New Delhi: With concerns rising in the top echelons of the central government over what is seen as a governance deficit in the handling of the Covid-19 situation in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP brass is considering a bigger role for A.K. Sharma, a former Gujarat-cadre IAS officer and trusted aide of Narendra Modi, who took voluntary retirement to become an MLC in Uttar Pradesh.
The prime minister entrusted him with Covid management in Varanasi, his parliamentary constituency, and the former civil servant has managed to turn the corner there. He has made the temple town a relatively safer place in a state where the coronavirus has wreaked havoc, exposing administrative inefficiency and mismanagement.
Sharma met Modi in Delhi Friday. He followed it up with a meeting with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath at his official residence in Lucknow Saturday morning, a government source said.
The PM held a meeting Sunday with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, RSS general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale and UP BJP general secretary Sunil Bansal to discuss the political fallout of Covid mismanagement in UP, which will go to polls early next year.
“There is discussion going on among the BJP brass to give Sharma a bigger responsibility in the state. The way Sharma worked in Varanasi since mid-April and managed to bring the Covid situation under control in the district is being talked about while discussing the overall situation in UP,” a second source said.
Sharma’s presence in meetings convened by the CM during his visits to Varanasi have already raised curiosity in the corridors of power in Lucknow.
The second source said there is a thinking that bringing in people like Sharma, who can deliver, could help the government’s image, which has taken a beating because of the way the pandemic was handled.
“There is a lot of resentment among the people about how the elected representatives were nowhere to be seen when the pandemic was raging and people were dying because of shortage of beds and oxygen,” the source said.
It’s not only the public, resentment has also been brewing among a section of ministers and MLAs of UP over how the government handled the situation. Several BJP MPs, MLAs and cabinet ministers in the state government have written to CM Yogi Adityanath flagging issues like shortage of beds, medical oxygen, etc.
The Covid fatalities in the state include three ministers — Vijay Kashyap, Chetan Chauhan and Kamal Rani Varun.
Having suffered a brutal knock under the second wave, Uttar Pradesh appears to be seeing an improvement in its Covid situation. The state recorded 3,981 Covid cases Monday, as opposed to 38,055 on 24 April.
The case positivity rate has decreased to 1.2 per cent on 24 May, from 17 per cent on 24 April, according to state government data. As of Monday, the state had 76,703 active cases, down from 3,10,783 on 24 April. However, despite the official numbers
, there are concerns that the situation on the ground, especially in rural areas, continues to be grim.
On the job in Varanasi
One of the PM’s closest aides, Sharma has worked with Modi since his days as chief minister. He was secretary in Modi’s Gujarat Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) and joined the PMO as joint secretary after his 2014 win.
In April 2020, at the peak of the migrant crisis triggered by the Covid lockdown, he was appointed MSME secretary. Nine months down the line, Sharma took voluntary retirement to join the BJP. Soon afterwards, he was nominated as a member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council.
When Sharma was nominated as MLC in January, there was speculation that he would be made deputy chief minister. But the reshuffle plans were put on hold on account of the second Covid wave.
Sharma landed in Varanasi on 13 April and has been holding fort in the district since then.
Till the first week of May, Varanasi was among the top five worst-affected districts of Uttar Pradesh. State government figures pegged the number of fresh infections in Varanasi at 1,637 on 20 April, with seven deaths. On 25 April, the numbers rose to 2,057 cases and 15 deaths. Last week, the number of Covid cases reported daily was around 250 on average and the number of fatalities, 13.
His handling of the situation — especially the Kashi Covid response centre that he helped set up to monitor what was happening on the ground — came in for praise from PM Narendra Modi at a meeting last week.
The Kashi Covid response centre offers real-time data on not only the total caseload but the number of beds available in each hospital, oxygen demand and availability, and stocks of medicines, etc.
Sharma, government officials in Lucknow said, has been attending meetings held by CM Yogi Adityanath to monitor the situation in Varanasi. “The CM has had two meetings in the last one month, which Sharma attended with the district administration officials,” a senior government official, who did not want to be named, told ThePrint.
District administration officials told ThePrint that Sharma didn’t focus on Varanasi alone.
“He has also been closely monitoring the situation in other eastern UP districts like Ballia, Mau, Azamgarh, Ghazipur and Jaunpur. He visited these places and has helped arrange oxygen concentrators and other medical essentials for these districts too,” a senior official in the Varanasi district administration said.
When to elevate Sharma?
Although the BJP brass is eager to give a bigger responsibility to Sharma, opinion is split on whether to give him a formal role in the government now, or if the party is re-elected in the 2022 UP assembly elections.
“The leadership is yet to take a call on whether to give Sharma a formal role in the government now or to wait for elections,” the second source quoted above said.
The source added, “There is a view that if he has managed to turn things around in Varanasi in such a short time span, without holding any formal charge, he could be much more effective if given a formal role and bigger responsibility. That could send the right message before the elections.”
However, a UP BJP leader said the party should wait for elections. “How much can he do in ten months?” the leader added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.