Kolkata: On Monday, the West Bengal government led by Mamata Banerjee admitted that the total number of Covid-19-related deaths in the state was 133, after adding 72 deaths previously attributed to co-morbid conditions.
After almost a month-and-a-half, the Bengal government’s figures matched those released by the central government, with the number of confirmed coronavirus-positive cases going up to 1,259. This gave the Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal the worst Covid-mortality rate of any state in India at 10.5 per cent, ahead of the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
But why did Mamata Banerjee’s government suddenly make a U-turn on its previously stated figures? Trinamool insiders and political analysts told ThePrint that the reason was a tremendous groundswell against the chief minister and her party due to their “mishandling” of the crisis, which had lost whatever ground they had managed to gain with the agitations against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens in December and January.
Senior minister Partha Chatterjee, who is co-chair of the Bengal government’s cabinet committee for better management of the Covid-19 crisis, admitted the government’s mistakes.
“Let us now call a spade a spade. We need to discuss what went so wrong,” Chatterjee told ThePrint.
Charges against the govt
The West Bengal government has faced charges of data mismanagement, questionable moves in dealing with Covid-related deaths, disposal of bodies, changing rules repeatedly in terms of testing samples, allegations of looting food and rations meant for the poor, and the repeated restructuring of the Public Distribution System.
Over the last one month, the Centre and the state were also involved in a tussle, with Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCT) spending a fortnight in Bengal and writing 11 letters to the government expressing their concerns and raising questions on many issues.
Purported videos of dead bodies being cremated or buried ‘secretly’ went viral on social media almost every day, and the M.R. Bangur Hospital, the government’s primary Covid-19 treatment hub, was criticised regularly.
But CM Mamata was also in confrontational mode, blaming the Centre for announcing the lockdown late, not informing the state about the pandemic, not consulting her before imposing the Disaster Management Act, non-availability of kits, delayed approval for laboratories, alleging that the IMCT teams were not sent for assistance but to play politics, and blaming the Modi government for creating a ‘health hazard’.
She also skipped a chief ministers’ video conference with the Prime Minister, asking the chief secretary to attend instead. She also remained locked in a war of words with state Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who was giving regular statements calling out the government.
The state government also slapped charges against several BJP MPs who spoke against its action in their respective areas. A couple of them were restricted from moving out of their houses in north Bengal.
‘It is a lesson’
Minister Partha Chatterjee said the state government had got things wrong, but has now put in place measures to help people through this crisis.
“It is a lesson for us. Nobody anticipates such a pandemic coming up, and we committed some mistakes, but now we are gearing up. Bengal is a big state and it takes time to put things in place. We will also introspect and analyse things,” added Chatterjee, the Minister for Education and Parliamentary Affairs.
Asked what had changed on the ground, Chatterjee said there were factional issues that had caused problems, but they had been sorted out.
“All differences were ironed out. Nobody, I repeat, nobody, from my party or any other party, will be spared if they try to mishandle the PDS and steal poor people’s food grains. Stringent action will be initiated,” said Chatterjee, also the general secretary of the Trinamool Congress.
Other Trinamool leaders said the state government’s strategy was now being reworked with honesty and transparency.
Mamata takes a back seat
Now, civil servants have taken the lead and come to the forefront of the public interface on Covid-19, while CM Banerjee has quietly shifted to administrative and political work. She has not addressed the media since 29 April, and stayed away from public appearances.
Banerjee had also washed her hands of the expert committee for auditing Covid-19 deaths, and Monday, five days later, the state’s Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said the committee had submitted its recommendations on reporting coronavirus deaths, and that hospitals had now been asked not to record deaths caused by comorbidities. Sinha also added that the government had found all the “missing data” and all gaps in statistics had been “sealed”.
“The process of collating data was complicated and led to communication gaps. Some data slipped through the cracks. Now, we have got all missing data and there is no reason to think that the government was lax in giving information,” he said.
The state has now also ramped up its treatment protocol, declaring the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital as a tertiary unit for Covid patients.
Why Trinamool shifted its stance
Sources in the Trinamool Congress said the CM’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee had played a key role in her change of mind. The sources said it was Abhishek’s idea to get political strategist Prashant Kishor into action to help clean up the mess.
Abhishek, in a tweet Monday, gave comprehensive figures and pointed out that on many counts, Bengal is still in the bottom 10.
In their desperation to score cheap political points, those who are misrepresentating facts and maligning Bengal even daring to call Bengal – ‘Wuhan of India’ should look at facts:
➡️ % +ve per million: 14, rank 16th
➡️Total Cases: 1259, rank 9th
➡️Active cases: 908, rank 10th
— Abhishek Banerjee (@abhishekaitc) May 4, 2020
“Our party was losing ground drastically, and we could read that while working in the field. People felt that their lives had become cheap, and they were having trust issues. We needed someone who would somehow get the train back on track,” a Trinamool leader said on the condition of anonymity.
“The situation went so bad that we were not in a position to question what data fudging BJP is doing in states like Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh. Now, since we have started cleaning up, we can perhaps question others,” the leader said.
Playing into BJP’s hands
Another senior Trinamool leader expressed anguish over the party’s sliding image, saying it was playing into the BJP’s hands.
“Are we not playing into their hands? The BJP has enough evidence now to nail us; so much so, that they can run a series on this. Now, we are trying to reach out to people through social media, but isn’t it late?” the leader said.
“We were asked to communicate with people. One can see many Twitter handles of Trinamool Congress leaders, Bengal government departments and some accounts of district magistrates popping up. Now, we are sharing information honestly,” the leader said.
“But I am just praying that the clean-up does not prove to be counter-productive. The BJP now claims that they told the truth and our government lied on many accounts.”
However, minister Chatterjee downplayed the role of central pressure on the state, and the BJP’s continuous criticism on the ground and online. “BJP did not contribute any good to the state. They went on a witch-hunt, they manipulated data and presented those in a wrong way. But we are now working on that too,” said Chatterjee.
Losing rural & urban support
According to political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty, the Covid-19 crisis has eroded Mamata Banerjee’s support bases in both rural and urban areas.
“The Bengali middle class was never with the BJP — it lost in 11 urban assembly segments in Kolkata in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and performed badly in other urban seats, barring a few like Asansol-Durgapur. But she (Banerjee) antagonised her urban support base by the attempted cover-up of figures,” Chakraborty said.
“Her main support base, rural Bengal, has been left fuming over the misappropriation of rations. The government’s foodgrains, meant for the poor, were robbed by local leaders. It does not matter what the government says now, but people have seen who has done what,” he said.