New Delhi: Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan resigned from the ministry amid a reshuffle in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet.
This was his second stint at the health ministry, having been moved out suddenly in October 2014 in a reshuffle during Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister. He returned in 2019, but his stewardship in the last one and half years, through the pandemic, has been repeatedly criticised.
Whether he will stay on as the science and technology minister is not immediately clear. Meanwhile, Ashwini Choubey, the minister of state, could also be dropped.
Harsh Vardhan’s departure is being seen as the first sign of the central government fixing accountability for India’s disastrous second Covid-19 wave. In his capacity as health minister, he had chaired the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Covid-19, but was conspicuously missing in action at critical times.
Around July last year, Harsh Vardhan had also started a weekly online interaction called ‘Sunday Samvad’, along the lines of PM Modi’s monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’. This reportedly did not go down well in the highest echelons of the government, and he was forced to discontinue it.
An MP from Chandi Chowk in Delhi, Dr Harsh Vardhan is an ENT surgeon who was lauded for his role in launching the pulse polio programme in Delhi in 1994. His domain knowledge made him an ideal choice for the health ministry but the general perception since has been that he has played a largely passive role during the pandemic.
Conspicuous by absence
Except for one press conference at the start of the pandemic in February last year, when there were three imported cases of Covid-19 in India, the health minister has been absent from any two-way public interaction. It was Niti Aayog member (health) Dr V.K. Paul who emerged as the voice of reassurance, and the government, especially during the second wave.
Even when Delhi, a city to which Harsh Vardhan belongs and has worked in for several decades, saw Covid erupt for the first time in June 2020, it was Home Minister Amit Shah who steered the fightback. The health minister was all but absent except for an occasional visit to a hospital.
Once cases died down, he largely played the role of a political mouthpiece, countering Congress leaders. On one occasion, he wrote a scathing reply to former prime minister Manmohan Singh when he made some suggestions about India’s vaccination programme.
As Delhi witnessed numerous deaths in the second wave, Harsh Vardhan mostly issued rebuttals to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi. At the time, it was alleged the deaths had occurred due to want of medical treatment and there were reports of patients dying in hospitals as well. The minister’s role seemingly shrank even further amid back to back review meetings held by the PM’s Office on setting the pace for the Covid fightback.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)