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Mamata-Modi bickering in aftermath of Cyclone Fani shows how political parties encash disaster for accolades

The back and forth Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in the aftermath of the widespread devastation wrought by Cyclone Fani was odious, even as our tolerance for ugly political spats is generally higher in election season.

Thus, when Modi told a political rally in Tamluk that Mamata turned down his offer to review the extent of damage caused in the state, the ensuing verbal spat raised suspicion that the political rivalry between the two leaders may adversely affect relief work in the cyclone-hit areas of West Bengal.

The story started off with the customary exchange of tweets expressing concern and solidarity with people of Odisha and West Bengal, the states hit by the disaster. But it quickly spiralled off into a full-fledged war of words even before the states were done assessing the damage wreaked by the 'extremely severe' cyclonic storm.

The first signs of possible discord appeared when the news surfaced that the prime minister has spoken to Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha and Keshari Nath Tripathi, the West Bengal governor to discuss the preparedness ahead of the impending storm.

 Mamata-Modi bickering in aftermath of Cyclone Fani shows how political parties encash disaster for accolades

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee

TMC was quick to call out the apparent prejudice in only calling Patnaik while alleging that in West Bengal's case Modi directly dialled up Governor Tripathi about the post-Fani situation in the state.

"This is an attack on a federal structure and a deviation from the Constitution. By calling the Governor he has acted as leader of BJP and not as a Prime Minister. How can he deny the mandate of our people? Mamata Banerjee is the elected chief minister of Bengal. This is unfortunate." TMC secretary-general Partha Chatterjee said.

The Centre, however, rubbished the reports accusing the West Bengal chief minister of turning down Modi's 'repeated' offers of help. Modi said on Saturday that he tried to contact Mamata Banerjee to discuss Cyclone Fani but his calls were unanswered.

"Two attempts were made by the prime minister's staff to connect Modi with Banerjee over the phone. On both the occasions they were told that the call would be returned. On one occasion they were told that the CM is on tour," an official in the Prime Minister's Office told India Today. The official said that the prime minister called the governor to take stock of the situation only after they could not establish contact with Mamata.

Later, Modi too used the exchange at a political rally in Tamluk, awarding Mamata names such as 'speedbreaker didi' to state that his efforts for helping the state were scuttled by Mamata purely for political reasons.

"West Bengal's speed breaker didi has tried her best to do politics even on a natural disaster. During the cyclone, I tried to talk to Mamta didi on the phone, but she is so arrogant that she did not even return my calls."

Mamata first said that she was in Kharagpur examining the state's preparedness so she could not take Modi's call, but later, she outright rejected the help and sympathy of the "Expiry PM" and said that she would directly talk to the "new PM" (after 23 May results of the Lok Sabha elections).

Bengal was fortunate this time that the storm lost much of its steam by the time it barrelled through Odisha to reach the state. South and North Parganas districts and Didha district witnessed inclement weather and a few mud houses collapsed, but no large scale damage was reported from the state. However, if the state's vulnerability to cyclonic storms and natural disasters is plotted against the chances of different political parties ruling in Centre and in the state, it throws up a worrying picture — as the political outfits are unlikely to ever learn to put the state's interest before self-interest.

An academic paper, Politics of natural disaster: How governments maintain legitimacy in the wake of major disasters, 1990 - 2010authored by Md Zahidul Arefin Choudhury, examines several case studies to reveal that as opposed to common expectations, democracy may not provide the best political environment for effective disaster response. To argue the point, the paper points at the political compulsions that are stronger in a democracy — where state and Central governments, along with the Opposition parties have to keep going back to the people for re-election — as compared to a single autocratic regime.

Sans the political compulsion and the legitimacy conflict, a regime will press into service all available resources at hand to mitigate the crisis. In a democracy, on the other hand, the quality of government response is influenced rather by a regime’s security concerns, the level of administrative efficacy and corruption, and most importantly, the leadership competition over the disaster management process.

A case in point is the politics over relief and rescue work in the aftermath of Cyclone Aila (2009) which hit West Bengal when the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led Left Front government was ruling the state, while UPA — supported by Left's prime opponent TMC — was in power at the Centre. To add to the complications of the power-equation, even though the state's civil administration was directly under the control of the Left government, some of the districts worst-hit by the storm had local bodies and municipal corporations governed by the TMC.

Additionally, Left had fallen out of favour with the UPA after it withdrew support from the alliance in July 2008. On the other hand, CPM's bête noire, Mamata became a key ally of the Congress-led central government after the 2009 general elections. The political aftermath saw a resurgent Mamata push the Left government into a legitimacy crisis, while she mounted an attack on the state government's inefficacy in utilising the central resources sent to the state 'on her behest'.

At the time when relief and rehabilitation measures should have been full throttle, people had to resort to protest to get the corrupt state-run departments to discharge their duties. Mamata not only used the opportunity to make political strides but also openly supported the spontaneous protests while threatening the government of a state-wide dharna. The Left government, meanwhile, pleaded with the people to cooperate with the state officials while it promised to fix the corruption. TMC also tried, on multiple occasions, to get the Centre to bypass the state government in disbursing relief funds, in what she termed the PM to DM approach.

There were also allegations that the Left government disbursed the Central help disproportionately favouring areas where its own members were part of the local administration.

The political situation of 2009, or for that matter of 2019, is not a one-off incident as long as the political class continues to be governed by their political ambitions rather than the will to mitigate the natural disaster.

While poor preparedness and inadequate immediate and long-term response of a government invite public criticism of the incumbent, anti-government protest movements and anti-incumbent voting in elections, the opposition parties translate this public frustration to broaden their own political outreach and further diminish the incumbent's right to remain in power. The ruling party, meanwhile, uses the disaster events and the resources at its disposal as opportunities to strengthen clientelism and exclude political opposition in the affected area, the paper quoted above argues.

Until such a scenario sustains, it is highly unlikely that the leaders will rise above political lines to battle a natural disaster.

Disaster preparation and emergency planning are both inextricably linked to politics and economics, both on a national and an international scale. Disasters themselves raise a number of issues of a political or economic nature, and the response to a natural disaster both in the short and the long term is largely determined by the political relations that the state and the Central government share.

When a natural disaster hits a region, it shows no regard for separate jurisdictional boundaries or the political sensibilities (and/or compulsions) of those governing those areas. By this very nature, calamities challenge us to coordinate disaster response on a regional scale, irrespective of the fact that the two political establishments at the centre and the state may be antipodal.

Likewise, natural disasters hurt all Indians — rich and poor, Bengali speaking and Odia speaking, Hindus and Muslims, male and female. Therefore, they are one of the few times when citizens — saffron or green, though those are not the only two political colours in India's diverse society — tend to turn to the government for help and put aside their political biases. How leaders respond in these times, particularly after possible disasters like Cyclone Fani, can determine how the public sees them in the years to come.

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Updated Date: May 17, 2019 10:26:41 IST