At a time when state governments are struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19, cases are rising in two states that have witnessed political instability in recent weeks—Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, which was initially criticised for its handling of Covid-19, had managed to control the number of cases in Madhya Pradesh last month. However, the state has seen a significant rise in coronavirus cases in July.
After an increase in cases, Rajasthan, which had earlier dropped from the list of top 10 states in terms of active cases, was back in the list last week. The state recorded 635 new cases on Tuesday.
To be sure, other states and cities, such as Bengaluru and Kerala, which had initially successfully contained the spread of the virus, have also seen a spike in cases as restrictions ease. But both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the Congress and BJP respectively, are noteworthy as they continue to witness political changes during the public health emergency.
Experts emphasise on the importance of political stability while dealing with a pandemic. Balveer Arora, Chairman, Centre for Multilevel Federalism Institute of Social Sciences, told HuffPost India that political horse trading has “continued unabated in India even during the health emergency” and many states are evidence of this.
Madhya Pradesh witnessed a period of political uncertainty after Congress leader Kamal Nath resigned as Chief Minister in March. Chouhan was criticised for not appointing a health minister for nearly a month after taking oath and then running the government with just a five-minister cabinet until 2 July.
Rajasthan is the latest state going through political turmoil. Pilot was on Tuesday sacked from the posts of Rajasthan’s deputy chief minister and the party’s state unit chief.
The importance of a stable political leadership while dealing with a pandemic cannot be overstated, Rajib Dasgupta, Professor of Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told HuffPost India.
“Proactive political leadership can do wonders for inter-agency coordination — administrative, financial and technical — across central, state and municipal agencies,” said Dasgupta
What’s happening in Madhya Pradesh?
The state has now recorded a total of 19,643 confirmed cases, with 638 new cases being reported on Wednesday and 798 on Tuesday. As much as 28% of the state’s coronavirus cases have come in 14 days of July, at a daily average of 386,The Times of India pointed out.
Last week, the Madhya Pradesh government decided to impose a total lockdown every Sunday across the state in view of the rising cases.
The Week reported that Madhya Pradesh government’s lenient rules during the unlock period meant that public life returned to what it was like pre-lockdown. But one of the reasons for the spike in cases, it said, is the increased number of tests being conducted.
The total number of people tested in Madhya Pradesh was 540,483 till Wednesday, according to covid19india.org, which works out to around 6,573 tests per million population.
However, public health expert Amulya Nidhi, who is associated with public health forum Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, told HuffPost India that Madhya Pradesh is still not testing enough.
The Indian Express said last week that while Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have conducted more than a million tests each, Madhya Pradesh is among the “laggards”.
Nidhi also blamed the political instability in the state for the rise in cases. Chouhan, he alleged, was busy managing MLAs and the government functioned with just five ministers for a long time.
Chouhan, who took oath on 23 March, only appointed Narottam Mishra as the health minister on 21 April. The state had a five-minister cabinet till Chouhan inducted 28 more ministers on 2 July. He only allocated portfolios to them on Monday.
The 28 new ministers who joined the Chouhan cabinet on July 2 include 20 of cabinet rank and eight ministers of state. The ministry strength is now 34.
However, during the cabinet expansion, the health ministry was taken away from Mishra. He is now the home minister with the added responsibility of the Parliamentary Affairs and the law and justice ministries.
Prabhuram Choudhary is now in charge of the health and family welfare department.
The delay in allocating portfolios was because BJP leader Jyotiraditya Scindia was demanding key ministries for his loyalists,The Indian Express had reported. BJP legislators who were cabinet ministers in Chouhan’s previous tenures also wanted portfolios according to their seniority.
However, Professor Yatindra Singh Sisodia, Director at Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research, told HuffPost India that while early formation of cabinet and allocation of ministries could have helped to further deal with the crisis, the state’s situation and performance was much better when compared with other states.
Chouhan last month claimed success in controlling the spread of coronavirus with a recovery rate of over 76%, according to The Economic Times. According to health ministry data on Monday, Madhya Pradesh now has a recovery rate of 73.03%.
Both the BJP and Congress had acknowledged a delay in responding to the crisis in the state in April, but blamed each other. While Nath said that the Centre delayed action because it was more interested in toppling his government, Chouhan said Rahul Gandhi warned about Covid-19 on 12 February and Congress was in power in the state then.
Nidhi said that Madhya Pradesh’s Covid response is entirely “bureaucratic” and the BJP is now busy preparing for the bypolls, which have been necessitated after 22 legislators resigned and two seats fell vacant after the demise of two legislators.
Both the BJP and Congress are now reportedly gearing up for these bypolls, the dates of which are yet to be announced. BJP is already holding virtual rallies and Nath began his poll campaign with a visit to Mahakal Temple in Ujjain last week.
Chouhan and Scindia addressed a joint virtual rally last week at Karera assembly segment and the Chief Minister had addressed two physical rallies in Indore in mid-June, according toThe Print.
The report also quoted sources as saying BJP has planned 60 virtual rallies in the first phase of campaigning, which began last month, and 24 physical rallies starting August.
Turmoil in Rajasthan
With Pilot being sacked, Rajasthan is also looking at a political crisis in the state.
Rajasthan had a total of 25,571 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, after 635 new cases were reported. The state is also witnessing a surge in the number of cases and the government on Saturday imposed restrictions on inter-state movement of people.
Health Department officials attribute a rise in positive cases due to higher testing, according toThe Indian Express. Health Minister Raghu Sharma was quoted as saying in the report that while the state was testing on an average 15,000, it ramped up its testing capacity to 20,000 tests per day last week.
According to covid19india.org, Rajasthan has tested 11,23,902 people so far, which works out to 14,546 per million population.
DK Mangal, dean, research, IIHMR university in Jaipur, said that political commitment at the highest level plays a critical role in developing a strategy for dealing with a situation like Covid-19. However, he added that the present political instability in Rajasthan might not have any effect on the state’s Covid response as the systems and processes have already been defined well and are being implemented.
The surge after unlock 1.0 and 2.0 is evident and it is due to poor contact tracing and isolation of positive patients or quarantine of health high risk contacts in Rajasthan, Mangal said. Returning migrant labourers in batches from states with high prevalence of Covid is also one of the reasons for the rise, he said.
It remains to be seen if the Gehlot government moves quickly to contain the spread of the virus even as it grapples with political instability in the state.