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Media breaks rank: Indian press turns on government over country’s Covid response

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 28/04/2021 Joe Wallen, Ben Farmer
A makeshift Covid-19 quarantine facility set up at a banquet hall in New Delhi, India - Anadolu © Anadolu A makeshift Covid-19 quarantine facility set up at a banquet hall in New Delhi, India - Anadolu

Opening up their morning copy of Sandesh, a leading Gujarati daily newspaper, readers were confronted with an unusually shocking scoop.

Reporters had camped outside Ahmedabad Civil Hospital’s Covid wing and, in the process, revealed the authorities in Gujarat had been massively undercounting the state’s Covid-19 death toll.

Yet the details of the alleged cover-up were not the only surprising feature of the coverage. Such open criticism of the Indian government is extremely rare in a state which prides itself as the birthplace of prime minister Narendra Modi, and is ruled by his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The sheer scale of the tragedy engulfing India, which is causing an estimated 20,000 daily fatalities, however, appears to have jolted a normally tame media into rare scrutiny of a hugely popular politician who has cultivated an aura of near invincibility.

Politics watchers in India are now wondering to what extent anger over the BJP's handling of the pandemic may weaken Mr Modi, just as it has done other populist leaders around the world, including Donald Trump.

Narendra Modi, Amit Shah are posing for a picture: Ambulances carrying Covid-19 patients line up outside a government hospital in Ahmedabad, next to campaign posters for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah - Ajit Solanki /AP © Provided by The Telegraph Ambulances carrying Covid-19 patients line up outside a government hospital in Ahmedabad, next to campaign posters for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah - Ajit Solanki /AP

The majority of the tightly-controlled Indian media usually tows the BJP line and press freedom rankings place the country below even Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar.

It is an open secret that the majority of newspapers are under pressure to hire editors supportive of the ruling party, while a succession of opposition journalists have faced trumped-up criminal charges.

But India’s second wave of Covid-19 has caused many editors and reporters in the so-called “Modia” to break rank and expose fudged death tolls and question policy-making, such as the decision to allow millions of Hindu pilgrims to attend the Kumbh Mela festival.

“Every single person has been affected in some way, the calamity is so widespread that there is no chance the government can pass the blame to anyone else,” confided one senior reporter at one of India’s daily newspapers.

In Tuesday’s edition of The Hindu, a scathing op-ed referred to the BJP’s failure to provide free vaccinations to all of India’s citizens from May 1 as “unfair and dangerous”.

India’s leading television channels on Tuesday evening have been broadcasting the unusual spectacle of political analysts falling over each other to criticise the BJP. On one show, six panellists nodded in firm agreement with a claim by the national vice president of the Indian Medical Association that Mr Modi’s poor decision-making meant he was a “super spreader”.

“With what we are seeing now, I would draw a comparison with the India Against Corruption movement [whereby citizens mobilised against the ruling Congress Party in 2011]. We are moving towards that level of anti-government sentiment,” the senior journalist added.

India is yet to see public demonstrations against the BJP – most of the country is again under lockdown – but there is growing anger, born out of grief, that is cutting across previous social and cultural divides.

Even in the BJP-ruled stronghold of Uttar Pradesh, the state’s Chief Minister was forced to threaten residents with the confiscation of their properties after citizens took to social media to blame the authorities for oxygen shortages in hospitals.

The first indication of whether the BJP’s handling of the second wave will weaken its seven-year stranglehold on Indian politics will arrive on Sunday when the results of the West Bengal state elections are announced.

a screenshot of a social media post: Now hunger stalks India as country’s Covid crisis deepens © Provided by The Telegraph Now hunger stalks India as country’s Covid crisis deepens

The BJP is hoping that months of relentless public campaigning will see it flip the state, which is currently ruled by a vocal opposition critic, Mamata Banerjee. Before the Covid-19 second wave, the BJP was quietly optimistic, poaching key politicians from Ms Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC).

Early polling suggested that the race would come down to wire. But, with polling split into eight rounds, voters in over half of the 294 constituencies up for grabs went to the polls after April 17, as India’s second wave began crashing down on the country.

What was initially seen as a face-off between Mr Modi and Ms Banerjee, bitter political adversaries, has now been re-framed as a referendum on the BJP’s Covid-19 management.

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