On the night of March 16, when two fresh COVID-19 cases were detected in Karnataka, the first to report the cases on social media was Karnataka’s Medical Education Minister Dr K Sudhakar, 46.
It was only the next morning that B Sriramulu, 48, Sudhakar’s senior minister in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, of which Medical Education is a sub-set, reported the new cases on his social media handle.
The story, according to sources in the health ministry, is that Sriramulu’s aides tried till well past midnight to obtain details of the two fresh COVID-19 cases but were upstaged by the junior minister who was briefed by officials in the ministry.
Amid the battle to contain the spread of coronavirus, in Karnataka, a battle of one-upmanship for media presence and control of resources has emerged between two ministers in the health ministry, forcing Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa to intervene.
On Wednesday, in what seemed a fallout of the tussle between the two ministers for control of responsibilities, Yediyurappa vested full responsibility for handling the crisis in the hands of the medical education minister.
According to a notification issued by the Governor, Sriramulu will be in charge of the health ministry minus responsibilities for the COVID-19 crisis but will hold additional charge of the Backward Classes ministry.
Sudhakar, a medical doctor by qualification, will be in charge of “medical education and all matters relating to COVID-19 from the Health and Family Welfare Department” states the March 24 notification issued by the Governor.
“It is just a clear demarcation of responsibilities. Sudhakar will be based in Bengaluru and Sriramulu will be in the rural areas,” the CM said regarding the sudden change in portfolios at the end of the Budget Session.
Sriramulu will, however, remain the head of the COVID-19 ministerial task force that has Sudhakar, besides other ministers, as members. Yediyurappa set up the task force on March 19 in a bid to ensure that the power struggle between the two ministers does not come in the way of ensuring the procurement and distribution of resources such as ventilators, test kits and masks, officials closely associated with one of the ministers in the task force said.
Since the first COVID-19 case linked to Karnataka was reported on March 2, Sudhakar, who became a minister in the BJP government last month after defecting from the Congress, has been the face of the COVID-19 battle in Karnataka.
With his senior minister Sriramulu being busy with the wedding of his daughter in the initial days of the outbreak, Sudhakar took overall control of the situation — visiting three private hospitals around the Bengaluru airport and forging agreements for the hospitals to act as quarantine centres for persons arriving at the airport with COVID-19 symptoms.
Sudhakar also visited government quarantine facilities and posted about it on his social media account. “On Friday, 13th March, I went against advise, donned the doctor robes and visited the quarantined zones in the Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases, Bengaluru, where COVID-19 patients are admitted to get a first-hand understanding of the progress of those admitted,” he wrote two weeks ago.
“The medical education minister, who is a doctor and is urbane and suave, has been able to communicate to the public (on coronavirus) and has hogged the media limelight. This has caused tensions with the health minister who is from a rural background and is not equipped to communicate on the disease,” a health official said.
Sources said Sudhakar is also a dominant voice in internal meetings of the government, including during a video conference with the PM, while the health minister was restrained.
After a video conference with the PM last week, the CM allowed the two ministers to brief the media in his presence, intervening specifically to allow Sriramulu have a say.
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