As COVID-19 Rages in Bihar, Communist Party Diagnoses the Problem: Mangal Pandey, Health Minister

Cadres of the CPI (ML)-Liberation defied the lockdown last week and took to the streets to launch an agitation against the BJP minister in charge of public health.

Patna: While members of the two biggest political parties in Bihar – chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) and Lalu Prasad’s opposition party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) – snipe at each other on social media over the alleged mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state, a much smaller party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, has started an agitation demanding the dismissal of the state’s health minister.

The cadres of the Left party, which has three MLAs in the state assembly, are on the streets, having apparently diagnosed the sickness afflicting Bihar’s health situation: Mangal Pandey, the state health minister, who is from the BJP, the JD(U)’s coalition partner in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). In the nearly 15 years of Nitish Kumar’s leadership since the NDA came to power in Bihar in 2005, the BJP has had full control of the health department.

“Dismiss Mangal Pandey; he and his BJP are primarily responsible for the worsening corona situation in the state,” Kumar Parvej, the CPI (ML)-Liberation’s party office secretary, told The Wire.

While newspapers and media channels appear to have blanked out coverage of the CPI (ML)-Liberation’s agitation, those who live in the state saw thousands of cadres from the Left party defying the lockdown in Bihar on July 23 to march in Patna and other places with their demand.

A CPI (ML)-Liberation protest. Photo: Author provided.

In fact, the media, which usually makes much of social media posts by people like Chirag Paswan, whose Lok Janshakti Party also has three MLAs in the assembly, has even ignored the tweets posted by the CPI (ML)-Liberation’s general secretary, Dipankar Bhattacharya on the issue.

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A 15-year-old mess

Those who follow state politics have noted that Bihar’s health department has been a place where power games between Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy from the BJP, Sushil Kumar Modi, have been played out for well over a decade.

In 2005, when the NDA was voted into power in Bihar, the BJP’s Chandramohan Rai – a leader with a relatively clean public image – became the health minister. Soft-spoken and suave, Chandramohan handled the department reasonably efficiently which earned him appreciation from bureaucrats and the medical community of the state.

But suddenly in 2008, Nitish Kumar replaced Chandramohan with another BJP leader, Giriraj Singh. It was believed this was done at the behest of Sushil Modi who wanted his “own man” in this high profile department.

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Giriraj remained below the public radar until the Narendra Modi brand of politics replaced the old order of the BJP, whereupon Giriraj sharpened his anti-minority rhetoric. This brought him close to Modi and Shah and today he is a minister in Narendra Modi’s government.

“I was shocked when Nitish replaced Chandramohan with Giriraj and asked him (Nitish) why he did it. With an arrogant look, Nitish pointed to his chest and said, ‘Whatever I do, I do on the call from my heart,’” Shivanand Tiwari told The Wire. Tiwari had been a JD(U) member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha when Chandramohan was replaced. Today, he is the senior vice president of the RJD.

CPI (ML)-Liberation members protest while maintaining social distance. Photo: Author provided.

Since Giriraj Singh focused more on Hindutva than Bihar’s health department, Nitish made the BJP’s Ashwini Choubey health minister in 2010. Like Singh, Chaubey surfed the Hindutva wave and is today an MP from Buxar and a minister in Narendra Modi’s government. His tenure as Bihar’s health minister was marked with the medical equipment scam.

In 2016, in the brief period when Nitish’s JD(U) joined the RJD and the Congress party to form a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), Lalu Prasad’s son, Tej Pratap Yadav, became health ministerIn 2017, when the JD (U) broke away from the mahagathbandhan and formed a government with the BJP again, Mangal Pandey who has never contested an election, became Bihar’s health minister. Pandey had very little administrative experience, but was said to have been selected by the BJP’s high command.

The pandemic strikes the BJP

In Bihar, the pandemic has fast been getting out of control. On Wednesday, July 29, the state had 43,591 COVID-positive patients. By Thursday, 2,480 more tested positive. Every day, the figures of infection rise by 2,400 to 2,500 new patients. So far there have been 264 deaths due to the virus and 14 more reported in the last 24 hours.

CPI (ML)-Liberation members at a protest. Photo: Author provided.

Under growing pressure from the relatives of patients and the medical community, the state government has replaced Udai Singh Kumawat, principal secretary of the health department, with Pratyay Amrit. Amrit, who is also the disaster management secretary, is believed to be a capable IAS officer. But there is no guarantee that he will be able to cope with a health department that has been mismanaged for more than 10 years.

Ironically, as Bihar suffers from the effects of the rapidly-spreading novel coronavirus, members of the BJP’s state unit are among the worst affected of all. The party’s state headquarters was sealed on July 17 after many of its leaders, including Sanjay Jaiswal, the state party president, Nagendra Nath Tripathi, general secretary (organisation), and Devesh Kumar, another party general secretary, tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

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The fact that so many BJP leaders and party members have been afflicted with the virus is possibly because they recklessly gathered at the party office on July 7 to watch and listen to Amit Shah’s address in a virtual rally to galvanise booth-level workers. More than a hundred BJP workers began showing symptoms of the COVID-19 virus after the gathering. On July 17, a virus testing van collected samples from 110 BJP workers and leaders. The media then reported that 75 BJP leaders had tested positive, but the party spokesman, Nikhil Anand, said, “Only 25 BJP leaders have reported corona positive.”

Since the health department has not issued an official statement specifying the exact number of BJP workers who tested positive, it is impossible to pin down a genuine figure. But the fact remains that the state BJP has been negligent in adhering to the precautionary norms set by its own government at the Centre.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist. He is the author of Gopalganj to Raisina – My Political Journey, a biography of Lalu Prasad and The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.