WHILE the West Bengal Assembly polls are only a year away, Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee has sought pollster Prashant Kishor’s services for another reason: as a troubleshooter in the state government’s tussle with New Delhi over its handling of coronavirus. As part of its revised strategy, the Trinamool government has reworked its mortality figures in consonance with the Centre’s criteria and acknowledged more deaths. Mamata now keeps largely silent on the pandemic and lets her minister Partha Chatterjee do the talking. Her nephew Abhishek has tweeted some positive projections for West Bengal and the state government is trying to improve distribution of ration in rural areas following numerous complaints. However, it is unclear whether Kishor will stay on in the state. Some Trinamool leaders and an advertising agency owner perceive him as a threat. Even Mamata is wary of Kishor’s alleged BJP links.
At one time being a party spokesperson in the Congress was thought to be a route to a seat in Parliament. But no longer. The Congress’s longest serving full-time spokesperson, Tom Vadakkan, got so tired of waiting for a reward that he joined the BJP last year. (Not that this has substantially improved his lot in life.) Only one canny opposition party spokesperson has defied the odds, Priyanka Chaturvedi. When she joined the Congress media cell a few years back, the then unknown mother of two from Mumbai got plum assignments courtesy media-in-charge Randeep Surjewala. Despite the favoured treatment, Chaturvedi jumped ship and joined the Shiv Sena last year. Here too she leapfrogged over the heads of many old-timers and was recently elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha on a Sena ticket thanks to her good equation with Aaditya Thackeray. Chaturvedi has given valuable advice to the Sena on modernising its image on social media and encouraged the formerly insular Thackeray clan to take part in seminars and think tanks.
Jodi Falls Out
Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh ganged up to ensure that Jyotiraditya Scindia had no place in Congress politics in Madhya Pradesh. But after Scindia quit the party, the Nath-Digvijaya Singh jugalbandi has fallen out. In an off-the-record briefing with some journalists, Nath regretted that the Congress had banked on Digvijaya’s assurance that those Congress MLAs who had quit the party and flown to Karnataka would rejoin the fold during the vote of confidence. Digvijaya got wind of the remark and was displeased. Nath tried to restore peace by holding a dinner for all Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders. Nath, incidentally, still has hopes of returning as chief minister if the Congress wins 18 out of the 24 by-elections in the state. A slightly tall order. Nath is still residing in the Chief Minister’s residence, a courtesy extended by Shivraj Singh Chouhan who was accorded the same gracious treatment when he lost the Assembly elections in 2018.
All three Gandhi family members are handling their publicity strategies very differently during the coronavirus pandemic. Sonia Gandhi hit the bull’s eye, thanks to the astute advice of the old guard. She embarrassed the Central government by declaring that the Congress state units would, if necessary, pay the fare for home-bound migrants. The Central government quickly clarified that it was paying most of the fare. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, in charge of Uttar Pradesh, has been pointing out problems faced by the poor, but tweeted her thanks to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath when he responded to suggestions. The most politically savvy family member realises it does not pay dividends to be confrontationist during a medical crisis. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s well-publicised interactions with eminent economists Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee fell flat. A leader is expected to know the answers, not to be seen asking for guidance. Such queries should be asked behind closed doors.
Patients and Pals
In 2019, two Punjabi-speaking patients were in adjacent suites in the complex of New York’s famous hospital for cancer treatment, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The patients and their families were in and out of each other’s suites, regularly shared home-cooked Indian meals together and became the best of friends. They were of the same age, fun-loving and jovial, very fond of their food, optimistic about the future and both surrounded by close-knit families. One of the patients was then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who discovered in early 2019 that he had developed sarcoma, a rare cancerous disease of the soft tissue. The other patient, actor Rishi Kapoor, was already in the hospital, being treated for leukaemia, which was discovered during a film shoot in Delhi in September 2018. Both returned to India last year hopeful that they had conquered the disease. But destiny had other plans.