It is almost as if the regime in New Delhi is determined to prove two things beyond a shred of reasonable doubt: First, that all it is interested in is party politics and power grabs, at whatever cost. Second, matters relating to governance do not figure anywhere on its list of priorities.
Well, someone should tell the duumvirate that runs the regime that it need not bother. It proved both soon after coming to power—certainly by 8 November 2016, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation. It had also become clear that the regime had not the foggiest about how to govern.
Unfortunately, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got re-elected and has since given citizens more than 2.5 crore reasons to rethink the mandate and over 2,75,000 of them to bow their heads in despair at the tragic and regime-fuelled disaster of the second wave. Amongst the ruins, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have gone missing. Instead of dealing with the crisis and helping states, they are displaying an unquenchable appetite for gaming the system.
West Bengal demonstrates the complete unconcern of the regime for dealing with the biggest crisis the country has faced since the post-Partition riots. First, the party in power forced a slavish Election Commission of India (ECI) to spin out the state elections over five weeks and eight phases amid a deadly pandemic, turning it into a prolonged superspreader event, the full effects of which we are likely yet to see.
Now, another office stands further compromised to the unquantifiable detriment of the fight against the pandemic. Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who has proved himself a disgrace to his office ever since fetching up in Kolkata in July 2019, green-lighted the arrest of two Trinamool Congress (TMC) ministers, a former mayor of Kolkata and an MLA. Since the two ministers, Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, have crucial roles in managing the crisis, it is worth looking into the timing of the detentions and other issues. [Hakim is Minister of Urban Development and Municipal Affairs, while Mukherjee is Minister of Panchayats and Rural Development.]
The arrests are connected with the “Narada sting” case in which several TMC leaders and police officers were captured on video accepting wads of currency notes in exchange for promises to facilitate various things. The sting operation was in 2014, but its findings made public in 2016, just before the Bengal Assembly election that year, clearly for the benefit of the BJP. Five years have elapsed and the sword arm of the regime, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has filed a chargesheet.
The case is five years old. Nothing of note has transpired lately apropos of the case that has changed matters at all, leave alone drastically enough to make arrests. Except, of course, for one thing: The ruling TMC wiped the floor with the BJP in the recently concluded state elections despite the regime’s flagrant misuse of all available elements of official machinery, including the ECI, and throwing the kitchen sink at Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party. Modi and Shah commuted between Delhi and Bengal for close to a month holding near 50 meetings and still got creamed. The untold amounts it spent on the campaign and buying leaders from other parties have become a seriously bad investment.
Thus, now, in the middle of the pandemic, it wants to settle scores. No one is saying those guilty of corruption should not be punished. But, surely, the investigation and judicial process could have carried on without any arrests so far. None of those arrested is a flight risk, nor are they in a position to influence a CBI investigation, especially at such a late stage.
Then there is the curious case of Messrs Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari. The former, now a BJP MLA, defected from the TMC in 2017, and the latter, now the leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, switched sides in 2020 December, just before the Assembly election, having, by his admission, played footsie with the Hindutva peddlers since 2014. They were both videotaped taking money, yet their names don’t figure in the chargesheet. They were named, with 11 others, in the original FIR, but it does not look likely that they will see the inside of a jail cell anytime soon. Not in connection with this case, certainly.
The Calcutta High Court entertained an application on 19 May to grant the four arrested men bail, but its hearing is now scheduled to continue on Thursday. The government may willy-nilly have to find others to depute for Hakim and Mukherjee as it struggles to contain the wave of infections and deaths.
There ought to be enough ministerial talent to deal with the crisis. There are some things that Banerjee and her government have to guard against, however. On the top of the list are denial, complacency and belief in a deus ex machina. To remain aware of the need for vigilance, the Bengal government has merely to study the record of the viscerally incompetent central government and, in Uttar Pradesh, the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath government.
These worthies have either denied there is a crisis or practically washed their hands off the problem by disappearing, inanely pontificating when popping up, or attempting to shift all responsibility and blame on to others: other state governments; the international media; and, best of all, the “people”, who refuse to wear masks or maintain distance between themselves as advised. Never mind their circumstances, never mind the messaging.
When in doubt, of course, if one is to follow the BJP and the Modi-Shah regime, one could just lie oneself blind, going straight for the whoppers without stopping for the little white ones. Thus, after the Opposition sent the government a letter about dealing with the pandemic on 12 May, signed by leaders of 12 parties, the BJP responded saying the Congress raised vaccine resistance and Modi warned chief ministers of a second wave six times between September and April. Pity he did not act on this insight, instead of encouraging the massive Kumbh congregations and forcing through the eight-phase election in Bengal, where he boasted of drawing huge crowds at his rallies—not two, not three, but almost twenty of them.
Thus to Ajay Mohan Bisht, who was quoted as having said on 16 May that the Uttar Pradesh government had “defeated the first wave...got a grip on the second and [was] well prepared for the third”. All this while bodies were being buried alongside or floating down the Ganges in various parts of the state.
There seems to have been a slight dip in infection numbers, though the death tally is not letting up countrywide. But all those who can see beyond their noses know that all numbers coming out of India just indicate trends. The actual numbers of deaths and infections, especially in the second wave, could be multiplied by a factor of five and still fail to capture the reality.
Especially in Uttar Pradesh, where people are being arrested, beaten or otherwise intimidated into keeping shut about the actual dimensions of the pandemic. But that is an example Banerjee would do well to ignore. Instead, the 15-day lockdown now clamped on the state should be used as a period for stepped-up preparations.
The writer is an independent journalist and researcher. The views are personal.