Prime minister Narendra Modi is known to have a canny eye for photo opportunities that can shape his image — and send strong messages to the Indian public.
In 2014, he swept leaves on a New Delhi street to launch his Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, sanitation campaign. Five years later, during a summit with China’s President Xi Jinping, he was filmed walking along a deserted beach collecting plastic water bottles and other litter. During India’s 2019 election campaign, Mr Modi retreated to a remote Himalayan cave to meditate — with a camera crew in tow to capture his soulful repose. And last August, as the nation’s coronavirus cases surged, he tweeted photos of himself feeding peacocks at his official residence.
Given this adept use of visual communication, Mr Modi might have been expected to join other world leaders in rolling up his sleeve for a Covid-19 jab, as India launched its ambitious vaccine drive this month.
Global leaders — such as Joe Biden, then US president-elect, and Kamala Harris as vice-president elect, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad, and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo — have all been publicly vaccinated. Some have even done so live on television, to shore up their nations’ confidence in fast-tracked inoculations.
Tweeting a photo of himself receiving a jab, Mr Netanyahu said he and his health minister had asked to be vaccinated first “to serve as an example to you, and encourage you to be vaccinated”. Even the UK’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and Pope Francis, have affirmed receipt of their jabs, albeit without photos. His Holiness called vaccination “an ethical obligation”.
But Mr Modi was not inoculated during India’s vaccine launch last week, even as he hailed the rollout of two “made in India vaccines” as “shining proof of India’s strength, India’s scientific proficiency, and India’s talent”.
His apparent reticence has been noticed, and has fuelled speculation as to his motives — adding to a broader controversy over the drive to inoculate 300m Indians by August.
India’s inoculation campaign is using two vaccines: Covishield, a locally manufactured dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine; and Covaxin, indigenously developed by Bharat Biotech, a maker of vaccines for the developing world. However, top Indian scientists have questioned New Delhi’s decision to use Covaxin — albeit in a “clinical trial mode” — without any efficacy data to prove that it curbs severe disease. Many doctors and nurses have balked at receiving Covaxin, leading to lower than expected vaccine turnout.
To counter this hesitancy, some have called on Mr Modi — who is revered with near religious fervour by millions of Indians — to lead by example, take a Covaxin jab, and persuade others to follow. Some quip that the premier may have been secretly inoculated already — perhaps with an overseas vaccine, whose efficacy has been affirmed. Meanwhile, a new survey suggests Delhi is nearing “herd immunity”, anyway.
But Mr Modi’s supporters say he has a noble reason for waiting to be vaccinated against a virus that has infected at least eight members of his cabinet. They say it is a repudiation of India’s entrenched VIP culture, through which politicians and well-connected individuals lay first claim to public benefits.
India is now vaccinating only public health workers and other frontline personnel, such as police officers. Vulnerable citizens — the elderly and those with other conditions — will be vaccinated in a second phase that is still weeks, if not months, away.
Instead of using his power to jump the queue, officials say the 70-year-old leader is determined to wait his turn — an act of sacrifice that sends a clear message to others about respecting the process, and plays to his image as a devoted public servant, eschewing personal benefit.
Deferring vaccination also signals Mr Modi’s lack of fear of the virus. In a country of 1.4bn people, where the vaccine rollout could take years, that projection of confidence and courage — which reinforces his reputation as an almost messianic leader — may be the most critical message of all.