Home/ Politics / News/  Political feud comes in the way of coronavirus fight in West Bengal

KOLKATA : It is dawn and the streets of Kolkata are devoid of the usual joggers. The Bengali love for food in general, and fish in particular, had resulted in crowds outside markets in the early days of the lockdown, but the queues in front of stores have now become noticeably thinner.

Even public opinion seems to have come around to accepting the need for compliance during the lockdown. “Life is difficult, but I understand this is the only way," says Chinky, a domestic worker, who lives in a Kolkata slum.

But even as the state is reaping the benefits of an intense public outreach campaign, a brewing political feud is threatening to limit those gains. Covid-19 has only added additional fuel to the already-raging political fire, with the state set to go for Assembly polls early next year.

In late March, after the first case of covid-19 was reported in Kolkata, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called chief minister Mamata Banerjee reportedly to congratulate her for her timely intervention in dealing with the emergency. It was viewed as a signal that the traditional political foes—BJP and Trinamool Congress—would unite to fight the common, hidden enemy together. However, the initial camaraderie was short-lived.

While Banerjee was at first praised for her proactive role in containing the spread of the virus, to which the relatively low tally of positive cases was initially attributed, allegations surfaced that her administration was under-reporting the numbers. BJP’s state president Dilip Ghosh alleged, “People dying from corona (sic) are being assigned other causes in their death certificates."

The other accusation against the government has been inadequate testing. A section of doctors has issued the warning that Bengal has a comparatively low tally due to insufficient testing. In fact, they expressed concerns about the sheer number of positive cases that have been coming up in spite of the low numbers tested.

Last week, these simmering disputes came to a head with the issue catapulting itself to the centrestage.

A team of central officials landed in Kolkata by a special plane supposedly for a review of the ground situation. Banerjee, citing protocol, pointed out that the state should have been intimated prior to the visit. Information of the central team’s visit was allegedly conveyed to the state administration three hours after their arrival. Each party sniffed political motives in the other’s actions and only after a series of meetings and reassurances of cooperation from both sides did the matter settle amicably.

However, a war of words between the chief minister and governor Jagdeep Dhankar on the handling of the virus crisis ensued simultaneously and is still raging.

Interestingly, the declaration of several areas in Bengal as hotspots and containment zones too has got Banerjee’s political rivals raising questions. “If there are so few cases in Bengal, why are there so many areas which are danger zones?" asks BJP’s Ghosh.

The Trinamool Congress has hit back saying that these were precautionary measures. “Timely identification and isolation has been Mamata’s biggest strength in handling this emergency," explains Dr Om Prakash Mishra, a TMC core committee member. “Areas where people have tested positive have been cordoned off and contained so that testing and contact tracing can be localized and conducted more effectively."

Every evening these days, Kolkata tunes into television news channels in the hope of good news. Has a treatment been found? Has a vaccine been discovered? Reports of sporadic violations of curfew emerge as TV cameras capture images of callous crowds breaching lockdown even inside some hotspots. Reports of sporadic violence too emerge with images of irate people kicking down doors of ration shops and going on a rampage.

Allegations of corruption have surfaced against ration shop owners, who are being accused of hoarding commodities, in collusion with local thugs, and then selling them in the black market. Banerjee has already taken punitive measures against an errant official of the food department.

But the ongoing political feud has made it difficult to gauge the veracity of different allegations and counter-allegations. Among the state’s citizenry, politics and polls seem to be the least important subjects at the moment.

Niyoti Mahato, a nurse from Jhargram district, speaking on the phone, says she received “at least five hundred rupees in her bank account already". She says she doesn’t care who it came from – the state or the Centre. But won’t it determine who she votes for in the next elections? She snaps, “That is too far off for me to even think about now."

Bengal’s people agree that the political fighting is disturbing. “Politics does not even cross our minds at this time of crisis. We don’t care. We want news that the virus has been defeated," Mahato said.

Dola Mitra is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.


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Updated: 27 Apr 2020, 01:56 AM IST
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