Tamil Nadu has discovered a ‘new’ chief minister, someone who was seen until recently as a bad legacy left behind by late J. Jayalalithaa. He has put up a fight against Covid-19 nobody thought he was capable of.
The numbers speak for themselves. After Maharashtra and Delhi, Tamil Nadu has the third-highest tally of confirmed cases in India — 1,075 as on Sunday. Of these 971, or 90 per cent, are linked to the infamous Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi. Eleven people have succumbed to the coronavirus in the state so far but the death rate — around 1 per cent — is one of the lowest in India.
Had it not been for the Tablighis, these numbers would tell a different story about the much-discredited AIADMK regime. Chief minister E.K. Palaniswami seems to have discovered himself—just when everyone had written him and his party off as far as May 2021 assembly polls are concerned.
Critics appraising EK
Ask a Tamilian whether he/she is satisfied with how the state government has dealt with the crisis. The response may come as a surprise. “Yes, for a change, they (AIADMK government) have handled it well. They reacted long before other states or even the Centre did. The CM has been hands-on and so has been his health minister (C Vijaya Baskar). They have ensured there is no panic situation,” a lawyer friend of mine, practising in Madras high court, told me over the phone.
I was a bit taken aback, for he was never a fan of Jayalalithaa or her party colleagues who are running the government now. He would describe the current crop of AIADMK leadership as “a bunch of dishonest jokers with no vision” and cite the rising crime graph, unemployment and official apathy to dengue outbreaks to justify his dislike for the Palaniswami government.
Not that the lawyer has changed his views about the AIADMK leadership. He himself is surprised by Palaniswami government’s alacrity in responding to the Covid-19 crisis. “It’s probably because it’s a matter of life and death for them in politics.” Tamil Nadu bureaucracy, though identified on political lines because of which every change of regime witnesses a rush for Central deputation, is also known to be efficient and often makes up for the follies of their political masters.
Well, be as it may, but Palaniswami has certainly chosen to use the coronavirus to try for an image makeover. He and his health minister have been visiting hospitals to take stock of the preparedness in Covid-19 wards. The CM made a surprise visit to an Amma Canteen to check the quality of food and whether social distancing is being maintained.
The CM removed his dairy development minister K.T. Rajendra Balaji as Virudhunagar district secretary of the AIADMK after he suggested in a tweet that Covid-19 punished those who made fun of Hindu gods and traditions.
Unlike in other states where many Tablighi Jamaat members went into hiding, the CM ensured that those from Tamil Nadu reported themselves for testing.
Tamil Nadu, the first to respond to Covid-19 threat
Tamil Nadu government was the first to swing into action to deal with the coronavirus threat—even before Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha. Tamil Nadu health department officials were keeping tabs on those coming from abroad even before the first Covid-19 positive case was reported from Kerala on 30 January. On 30 January, Tamil Nadu government informed that 78 people, who had come from China, were under house quarantine; they tested negative later.
The first Covid-19 positive case was reported on 7 March and the second one on 19 March. But by 17 March, the state administration was all geared up to tackle the menace, with the chief secretary issuing an elaborate set of instructions to all government departments and institutes, including the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPEs) and masks, constitution of ‘contact tracing teams’ in districts, use of thermal scanners at entry and exit points at railway stations, and setting up of helplines, among others.
Tamil Nadu announced a lockdown in the state a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared it in a televised address.
How Arvind Kejriwal and other CMs delayed
To appreciate the promptness and alacrity of Palaniswami, one needs to compare him with his counterparts in other states. Let’s take the example of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, the most visible face on TV channels and in newspapers since India woke up to the threat of the coronavirus. The national capital reported the first Covid-19 positive case on 3 March after a businessman returned from Italy and threw a party on his son’s birthday, leading to the closure of three schools in Delhi-NCR.
Even as the city was abuzz with talks about coronavirus, Kejriwal, flanked by two doctors, addressed a press conference on 8 March. “Healthy people don’t have to wear masks,” declared the Delhi CM, seeking to discourage the people from going for panic-buying of masks and sanitisers.
The doctors endorsed him, saying that the masks gave “a false sense of security” and “predisposed” the wearers “to chances of infection”. One of them recommended the washing of hands with soap or “even with plain water”. Kejriwal then informed that there were three cases in Delhi by then and one more case was under investigation. The three infected persons had “come in contact” with 287 people, said the CM.
To buttress his point about the inutility of the masks for healthy people, Kejriwal recommended wearing them “if you are infected or if you get touched by quarantined people.” Greeting the people on Holi on 10 March, the Delhi CM tweeted, “Holi khelte waqt apna khyal rakhen. Corona se bach kar rahen. (Take care of yourself while playing Holi. Stay away from corona).” It was paradoxical and therefore, appeared to be more like a pun targeted at the advocates of social distancing.
These utterances suggested that at least for a week after the first Covid-19 positive case in the national capital, the Delhi CM wasn’t inclined to treat the coronavirus threat with the seriousness it deserved.
Of course, in subsequent days and weeks, he was all over the headlines with his near-daily media interactions. Incidentally, four senior government functionaries had to become scapegoats for what was essentially the AAP government’s gross mismanagement of migrant crisis.
But Kejriwal better than most
Unlike his Tamil Nadu counterpart, the Delhi CM has chosen not to venture out in public much—not even to inspect the mohalla clinics where two doctors got infected for want of protective gears. He can’t be faulted for this though. He had stayed away even when North-East Delhi was burning. Some CMs prefer to govern from office and home while others prefer to be ‘in the field’ in critical times.
It’s probably unfair to single out Kejriwal for comparison with Palaniswami. In fact, the Delhi CM has done as well as, if not better than, many of his counterparts from other states, including Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pardesh and Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, among others. But, that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Views are personal.