BJP supporters say ‘won’t forgive’ Modi for COVID ‘indifference’

India prime minister’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people leads to disillusionment even among his ardent supporters.

The spectre of sudden and needless deaths seems to have triggered an unprecedented criticism even among Narendra Modi’s supporters [File: Oded Balilty/AP]

New Delhi, India – On April 29, Amit Jaiswal, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), passed away in Mathura, a small town in Uttar Pradesh state, just three hours from the national capital.

The 42-year old died of COVID-19 ten days after testing positive. His grieving family said that despite repeated SOS tweets to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who followed Jaiswal on Twitter, no assistance came.

The RSS, a far-right Hindu supremacist organisation founded in 1925, is the ideological fountainhead of Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and counts the prime minister among millions of its members across India.

Jaiswal’s heartbroken family tore off Modi’s posters that he had pasted on his car, claiming they would “never forgive Modi for his indifference”.

“We are in a state of deep depression and can’t talk to anybody, nobody can help us,” his inconsolable sister Sonu Alagh told Al Jazeera two weeks later.

For many supporters who believed in Modi, his response to the pandemic has led to disillusionment.

Grief-stricken and angry at the avoidable deaths of their loved ones due to the coronavirus, thousands of Indians have heaped scornful criticism on Modi and his BJP, with the bitterness transcending barriers of religion, class, caste and politics.

Over the last two months, social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter have seen anti-Modi hashtags such as #ResignModi, #ModiFailsIndia and #ModiAgainstNation go viral.

But BJP politician Sudhanshu Mittal claims the government “did whatever we could” to fight the pandemic.

“When you tread an uncharted path there are no benchmarks to follow and nobody knew that this would be the catastrophic extent of the second wave,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that health is a “state subject” and that “some states are playing politics”.

“This is not the time for politics or blame-game. That can happen later,” Mittal said.

‘Won’t vote for Modi again’

Chetan Kaushal, a restaurateur who was forced to shut down his business due to the coronavirus lockdown last year, says he is one of those who voted for Modi despite demonetisation and “other faults” in his first term (2014-19) as prime minister.

Demonetisation refers to Modi’s controversial overnight banning of banknotes of higher denomination and issuing fresh notes in 2016, leading to huge chaos as people crowded ATMs and banks to withdraw their money.

“I believed he deserved a second chance but I don’t think I will vote for him ever again,” Kaushal told Al Jazeera.

The spectre of sudden and needless deaths seems to have triggered an unprecedented criticism even among Modi’s supporters.

Achyut Trivedi, a New Delhi-based marketing professional and active member of the BJP for the last 12 years, said “people like me are determined that we will not make the mistake of voting for Modi for the third time”.

“At least I won’t do it after what my family has gone through,” he told Al Jazeera.

Modi, who has faced international criticism over a crumbling economy and a perceptible decline in civil and political liberties, faces his biggest threat domestically as a vicious second COVID-19 wave rages across India.

Backed by his seemingly unwavering popularity at home, Modi in January this year told global leaders at the World Economic Forum that India “has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing Corona effectively”.

That premature claim was soon followed by India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, donating and exporting more than 66 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine to dozens of countries, a “vaccine diplomacy” now being widely criticised amid a severe shortage of the jab at home.

On March 7, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said India was “in the endgame of the pandemic”.

‘Picnic at a public hanging’

In February and March, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) warning of a new COVID-19 strain discovered in India as a “variant of interest”, Modi turned his attention towards regional elections in five states, including the eastern state of West Bengal where he and his BJP hoped to dislodge India’s only serving woman chief minister, Mamata Banerjee.

Throwing all caution to the wind, Modi addressed dozens of election rallies attended by tens of thousands of BJP supporters jostling among themselves amid a pandemic.

“Today, in all directions I only see huge crowds of people… I have witnessed such a rally for the first time,” Modi said at a rally in West Bengal’s Asansol city on April 17, even as the country reported more than 200,000 daily cases that day.

The BJP’s Mittal claims there is “no empirical evidence” to link the explosion in COVID-19 cases or deaths to poll campaigns.

“We can also say that the farmer agitation was responsible for cases as that too was a big agitation. I don’t think we can conclude that people are angry, that is a subjective matter depending on your perspective,” he told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, Modi’s maskless photograph appeared on the front pages of leading newspapers in April, inviting Hindu devotees to congregate for a weeks-long religious festival on the banks of the Ganges River in northern Uttarakhand state’s Haridwar town.

The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, as the pilgrimage was called, saw nearly nine million visitors taking a holy dip in the river in less than three weeks, turning the event into a “super-spreader” of the virus and resulting in dozens of deaths across India.

“Despite warnings about the risks of super-spreader events, the government allowed religious festivals to go ahead, drawing millions of people from around the country, along with huge political rallies – conspicuous for their lack of COVID-19 mitigation measures,” medical journal Lancet wrote in a scathing indictment.

Amid the raging pandemic, critics have also lambasted Modi for going ahead with a $2.8bn “Central Vista” project to build a new parliament, prime minister’s residence and other federal buildings.

Senior journalist Nalini Singh told Al Jazeera the ongoing construction “is akin to having a picnic at a public hanging”.

‘What will crying achieve?’

Concerned at a growing public backlash against his government’s handling of the pandemic and “misplaced priorities”, Modi and his RSS colleagues took part in a meeting on May 23 to plan the strategy for next year’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh.

It was in this BJP-ruled northern state, also India’s most populous, that chilling images of bodies floating in the Ganges river and mass graves found along its banks made headlines around the world.

Headed by controversial saffron-clad Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath as the state’s chief minister, the BJP suffered serious reverses in local body elections held in April and May, despite the pandemic threatening the lives of the government workers deployed to hold the polls.

Last week, the Uttar Pradesh Primary Teachers Association said nearly 1,600 teachers died of COVID-19 after they were forced to work as polling officers.

“If the government had accepted our request to be vaccinated like other government employees who are battling COVID-19, so many of us wouldn’t have died,” Dinesh Chand Sharma, president of the teachers’ association, told Al Jazeera.

On Monday, police in Delhi “visited” Twitter offices to uncover details of why the social media giant had labelled a BJP spokesman’s tweets as “manipulated media”.

In his tweet, Sambit Patra had shared a purported “toolkit” prepared by the opposition Congress Party, which the BJP claimed was used to malign Modi.

On Thursday, Twitter said it was worried about the safety of its staff in India following the Delhi Police action.

Modi’s detractors accuse the Hindu nationalist leader of “manipulating narratives” through a “pliant and subservient media”, of targeting its opponents by using government agencies, and of remaining focused only on winning elections, often at the cost of governance.

Anand Singh, an affluent garment trader in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, also Modi’s parliamentary constituency, says holding political rallies during a pandemic and the decision to go ahead with local body elections in the state was like “rubbing salt in our wounds”.

“I had never expected that we would have to go through such pain despite having wealth and social capital,” Singh told Al Jazeera.

Varanasi mirrored the experience in many parts of the country which saw a huge spike in COVID-related deaths, frantic appeals for oxygen cylinders, and disturbing images of bodies being cremated even in parking lots of crematoriums and lying in queues for final rites.

“I had my reservations about the BJP and Modi but I reasoned with myself and trusted his promise of development. Twice they were given an overwhelming mandate that could have been used to bring progress but there have been so many announcements and no execution,” a New Delhi-based entrepreneur who requested anonymity told Al Jazeera.

“It seems he is a man who wants power for power’s sake.”

In a recent online interaction with healthcare workers in Varanasi, Modi got emotional as he spoke. But reactions to the videos on social media sites of him choking saw more “dislikes”, with many calling him out for his “crocodile tears”.

“He cries despite being the prime minister. We have lost lives and business in this pandemic. We expected better from him,” said Singh.

“What will crying achieve?”

Source: Al Jazeera