Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath must be scratching his head in confusion and dismay. He visited Bareilly on Saturday, Union Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar’s Lok Sabha constituency, to take stock of the Covid situation. The next day, a letter from Gangwar, written on Thursday, surfaced on social media. The letter is a virtual indictment of the Adityanath administration, with the labour and employment minister pointing out shortage of empty oxygen cylinders due to hoarding, black marketing of ventilators and other medical equipment, patients having to run from one place to another for admission in government hospitals, and health officials not taking telephone calls.
But Gangwar is not the only Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader to rap a party CM for Covid mismanagement. Look at the following comments:
“Everyone knew that the second wave would hit India but still nothing was done. Even today, we have a shortage of beds and oxygen.”
And this: “In the past 10 days, hundreds of people including two-dozen friends lost their lives due to lack of oxygen. This is the ground reality.”
Many would attribute these comments to Rahul Gandhi or some other opposition leader. But the first statement is by Narayan Tripathi, BJP MLA from Maihar in Madhya Pradesh. The second comment came from Arvind Giri, BJP MLA from Gola Gokarannath. One may quibble that Tripathi is a known party-hopper and had only joined the BJP in 2019. But, that can’t be the yardstick in today’s BJP, which has many Congress defectors as its chief ministers — Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh and N. Biren Singh of Manipur. Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma is the latest addition to this list. But it’s not just Tripathi or Giri who are openly questioning their governments about Covid mismanagement. Tejasvi Surya, Bangalore South MP, has embarrassed B.S. Yediyurappa-led BJP government in Karnataka, sounding a bugle about the so-called bribery-for-hospital bed scam.
Open the hyperlinks. A host of BJP MPs and MLAs are highlighting lapses in governance, especially in Covid management, and asking tough questions from chief ministers of their party. They say they feel helpless because they can’t do anything when their voters come to them to seek hospital beds and oxygen cylinders.
So many BJP workers succumbed to Covid but these MPs and MLAs had to watch helplessly, as they claim. They can’t go to their voters when the latter need their help in times of crisis.
Who is dissenting and why
There are, of course, conspiracy theories in the national capital: Look at the CMs who are getting uncharitable letters and statements from BJP lawmakers. Yediyurappa isn’t exactly Modi-Shah’s favourite. B.L. Santhosh, powerful BJP general secretary (organisation) who’s known to be anti-Yediyurappa, was quick to laud Surya for exposing the hospital bed booking ‘scam’. Even earlier, BJP MLAs kept targeting the Karnataka CM, with the party high command taking a rather lenient view.
Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan got a nod from the party’s central leadership to topple the Kamal Nath-led Congress government but has had a tough time even picking his team of ministers. BJP MLAs and MPs from Uttar Pradesh are suddenly finding their voice just when talks started in political circles about CM Yogi Adityanath emerging as one of the contenders as PM Modi’s successor—that is, if the BJP wins the assembly election next year, which will make Yogi the first CM in the state to get another term after completing five years in office.
It didn’t help that ex-bureaucrat A.K. Sharma, a close aide of PM Modi who took voluntary retirement to become a legislator in UP, has taken charge of Covid management in the PM’s parliamentary constituency, Varanasi. He has been camping in Varanasi and holding daily meetings with district administration officials to manage the affairs. Sharma’s deployment in the PM’s constituency is certainly not a vote of no-confidence on Yogi Adityanath’s Covid management, but politicians are known to make conclusions based on their own predilections and prejudices.
Many of these conspiracy theorists even point out how BJP legislators in other states, say Gujarat, are not feeling so aggrieved. For instance, Gujarat High Court had to remind the BJP government that the suppression and concealment of actual data (of Covid tests and deaths) would generate more serious problems. Even in Haryana, there have been several deaths due to a shortage of medical oxygen in hospitals, but ruling party MLAs or MPs aren’t going to town about it.
I, for one, find these conspiracy theories a bit over the top. I would probably buy it if the Congress was in power. After all, the Gandhi family was known to keep regional satraps insecure by passively watching, if not encouraging, dissident voices. That has led to where the Congress finds itself today. The BJP leadership knows the history of the Congress too well to repeat those mistakes, especially during a public health crisis like Covid-19.
So, how is it that BJP MLAs and MPs have suddenly got the guts and gumption to write letters to their chief ministers and go public with their grievances? After all, except in Karnataka where MLAs have targeted Yediyurappa with impunity — and the occasional shows of disagreement in UP — BJP legislators have been a disciplined lot. Most of them know they owe their place in the assembly or the Lok Sabha not to their own popularity or goodwill but to the fact that they are perceived as regents of Narendra Modi or, for that matter, Yogi Adityanath or Yediyurappa.
So, what is it that has driven them to make not-so-veiled criticism of their CMs? In fact, given that many people see the BJP as synonymous with Modi today, criticism of the BJP CMs may, to a certain extent, reflect on the Centre, too. Are BJP MPs and MLAs feeling insecure now? If you were to ask them until recently about their challenges in the constituencies, the usual quip would be: “Arre, Modi ji hain na.” Of late, those from UP would also talk about Yogi’s popularity.
The pandemic seems to have shaken them out of their comfort zone. With the Modi government floundering in its response to the second wave of the Covid pandemic engulfing villages too, BJP lawmakers know that they may be Modi’s sipahi but the voters would now also judge them by what their representatives in the assemblies and the Lok Sabha did when they needed them most. And when it comes to the winnability of candidates, no party — least of all, the BJP — compromises on it, even if it means denying tickets to sitting legislators. That’s why BJP MLAs and MPs are getting panicky as they find themselves helpless in bringing succour to their constituents.
For once, one welcomes their show of disagreement or dissidence. For the past seven years, one hardly heard BJP legislators asking uncomfortable questions from their leaders in the government. After all, it didn’t matter as Modi or Yogi would get them re-elected, regardless of their performance as an MLA or a parliamentarian. Lack of feedback from these elected representatives is a major reason for the BJP governments at the Centre and in states growing complacent as drumbeaters surrounding the top leaders sang paeans. Criticism from lawmakers, even though targeted only at the CMs as of now, may probably serve as a wake-up call to powers that be.
Views are personal.