OPINION
OPINION

Migrant Crisis Will Haunt Modi Govt 2.0

The first anniversary of second term of the Modi Government will be characterised forever with images of poor migrant workers left struggling as if refugees walking aimlessly in a war zone, even reminiscent of pictures from the Partition. There are comparisons with Trump as self-adulation now deflated by events gives way to venting false anger against the states trying to cope with the Centre’s poor handling of the Corona Pandemic.

The unending exodus of penniless migrant workers triggered by the corona lockdown has cast a long dark shadow over the Modi government as it completed one year of its second term in office on May 30. This should have been a grandstanding of glorious achievements attained against apparent great odds with self-congratulatory speeches. It has turned into a media exposure of its shortcomings.

Though Modi and his ministers marked the occasion by flooding major newspapers with lengthy columns detailing the government’s key decisions over the past year, they could not get away from recurring reports and images of lakhs of stranded migrant workers struggling and trekking thousands of kilometres with little or no food and money to reach the safety of their homes. Their little children in tow or being carried. It is an image of a country still in the underdeveloped stratus of economies. But India is the fifth largest economy in the world!

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The Modi government has reason to be perturbed by these reports as they reflect poorly on its handling of this humanitarian crisis.  It is obvious that the Centre failed to anticipate the rush of migrants when the Prime Minister declared the first nationwide lockdown on March 24 at four hours’ notice. It was a failure of foresight. Worse, the Government remained in denial about the plight of the migrants for nearly two months after the lockdown was first imposed. 

Why four-hour notice? Not even the world’s most advanced countries would have had the courage to attempt such an ambitious clear out of the streets. In India, where millions sleep in the streets and hundreds of millions live in dire poverty living from day to day on available labour, away from family and home, this was a decision of astounding daring and unexplainable rationality.

For days those who had grown to gain some confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic suddenly wondered where is the planning, when they saw pictures of poor straddling to nowhere land. Surely the Modi Sarkar must have commandeered the great network of national and public transport at no costs barred to take migrants to safer places with safe physical distancing. Nothing.

This transpired to be another notebandhi type decision without any planning, without any infrastructure in place and with little regard to the poorest. They suffered the most then and they suffered most in this apparent show of strongman Modi. But the strong are not meant to hurt the weakest.

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With the government’s image now taking a severe beating, a defensive BJP has played the Trump card and countered charges against it by turning the spotlight on the poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic in opposition-ruled states. The saffron party is at pains to point out that it was actually the state governments that had failed to pass on the money and other benefits announced by “Modiji” to the rightful beneficiaries. So many echoes of America where Trump has blamed the states for the hundred thousand deaths. Trump can also blame China, but Modi cannot blame Pakistan this time.

At the same time, it is running a campaign to publicise the Modi government’ efforts to shore up the economy and focus on the specific relief measures initiated by it to provide succour to migrants, farmers and daily wagers.     

As part of this plan, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed a series of press conferences to unveil the details of the Rs.20 lakh crore economic package which had been announced earlier by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation. 

This was followed by a string of interviews by Sitharaman to media houses in which she explained the benefits of the stimulus package and responded to critics about its shortcomings. 

Though the government’s package could have been announced at a single press conference, Sitharaman instead chose to phase it out over five days, a PR exercise in itself.

It is obvious as anything. The Prime Minister’s first announcement about the package and the finance minister’s follow-up explanatory media briefings were essentially an exercise in “headline management”, an attempt by the government to divert attention from the heart-breaking media reports about the migrant workers.  

And yet the migrant story refused to go away. 

The Modi government’s initial assessment that the situation would soon settle down came to a naught as there has been no stopping of this exodus and no end to the misery of those forced to make their way home on their own.

Television news channels, newspapers and even international media have been replete with reports about the plight of stranded migrant workers. And how they are cycling, walking on highways, tramping through fields and hitching rides in trucks and tempos in their desperation to get home. Many dying as well from accidents, exhaustion and illness. More than hundred migrants have lost their lives in accidents while undertaking this perilous journey.  

Managing the fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the underbelly of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Over the six years it has been in power, the saffron party has finessed the art of messaging and acquired an expertise in setting the political agenda. Events have taken over now. Neither twitter nor an adulating press can hide the scars of a badly planned response to the pandemic. Ordering shutdown was much easier than planning for one.

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But the corona crisis proved to be a rare occasion when the BJP and the Modi government’s strenuous efforts failed to change the narrative in its favour. Realising that the government’s image was continuing to suffer, the Modi government decided to operate Shramik special trains to transport migrant workers to their villages. 

Coming nearly two months after the first lockdown was declared, the operation of special trains is a proverbial case of too little, too late. The inept handling of the travel arrangements only added to the government’s woes. Its decision to bill the migrant workers for their fare home provided fresh ammunition to the government’s critics to mount a fresh attack against it.

As if it did not have enough on its plate, the ensuing war of words between the BJP and opposition made matters worse for the Modi government. Cooperative federalism was forgotten and politics was soon at play in the middle of the greatest threat in modern times.

Unable to cope with the rush of travellers on the special trains, Railway minister Piyush Goyal attempted to turn the tables and blame the chief ministers of opposition-ruled states for not giving their consent to receive the Shramik special trains. 

West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee was the main target here as the BJP is expanding its footprint in this Eastern state and with assembly elections due next year, the saffron party did not want to pass over this opportunity to show her in poor light. It had earlier buttonholed the Mamata Banerjee government for not following the COVID-19 guidelines and has periodically fielded West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar to needle the chief minister. 

And then there was the unedifying spectacle of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath engaging in a war of words with Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra over ferrying migrants from UP to their native villages. The Congress leader wrote to the chief minister, seeking his permission to transport them in the 1,000 buses which had been especially commandeered by the party. 

The Yogi government first said no, then yes and then demanded necessary documentation of the vehicles. This back-and-forth continued for some time and finally ended with the Congress sending back the buses parked for the stranded migrants at the state borders, accusing the Yogi government of indulging in petty politicking.

There is no denying that the migrant crisis has tarred the Modi government’s image. And yet there is little doubt that it will eventually emerge unscathed from this mess thanks to a lacklustre and divided opposition. Unless the opposition comes from a coalition of state parties.

But, for the moment, the government is merely in damage control mode.

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