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The pandemic could be Indian leader Modi's undoing. But millions won't ditch him just yet.

CNN logo CNN 6/14/2021 By Jeevan Ravindran, CNN
a man holding a microphone: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally for West Bengal Assembly Election at Barasat on April 12, 2021. © Samir Jana/Hindustan Times/Getty Images Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally for West Bengal Assembly Election at Barasat on April 12, 2021.

Dr. Satyendra Kumar Tiwary thinks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as superhuman. A leader like Modi comes along "once in 2,500 years," he says, and should be remembered among the greats in India's history, like Mahatma Gandhi, and even the Buddha.

"The world will never see another leader like Modi," said the 47-year-old professor of general surgery from Varanasi, which is both Modi's parliamentary constituency and one of the holiest cities for Hindus. "He is not a man, he's superman. He's a saint."

Like so many Modi supporters, Tiwary boasts that the Prime Minister, at 70, works more than 18 hours a day and has never taken a day off work in 23 years, echoing a claim that senior officials from Modi's Bharatiya Janatiya Party (BJP) have made many times.

a man standing in front of a brick building: Dr. Satyendra Kumar Tiwary pinned the blame on state governments for India's coronavirus crisis. © Courtesy Dr. Satyendra Kumar Tiwary Dr. Satyendra Kumar Tiwary pinned the blame on state governments for India's coronavirus crisis.

It is precisely this image of a hard-working people's man -- with little time for a personal life, but plenty for yoga and his Hindu faith -- that catapulted Modi to a landslide re-election in India's 2019 general vote. His party's unapologetic Hindu nationalist agenda attracted 100 million more votes than the main opposition.

Modi, who has ruled India since 2014, has remained wildly popular despite setbacks in his efforts to kickstart the country's staggering economy, to create millions of new jobs and to provide healthcare to India's poorest citizens.

But India is now gripped with a catastrophic second wave of Covid-19 that has left its crematoriums overflowing with bodies and put its health system under enormous strain. Modi is taking heat over his mismanagement of the national health crisis, for holding rallies during regional elections with no social distancing or mask-wearing rules, and for failing to prevent the gathering of millions of pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela religious festival, which contributed to one of the country's most dramatic surges in infections.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Rishabh Mehta lost his close friend to Covid-19, but doesn't believe Modi was at fault. © Courtesy Rishabh Mehta Rishabh Mehta lost his close friend to Covid-19, but doesn't believe Modi was at fault.

Just as the pandemic contributed to the defeat of Donald Trump in the US, Modi was "almost certain" to take a hit politically too, said Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University.

"A very large part of the base is hugely disenchanted because they've lost their loved ones. They've lost their siblings, their parents, their children," he said.

Modi's loyal base

Modi may be 70 years old, but he also has legions of young Indian supporters.

Rishabh Mehta, a 24-year-old university student, said he was drawn to Modi's unwavering nationalism and thought well of the leader's achievements on improving India's defense systems.

When asked about the country's high Covid-19 death toll, Mehta said he believed the numbers had been inflated by state leaders seeking to tarnish Modi's image. Mehta believes there is a targeted "campaign going on to defame the ... central government."

Most experts and critics say the opposite, and Indian media organizations are gathering more and more evidence that show country is undercounting the dead, whether deliberately or simply because India is unable to measure the pandemic's true impact.

But Mehta's loyalty has remained strong, even after losing one of his close friends to the virus. Mehta himself took his friend to hospital in the capital, New Delhi, where he described chaotic scenes of "people shouting, people coughing, people crying" in desperation.

"It was a very horrific moment for all of us," he said.

Another Millennial standing by Modi is Vagisha Soni, a 29-year-old research scholar in Delhi. Soni has been helping source oxygen and ICU beds amid critical shortages. Some of her friends lost their parents to the virus. And like Tiwary, the medical professor, she sees something greater in Modi.

"I always had this feeling that there has to be one leader who has to guide us, so that was Modi. There was no other figure," she said.

As for his handling of the pandemic, Soni pointed out that the death rate per capita in India shows the country isn't doing as badly as perceived from afar. She said the US was also "unable to handle [the pandemic], having the best of medical infrastructure, the best of facilities." So, it was only natural that India would not be able to cope either and using Modi as a "punching bag" was unfair, she argued.

She has a point. As India's population is so much larger than most countries', it can be hard to gauge just how bad the situation is. Data from Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking global numbers during the pandemic, shows that India had a death rate of 22 per 100,000 people, far lower than the United States, which reported 179.

In raw numbers, India has suffered the worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began, with more than 400,000 infections per day earlier in May -- the highest ever global daily Covid-19 case numbers. Deaths surpassed 300,000 on May 24 and it is feared the real toll could be far higher.

A 'Modi devotee' loses faith

The impact of the pandemic has been keenly felt in rural India, where a lack of medical infrastructure has forced people to travel miles to access treatment, contributing to potentially hundreds of thousands of unreported deaths.

An ex-air force officer from Chhapra district in Bihar -- who did not want to give his name out of fear for his safety -- initially voted for Modi because he believed he would bring about change and create jobs for the youth, but has now turned against him after seeing the impact of COVID-19 on his village.

"If you go to the village and say Modi's name, people will get ready to kill you. They are angry. They don't want to hear Modi's name."

He said private ambulances were charging extortionate prices to take villagers to hospitals that were around 90 kilometers (around 55 miles) away and demand for basic drugs such as paracetamol had sent prices through the roof..

"If you have money, you live. If you don't, you die," he said.

Ashutosh Varshney, from Brown University, said Modi's political fate depends on a clear rival presenting themselves before the country's next general election in 2024.

Although India's huge population makes polling a challenge, there are some indications that the tide is turning against Modi outside the BJP stronghold states. In April's West Bengal elections, the BJP gained more seats but failed to clinch victory in the battleground state, as it had hoped to do and worked toward for years.

As Modi's government sensed this power slipping away, it sought to take back control of a critical narrative that questions the Prime Minister's status as the savior of India. In Delhi, 25 people were arrested recently for putting up posters criticizing Modi for exporting vaccines to other countries, according to several local media outlets.

Police in Uttar Pradesh have also pressed charges against a 26-year-old, Shashank Yadav, for simply trying to find an oxygen cylinder for his dying grandfather on Twitter, according to the BBC. Twitter has also removed a large number of posts criticizing the government's response at India's request, sparking fears of state-sponsored censorship.

Modi's future may also depend on how successfully he can deflect blame for the pandemic onto local leaders, as his party has sought to do in areas where they are not in power.

State powers, however, are limited by the funding they receive. OECD data shows India spends very little on healthcare, typically less than 4% of gross domestic product. The US spends around 17%, while the United Kingdom spends around 10%.

The success of "Modicare" -- a healthcare scheme for the country's poorest people promised in 2018 ahead of the election -- has been limited because it is sorely underfunded and experts say it is unlikely to lead to concrete change.

Even long-term BJP voters are starting to question whether Modi should remain in the job.

A self-described former "Modi devotee" from Lucknow, who also didn't want to give his name, said he and his family had voted for Hindu nationalist parties including the BJP for generations. However, after losing his wife to Covid-19 earlier this year, he is unable to forgive the man he once revered.

"My wife sent a message to me saying, 'There is no more oxygen left in the hospital,'" he told CNN, breaking down as he spoke.

"I tried my level best to get some cylinders but could not. Nobody was here to help me. I could not do anything ... Every country in the world cares about its citizens. Not in India."

"The blood is on their hands," he said of the BJP. "That blood -- they can never wash it."

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