Baptism by fire for new CMs in 3 States as Covid pandemic rages on

    21-May-2021
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Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
The world will have to live through Coronavirus for more time, and India definitely so as there is talk of a third wave even as we are still struggling with the second wave. The good news is that the number of cases are coming down, across India though Tamil Nadu has become the focus of concern.
And more so, because there is a new Government, just about a few days old, that has to bear the brunt of the second wave that is raging with a ferociousness not seen during the first wave last year.
Yes, we will continue our focus on Covid-19, but let’s take a break and have a look at the emerging political scenario and the governance styles brought in by the new Governments in place in Assam, Puducherry, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, where elections were held across the month of April and results declared on May 2.
In Assam, there is continuity in Government in that though there is a new person, Himant Biswa Sarma in the Chief Ministerial chair since he is from the BJP one can expect more of the same–people-oriented policies and programmes to continue. In tune with the Central Government policies, but he would have to face a slightly tougher and enthused Opposition party, the Congress. But here too management of Covid pandemic is of top-most importance as numbers rise in the State too.
In Puducherry, since the BJP alliance won the State, it is expected to see some governance, which was missing in the last five years owing to the perpetual tussle between Chief Minister V Narayansamy and the then Lt Governor Kiran Bedi.
The entire country is focused on the Left Democratic Front Government, that became the first Government in many decades to get re-elected, as it has done a new experiment in Government formation that has been unseen in any of the Governments so far. The State dropped many senior Ministers and brought in fresh faces, first-timers as Ministers with the experienced ones making way for fresh blood.
Now it remains to be seen as to how quickly the new ones adapt to the working and become adept at delivering governance. Especially under sharper focus will be the Covid management, especially so since K Shalilaja, the internationally acclaimed Minister to have tackled Coronavirus efficiently, was dropped from the Cabinet. Something that the seniors in the party ascribe to a collective decision of the party, but analysts believe it was done to cut to size any leader becoming more popular than the Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan.
In West Bengal, which voted back Mamata Bannerjee led Trinamool Congress with an increased majority in a stunning victory against all odds and humbling the collective might of the BJP’s election-winning machinery, the beginning has been anything but fiery. If post-poll violence became a major flashpoint between the ruling TMC and the Opposition BJP, the Governor and Central Government too tried to step in amid demands for a President’s Rule.
The Governor has made it clear that he would be keeping a hawkish eye on the law and order situation amid allegations that the TMC goondas were let loose on BJP workers. And the CBI arrests of four senior TMC leaders, including two Ministers, have become a huge political controversy with the TMC crying foul. In what can be seen as retaliation, the West Bengal police has summoned a BJP MP, Arjun Singh for questioning in a corruption case. He has been asked to appear before the CID that is investigating the case.
Meanwhile, the Courts have given partial relief to the four TMC leaders, by sending them to house arrest instead of judicial custody as the CBI has sought.
Interestingly, it is a first timer of sorts, in DMK president MK Stalin who hit the ground running in Tamil Nadu and brought in swift but small changes in the team to assist him in the delivery of governance and also mount an effective fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
It looks like he has already worked out an action plan of what he will do when he becomes the Chief Minister, and this plan was in the making all through the five decades or so when he served as an understudy to his father and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi who became CM several times. And his political moves too caught many by surprise who were expecting acrimonious slanging matches between DMK and the AIADMK.
Contrary to expectations, Stalin started the politics of cooperation and consensus in place of politics of confrontation. Very early days, but his first fortnight in office marks a refreshing change that left even his opponents pleasantly surprised.
Leaving the practical aspects of governance delivery and fight against Corona to experts–he got officials to do the thinking, strategizing, planning, and execution to the experts in governance delivery (officials known for their proven efficiency), and consulted the Opposition and included the Health Minister from the AIADMK regime in Covid panel, and releasing details of CM Public Relief Fund in the public domain--Stalin sought to concentrate on the big picture.
Although he campaigned against the PM during elections, Stalin attended a meeting hosted by the PM on Covid-19 and sought TN’s rightful share of vaccinations and medicines, as also oxygen supplies.
For Stalin, like all the other new Chief Ministers barring Pinarai Vijayan who was fighting Covid since the time the first case was reported in Kerala on January 27, 2020, the pandemic is the biggest challenge he has faced in his public life. So far, that is.
Moving swiftly, Stalin has invited the private sector to set up joint ventures and declared a 30 percent capital expenditure subsidy for manufacture of essentials items needed to fight the pandemic.
On the political front, Stalin is trying a tightrope walk, maintaining a cordial working relationship with the Union Government headed by the BJP against whom he campaigned vigorously,  and putting up a tough posture on several issues the DMK feels strongly about.
Take for instance the New Education Policy, over which the DMK has severe objections. The DMK feels that the Central Government was trying to sneak in Hindi through the NEP and had already declared during the election campaign that it will strongly oppose any attempt to “impose Hindi” even if under the guise of popularizing Sanskrit.
The Stalin Government skipped a virtual meeting convened and chaired by Union Minister Nishank Pokhriyal on New Education Policy 2020.
The whole of India is looking at these three key States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal which have elected non-BJP Governments and their performance will largely dictate the fortunes of the Opposition in the 2024 Lok Sabha general elections. To be able to provide a credible alternative, the Opposition ruled States now have a time of just three years to show an alternative model of governance that works–for the masses, and one that the masses endorse.
If not, the BJP starts from an advantage of–Modi versus ?–campaign. But before the major battle, there are Assembly elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh slated for next year, which can be described as semi-finals.
For us in the country, the run-up to Lok Sabha general elections, more than two and half years away, looks set to be interesting.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman