Supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wear masks bearing the likeness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a campaign rally ahead of elections in West Bengal on March 20, despite clear signs of a second wave of coronavirus infections. Photo: AP
by Samir Nazareth
by Samir Nazareth

How India’s efforts to put a positive spin on its Covid-19 crisis lie at the heart of the disaster

  • The government is seeking to starve the country of stories about the lack of oxygen, hospital beds and crematorium space, and filling the vacuum with optimistic histrionics
  • Ever since the BJP announced Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in 2013, a wave of optimism has accompanied him like a dark cloud

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s penchant for monologues is legendary. For the Indian public, there is a monthly radio address titled Mann Ki Baat, or Inner Thoughts. Before each session, his team invites the public to send suggestions and stories.

For the next lecture, scheduled for May 30, the team tweeted: “This month‘s #MannKiBaat is back again – to celebrate the power of positivity and the strengths of 130 crore Indians! Have any inspiring story to share with PM Shri @narendramodi?” (Mysteriously, the tweet is no longer available.)

Modi’s desire to celebrate positivity while the country reels under his mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis points to the route that brought India to this disaster. Even leading Indian mental health professionals have, in an open letter, requested that the Indian media desist from showing the harsh reality of the coronavirus crisis because, they claim, it could cause psychological damage.

The rate at which such claims and snippets are being churned out may be the best indicator of the extent to which the Bharatiya Janata Party government, led by Modi, has failed to combat the second wave of the coronavirus.

My father, a 90-year-old retired Indian Air Force officer who is fighting a second Covid-19 infection, wonders how glossing over the truth of what he and many others are going through can help them recover.


India’s ruling party loses crucial state election as coronavirus crisis worsens

India’s ruling party loses crucial state election as coronavirus crisis worsens
The government is attempting to starve the country of stories of the lack of oxygen, hospital beds and crematorium space. The vacuum is being filled instead with optimistic histrionics.
The need to manufacture optimism is not new. In fact, ever since the BJP announced Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in 2013, a wave of optimism has accompanied him like a dark cloud. Whenever the issue of Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat massacres, as chief minister of the state, was raised, his supporters brought up the Gujarat model as an optimistic example of how he could change India.
When Modi’s authoritarian tendencies were pointed out, many saw it as the glass being half full after Manmohan Singh’s misunderstood silence as a prime minister leading a coalition government. The socio-economic tragedy of demonetisation was understood through rose-tinted lenses as a masterstroke by a strong leader acting decisively against “black money”, terror funding and so on.

Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis last year drew an optimistic comparison with what a hypothetical prime minister could have done in Modi’s place. The implication is that Modi is the country’s best option who could not have done more, and those who are not being optimistic are being ungrateful.

India – the democratic economic giant that disappoints

Currently, like last year, there are graphics flying around on social media that compare India with countries with higher mortalities, and suggest that India is better off despite the shortages of oxygen and hospital beds.

This kind of optimism was lent gravitas by well-known individuals. Journalist Tavleen Singh, author Chetan Bhagat and industrialist Ratan Tata were among those who focused on the possibility of the silver lining Modi represented, instead of being alarmed by the reality of the dark cloud.

A health worker prepares to give free oxygen, supplied by Khalsa Help International, to a Covid-19 patient at a Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, India, on May 11. Photo: Bloomberg

But isn’t optimism without a healthy dose of realism just delusion? Unfortunately, the government not only prefers citizens to be delusional but has gone out of its way to ensure this, by clamping down on free speech and moulding democratic institutions to serve the regime.

It’s possible that India is now in a crisis because Modi started believing the optimism about his capabilities. At the World Economic Forum in January, he made claims about how well the pandemic was handled in India last year, under his leadership, of course.

Just a few months later, the situation in India is such that countries are sending oxygen and pharmaceuticals so that the BJP government can perform its constitutional duty of protecting its citizens. Yet, in this time of crisis, the government has found time to put a positive spin on this aid. “We have given assistance; we are getting assistance. It shows an interdependent world. It shows a world that is working with each other,” said the foreign secretary.

Added to the optimism is the abuse and weaponisation of John F. Kennedy’s admonition: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those who criticise the government are asked what they are doing for the country in these trying times.

How can there be a better tomorrow for a country if it and its leaders do not recognise the morass they are in and how they landed in it? Although optimism should never be a product of wishful thinking, it has become just that. The unwillingness of a nation to see what is under its nose has resulted in a second wave of a socio-economic crisis.

Yet, people are once again being told to look on the manufactured brighter side. Just as a false positive in Covid-19 testing can take a toll on an individual, the “false positive” of delusional optimism might only get the country deeper into the mire of leadership failures.

Samir Nazareth has worked in the development sector and writes on sociopolitical and environmental issues