COVID-19 UPDATE

Madhya Pradesh: Byelections take preference over fight against COVID

Published : August 04, 2020 12:09 IST

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who is COVID-19 positive, celebrates Rakshabandhan at a hospital in Bhopal. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The war against the pandemic was jolted by the Chief Minister testing positive, but what is worse is the BJP’s focus on winning the upcoming byelections even if it means making compromises in the fight against the virus.

Madhya Pradesh’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic came under serious scrutiny when Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan himself tested positive on July 25.

At the time the pandemic erupted, the State was the nerve centre of political machinations, with Chouhan ousting the erstwhile Kamal Nath government and then, caught between Congress defector Jyotiraditya Scindia’s demands and the expectations of his own loyalists, functioning without a proper Cabinet for several months.

The State remained without a Health Minister for over a month, which the Congress says compromised the battle against the pandemic. At one time, there were cases in all 52 districts in the State.

As on August 2, the total number of cases was 33,535, including a record single-day spike of 921 fresh cases on that day, and COVID-related deaths stood at 886.

Long before Chouhan tested positive more than 50 officials of the Health Department had contracted the virus. Chouhan’s Ministers and senior colleagues have remained focussed on the upcoming Assembly elections. There have been reports of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders organising and participating in membership drives.

Focus on reviving economy

A 10-day lockdown was announced in the capital Bhopal on July 23. But Chouhan, who is now running the State from the hospital, has announced that the people cannot withstand the economic burden of a lockdown and that he would not extend it anywhere in the State.

During a review meeting Chouhan said the governments had to focus as much on "accelerating the pace of our economy" as on controlling the pandemic, and therefore, there would not be any lockdown in the State.

The government has clarified that in case there is an urgent need to impose a lockdown in any district, the respective district administration would require permission to announce the same.

A few days after Chouhan tested positive, BJP State president V.D. Sharma, who is also the MP from Khajuraho, tested positive on July 29.

Congress criticism

The Congress has launched a scathing attack on the State government in this backdrop. It alleged that the ruling party’s lackadaisical attitude and its fixation with the byelections were responsible for the sorry state of affairs in Madhya Pradesh.

Former Chief Minister Kamal Nath, while wishing Chouhan a speedy recovery, said things would not have come to this pass if the Chief Minister had taken the threat seriously. "Shivraj ji, I was deeply saddened to hear you have tested positive for coronavirus. I wish you a speedy recovery. But I regret that when we took the virus so seriously, you called it drama, or ‘daro na’ (don’t be scared) and a weapon to save the government," he said on Twitter.

Congress’ State spokesperson Abbas Hafeez Khan told Frontline that the BJP had failed the State in the fight against the virus. He pointed to Chouhan preferring a private health care facility for treatment and said it indicated the poor state of the health care infrastructure and the quality of medical services offered in Madhya Pradesh.

"We have a government COVID Care Centre in Bhopal which the Chouhan administration robustly marketed. The question is: why then has Chouhan refused to get admitted there?" he asked.

The Congress has also questioned the appointment of its defector, Prabhuram Choudhary, as the Health Minister. Abbas Hafeez Khan said that Choudhary’s focus was only on winning the upcoming byelection. "Choudhary had to resign after jumping ship to the BJP. He is clearly focussed on winning the byelection in his erstwhile constituency, Sanchi," he said.

New campaign

Meanwhile, on July 31 the government announced the second phase of a COVID-related campaign. In a Cabinet meeting conducted via videoconferencing, Chouhan said that the second phase would span the August 1-14 period and would focus on ensuring social distancing and adherence to norms such as wearing of masks. The first phase spanned the entire month of July, during which tests were done extensively, he added.

Chouhan also said all public rallies would be prohibited during this period. "Foundation stone laying ceremonies, inaugurations and all functions where crowds gather will be prohibited. These can be done via videoconferencing," he added.

Kamal Nath is scheduled to host a recital of the Hanuman chalisa at his residence on August 4, a day before the foundation stone laying ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Congress spokesperson Bhupendra Gupta told mediapersons that all COVID-19 protocols would be strictly followed during the event.

The event is being seen as Kamal Nath’s attempt to neutralise any attempt by the State BJP to mobilise Hindu sentiments. On August 1, Kamal Nath was in the news for his statement that the Ram temple in Ayodhya was being constructed with the "consent of every Indian".

At the same time, Kamal Nath also expressed serious concern on the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in elections. He appealed to the Election Commission (E.C.) to consider the ballot paper option. On July 29, in a letter to the E.C., he suggested that the Assembly byelections be held using ballot papers as the possibility of spread of infection through EVMs could not be ruled out.

The E.C. had earlier asked political parties to share their suggestions about electioneering amid the pandemic. Byelections are due in 24 constituencies that fell vacant after 22 rebel MLAs of the Congress resigned and two legislators died. The E.C. has not announced election dates yet.

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