Politics over COVID-19
Blame game being played in Bengal by the Opposition should be set aside for people’s good
The best stories I am reading in this age of COVID-19 related gloom and doom, are stories of hope, kindness, and resilience. How else can one hope to fight and survive against this invisible yet inexorable virus? This global pandemic is being fought with nerves of steel by the Indian administration and medical fraternity. It is a sobering moment for all of us as we understand and appreciate the tenacity of government machinery in fighting this viral menace. At a time of such gravity, even the Central Government is being spared brickbats even though the handling of migrant labour caused widescale misery to the poorest sections of society. States such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, which are showing ever-increasing numbers of positive cases are also being looked at with concern; their Chief Ministers being lauded for their efforts. All states except one — West Bengal.
The caustic political rhetoric that started pre-2019 Lok Sabha polls is back again and being amplified on the virtual stage. Is the state government's response to the COVID-19 crisis perfect? No, but the stupendous effort of the administration in protecting almost 10 crore people in this highly populated state deserves some mention. The state government was one of the first to respond and act to the Coronavirus outbreak. However, given that Bengal was not reporting cases for a long time, the focus was more on places with more 'active' cases such as Delhi and Mumbai. Testing kits were made available to Bengal much later than others (given the lower number of initial cases). The faulty testing kits also impeded testing resulting in lower testing than in other states. The nod to labs allowed to test for COVID-19 was also delayed. Only now in the last couple of days has Bengal's daily testing crossed 1,100 a day.
This struggle against the virus is real and there can be no political gains sought from it. But if you see what's happening in Bengal, the political game is clear. BJP in Bengal has been flexing its muscles, criticising the state government's handling of the crisis. From not counting deaths due to comorbidity to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's acceptance of the crisis unfolding in Bengal, the principal opposition in the state along with some Central leaders have been breathless in their attack. Attacks on doctors and police personnel occurring in BJP-ruled states are being given a wide berth. We are yet to know if the 'Namaste Trump' event added to the spread of the virus in Gujarat. But there is no respite for Bengal.
When locals in Howrah's red zone, Tikiapara raged against the state police that had come to implement strict lockdown, it became a case of communal politics. The opposition commented that these were Mamata's 'loyal voters' paying back the government in the Muslim-dominated area. In no other state have stray incidents been so politicised and given communal colour (save the lynching of the Sadhus in Maharashtra) than they are in Bengal. The state government ordered strict action, the police rounded up people and the very next day, locals were helping cops maintain strict lockdown but the taint on Bengal was left intact. There has also been severe misinformation doing the rounds. When almost 3,000 students from Bengal stranded in Kota were being brought back in 95 buses, the opposition claimed that the students were crammed into 3 buses. Is that even humanly possible? These accusations flew fast in spite of the state police clarifying the number of buses. An allegedly starving man in a BJP video was found to be a 'jatra' actor paid to play this role!
There will be a time for politics and yes, state elections are creeping up next year. But surely a global and national crisis is not the time for petty politics. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal told the media a few weeks ago that there would be mistakes which need to be highlighted and corrected. All states are fighting against this new enemy and Bengal with its meagre resources and a huge burden of the human population is also doing so. Why then can't everyone play along and proffer positive solutions to the crisis at hand? Instead, we see even the State Governor, Jagdeep Dhankar stooping to throwing brazen political punches. His language against the Chief Minister smacks of vendetta and an urge to score political points when he said, "It is not a fiefdom of an individual to be run in a whimsical manner". In an unprecedented move, the Governor gave sound bytes to the media to warn the CM "not to do Centre bashing every morning". Mamata, in a fitting reply, reminded the Governor that the CM is an elected representative while the Governor is a nominated one. The matter did not end there with the Governor following it up with a 14-page letter where most shockingly, in a not-at-all garbed manner, he mentioned Mamata's alleged 'minority appeasement' with regards to the Tablighi Jamaat incident. The choice of the Governor's words has hardly ever been used by a State Governor, even during the height of the Singur-Nandigram crisis.
Weeks ago, the State onboarded Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee along with several other eminent names in its global advisory panel. 51 private hospitals have been solicited for their help in treating COVID-19 positive patients with the State bearing the cost. The State Government is also readying a Rs 1.5 lakh crore package economic rehabilitation package. Mamata Banerjee has also been the only Chief Minister literally working on the ground, visiting locality to locality distributing relief, drawing social distancing circles and listening to the people. The city and state police, medical workers and volunteers have been working round the clock to help the common man. There may be shortfalls but now is not the time for political mudslinging. Now is the time to help the State administration, irrespective of personal political affiliations in order to overcome this mammoth task at hand. This is what the people of Bengal need. Politics can wait.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are strictly personal