In March, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was riding a wave of popularity for her deft management of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the country, which has provoked a national lockdown of business and leisure activity from March 25 to May 16. On April 28, West Bengal reported a mere 649 Covid positive cases, 105 cured and 20 fatalities against 33,050, 8,325 and 1,074 nationally. Inevitably, these rosy — perhaps too rosy — statistics have generated a political storm in the state with a population of 91 million.
The BJP, which has latterly emerged as the main opposition party of West Bengal, has orchestrated a massive social media campaign alleging that the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government has allowed dilution of lockdown and quarantine norms in Muslim-dominated areas of the state, placing the entire population of Bengal at risk. In particular, the BJP accuses the state government of “not conducting sufficient testing in West Bengal against the national average of 198 per million,” alleges Babul Supriyo, minister of state for environment, forest and climate change in the Union government at the Centre. Moreover, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh accuses Mamata Banerjee
and her government of suppressing Covid-19 positive cases in West Bengal and fatalities and misusing the public distribution system (PBS) to support TMC sympathisers and supporters.
Banerjee’s discomfiture has been exacerbated with some government doctors and health workers of West Bengal alleging that they are being forced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic without adequate PPE (personal protection equipment) including masks and gloves, and to certify Covid deaths as other causes. Reacting to these allegations, Banerjee has constituted a five-member committee of reportedly TMC-friendly bureaucrats and doctors, to endorse the state government’s Covid-19 data and refute poor working conditions allegations.
Sensing a political opportunity, West Bengal’s governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, a hand-picked, selected appointee of the BJP government at the Centre, reportedly invited an inter- ministerial central team (IMCT) to assess the state government’s management of the pandemic at ground level. This generated a major Centre-state protocol row as according to Banerjee, prior intimation of the IMCT visit should have been given to the state government. However, after a state government order confining the IMCT team to its hotel, it was allowed to conduct a four-day investigation.
With the Union ministry of home affairs under BJP’s master election strategist Amit Shah closely monitoring West Bengal (which goes to the polls next summer) following the IMCT report, chief minister Banerjee is evidently jittery. The TMC has roped in the widely reputed Prashant Kishor, also a master election strategist who formerly worked with the BJP and Congress, to take charge of TMC’s social media platform to counter the BJP’s anti-TMC campaign.
Since then, apart from highlighting the relative success of the TMC in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the state government is also advertising initiatives taken to ensure continuation of classes in K-12 education. Unlike
several state governments which have generated controversy by directing private schools to refrain from collecting school fees, in an April 25 message to West Bengal’s 1,200 private schools, education minister Partha Chatterjee restricted himself to advising them not to raise tuition fees this year and to switch to online classes. Moreover, to ensure continuity of education in the state’s 95,000 government schools, the TMC government has tied up with the Anand Bazar Patrika (ABP) Group to beam live lectures for classes X and XII students through its ABP Ananda television channel, to prepare them for their board exams next year.
Comments Krishnakoli Ray, headmistress of Jaynagar Institution for Girls, a state government-aided school on the outskirts of Kolkata: “This is an excellent initiative by the state government and is a good way of keeping students pepped up. How effective these online prep classes are will soon become apparent. But it is certainly better than doing nothing.” Calcutta University and its affiliated colleges are also conducting online classes since March 31.
With the 2021 legislative election less than a year away and a resurgent BJP in hot pursuit, chief minister Banerjee
and the TMC who are aspiring for a third consecutive mandate, are pulling out all the stops to provide people-friendly health and education policies. Better late than never.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)