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Why an angry Mamata Banerjee was forced to do a U-turn on Bengal’s Covid strategy

Minister Partha Chatterjee says West Bengal govt made mistakes in handling the crisis, but assures public that things are being sorted out.

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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.

Also read: More testing, daily detailed updates — Mamata’s Covid strategy sees major turnaround

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.

Also read: Gastroenterologist son of Communist leader is Mamata’s go-to man to fight Covid in Bengal

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. 

“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.

Also read: Poems, song, short film — how Mamata Banerjee is using her creativity to help kill corona

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.

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  1. There is a saying in Spanish, ” the face is a true reflection of the soul” To describe the lady or similar the Spanish proverb is befitting to the last ounce. I mention her as ” lady or similar” becase in English a Lady is well defined & Mamta does not fit in he role, miles away from the stumps.

  2. So, still the concern is to not loose public support than finishing of mess..
    Why ? 2021 elections.

    First you dilute lockdown and allow cases to increase rapidly, when caught with evidence, blame the parties which caught you. When people got the glimpse of what was happening, get a election strategist and start new drama..

  3. Man if it happens in bjp ruled state. You will see lot more opinions critisiging bjp. Shekar Gupta will spend whole episode on that. See No opinions on Mamta.

  4. Name a state in INDIA where for majority of citizens there is NORTH KOREA type policies and for minority of citizens pakistan type policies

    • The big brother is watching, jut like ina kindergarten, the commentator is responsible, but the big brother decides . Happens only in India & Pakistan.

  5. Every leader will always have hangers on, who convey their importance to the leader by displaying their gift of gab. Typically a street smart BOL BACCHAN,
    the problem and quality of leadership comes on the display with the importance given to such senior leaders as they are called by the media , are just CHAMCHAS.
    There is another breed of sycophants, who are intelligent , articulate but spineless , willing to be shamelessly insulted in public.
    The quality of leadership is seen by the importance given to such elements.
    Analyse for youeself.

  6. Mamta to resign & recommend presidents rule so that atleast the people lives are saved, apart fm the goons of left/ TMC….Govt should take census survey, identify I’llegal Bangladesh migrants, Rohingyas defranchaise them & depart them to conduct elections peacefully…

  7. How long does the moderation of a comment take? Surely not more than a couple of hours. So what is the agenda behind the delayed and more often non publication of comments?

  8. Typical of Mamta to deny everything even evidence shows there high level of Covid19 and would not let Health team do its duty in West Bengal.It is relevant and easy to say soory but have died because of STUPIDITY.

  9. It is better than playing blame game government should work sincerely. Everyone is under threat in in this epidemic and people should co-operate with government. We got ample time to play Central and state government politics. Let’s unite together and fight with Corona. And at least in this crisis we should avoid seeing this through the specs of Hindu Muslim crisis.

  10. Name a state in INDIA where for majority of people there is NORTH KOREA type policies and for minority of people pakistan type policies.

  11. I told you.

    Didn’t I mention this early in this section how Didi is mismanaging the crisis through appeasement.

    Just wait for next election people of Bengal will give her slap of democracy.

  12. Modi not serious with the battle of Coronavirus, Modi with “Might is Right”policy still plying politics, generating Hindu Muslim hate rate for division, using Governor Interference to topple State Govts. and threatening for change of loyalties make risk for Parliamentary Democracy in India.

    • You are a Muslim and naturally hate Modi. But the article was about Mamata’ s bad handling of the corona virus and her giving false information. But your hate is so overwhelming that it does not require a sane reason to express. Get a education and comprehend.

    • You are a Muslim and a Modi hater, to such an extent that even an article about Mamata’ s mistakes in managing the corona virus provokes your hate filled response against Modi, without any logical reason. But you and your brother- in -arms, will never succeed in dividing the country again.

    • Shri Aqeel Ahmed, read the article again. It is about how Mamta goofed up trying to pander to your community! Not allowing true figures to come out, allowing places like Raja Bazar to remain open and pressurising Doctors to fudge death reports. Unfortunately people like you are so blind, deaf and dumb that you believe only in propaganda given out by mamta. Wake up before you end up dead!

    • Typical of a Muslim whose blood matches All of people living in India to blame on majority Hindu’s.No mention of how Hindu’s treated in Islamic countries?

    • Vide Abdel Hamed Salam an expert, the only religion in the world tells in 25 occasions to kill & 2 occasions to behead in both cases they reach the paradise, no court, no lawyer, no nothing required.

  13. Those who play politics in times of crisis can never be the true guardians of the society!

  14. Yes they are hopeful since Mamta has taken back seat and things may work. But no guarantee that when she will jump in suddenly and disrupting the good work done by the Bureaucrats & the Medical fraternity who is fighting to bring back the situation into normal. Abhishek must ensure that the poor should get their free ration and stop looting by his party workers & cronies .

    Better that the sense prevails Now.


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