For days after the first reports of the Uttarakhand flash floods tragedy trickled in - and soon became a torrent - Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna was still drawing up his itinerary for his travels in Switzerland. His administration too appeared to be asleep at the wheel, seeing that the early warning from the Met department about the risk of flash floods went largely unheeded.
It needed leaders in faraway Delhi to draw the State administration's attention and awaken State officials to the magnitude of the disaster. To that extent, the criticism directed at the Bahuguna government - which comes not just from Opposition leaders, but even from within the Congress ranks - isn't entirely without basis. There is, of course, no accounting for natural disasters, but when a government is so slow off the blocks in its response to what bore the markings of a catastrophe, it deserves every bit of the criticism that comes its way.
Once the grim facts on the ground became known - complete with dramatic television images of entire houses collapsing into the surging waters of the rivers - the focus shifted to rescue and relief efforts. The armed forces, whose services were requisitioned, may have been the prime movers, but their valorous efforts were complemented by national disaster management agencies and various State governments.
A crisis such as this tests the administrative capability of any government. And it's fair to say that very few governments, including those in BJP-ruled States, have burnished their reputations with their crisis management skills. And constant hectoring from the Opposition from the sidelines doesn't exactly contribute positively to the crisis management.
But even today, more than two weeks after the tragedy thrust itself into the national consciousness, the Bahuguna government has that deer-caught-in-the-headlamps look about it. Even Congress leaders concede that the Chief Minister isn't in control of the situation (more here). The joint media briefing held by Bahuguna and central leaders of the party, including Jairam Ramesh and Ambika Soni, only validated the impression that Bahuguna was in desperate need of hand-holding.
As Firstpost noted earlier, although Bahuguna held a perfunctory media briefing, it needed Soni and Ramesh to flesh out the nuances of the government's policy responses.
Appearing on a CNN-INN talk show late on Monday, Bahuguna dismissed demands for his dismissal - from BJP leader Sushma Swaraj - as irresponsible. Swaraj's observations were widely interpreted, by other panelists, as partisan politicking at a time when the rescue efforts had not yet been completed.
But as journalist Bharat Bhushan observed on another talk show, if this political tug-of-war is intended to get the government to respond quicker - and better - to the crisis, it counts as a healthy intervention. For instance, if an opposition party points out that the supply of foodgrains under the relief measures is grossly inadequate for the needs of the affected families, and the government is forced to step up with enhanced supply, it is "positive politics".
Likewise, the demand for Bahuguna's dismissal may reek of political posturing at a time of national tragedy, but if it has the effect of getting a Chief Minister who is, even Congress leaders acknowledge, less than equal to the task, it is a good thing.
But if he is unable to up his game even now, it's fair to say that he ought to go - and make way for someone whose crisis management skills are superior to his own. That is not a political point: it's just plain common sense, articulated in the interest of the affected people. In times like these, a leader should lead - or get out of the way. Bahuguna still has an outside chance to prove that he can lead. But if he proves incapable of that, he ought to go.
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