BSY: Balancing A Rocky Boat During COVID-19
Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa

BSY: Balancing A Rocky Boat During COVID-19

Politics, ego hassles and jostling for power between ministers has the Karnataka chief minister on his toes

When decisions follow the cliché of one step forward and two steps backward, it is time to take note.

In the last three days, announcements from the Karnataka government have not gone just two steps backward but have taken an extra step back as well.

The BJP government was to decide what kind of activities, economic or otherwise, could be allowed when the first phase of the lockdown ended on Monday. But the way it has gone about the task smacks of confusion at various levels, raising the question of whether the leadership of chief minister BS Yediyurappa is being undermined in some ways.

Party men, of late, have noted the manner in which a few ministers have gone about their assigned duties and the unilateral decisions that some of them have taken which simply do not fall in line with the concept of collective responsibility, particularly, when the state is battling a deadly virus that has suddenly hidden its symptoms as well.

The Past Three Days

Take a look at the sequence of events, first, in the last three days before we go to the last three weeks.

A ‘overly active’ Dr CN Ashwath Narayan announced soon after a video conference with some representatives of the Information Technology and Biotechnology sector that the companies will start functioning from their respective offices with 50% staff from Monday, April 20.

Ashwath Narayan, Deputy chief minister, Karnataka
Ashwath Narayan, Deputy chief minister, Karnataka

The announcement was, of course, subject to the COVID-19 standard norms of maintaining physical distancing, wearing of masks, sanitisers etc and that the employees will only travel in hired buses.

But that very afternoon, Yediyurappa made it clear that these were only suggestions being discussed and that a final decision would be taken on Monday, the 21st day of the first lockdown.

A day later, it was decided that just one third of the employees of IT and BT companies could attend work but would be encouraged to work from home. Construction activities could resume but workers should stay at the work location. Inter-district travel would not be allowed but Bengaluru Urban, Rural and Ramanagara would be treated as one district and 33% of government staff would be allowed to attend work.

A few hours later, it was announced that the government bowed to “public opinion” and decided not to allow two-wheeler movement and that it would take a final decision on Monday.

Late Sunday, the chief secretary issued an order that the lockdown would be extended till the midnight of April 21.

The ostensible reason was that such an important decision could not be taken by less than a handful of ministers and, therefore, should be taken by the cabinet. The underlying message was that the decision taken had to be thought through. In other words, it meant that the decision taken by the deputy CM in his capacity as minister for IT and BT was rather premature.

When the Cabinet met on Monday morning, it was decided to continue the lockdown till May 03. Not just that. It was also decided that the chief secretary would hold discussions with the officials and decide in the next 3-4 days, how the lockdown could be scaled down.

Suresh Kumar, the minister for primary and secondary education, who is currently the spokesperson for the government on COVID-19, told reporters: “It was a unanimous decision of the cabinet that we should not take any chances. Other states have also decided to extend it beyond May 03. We may take a call after three or four days. I don’t know. But as of now, the lockdown will be extended.”

The Past Three Weeks

Suresh Kumar’s appointment as the spokesperson for the government itself takes us into the developments of the last three weeks.

Karnataka education minister Suresh Kumar
Karnataka education minister Suresh Kumar

Suresh Kumar was fielded by the chief minister to curb the intense competition between health minister B Sreeramulu and the medical education minister - the only ‘COVID-19’ minister in India, or possibly, in the world - Dr K Sudhakar.

Karnataka health minister Sreeramulu
Karnataka health minister Sreeramulu
Karnataka medical education minister Sudhakar
Karnataka medical education minister Sudhakar

The articulate Dr Sudhakar was brought in to brief the media and monitor COVID-19 at a point of time when Sreeramulu was busy with his daughter’s wedding. This was just around the time that people were beginning to realise that the menace of COVID-19 had entered India.

In one of those media briefings, Yediyurappa had even stopped Sreeramulu from replying to a question when Sudhakar had just started speaking.

The expression of humiliation on the face of Sreeramulu was there for all to see. Sreeramulu suddenly stopped visiting the Vidhana Soudha but was always available to speak to a couple of TV channels.

After some time, he started using social media to announce the deaths of patients when Sudhakar or the officials would keep stalling the issue by saying that they would speak only at the evening briefings to the media. There were occasions when Sreeramulu would put out a tweet and Sudhakar would give a totally different figure and the officials would brief the media with yet another figure.

Party leaders, privately, agree that there is “intense competition and ego problems among the ministers.” One of these leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, even said that: “It is evident that one wants to upstage the other. That is at one level. At another level, it is also a fact that there is an attempt to undermine Yediyurappa with deputy chief minister Ashwath Narayan quietly defying the former’s specific instructions.”

It appears that the Cabinet’s decision to postpone the withdrawal of the lockdown in a phased manner until May 03 was one way of communicating that a single minister cannot take a unilateral decision to open up movement of vehicles for a section of the industry like IT and BT which has adopted the work-from-home concept. More so, when the entire focus of the administration has been to ensure that essential commodities are brought to towns and cities and are sold for the benefit of the farmers as well as the city dwellers.

But the other critical decision the cabinet has taken is to study the ordinances promulgated by Uttar Pradesh and Kerala governments to curb attacks on healthcare workers by using the stringent weapon of confiscation of properties of the accused who indulge in rioting.

59 persons had been arrested for rioting in a containment area in Bengaluru city’s Padarayanapura. It is not clear if this decision also serves the purpose of sending a message to the Central leadership that the Karnataka leadership was as firm as Yogi Adityanath in dealing with protestors.

This decision could also be a balancing act because Yediyurappa had been heavily trolled by supporters of the BJP and the RSS for taking the firm stand that he would not tolerate the entire Muslim community being blamed for spreading the virus when the Tabliqi Jamaat incident took place. His logic was that virus did not differentiate between communities. Yediyurappa had received bouquets on social media from those who are always opposed to the BJP for this stand.

“You must have noticed that the chief minister is himself now speaking to the media on a daily basis. It is basically to inform everyone that he is still in command,” said one of his close supporters. This also appears to be a counter to some party leaders’ views that the chief minister has not been as effective as he used to be in his previous term.

But then Yediyurappa tackled ministerial dissent very patiently when dealing with the likes of mining baron Gali Janardhan Reddy and others during his first term (2008-11).

It is possible that he may be waiting a lot longer now because it is the Modi era and not that of LK Advani.

What is certain, however, is that Yediyurappa is not one to take a step or more backwards without a reason.

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