Mamata Banerjee is the only chief minister who has poured scorn on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gargantuan and multi-dimensional effort to tackled Covid-19 and its fallout. In every meeting of the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers, she is the only who has complained about the Centre doing politics. However, there is a clear perception among people of the state that Banerjee indulges in such shrill theatrics only to cover-up on her colossal failures as Chief Minister and Health Minister.
Banerjee’s politics is confrontationist and insensitive. There are too many successive events which indicate that the TMC government and its leadership is increasingly resorting to a delinquent behaviour and putting at risk the lives of the people of the state. Union Home Minister Amit Shah wrote to Banerjee on 9 May, pointing out that her government was stalling all attempts by the Union government to ensure that migrant workers from West Bengal held up in other states could return.
Till Shah’s letter came, Banerjee, while paying lip service to the plight of migrant workers from the state, refused to give permission for running trains, avoided spelling out the number of trains required and did not make adequate arrangement for receiving the returning workers. Shah told her that by the time he was writing this letter, over two lakhs migrant workers had already returned to their homes in various states, but that the West Bengal government was repeatedly denying permission and had clamped up refusing to speak to or coordinate with the Union government.
To migrant workers who were yearning to return home, such an approach was an act of grave injustice, Shah pointed out. His letter had the desired effect, it exposed the TMC government’s reluctance to take on the responsibility of ensuring that the sons of the soil return to their homes. On the other hand, Banerjee’s proactiveness in bringing back groups of pilgrims from Ajmer Sharif, and her ignoring the appeals of pilgrims from Gujarat’s Dwarka, and the appeals of migrant workers from across the country, generated wide dismay among people of West Bengal.
It has been seen as yet another expression of her unabashed resorting to a denominational brand of politics. Banerjee herself could not justify as to what led her to take such a partisan step. A series of event clearly show that the Banerjee-led TMC government continues to be non-serious about containing the spread of coronavirus. It has displayed a complete inability to enforce lockdown among a certain section of the people, particularly among a certain section of a certain community.
At least a string of events points to such an attitude, driven by Banerjee’s unchecked and blatant politics of appeasement. We will come to that in a while. The overall situation in West Bengal continues to spiral downward. The state continues to see increasing protests from people on the irregularity of PDS distribution in the state with most of the ration meant for the poor being pilfered by the TMC’s local leaders, one sees regular incidents of families and relatives of those deceased due to corona, not being informed on time and often receiving the news after the body had been cremated, one sees healthcare workers repeatedly complaining of not being provided treatment post infection and of doctors complaining of lack of Covid treatment infrastructure across the state.
In a strongly worded letter, on 10 May, the Association of Health Services Doctors wrote to Banerjee on how hospitals in Kolkata and Howrah were “overflowing with patients” and how there was not “enough space available to properly keep corpses” and pointed to a lack of infrastructure in the districtlevel hospitals which have been earmarked for Covid treatment. The doctors also spoke of the lack of critical care units in these hospitals and of the lack of beds while reminding the Chief Minister that the government could in “no way shirk its responsibility of taking proper care of Covid patients”.
A day later, on 11 March, a batch of interns from the leading R.G. Kar Medical College in Kolkata rang the alarm bell by writing, among other things, of how there was a continuous attempt on part of the TMC’s administration to withhold information, and push for the “non-publishing of information regarding the available facilities (place of treatment, number of beds allotted and ventilators available) for quarantine and treatment of healthcare professionals infected by Covid-19” on their hospital.
This is, in fact, the same condition of all Covid-declared hospitals in the state. Banerjee has continued to maintain silence on the issue and has continued to push to the brink those who are frontline warriors in the fight against this pandemic. Earlier, on 7 May, eminent Bengali cardiologist treating Covid patients in the US, Indranil Basu Ray in a widely publicised letter to Banerjee spoke of neglecting the basics which could result in the pandemic spreading like wildfire across the state. Speaking of the by now infamous death audit committee formed by Banerjee, Basu told the Chief Minister that “nowhere in the world has it ever happened that the treating doctors does not have the right to give the actual death certificate, but a special ‘team’ set by you is thought to only competent to do that”.
In the meantime, an increasingly irritated and incoherent Banerjee withdrew from public view for over a week and then sacked her Health Secretary Vivek Kumar. Like she had done by sacking her Food Secretary in the past, when the PDS scam was at its height in the state, instead of taking action or calling to account her political colleagues and her party apparatchiks, she made a scapegoat out of Kumar.
As Health Minister, Banerjee has been clearly trying to evade her gross failure in ensuring adequate preparedness for the handling this outbreak. Let us return to our first observation. From the end of March, just after lockdown was announced one saw a series of events across the state, in which a section of the minority community resorted to violence against lockdown enforcers, against healthcare workers, and against those who tried to convince them of the efficacity of a containment zone.
In West Bengal under the TMC these incidents continue unabated. From Mallikpur in Baruipur in which a BDO and his team members were badly roughed up, to Tikiapara in Howrah, where a violent mob attacked a police posse and chased, stoned and kicked policemen on duty, to Telinipara in Hooghly, where bombs were hurled, shops gutted and homes attacked when Hindus of the area had requested members of the minority community to follow containment zone rules, to Chandipur in Malda, where a temple was attacked and a dispensary ransacked because some of the Ajmer Sharif returnees were taken for quarantining and treatment, one sees the emergence of a disconcerting pattern of defiance.
It is a defiance which is going unchecked, is unbridled and is aware that there are no consequences, in West Bengal, for such excesses. Such is the situation created by Banerjee’s politics of opportunism, of confusion and of appeasement. The question that the larger exasperated majority in the state seem to be asking is how long will this last?
The writer is Director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi