Inside Track: Harsh Vardhan emerges as the right man in the right place for COVID-19 crisis

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Updated: April 12, 2020 10:30 AM

The first alarm bells of a potential health hazard were, in fact, sounded by the Markaz’s immediate Muslim neighbours, who feared for their safety.

The authorities turned a blind eye to the huge congregation at the Markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, last month not because of an intelligence failure but to avoid a confrontation with the powerful chief of the Tablighi Jamaat sect. The authorities turned a blind eye to the huge congregation at the Markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, last month not because of an intelligence failure but to avoid a confrontation with the powerful chief of the Tablighi Jamaat sect.

Out of shadows
The soft-spoken Harsh Vardhan has often been ignored in favour of more pushy Delhi BJP leaders such as Vijay Goel, Manoj Tewari, Kiran Bedi and Meenakshi Lekhi, even though Vardhan is probably the party’s most popular local face. Before the lockdown, anyone could walk into his Tees January Marg residence from 7.30 am to 9.30 am without an appointment. A leading ENT doctor, Vardhan was appointed Health Minister when Narendra Modi took charge in 2014, but within months he was mysteriously pushed to the Science and Technology Ministry. In Modi 2.0, Vardhan was re-appointed Health Minister. With his medical background, articulation, and the ability to carry his team and states with him, Vardhan has emerged as the right man in the right place for the COVID-19 crisis.

No intelligence slip
The authorities turned a blind eye to the huge congregation at the Markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, last month not because of an intelligence failure but to avoid a confrontation with the powerful chief of the Tablighi Jamaat sect. The Maulana had excellent relations with the local police, the state government appreciated his popularity among minority voters and the Central government was conscious of how well networked he was with Middle-East and South-East Asian establishments.

The first alarm bells of a potential health hazard were, in fact, sounded by the Markaz’s immediate Muslim neighbours, who feared for their safety. Between March 18 and 22, the AAP government tried to cajole the Maulana to ask his followers to disperse. It was only after two separate deaths, in Srinagar and South India, that the link between the Markaz gathering and coronavirus was detected. Amit Shah immediately ordered police not to permit the Tablighi followers to disperse, as was the original plan. He wanted them all quarantined.

4 Nizamuddins, not 2
The Tablighi congregation has earned the Nizamuddin locality in South Delhi undeserved notoriety, for the area is actually known for the tomb of the 13th-century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. It is the liberal Sufi culture, with qawwalis, ghazals, mushairas and Mughlai restaurants, which dominates the basti, with its maze of narrow winding lanes. The followers of the orthodox Tablighi sect confined themselves to a five-storey building. Actually, there are not two Nizamuddins, but four. Adjacent to the basti is West Nizamuddin, a middle-class refugee colony formed after Partition. The character of the colony altered with time with many houses bought by wealthy Muslims. Across Mathura Road is East Nizamuddin, also originally a refugee colony. It has a more eclectic mix. The late Sheila Dixit and H K L Bhagat owned apartments. Omar Abdullah, Subramanian Swamy, Dinesh Trivedi and Vijay Bahuguna live here, as do painters Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh and Anjolie Ela Menon, writers Vikram Seth and Upamanyu Chatterjee and sportsman Mohammed Azharuddin.

Rapid spread
A survey by the Delhi government and municipal corporation of around 2,800 families neighbouring the now-infamous Tablighi Markaz indicated that apart from one beggar and one family, no one had coronavirus-like symptoms. On the other hand, the disease spread among Tablighi followers all over India. Since this orthodox sect does not believe in vaccination, some feel it buttresses the theory that those not vaccinated with BCG are far more vulnerable. Others believe that the Tablighi’s community-living and eating habits helped spread the infection.

No sharing glory
Despite the lockdown, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath went ahead with a ceremony on Ram Navami to mark the shifting of Ram Lalla idol from the disputed Babri Masjid site, as the construction of a temple begins. Yogi was accompanied by over two dozen people, including a temple trustee and the local MLA. Curiously, Vinay Katiyar, the Bajrang Dal president identified with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and a four-time local MP, and Lallu Singh, the current MP, were not present. Both men were around on the day and, reportedly, expecting an invitation.

Coming into his own
Till the pandemic, Udhav Thackeray was described as an accidental chief minister and Sharad Pawar was portrayed as the real boss of Maharashtra. Now the tables have turned. Udhav, depicted as shy and apolitical, has blossomed into an able communicator on TV, whose calm, measured pronouncements inspire confidence. Thackeray’s son Aaditya, with his band of young helpers, is handling social media effectively. In contrast, Deputy CM Ajit Pawar of the NCP is tongue-tied before the media. The Maharashtra government has also drawn praise for not permitting a Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Mumbai in March, and for roping in sports stadia in the battle against COVID-19. Congested Mumbai, however, remains a challenge.

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