How Modi’s fraught relationship with pandemic data has harmed India

As India’s devastating Covid-19 second wave peaked last month, its daily death toll hit a record of more than 4,500. That day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government hailed a “landmark achievement”, trumpeting that more than 400,000 Indians recovered from Covid in a single day.

The bizarre claim of success — which only emphasised the vast numbers stricken by the virus — reflects New Delhi’s creative use of data to bolster its image. Rather than using numbers as a critical tool to inform policymaking, Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party treat data as an important input for a political narrative about Modi leading India to its rightful place in the pantheon of world powers. Inconvenient figures that may undermine these claims are either twisted, or buried.

“The BJP understands that [the] common man in general doesn’t really understand data,” says political consultant Shivam Shankar Singh, author of How to Win an Indian Election. “They decide what the dominant narrative should be; they try to find data that would support it, and they try to suppress data that would counter it.”

Modi’s government had fraught relations with data even before the pandemic. Before India’s last general elections, New Delhi stopped the release of unemployment data that showed Modi’s failure to deliver on promised job creation, prompting the head of the National Statistics Commission to resign. Estimates of gross domestic product growth under the BJP were also revised sharply upwards, leading top economists to warn that the statistical machinery was “controlled by political considerations”.

But Covid-19 has brought political number management to the fore. “You have had a focus on whatever metric or measure of the pandemic appears to create the most optimistic narrative,” says mathematician Murad Banaji, of Middlesex University London.

India’s officially acknowledged 335,000 Covid-19 deaths, including 170,000 in the last two months, have been portrayed as statistically insignificant — little consolation for families that have lost loved ones.

State governments have been discouraged from accurate reporting by New Delhi’s tendency to shame states with high reported Covid-19 deaths, especially if they are led by parties other than the BJP. “Being open with data is politically risky,” Banaji says. “If you report fatalities as accurately as you possibly can, you risk being tarred with some kind of label as an underperforming state.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi treats data as an important input for a political narrative about him leading India to its rightful place in the pantheon of world powers © Adnan Abidi/REUTERS

India’s all-cause mortality data, useful for assessing the pandemic’s true toll which is agreed to be multiples higher than the official count, remains closely guarded.

Meanwhile, New Delhi hails its sluggish vaccination drive, constrained by an acute jab shortage, by touting the total jabs, and downplaying the low percentage of people vaccinated. With 210m jabs given so far, just 3 per cent of Indians are fully vaccinated, while another 12 per cent have received a single dose.

Experts say India has also paid a high price for New Delhi’s refusal to grant open access to official data troves that could have helped scientists detect early warnings. The government’s handpicked pandemic modellers had downplayed the prospects of a second wave as recently as late February, and New Delhi had little interest in other views.

Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, says New Delhi is also sitting on vast data sets with useful information on vaccine effectiveness, and the prevalence of reinfections. However, he says, the data is “completely unavailable to anyone outside the government system”, though the expertise to analyse it lies largely in academic settings.

Rather than lead to more transparency, the Covid-19 surge is likely to reinforce New Delhi’s penchant for secrecy and spin. Ministers now claim all Indians will be vaccinated by December, though they have not offered any credible road map.

“They have never been transparent with data and information and after this their natural instinct is going to be to control it even more,” predicts Singh. “They just tell you how amazing the future is going to be.”

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