Editorials - 08-05-2021

In Bengaluru, poor preparation for the second wave has resulted in mismanagement in the allocation of beds, delays in testing, and oxygen shortage.Afshan Yasmeen,K.V. Aditya BharadwajandChitra V. Ramanireport on the crisis engulfing a city once touted to be a popular medical tourism hub

On the night of May 2, Sajidunnissa, 56, who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, developed acute respiratory problems. She experienced a rapid drop in her oxygen saturation levels. What followed was a harrowing 14 hours, as her family did the rounds of seven hospitals in Bengaluru desperately searching for a bed. They finally got her into the emergency room of a private hospital by which time her saturation levels had dropped to 40. Although she was administered oxygen, Sajidunnissa did not make it.

On the morning of May 3, 65-year-old Jayesh R. took a turn for the worse as his oxygen saturation levels dropped to 68. His family hired a private ambulance and went knocking on the doors of hospitals for an oxygenated bed. They watched helplessly as his saturation levels dropped further. He died in the ambulance four hours into the frantic search.

In both instances, the Bengaluru civic body’s central hospital bed management system had shown that there were no oxygenated beds available.

Sushma G. recalled the lonely and terrifying six days she spent waiting to hear back from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) war rooms, which allot beds to COVID-19 patients based on their position on the waiting list and severity of disease, about a bed for her brother. That call never came.

While Bengaluru’s less-than-adequate public medical infrastructure is under severe stress with an exponential rise in cases, an alleged scam in the South Zone has also raised questions on the integrity of the bed allocation system in the city. All war rooms are currently under investigation by the Central Crime Branch police. So far, two doctors are among the four people who have been arrested and hospitals are under the scanner. The civic body has conceded that such cases may have occurred but may not be widespread.

Bed allocation racket

On May 4, Bengaluru South Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya, with three BJP MLAs in tow, stormed into the BBMP South Zone war room and accused staff of blocking beds for cash. “As soon as a bed is released from the hospital, people in the control room block it in the name of some asymptomatic patients, only to later manually change it and allot it to a person who pays them. This ensures beds are always blocked to the full and are not available for the needy,” alleged Mr. Surya, who live-streamed the ‘exposé’.

Mr. Surya and the MLAs, while exposing the racket, made it a point to target 16 Muslim employees of a total workforce of 206. Citizens, political leaders in the Opposition and activists have criticised the BJP for communalising a problem at a time when the city is fighting a vicious second wave, with many calling for an apology or police action. Volunteers from minority communities and organisations such as Mercy Mission, spearheaded by Muslims and at the forefront of relief work from providing oxygen to cremating bodies, have expressed dismay at how the ruling dispensation continues to demonise the community.

Mr. Surya claimed victory of “reforming the system” and announced hours after his ‘exposé’ that the BBMP website was showing 1,500-odd beds as available. That claim was, however, misleading.

The bed allocation racket, which senior police and civic officials say is not as widespread as it is being made out to be, exposes the lack of preparedness and poor medical infrastructure in a city that wears its ‘IT capital’ tag with pride.

Given how oxygenated beds, ICU beds and ventilators are hard to come by, touts have entered the fray. They charge anywhere between Rs. 25,000 and Rs. 30,000 to find a bed, but their “business” is constrained by the dearth of beds. “Oxygenated and ICU beds are hard to come by. People are ready to pay up to Rs. 2 lakh to get an ICU bed, but even I am struggling to find one,” said Dhanraj (name changed), a tout in the city. A social worker and her nephew who were arrested by the police in a sting operation for selling beds are suspected to have ties with war room staffers.

Caught on the back foot

Why is the health infrastructure in Bengaluru, once touted to be a popular medical tourism hub with affordable world-class facilities, crumbling during this second wave? Karnataka’s highest case load per day so far has been 50,112 and deaths, 592.

As daily new cases rose from 210 on March 1 to 23,706 on May 6, and the number of deaths from four to 139 during the same period, the government was caught on the back foot. An inadequate number of ICU and oxygenated beds, scarcity of life-saving oxygen, and shortage of vaccines and drugs like Remidesivir, Favipiravir (Fabiflu) and Tocilizumab have pushed citizens to despair, allowing touts and black marketeers to thrive.

Giridhar R. Babu, epidemiologist and member of the State’s COVID-19 Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), which had sounded the alarm of a second wave last year, said a surge such as this, which is nearly five times higher than the first wave, simply cannot be managed by a system that was barely augmented to take on the pandemic. “In addition, a far more contagious variant has resulted in a high number of cases in a very short span of time. Adding to the woes is the complete mismanagement of the bed distribution system. This shows poor management and coordination by urban local bodies. Even today, mechanisms have not been evolved to cater to the critical care needs of the people of Bengaluru,” he said.

However, according to officials from the State Health Department, Karnataka did ramp up its health infrastructure to increase its bed count to 1.20 lakh. With a population of nearly 7 crore, the bed to patients ratio is 1:583.

Compared to pre-COVID-19 days, the bed strength in public hospitals has also increased. While the number of general beds has risen from 37,817 to 42,584, oxygenated beds have gone up from 1,970 to 18,593. Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds have been ramped up from 1,054 to 3,190 and ICUs with ventilator beds (ICU-Vs) have more than tripled from 610 to 2,034.

In Bengaluru, 157 hospitals — government, private and medical colleges — have allocated a total of 6,002 general beds, 4,299 high dependency units (HDU), 591 ICUs, and 500 ICU-V beds. The numbers may seem impressive until you look at the demand, especially for ICU and ICU-V beds. As on May 5, 562 ICU and 494 ICU-V beds were occupied. For a brief time that day, the bed management system showed only 13 ICU-V beds as available, as per BBMP’s records.

Officials claim that Karnataka and Bengaluru’s infrastructure is much better in comparison to other States, but numerical comparisons are no solace to people running from one hospital to another looking for beds for their friends or family members.

One of the biggest problems in providing affordable medical aid seems to be the high dependency on the private sector. Nearly 60% of the patients are treated in private hospitals, a trend that is playing out across the country. While the government is trying to make private hospitals hand over 75% of their total beds to government-referred COVID-19 patients, this is yet to happen. The beds ceded by the private hospital to the government are added to the government’s database.

As on May 6, private hospitals had allocated 2,054 general beds, 1,554 HDU beds, 291 ICU beds and 174 ICU with ventilator beds. In private medical colleges, 3,578 general beds, 1,849 HDU beds, 146 ICU and 161 ICU with ventilator beds were made available for government-referred patients. As on Thursday, all ICU and HDU beds were occupied.

But numbers are also manipulated for profit, since private hospitals get paid far less for government-referred patients. In Bengaluru, BBMP health officers have found well-known hospitals attempting to “hide” beds by showing them as occupied when patients have either died or been discharged.

The BBMP’s bed database is not foolproof either and it is not clear if it is by design or human error in an overwhelmed system. Last week, a 41-year-old COVID-19 patient who was isolating himself at home with his wife took a turn for the worse. As his oxygen saturation levels started to drop, he contacted the BBMP control room seeking a bed. After several calls, he was sent an ambulance and asked to go to a private hospital in south Bengaluru. On arrival, he was told that there had been “a mistake” and that no beds were available. He waited in the lobby of the hospital for nearly two hours after which the hospital authorities asked him to wait outside in the ambulance. He was eventually allotted a bed at another private hospital in the opposite end of the city.

There have been multiple cases of patients being allotted beds only for them to arrive at the hospital and learn that there is none available. However, the system, which is currently being fine-tuned to weed out illegal sale of beds, does give patients an idea of the resources available.

Such a system did not even exist for private sector beds. It was only towards the end of April that the Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes’ Association (PHANA) agreed to roll out a database so that citizens can monitor availability of beds in real-time. At the time, Dr. H.M. Prasanna, president, PHANA, toldThe Hindu, “The situation is so bad that, as president of the Association, I myself don’t know where beds are available.” The portal was yet to be updated at the time of going to press.

As the clamour for resources grows louder with each passing day, civic officials, legislators and even the police are inundated with requests for HDU and ICU beds. An opposition MLA said every morning his office sees a flood of people requesting him to get an oxygenated or ICU bed for a relative. “There are absolutely no beds. And how do I even prioritise among them? Why am I playing God here,” he asked.

Confusion and testing delays

In thousands of instances, confusion begins even at the time of testing. When a person’s COVID-19 test returns positive, he or she is assigned a patient identity or BU (Bengaluru Urban) number. A delay in this early stage of the process has a cascading effect as the identity number is essential for citizens to avail themselves of any health facility, be it ambulance service or hospitalisation. With more people lining up to get tested, however, the pipeline choked, and laboratories, especially privately run facilities, started taking days to upload the results on the Indian Council of Medical Research website.

False negatives and people developing severe symptoms while still waiting for their report became a common problem. The Karnataka High Court directed all laboratories and testing agencies to provide RT-PCR test results within 24 hours, but the problem persists. The BBMP administration has repeatedly appealed to private laboratories to give the test results within 24 hours, but to no avail. Over the last few weeks, civic officials have issued show cause notices to over 20 such private laboratories and sealed over six for non-compliance.

Many, either because of the long wait for RT-PCR reports or a false negative report, have resorted to taking CT scans despite high costs to ascertain infection. It was only a few days ago that the government took cognisance of this issue and decided to issue BU numbers for those who test positive on CT scans.

For Arvind, a taxi driver in Bengaluru, the change in rules came too late. When his mother-in-law suddenly started showing symptoms of COVID-19 and complained of breathlessness, he didn’t have a BU number to get her hospitalised. He drove all night in his taxi from one hospital to another but couldn’t get a bed. He took her home where she died. “I couldn’t afford beds in high-end private hospitals,” he said.

Shortage of oxygen

The government plans to augment Bengaluru’s ICU bed count by 4,000. But many health experts point out that it may prove to be an exercise in futility when there is shortage of oxygen for the existing beds.

On May 4, two patients, including a 38-year-old mother of two children, died in the wee hours of Tuesday at Arka hospital in Yelahanka, allegedly due to non-availability of oxygen. Hospital authorities said both patients had come in a critical condition and the families had been informed about the oxygen shortage. The previous day, 24 people died due to alleged oxygen shortage at a government hospital in Chamarajanagar, 170 km away from Bengaluru.

Hospitals sending out letters to patients’ relatives to shift them out as they are running out of oxygen has become an everyday routine. Doctors and management of hospitals attribute the crisis to logistical issues in the oxygen supply chain. Health Commissioner K.V. Trilok Chandra corroborated this. “We are streamlining supply and addressing the logistical issues,” he said.

Dr. Prasanna of PHANA said, “Quantity is not an issue, but the problem lies in the supply chain. With very few supply tankers, vendors are unable to visit hospitals two-three times a day for refilling.”

Karnataka does not have a system in place for the storage and distribution of oxygen. Chamarajanagar, where the 24 patients died, has no manufacturing facility of its own and depends on Mysuru for supply. There is no State-monitored mechanism to ensure that each district is assured a certain quantum of supply depending on its need, and so the districts try and procure supply on their own.

On May 4, Dr. Babu, who also heads Life Course Epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India in Bengaluru, tweeted: “In a country where ice creams, chilled coke and chips reach villages, it is simply astonishing to believe that the industry cannot help in solving the logistic crisis of oxygen distribution. How many governments have reached out to industry for help or partnership?”

Unlike the previous year, the strain prevalent in the city is pushing more patients to hypoxia and hence the demand for oxygen is several times more, said a senior health official. As per Union government norms, the State placed a demand for oxygen in the range of 1,471 MTD to 1,791 MTD between April 30 and May 5, but said a minimum of 1,162 MTD was absolutely necessary. However, the Union government first allotted only 300 MTD, increased it to 802 MTD and later 865 MTD. During an ongoing hearing of a PIL in High Court, the Centre offered to further raise it to 965 MTD. However, the Karnataka High Court ordered the Union government to allot 1,200 MTD for the next four days to the State and asked the State government to place new demand. The Union government appealed against it to the Supreme Court, which refused to interfere noting that the Karnataka High Court’s order is a well calibrated and thought-out one. “We will not keep the citizens of Karnataka in the lurch,” the Supreme Court said.

How did it come to this?

TAC had on November 30 last year submitted a report to the government recommending that ICUs, ICU-Vs, oxygen, etc. be kept ready by the first week of January to meet levels that the city had witnessed during the first COVID-19 peak in October. More importantly, it recommended restricting mass gatherings like fairs and festivals, religious congregations and cultural events.

However, the State government, which had initially announced certain restrictions including night curfew during the New Year week (which was later rolled back), did not consider the report in toto. It waited for by-elections and urban local body elections to end before announcing stringent measures. “Restrictions for cinema halls too were rolled back a day after the announcement. If the report was taken seriously then and stringent measures were initiated early, the situation could have been controlled,” said V. Ravi, TAC member and nodal officer for genomic confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 in Karnataka.

“Declaring elections was the biggest blunder. Elections could have been postponed considering the pandemic as a national medical emergency. However, the State followed a wait-and-watch policy and we are seeing the consequences,” another expert said. Citizens wanted to believe that the worst was over and ignored the warning signs as neighbouring Maharashtra and Kerala saw cases rise.

As the death toll mounts in Bengaluru, furnaces in the 12 electric crematoriums are breaking down. The district administration has set up open crematoriums on the outskirts of the city with a capacity to burn more than 20 bodies at a time.

Another makeshift crematorium is coming up at the Mavallipura landfill, where the civic body is working towards building a capacity to cremate 50 bodies at a time. At these open crematoriums, pyres burn simultaneously and the air shimmers in the haze of smoke and orange flames. Within Bengaluru, the silence in residential neighbourhoods observing lockdown is regularly broken by the wails of ambulances.

Experts have once again urged the government to finalise a plan for the long haul, one that will enable Bengaluru to withstand multiple waves of COVID-19.

The U.S.-supported patent waiver in the COVID fight has the potential to bring in much-needed global health equity

The decision of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, to support the India-South Africa proposal, seeking a waiver of patent protection for technologies needed to combat and contain COVID-19, comes as a shot in the arm for global health. The proposal that was placed before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) had been facing resistance from several high income countries including the U.S. administration. A change in the American position supporting a temporary waiver could act as a catalyst for building consensus in favour of that proposal when it comes up for fresh consideration at the WTO in June. However, the path ahead is not clear. While France and Russia have declared support, Germany has voiced its opposition.

Predictable responses

Response to the proposal was divided during earlier debates at the WTO. While many low and middle income countries supported it, resistance came from the U.S., the United Kingdom, the European Union, Switzerland, Australia and Japan. A strange addition to this group was Norway, which usually supports initiatives that promote global health equity. On this occasion, it chose to shield patent rights. Since the WTO operates on consensus rather than by voting, the proposal did not advance despite drawing support of over 60 countries.

Predictably, the pharmaceutical industry fiercely opposed it and vigorously lobbied many governments. Right-wing political groups in the high income countries sided with the industry. Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates was strident in his opposition to patent waivers for vaccines, justifiably drawing ire from the public health community for a stance that was at great variance from his projected image as a messiah of global health. It appeared that patent rights would be doggedly defended even in the face of a devastating pandemic.

Hollow reasons

Many specious reasons were offered for such a defence. It was argued that the capacity for producing vaccines of assured quality and safety was limited to some laboratories and that it would be hazardous to permit manufacturers in low and middle income countries to play with technologies they cannot handle. This smacks of hypocrisy when pharmaceutical manufacturers have no reservations about contracting industries in those countries to manufacture their patent-protected vaccines for the global market. The low labour costs in those countries are obviously so attractive that confidence in the quality and the safety of their products is high, so long as patents and profits are protected.

This amazing duplicity has been seen for years when multinational firms have subcontracted manufacture of patented products to industries with low production costs in developing countries. This has been true of pharmaceutical products, as it has been of branded consumer products and luxury goods. This fig leaf has to drop, at least in a pandemic.

The counter to patent waiver is an offer to license manufacturers in developing countries, while retaining patent rights. This restricts the opportunity for production to a chosen few. The terms of those agreements are opaque and offer no assurance of equity in access to the products at affordable prices, either to the country of manufacture or to other developing countries.

It was also stated that developing countries could be supplied vaccines through the COVAX facility, set up by several international agencies and donors. While well intended, it has fallen far short of promised delivery. Some U.S. States have received more vaccines than the entire Africa has from COVAX. The trickle down theory does not work well in the global vaccine supply, just like its dubious application in economics.

Critics of a patent waiver say there is no evidence that extra capacity exists for producing vaccines outside of firms undertaking them now. Even before the change in the U.S.’s position, manufacturers from many countries expressed their readiness and avidly sought opportunities to produce the approved vaccines. They included industries in Canada and South Korea, suggesting that capable manufacturers in high income countries too are ready to avail of patent waivers but are not being allowed to enter a restricted circle. The World Health Organization’s mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub has already drawn interest from over 50 firms.

Instead of arguing that capacity is limited, should not high income countries and other donors be supporting the growth of more capacity to meet the current and likely future pandemics? They should learn from the manner in which India built up capacity and gained a reputation as a respected global pharmacy by moving from product patenting to process patenting between 1970 and 2005.

China line, safeguards

Patent waivers are also dismissed as useless on the grounds that the time taken for their utilisation by new firms will be too long to help combat the present pandemic. Who can set the end date for this pandemic, when many countries have low vaccination rates and variants are gleefully emerging from unprotected populations? If the world boasts of the speed with which previously little known companies produced vaccines in record time in 2020, why not support others to develop that capacity through technology transfer? Efficacy and safety of their products can be assessed by credible regulatory agencies and the World Health Organization. Patent waivers will benefit by increasing access not just to vaccines but also to essential drugs and diagnostics. Surely, that will not take much time.

An argument put forth by multinational pharmaceutical firms is that a breach in the patent barricade will allow China to steal their technologies, now and in the future. The original genomic sequence was openly shared by China, which gave these firms a head start in developing vaccines. Much of the foundational science that built the path for vaccine production came from public-funded universities and research institutes. Further, what use is it to hold on to patents when global health and the global economy are devastated? Who will buy their precious products then?

The perennial argument, offered for defending patent protection, is that innovation and investment by industry need to be financially rewarded to incentivise them to develop new products. Even if compulsory licences are issued bypassing patent restrictions, royalties are paid to the original innovators and patent holders. They will continue to gain revenue, though not super profits. Pfizer’s vaccine generated $3.5 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2021, while mostly reaching the arms of the world’s rich. It expects $15 billion sales this year. Moderna says it expects sales of $18.4 billion in 2021. The incentive to protect profits is very strong indeed.

Building on Biden’s gesture

The World Trade Organization resolves debates by consensus and not by voting. The process may drag on, despite U.S. intervention. If Mr. Biden succeeds in driving consensus to provide a global thrust to combat a global threat, he will match Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership in the Second World War. He does not have such an alliance in place now.

So, developing countries must take heart from his gesture and start issuing compulsory licences. The Doha declaration on TRIPS flexibilities permits their use in a public health emergency. National governments must be trusted to promote credible companies and not permit fly-by-night operators. High-income countries and multilateral agencies should provide financial and technical support to enable expansion of global production capacity. That will reflect both ennobling altruism and enlightened self-interest.

Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, a cardiologist and epidemiologist, is President, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). The views expressed are personal

The second wave has amplified the issue of rent which does not draw much attention as food and income support do

As State governments have begun implementing weekend curfews and lockdown-like conditions amid the second wave of COVID, there is another issue that is emerging — rent crises within informal rental housing markets. For example, domestic workers in Jaipur, Rajasthan, have begun reporting to the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union (RMKU) that landlords have only one line: “Pichli baar maaf kar diya tha, iss baar nahi karenge(The landlords say they will not be waiving any rent this time).”

Trauma returns

Meanwhile, reports of loss of livelihoods, in an eerie echo of 2020, have begun. In a crisis, the issue of rent does not get as much attention as food and income support do. Yet, the findings from a survey of 500 domestic workers in Jaipur by the RMKU and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) showed that rent formed 40% of their average expenses in the first five weeks of the lockdown in 2020, was a majority component of debt post the lockdowns, and was a key component of the vulnerability of urban workers. This is not just true of domestic workers. Reports by the Stranded Workers Action Network showed that fear of rent payments was one of the main reasons cited by migrants in their decision to leave cities and walk along highways.

It is imperative that we learn from the lessons of last year and protect the rental housing of informal workers early, effectively, and expansively. How should this be done? In February, we learnt crucial lessons from follow-up interviews with 76 domestic workers in Jaipur to see what had happened to rental housing through last year, and what lessons it offers for better protections this year.

Unenforceable moratoria

On March 29, 2020, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in an order (https://bit.ly/3b9M6qu) said, “Where ever the workers, including the migrants, are living in rented accommodation, the landlords of those properties shall not demand payment of rent for the period of one month.” It was an order that largely failed. It was vague (was the rent to be waived or just deferred?); offered no relief to landlords (many of whom rely on rent for their own sustenance, not unlike their tenants); and unenforceable in a market with no written rent agreements. Further, there was no apparatus to monitor the enforcement of this order. In most cases, it was the tenants who had to negotiate with their landlords and request for leniency. When one of our interviewees, Meena (name changed) cited the state announcement to her landlord, she was told, “Yeh sab sunne ka hai, koi maaf nahi karega(All of this is impractical, nobody will actually waive the rent).”

Some landlords waived off rent for a month or two while others agreed to defer the rent. A few made no compromises and expected the rent to be paid on time, sometimes employing threats and coercion. Interviews show that domestic workers had to make difficult trade-offs, redirecting money reserved for necessary expenses such as food, school fees, and life savings to be able to pay rent and retain a roof over their heads. With pending rent and school fees worsening with no money coming in, many domestic workers had to borrow from informal moneylenders. Even in cases where the rent was deferred, it led to a piling up of debts for domestic workers who took more than a few months to get even a part of their jobs back. Some domestic workers borrowed from their employers, on the condition of paying it off with their work over the next few months, which meant a further paucity in income.

Rent is particularly pivotal for workers who do not consider themselves migrants. For all the domestic workers we interviewed, returning to their villages was not an option. This was both because of their investments in decades of life in the city where, for many, their children were born, as well as the lack of jobs in the village, no skills for agricultural employment, and the absence of social ties. As Mangal (name changed) said, “Bachche yaha padayi karte hain, hum bhi shuru se yahin hai toh jaise ab gaanv me kheti-baari ka kaam hai kuch nahi aata hai, toh me wahaan baske karungi kya? (The children are studying here, we have also been living here since the start, we do not even know any farm work, so what will we do after settling there?)” The only condition that renders such workers as “migrant” is their exclusion from the State programmes because they have not been able to get, for example, local ration cards despite years of trying. As Sindhu (name changed) narrates, “Hum toh naBangalka ho gaya naaRajasthanka ho gaya, hum toh aatankwaadi ho gaye naa? (We are neither of Bengal, or of Rajasthan, are we terrorists?”) Rent anchors the lives workers have built; it must be seen as a key part of the urban social safety net, as critical as food and wage.

Some solutions

First, a moratorium should be announced with a clearer enforcement mechanism and a clear distinction between deferment and rent waivers. Working with worker organisations and unions could greatly aid enforcement. Landlords should be offered means to access partial compensation for lost rent from the state shifting the onus onto them rather than on workers. Second, cash transfers being conceptualised by many State governments must treat rent on a par with food and income support. The amount of cash transfer for rent support can be estimated on the basis of the rental market conditions (Rs. 2,500-Rs. 3,000 being the average monthly rent among our respondents in Jaipur). Third, States can also aid workers through limited waivers on utility expenses. For example, the electricity bills and penalties charged on non-payment were quite a burden for domestic workers. Unlike rent, there was no negotiation possible for utility payments, with some workers reporting the need to borrow from landlords to pay electricity bills.

The second wave of COVID-19 has shown us the consequences of not preparing in advance. We cannot afford to not think ahead on the income and rent shocks that will follow this second wave as they did during the first wave. In doing so, urban safety nets must bring together food, income and rent so that no person should be forced to make an impossible choice betweenrotiandmakaan.

Mewa Bharati is the general secretary of the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union (RMKU). Juhi Jotwani is a journalist and an urban fellow from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS)

The BJP’s kind of identity politics is difficultto sustain over the longer term

A combination of welfarism, communalism and smart though daring alliances helped the BJP win a second consecutive term in Assam. The party and its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), won 75 of the 126 seats in the State. A 10-party alliance, or Mahajot, around the Congress-AIUDF axis turned out to be no match for the BJP. A third front of Assamese nationalists, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal, could win only one seat. The Congress and AIUDF have accused it of helping the BJP. The BJP performed well in Upper Assam, and the Barak Valley, though marginally weaker than its 2016 performance. With its newfound ally UPPL, the BJP outperformed the Mahajot, which had the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) as a constituent in the Bodo region. The AIUDF-Congress alliance swept Lower Assam, but overall, they ended up with a net loss by joining hands. The BJP campaign focused on the imaginary prospect of AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal becoming the CM, mobilising two variants of backlash — from the Assamese nationalists and Hindu nationalists. The alliance question posed a dilemma for both parties. They had to choose between the disadvantages of not having a partnership and having one. The AIUDF has now blamed the underperformance of the Congress in Upper Assam as the reason for their defeat; the irony is that the Congress faced the brunt there for its tie-up with the AIUDF.

The winners have their own curse. Communal polarisation in the State fanned by the acrimonious debate on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has been further reinforced in the outcome. All eight Muslim candidates of the BJP, including a sitting MLA, lost. Of the 29 Congress MLAs, 16 are Muslims. The BJP has dismantled its minority cell in response to the outcome. The key strategist of the BJP, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who curated the party’s agenda, spearheaded its welfare schemes, and managed its alliance, has a rightful claim for the CM’s post. He is certainly more popular than the incumbent CM, Sarbananda Sonowal, in the 60-strong BJP legislature party. The BJP has managed to assemble the support from Assamese nationalists, and Hindu nationalists in a deft balancing act on the CAA, but that ambiguity is difficult to sustain. The party has also promised to revise the National Register of Citizens and exclude more ‘illegal’ residents from it. Assam is a border State, and it has numerous fault lines within its society. The BJP single-mindedly focused on the religious divide that earned it rich dividends. But a political order that excludes a third of the population in a systematic manner is no order at all. The BJP’s victory is built on a deeply divisive and combustive agenda. Before it turns into a whirlwind of strife and chaos, the party must act with political wisdom and douse the fire it has lit.

As Chief Minister of Puducherry, Rangasamy will find it difficult to keep ally BJP at bay

A change of guard in Puducherry, where governance and development took a backseat from mid-2016 due to continuing friction between the elected government and Raj Nivas, ushers in hope for its people. The electorate’s frustration with the erstwhile Congress government was amply reflected with just two of its 14 candidates getting elected, as opposed to 15 last time. At the same time, All India NR Congress (AINRC) founder N. Rangasamy, who on Friday took oath as Chief Minister for the fourth time, has his task cut out, administratively and politically. For the first time he will be heading a coalition government with the BJP, whose cabinet composition is in the making. The people are looking forward to quality governance and public service delivery in the midst of the COVID-19 second wave. It would be safe to infer that the electorate had backed the AINRC-BJP alliance in anticipation that the cordiality between the Territorial administration and the Centre would yield dividends. Their expectations are legitimate as no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched to them the promise of making Puducherry the BEST (Business hub, Education hub, Spiritual hub and Tourism hub). But such acronyms are easier to coin than implement. There needs to be cohesive action from the allies to translate them into action.

That said, on the ground there are indications that more than the battered and fatigued Opposition, Mr. Rangasamy is likely to face challenges from his openly ambitious ally. The BJP has tasted political blood in the Union Territory that is for most parts geographically contiguous and linguistically aligned with Tamil Nadu, which the national party has set its sights on next. It is seeking its pound of flesh by demanding that its nominee be made the Deputy Chief Minister. Mr. Rangasamy’s reservations in accommodating this demand are pronounced. The tiny territory has never had such a political post. The early disagreement between the allies has led to a delay in the swearing-in of the Cabinet. But it may not be easy for him to fend off the BJP. He would be conscious that the fragmented numbers thrown up in the election results leave the field open for manipulations to tilt the scales against him. In the 30-member House, the AINRC has 10 legislators, the BJP 6, DMK 6 and Congress 2. Independents account for 6 and indications are that three of them could lean towards the BJP. It will also not be long before the BJP appoints three nominated legislators who, thanks to a Supreme Court judgment, will have voting rights. Therefore, it would be a tightrope walk for the Chief Minister. Nonetheless, for the welfare of Puducherry, it would be best if the allies march on by focusing on governance without prioritising narrow, short-term political interests.