Coronavirus Outbreak: Mamata Banerjee displays little cooperation even as Opposition unites to stand behind Centre

The career of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is a stuff of legend. From a firebrand young Congress worker who rose through the ranks to many stellar positions, to the founder of the All India Trinamool Congress through which she single-handedly brought an end to the 34-year-old rule of the Left government in West Bengal, she has earned many rare feathers on her way to her current status. She is not just a powerful chief minister but also one of the strongest chances that the collective Opposition in India has against the government in power at the Centre.

 Coronavirus Outbreak: Mamata Banerjee displays little cooperation even as Opposition unites to stand behind Centre

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

And that’s why people of the country who believe in the existence of a healthy and strong opposition to ensure that Indian democracy doesn’t become partisan, have always looked upon ‘Didi’, as she is popularly known, to be the voice of reason. Living up to her potential as perceived even beyond West Bengal, Didi has not disappointed either.

Analysts, however, have attributed her political stand more to her mercurial temperament rather than a matured, well-thought-out action plan to take on the Central government, or the BJP which is slowly spreading its influence in her state. Like a recalcitrant child irritated easily, Mamata has on many occasions exposed her vulnerability. Yet, Prashant Kishor’s tutoring is already being hailed as the reason behind the mellower Didi now. Or is it?

At a time when the nation — and the world — is dealing with an unprecedented crisis due to coronavirus, why is every missive coming out of West Bengal aimed against the Centre, carrying on in the same vein as if we were not dealing with a national medical emergency but readying our gears for an electoral battle? Of course, there is no need for her to agree with every move of the Central government. But, this is a time when the most important opposition leader of India needs to show more maturity, in action as well as words.

Besides belittling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s moves to keep the collective morale of the nation high, she is not leaving any opportunity to rile the Centre, like just another prime time savvy opposition leader. While she did not hide her disregard for the two events initiated by Modi for boosting the morale of health workers and the people at large during the lockdown, she recently said despite not getting any help from the Centre, the state was cooperating with the Union government.

That flies in the face of her decision to stay absent from the meeting of chief ministers with the prime minister on 2 April to discuss steps to further deal with the coronavirus crisis. By steadfastly refusing to join, she not only underscored her dislike for everything that the Centre or Modi does, but she also exposed the immaturity that often nullifies her strength as one of the few truly national leaders on India’s political firmament today.

Even during the UPA regime, chief ministers from non-Congress ruled states attended the meetings called by then prime minister Manmohan Singh, like on growing inflation in 2008 and 2010. It’s a part of the democratic process of governance and healthy Centre-state relationship. But, when it comes to the West Bengal chief minister, she has been found to be refusing to Modi’s call.

Many other chief ministers such as Punjab’s Amarinder Singh, K Chandrashekar Rao of Telangana (also a friend of Mamata), Bhupesh Baghel of Chhattisgarh or Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan are either known critics of Modi or on the opposite spectrum of the current Central government. Yet, none of them has used the current crisis to highlight their known displeasure for Modi or BJP-led NDA government.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, also a friend of Mamata and a former open critic of Modi (who even contested against the latter from Varanasi in the 2014 Lok Sabha election), has been the most astute of them all. But, that’s not due to the coronavirus pandemic — this turnaround had come long ago — and therefore, Kejriwal cannot be clubbed in the same group as above.

West Bengal under Mamata is finding itself at loggerheads with the Centre over seemingly trivial though seminal matters related to the pandemic.

Like every state government, West Bengal too issues its daily report on the status of COVID-19 in the state. But it did not issue any bulletin on 2, 3 and 5 April. Moreover, in its 4 April bulletin, it didn’t mention the number of deaths in the state due to coronavirus. This gave TMC’s strongest opponent in the state — the BJP – an opportunity to blame Mamata of concealing facts, when Centre-State cooperation and coordination at present are vital.

Again, on 2 April, while seven coronavirus deaths in the state were confirmed by its health department, the figure was soon revised to three. The chief minister, since then, has been defending the revision, even setting up an expert committee to ascertain whether coronavirus deaths in the state are actually due to the virus or not.

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Why is there a need for West Bengal to hide actual figures when some of the worst affected states — Maharashtra, Delhi and Kerala — and even others, are transparent about it?

The emergence of the Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin as the coronavirus outbreak hotspot too has got the West Bengal chief minister on the defensive. Like Gehlot, Mamata too appealed to refrain from communalising the coronavirus crisis. However, in defence of the profiling of the patients that the Tablighi Jamaat event has necessitated, one has to understand that identifying a patient on the basis of his/her presence at the event is not a case of a communal divide but will immensely help the local administration in contact tracing, quarantine and isolation of patients, preventing further spread of the disease in the community.

It is a well-known fact that the attendees of the religious event in New Delhi in the first fortnight of March became carriers of the disease into almost all the states of the country, including those that had not recorded any infections previously.

Mamata’s critics would like to attribute her impulsive responses to her strategy to safeguard her socio-political constituency comprising minorities. After all, Bengal Assembly election is due next year, and the BJP rattled Mamata last year by making surprise inroads into TMC strongholds in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections — the BJP won 18 seats out of 42, gaining 16 seats and TMC bagged 22, losing 12 seats.

But, is a crisis of this magnitude the right time to settle political scores, or act with future political gains in mind? Mamata is not just another political leader with a short-term, myopic potential, but a leader of national importance who just happens to be a state chief minister right now. A more mature Mamata is what Indian politics needs today for its democracy’s axis to remain non-aligned towards any one particular group of people.

Moreover, examples from Europe show that there is a link between the intensity of the epidemic and the character of its politicians. Spain’s politicians and different geographical regions have been singing their own tunes, disregarding a national, concerted effort since the start of the epidemic, resulting in more than 14,000 deaths in the country, the second-highest in the world after Italy. Its next-door neighbour, Portugal, whose various political parties have rallied behind their prime minister in the hour of the crisis has only reported a little over 200 deaths due to coronavirus so far.

Updated Date: Apr 08, 2020 15:09:33 IST



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