly full crematoriums worked feverishly to deal with the dead.
Aljazeera reported that despite those clear signs of an overwhelming health crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pressed ahead with a densely packed campaign rally.
“I have never seen such a huge crowd before!” he roared to his supporters in West Bengal state on April 17, before key local elections. “Wherever I can see, I can only see people. I can see nothing else.”
As another deadly wave of COVID-19 infections was swamping India, Modi’s government refused to cancel a major Hindu festival attended by millions. Cricket matches, attended by tens of thousands, carried on, too. The catastrophic surge has led to criticism at home, Aljazeera said on Wednesday.
The 70-year-old, whose image as a technocrat brought him deep approval from a middle class weary of corruption and bureaucratic dysfunction, has been accused of stifling dissent and choosing politics over public health.
Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam, reporting from New Delhi, said the government is facing a lot of criticism from courts around the country.
“The Delhi High Court told the government that it is living in an ivory tower while people die from a lack of oxygen,” she said.
Modi was also called a “super-spreader” by the vice president of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Navjot Dahiya.
With deaths mounting and a touted vaccine rollout faltering badly, Modi has pushed much of the responsibility for fighting the virus onto poorly equipped and unprepared state governments and even onto patients themselves, critics say.
“It is a crime against humanity,” author and activist Arundhati Roy said of Modi’s handling of the virus.
“Foreign governments are rushing to help. But as long as decision-making remains with Modi, who has shown himself to be incapable of working with experts or looking beyond securing narrow political gain, it will be like pouring aid into a sieve.”
When the official COVID-19 death toll crossed 200,000 – a number experts said is a severe undercount – Modi was silent.
His government said it is on a “war footing,” ramping up hospital capacity, supplies of oxygen and drugs.
“The present COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar told The Associated Press.
“All efforts are being made to overcome the situation by the central government in close coordination with the state governments and society at large.”
When Modi won national elections in 2014, he presented himself as someone who could unlock economic growth by merging business-friendly policies with a Hindu nationalist ideology.
Critics saw him as craving power over the national welfare and catering to his Hindu nationalist base. They blamed him – although courts exonerated him – in the bloody 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state, where he was its chief minister.
The economy tumbled after his government overhauled India’s cash supply and introduced a goods and services tax. Yet he easily won reelection in 2019 on a wave of nationalism following clashes with archrival Pakistan.
Despite a second term marred by a souring economy, widening social strife, and deadly clashes with neighbouring China, “Modi has proven to be incredibly politically resilient,” said Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.