Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters during a mega-rally ahead of the West Bengal elections, on the outskirts of Kolkata on April 12, 2021. Photo: Sonali Pal Chaudhury / NurPhoto via AFP

The widely respected publication The Lancet in a May 8 article said, “The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see a staggering 1 million deaths from Covid-19 by 1 August, 2021. If that outcome were to happen, [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe.”

The Indian Medical Association (IMA), representing more than 350,000 doctors nationwide, said the central government’s failure to prepare the necessary roadmap to ensure sufficient vaccine stocks had resulted in a shortage of vaccine doses.

The catastrophic decisions in India’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) have doomed the country of 1.3 billion to a season of untold suffering. India, long a beacon of scientific progress and medical innovation, is now the hub of a global pandemic that has infected at least 20.8 million people and already claimed more than 238,000 lives in India.

While the spread of the novel coronavirus has been aggressive around the world, much of the profound impact it will have here in India was preventable. As the Indian public braces for the worst of this crisis, it’s worth remembering that the reach of the virus here is not attributable to an act of God or a foreign invasion, but to a colossal failure of leadership.

The outbreak that began in China demanded a prime minister and his cabinet that could act swiftly and competently to protect public health, informed by science and guided by compassion and public service.

It required an administration that could quickly deploy reliable tests around the nation to isolate cases and trace and contain the virus’ spread, as well as to manufacture and distribute medical supplies around the country.

It begged for a prime minister who would deliver clear, consistent, scientifically sound messages on the state of the epidemic and its solutions, to reassure the public amid their fear, and to provide steady guidance to cities and states.

And it demanded a leader who would put the country’s well-being first, above his obsession with winning elections.

Control the message, not the virus

However, what we saw instead was a prime minister who was outmatched by the pandemic. A prime minister who in April 2020 urged Indians to light candles and diyas (lamps fueled by oil or ghee) for nine minutes at 9pm to “defeat the despair” brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. In his address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked people to clap, ring bells or clang utensils on March 22, 2020.

India needed a prime minister who would support the state governments, instead of trying to consolidate all power centrally to take credit of managing the pandemic.

One example of Modi’s consolidation of power was the creation of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) fund. This fund discriminates against the states and gives special exemptions (to write off donations as “corporate social responsibility”) that are denied to those who wish to donate instead to their own state’s Chief Minister’s Fund.

PM CARES gives the prime minister enormous discretionary power to dispose of huge financial resources, as he pleases. The functioning of the fund is shrouded in secrecy, with even the national Comptroller and Auditor General not allowed to audit it.

We have a prime minister who, consistent with his mistrust and undermining of scientific fact, organized a massive election rally even as the daily infection rate was touching 300,000 and more. His decision to emblazon his photograph on every vaccination certification issued is another example of where this government’s priorities lie.

The pandemic has revealed that the worst features of this prime ministership are not merely late-night comedy fodder; they come at the cost of lives, livelihoods, and our collective psyche.

There must be a reckoning for the lives lost, and for the vast, avoidable suffering about to ensue under Modi’s watch.

Selling the failure to 1.3 billion people

Modi has promised repeatedly: Everything will go back to normal; everyone will have amazing treatments; there will be vaccines for everyone. The fact that these are conflicting claims – not to mention patently false – can only partly detract from their allure.

Like any competent quack, India’s PMO focuses on a winning vibe, not a factual case. Modi positions himself as an alternative to “the scientists” and “the doctors” such that followers have to choose between trusting them or him.

This process, in extreme forms, leads to what some psychologists refer to as “identity fusion.” William Swann, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, coined the term in 2009 while studying theories of individual identity.

Once fused with a group or leader, he observed, followers seem tied to them in such a way that things are true because the leader said they were true. Dystopian as that may seem, it can be a coping mechanism: Orienting your sense of truth around a person can be more comforting than doing so around a nebulous, uncertain, or otherwise threatening reality.

Identity fusion is not appealing because it makes sense; it is appealing because it alleviates the cognitive and emotional burden of thinking. However, it also warns us about the dangers of having a prime minister who is manifestly unprepared to govern.

Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries.