New Delhi, May 18, 2021: They are long, detailed phone calls, at times lasting up to half-an-hour or even more. On the line would be Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking directly to a Chief Minister, asking what more the state would need in its fight against Covid-19, and cutting the bureaucracy in between in the process.
The PM has called up nearly 20 Chief Ministers in the last 12 days for such one-on-one conversations, in a departure from the practice of organising a video-conference meeting with multiple CMs, as he last did almost a month ago on April 23 amidst the second wave of Covid-19. Since May 6, the PM began calling up CMs individually to discuss strategies against Covid, seek their suggestions, and intervene directly to try and fulfil demands most of them had for more oxygen or vaccines — depending on the availability. The feedback from CMs is also said to have prompted PM Modi to ask the Health Ministry to inform states 15 days in advance about vaccine supplies they should be expecting, and to coordinate between vaccine manufacturers and states on supplies for the 18-44 age group.
Modi spoke to the CMs of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand on May 6; to the CMs of Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim on May 7; to the CMs of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra on May 8; to the CMs of Punjab, Karnataka, Bihar and Uttarakhand on May 9; to the CMs of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry on May 16; and to the CM of Madhya Pradesh on May 17, apart from some other CMs of North-Eastern states.
“The PM may speak to all Chief Ministers in the country in this manner in the days to come. This is an additional mechanism and the PM’s initiative to converse directly with the CMs and take action in real time,” a senior government official explained to News18. Some of the action have indeed happened quickly, after a CM directly raised a matter with the PM. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, in the phone call with the PM on May 8, urged that oxygen allocation for his state be nearly doubled from 220 metric tonnes (MTs) to 440 MTs. He said he had written a letter to the same effect to the Centre a day earlier. On the evening of May 8, soon after the PM-CM call, the Centre issued an order increasing the oxygen allocation of Tamil Nadu as desired by the CM.
Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot also raised the demand of increasing oxygen allocation for his state when the PM called him on May 16. He told the PM that Rajasthan should get oxygen in proportion to its high number of active cases. Soon after Gehlot got off the call with the PM, Union Minister Piyush Goyal called up the CM to discuss the issue. “We hope the oxygen allocation of the state will be soon increased. The PM has assured me this will be resolved soon,” Gehlot later said in a statement. Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel, after a phone call with the PM on May 16, said the PM had assured that he would “sympathetically consider both his demands” of sending more vaccines to the state and allowing diversion of 20% oxygen to small industries.
Modi, in long calls with MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on May 16 and May 9, respectively, assured them of all help from the Centre in the fight against Covid-19, even as he asked them to increase testing as well as vaccination numbers. Chouhan specifically raised with the PM the issue of black fungus emerging among a section of Covid patients. The PM promised expert help, after the CM said his state had made special wards in five hospitals to tackle this new problem.
Some demands of CMs have, however, not been met so far. For example, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik asked the PM to exempt the Goods and Service Taxes (GST) on the purchase of Covid-19 vaccine by states for the 18-44 population.
Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, on May 9, asked the PM to increase the state’s oxygen quota from 227 MT to 300 MT, and ensure urgent supplies of vaccine for the state. The PM assured him of all possible help. The one blip, however, during the new phone call mechanism was when the PM called up Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren, who later tweeted that the PM “only did his own Mann Ki Baat” during the call.
The PM is yet to speak to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the CMs of states such as West Bengal, Haryana, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and others; he may make these calls in the coming days. Kejriwal had apologise after he televised his remarks during the last video-conference between the PM and CMs on April 23.
A senior government official, meanwhile, said the PM had even intervened earlier to accept genuine suggestions from Chief Ministers. Like when Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray urged the Centre on March 17 to grant permission to state-owned Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines. “The permission was granted by the Centre on April 16 for this company to manufacture Covaxin. The Maharashtra CM had even thanked the PM for accepting his suggestion,” a senior government official said.
The PM held video-conferences with the CMs on March 17, April 8 and April 23, but the fresh mechanism of one-on-one discussions with the CMs seems to be his refined approach.