BHOPAL: It’s been over three weeks since Shivraj S Chouhan was sworn in chief minister following the collapse of the feckless Kamal Nath regime in Madhya Pradesh. But his failure to even appoint a mini-cabinet has begun to seriously affect the state’s bid to contain the slow and steady spread of the Chinese virus, Covid-19. The number of people who have tested positive in the state as on April 17 zoomed to 1,340 with the number of deaths ascending to 62.
The districts of Indore and Bhopal remain the worst affected. Indore with 39 deaths and 842 infections (298 of which were detected on April 16 alone) has the overwhelming lead, but the situation in the state capital is no less grim despite only six casualties. Indore’s fatalities and growing numbers can be directly attributed to its dense population, especially in Muslim dominated localities where mobs attacked health workers out to conduct random checks.
Ground realities in Bhopal are radically different. Here slightly less than half of the nearly 200 virus-afflicted belong to the state health department, the source of the spread being its principal secretary, Pallavi Jain Govil, who showed the symptoms as early as March 22 but avoided reporting the matter. Instead she went about her work and passed on the infection to the CEO of the Ayushman Bharat program, J Vijay Kumar, who became the first to test positive. Kumar in turn handed over the virus to 12 other IAS officers.
Ms Jain, however, is the real culprit. Not only did she not get herself tested, much less hospitalized, she also failed to report the arrival of her son from US who, luckily, tested negative. Flouting all norms of physical distancing, she organized a grand welcome for the newly appointed director of the National Health Mission, Swati Meena, in her office on March 22. Around 80-100 officials attended the meet in which they were directed to fan out to the districts to gear up for the anti-Corona fight. Later Ms Jain tested positive and has been working from home since. Fawning departmental colleagues continued to visit her residence to inquire of her welfare as recently as April 5.
Ideally, the CM ought to have politely requested Ms Jain to stay away, and advise her work mates to keep out of harm’s way. Chouhan instead praised her foolhardy show of dedication, even calling her a “warrior”, thereby giving her irresponsible conduct his seal of approval.
Faced with a barrage of negative comments on his single member cabinet and lone efforts to contest Covid-19, Chouhan constituted a 5-member task force headed by the state BJP president rather than appoint a few ministers to handle key portfolios like health. This has stoked further criticism. Even the party’s own senior leader, Kailash Vijaywargiya, took a dig at the CM during a video conference. Lobbed was a query: are government officials expected to take orders from the task force? To which Chouhan’s response was a deafening silence.
Delay in appointing a cabinet also goaded the Congress to launch a shrill campaign against the Centre on two fronts: Constitutional and administrative. Comrades-in-arms Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh blamed the state’s poor response to the health crisis on the disproportionate time spent by the Narendra Modi government in pulling down the Congress regime in MP rather than deal with the situation. Actual dates were advanced to bolster their case.
The spread, argued the duo, could have been checked had a limited lockdown been clamped by March 14. But Modi ji preferred to delay matters till the Kamal Nath regime was felled, and a BJP CM appointed. And, sure enough, the lockdown was announced a day after Chouhan was sworn in CM on March 23. Ridiculous and absurd as the logic may be, it did find its takers, howsoever few.
On April 11 the well-known Supreme Court lawyer and MP Vivek Tankha petitioned President Ramnath Kovind to consider imposing President’s rule in MP since Chouhan’s failure to form a cabinet was tantamount to a breakdown in Constitutional machinery. In his letter, Tankha wrote Chouhan was heading a “one-man show unconstitutionally thrust upon 7.5 crore people of Madhya Pradesh [which] gravely impacted and imperiled the war against coronavirus… a one-man government is an unthinkable anathema.”
Tankha charged the government of maintaining an “enigmatic silence despite the Constitutional outrage.” Madhya Pradesh, he wrote, deserved a cabinet in a time of an extreme health emergency. Any further dilly-dallying would do violence to basic Constitutional proprieties, he said.
None of this badgering seems to have had the slightest impact on Chouhan’s plans. It was like water off a duck’s back. He has reiterated that a cabinet expansion will only happen once the national lockdown is lifted on May 3. Which in itself will depend on the numbers. The situation in MP has gotten worse. The number of districts classified as red zone, ie. with more than 10 cases (which includes Bhopal and Indore) have risen from three to 12; fourteen districts have been placed in the orange category; and 26 in the green zone. These are districts where no new cases have been reported in the last seven days.
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