With over 1,400 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 70 deaths in Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s handling of the pandemic has come under severe criticism. The state still does not have a health minister, but a senior government official insists that the Chief Minister himself is the health minister.
Mohammed Suleman, Additional Chief Secretary (Health), for the Madhya Pradesh government, told reporters on Saturday that it is “factually incorrect” to say Madhya Pradesh does not have the health minister. “I do have a health minister. The chief minister is the health minister as on date. As far as the legality of the issue is concerned it is absolutely clear to me as a government servant that I have a health minister,” he said.
Chouhan, who took oath on 23 March, has set a record by becoming the longest serving Chief Minister without a council of ministers, according to News18. In an earlier interview to the channel, he had said that there was little time to form the cabinet as the state was dealing with coronavirus cases and the party leadership had also advised that Cabinet formation should take place after the lockdown has been lifted.
Chouhan’s latest stint as chief minister followed a period of intense political turmoil in the state. The floor test for the Kamal Nath government was necessitated after 22 MLAs of the Congress resigned following Jyotiraditya Scindia’s exit from the party.
BJP scrambling to contain crisis
As cases continue to rise and several health department personnel also test positive, the party is now desperate to contain the situation. A BJP leader told The Print that the party is now open to the idea of putting in place a cabinet after 20 April (Monday).
Madhya Pradesh has also constituted an advisory committee, comprising Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi and 12 others, to help deal with the crisis.
“Considering the rise in Covid-19 cases, the government set up an advisory committee, comprising eight doctors, a retired IAS and a retired IPS officer, apart from Satyarthi,” an official from the general administration department was quoted as saying by PTI on Saturday.
Former chief secretary Nirmala Buch, retired IPS officer Sarabjeet Singh, president of MP Nursing Home Association Dr Jitendra Jamdar and state president of the Indian Medical Association Dr Mukul Tiwari are also part of the panel.
The additional chief secretary of public health and family welfare will be the coordinator of this committee, the official said.
How politics delayed the response
The situation in the state has given an opportunity to the Congress, which has attacked the BJP and Chouhan repeatedly over the delay in cabinet formation and demanded that President’s rule be imposed in the state. Rajya Sabha MP Vivek Tankha wrote in a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind last week that an “illegally designed and poorly conceived one-man show” has been unconstitutionally thrust upon the people amid a lockdown, The Hindu reported.
Former Chief Minister Nath also accused the Chouhan government for the crisis, saying that the Centre delayed action because it was more interested in toppling the state government.
Chouhan, according to ANI, hit back, “I had never imagined there will be such bad politics at the time of this crisis. Kamal Nath said Rahul Gandhi warned about Covid-19 on 12 February. Who was CM then? What did he do till 23 March? Can someone be this selfish to stop working as they won’t be CM anymore?”
The assembly session was initially adjourned on 16 March for 10 days in view of Covid-19 and Chouhan was then quoted as saying, “Corona won’t save Kamal Nath’s government. He has clearly lost his majority, so he avoided a trust vote today.” The BJP moved the Supreme Court and Nath resigned on 20 March, moments ahead of the trust vote.
Chouhan took oath a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the national lockdown and no social distancing was followed at his swearing in ceremony in a packed Raj Bhavan.
The BJP and Congress have continued to blame each other for the crisis. State BJP chief VD Sharma admitted to The Times of India that there was a “little delay” in focusing on the coronavirus in Madhya Pradesh due to the political crisis in March, but blamed the Congress. Meanwhile, Nath’s aide Sajjan Singh Verma also acknowledged the delay in responding to the coronavirus but held the BJP responsible.
“Chauhan was in a tearing rush to get sworn in, why couldn’t that be done for the cabinet as well?” Sachin Jain, an activist working with the Right to Food campaign in Madhya Pradesh, told Vidya Krishnan for a story in The Caravan.
Health department down
Krishnan also noted in the 10 April article that “almost the entirety of Madhya Pradesh’s health department—which comprises only of bureaucrats and no minister, at a time when the state has reported a death toll of 29 to the COVID-19 pandemic—have either tested positive for the virus or are under quarantine.”
As of Saturday, 89 health department officials including a few doctors have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, a government official told PTI.
Suleman also said on Saturday that the a number of health officials testing positive has hurt the image of the department but claimed it has not affected its working.
“It has become a very sensitive issue. I must admit that it has hurt our image. It has been a setback as far as our image is concerned but there has been no effect on our functioning,” said Suleman, according to PTI.
He said that the infection in the health directorate travelled upwards. Giving details, Suleman said people in the health directorate were in charge of different districts and they were travelling to the areas under them.
“The health directorate was functioning in a hyper-active mode. They had a control room (to track Covid-19 related matters) and there were 50 people working in that control room. So immediately the virus must have travelled to them. Damage was already done till the time people came to know about it. Total 90 people in the health department including their family members got infected. I am happy to say that all of them are comfortable now. None of them has serious symptoms. None of them is in ICU. Some of them have tested negative,” he added.
(With PTI inputs)