India on Monday took strong exception to an article published in The Australian, which attributed the devastating second wave of coronavirus in the country to the missteps and complacency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a letter to The Australian’s Editor-in-Chief Christopher Doe, the Indian High Commission in Canberra called the article “completely baseless, malicious and slanderous”, and urged the newspaper to publish a rejoinder.

“It appears that the report has been written only with the sole objective of undermining the universally acclaimed approach taken by the Government of India to fight against the deadly global pandemic, at this decisive moment,” it said.

Written by Philip Sherwell, the article in question was originally published in The Times on Saturday with the headline, “Modi leads India out of lockdown and into a Covid apocalypse”. It was reproduced in the Australian daily a day later with the title: “Modi leads India into a viral apocalypse”.

The article was not very different in tone from others in some other international publications such as The Guardian, The New York Times and Haaretz . In these articles, Modi was described as a Hindu nationalist leader who “suffers from overconfidence ”, and is obsessed with his “strongman image” as he heads “an arrogant and incompetent government”.

In the article carried by The Australian, Sherwell pointed to the Centre’s “hubris”, “nationalist politics”, slow vaccine roll-out, the ill-equipped health system, and “promotion of the economy over containment” as some of the immediate factors behind the crisis in India, according to NDTV.

“Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions, critics say, as India’s crowd-loving PM basks while citizens literally suffocate,” he wrote.

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‘Huge gatherings at Hindu festival as virus surges’: How international media reported Kumbh Mela

The journalist said that despite the repeated warning of health experts and a burgeoning shortage of oxygen and vaccines in the country, the government allowed religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela to continue unabated, while the prime minister himself spearheaded mammoth election rallies where tens of thousands participated without masks.

“Narendra Modi could not hide his delight as he surveyed his cheering supporters. ‘I’ve never seen such huge crowds,’ the Indian prime minister declared at an election rally in West Bengal last Saturday,” Sherwell wrote.

Other international coverage

Criticism for Modi and his “stark failure” in handling the coronavirus crisis has dominated the international media coverage of India’s pandemic situation. News outlets across the world have written about how the complacency and lack of governance on part of an image-conscious prime minister led India into a “humanitarian crisis”.

“India is now a living hell,” said English daily The Guardian in an editorial published on April 23. The newspaper said that just like Donald Trump, the Indian prime minister “would not give up campaigning while the pandemic raged”.

“India went ahead with five state elections in April, and an unmasked Mr Modi held huge rallies,” it said, adding that “the Indian prime minister suffers from overconfidence in his own instincts and pooh-poohs expert advice” and “the buck stops with him”.

“He should acknowledge and make amends for mistakes that have caused enormous suffering,” the newspaper added. “He needs to engage with experts on how to uphold restrictions; ensure government delivery matches promises; and drop the sectarian ideology that divides when unity is required.”

It added: “Future historians will judge Mr Modi harshly if he continues with the exceptionalist views that have led to a disastrous public health outcome.”

Israeli daily Haaretz said that what made “India’s tragedy so much harder to accept” is that its government had plenty of time to prepare. “But, channeling Modi, the media prioritized triumphant jingoism over interrogating his government’s preparedness,” wrote Mohamed Zeeshan.

“Narendra Modi’s attempts to censor the news and massage death rates can’t hide his failure to prepare India for its disastrous second COVID wave,” the article added. “Indians are dying, and so is the prime minister’s ‘strongman’ image.”

Radio France Internationale also ran a column in their Spanish section, similarly criticising Modi. “Health collapse in India: ‘The main culprit is Narendra Modi’,” the article said.

The New York Times ran an opinion by economist and epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan on April 20, titled: “India’s Second Covid Wave Is Completely Out of Control”.

“India’s rapid slide into this unprecedented crisis is a direct result of complacency and lack of preparation by the government,” Laxminarayan wrote. “As the number of cases dropped significantly in mid-February, the Indian government and various policymakers, cheered on by a pliant, triumphalist media, prematurely declared victory against the pandemic.”

Calling India’s new wave of Covid-19 “as avoidable as it is tragic”,
The Washington Post stated
that the sudden wave was caused by the Indian government’s decision of relaxing restrictions too soon.

“Tens of thousands of spectators were allowed to fill stadiums for cricket matches; movie theaters were opened; and the government permitted enormous religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela, a festival in which millions of Hindus gathered to bathe in the river Ganges,” the newspaper said.

“India is not a faraway problem. In pandemic time and distance, every place is nearby.”

‘Malicious and motivated report’

In its letter to The Australian, Indian authorities called the allegations made in its article needless.

The High Commission claimed the article “has strangely rushed to blame” the surge on the “restricted election campaign” by Modi and “one religious gathering”, when his government was taking “all possible measures” to tackle the crisis “on a war footing”.

The letter referred to “a number of measures” taken by the government to combat the pandemic, starting from the lockdown in March last year to the country’s vaccination drive.

“Welfare of every citizen of India remains the highest priority for the Government of India,” the letter said, also referring to the Centre’s “vaccine diplomacy” and how it had “probably saved hundreds of millions more around the world”.

The Commission said it hoped the newspaper will publish this rejoinder “to set the records straight” and also refrain from publishing “such baseless articles in future”.

“Coverage of such motivated and malicious reports in your publication only helps in spreading falsehoods and undermining humanity’s common fight against the pandemic,” it told The Australian. “Needless to add, it does no good to the reputation of your own publication.”

Social media users question government narrative

However, Indians on Twitter picked holes in the government’s narrative and questioned on what basis was it objecting to The Australian article, when this was the reality of the situation.

“The report is absolutely correct,” one user wrote. “Today also BJP leaders were campaigning in West Bengal. Infections in WB [West Bengal] has increased by 10 times after election rally started.”

Modi’s image upkeep, however a failure, is pivotal and way more important than the exposed crisis wherein citizens at random gasping and dropping dead at hospital gates or at homes is in thousands. Undercounts is another feature trying to suppress the gravity of the catastrophe,” another Twitter user wrote.

Several others shared videos and photographs from Modi’s rallies in West Bengal, which showed thousands of his supporters with little evidence of masks or physical distancing. “Is this what a ‘restricted election campaign’ looks like?” a user wrote.