The video of a crazed crowd of stone pelting Muslims chasing away security personnel in a Howrah locality in Bengal on April 28 would have left most people cold, but not surprised. The police was doing its job of pulling up violators of the national lockdown in Muslim dominated Tikiapara when tensions were ramped up by local hoodlums who defended their right to throw all norms of social distancing to the winds in the month of Ramzan, the fight against the novel #coronavirus be damned.
Similar videos have emerged from other states as well where Muslims have refused to follow lockdown rules. The confrontation in Bengal, however, has the informal blessings of the state government. No secrecy has ever surrounded chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s policy of appeasing the 30 per cent odd Muslim vote bank in the state. Her entire politics has revolved round this single inviolable principle ever since the Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011.
Things were relatively fine till the UPA was running the show in Delhi since keeping Muslims consoled, contented, and tranquilized was the common objective of both political formations. The competition, if any, was in the zealousness of the appeasement. Here there was none to take on the temperamentally volatile Didi. The situation changed almost overnight with the election of Narendra Modi in May 2014. Battle lines were clearly drawn in view of his image as the Hindu Hriday Samrat. The torch bearer of regional Bengali pride was now willing a pick a dog-fight with anyone casting aspersions on the looniest mullah vomiting expletives against the majority community from the precincts of a mosque.
Re-election in 2016 with a sweeping two-thirds majority only egged on Didi to walk the dangerous path of Muslim placation and propitiation. Hostility towards the Centre was a natural corollary. Her long years as a practitioner of sadak-chaap politics in three decades of Marxist rule convinced her that she could successfully negotiate the sharp curves and steep inclines on the road to power by humoring a single community.
In June 2019 healthcare facilities in Bengal had virtually collapsed after two junior doctors at a Kolkata government hospital were attacked and abused by Muslim hooligans angry at the death of a co-religionist on suspicion of medical negligence. Junior doctors struck work in a number of states to protests against the growing violence against healthcare professionals, and the government’s failure to protect life and limb. They demanded that a mechanism be put in place to protect them from physical attacks. Rather than show a modicum of empathy for the striking doctors, Didi said the incident was a joint conspiracy of the BJP and CPM. Driven was the message that that she can brazen it out when it comes to defending her Muslim interest.
Mind you this was despite the dire warning served by Hindu voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll barely a month before the bust-up with doctors. Even the gob-smacking loss of 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats failed to chasten her. That a huge chunk of voters from Bengal had put their faith in Modi was evident to even her mentally deficient followers who are in clear majority. The rudderless and disorganized state of affairs of the BJP in Bengal did not seem to matter. Playing victim with an accusatory forefinger permanently pointed at Delhi, staying away from important meetings attended by other chief ministers, getting into periodical spats with the governor, making common cause with enemies of the BJP have all been part of the larger stratagem of keeping the Muslim support base from slipping.
With her grip on power largely intact, Didi was inclined to think that she could surmount the upcoming electoral challenge in 2021 when Bengal goes to the polls. The Lord God Almighty’s decision to rain down a dreaded Chinese virus seems to have again upset her calculations, compelling her to go the whole hog to mollify Muslims.
Pegging the count of the #coronavirus infected low was only to have been expected. Government doctors were ordered not to certify any death as due to virus related causes till cross-checked, and given the stamp of approval by a pliant bureaucracy. Where Didi outreached herself was in trying to prevent the Union Home Ministry deployed Inter Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) team to cross check the low count of afflictions and deaths. It was only after the state chief secretary, a certified Didi time-server, was on the verge of being read out the Riot Act by the Union cabinet secretary during one of his regular video conferences that better sense prevailed. A top official who has been attending the digital confabulations informed that had the CS persisted in opposing the IMCT’s visit for a few more minutes during a particular interaction, he would almost certainly been placed under suspension.
The latest count of corona afflicted in Bengal is around 700 though sources in the CM’s office feel the real numbers could multiply 10 times if Muslim dominated districts like Dinajpur, Murshidabad, and Malda are brought under the scanner. These are districts which have still not figured on the radar of Nabanna, the CM’s secretariat. Around 350 Tablighis were holed up in Kolkata’s Haj House till a few days ago. They were asked to stay put there after word of their culpability in spreading the virus became public. When the outcry of fudged numbers became loud enough to be heard, Didi had them dispersed to 12-13 different centers spread over the state. Most were probably dispatched to these very districts. Hence, all the more reason for the Union Home Ministry to bring them under its direct gaze.
The death toll of 57 was abruptly revised thrice over on April 24 from the prevailing 15 within hours after the Centre wrote to the CS asking for “case records” of all #coronavirus-linked fatalities that had been attributed to other causes by an expert panel constituted early April at Didi’s behest. But the admission of the higher casualty came wrapped with a rider: 39 of them had succumbed to “comorbid conditions”, #coronavirus infection being “incidental” in their death. The real cause was attributed to bombastic stuff like “cardiomyopathy with chronic kidney disease, renal failure, cerebro-vascular-accident, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, multi-organ failure in type-II diabetes and so on”.
That #corona infected figures were systematically being apple-sauced was evident from the markedly higher numbers reported following the IMCT’s arrival. Active cases zoomed from 162 on April 17 to 385 on April 24. Testing picked up pace: 4,212 samples tested by April 17 more than doubled to 8,933 by 24 April. The average daily testing figures rose to 943 from 240.
Evidence that Didi was under pressure from swirling charges of incompetence in handling a global pandemic within Bengal’s boundaries was apparent from the SoS sent to Prashant Kishor, a self-seeking consultant with no particular loyalty to any cause, party, or leader. Diehard opponents of Modi regard him a crisis manager. Such was Didi’s state of panic that Kishor was allegedly transported from Delhi on a cargo plane. If reports in a section of the media are to be believed, he has counselled Didi to keep her lips tightly sealed till things are under control. More importantly, abstain from hiding the real number of #coronavirus afflicted.
Keeping her intemperate tongue under check is the best piece of advice Didi may have received in a long time. The question is how long can she keep it under leash. Knowing her, it is only a matter of time before it darts forth again.
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