COVID-19 management becomes a game of musical chairs in BS Yediyurappa's Karnataka
A power struggle between K Sudhakar and his cabinet colleague B Sriramulu, who was divested of the health and family welfare portfolio on Monday, is among the many reasons for Karnataka being third in terms of COVID-19 cases in the country
Bengaluru: Management of the COVID-19 pandemic has become a headache for the BJP government in Karnataka with ministers being rotated even as the number of cases are climbing by the day, placing the state in third place behind after Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in the country.
Since March, four ministers have been put at the helm of coronavirus management by Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, who also headed it for a short while. The minor reshuffle of portfolios by Yediyurappa on Monday with Ballari strongman, minister B Sriramulu being divested of health and family responsibilities, which were handed to Medical Education Minister K Sudhakar is the latest. Sriramulu, who is reportedly miffed with the move, has been given the social welfare portfolio.
Even as reasons for the sudden change range from the Congress party alleging kickbacks in the purchase of PPE kits and ventilators to power struggle between Sudhakar and Sriramulu in handling the pandemic besides lack of comprehension by the latter to understand the subject, officials caught in this push-pull exercise were on the receiving end.
BJP sources said that instead of cracking the whip, Yediyurappa, who was aware of the lack of coordination and tussle between the two ministers, allowed the situation to drift. "This is one of the reasons for a spike in COVID-19 cases in Karnataka as tracing of secondary contacts, seniors and those with comorbidities has suffered. There was no single window direction and the health department officers were not accountable to the medical education department," they added.
Consequently, Karnataka, which received plaudits from the BJP central leadership for adopting best practices in handling COVID-19 (such as introducing use of telemedicine, quarantining and having a war room for the purpose), came under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare's scanner in September. Along with Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, the state was asked to ramp up its measures to break the chain of COVID-19 transmission and ensure that mortality was kept below one percent.
In March, when reports of the lack of coordination between the two ministers reached the central BJP leadership, Yediyurappa was asked to take control of the situation. He constituted a task force under him with Deputy Chief Minister CN Ashwath Narayan, Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai, Sudhakar and Sriramulu assigned to meet on a daily basis. No meetings were held as Narayan was reportedly peeved that despite being a doctor by profession, he was not made in charge of the task force and the three ministers used to hold separate meetings with medical officers.
Prior to this, Yediyurappa had appointed Sudhakar, who is also a doctor, to manage the crisis. In February, as Sriramulu was preoccupied with his daughter's wedding that lasted for nine days. He then went into quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. At around this time, during the video conferences of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with states, Sudhakar is said to have caught the prime minister's attention for his grasp on the subject and articulation. The Centre started interacting with Sudhakar much to the consternation of Sriramulu as the coronavirus comes under the health department.
As a truce, the chief minister made Sriramulu the head of the task force and asked him to tour the state, while Sudhakar was told to monitor the situation from Bengaluru.
This led to contradictory statements being issued by the two ministers on the numbers of cases and deaths in the state. To salvage the situation, primary and secondary education minister S Suresh Kumar was appointed to centralise and disseminate the information, to whom the subject was new and the purpose was not served.
With the truce failing, Yediyurappa appointed Revenue Minister R Ashoka, who is from Bengaluru, to monitor the situation. This came at a time when Sudhakar quarantined himself after his family members tested positive for Coronavirus. A tweet by Sudhakar aimed apparently at Ashoka said: "Let's do our job with conscience and with a great sense of purpose. I believe that leadership is not in position but in action." This is said to have irked Ashoka. With both being from the same Vokkaliga community, the caste rivalry and the sudden importance to a newcomer to the BJP is said to have miffed Ashoka.
With COVID-19 cases unabated in Bengaluru, Yediyurappa divided the city into eight zones each headed by a minister in July. The exercise has remained on paper.
Under pressure from his own party members on several issues, Yediyurappa is said to have resorted to the final step of giving Sudhakar the responsibility of both portfolios. "The upcoming festivals, and Dussehra in particular, are going to be a major challenge as there are reports of cases spiking. The chief minister decided to give [the portfolio] to the person who understands the subject,'' sources said.
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