It is necessary sometimes to take one step backward to take two steps forward, Vladimir Lenin had famously said.
The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal, though at loggerheads with the Marxists whom they trounced in 2011 to take over the reins of the state, is now following the Communist leader’s maxim to counter a rejuvenated BJP.
Almost vindicating the saffron party’s charges of data suppression, the state government on Monday (May 4) revised its COVID-19 ‘reporting structure’ to plug gaps in it. Since then, the Health Department has been mentioning in its daily bulletin the number of deaths occurring due to co-morbidities. The bulletin also lists the total confirmed COVID-19 positive cases. Earlier it used to harp only on active positive cases. Until Sunday (May 3), the data dished out by the department primarily revealed active positive cases and number of deaths caused ‘purely’ by the contagion.
As per the Sunday’s data, the state had 663 active COVID positive cases and 50 people had died due to it. After the revision, the health bulletin on Monday put the number of total confirmed cases at 1,259 and active cases at 908. It also clarified that apart from 61 deaths directly related to COVID-19, another 72 people, who tested positive for coronavirus, died due to co-morbidities, thus taking the total death toll to 133.
Following the changes to the ‘reporting structure,’ again for the first time in over a month, the COVID-19 figures released by the West Bengal government matched the data furnished by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on Tuesday (May 5).
It was a ‘we-said-so’ moment for the BJP. “It (the TMC government) tried to hide the figures but failed,” said the BJP state president Dilip Ghosh.
The state government was forced to make the disclosure after its cover-up operation was exposed, said senior BJP leader Jay Prakash Majumdar.
Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, however, tried to clarify that the data mismatch was not deliberate. He said it occurred due to problems ‘in the reporting structure.’ He also claimed that the real-time data were not forthcoming from private hospitals, which led to a ‘gap in reporting.’
“Now, we have found all the missing data. So, we are in a position to give you all this data every day,” the Chief Secretary said.
But at least two senior leaders of the Trinamool Congress told The Federal in private that the ‘course correction’ was a political decision pushed by the party’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor.
The idea behind the move is to blunt the BJP’s persistent attacks on the state government over its contentious COVID-19 figures.
As the infection started spiking, the BJP saw an opportunity to corner the TMC. The party’s state president even launched an online opinion poll on his website on the state government’s handling of the health crisis. He categorically sought to know from the people whether the state government was ‘hiding information’ pertaining to the pandemic.
Apart from state BJP leaders, West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and the Centre too, almost in a coordinated three-pronged attack, questioned the state government’s handling of the situation in a series of scathing letters.
The attacks pushed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on the back foot. A week ago, while announcing a cabinet committee exclusively to deal with the pandemic, the CM even hinted that she would no longer micromanage the operation.
“We have formed a cabinet committee on COVID management. As I have other work, so does the Chief Secretary, Health Minister, and Health Secretary, this committee will work on COVID. I will keep an eye on this,” she had said. Incidentally, the Chief Minister is also the state’s Health Minister.
The state government also decided to disband the expert committee of doctors formed to audit whether a coronavirus positive patient expired due to COVID-19 or of any other primary cause.
The committee triggered a great deal of controversy with opposition parties claiming it had been formed to suppress the number of deaths.
Making a vault face, Mamata Banerjee denied her role in the constitution of the committee and said she was not even aware of who the members were.
The BJP, as expected, was quick to allege that she was washing her hands off the matter.
Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, however, thought a tactical retreat was necessary till the government got its acts together.
The ruling party leaders are optimistic that the plugging of gaps in the data will blunt the BJP’s attack. But the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and the growing protests over the alleged anomalies in ration distribution, if not capped immediately, will continue to provide arsenal to the BJP to fire at the government.
With the assembly elections due in less than a year, the state government will have to quickly take the two forward strides if it hopes to keep the BJP at bay.