Prashant Kishor By Her Side, is Mamata in Damage Control Mode?

Since Kishor’s mysterious entry into Kolkata amid the lockdown, Mamata’s COVID response seems slightly different.

4 min read
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee (left) and election strategist Prashant Kishor. 

The West Bengal government’s COVID-19 medical bulletin on Monday, 4 May, came as a welcome surprise to journalists in the state. Over the last many weeks, these journalists had developed the habit of practising their math problems as they tried to salvage the total number of COVID-19 positive cases, new positive cases each day, and the death toll in the state, from the routine data given by the state government.

The bulletin on 4 May, in a “new” format, however, was different. For the first time since its response to the COVID-19 pandemic began, the West Bengal government had categorically released numbers for the total deaths, total positive cases and positive cases registered in the past 24 hours.

The new bulletin was also visibly swankier – replete with colour codes, graphs, and district-wise data. Basically, everything a B-school graduate would put in a presentation. This led many to deduce that this was Team Prashant Kishor in action. The poll strategist, who mysteriously travelled to Kolkata amid the lockdown on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s call, has been closely involved with the government’s COVID-19 response strategy since he came to the city, say sources.

Governance-Centric Approach

A typical Prashant Kishor approach is focusing on governance instead of politicking. Something that was a feature of his recent campaigns in Andhra Pradesh, and more recently, in Delhi.

The controversial COVID-19 “audit committee” that classified deaths of COVID-19 positive patients as “COVID-19 deaths” and “co-morbidities” was dealt with in a similar manner.

On 30 April, the government declared that the committee had, till that point, examined 105 deaths, of which it had only declared 33 as “COVID-19 deaths”. Till that point, only these 33 deaths were reported by the state, and not the remaining 72. It was also indicated on that day that the audit committee will no longer be working the way it had been.

Finally, on 4 May, along with new and improved data, West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, also announced that the audit committee will not be examining all COVID-19-related deaths anymore. Instead, death certificates will be issued by hospitals.

He, however, denied that this response from the government was prompted by repeated complaints from the Centre’s Inter-Ministerial Team, which accused the state of not being transparent about data, specifically questioning the need for such an audit committee.

The committee had a “research purpose,” Sinha explained, and the “exercise had now been completed.”

This slow revamping of the government’s approach began with the hashtag #ChintaNeiDidiAache” or “Worry Not Didi is Here,” launched when Mamata Banerjee announced that her government will bring back all residents of Bengal stuck in different states, starting with 2,500 students from Kota in Rajasthan.

There were also a slew of pro-governance and pro-people measures that followed this. These include an expert committee on the COVID-19 crisis, led by Dr Amit Mitra, one of the most credible faces of the Trinamool Congress.

The government also decided to follow in Maharashtra and Delhi’s footsteps and has initiated free COVID-19 testing services for journalists working in the field.

“His team has been asked to not be defensive because of the attacks from the BJP and focus on proactive governance,” said a source close to Prashant Kishor’s team, on the condition of anonymity.

“The focus now is to fill up the gaps in the state’s response, even if they came to the fore because of the BJP’s intervention,” he added.

The source also added that Team PK was putting repeated pressure on the state government to be transparent about numbers and ensure regularity of the daily medical bulletin.

Tackling the BJP

One of the more pressing issues on Kishor's plate, though, will be the perception battle that the Trinamool will now have to win. With even second-rung BJP leaders like Amit Malviya and Kailash Vijayvargiya training their guns on the party (and managing a significant dent), it is going to be important to win back the narrative.

“Kishor is a public health man who is good with numbers. This crisis is right up his ally. But we must also understand that he is not here in his capacity as a health expert. It is the image management that he has been called in for,” said political analyst and former bureaucrat Jawhar Sircar.

“I’m not sure how much of direct governance he is involved in, but he has definitely asked the chief minister to mellow down,” he added.

At this point, it seems like the counter-narrative that the Trinamool is trying to build is that while they are trying their best, lack of co-operation from the Centre, and repeated attacks from the BJP are killing their efforts.

The public (and nasty) battle of letters between Mamata and the state’s Governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar, is a case in point. One of the letters in this exchange was a five-paged note that the CM sent to the governor in response to a letter and numerous SMSs sent by him. In the letter, Mamata attacked him for his “language, tone and tenor,” reiterating that while the chief minister’s office is an elected post, the governor’s is a nominated one.

In the letter, the CM also quoted the Constituent Assembly debates and the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-state relationship to elucidate her point.

While Mamata’s letter was talked about for its scathing attack on the governor, many also noticed that the “language, tone and tenor” of the letter was not that of a typical Trinamool or Bengal government communication. This prompted many to ask if it was drafted by one of Mamata’s lawyer aides like TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee, or if this was once again, Team PK in action.

But, like on Kishor’s mysterious entry into Kolkata, the jury is still out on this one.

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