By Amulya Ganguli
The Narendra Modi government is facing several problems. After the praise it received from the WHO about its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and also from Bill Gates, the signs are that India is on the verge of a second wave of the disease while the number of infections has continued to rise. The apprehension is that a relaxation of the lockdown will lead to further increases in accordance with the grim forecast of a peak being reached in summer.
There is also the possibility of the virus reaching the countryside as thousands of migrant labourers reach their home villages after their exodus from the towns where they used to earn a living. This is another of the government’s headaches and not only because of the spreading of the disease. A greater worry is the bad name it is earning because of the plight of the migrants. As they trudge home, mostly on foot but also on cycles or in trains or on trucks, the searing spectacle of their desperate urge to reach home by all available means has etched itself on the nation’s conscience.
For the government, what must be of considerable concern is the impact on the popular mind of the lack of official sympathy for these hapless people. Caught unawares by the sudden lockdown and left with no means of livelihood or a place where to stay, the daily wage-earners or people with small salaries had no option but to try and go back to where they came from in the hope that a familiar environment will be better than the uncaring one in which they had been suddenly placed.
It is obvious that the government was virtually oblivious of these numerous service-providers when it called for a total shutdown. It was the act of an administration which is seemingly of, by and for the more affluent sections of society, viz. the upper and middle classes which were secure in their own flats and could bank on food supplies from the takeaway joints because of the ready money and credit cards in their hands. The lockdown to them was no more than a temporary inconvenience and held no terror as it did for the less fortunate labourers. If anything exposed the familiar brahmin-bania face of the BJP, it was the sad plight of the migrants who mostly belong to the lower castes and the lower middle class. If they were left high and dry, it was because they belonged to the wrong social group so far as the BJP was concerned.
What a more sensitive government which had everyone’s well-being in mind would have done was to give at least a day’s notice before the “Janata curfew” was clamped down and alerted the local officials about warning the houseowners against summary evictions of tenants while arranging for shelter and food for those who found themselves out of a job and accommodation. Some amount of money should also have been transferred to their bank accounts. But, not only did the government and the ruling BJP fail to take any such step, it took the party more than a month and a half to wake up to the tragedy of the migrants walking along the highways and offer them chappals (footwear).
This delayed reaction was also evident in the economic packages which the government began announcing without mentioning the migrants in the first few tranches, which focussed on small industries, non-banking financial corporations, e-learning, e-commerce, agriculture, housing, mining, public sector units, defence, space (!), etc. All these entities will be eligible for loans, which is why finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has been called a “money lender” by her critics.
It is clear enough that the offer on chappals followed signs of unease in BJP circles about the fallout of the migration on the party’s electoral fortunes. As a BJP leader from Rajasthan wrote to Union home minister Amit Shah, “yeh hamare hi log hain (these are our own people)”. Time will show whether the BJP’s belated action will be of any electoral help. But, for the present, the party has been seen to have bungled in its response to the migrants’ crisis. Moreover, by initially looking away from their woes, the BJP behaved like an atma-nirbhar (self-reliant) party which feels so secure about its political position that it believes that nothing can upset it.
This overweening confidence comes, of course, from the opposition’s weakness which has not only remained unchanged from the time of the BJP’s parliamentary success last year, but has also become more pronounced as the BJP wrested Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh from the grasp of its opponents. But there is little doubt that the heart-rending trek of one of the most vulnerable groups of people has given the opposition a stick with which to beat the BJP.
It remains to be seen how effectively it can do so even if Sitharaman dismissed as “dramabazi” former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with the migrants on a footpath, prompting a television channel to ask why is she so angry with Rahul. The BJP has got away with other bungles in the past like demonetization and the shambolic rolling out of the Goods and Services Tax. It is a million dollar question whether it will be able to do so with the migrants issue as well. (IPA Service)