Politics has taken centre stage in Madhya Pradesh, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) eyeing legislators from the opposition camp even as the total number of COVID-19 cases in the State crossed 20,000.
On July 11, a Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) resigned and joined the BJP, while on July 17, another Congress MLA put in his papers, reportedly at the behest of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s aides.
The Congress alleged that the BJP’s lust for power was weakening the State’s fight against the pandemic. As of July 20, the total number of cases in Madhya Pradesh was 23,310 and the death toll had touched 738.
The Chouhan regime’s mishandling of the economic and social challenges thrown up by COVID-19 became apparent in July when news of police excesses against disadvantaged people went viral on social media.
On July 14, a Dalit farmer couple attempted to commit suicide by consuming pesticide in the presence of the police in Guna district. The police forcibly evicted them from land they had illegally occupied and allegedly destroyed their crops.
A video showing policemen kicking the couple and beating them with sticks went viral on social media. The police, however, said that they lathicharged not the couple in question but those who tried to prevent the police from taking them to hospital. However, there were few takers for the police’s version.
Former Chief Minister Kamal Nath came down heavily on the administration and demanded strict action against the officers. There was also a hashtag campaign on Twitter on that day demanding Chouhan’s resignation.
Chouhan ordered the transfer of Guna’s District Collector and Superintendent of Police and said a fair investigation would be initiated into the issue. BJP leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, who hails from the Gwalior-Guna belt and was the Guna Member of Parliament from 2004 to 2019, also said a probe would be ordered.
The eviction happened in spite of the government’s much-publicised “Swamitva scheme” that promises to accord land rights to people on the basis of a survey of the entire rural population.
Chouhan has claimed on several occasions that a rights record would be prepared and rural people given ownership rights over their plots accordingly.
Farmers have been badly hit by the lockdown and the decline in business activities. They complain that they are not getting the minimum support prices (MSP) for wheat, moong bean and black gram, among other crops, and that the MSP centres were working in cahoots with private players to exploit them.
Some farmers also told Frontline that there was no sign of the bonus of Rs.160 per quintal on wheat and Rs.500 per quintal on soybean over and above the MSP, which the government promised them. However, Chouhan has claimed to have transferred an insurance amount totalling Rs.2,990 crore into farmers’ accounts.
Hollow claims on COVID-19
The Chief Minister has also been claiming success in containing the spread of the pandemic, although the spiralling numbers indicate otherwise. On July 16, he lauded his government’s “Kill Corona” campaign, saying that door-to-door testing had brought down the mortality rate.
According to him, the government has 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. Out of these, 1,831 people tested positive.
However, the rapid worsening of the COVID-19 situation belies his claims. Between July 1 and 15, the period in which the “Kill Corona” campaign was conducted, the number of COVID-19 cases increased by 200 per cent. In this fortnight, as many as 6,050 new patients were identified across the State and 110 patients died.
Health department officials said that 6,785 cases were reported in the first 16 days of July, putting the average case per day at 424. This is a significant climb from the daily average of about 139 cases between March 24, when the lockdown began, and June 30.
Congress spokesperson Abbas Hafeez Khan told Frontline that the BJP was “still busy poaching Congress MLAs rather than any constructive work related to COVID-19 control”.
He added: “The numbers are increasing day by day. In the first 30 days of COVID-19 the State did not have any Health Minister, and now the Health Minister [Prabhuram Choudhary] is not even an MLA and his sole focus is on winning the upcoming by-election. The BJP’s actions demonstrate that its only priority is the by-elections; public health is secondary.”
Prabhuram Choudhary was one of the MLAs who resigned in March, which led to the collapse of the Kamal Nath government.
In view of the prevailing situation, the government postponed the five-day monsoon session of the State Assembly scheduled to commence on July 20. The decision was made on July 17 following an all-party meeting convened by Protem Speaker Rameshwar Sharma during which it was also decided that legislative business, if any, would be conducted through the ordinance route.
The Congress, however, is getting impatient at the indefinite delay of the by-elections as poaching of its members continues. After Congress MLA from Bada Malhera seat, Pradumn Singh Lodhi, defected to the BJP on July 11, another Congress MLA, Sumitra Devi Kasdekar, resigned from her Nepanagar (Scheduled Tribe) seat. Although Sumitra Devi has not cited any reason for her decision, it is widely speculated that she would be joining the BJP.
The BJP appointed Lodhi chairman of the MP Civil Supplies Corporation with a Cabinet rank.
On July 15, the Congress described the BJP’s machinations as a “political coronavirus” and urged the Election Commission to hold the by-elections at the earliest.
By-elections are due in 26 Assembly seats vacated by 24 Congress MLAs, including Jyotiraditya Scindia, and owing to the death of an MLA each from both parties.