The alarming surge in Covid-19 cases in India can be blamed largely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, and their reckless messaging through overcrowded, unmasked election rallies as well as the Kumbh Mela.
With the two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders addressing ‘massive’ rallies and roadshows without masks, an illusion of normality was created. A message was sent to the masses that Covid is a nightmare of the past. The virus loves crowds, as the saying goes, but it particularly adores crowds that don’t bother with masks or physical distancing. And the crowds at mega rallies in Assam or West Bengal suggest that both masks and distancing have become unfashionable.
Of course, all political rallies — whether addressed by Modi, Shah, other BJP leaders or by their opposition like Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi — are problematic. And politicians across party lines need to share the blame.
It is rather facile for a prime minister like Modi with unparalleled popularity and devotion across the country to address people on his monthly radio talk show Mann Ki Baat and pontificate about ‘mask zaroori‘. But contrast this with Modi addressing thousands of people crammed into rally tents, sitting close to each other, so many without masks and say “amazing atmosphere” and not utter a word about Covid-safe behaviour.
As the two most powerful political figures in the country, and at the helm of affairs of the central government, a sizeable onus of leading by example falls on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. But by encouraging huge rallies with zero messaging on Covid safety, or by allowing the Kumbh Mela, Modi and Shah have shown that nothing is more important to them than their politics and electoral gains, not even a public health emergency or the safety of a billion-plus people they claim to represent.
This is particularly jarring because PM Modi is all about messaging, and knows the impact his words and actions can have. To then give a tacit approval to allow Covid protocol to be breached at a time when India is consistently recording more than 100,000 cases a day is callous and unforgivable.
The sheer recklessness
This is not business-as-usual. Certainly not when the active Covid cases in India are now close to 13 lakh (1.3 million) — the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. In such a grim scenario, routine politics should take a back seat.
Sure, elections have to be held on time. But when they are being conducted in the middle of a life-threatening pandemic, there is absolutely no justification for crowded rallies and massive roadshows. And yet, despite the Election Commission’s rap on the knuckles, as mild as it may have been, no politician seems keen on allowing their responsible streak to take over by doing away with mega shows of strength.
Consider this. Modi tweeted on Monday boasting of “speaking at a massive rally in Bardhaman”. In the rally footage, a handful of people can be seen wearing masks.
Before that was the “huge rally in Krishnanagar”, and many others.
When Modi does, can Amit Shah be far behind? Who would look at these pictures and say there is a debilitating virus wreaking havoc, one that thrives on mask-less prey who gather in large numbers?
The home minister of the country ought to know better.
So, the lives of millions of Indians are being put at risk only because the country’s political leadership cannot look beyond winning elections. My Kolkata-based colleague Madhuparna Das has noted how West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was diligent about wearing masks during rallies in the beginning of the campaign, but even she has now thrown all caution to the winds. Modi too, she says, would encourage people to wear masks in earlier speeches, but seems so engrossed in trolling Mamata Banerjee with his ‘didi-o-didi‘ that messaging on Covid protocol has taken a back seat.
Not that the Congress is far behind. The party will launch Rahul Gandhi into the West Bengal election campaign with rallies beginning on Wednesday. I quote from this news report by my colleague Neelam Pandey — Asked about the situation, senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Pradip Bhattacharya said, “I would request you to speak to Home Minister Amit Shah, PM Modi and CM Mamata Banerjee. Can you show me one picture of [Shah] and Banerjee wearing a mask? They are the ones who are supposed to ensure norms are followed in the state and they are the ones flouting it.”
Clearly, the elected ones do not care about the interests of those who elect them. Any political leader or party that brazenly presides over mammoth rallies should be ashamed. And in this outrageous game, Prime Minister Modi, along with his lieutenant Amit Shah, is leading the way.
Modi‘s power of messaging
Modi takes great pride in the power of his messaging. He has wonderfully developed the craft of making large sections of voters believe in him, listen to him, and do as he advises them. So, when Modi says demonetisation is a good thing despite all the discomfort, his voters believe him. When Modi asks people to clang utensils or light diyas to beat the gloom of coronavirus, people unquestioningly follow suit.
Modi has built his cult on his ability to communicate effectively to the people. It’s his strong pitch around welfare-ism and nationalism (read Balakot et al) that has given the BJP the sharp electoral fillip in recent years.
For him to send out such an unforgivably wrong message through his political rallies and roadshows at this time of a massive health crisis is dangerous and comes with far-reaching consequences.
It isn’t about whether the poll-bound states are witnessing a huge surge in cases. That argument is flawed fundamentally although, West Bengal does seem to have recorded a massive surge in the poll season — a nearly fourfold increase in the number of cases from 1 April (1,274) to 13 April (4,511).
It is about the message that goes to the people. When the prime minister and the home minister look so much at ease addressing a crowd of thousands, then their followers across the country begin to think there is nothing to worry about. Holding crucial meetings on the side and asking chief ministers and officials to get people to follow Covid protocol is meaningless when you are doing precious little to send that message out to the masses through your own actions.
When I travelled to Assam to cover the assembly election, I was taken aback by the complete absence of mask discipline and the confidence with which people felt Covid was over. My confusion, however, was sorted soon enough when the state’s health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma declared that there was no Covid and, hence, no need to mask up. Of course, that was the message trickling down.
Now think of the influence Modi commands and what a message from him could lead to. The images from the Kumbh Mela are frightening. Surely, when millions are at risk as a raging virus strikes us with vengeance, a dip in the holy Ganga can wait. But no, it would hardly suit the BJP’s over-simplified but glorified version of Hindutva politics to knock sense into people and stop this madness.
Modi and Amit Shah have come a long way in their political journeys — from ruling Gujarat to ruling India like perhaps nobody ever has. Not even Indira Gandhi. They may have more glorious years ahead of them, and voters may continue to endorse them, but they should always carry on their conscience the burden of allowing this crazy virus to run its writ, just so their politics wouldn’t suffer.
This article originally appeared in The Print and has been reproduced with permission.