As a vicious second coronavirus wave has made India the worst-hit country in the world, its prime minister, Narendra Modi, is at the center of a national reckoning, one that comes amid India’s stark reversal from declaring victory to suffering its gravest emergency in decades.
New cases have reached about 400,000 a day, a grim world record. Vaccines are running short. Hospitals are swamped. Lifesaving oxygen is running out. Each day, cremation grounds burn thousands of bodies. And a series of accidents at hospitals have added to the grief, with the most recent one early Saturday in the western state of Gujarat killing at least 16 Covid-19 patients and two health care workers.
Even as cases rose, Mr. Modi let big groups gather to help his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. His government allowed a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers to take place. He campaigned in state elections without a mask at rallies with thousands of supporters who also weren’t wearing masks.
Experts around the world once marveled at how the country seemed to have escaped the worst of the pandemic. But independent health experts and political analysts say that Mr. Modi’s overconfidence and his domineering leadership style bear a huge share of the responsibility for its current crisis. Critics say his administration was determined to cast an image of India as back on track and open for business despite lingering risks.
The growing national distress has tarnished Mr. Modi’s aura of political invulnerability. Opposition leaders are on the attack, and his hold on power has increasingly made him the target of scathing criticism online. His party and his allies have moved to silence critics, ordering Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down posts critical of the government and threatening to arrest ordinary people for pleading for oxygen. Countries including the United States have restricted travel from India.
Mr. Modi’s party and the government declined to answer specific questions but listed actions the government has taken, including Mr. Modi holding more than a dozen meetings in April with Air Force officers, pharmaceutical executives and many others.
In a statement, the government said it “maintained a steady pace of coordination and consultation to prepare an adequate response.” It added that the administration in February had “advised states to maintain strict vigil” and “not let their guard down.”
Any Indian leader would have faced challenges. Hundreds of millions of poor people live cheek by jowl, easy targets for a highly contagious virus. India has long neglected public health — a problem that predates Mr. Modi.
With parliamentary elections three years away and no signs of defections from his government, Mr. Modi’s power seems secure. His government has stepped up efforts to get supplies to desperate patients and broadened eligibility for scarce vaccines to more age groups. Still, analysts say that his dominance means that more people will hold him personally responsible for the sickness and death exploding across the country.
“The bulk of the blame lies in Modi’s governance style, where top ministers are chosen for loyalty rather than expertise, where secrecy and image management is privileged over transparency,” said Asim Ali, a research scholar at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
On Saturday, the country reported a global record 401,993 new cases and more than 3,500 deaths. Evidence suggests the official numbers vastly understate the toll. Though India is a vaccine powerhouse, producing vaccines to protect the world, it didn’t purchase enough doses to protect itself, and when infections were low, it exported more than 60 million shots. On Saturday, vaccinations were supposed to open up to Indians 18 and older, but several states reported that shortages forced them to delay their expansions.