COVID-19 and Bengal politics : A tale of negligence and appeasement

The emergence of the Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin and the subsequent designation of the area as a ‘coronavirus outbreak hotspot’ too has got the West Bengal chief minister on the defensive. She kept saying that the “virus is not communal” and steadfastly refused to answer any questions on clarifying the situation.

The COVID-19 pandemic was first confirmed in the Indian state of West Bengal on 18 March 2020 in Kolkata. The Health and Family Welfare department of Government of West Bengal has confirmed 522 active cases, 22 deaths and 119 recoveries, as of 28 April 2020, with the largest number of cases coming from the Kolkata Metropolitan region. West Bengal incidentally also has one of the lowest coronavirus testing rates in the country. 

Chief Minister Ms. Mamata Banerjee and her government has been widely criticised for the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic by blatant concealment of facts by pressurizing hospitals to hide the correct data on coronavirus in the state. To give it back, Ms Banerjee has accused the union government of not providing the state with enough coronavirus testing kits. In response, the Union Health Ministry has mentioned that West Bengal has enough testing kits. Forty kits does not mean that only 40 samples can be tested. More than 3,000 samples can be tested with the 40 kits, and according to the state government’s own figures, 297 swab samples have been tested until now.

West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee (Courtesy : moneycontrol)

Doctors say that one kit can test 70 to 100 swab samples. Bengal government has so far utilised just about 10 per cent of the available kits. Health services have completely collapsed in West Bengal and Ms Banerjee has proved to be an inefficient administrator. Rather than making an endeavour to combat the grim situation, Ms. Banerjee has been indulging in petty politics by turning the state secretariat into a party office of the Trinamool Congress, using it as a launchpad to attack the BJP, the most serious rival to the TMC in the state. Reports have also coming in of COVID-19 patients not getting beds in government hospitals, where “bodies of the deceased are piling up”. Mobile phones were disallowed in hospitals in an attempt to “suppress information” for relatives of patients. Clearly the recent rise of the BJP in the politics of West Bengal has baffled the TMC leadership which is staring at the prospect of a defeat in the upcoming assembly elections; hence Ms. Banerjee is desperately trying to safeguard her bastion at the cost of the lives of innocent people.

With regard to the issue of Tablighi Jamaat, Ms. Banerjee has also been criticized of “appeasement politics” amidst the COVID-19 crisis. On 1 April, Banerjee claimed that the West Bengal Government has already traced 54 people who attended the Tablighi Jamaat religious gathering, and 44 of them are foreigners. Although according to a report by central security agencies, 232 people had attended the Delhi’s Tablighi Jamaat event from West Bengal. Of this, 123 are Indian nationals and 109 are foreigners. Soon she clarified that her government has acted swiftly after the Nizamuddin area was declared as a hotspot where nearly 2,300 people were staying despite the lockdown. She further added that the government has quarantined 177 people, including 108 foreigners, who attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at the Nizamuddin Markaz. 

Again, on 2 April, while seven coronavirus deaths in the state were confirmed by the state’s health department, the figure was soon revised to three. The chief minister, since then, has been defending the revision, even setting up an expert committee to ascertain whether coronavirus deaths in the state are actually due to the virus or not. The emergence of the Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin and the subsequent designation of the area as a ‘coronavirus outbreak hotspot’ too has got the West Bengal chief minister on the defensive. She kept saying that the “virus is not communal” and steadfastly refused to answer any questions on clarifying the situation.

However, in defence of the profiling of the patients that the Tablighi Jamaat event has necessitated, one has to understand that identifying a patient on the basis of his/her presence at the event is not a case of a communal divide but goes to immensely help the local administration in contact tracing, quarantine and isolation of patients, preventing further spread of the disease in the community. It is a well-known fact that the attendees of the religious event in New Delhi in the first fortnight of March became carriers of the disease into almost all the states of the country, including those that had not recorded any infections previously. It is evident that Ms. Banerjee has been deliberately declining to give an update on the status of from West Bengal who had attended Delhi’s Tablighi Jamaat congregation. She has stonewalled all attempts to make her come clean on the manner in which she has handled the issue. 

Ms. Mamata Banerjee’s critics have attributed her impulsive responses to her strategy of safeguarding her socio-political constituency comprising minorities. After all, West Bengal Assembly election is due next year, and the BJP rattled the TMC last year by making surprise inroads into its traditional strongholds in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections — it won 18 seats out of 42, gaining 16 seats while the TMC bagged 22, losing 12 seats. But, is a crisis of this magnitude the right time to settle political scores, or act with future political gains in mind? The need of the hour for every state government is to set aside political/ideological differences and coordinate with the central government towards the common goal of eradicating the deadly corona virus. However, Ms. Banerjee displays little cooperation even as most other parties and states have rallied behind the Union government. A more matured approach is needed to combat this crisis, else doomsday won’t be far.

The short sightedness of the West Bengal government in dealing with the situation coupled with the personal political ambitions of Ms. Mamata Banerjee is getting the better of the health concerns and the general well-being of the people in the state. With the prospect of a massive community transmission looming large, it can spell disaster for a state like West Bengal, having a population density of 1029/km2. Unless the state government acts in a more matured manner by rising above politics of appeasement and cooperating with the Centre in combating this global pandemic, the fate of West Bengal lies in the hands of the almighty.

(The Author is an Research Scholar, Department of History, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at