India’s COVID-19 Crisis Tests Public’s Confidence in Leadership

bharatiya janata party in hotseat amid covid surge

India’s second wave of COVID-19 belies its earlier claims of beating the virus. As recently as March, Indian officials had claimed the nation was in its final days of the pandemic, which no longer seems to be the case. Prime Minister Modi’s party now faces much criticism.

Indian flag and blue sky
Claims of leadership failure mount as India’s health system collapses, with hospitals running out of oxygen and beds, as COVID-19 cases skyrocket. Photo By Vipin Pawar / Shutterstock

Health officials working for India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said as recently as March that India had come through the worst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Prime Minister himself said the same several weeks earlier. However, a tragic surge in COVID-19 cases has left India devastated, its hospitals full, and the death toll skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, elections being held during the pandemic reflect the public’s disapproval of Prime Minister Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the BJP loses critical ground in West Bengal.

In his video series A History of India, Dr. Michael H. Fisher, the Robert S. Danforth Professor of History at Oberlin College, explained how the BJP was born in post-British India.

Troubled Times

The Bharatiya Janata Party was established during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister of India. The grandson of India’s first Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi assumed power in 1984 after the assassination of his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Previously, Indira had seceded from one faction of the Indian National Congress and formed an opposition party, referred to as “Congress (I),” with the I standing for Indira.

“During the period of national mourning for his mother, Rajiv called a national election and led the Congress (I) to a strong victory,” Dr. Fisher said. “But the efforts by Rajiv Gandhi to modernize India rapidly and even to retain control over the Congress both faltered.”

Of Gandhi’s least popular actions as Prime Minister, one touched upon a very delicate religious subject. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims during British rule of India led to a partition of the nation into the largely Hindu India and the mostly Muslim Pakistan when India became independent in 1947. Gandhi vocally appealed to the conservative Muslim population of India, angering some Hindus, which led to the creation of the BJP, a conservative Hindu party.

The Rise of the BJP

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, just seven years after his mother suffered the same fate. The long-standing legacy of the politically powerful and left-leaning family dynasty of the Nehru-Gandhi family began to fade.

“The BJP made the Babri Masjid in Ayodha a symbol of Muslim oppression,” Dr. Fisher said. “This was a mosque constructed in 1527, allegedly on the site of a demolished temple marking the sacred birthplace of the god Ram. In 1990 and then 1992, BJP-led assaults on that mosque […] demolished it.”

In the 30 years since the Babri Masjid demolition, the BJP has become one of India’s biggest political parties, though not without controversy. In 1998, the government of the newly elected BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered the underground explosion of five nuclear weapons in the Pokhran-II tests as a show of India’s nuclear capabilities.

“Riding on national feeling,” as Dr. Fisher said, the BJP has often flourished. However, according to the 2021 election results, it seems Prime Minister Modi may have trouble weathering the storm for his party.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily