COVID-19 Update

Madhya Pradesh: Votes over virus

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (centre) after unveiling the statue of “Bharat Mata” at Shourya Smarak in Bhopal on August 15. Photo: PTI

In a bid to cover up his mishandling of the COVID situation in the State and win back the electorate’s trust, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announces several pro-poor schemes and initiatives.

In election-bound Madhya Pradesh, politics has taken centre stage even as COVID cases are about to hit the 50,000 mark. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has just recovered from COVID-19 infection, is back to populism, announcing one sop after another with an eye on the byelections to 26 Assembly seats. The elections are necessitated by the resignation of 24 Congress MLAs and the death of two legislators, one from the Congress and the other from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As on August 17, the total number of positive cases in the State stood at 45,455 and related deaths at 1,105.

Far from evaluating the success of the ongoing COVID control programmes, Chouhan used the Independence Day speech to woo the electorate, vowing to reserve jobs for the local people and promising a waiver of loans taken until August 15 by the poor from moneylenders at usurious rates. Speaking at the Independence Day celebration in Bhopal, Chouhan said that his administration was committed to preparing a single-citizen database so that people would not have to register themselves separately for different government programmes. He emphasised that given the prevailing state of unemployment, his government would give preference to the natives of Madhya Pradesh in allocating public sector jobs.

Aware that the government’s mishandling of the migrant labour crisis during the pandemic had dented his appeal amongst rural voters, Chouhan announced several pro-poor schemes and initiatives. He also sent out strong feelers to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) that his government was preparing to present a sound argument before the court, which was hearing the pleas with regard to the hike in the OBC reservation quota from 14 per cent to 27 per cent in government jobs and educational facilities. His other populist measures included distribution of free laptops, free education for the meritorious, and disbursement of Rs.1,300 crore as loans for women self-help groups at 4 per cent interest.

COVID situation out of control

While his pro-poor blitzkrieg may give him electoral dividends, the COVID situation seems to be going out of control. Indore, which had been the epicentre of the pandemic in Madhya Pradesh, was again hit badly. On August 15, as many as 214 new cases were reported in Indore, which is also the State’s financial hub. This takes the COVID tally in the city to 9,804 and the total number of deaths to 342. Across Madhya Pradesh, August 16 witnessed the highest single-day spike with 1,022 new cases.

The opposition Congress expressed dismay at the Chouhan administration for not allotting the State’s districts to Ministers for coordinated execution of COVID-control programmes despite the extraordinary situation. The party’s State spokesperson Abbas Hafeez Khan told Frontline, “The district administration is always answerable to the Minister in charge, but it is for the first time that none of the Ministers has been allotted any district.”

He added: “It has been five months since the BJP came to power and one and a half months since they expanded the Cabinet, but their only concern is to retain power by winning the byelection; they are not concerned about public health care. The BJP’s office in the State has been cordoned off owing to everyday COVID cases. This must be the only political office in the country to be sealed off because of COVID-19.”

The government’s lackadaisical attitude is evident from public officials and bureaucrats contracting the virus one after the other. Vishwas Sarang, a Minister in the Chouhan government, is the latest to test positive. On August 9, he announced on Twitter, “My second COVID-19 report has come positive today. I am in home isolation since my first report came negative. I request everyone to get tested who came in contact with me.”

Long before Chouhan contracted COVID, more than 50 officials of the Health Department had tested positive for the virus. On August 13, the newly nominated Rajya Sabha member from the State, Sumer Singh Solanki of the BJP, also tested positive.

Chouhan’s Ministers and senior colleagues, meanwhile, are focussed on the upcoming Assembly elections. There have been reports of BJP leaders organising and participating in membership drives.

On July 31, the government had announced the second phase of a COVID-related campaign. In a Cabinet meeting conducted via videoconferencing, Chouhan said that the second phase spanning the August 1-14 period would focus on ensuring social distancing and adherence to norms such as wearing of masks. According to the government, it had completed a health survey covering 95 per cent of the people in the State, in which 1,00,679 samples were tested for COVID-19.

Though the government has been claiming success of all its COVID-control initiatives, facts on the ground belie these claims. As many as 88 police personnel, including officers, had tested positive for COVID, Home Minister Narottam Mishra announced on August 10. Around 2,000 police personnel have been quarantined so far.

Hindutva card

The Chouhan regime is also busy playing the Hindutva card ahead of the byelections. On August 15, the Chief Minister unveiled a 25-foot-tall bronze statue of “Bharat Mata” on the premises of Shaurya Smarak, a war memorial and museum, in Bhopal. “Several people, including Sarsanghchalak [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief] Mohan Bhagwat, who had come to pay tribute to the brave soldiers at Shaurya Smarak, felt that there should be a statue of Bharat Mata here. This dream came true today,” Chouhan said.

He further declared that his government would build a “Ram Van Gaman Path”, or the route Rama took on his way to exile, besides a Ramayan Circuit in the State. He said the move was aimed at boosting tourism.

Opposition’s bid

The opposition Congress, too, is keen on playing the soft Hindutva card rather than taking on Chouhan ideologically or on administrative and governance-related issues. A day before the Ram Temple bhumi pujan in Ayodhya on August 5, the party’s State unit chief and former Chief Minister Kamal Nath organised a Hanuman Chalisa recital function at his residence in Chhindwara. He justified this covert support for the temple in the press, saying: “I have stuck to the stand taken by the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehruji and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the Ram temple. Nothing more should be read into it. Rajivji got the locks of the Ram temple at Ayodhya opened. We were against the demolition of the Babri mosque. The Congress stand was clear that we would abide by the court’s decision on it.”

On the occasion of Janmashtami, celebrating the birth of Krishna, on August 10, the social media was inundated with photographs of Kamal Nath in the guise of the warrior Arjuna from the Mahabharata.