Palaniswami’s COVID handling runs off course, may cost him an election

Lack of transparency in its handling of the pandemic haunts AIADMK government in the home stretch

Palaniswami acts like Jayalalithaa when it comes to the party's internal issues, says political commentator Tharasu Shyam. Photo: PTI (file)

Even after 75 days of the announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Tamil Nadu government, led by Edappadi K Palaniswami, is being accused of lacking in transparency in its handling of the pandemic. As the confirmed cases have gone beyond 31,500, the state is yet to devise a definitive plan to tackle the spread of the virus.

With the term of the current government in the home stretch, the ruling AIADMK is still struggling to gain popularity among the masses.

Overshadowing lack of transparency

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The lack of transparency is one of the major drawbacks for the ruling party. The state reported its first positive COVID-19 case on March 7. But Health Secretary Dr Beela Rajesh had constantly been inexact about the date of the arrival of the first case in Tamil Nadu. She was confused between February and March during many of her press briefings.

Not just the Health Secretary, but even the Health Minister was nontransparent over the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. Health Minister C Vijayabaskar maintained that the state had enough PPEs in stock. However, postgraduate medical students, interns and even doctors’ associations had written to the minister on many occasions demanding PPE kits.

The third case of nontransparency was over the import of rapid testing kits. While states like Madhya Pradesh had ordered PPE kits at a lower price, Tamil Nadu had quoted a much higher price for the same. However, the government has still not given any explanation.

The state was also nontransparent on the availability of beds in government hospitals. The Health Minister, during a press briefing, said state-run hospitals had enough beds. But even some symptomatic patients were sent back home and advised to go into home quarantine. Currently, media reports say there is a shortage of beds even in private hospitals.

Another case of nontransparency was the government’s declaration of deaths due to COVID-19 as non-COVID deaths. Government hospitals claim that medical reports were later corrected. But media reports say the state intelligence bureau’s list of COVID-19 deaths varies from the one provided by the state health department.

“The Edappadi K Palaniswami government should be thankful to its predecessors Kamaraj, M Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa for strengthening the state’s medical facilities,” says

Senthil Arumugam, general secretary, Satta Panchayat Iyakkam, a social organisation.

Palaniswami is now reaping the benefits of the healthcare system in the state, he says. “However, he tries to earn a name Corona Kondaan (One who contained coronavirus). It’s an image-building exercise,” he says. The lack of transparencies in these cases are being overshadowed by the transparency in providing daily media bulletins, he adds.

“The state is doing a good job by testing more number of people. But only after repeated pressure, it started giving district-wise breakup of testings. However, it still needs to do a lot of work on contact tracing,” says Arumugam, who had consistently fought to get a district-wise breakup of testings.

Revamped IT Wing

One of the major components that boost Palaniswami’s image is the party’s IT wing. The leadership had revamped the IT wing in May and divided it according to four zones, namely Chennai, Vellore, Coimbatore and Madurai. The Chennai zone is being headed by Aspire K Swaminathan.

It is interesting to note that when former party chief J Jayalalithaa started the IT wing in 2014, she appointed Swaminathan as its head. But in 2016, he was thrown out and IIM-A alumnus, G Ramachandran, replaced him. He continued as the head of the IT wing until May, and now leads the Coimbatore zone.

Meanwhile, the IT wing has started a campaign called Olirum Tamil Nadu (Glowing Tamil Nadu), which promotes the government’s initiatives on economic revival through two-minute videos. It also created two Twitter handles—TN Reserves Better (@TnReservBetter) on May 25 and TN Conscience (@tnconscience) on June 5.

While the former has tweets about the state’s handling of COVID-19, the latter is being used to promote the steps taken by the government to revive the economy and business investments in the state. The bio in ‘TN Reserves Better’ handle says: After Jayalalithaa’s era, Edappadi K Palaniswami proves to be India’s #1 CM. People of TN wish to reserve this government beyond 2021, hinting that Palaniswami will be the party’s CM candidate in 2021.

“Most people thought that this government would not last three or six months. But it is going to complete its full term. This government has done exceedingly well and our aim is to promote the achievements on all technologies,” Swaminathan tells The Federal.

Reacting to the criticism from the Opposition on the spike in numbers of positive cases in the state — especially in Chennai, Swaminathan says the government will focus on recovery rate, the number of testings and lower mortality rate.

“People should not be afraid of the increasing number of positive cases. Instead, they should look at the number of samples being tested. More and more people are recovering. We also have the lowest mortality rate. But media doesn’t show that” he added.

Albeit the government is taking steps to contain the spread of the virus, people should also cooperate. They must come out of their homes only if it is needed and should wear masks mandatorily, says Swaminathan.

‘Palaniswami must be more democratic’

“Every leader will try to use a crisis for his or her political mileage. It is not wrong. But unlike Kerala, instead of bringing all the political parties together, Palaniswami tries to run the show, handling COVID-19 crisis alone,” says political commentator Tharasu Shyam.

“The Chief Minister says all the people should cooperate to contain the virus. That includes the Opposition and their supporters too. Leave alone DMK. He has not even invited (AIADMK’s allies) the BJP or PMK to discuss the combating of the virus. That is the biggest mistake he has been committing,” he says.

While appreciating his efforts in the Cauvery issue, Shyam says minor mistakes will cost him dearly in the upcoming elections. “He earned a very good name in Cauvery issue. In the Delta region, they did good work in desilting. The people there are really happy. Even in the early stage of COVID-19 in the state, he was able to maintain a good name,” he says.

But because of issues like Tablighi Jamaat, Koyambedu cluster and the return of migrants from other states, the condition has become worse. This will turn even worse in December. Suppose if the next election happens on February or March, the conditions in December will reflect then. Elections are emotive in nature,” he adds.

When asked about Palaniswami sidelining O Panneerselvam and stealing the limelight, Shyam says Palaniswami should act like Dravidian leader CN Annadurai, after whom the AIADMK was named. “Anna used to be democratic. His followers such as Karunanidhi and MGR too were democratic. But Jayalalithaa acted as an autocratic leader. It suited her since she was a woman,” he says.

“Though being accessible to media and giving district administrations their liberty, Palaniswami acts like Jayalalithaa when it comes to the party’s internal issues. Following the style of Jayalalithaa does not suit him. He should be more broad-minded,” says Shyam.

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