This is the Mamata Banerjee playbook. When in doubt, blame Narendra Modi’s BJP. So, when the coronavirus pandemic struck, she did the same. But her political game is getting exposed now, when she can least afford it – with West Bengal assembly election less than a year away.
The Covid-19 crisis has brought into focus the leadership and administrative abilities of chief ministers across the country, with several rising to the occasion to manage the pandemic’s fallout in a measured manner. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, however, has been an exception — combative, displaying a poor grip over governance, out of her depth, and mercurial as ever.
Covid-19 an opportunity for 2021
The assembly election due next year seems to have overwhelmed everything else for Banerjee, with shrill politics taking precedence over mature governance. The Covid-19 crisis for Mamata Banerjee has been characterised by a constant tug-of-war with Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Centre. The attempt to suppress data, unnecessary mavericks and rhetoric underscores her chief focus — 2021 state polls.
Thus, while CMs such as Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh, Amarinder Singh in Punjab, the BJP dispensation in Assam led from the front by Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, have displayed an impressive ability to tackle this unprecedented situation, Mamata Banerjee has been left far behind. Compare her track record with other chief ministers having a similar street-style politics and combative equation with the Centre — Arvind Kejriwal — and you find a world of a difference, with the latter handling the crisis in a fairly measured, effective manner.
Some other chief ministers — particularly of the BJP like Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh — have handled the situation in a deeply disappointing manner. But even then, nobody has seemed quite as impulsive and aggressive as Mamata Banerjee.
The corona politics
For Mamata Banerjee, the Covid-19 pandemic has become yet another political tool. Banerjee is looking at an election next year, and any politician’s instinct would be to act in a manner that would strengthen his/her bid to come back to power, especially after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls showed a BJP upsurge in the state, and how Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have their eyes set on Mamata’s turf.
But Mamata Banerjee’s entire conduct all this while has been about taking the Centre head on by blaming the Modi government for the health crisis. Early on in March, when the coronavirus spread was still in its initial stages, Mamata alleged that the BJP government was creating panic over the virus to divert attention from the Delhi communal riots.
For the chief minister of a state to downplay a serious health emergency in order to score political points was irresponsible and juvenile.
That, however, was just the start. Mamata, since then, has been engaged in a constant tussle with the Modi government, blaming supply of faulty kits from the Centre for the slow pace of testing and inconclusive results in West Bengal. Mamata has also blamed the Centre for a delay in imposing the lockdown and not shutting down airports early enough.
Modi’s engaging Mamata
Of course, the Modi government has played its own politics, constantly shooting off letters to Mamata Banerjee and pulling up her government for poor handling of the crisis with the home ministry declaring it would send two Inter Ministerial Central Teams to seven locations in the state to assess the situation.
But Mamata is not the the only political adversary Modi has. Arvind Kejriwal has had a particularly unpleasant and troubled relationship with the Centre. Then, there are Congress CMs like Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel. But they seem to be working well towards battling the crisis, in tandem with the central government and with the spirit of ‘cooperative federalism‘. Something Modi has always talked about but which was never quite practiced.
Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, have constantly escalated the political rhetoric. Add to it, the frequent run-ins with West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar.
There is, frankly, nothing new about Mamata Banerjee’s approach. This is how her politics has always been: confrontational, high-pitched, maverick and bold. Qualities that are indeed admirable in their impact, shown particularly in how she single-handedly managed to end an over three-decade-long Left front rule in West Bengal. Mamata can hold her own, even in front of Modi’s semantics and popularity. She has a distinct, no-holds-barred style. Someone who can even say she wants to give the PM a “slap of democracy” in the middle of a heated campaign.
But these are the very qualities that can become a politician’s enemy when on full display as an administrator, and no less in the middle of a crisis of epic proportion.
The handling of the pandemic
Mamata’s handling of the pandemic has been a big issue, besides her political approach to it. Her government has been accused of deliberately understating numbers, downplaying the crisis, making it seem like the TMC government is in full control of the health situation. The government stopped publishing its daily medical bulletin after 1 April, which used to include all relevant updates, leading to a backlash from the opposition. The bulletin was subsequently re-started but with an altered format and fewer details.
The numbers, meanwhile, had a big mismatch. For instance, a month ago on 3 April, Mamata said that the active cases in West Bengal for Covid-19 were 38, while the health ministry website showed the state had 63 confirmed cases.
As ThePrint reported late last month, West Bengal’s coronavirus death figures went up nearly four times in just 24 hours after the Centre launched a probe.
Mamata has also shown her ‘irresponsible’ side — taking to the streets to make a statement amid the pandemic, but without adhering to social distancing norms and violating the lockdown.
It is only recently that Mamata decided to mend her ways, perhaps getting some feedback about the discomfort of her voters with her handling of the crisis.
Mamata’s Covid strategy may be seeing a turnaround now, but her behaviour so far has failed to show the maturity that is expected of a leader of her stature, especially during a public health emergency.
If this is how she plans to counter Modi, she may not be on the right path. No voter wants to see histrionics amid a pandemic that everyone is afraid of. And besides, she has done a great disservice to her position as chief minister by letting the aggressive, impulsive and election-driven politician in her get the better of the leader she is.
Views are personal.