With ministers bickering all around, officials are looking to the chief minister to take the lead in communicating to the public
As the number of COVID-19 patients takes an upward spiral in Karnataka, public health specialists and doctors are getting rather anxious about the lack of proper messaging by government leaders.
The next two months are being thought of as "extremely critical" for virus spread. The onus is squarely on the individual to help contain it, the specialists admit.
And a senior virologist told The Lede: "The health systems are in a state of readiness to meet the possible explosive stage. But, it is no more in the hands of the administration. Tackling the virus is the individual responsibility of every citizen."
But there is a larger message that everyone involved in the fight against the pandemic wants from the administration, particularly if the individual citizen is to be empowered correctly.
"There are a lot of things which cannot be delivered by a doctor-specialist or a civil servant that a politician or the peoples’ representative can deliver. Now, when there is a surge in the number of cases, Karnataka needs to have someone to do that," an official who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Lede.
Though none of the technocrats mentioned it at official meetings, the implicit point being made is the daily press conference addressed by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, which has become a standing example of a "unified single command" sending out a message to the people that he - the head of the government - is there to take care of their interests.
Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa was politely briefed about the need for this kind of messaging at a task force meeting. He has been at pains to sort various communication mess-ups. But his cabinet has so far given him nothing but ego-clashes and administrative headaches.
Yediyurappa had appointed Suresh Kumar, primary and secondary education minister, to be the official spokesperson for the government on COVID affairs. This was to end an unseemly tussle between B Sreeramulu, the health minister, and Dr K Sudhakar, the medical education minister.
Yediyurappa found Dr Sudhakar to be more articulate than Sreeramulu and got a communique issued by the Raj Bhavan making him minister for COVID-19.
Sreeramulu sulked, so he ended up making him chairman of the task force for the state and pushed Sudhakar to look after the COVID effort only in state capital Bengaluru.
The attempt to douse the problem failed. Both ministers daily put out contradictory statements on who had and who had not died due to the virus, causing anger in the public, confusion, unseemly mirth and a visibly multi-tongued administrative mess.
If these two were not enough, there have been random statements on the situation from Dr CN Aswath Narayan, deputy chief minister and IT minister that the CM had to correct.
And a couple of utterances that can only be called unguided missiles from JC Madhuswamy, the law minister.
Madhuswamy, who had been pulled up by the chief minister for abusing a woman in a village, even mistook an informal discussion among ministers after the cabinet meeting as a cabinet decision!
He announced that no flights will land in Bengaluru from Mumbai, Delhi and some other cities because of the rising numbers in those states, forcing the CM to intervene and issue a counter statement.
Meanwhile, the ‘official’ spokesperson appointed by Yediyurappa, Suresh Kumar, got into a trance and decided to get the state board Class 10 exams conducted, when all the central boards of examinations were indefinitely postponed. The daily briefings just stopped.
Yediyurappa turned to his old confederate, R Ashoka, revenue minister, to take charge of COVID operations. Ashoka, who has been an on-off friend for Yediyurappa, has cozied up to the CM in the last couple of years after he was `humiliated’ at a legislators meeting by Union home minister Amit Shah during his first visit to Bengaluru in August 2018 in preparation for the 2019 assembly elections.
There is little doubt that Ashoka’s hold over the state capital is much more than Shah’s favourite, the Aswath Narayan mentioned above. But, Yediyurappa reverted to this old BJP warhorse for help as he was reportedly happy with the manner Ashoka handled protesting migrant workers when the state government did a flip flop over allowing trains to take them to their home states.
Clearly, Ashoka’s emergence did not go down well with the aggressive and articulate Sudhakar. In less than 12 hours, he put out two tweets that primarily sent out the message that he may be a minister here but he has his `Godfather’ or `Godfathers’ in Delhi.
[The third most powerful man in the BJP and its national organising secretary, BL Santosh, campaigned for him during the recent by-elections and for none else.]
Sudhakar, however, is currently not positioned to take charge of things. A cook at his residence tested positive. This was followed by Sudhakar’s father, wife and daughter also testing positive and the minister had to go into home quarantine.
Sudhakar received a number of `get well’ calls from leaders of the Congress with whom he had skirmishes on the floor of the Assembly when they accused him of becoming a `turncoat’ by subverting the system and getting re-elected as a BJP member. Among others who called him included the second-most powerful man in India, Amit Shah.
So the situation in Karnataka, in terms of political leadership, is causing flutters of worry at all levels.
With this intense competition among his ministers, will chief minister Yediyurappa emulate his counterpart from Kerala?
Or, will he just leave it as one party leader put it succinctly: “Sir, we have one minister who unnecessarily talks (Dr Aswath Narayan), one minister who blabbers (Ashoka), one minister talks very well but is trying to be over smart (Dr Sudhakar), one minister communicates well but he is behaving like a Class 10 student before his exam (Suresh Kumar) and another one who doesn’t talk (Sreeramulu). Who will be that leader who can communicate with the people, only God knows!”