Did Madhya Pradesh's Political Crisis Lead to the Subsequent Health Crisis?

The state has a high number of COVID-19 cases but does not have a health minister and the health secretary is in quarantine.

Bhopal: With 730 confirmed cases of the coronavirus infection in the state, Madhya Pradesh has emerged as one of the country’s hotspots. The death toll stands at 50. While Shivraj Singh Chouhan was sworn in as chief minister in late March, the new government did not induct any cabinet ministers, including for the health portfolio. Close to 50 of the state’s top health ministry officials in Bhopal, including principal secretary (health), are quarantined, isolated or in the ICU. Private sector hospitals have officially replaced government hospitals, including AIIMS, in managing the spread of the virus.

The health minister in the Kamal Nath government, Tulsi Silawat, was on the run in Bangalore as part of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s team of rebels when the threat of coronavirus was growing through most of March. The Kamal Nath government was toppled on March 20 and Chouhan took the saddle on the night of March 23. The lockdown was announced at 8 pm on March 24. Throughout the horsetrading in March, Chouhan had appeared multiple times on national television, maintaining, “Corona-Vorona kuch nahi hota hai (Roughly, ‘The coronavirus is not a threat’).” He had petitioned the Supreme Court for a floor test against the Kamal Nath government, which had bought some time citing the threat of the viral infection.

Now, Chouhan, who holds all portfolios, has been forced to declare Bhopal, Indore and Ujjain as hotspots. Complete curfew conditions prevail in these regions. Of the 90 people who tested positive in Bhopal, 45 were senior health department officials and one journalist who had attended all press briefings by the Congress and BJP. As of Tuesday, there are 297 containment areas spread all over the state, from Morena to Indore and close to 12,000 tests have been performed.

Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan Kamal Nath in Bhopal. Photo: Twitter/@ChouhanShivraj

The private hospital story

An IAS officer who was admitted to AIIMS, Bhopal demanded to be shifted to Chirayu, a private hospital. This has brought into focus the curious role of private hospitals in managing COVID-19 patients.

On March 31, Prateek Hajela, the state’s health commissioner, briefed the media about the state’s preparedness to manage the pandemic. He is an Assam cadre IAS official who was involved in the controversial National Register of Citizens (NC) there and had been shifted to MP. Hajela said there were 800 ICU beds in the state for COVID-19 patients and a total of about 450 ventilators. Half of the ICU beds and about 130 ventilators are in private hospitals. He elaborated that three premier hospitals in Bhopal, including AIIMS, would be dedicated to patients of the viral infection. There were fewer than 100 confirmed COVID-19 patients that day.

Also Read: Madhya Pradesh Case: Ignoring Coronavirus Threat, SC Makes Floor Test Sacrosanct

For reasons not elaborated, Hajela was sacked and attached to the Mantralaya on the same day. On April 1, an order issued by the Chouhan government allowed patients to be shifted from government facilities to private hospitals. At the time, there were many vacant beds in government hospitals. Today, there are more patients in private hospitals than premier government institutions.

It appears there is is a three-month contract that the state government has handed over to the Chirayu Hospital in Bhopal and Aurobindo Hospital in Indore “to compensate the hospitals” for not only treatment of COVID-19 patients but also “loss of revenue” for the duration.

It is curiouser that the owner of Chirayu, Dr Ajay Goenka, and the founder of Aurobindo, Vinod Bhandari, have been linked to the infamous Vyapam Scam which played a big part in the BJP being voted out. They have also served time in jail for their involvement in the admission scam.

The political victims of the crisis

The coronavirus has also played an important role in the state’s political scenario. Kamal Nath, of course lost his chief ministership in the interim when the virus was spreading throughout the country in March. He has alleged that the parliament functioned until March 23 and the lockdown was delayed because his government had to be toppled.

But there are other losers as well. Scindia may be the prime political casualty of the pandemic, as he has been given the Rajya Sabha ticket by the BJP. After some initial difficulty raised by Digvijaya Singh regarding his papers, they were approved by the returning officer on March 18. But the election has not taken place yet as the assembly was suspended after Chouhan’s floor test. Once the lockdown is lifted, the elections may be held with a depleted assembly strength of 206.

Scindia has not yet been made a Union minister, which could easily have been done on March 23 or even 24, just like Chouhan was sworn in. He will be hoping things don’t take a wrong turn now or that the BJP will not dither over its end of the bargain.

BJP can and perhaps will renege on allotting ministerial berths to some of the 22 rebel MLAs. The six ministers, including Silawat, who had resigned were reportedly promised their existing portfolios. Two others were also said to have been promised cabinet berths. Now Silawat is unlikely to get the health portfolio, while old BJP hands are raising a storm over sharing eight cabinet berths out of a total of 35. So presently, the status of all the 22 turncoats is that of an ex-MLA. They will struggle to get BJP tickets or get elected in the byelections, whenever they take place.

BJP leader Jyotiraditya Scindia being welcomed by his supporters on his arrival at Bhopal Airport, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Photo: PTI

Kamal Nath had made appointments to various boards and corporations on March 16, including Yuva Ayog, Mahila Ayog and MPPSC. All of them have been cancelled by Chouhan on the pretext that Kamal Nath had lost the majority, so he could not make the appointments. The case is likely to go to drag on in courts, though the appointees have a reasonable legal ground to hold on to their office. But the health crisis has intervened.

The threat of the coronavirus also forced the IIFA Awards gala in Indore and Bhopal, which were to be held in March, to be postponed. It was supposed to be the crowning glory of the Kamal Nath regime, in terms of organisation and publicity. Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez had already started promoting the event. The event was planned for a crowd of more than 50,000 people. The cheapest ticket was for Rs 5000 and the average ticket cost was Rs 40,000, with the most expensive ones going for Rs 2 lakh. It was said that proceeds from this were to line the pockets of people close to the chief minister. That dream is now shattered. People who had bought the tickets have been demanding a refund.

The turmoil also has engulfed the bureaucracy. Kamal Nath’s chief secretary S.R. Mohanty had resigned on March 15, just a fortnight prior to his retirement, to make way for Gopal Reddy. Mohanty was branded “one of the most corrupt officers in the history of the state” by Chouhan and has no chance of becoming the chairman of the Electricity Tariff Authority, which he was hoping to get as a post-retirement benefit under the Kamal Nath government. Reddy was transferred on March 24, itself and Iqbal Singh Bais, Chouhan’s former principal secretary, was appointed in his place.