The Many Missteps of Mamata Banerjee in the Ongoing Doctors Crisis
Mamata Banerjee’s handling of the ongoing doctors’ protest across West Bengal has been inefficient to say the least, no matter which way you look at it. With less than two years to go before the Assembly polls in 2021, and closely on the heels of BJP’s massive gains in the Lok Sabha polls in Bengal, the chief minister’s actions regarding the medical crisis since Monday have not only been self-defeating but a recipe for disaster as well.
Just inside the Emergency gate of Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College and Hospital, as hundreds of young doctors continue their protest, the chants of “Mukhyo Montri, haaye haaye” (“Shame on the CM”) and “Shyasto Montri, haaye haaye” (“Shame on the Health Minister”) are growing louder with every passing hour. Incidentally, Mamata holds charge of the Health Ministry as well, so the shyasto montri slogans are also directed at her.
The mood is similar in the other prominent medical colleges of Kolkata as well.
How did the crisis, and Mamata, come to this pass? Here’s how.
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Perception of Apathy: Why is Mamata Not Visiting Injured Doc?
One of the core demands of the protesting doctors was that Mamata Banerjee visit Dr Paribaha Mukhopadhyay, the intern who was injured most severely in Monday’s clashes and is currently undergoing treatment for a fractured skull.
But Mamata has refused to do so, even after three full days of agitation, thereby reinforcing a perception of unnecessary apathy. Politics is certainly a lot about optics, but Mamata seems hesitant to budge.
That Chandrima Bhattacharjee, Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare paid a visit to the injured doctor was simply not enough, either in terms of political optics or to satisfy the demands of the protesting doctors.
In addition, that the chief minister found time on Tuesday to attend the inauguration of a luxury hotel in the city, and on Wednesday to attend (and tweet about) a felicitation programme for 2019 board toppers, but not to visit either Dr Paribaha or the protesting doctors at NRS, has only angered the medical community further.
Not Engaging With NRS Docs Will Not Help
The CM has not visited NRS Medical College and Hospital, the site of the violence on Monday and the nerve centre of the doctors’ protests.
Barring TMC MP Dr Santanu Sen, who is also the president of the Indian Medical Association, most of the Trinamool leadership and senior ministers in the government have also given visiting NRS a miss. Basically, neither the state government nor the ruling party has made any substantial efforts to engage with the protesting doctors and discuss their demands. The Mamata government so far has been ignoring their voices.
The students, driven to understand that they are not being heard, are shouting louder and with reinforced vigour. And that has been another crucial mistake by the CM.
Mamata’s Response Far From Pacifying
On Thursday, when Mamata finally chose to visit a hospital, it was SSKM and not NRS. Even at SSKM, one of Kolkata’s prominent hospitals, she was met with loud chants of “We want justice” from doctors protesting there. In response, Mamata made a statement which not only did not allay concerns, but also exacerbated the situation at hand.
First, she alleged that the protesting doctors were “outsiders”.
The chief minister’s claim is patently untrue. We have been to different medical colleges where the protests are underway, including NRS, and the allegation that the protesting doctors are outsiders has no merit or basis.
On Thursday afternoon, doctors studying and working in Kolkata’s government medical colleges and hospitals were furious that the CM had chosen to question their roots. “What does she want to see? We will show her our ID cards, our Aadhaar cards, our birth certificates. How dare the CM call us outsiders?” they fumed.
Through her statement, Mamata found a way to alienate the doctors further than what her government already had by then.
But the speech wasn’t done. Next, Mamata questioned the spirit of public service that the doctors had. She said, “I condemn the doctors who have gone on strike. Policemen die in the line of duty but the police don’t go on a strike.”
The comparison to the police and the question mark raised on their dedication to public service made the protesting doctors feel belittled by Mamata and did nothing to dissuade them.
The CM also claimed, "BJP is trying to create communal tension (saying) that doctors should not attend Muslim patients.” This statement by Mamata was not taken well either as doctors vociferously asserted that they have always treated patients irrespective of their faith and that by even bringing up such an accusation, Mamata was only insulting the doctors further.
Also Read : West Bengal Doctors’ Strike: What Do They Want?
As if enough damage had not been done already, Mamata’s final message at SSKM on Thursday was an ultimatum and a thinly veiled threat of police action. She asserted, “I ask you all to resume work within four hours. If you continue such disturbance, then the government hostel facility will be taken away. Obstruction of hospital work is a crime. If the disturbance continues, strong action will be taken as per law.”
As the four-hour ultimatum came and went, the protesting doctors successfully defied Mamata Banerjee’s directive and continued their agitation. The speech had been an overall disaster.
The CM’s Facebook Post
Mamata wrote a Facebook post on Thursday evening, addressing the escalating situation.
The first thing Mamata should have done is to unambiguously state that assaulting doctors, even if you suspect negligence, is not an option and that patients and their relatives and acquaintances cannot take the law into their own hands under any circumstances.
This is a statement that needs to be made loud and clear in light of the increasing frequency with which doctors are being attacked. It is conspicuous that Mamata’s post fails to do so. Merely calling the attack “an unfortunate incident” simply doesn’t cut it.
Security Concerns Unaddressed
A key component of the demands made by the agitating doctors is that security measures be increased at all government medical hospitals. From a greater number of guards being present to more CCTV cameras, this seems a reasonable demand given the increasing frequency of assaults against doctors.
The state government has so far remained mum on this matter. Mamata Banerjee too, has refrained from discussing the issue of increasing security in hospitals. Given that this lies at the core of the problem, her reluctance to engage with the topic is being seen by the doctors as more proof of the government’s unwillingness to address their concerns.
People Aren’t Impressed, Even Outside Medical Community
Though a section of the Bengali news media has been focusing almost single-mindedly on the plight of patients being inconvenienced and not on the doctors’ concerns, Mamata’s inability to handle the situation effectively is not being seen positively, even outside the medical community.
Not being able to address the doctors’ concerns and get the hospitals up and running does not paint her government in a positive light, and voters will see it as an administrative failure.
It is also evident to people that many of Mamata’s moves have only snowballed the crisis. For example, Mamata’s allegation that the protesting doctors are outsiders was hardly taken seriously by anyone. People have been quick to interpret her wild allegations as a sign of the chief minister’s worry that her support in the state is slipping away.
This is not the first time that Mamata Banerjee has resorted to outlandish conspiracy theories when under pressure in an ongoing crisis. What is different this time though, is that instead of a beleaguered Left, there is a steadily strengthening opposition in the form of the BJP.
In such a situation, Mamata falling back on conspiracy theories and not managing to resolve the situation amicably can only be seen as a failure of the TMC government.
Senior BJP leaders have already begun making communally charged allegations that Mamata was hesitant to address the doctors’ concerns in this particular case because the 75-year-old patient, whose death sparked off the violence in the hospital, was a Muslim. BJP leader Mukul Roy alleged, “People of a particular community carried the attack. They belong to Trinamool and the ruling party patronised the attackers.”
Therefore, by not engaging with the doctors at NRS and other hospitals and choosing to ignore most of their concerns, Mamata is only playing into the BJP’s narrative and aiding her Opposition.
No matter which way you look at it, Mamata Banerjee has stumbled from one blunder to another on the doctors crisis. What should have been managed with tact and deftness has become a progressively bigger problem, and Mamata should only blame herself for it.
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