As the contagious coronavirus cuts through India, the little islands of good news in these terrible times have been the performance of individual chief ministers such as Kerala's Pinarayi Vijayan, Rajasthan's Ashok Gehlot, Maharashtra's Uddhav Thackeray, Chhattisgarh's Bhupesh Baghel, Delhi's Arvind Kejriwal and the irrepressible Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal.
These leaders are doing a noticeably good job in corona-fighting and make a convincing case for the federal model of governance in India. Their response to the crisis has been marked with daily communication to ensure there is no public panic, leading from the front with strategies of communication and containment, setting up camps for migrant workers, implementing more testing and, most importantly, squelching attempts to communalise the health crisis.
While Kerala's Vijayan is a seasoned administrator who dealt with the Nipah virus crisis in 2018 in his state, Thackeray has no experience in governance, his only earlier job was as editor of the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamana. Yet, Thackeray has shown serious leadership chops and is being commended for showing great initiative and clarity in handling the crisis in Maharashtra, which has 891 cases now, 536 of them in Mumbai, where staff at two private hospitals have tested positive.
Thackeray has also issued a warning against "the virus of fake news and communal hatred", proclaiming, "my law will catch up with them".
This was in response to viral fake videos claiming that Muslims had been "licking currency notes, fruits and vegetables" to spread the infectious disease. Thackeray reportedly dials ally Sharad Pawar everyday to discuss lockdown strategies.
Currently, Kerala and Maharashtra have the largest number of cases because they are testing more which, besides the lockdown, is the only way to really contain the disease.
Getting relief material to stranded migrant workers and ensuring that the supply chain is not disrupted is another measure the Chief Ministers referred to in this piece are trying to ensure.
Gehlot has really stepped up as an excellent administrator with the "ruthless containment model" quickly adopted by Bhilwara in Rajasthan since detecting the first of its 27 positive cases on March 19. The centre acknowledged the "Bhilwara model" on Sunday when Rajiv Gauba, union Home Secretary, said in a video conference that it could be adopted by the country. Gehlot has done two things: sealing off areas quickly and seamlessly and scaling up the preparation of hospitals and quarantine facilities. Gehlot recently said that a zone of 2 kms around the home of a person who has tested positive is cordoned off. Essentials are being supplied to households so that a total curfew on the streets can be upheld.
Baghel has ensured similar preparations in Chattisgarh, furthering the model he had adopted to win the elections. Chhattisgarh was long considered a laggard, dragging India down in the Human Development Index (HDI), but Baghel has made the most of the resources he has in hand. His was among the earliest states to announce a lockdown before the national equivalent and he moved quickly to ensure the free mid-day meal scheme for children was not disrupted.
Mamata Banerjee cannot make it to the top ten list of excellent administrators but, in her unique way, still in agit-prop mode against the centre, she has been successful in dealing with the public health emergency. Banerjee has been a picture of reassurance to the public-chalking up social distancing in a crowded square to demonstrate exactly how it is to be done. West Bengal is struggling with protective gear with daily attacks by the BJP but, has also tamped down on the fake news which seems as endemic as the health crisis.
Kejriwal has been holding daily press briefings to give authentic figures as Delhi has emerged as a "hot spot" and now says he will ramp up testing along the lines of the South Korea model.
What all the chief ministers have in common is effective and regular communication with the public and a strong grip on official machinery.
Two important takeaways from the COVID-19 crisis are: mass leaders empowered on the ground respond well to public distress. And, it really is time that second-term Prime Minister Narendra Modi address an open press conference on the biggest disaster that India has battled with recently. Choreographed public events don't cut it.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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