A WEEK ago India’s Prime Minister Nahrendra Modi finally addressed his nation of 1.39 billion souls to tell them that despite 195,000 deaths from Covid-19, cremation fires that burned around the clock and India’s health service being in deep crisis mode, what Indians needed was to be saved from the perils of another lockdown.

A man who had, in the week before, held numerous massive regional election rallies in West Bengal where hundreds of thousands had gathered to hear his dog whistle comments about minorities, and failed to stop the pilgrimage of the Kumbh Mela festival which saw some 2 million people bathe in the River Ganges to be cleansed. Now, only slightly less polemically, he ranted about how his government’s vaccination roll-out would save the day.

His party leaders had put out full page newspaper ads telling people it was "clean" and "safe" to attend the Kumbh Mela and the Chief Minister in Uttarakhand told devotees that "no-one will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”

But, by mid-April, Modi was saying attendance should be "symbolic" because of the pandemic. It was too late, though, to stop what followed when thousands of devotees tested positive for Covid-19.

Officially, the figures tell us that currently one in three people in India has Covid-19 but many suggest the figure is closer to one in two. And the fact that Modi’s Twitter page has only over the last week began mentioning the crisis, suggests that finally he himself is shaken by what is befalling the country.

Could this be the moment that the shine starts to come off Modi for his people? He has enjoyed phenomenal approvals ratings and is the only non Congress party prime minister to have won two consecutive majorities in the Indian parliament. But I wonder if the smell of death from the endless funeral pyres will linger long in the memories of many Indians.

Having lived in that part of the world for a couple of years when I was younger I was always struck by the way that politics very quickly became about the person rather than about the policies or achievements. People are loyal to politicians for the weirdest of reasons – the family they belong to, their back story, their piety.

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And Nahrendra Modi ticks most of the boxes. After all the dynastic politics of India’s post-partition history, Modi was a breath of fresh air. He was from a relatively poor family whose father was a chaiwalla – a tea seller. He came up through the ranks of the RSS, a Hindu nationalist movement which advocates for the essential Hinduness of India – the Hindutva. He styles himself as a guru, a sage, a holy man in his orange scarf who dispenses pearls of wisdom to the rapt masses. His speeches are poetic and hypnotic, which even I, with my faltering Hindi, find quite mesmerising.

But that’s not to say it’s been style over substance. In the early years of his government India saw high growth in its GDP, although for the last two years it has been facing a slowdown. Within the first year of the Modi government, he stripped the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir of autonomy despite protests from across the world, and a rise in tension with neighbouring Pakistan.

His most populist achievement was the founding of a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya on a site which had been host to a mosque for hundreds of years but where Hindus believe the god Rama was born. With this, Modi declared the end of 1,200 years of Hindu servitude, first to the ruling Muslim Mughals and then to the British Raj. This was music to the ears of many Indians for whom India’s historic secularism since its partition in 1947 and tolerance of its religious minorities was seen as a weakness. Modi’s watchword for his India was to be ‘self-reliance’ – to manufacture in India for Indians and then sell to the world.

But events have a habit of getting in the way, and this has never been more true than in the age of the pandemic. Earlier in the month, India had to stop exporting Covid 19 vaccines made there because of issues with its supplies for its own people.

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The roll-out has been badly managed and is stalling badly amid the hundreds of thousands of new infections. On Sunday, the UK said it would send 600 pieces of hospital equipment to India to help cope with its wave of Covid cases, and the EU and the US will soon follow suit. And despite continued skirmishes along the disputed border between its armed forces, China offered assistance to India on Friday.

On Sunday, Bangladesh closed its border with India following a sharp rise in Covid cases there and even arch enemy Pakistan – whose own Covid cases are rising again – declared its solidarity with Indians during the crisis, offering medical aid. Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said: "We must fight this global challenge confronting humanity together."

Domestically, Modi needs India’s workers from a multiplicity of diverse religions, not just Hindus, to compliantly get back to work to propel its creaking economy, their discomfort at some of the Modi government’s actions recently showcased by the long-running farmers’ protests in the Punjab last year.

So when a sombre-looking Modi addressed Indians on April 20 as sathiyao or companions, he was emphasising their togetherness rather than their differences. Modi may yet come to realise that in the face of a foe like Covid-19 common humanity, interdependence and the putting to one side of old enmities will shape the way ahead no matter how at odds that might be with his plan for the way forward for India.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.