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PM, CM, DM: India’s 3 big power centres have been exposed by one disaster

The prime minister, chief minister and district magistrate are the three engines of India’s governance, but their handling of the coronavirus pandemic is going awry.

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A prominent and eminent civil servant has a brilliant take on governance in India. It runs on three engines, he says: PM, CM and DM. The prime minister, chief minister and district magistrate. Much as I would’ve liked to give the person the credit for this fine description, I’d rather err on the side of discretion. Why expose him to blame for the argument that will unfold hereon.

This wasn’t a description discovered for the times of the coronavirus emergency, but to underline a settled phenomenon. The special powers that governments have acquired during this pandemic with the invocation of the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Disaster Management Act have made it more evident.

The question we need to ask, and debate, is whether this three-storey dictatorship has served India well enough in this public health emergency. Or has it been counter-productive, and responsible for some of the chaos, especially with unorganised working classes.

This PM-CM-DM era gathered strength after the summer of 2014, as the 1996-2014 coalition era ended. Over the past six years, no minister has been heard from much. Even if you look at the most senior among them, members of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), with the possible exception of Amit Shah now, none has counted for much.

The Cabinet system has declined. The notion of collective responsibility, internal debate and dissent declined and disappeared.

A decision as big as demonetisation could be taken more or less entirely in secrecy from the Cabinet. It isn’t as if you could dissent very much in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet. But that only strengthens the PM-CM-DM argument. It is just that 18 years of coalitions had spoilt us.

Even in that coalition era, though, regional dictatorships had already come up. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, and, indeed, Narendra Modi in Gujarat. These were all-powerful chief ministers. The most prominent commonality between them and the prime minister today is how irrelevant and powerless their ministers were. And how power is exercised through a few hand-picked civil servants.

The pandemic now necessitated the promulgation of the Epidemic Diseases Act that the British drafted for their largest colony in the wake of the 1897 plague, and that was meant to give the central government powers of issuing diktats as powerful as medieval papal bulls. This was fortified by the more recent Disaster Management Act, which brought in complete centralisation of all powers.

The UPA wouldn’t have foreseen this when it passed this law in 2005 in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. That’s why the old wisdom remains: You should be very careful before passing a bad law, never one in a hurry.

The framers of the law would think of a disaster affecting one, two or a few states, as the tsunami did. Here comes a pandemic, and New Delhi found just the legal basis to centralise all power. Centralise to the extent that the prime minister talks to chief ministers on video conferencing, not always giving everyone time to speak (it was done at the last one), but can also speak directly with sarpanches and civil servants on the ground.

The Cabinet Secretary holding meetings of chief secretaries is by no means unconstitutional or immoral, but raises a question: Where does it leave the democratically-elected leaders? Particularly when stuff hits the fan, as it did with this long-marching labour disaster. Who do you hold accountable then? Who picks up the pieces?

Also read: Poke fun at taali, thaali, diya and mombatti all you want. Modi couldn’t care less

You can catch a contradiction here. If the combination of these two laws and a majority has placed all this power with the PM, where does it leave the CM? And what does it do to your three-engine formulation?

Run your eye over the political map of India. Under an all-powerful Centre, many mini-dictatorships prosper too. It is a secular phenomenon, cutting across party lines. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, you have all-powerful CMs of regional parties who’ve used the same special laws to make themselves even more powerful. In West Bengal, Mamata runs a one-woman show.

In their own different ways, they are able to either collaborate or defy the central government despite its special powers. Telangana and West Bengal, for example, are testing too little, never mind the admonition from the Union health ministry.

Arvind Kejriwal’s government in Delhi sometimes counts its coronavirus dead as if it counts their limbs and divides by 8. Figured the math? Please check out this report by ThePrint’s Aneesha Bedi who broke this on 15 May, now being followed by the rest. Is the Congress free from this? It doesn’t have many CMs, but Amarinder Singh in Punjab now has more power by himself than any of his predecessors I have known in almost 45 years.

It is fascinating how a new political contract has been established between those holding total power in New Delhi and in the state capitals. You only feel sorry for some BJP chief ministers, especially Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vijay Rupani, who’ve been left to their own devices, with little power and ‘scapegoat’ written on their backs. Even there, Yogi Adityanath is his own master, as is B.S. Yediyurappa to some extent. Nitish Kumar rules his shambolic republic, smug that he will win again later this year. And Naveen Patnaik in Odisha.

We are too large a political landscape to paint with one brush. Maharashtra is one of a kind. A dictatorship of a father and his son, bumbling in the crisis, never mind that their party has just under one-fifth of the strength in the assembly.

We use a strong word like bumbling because they had the responsibility of keeping India’s industrial/economic wheel turning, and they’re sitting on a confused disaster. Mumbai, the national financial capital, is now the epicentre of the disease. The leaders are neither able to control the numbers, nor reopen the economy. And where’s your Cabinet? Oh, speak with my son/father please.

Also read: Pracharak Modi: The mask you see, is the man you get

At which point we come to the DM. Just as the prime minister runs the national Covid fightback through a task force of civil servants, so do the CMs through theirs. At the Centre, this goes to the extent that the key ministers involved — health, home, agriculture and labour — have never even needed to come and speak to the nation (we aren’t even complaining about the media). The MPs are irrelevant now, as are the state cabinets and MLAs.

The consequences it has on the ground are for real. Orders are written and handed out by people far from the ground with an inadequate idea of realities. That’s why that plethora of corrections and clarifications has piled up. If nobody in this huge governance structure anticipated the problems and fears that the inter-state labour and work forces might face with a four-hour notice to a complete lockdown, it can only mean they were taking their decisions in the isolation of the Lutyens’ blocks and bhavans.

Equally, labour-importing states (Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Delhi) and exporting states (Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand) failed to anticipate this. It can only be if the leaderships had mostly forgotten their political instincts, or left it entirely to their DM equivalents.

After the first phase of the lockdown, the script has gone a bit awry. And wherever it has, see who’s been held accountable. Both Maharashtra and Gujarat have removed the IAS officers heading their respective capitals’ municipal corporations. Apparently because they were testing “too much”. Bihar has replaced its health secretary too, and Madhya Pradesh has changed its health secretary and health commissioner. The handling of the pandemic, under this totally constitutional and legal three-level dictatorship, has begun to show its downside.

Also read:It’s Modi vs 20 strong state leaders and there is no wave in the air


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  2. Television channel has practice every day about Modi pm and bjp cm . Most channels are happily presenting news about Pm,cm,dm which is baseless and fake propoganda. since moring to night news channels praising Modi ….but every thing is not normal in india now. we lost everything because of our Modi Govt

  3. From PM to Cm to Dm all not serious for the people of India , the govt is not handle anything in a right way ? simply Jumla going on in TV channels. Everyday people are crying,suffering and dying without food. Now india became poor for Modi , amit shaha Govt…let see what happened ? only worst thing will be coming soon for our country.

  4. Well, it’s not like Modi & Co were not aware of the unfodling tragedy. It’s just a question of priorities. The Central Vista approvals went like clockwork. A ton of environtentally damaging projects were aprroved in a downright shady manner. Muslim activists were arrested, without any proof. And so on.

    But Modi created a trickle-down effect not seen in the text books. He refused to give any money to states. Who in turn did not feed migrant workers. He did not offer any relief for businesses, who in turn did not pay workers. And finally when the package was announced, it turns out that’s a jumla again!

    If the PM-CM-DM structure failed, then the blame rests at the top.

    How can Mumbai’s stituation be blamed on Uddhav and Aditya Thackeray? Are you unaware that it’s such a crowded place, that once the virus gets in, it’ll be quite impossible to contain. Don’t you know that New York – which holds many parallels to Mumbai – is the most affected in the US?! The person who should have stopped the virus’ entry is Modi!

    Looking forward to the time you’ll acknowledge the other father-son duo, the elephant in the room, Amit-Jay Shah!!

    • Hope your backside is safe from the virus. Stay safe, stay healthy– and rant in a safe and healthy manner. Pappu will come to your rescue.

      • All we need is no politics please..

        We want Indian Government to come to the rescue not these political parties and politicians putting their personal intersts to priorities ahead of the Nation’s interst…

  5. Any war is devastating. The longer the war the more devastation it will be. In war there is a strategy to win the war and there are many tactical battles encompassed in this strategy. Some battles are won some are lost – more so when fought on various fronts. That is the character of the beast. Narratives can be build on successes or failures. It is better to build the narratives on a combination so that the strategy is not lost.

    • So what exactly is central govt strategy to win war against covid-19 other than outsourcing to states and citizens OR do you have any suggestions?

  6. In the film “Kung fu Panda” ,Shifu , asks his disciple to give up the illusion of control . Though the advice seemed simplistic at that time ,Covid , has brought many well heeled governments to its knees .Shekhar Gupta has highlighted the problems with the Indian system , what is less clear though are alternative systems he recommends . While he highlights the failures , he is careful enough not to highlight the success stories (there are none ). The complex answer might be , there are no administrative systems , capable enough to defend against a fundamental and invisible enemy like the virus . I wonder how Shekhar Gupta would administer Dharavi in India’s financial capital . Andrew Cuomo of New York , is he better than the father -son of mumbai ?Dharavi would be better than New York, in terms of the fatality as percent of population .

  7. First and foremost, human beings cherish freedom of thought, of belief, of speech. These have often been crushed and trampled upon by Hitlerian heavyweights like Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, yet we continue to move on, albiet cribbing and grumbling and finally accepting are inability to bring in the India our ancestors had dreamt of and given birth to.
    True, India is the land of snake charmers and magicians. The Indian voter has yet to outsmart the latest such theatrical charmer.
    Only time will tell how long the Indian voter stays mesmerized under the modistic spell.

    • Yeah, it’s a spell for sure. People who changed currency in grey market during demonetization also swear by strongly in his favour. Media doesn’t seem to be interested in finding facts. They are happy running down the opposition saying opposition are inept, inadequate and out of touch with the masses. Now ain’t the media supposed to be the critique of the running dispensation.
      Current situation is because for a long time, the middle class has been voting en masse.

  8. Central goverment is only issueing guideline it is up the state/DM to give those relaxation to their respective state/City,Like I live in indore & it is most toughest lock down in th country ,The centre has given guideline to open area out of contaminated zone in.lock.down 3 norms from 1 st June,But it is 2 months even the kirana shop/ vegetable shops have not open in indore,Kirana we are totally depended on online,we lived without vegetable for a month now even municipality is supplying us vegetables What I mean to say much flexibility is given to cheif.minister & DM on the contrary the central.should have been more tougher in implementation of these guideline.India has been saved by an stronger centre otherwise it was a mayhm

  9. Thanks for writing this thought-provoking article. I guess you are writing this article because pandemic is shining bright light on the inequalities and false claims by leadership.

    Structure of the government, people and society has not changed. But then what has changed? It is the working of it has been turned into hierarchical by leadership. This raises a question what is sustaining new power structure in a participatory democracy without active support of masses.
    It is the power of network effect of spread of culture of digital nationalism. All this started during Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement which was supported by RSS and later taken over by BIP’s social media under the current BJP leadership of Modi-Shah.

    In this era of digital cultural nationalism hierarchy & homogenization are promoted, opposition parties and dissenters are considered anti-nationalism, attention is diverted from real issues, minorities are new enemies of the nation, leaders in power are considered as problem solvers even when there is no evidence to support the claim, citizens are supposed to have duties while leaders are not accountable. One can make a big list you get the point. By the way old ways of spreading cultural nationalism has also been accelerated by the parent organization of BJP.

    Citizens who are wishing for participatory democracy where govt is answerable & addresses issues of all cannot dependent on opposition political parties that have lost connection with citizens. Nothing is going to changes unless people wake-up and demand it forcefully and peacefully just like MK Gandhi during freedom struggle.

    Unenlightened leaders will always try to conceal reality and project themselves as saviors. But truth cannot be hidden forever. We have already seen a big internal partition of migrants and workers in India. India should not suffer any more.

  10. Heheheh…no time to laugh in crisis, but Guptaji now discovering the triumvirate of power would make any school or college kid of civics and political science quite embarrassed (as also the “brilliant” bureaucrat he attributes the observation to; Guptaji always has too many brilliant friends, as he always keeps reminding us in his writings).

    The bureaucrats have always ruled (and bumbled) whether under local parochial despots in the provinces or at the centre. As was the case under British rule. No wonder the craze for the civil services among the young. Cabinet and other ministers are only a grand tamasha and patronage for media.

    Guptaji, please revert to enlightening — rather entertaining — us on BCG vaccination and the million other reasons why India was having a much better corona crisis than Europe and America.

  11. How you miss the last non-Modi BJP Government ?
    It had such stalwarts as: Vajpayee, Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Geoege Fernandes, Jaswant Singh, Pramod Mahajan, Yashwant Sinha, Anant Kumar, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, Gopinath Munde etc.
    In comparisons, the current BJP show is being run by minions like Modi, Shah, Sithraman and Sambit Patra. Is any other BJP leader relevant ?
    So why should anyone be surprised if the country is going down the abyss.

  12. Shekharji, by filling the Print in with these bog standard pieces, you may have dumbed down the quality standards you yourself have originally set for this news site.

    Also, it may not be bad idea if you would occasionally allow your guests on Off the Scruff’ too to speak.

  13. Unlike this article when ever Shekhar Gupta Praises Modi polices it is always with a rider,Oh don’t call me a modi Bhaqt & like wise,It seems he was apologetic about it.

  14. Everything is dominated By pm Modi like a king ? now this country looks like a new kingdom with new agenda. Democracy is dying , CM ,DM , is dominated by Modi Govt.

  15. Only a Congress Puppet like can write an article like this.I am sure you get paid handsomely by Congress.

  16. Maybe it is time to explore an alternative system and open up the discussion – starting with a critical – what could be a better way of executing the current system. Just complaining won’t do. Please propose a better solution, taking into consideration – what we are and how our brain works.
    A country where the best analytical and trained minds “migrate” to rich industrial countries as sophisticated labours, a country where merit is not always appreciated in administration in the name of some vague understanding of social justice – what best can we do is the question.
    Maybe a simple solution of Universal Public Schooling, possibly free & state funded – would be good in the course of time. Maybe amending the constitution and making economic freedom would solve the problem of poverty and produce an enlightened electorate.
    Maybe the confusion of who is responsible – PM/CM/DM or Union Govt/State Govt/Municipal Govt or MP/MLA etc can be solved by completely re-organizing our political framework.
    Maybe getting rid of current 30 odd states and few Union territories would be a solution – some are too big and some are too small – besides creating a three-layered complicated system.
    Maybe each district of India – around 739 of them (as of 2020)- should be elevated into states. So 739 state, each with a state capital city, with a state Governor directly elected by the state citizens (residents) to rule the state for at most two 5-year terms. The executive head of the State (District)
    Maybe these 739 state Governors also sits in the National Capital – as the lawmakers – the Loksabha – ultimately responsible for the functioning of the Union and the Union Govt – The council of state Governors.
    Maybe these 739 state Governors cum Loksabha MPs – will also elect a President – the executive head of the Union Government – with clearcut non-conflicting responsibilities w.r.t the state Governors. The President will hold his/her office as long as he/she enjoys the pleasure of the club of CMs. Maybe only and only Foreign Affairs, Defence, Border security, Currency management.
    Maybe as a citizen, you only elect only ONE representative – for a 5-year term, with ability to recall – your panchayat Pradhan/ward councillor.
    Maybe the club of such Councilors – will elect the State Governor. The Governor, the head of the executive, runs the state., chooses his department heads from “anywhere”. The Governor also represents the state in the Union Parliament. The Governor again remains in office at most for two 5 year terms.

    Citizens -> Councilor -> Governor -> President.

    Technically speaking then, you can always claim everything to your councillor/Panchyat Head – for everything. … 🙂

  17. Looks like the author discovered something that the rest of the country knew for ages, India’s dysfunctional governing system. Be it in the areas of law and order, tax administration, healthcare, education, agriculture, industry, urban and rural planning, national security or any other area of governance the government has been missing in action. This holds true for the Centre, states, municipalities and any other government body. It is no surprise that the Indian bureaucracy is rated the worst on the planet. Indian governments exist only for themselves and hinder rather than empower the common citizen.

  18. The decline of the Cabinet system is a loss to governance, for sure, perhaps politics as well. For five years in Maharashtra, we have seen a CM who had just a few ministers who enjoyed his confidence, others who by virtue of seniority and experience or the potential to stake a claim being completely marginalised. In the bureaucracy, a chosen lot. It is the same lot, incidentally, that is still running the show, so if the Editor assesses the state’s response as bumbling, that shows governance in a poor light. 2. If one judges a management style by results, a crushing concentration of power has not yielded the promised results. So many moving parts in a machine – the Apollo moon mission had four million – each has to perform its assigned role and function.

  19. The media thrives on the publicly expressed divisions within the government. The absence of such divisions make them uncomfortable and irrelevant. Because now, is no need to cultivate the media, no need to give bites and access to sources. This automatically takes away the clout the media is used to, from being invitees for government functions to being walking partners in Lodhi Garden, or to breakfast with so and so etc.
    IN SHORT NOW MY VIEWS ON THIS PAGE HAVE THE SAME IMPACT, other than the fact that I earn nothing out of it.
    In absence of the source based news, the displeasure and frustration is expressed by calling the PM an autocrat where the Cabinet system has declined. The notion of collective responsibility, internal debate and dissent declined and disappeared. This may be true or not we do not know. If the PM is really running everything single handed as alleged, we still must give him that credit for subsuming all the seniors because they are not complaining about be it De-Mo or lock Down.
    This is known as running a tight ship with no peripheral beneficiaries.
    Sir, Modi is different and let us accept the reality. He has no spokesman, nobody taking care of his personal finances or properties, nobody can claim to have his ear nor is he even socially seen or heard to be close to anyone, not even Shah. Other than him all other leadership in the country fits in broadly standard cast, with the exception of some communist leaders.
    Without exception the everyone who’s opinion mattered in the past has written against MODI, so it may be a good time to take a deep breath and think before writing the next piece.

    • Awesome writing. Please consider writing full length articles. Your writing is good, good enough to get paid for it. Good luck.

  20. probably is it the time to change the constitution for a presidential form of governance to ensure accountability and also to demarcate law making and executive powers?

  21. The reason why PMs/CMs run their state through DMs is that most ministers get elected/appointed due to caste considerations or loyalty to high-command rather than any real ability. So they cannot be relied upon at the time of need. Plus of course, no one wants to share power – once you are on the high seat, you wouldn’t want to relinquish it, would you?
    1. Proportional representation rather than first past the post system which is now being gamed by political parties
    2. The electorate should look to elect a relatively weaker candidate rather than reposing their faith on strong-men. When the weaker guy starts getting strong, replace him/her. It will keep politicians grounded.

  22. Another brilliant article, many thanks. The major points are (1) Concentration of power at the center, states and district levels and with it inevitable bureaucratization too. (2) Non- anticipation of the migrant crisis, both at the center and state levels due to over-reliance on bureaucracy. (3) Lack of accountability for the mess created at all levels, though some scapegoats have been found.
    I have now creeping doubts in my mind about the veracity of the statistical data produced by authorities at various levels. In the article, it is hinted that Praveen Pardeshi, the ex-Commissioner of Mumbai was removed because he was carrying out too many tests and in effect spoiling the statistics. Devendra Phadnavis, ex-CM of Maharashtra alleged in an interview with a TV channel that in slum areas like Dharavi, after an infected person is found, authorities have stopped testing the family members and other contacts who could have been asymptomatic receivers of the infection. If it is true, this is a shocking reality. Mumbai is in an undeniable state of communal transmission and numbers are rising with consequent unbearable burden on the frail and ineffective medical facilities in the city. The local newspapers report of shortages of beds, medical equipment and doctors. The same could be true of Gujarat also. So, there is nothing to distinguish between BJP and non-BJP-ruled states. Telegana has a declared policy of restricting the tests to be carried out. West Bengal data is also being questioned. But Maharashtra is the biggest challenge. I produce below the following numbers, as per GoI data at 8 a.m. on 23rd May, 2020: ( Maharashtra figures in brackets)
    (1) Total (cumulative) cases : 125100 (44582)
    (2) Deaths : 3720 (1517)
    (3) Cured : 51783 (12583)
    (4) Active Cases : 69597 (30482)
    (5) Fatality Rate: 2.97% ( 3.4%)
    (6) Recovery Rate : 41.4% (28.2%)
    Maharashtra’s share in total cases is of 35.6% and in active cases 28.2%. Thus not only that the state has a dismal performance in controlling infections but even worse in curing infected patients. This is as per published numbers. Under-reporting, if any, cannot be enumerated. Though, the state has a share of just below 10% in the total population of India, its share in direct tax collection is around 38%. Thus, if Maharashtra fails, the country fails too. This as bad as the numbers show, or perhaps even worse than that.

  23. We hv been doing a post mortem of modi govt and the state chief ministers,as the disaster management act/ laws came handy for them to lockdown India without caring for,or planning for the labour movements home.this is the biggest tragedy of the concentration of powers in the hands of pm,and a few, to put people’s rights/freedom at risk.but we hv ,as a nation, didn’t give thought to it,when modi assumed charge,in 2014,and addressed,all secretaries of the central govt,advising them to reoport directly to pmo,than to the dept ministers.once the power goes to their,the toxic effects,lasts.

  24. The PM, CM and DM were always all powerful is what I have seen in my over 50 years in government, joint sector, public sector, and private sector that is, if these worthies were worth their salts. In other words the top boss always rules even in autonomous organisations such as University Senate, Stock Exchanges and NGOs.

  25. This article is a confusing mixture of the opposites. On the one hand PM is shown as all powerful, riding roughshod over the CMs. And later you say that the opposition ruled states, and BJP strongmen do their own thing. You always crib that the cabinet is not what it should be, and that collective responsibility has gone for a toss. How? Is it because no minister is very active on social media and not visible in the media? Cabinet meetings and discussions are supposed to be secure. And they are under the present dispensation. The media is missing all the juicy gossip and tit bits leaked by the coalition ministers, who cannot be trifled with, in order to keep the government safe.
    From this and other similar articles by prominent journalists and media persons, it becomes clear that they are unhappy to be sidelined from their position of importance and privilege and there are no major scams to enliven the news. But they forget,’ no news, is good news’.

  26. Shekar ji should share his infinite knowledge and wisdom on how things should be handled now on in a big state like Maharashtra, instead of coining jingles..

    • Shekhar Gupta is not supposed to use his knowledge and wisdom on how things should be handled now on in a biug state like Maharashtra. He is basically a entertainer.

  27. The DM power centre has manifested in several more ways. Confusion and lack of clear directives from the state level primarily due to hesitation to disagree with those from the centre has made collectors more demi Gods than ever. They are wielding the power to decide who is to open and who not, who should stay indoors and who out of doors, more than ever the power to distribute largesse,
    are becoming heros by feeding the teeming lakhs who are returning, holding several migrants at bay till they go through the cursory half hearted health screening (how can you do a good job when nos are lakhs?) and several other powers usurped in this time of uncertainty and fear.
    But this again is just the manifestation of what has been simmering over the years. Unbridled population growth has been allowed primarily because of politicians using this section of society as vote banks, ably supported by weeping consultants from WHO, UNICEF etc who have suggested schemes such as Janani suraksha yojna which is only serving as an incentive to population growth.
    One thing is absolutely clear , if we keep looking to other countries fro the answers to our problems, we will always make wrong decisions.

  28. Meanwhile, DMs worked for 18 hours+ for 7 days when we were enjoying the comforts of our home. COVID 19 has shown how much Indians are indebted to the IAS. We should not forget the contribution of the Stainless Steel Frame lest criticize it at this juncture. It would be shameful on our part if we do so.

    • You are enjoying the comforts of your home because you are ordered to by law not by your choice. They are required to do their duty again ordered by law not their choice. It’s what you do if you have choice that matters.

  29. India and Indians are remarkable and resilient.
    Clap, bang utensils, light diyas and lamps, make an ass of ourselves. If you don’t, you are a traitor, urban naxal, tukde gang.
    What next?
    BUT : We are still alive and functional DESPITE the PM, CM & DM.

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