The blot on the five-month-old BJP government in the state over the Gorakhpur tragedy is here to stay.
Some stains stick. In politics they sometime stick for a lifetime. In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav stormed to power as a beacon of hope in Uttar Pradesh. The Muzaffarnagar communal riots a year later marred his political career for ever. Cut to 2017. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was seen as a harbinger of change and the people handed it an unprecedented mandate of 325 seats in a 403-member assembly. Five months on, the large number of deaths of children at the BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur, allegedly due to the lack of oxygen, has dented the aura of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. It has been a tough time since he assumed office: Questions were being raised over law and order. There was also a major hooch tragedy that killed over 45 people in Azamgarh. But these seemingly did not affect Adityanath personally.
The death of 65 children in a medical college in his hometown has, however, severely damaged his standing. The government is under attack for its handling of the tragedy. Despite the District Magistrate of Gorakhpur admitting to disruption of oxygen, the government has stuck to its guns that this was not the case. In the face of mounting deaths, intense coverage of the tragedy by the media and the criticism by the opposition, the government hid behind statistics. Health Minister Siddhartha Nath Singh contended that “deaths … happened even in the past”.
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Anger against Siddhartha Nath Singh, in particular, has been spiralling. His house in Allahabad, from where he is a legislator, was pelted with eggs and tomatoes on Sunday by youth workers of the Samajwadi Party. Vasudha, an Allahabad resident, says it is sad to see the Health Minister duck responsibility. “It is even more sad since the BJP calls itself a party with difference and the minister in question here is the grandson of the late Lal Bahadur Shastri who quit in 1956 as Railway Minister over a train accident.”
Leaders in the BJP’s state unit privately admit the tragedy has harmed the party. Media reports and disclosures by the hospital staff and that of the vendor of liquid oxygen reveal that the government had been petitioned many a time over non-payment of Rs 69 lakh dues but nothing was done. The Chief Minister and also the Medical Education Minister claim that payments were released but the principal of the medical college, now suspended, sat over the funds. Kafeel Khan, deputy principal, hailed as a hero during the crisis for paying from his pocket to arrange for oxygen cylinders, is now the villain of the tragedy.
The Diector General Medical Health, K.K. Gupta, suspended Khan soon after the Chief Minister’s visit on Sunday, saying there was ample oxygen at the hospital and there was no need for him to get three cylinders from outside. Rajeev Mishra, the suspended Principal, has also said that despite several reminders to the government about pending payments of the oxygen vendor, no action was taken. Opposition parties are also asking questions how if the oxygen supply was not disrupted, as claimed by the government, were people in charge of making payments to the vendor suspended and offices of the oxygen vendor raided.
Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has alleged that while infants and children were dying, hospital authorities were pushing them out so that the tragedy did not come to light. Naresh Uttam, state president of the Samajwadi Party, told IANS that his party legislators had moved a motion under rule 105 in the assembly session drawing the attention of the government over the possible resurgence of encephalitis in eastern Uttar Pradesh, specially in Gorakhpur, but they were scoffed at.
“The Chief Minister and Health Minister, on the floor of the House, made light of our worries and said it was a BJP government and no one would be allowed to die for want of facilities,” Uttam said, adding the callousness of the government had cost the lives of 65 children. Adityanath and his government have been targeting the media for what they is factually incorrect reporting of the incident. But the truth remains that officials have been speaking in different voices and have been ambiguous to posers on the death toll and other issues. Whatever the case, the blot on the five-month-old BJP government in the state over the Gorakhpur tragedy is here to stay.