When a police team on April 23 stopped Balurghat MP Sukanta Majumdar on his way to Hili, a bordering village in his constituency, the BJP leader immediately texted West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar on WhatsApp, seeking his intervention.
The governor responded immediately. He called up the MP and asked him to hand over his mobile phone to the on-duty traffic inspector, who allegedly did the “transgression” of stopping an elected member from meeting people of his constituency. The governor’s intervention, however, came to naught as the police officer did not budge.
This chain of events narrated by Majumdar to The Federal explains in a nutshell the larger political subtext of the ongoing faceoff between the Raj Bhavan and the Nabanna, the state secretariat.
With an eye on next year’s assembly elections, both the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are competing with each other to extract political dividend from the state’s response against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The TMC, taking advantage of being in power, is subtly using the battle against the virus as its public outreach programme, projecting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as the one who is truly sympathetic to the people’s suffering and even risking her own safety to stand by her people at this hour of crisis.
The nationwide lockdown, enforced from March 25, had forced a large section of people to depend on government assistance to cope with the sudden job loss. This gave an enormous opportunity to the government to reach out to them. The chief minister was quick to address their concern by offering free ration for six months. She also announced a one-time grant of ₹1,000 for the state’s 60 lakh workers in the informal sector.
A senior Congress leader, requesting anonymity, told The Federal that the TMC would tend to gain during the 2021 elections due to these welfare measures, particularly the free ration for six months.
Banerjee also enforced lockdown in the state even before the Centre announced similar restrictions nationwide, clearly sending out the message that she was ready for the challenge. Emerging from crucial meetings beamed live on local news channels, she would be drawing circles for maintaining social distancing at markets, distributing relief or taking a round of hospitals to see the preparedness.
COVID-19 positive cases in the state were only 27 until March 31. Everything was going according to the script. In a rare show of political unanimity, even the opposition parties backed the government at an all-party meeting chaired by the chief minister on March 23.
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But as the positive cases started increasing in April, opposition parties, particularly the BJP, dropped the gloves. The state’s flip-flop on figures, the setting up of an audit committee to discern deaths due to the virus and other co-morbidities, its mismanagement of ration distribution, slackness in enforcing lockdown in certain areas and reluctance in conducting enough tests only gave further arsenals to the BJP.
What made the matter worse was that in several places, the administration started preventing opposition leaders from reaching out to the people on the pretext of enforcing lockdown norms. BJP leader Sabyasachi Dutta and state general secretary Sayantan Basu were stopped from distributing relief materials in Kolkata on April 1, triggering a blame game.
“The chief minister and other TMC leaders are allowed to visit various parts of the city and distribute relief material, but when BJP leaders want to do the same, they are stopped citing prohibition of congregation of more than seven people,” alleged BJP state president Dilip Ghosh.
Meanwhile, clashes broke out between the locals and the police in a few places in the state over allegations of irregularities in ration distribution. Following complaints that over 10 per cent of the state’s nine crore ration card-holders had not received the month’s allotment at one go, the chief minister was even forced to remove food and supplies department secretary Manoj Agarwal.
These developments further helped the BJP’s cause. John Barla, a BJP MP from Alipurduars, in a complaint to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too accused the TMC government of not properly distributing ration materials, due to which he said the poor people were starving.
The BJP IT cell too bombarded the social media with videos and stories of the alleged violation of lockdown norms in minority-dominated areas and corruption in ration distribution.
On April 17, the official BJP Twitter handle posted a 52-second video clip saying: “A heart-wrenching video of a wailing aged man who has not gotten any food for the last 2 days. This is @nusratchirps’s constituency where TMC is busy siphoning off ration while the poor suffer.” Nusratchirps is the Twitter handle of TMC’s Basirhat MP Nusrat Jahan.
The hungry man seen in the video was later identified as Mobarek Mondal, a jatra (folk theatre) artiste. He told the police some youths had asked him to act as if he was starving during the lockdown.
Senior state BJP leaders too are trying to punch holes in Banerjee’s COVID-19 containment narratives by raising fingers at the state government’s figures. In their diatribe against the state, the BJP leaders found an ally in Governor Dhankhar, who had in the past crossed swords with the chief minister on several issues, including the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act.
The governor publicly started expressing his displeasure over the state government’s handling of the crisis, particularly the alleged violation of lockdown norms in various parts of the state, further straining the relation between the state’s constitutional and administrative heads.
For his alleged political activism, the TMC often accuses him of converting the Raj Bhavan into an extended party office of the BJP. It was reportedly on the basis of his report that the Union home ministry had written a letter to the state, expressing concern over the “gradual dilution” of lockdown norms in its certain areas. Majority of the areas mentioned in the letter were minority-dominated, prompting the chief minister to take a dig at the Centre, saying coronavirus is not a “communal virus.”
Even a call from the chief minister to the governor on April 15 to apprise him of the COVID-19 situation in the state did not make things better between the two. The governor continued making serious allegations against the state government, accusing it of “manipulating” the COVID-19 figures.
In an interview with the Economic Times, Dhankhar alleged the pandemic situation in the state was “chaotic” and that the state government did not fully utilise the test kits provided by the Centre.
The state government, as expected, refuted the charges and blamed the Centre for not being able to conduct enough tests. Initially, it complained that enough kits were not provided to carry out sufficient tests. Later, it claimed the kits sent by the Centre were defective, forcing the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) to withdraw a consignment of the defective kits. The NICED is the nodal agency of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in the state. Sources in the state health department said the kits showed inconclusive results, leading to repeated confirmatory tests and delay in diagnosis.
“Deliberate attempts are being made to present an image that the state government is not testing enough people. Hence our COVID numbers are low. Point is, we have not been given the requisite number of kits and have been managing things on our own,” the chief minister told a press conference on April 22, a day after two Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCT) arrived in the state to assess the ground situation.
Considering the COVID-19 situation in West Bengal was not as bad as many other states, including BJP-ruled Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the TMC cried foul as it perceived a political motive in the visit. There was, however, no denying that the situation in the state is alarming, particularly in Kolkata, as the number of cases as well as mortality continue to soar. The doubling rate of positive cases in six days is higher than the national average.
On April 24, 51 new cases were detected, taking the total number of active COVID-19 cases in the state to 385, according to the health department’s bulletin. The total number of confirmed cases in the state is 514, according to health ministry data.
Interestingly, for the first time on April 24, the state government also revealed that 57 coronavirus-affected people have died so far, which clearly indicates that mortality rate in the state is on the higher side. Of them, 18 deaths were directly related to COVID-19 while 39 others died due to co-morbidities, which means other existing ailments such as kidney or heart problems.
This disclosure came after the central teams sought records of the state’s audit committee to check the coronavirus-related deaths. The latest revelation could only further escalate the verbal duel between the governor and the chief minister. The two recently exchanged lengthy accusing letters; the governor wrote two back-to-back letters in response to the one written by Banerjee on April 23.
Meanwhile, it’s rumoured that to decide the TMC’s counter offensive strategy, Banerjee has summoned election strategist-turned-politician Prashant Kishor to Kolkata by a “special” flight. TMC sources have neither confirmed nor denied Kishor’s presence in the state capital. The poll-strategist too has denied taking any flight to Kolkata.
ANI quoted him as saying that those claiming that he took a cargo, or for that matter any flight, should at least have “basic information like flight number, flight operator, date, time, etc., in the public domain or apologise for making such a statement.” He, however, did not disclose his current location.
The news agency, quoting top aviation sources, further reported that “on the directions of the government, aviation security authorities have checked the CCTV footage of three airports — Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati — of the last 72 hours” to ascertain if Kishor had travelled to Kolkata.