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India: election loss in West Bengal may be start of a backlash against Modi's handling of COVID crisis
In what is widely being interpreted as a popular verdict on Narendra Modi’s handling of the COVID crisis in India, voters in West Bengal have returned the incumbent chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, and her regional Trinamool Congress (TMC). Defeat for Modi’s party has come despite a massive campaign by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), but also significant attempts to suppress criticism both at home and internationally for perceived mishandling of the coutnry’s second wave of COVID.
In June 2020, despite evidence of rising numbers of infections across the country, the BJP government lifted the draconian lockdown regulations. This allowed huge election rallies and religious festivals such as the enormous Kumbh Mela – criticised both inside and outside the country as “super-spreader events” – to take place. The result has been more than 20 million confirmed cases of COVID and more than 222,000 deaths.
And, across India – as the number of people being hospitalised with COVID rises daily, putting health services under unprecedented strain – ordinary citizens and healthcare organisations have been forced to turn to Twitter and other social media platforms to crowdsource help for medication, oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and other necessities.
Critics at home and abroad
These problems have brought intense scrutiny of the Modi government from around the world. A number of major international newspapers have carried articles accusing Modi of mismanaging the crisis. One in particular, in The Australian – Australia’s influential national broadsheet newspaper – which stated that this “crisis of epic proportions” was due to “arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence” irked the Indian government to the extent that the Indian high commission in Canberra sent a note to the paper’s editor urging him to print a retraction. The article had previously been printed in the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper.
But if it is unable to silence its critics abroad, the Modi government is pulling out all the stops to stifle dissent at home. Twitter has come under fire for deleting a number of critical tweets following legal request by the Indian government. The government was acting under the Information Technology Act 2000, which allows authorities to order blocking of public access to information to protect “sovereignty and integrity of India” and maintain public order. Withheld tweets included messages from a lawmaker, an opposition leader, a film-maker and an Oxford law student.
At the end of April, a young man tweeting about needing oxygen in order to get help for his grandfather was arrested in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which is seeing the highest number of daily cases. He was charged with “fearmongering” under the colonial era Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897.
Meanwhile, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, recently issued threats to seize property of those spreading “rumours” about oxygen shortage. “There is no shortage of beds, oxygen and life-saving drugs in the state,” he said.
The crackdown on Twitter follows similar actions taken during the massive farmers’ strike earlier this year. In a powerful critique in India’s Telegraph newspaper, writer and film-maker Ruchir Joshi wrote of the country’s turn into an “autocratic Hindu rashtra” (or Hindu state) through a “brazen weaponisation of the investigative agencies in the open service of the ruling party” while “maintaining the fake image of a functioning democracy”.
The crisis threatens to undermine a carefully orchestrated image of Modi. He was elected prime minister in 2014 on a wave of Hindu nationalism, based on his majoritarian, business-friendly platform, but whose Hindu supremacist overtones also promoted widespread social divisions in India. Modi and his team have taken pains to associate of the public image of India with that of Modi and his government.
This has meant that some of Modi’s followers have been encouraged to interpret legitimate political criticisms of the BJP administration as criticisms of the Indian nation itself. On social media supporters of the BJP frequently use phrases like “anti-national”, urging critics of the government to “go to Pakistan”, an old trope often levelled at Muslim critics of the BJP.
In keeping with the volatility of the public mood, a more recent variant of this strategy has been the government calls for unity which tend to portray dissenting views expressed by citizens as being socially divisive and hence dangerous.
Meanwhile, when Modi made a speech to the country on April 20 about the growing crisis, he appeared to by trying to pass responsibility for action on to individual citizens. In his Maan ki Baat (Speaking from the Heart) broadcast, Modi said: “I request young colleagues to create small committees in their societies, localities and apartments and help others in following the COVID discipline.” He added: “If we do this, then governments will not need to create containment zones, impose curfew or lockdown.”
As Indian journalist Rana Ayyub wrote in Time magazine recently: “At this critical juncture in its history, Indians have been left to fend for ourselves.” Perhaps the election result in West Bengal at the weekend is an indication that Indian voters are beginning to do just that. As a popular bangla song, Nijeder Gaan (Our Own Song), which was released in the run-up to the poll, warns Modi: “Not a word from you, not a word. We can think for ourselves what is best for us.”