With no cabinet, Shivraj battles COVID-19 all alone in Madhya Pradesh

Constitution of a ‘Special Task Force’ was seen as a political move as only BJP leaders were part of it

Shivraj Singh Chouhan
Chouhan took oath of office on March 23 after dramatic political developments in the state | PTI File

With no ministers in his cabinet even three weeks after assuming charge, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is battling the COVID-19 crisis all alone in Madhya Pradesh, which ranks fifth in number of infections among the states.

Chouhan took oath of office on March 23 after dramatic political developments for over a month that involved the revolt of several Congress MLAs loyal to now-defected Jyotiraditya Scindia, and the consequent resignation of former chief minister Kamal Nath ahead of a trust vote in the state assembly.

According to official state figures, there were just nine COVID-19 positive cases as on March 24, confined to only four districts – while Jabalpur had six cases, one each were in Gwalior, Shivpuri and state capital Bhopal. But the latest figures indicate the infection has now spread to 25 of the total 52 districts in the state.

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Due to the absence of a health minister, or any minister to be specific, Chouhan has the responsibility, and the challenge, of facing this COVID-19 battle all alone.

Meanwhile, ministerial aspirants had started building pressure on him for cabinet formation, after which an 11-member ‘Special Task Force’ was constituted on April 13 to contain the COVID-19 spread in the state. However, it was seen as a political move as the task force comprised only senior BJP leaders.

Some of the BJP leaders, who are part of the special task force, includes Tulsiram Silawat, who held the health portfolio in the previous Kamal Nath government and had joined the BJP following his resignation from the Congress.

The task force is being headed by state BJP chief Vishnu Dutt Sharma, and also has state BJP general secretary (organization) Suhas Bhagat, national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, and former chief of the party’s state unit, Rakesh Singh, on board.

Other members include senior leader and former minister Narottam Mishra (who had held the health portfolio during Chouhan’s previous tenure), former Leader of Opposition Gopal Bhargava, former minister Rajendra Shukla, Meena Singh and Pro tem Speaker Jagdish Dewda.

Meanwhile, Vijayvargiya, also known as bête noir of Chouhan, raised questions over the power of the special task force in its very first meeting held on April 14. Reports suggest Vijayvargiya had asked the chief minister if the task force could give directions to the administrative authorities.

After the constitution of the task force faced criticism on social media and by the Congress, another ‘Technical Advisory committee’ was formed on April 14. The team, headed by health director Sudam Khade, has seven senior doctors from prominent medical colleges and AIIMS, Bhopal, and is preparing a comprehensive plan for the COVID-19 battle.

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State BJP chief Sharma has said fighting the coronavirus outbreak is the first priority of the government, and not cabinet formation.

Meanwhile, Congress spokesperson Sayed Zaffer raised questions on the overall development of the state amid the pandemic. He said bureaucrats are running the government in the absence of a clear policy.

“The seriousness of the situation could also be judged by the fact that Madhya Pradesh is the only state that has an alarmingly high number of health officials, including four IAS officers, infected with the disease,” said Zaffer. In Bhopal, out of total 166 positive cases, 94 are health department staff.

Attacking the government, Zaffer said MP is now among the top five states having the most number of COVID-19 infections, and second in fatality rate. The state has so far registered 987 confirmed cases and 53 deaths.