West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Friday accused the Election Commission (EC) of working on the instructions of the Centre, as she lashed out at the poll panel for allegedly staying silent on the matter of banning public rallies in the state amid the Covid-19 crisis for several days to accommodate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled meetings. There are two rounds left in the fiercely fought eight-phase Bengal assembly elections in the state, with the BJP making an all-out bid to unseat the ruling Trinamool Congress and snatch the key state. Voting here will now take place on April 26 and 29, before counting on May 2.
“There is no doubt that the EC is working on the instructions of the Centre. The poll body was silent over banning roadshows, public rallies because PM Modi was supposed to hold meetings in Bengal. Interestingly, soon after the PM cancelled his meetings, the EC on Thursday night issued a notification to restrict political meetings," the TMC chief said at a press conference. “What a coincidence! The PM cancelled his public meetings in Bengal and then the EC came up with restrictions on public rallies. It is unfortunate that the EC is busy appeasing the BJP leaders and doing nothing to maintain the sanctity of the organisation. Not only that, nearly 3 lakh BJP leaders from other states and paramilitary forces entered Bengal without any RT-PCR test…who knows that they are not spreading Covid-19 cases in Bengal."
Banerjee’s remarks came on a day when she was missing from a meeting via videoconferencing of chief ministers with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the Covid-19 situation in the country. Bengal chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay represented the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party accused the CM of not being serious about the pandemic situation in Bengal.
“Everyone knows Mamata Banerjee’s poor commitment to manage Covid pandemic in Bengal. She hasn’t attended a single PM-CM meeting called in recent past to work a common plan citing her campaign schedule. Even though she has failed WB, today’s meeting was only for high burden States," tweeted Amit Malviya, national incharge of BJP’s information and technology department. and its co-incharge West Bengal.
Banerjee, however, said she was not invited to the meeting. “I was not invited to the meeting because it was with the CMs of the worst-affected states,” she said.
PM Modi was scheduled to address four rallies in West Bengal on Friday, including one at the Shaheed Minar grounds in Kolkata. However, following an outcry because of a rise in Covid-19 infections in the state and across the country, and outrage over continuing poll campaigning, he called off the events. The PM, instead, addressed virtual rallies in the state.
Accusing the Centre of being selective about states while providing support to fight Covid-19, Banerjee said, “Gujarat is getting free vaccines. The Centre wants our oxygen supply chain to other states like Uttar Pradesh. Since the requirement of oxygen will be more in Bengal (in the coming days) we will request the Centre not to divert out stocks. Where will we get oxygen from? Oxygen manufactured in Bengal should be used for its people. In 2020, the WHO alerted that all countries should be prepared with oxygen support but no action was taken by the PM. Why did the Centre not pay heed to the WHO advice? There is no doubt that PM Modi is responsible for the current Covid-19 crisis in the country. There is an absolute failure on his part.”
Several states, including West Bengal, have been reeling under an acute shortage of medical oxygen due to a massive surge in coronavirus cases with thousands of patients struggling to breathe. Efforts are also being made to bolster the ongoing vaccination drive, with everyone above the age of 18 across the country set to become eligible from May 1.
“As soon as BJP government comes to power in West Bengal, COVID-19 vaccine will be provided free of cost to everyone," the BJP tweeted from its official handle on Friday. The TMC’s Derek O’ Brien hit back at the saffron party, terming the promise a “jumla" (rhetoric). “They promised free vaccines for all during Bihar elections. Election is over, what happened? 2 phases left and BJP says this. Don’t believe BJP," he tweeted. The BJP’s statement came a day after the state’s ruling TMC made the same promise. “Free universal vaccination for everyone above the age of 18 post May 5," the party tweeted.
At the press conference, Banerjee escalated her attack on PM Modi. “Only big lecture won’t work here," she said. “PM Modi should accept his failure in handling the Covid-19 crisis in the country. He is responsible for today’s situation in the country. He pushed India into a dangerous position."
The Bengal government has formed a six-member task force under the chief secretary to oversee the Covid-19 situation in the state. Banerjee on Thursday cancelled all her remaining poll meetings, citing an Election Commission order issued earlier in the day. The TMC chief said she will now “reach out to people" virtually. The EC order came close on the heels of the Calcutta High Court asking the poll panel to act amid fears that election rallies may turn into superspreader events. Till Thursday, Bengal’s Covid-19 tally stood at 7,00,904 and the death toll at 10,766.
Hitting out at union health and family welfare minister Harsh Vardhan, the CM said, “On March 7, Harsh Vardhan had claimed that India is in the end game of the Covid-19 pandemic and now we are seeing a surge. Being the union health minister, how can he make such a statement?”