Coronavirus: India

Delhi official blasted in India for 'Singapore variant' remarks

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has found himself widely criticised in India for his ill-informed remark suggesting a "new form of corona found in Singapore" was particularly harmful to children and could cause a third wave of infections in India.

The variant he was referring to was first found in India.

He has been called out for his "irresponsible" comment by several politicians as well as other Indians, including those concerned that this controversy may aggravate racial tensions in Singapore and affect family members living there.

Member of Parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi tweeted yesterday to say Singapore has been "a longstanding ally and has given rock solid support to India" as it battled a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Many Indians have made Singapore their home. Such irresponsible and unfounded accusations without expertise or authority about the nation damages our bilateral relations," said Ms Chaturvedi, a member of Shiv Sena, a political party that is part of a coalition governing the western state of Maharashtra.

Mr Kejriwal had on Tuesday tweeted to flag his concern over a "new form of corona found in Singapore", calling on the Indian government to cancel flights from Singapore and prioritise options for vaccinating children.

Singapore's Ministry of Health has since clarified there is no "Singapore variant". The strain that has been found to be more prevalent in many of Singapore's Covid-19 cases and affecting children more in recent weeks is the B1617 variant, which was first detected in India.

Leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including those from the government, have been especially critical of Mr Kejriwal.

Dr S. Jaishankar, the country's foreign minister, said "irresponsible comments from those who should know better can damage long-standing partnerships".

"So, let me clarify - Delhi CM does not speak for India," he added in a sharp rebuke on Twitter yesterday.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs even tweeted to say that India's High Commissioner in Singapore, who had been called in by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had clarified that "Delhi CM had no competence to pronounce on Covid variants or civil aviation policy".

Mr Kejriwal's remarks have blown up into an acerbic political battle between the Aam Aadmi Party, which he represents, and its rival BJP, as both the parties seek to blame each other for the mismanagement of the pandemic in Delhi.

He has not commented on this issue, but his party colleague and Delhi's deputy chief minister Manisha Sisodia tweeted yesterday to say that while Mr Kejriwal was concerned about children, the BJP-led union government was worried about its ties with Singapore.

Mr Sisodia made no mention of the fact that there is no "Singapore variant" and that it is the B1617 strain, detected first in India, that has caused concern.

Commenting on how the Indian government had last year failed to prevent the entry of a strain detected first in the United Kingdom and which became widely prevalent in India, Mr Sisodia said: "Singapore is not the issue. The issue is the safety of our children. Today, the central government remains ignorant again about this forthcoming danger and is careless about our children's safety.

"I wish the BJP and the central government were as concerned about the country's children as they are about their image abroad."

Even as this fracas went on, some Indians expressed their worry on how this controversy could lead to tensions in multiracial Singapore.

There have been some recent racist incidents, including against an Indian Singaporean woman who was assaulted this month after being shouted at for not wearing her mask while brisk-walking.

Ms Namrata Joshi, a Delhi-based film writer who has close relatives living in Singapore, said she admires its "peaceful, inclusive and friendly" character, which she has experienced on her annual holidays to the country.

"Kejriwal's comment, I feel, is not just a diplomatic disaster," she told The Straits Times. "I am concerned it could become a people-to-people animosity breeder."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2021, with the headline 'Delhi official blasted in India for 'Singapore variant' remarks'. Subscribe