Centre plays forward, Kejriwal back in Delhi

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It’s a different Arvind Kejriwal on view in his third term as Chief Minister of Delhi. As deaths and COVID-19 cases mount in Delhi, so do the politics around it.

In a sense, given the multiplicity of authorities in Delhi, these politics are structural – not helped by the fact that the BJP controls the Central government and the municipalities – and AAP the city government.

Three months after COVID-19 was declared an epidemic on March 12, the death toll has gone beyond 1,200 and daily cases – the highest single-day tally of 2,137 was reported on Friday – continue to soar, the Centre seems to have taken over.

Mr. Kejriwal’s seemingly inexplicable decision to reserve Delhi hospitals for Delhiites on June 6 – which was shot down a day later by Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal – came on a day which also saw the late-evening appointment of a new Principal Secretary for the Health Department.

‘In letter and spirit’

After some noises were made by Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia on June 9 about the “big crisis” caused by Mr. Baijal’s reversal, Mr. Kejriwal returned from his illness, and a negative COVID-19 test, to declare a day later that he would implement the L-G’s decision “in letter and spirit”. Hours later he met Home Minister Amit Shah.

The canny politician that he is, Mr. Kejriwal quickly seemed to realise that public opinion was not with him on his “reservation” decision and fell in line with the L-G’s diktat.

Remember he is the same man who sat for nine days on a dharna at the L-G’s residence from June 20, 2018 demanding the passage of files related to flagship government schemes.

It’s clear that Mr. Baijal, in his capacity as Chairperson of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), is in the driver’s seat as the city’s death toll breached the 1,000 mark and active cases crossed 20,000.

A Delhi government spokesperson, when asked for a comment, said there was “nothing new” regarding the L-G’s role in this respect. Government sources, however, said Mr. Baijal’s proactive role over the last few days was in line with the Centre’s nudge.

Exponential leap

On March 4, there was a single case in the city. On Friday, the Capital recorded the highest single-day tally of 2,137 cases. As of June 12, the total number of positive cases was 36,824 with 13,398 recoveries, 1,214 deaths and 22,212 active cases.

After claiming to be prepared to handle as many as 1,000 positive cases per day, and being “four steps ahead of corona” till as recently as May 30, the Delhi government has predicted a rather grim scenario for the end of July. By June 15, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Wednesday, there will be 44,000 COVID-19 cases in the city and 6,600 beds will be required.

By June 30, Delhi will reach one lakh cases and need 15,000 beds, 2.25 lakh cases requiring 33,000 beds by July 15 and, by July 31, there were expected to 5.5 lakh cases and requirement of 80,000 beds.

While additions to the number of hospital beds to treat novel coronavirus patients have progressed at a snail’s pace – going from 3,734 on April 4 to 8,821 on June 9, even the takeover of stadia to serve as medical facilities, which first began to be pursued in late March, is still in the works.

Unfulfilled promise

In fact, the Delhi government announced back on March 30 that they would take over the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, constructed for the Asian Games in 1982, and run it as a hospital.

But that never happened allegedly over the issue of who would arrange for security after its transfer: the Delhi government or the Sports Authority of India (SAI). It’s also intriguing why the Delhi government didn’t turn one of its own stadiums – such the Thyagaraj Stadium – into a hospital.

Given how power is structured in Delhi, the administration can work only if the Central and city governments converge on decision-making. Especially in times of a pandemic like COVID-19.

Mismatch in number

They could begin by addressing the mismatch in the number of “official” Delhi government-provided number of COVID-19 deaths – 1,085 – with that put forward by the three municipal corporations on Thursday – 2,098.

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