Raising the political pitch in her battle with the centre over the handling of the coronavirus crisis, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday revealed she had told Union Home Minister Amit Shah that if he thought the state government was failing to handle the crisis properly, why didn’t he try and deal with it himself. She also accused the Railway Minister of politics over migrant trains, at least 28 of which are expected in the state from Maharashtra in the next 24 hours.
“I told Amit Shah, you are sending constantly central teams to Bengal. Go right ahead. But if you think the West Bengal government can’t do the job, why don’t you handle the corona crisis yourself? I have no problem,” Ms Banerjee told a news briefing in Kolkata, called to address the issue of a spate of migrant workers’ trains arriving in West Bengal from Wednesday.
“I thank him for what he said in response,” she added. “He said… ‘No, no, how can we dislodge an elected government’. He said that to me.”
Ms Banerjee and Mr Shah have taken shots at each other over the coronavirus crisis. Not only did the Union Home Secretary and the Bengal chief secretary exchange terse letters on the issue, Mr Shah wrote to Ms Banerjee pointing out flaws in her COVID-19 management. One of his letters reached the media even before the she responded and she had expressed outrage.
“I would normally never disclose all this. But given the situation, I want to tell Amit Shah, take care. You have done the lockdown. But trains and planes are running. So what about the people?” she said.
“I want to tell PM and HM (Home Minister), please see corona doesn’t spread. We already have 1 lakh cases. Some quarters want it to spread for politics. Bihar is affected. Rajasthan, MP, it is spreading everywhere. What can I do? In this disastrous situation, I want PM to intervene,” she said.
While that sounded like an appeal, the main thrust of Ms Banerjee’s press meet was the huge number of migrant trains now on way to Bengal. In the next 24 hours or so, as many as 36 trains are expected to arrive in Bengal from across Maharashtra, the worst affected state.
Ms Banerjee has claimed the sudden deployment of migrant trains to Bengal was a political ploy to “disturb” her. What she left unsaid was that the BJP was attempting to create trouble for Trinamool ahead of the 2021 assembly elections.
“They are trying to disturb me politically but ending up disturbing West Bengal. Disturb me politically but do some planning about the migrant trains,” she said.
“What is this nonsense? We are battling corona on one hand, the cyclone on the other. And they are sending all these trains. Doesn’t the railway ministry have any sense of responsibility? They were supposed to consult state governments before sending. Why didn’t they consult us? They did not follow our schedule. They did what was politically convenient to them and forcefully. Don’t you see it is causing trouble for Bengal? We are in the middle of a natural calamity. Should I be handling the calamity, people’s suffering or the politics they have thrust upon me?” she said.
Rival BJP in Bengal has accused Ms Banerjee of trying to shirk her responsibility towards migrants, claiming she did not want them back. For poll-bound Bengal, that is a hugely emotive issue. Reports from the districts suggest people on the ground are divided on migrants returning. While many want their migrant kin back, there is fear among other that the return of the migrants may cause a COVID-19 infection explosion.
BJP claimed Mamata Banerjee did not want to take responsibility for treating, testing or quarantining the migrants. And indeed initially, migrant trains coming to Bengal were few and far between. But in a clear change of political strategy, Ms Banerjee has said she will bring the migrants home. “If they had executed our plans properly, they would all be back in 15 days,” she said.
But BJP is trying to expose her alleged double speak. On Wednesday, it issued a nine-point chargesheet against the Mamata Banerjee government on its completion of nine years in office. Among the charges is the state government’s tardiness to get migrants back. “While UP had hundreds of trains carrying migrants in the first round, Bengal had less than 10,” the chargesheet said.