COVID-19 Crisis: Where is Modi’s Fall Guy?

After radically centralising power, the Indian PM runs the risk of taking the blame if the health crisis spirals out of control.

When COVID-19 first threatened to devastate China, President Xi Jinping put his Prime Minister Li Keqiang in charge of the problem. This was highly unusual. Xi had consistently been the only leader who mattered, always hogging the spotlight. Others, even the prime minister, had played bit parts.

And yet on this occasion, Xi felt that he needed a fall guy, someone to blame if things went horribly wrong. But later, when China made progress in dealing with the virus – surprise, surprise – Xi re-emerged to claim a great victory. His prime minister slipped back into obscurity.

Donald Trump has made his vice president, Mike Pence, the US’s coronavirus czar. The president dominates daily press conferences on the crisis with crackpot comments, while Pence stands by like a figure in a wax museum. But Trump was cunning enough to set him up as a fall guy, to be on the safe side in case catastrophe strikes.

Narendra Modi is different. Like Xi and Trump, he has radically centralised power and runs something close to a one-man government. But he is always a lone, heroic figure, with no fall guy in sight – even when things might end in ruin.

To say this is not to claim that Modi is more egotistical than Trump. No world leader in recent decades can match Trump’s demented megalomania. But Modi cannot bring himself to delegate power over major undertakings. He will not even appear to delegate it to a fall guy as Xi and Trump have done.

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at bilateral meeting during G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Photo: Reuters/ Kevin Lamarque

How can this be explained? Three possibilities come to mind, all of which may have some truth to them.  It may owe something to Modi’s soaring optimism – or as less kind critics might say, to his naivete – his belief that his big policy ideas are unfailingly brilliant. He may also reckon that if things go wrong after splashy announcements of bold actions, he can make adjustments to put things right. We saw him frantically retuning policies after introducing demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax – although that may have made things worse. Finally, he may rely on fawning media outlets to celebrate his blunders as heroic innovations. Opinion polls indicate that adulation in the media persuaded many voters that demonetisation was an admirable, brave exploit.

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But things might still go badly wrong. If that happens, where are the fall guys? Amit Shah may have overseen the party and, more recently, the coercive powers of the home ministry. Yogi Adityanath may have toured the country making incendiary speeches fomenting polarisation.

But their roles are quite different from Modi’s. Tough, provocative talk from both allows him to adopt more restrained, prime ministerial postures. They enable his pre-eminence, but neither man is allowed to be a co-equal partner in his daring ventures. Neither can serve as a fall guy if things come unstuck.

This places the BJP in grave danger. If Modi cannot shift the blame for a disaster, he might become discredited, and he is the party’s main asset. He may even be its only crucial asset.

Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Reliable surveys from the 2019 Lok Sabha election showed that a huge number of voters backed the BJP because they wanted Modi to continue leading the government. But the party has fallen short of victory in a long, embarrassing string of state elections since late 2018. In large measure, that occurred because voters could see that someone other than Modi would become their chief minister. He looms so large in the party, the government and the popular imagination that all others are lost in his shadow.

When N.T. Rama Rao was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, people used to say that it was “a government of heroes and zeroes, and the number of heroes is one”. The same might be said of the BJP and government in India today.

By disregarding the need for fall guys, Modi may be bolder than Xi and Trump. But he runs alarming risks.

James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of numerous books including Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Response in an Indian City (1993) on the 1981 hooch disaster in Bangalore.