With its politicking Centre is undermining states during Covid-19 pandemic

Statements by the Governor of West Bengal paint Mamata Banerjee as incompetent and anti-people for not cooperating with the central teams
It may be legal for the central government to override state leaderships in supervising measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic under Section 35 of the Disaster Management Act of 2005. But there was little justification for not informing the Chief Minister of West Bengal about sending two Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) till three hours after they had arrived.

Statements by the Governor of West Bengal paint Mamata Banerjee as incompetent and anti-people for not cooperating with the central teams. But his accusations cannot disguise the deeply partisanal politics being played by the central government against the background of the pandemic.

Political calculations can be seen in the selection of places for sending the IMCTs. The areas chosen were Kolkata, Howrah, North 24-Parganas, East Medinipur, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Could it be mere coincidence that the Lok Sabha constituencies falling in these areas, are where the BJP is likely to make substantial gains in the assembly elections due in April 2021?

In the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, the BJP was the first runner up in both Kolkata Uttar, Kolkata Dakshin and Howrah Lok Sabha seats. In the North 24-Parganas, it won the Bangaon and Barrackpore Lok Sabha seats and was the first runner up in Dum Dum, Barasat and Basirhat. In the East Medinipur area, it won the Medinipur seat (which partially falls under it) and was the first runner up in Kanthi, Tamluk and Ghatal Lok Sabha seats. The second IMCT was sent to Darjeeling (a Lok Sabha seat that the party won and which includes the Kalimpong assembly segment) and to Jalpaiguri, another Lok Sabha seat won by the BJP. There would be strong ground support in all these segments to build up a campaign accusing the Trinamul Congress of “mishandling” the pandemic.

Had the criterion for sending IMCTs been the number of Covid-19 cases in each area, then sending the teams to Kolkata with 103 active cases, Howrah with 75 active cases and North 24-Parganas with 36 active cases (all data as of April 24) would have been justified. But what sense did it make to dispatch asessment teams to Jalpaiguri with only one active case, Darjeeling with just 5 and East Medinipur with zero active cases?

Cover for politicking in Bengal was provided by central teams being sent to Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as well. Now as a belligerent Mamata Banerjee has questioned the intentions of the central government, other IMCT teams are being sent to more affected states, including Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

The Opposition ruled states of Maharashtra and Kerala are also getting the rough edge of central government’s policies.
The performance of the Kerala government in controlling the virus spread has been exemplary. The doubling rate of the virus spread in Kerala was brought down to 72 days compared to a national average of 10 days. Yet when Kerala on April 17 opened up limited economic activities, the Union Home Ministry chastised it and Kerala complied. Within a week Delhi had announced the opening up of shops and establishments within municipal limits across the country although rates of increase were still higher everywhere than in Kerala a week before.

As the rate of spread of coronavirus varies greatly between states and within them, it makes little sense for decisions to be made by the Centre. India’s multi-level federalism has governance structures at the local level to deal with the crisis according to local needs. However, the Union government does not seem to be ready to learn from the best practices demonstrated by many states.

In Maharshtra an attempt is on to oust Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray in the midst of the pandemic. Having taken oath on November 28, 2019 when he was not an MLA, he had to become a member of the State Legislature within six months, i.e. by May 27. Otherwise, he would face disqualification under Article 164(4). However, because of the pandemic, all elections and by-elections have been deferred indefinitely.

Therefore, the state cabinet meeting under the chairmanship of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar on April 9, recommended that the Governor nominate Thackeray to the Legislative Council under one of the two nominated seats that were vacant. The Maharashtra Governor, however has stalled the nomination. It does not appear that the Governor will make it easy for Thackeray to continue as Chief Minister.

There is also no substantial Central relief package for the states to deal with the spread of the virus. State governments are further hampered by the denial of resources. Their share of GST dues have not been paid since November. This has effectively starved them of funds at a time their finances are already stretched. They are also not being allowed to go for market borrowings to keep the fiscal deficit under the three per cent limit. Excise which is a major source of state revenue -- generating nearly one-fifth of the budget of most states -- is also being denied to them as liquor sale inexplicably continues to be banned.
They are also affected by what they see as the diversion of corporate donations away from the the various Chief Minister’s Relief Funds to the PM-Cares relief fund. While contributions made to PM-Cares qualify as Corporate Social Responsibility expenditure, donations to the state-run Chief Minister’s Relief Fund does not have this facility. Inexplicably, the PM-Cares fund will not come under the audit mandate of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Since it is not clear whether the fund is covered under the Right to Information Act, no one is sure which NGOs, ideologically motivated organisations or their fronts might be the recipients of its largesse.

The BJP is quick to attack the Opposition when it makes suggestions for controling spread of the virus and for reviving economic growth. Recently it accused the opposition of asking “the wrong questions at the wrong time”. Yet, its own government’s actions show that it is not beyond petty politicking at a time of an unprecedented national crisis.
Twitter: @Bharatitis

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