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. 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. 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.