Unlock 1.0 sorted out several issues for the Centre and threw up new problems for the states. After unrolling a set of new dos and a few don’ts, the Centre has sidled back from the mainframe of the Covid-19 pandemic management and left it to the states to fend for themselves as India steadily moved up on the international chart of the most-stricken countries, going past even the UK. PM Narendra Modi’s televised appearances have become less frequent as have his video-conferences with the chief ministers.
For the BJP, it is back to politics and politicking. Amit Shah, the Home Minister, kicked off a virtual campaign for the Bihar polls. He followed on with similar speeches to the BJP’s West Bengal unit because the eastern state, that the BJP staked out for the past two years, votes in 2022. From ‘managing’ the elections to filling the vacancies in the Rajya Sabha — that’s a polite way of saying poaching on wannabe defectors in the Opposition-— nothing apparently excites the BJP more than imbibing a stiff dose of realpolitik. Meanwhile, there’s serious trouble brewing on the India-China border but elections have to be fought earnestly and trophies won.
How are the states coping with the challenges activated by the relaxed norms? The immediate corollary has seen a rise in Covid cases matched by a near collapse of the medical systems, and in cases, confrontations between hospitals and doctors and the state government. All this while, the Centre has not uttered a word but for occasional interjections from Dr Harsh Vardhan, the Health Minister.
Under the Seventh Schedule (Article 246), public health and sanitation are state subjects. There are caveats circumscribing a state’s jurisdiction over these spheres. For instance, the prevention of the transmission of infectious/contagious diseases from one state to another is on the concurrent list of subjects. Additionally, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, empower the Centre to take emergency measures. Therefore, in the current situation, the grey zone in the exercise of power makes the Centre as credit-or-blame-worthy as a state. When Congress leader Rahul Gandhi remarked that the states were waging a lonely battle because the Centre was not supporting them and asked for an ‘aggressive injection’ of money, he was not off the mark.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s economic package, that conditionally raised a state’s borrowing limit from 3% to 5% of the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP), was opposed by Kerala and West Bengal on the ground that it was ‘anti-federalist’ and ‘set a bad precedent’ in that even normal borrowings in future could invite the imposition of stringent conditions by the Centre.
Delhi illustrates the Centre-state complexities in pandemic management. CM Arvind Kejriwal, got flak, including a rap from the Supreme Court, for his ambiguous directives on testing infected patients, inflating claims about the availability and accessibility to hospital facilities and allegedly down-scaling casualties. When there’s an AAP government pitted against the BJP, politics is inescapable. Kejriwal alleged that Delhi’s premier hospitals — the AIIMS and Safdarjung— that come under the Centre, allegedly refused to release their beds while the municipalities, under the BJP, publicised their data on the death figures that bared the discrepancy with the state government’s numbers. Twice bitten and first time shy, the CM, in his wisdom, chose not to prolong the spat with the Centre once Anil Baijal, the Lt-Governor, rescinded Kejriwal’s order of restricting hospital admissions only to Delhi’s residents.
Mercifully, for the AAP, there’s no election staring in the face in Delhi. In West Bengal, the pandemic turned into a political matchup between the Centre and CM Mamata Banerjee. The Centre proposed, she disposed. Mamata proposed, the Centre disposed. The BJP unleashed its IT cell head, Amit Malviya, to take her on through tweets carrying provocative hashtags like #BengalBurning and #BhoyePeyecheMamata, after she was accused of stalling the Centre’s relief works for Covid patients. If Delhi’s BJP-controlled civic bodies charged Kejriwal with fudging the pandemic-related data, the West Bengal BJP ran a high-decibel campaign against Mamata for ‘hiding’ the death figures after Babul Supriyo, a Central minister and Asansol MP, released a video from the isolation ward of a Kolkata hospital. It showed bodies lying cheek-by-jowl with patients and punched a hole in Mamata’s claim. The BJP has declared that Mamata’s ‘mismanagement’ will figure in its pre-election discourse while she proclaimed the Centre’s apathy after the devastation wrought by Cyclone Amphan would theme her campaign.
The BJP did not meddle with the southern states. The praise that Kerala and KK Shailaja, its Health Minister, attracted globally pre-empted criticism. Unlike its West Bengal counterpart, the BJP’s Kerala unit is not as vocal. It has its own government in Karnataka that acquitted itself rather well, thanks to a hands-on bureaucracy. The parties in power in other states, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, are not adversaries in the classical sense that Mamata is and, therefore, remained under the Centre/BJP’s radar.
However, the BJP may be hoist with its own petard in Gujarat that ranks fourth on the Covid-19 chart, and reports a large count of fatalities. The BJP is in power for the last several years and Gujarat is flaunted as a ‘model’ state on nearly every score. Except that the havoc the pandemic brought in its wake exposed its underbelly. Gujarat might have gone great guns on economic growth, but its health sector has been found wanting. Ironically, even this state — celebrated as a jewel in the BJP’s crown — and its CM, Vijay Rupani, have been left to look after themselves. The Centre has no time for the ravaging virus.