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Modi Faces Anger, Criticism Over India's COVID-19 Crisis

NOEL KING, HOST:

Today, the Indian government confirmed more than 414,000 new COVID infections. That's another world record. People are getting sick, and now they and their family and friends are getting angry. For weeks, many people haven't been able to find hospital beds or oxygen or lifesaving medicines, and they are blaming their prime minister. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Outside a Delhi hospital this week, Baljeet Asthana put her phone on selfie mode and hit record.

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BALJEET ASTHANA: My 82-year-old mother is inside the hospital struggling for her life.

FRAYER: She describes their ordeal. There isn't room in this ICU. Officials are telling them to try elsewhere. My mother is slowly dying, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ASTHANA: We are struggling. We are struggling to get basic things like oxygen, medicines, hospitals.

FRAYER: And then she speaks directly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking for advice on what she can do for her mom. She calls him, sir.

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ASTHANA: If you cannot advise me, sir, then I would request you to legalize mercy killing in India because you have no idea what the common citizen of India is going through at the moment.

FRAYER: She ends this video, which she posted to Twitter, with another chilling request.

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ASTHANA: Let us die with dignity. Thank you very much. Jai Hind.

FRAYER: Jai Hind - long live India, she says at the end there. This is just some of the anger being directed at Modi as India's health system implodes, as people realize they're on their own. Modi hasn't spoken to the nation on TV since April 20...

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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: ...When he told his countrymen to stay disciplined and stay at home if they can. But three days earlier, Modi held a massive political rally with thousands of people in a state his party was trying to win in local elections.

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MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "In every direction, all I can see is people. You are wonderful," he exclaimed to the crowd. By then, India was already confirming more than 200,000 new infections a day. But there were few masks and scant social distancing in Modi's crowd. His Hindu nationalist government also refused to halt a huge Hindu pilgrimage with millions of people on the banks of the Ganges River.

YAMINI AIYAR: Politics overrode any concern about the health crisis that was unfolding.

FRAYER: Yamini Aiyar is president of the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi think tank. She says Modi put politics first. But it wasn't just he who was in denial about how bad COVID could get here; everyone was. Cases spiked nationally last September and then went down. It never got as bad here last year as it was in the U.S. or Europe. The Indian government took credit and celebrated that.

AIYAR: There was a sense that we had crossed the hump and Indian exceptionalism was winning the day. And as a consequence, what we needed to do to strengthen the health system and prepare ourselves for a second wave. No policy action was taken.

FRAYER: No action to stockpile enough oxygen and antiviral drugs, no action to invest more in a public health system that's one of the world's weakest, even in the best of times. And so now, as thousands of Indians die of COVID every day, even some of Modi's staunchest supporters are angry with him. Arun Goyal is a lawyer in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. He's worked for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party for two decades.

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ARUN GOYAL: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "This government has failed us," he says. "I saw a patient die right in front of me. We are all on our own now." His mother-in-law had COVID, he told local media. He took her from hospital to hospital in what by now is such a familiar tale here. Hospitals didn't have room, and his mother-in-law died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOYAL: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "I'm ashamed to call myself a BJP worker," he says. "I'll never support Modi again." NPR contacted five spokespeople from Modi's government and party to respond to this criticism. One was sick with COVID. Another said he didn't want to talk. Three others did not get back to us. The government has, meanwhile, been asking Twitter and Facebook to block certain posts criticizing its handling of this crisis. India's top diplomat, S. Jaishankar, has addressed some of the criticism.

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S JAISHANKAR: When a pandemic hits a society very hard, there are questions. There are arguments. There is a lot of second-guessing. You know, you should have seen it coming. We could have told you so, et cetera. And it's not unique to India.

FRAYER: He spoke to reporters in London on a trip there for a meeting with G-7 foreign ministers. The trip itself raised eyebrows among some Indians surprised that Jaishankar would leave India in such a crisis. While in London, two members of his delegation tested positive for the coronavirus, and so the whole Indian team had to isolate and participate in those meetings virtually, which they could have just done from India.

MILAN VAISHNAV: I haven't seen this kind of outrage since Modi came to power in 2014.

FRAYER: Milan Vaishnav directs the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. He says Modi's approval rating didn't budge when the economy shrank 24% last spring or during a border standoff with China or even when Modi abolished much of India's banknotes a few years ago. But it has dipped slightly in the past seven days.

VAISHNAV: It's the ferocity of the virus, coupled with what people perceive as mismanagement, as a lack of empathy, as a prime minister who is usually leading from the front but seems to be receding into the background.

FRAYER: Which is surprising for a leader who has so centralized power here. Modi has been the most popular figure in Indian politics in decades. He is also a master of reinvention, Vaishnav says. And the next national election isn't until 2024. Meanwhile, across India, as shock turns to sorrow, sorrow is turning to more anger. A political argument even broke out last week at a crematorium in Uttar Pradesh...

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: ...Between a family that had just cremated their loved one who died of COVID-19 and another man there who interrupts and tells them off for bemoaning the government. He tries to convince them none of this is the government's fault. They all wave their fingers at one another as funeral pyres burn around them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: One man pleads with the other. "Let's just not argue, not here, not now, not in this, of all places," he says. But these arguments over the Modi government's response to the world's biggest COVID outbreak are likely to persist here, possibly even until those elections in 2024.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.