Staging extravagant, dramaticspectacles to camouflage the confusion and paralysis in terms of policy formulation and practical governance has been the central characteristic of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis right from the early stages of the pandemic in India. True to form, the run-up to the third phase of the lockdown from May 4 through May 17 was also marked by yet another diversionary extravaganza. This time it was by deploying Indian Air Force flights to conduct flypasts across India and shower flower petals on select hospitals and facilities, ostensibly to show the nation’s gratitude to the thousands of health care workers battling the pandemic. The “celestial flower show” was accompanied by illumination of Indian Navy ships in harbours and band performances by the Indian Army in hospitals and other venues.
Similar theatrics preceded earlier phases of the lockdowns too, on March 24 and April 14. Lockdown 1.0 came in with the “sound show” of March 22, when the Prime Minister exhorted the people to clap their hands or ring bells or bang utensils from their houses as a symbolic gesture to show their appreciation for the corona warriors. Then came the “light show”, by which people were asked to switch off lights at home at 9 p.m. on April 9 and light a candle or a lamp or flash a mobile phone standing at their doorsteps or balconies. Each of these performances was accompanied by self-aggrandising manoeuvres of the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath were the principal players in this “patting one’s own back” exercise.
Death on the tracks
Amidst all this showmanship, the pandemic has continued to rage across States, especially in large ones such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, which contribute to the economy in a big way. Exodus of millions of people, mostly migrant workers, from cities and towns to rural areas, caused by the utterly unscientific and unplanned manner in which the first lockdown of March 4 was announced, continues in several parts of the country, leaving heart-rending tales of misery day after day.
The horrific death of 16 migrant workers sleeping on a railway track when a speeding goods train ran over them in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad in the early hours of May 8 starkly highlighted this misery. The workers, who were based in Jalna in Maharashtra, belonged to Madhya Pradesh, and had tried for many days to get into a special train bound for their home State. When their efforts did not succeed they decided to walk hundreds of miles to get back to what they perceived as the relative safety of their native places. After a hard day’s walk, they decided to sleep on the railway track as they did not expect any train on that route since it was lockdown time. According to the survivors in the group, they had also thought that the tracks were relatively safer against any attack from animals and reptiles.
Indeed, the Aurangabad tragedy was the most shocking incident that highlighted the colossal hardships inflicted on the poor and the marginalised thanks to the absence of proper planning by the authorities in facilitating movement of people and the callous and inhuman way the Union government and many State governments treated them. Barring States like Kerala, which has managed the public health crisis and its social and human ramifications in an appreciable way, almost all regions are facing unparalleled distress situations caused by the pandemic, which have been compounded by rampaging hunger among large sections of the population.
According to a number of serving and retired defence personnel who talked to Frontline in the context of the unprecedented human misery, the deployment of the armed forces for the “flower show” was nothing short of a criminal offence. “We all hang our heads in shame. All the things that the three forces were made to do as part of the flower show are normally done after their victory in a war situation. Where is the victory here? And were the forces deployed for the kind of yeoman tasks that they have done in the past, such as delivering food and essentials for those who are being forced to go without them for days on end?” a senior retired army officer said.
Admiral Ramdas’ letter to PM
Former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas wrote to Prime Minister Modi on these lines before the “flower show”. On a website he said: “I had addressed two letters to the Prime Minister, copied to the RM [Raksha Mantri or Defence Minister], as also the CDS [Chief of Defence Staff] and Heads of the three Services. My first letter was dated March 27, and the second one April 14, Ambedkar Jayanthi. I had suggested in both letters that the considerable resources of the Armed Forces might be tapped in a number of ways to deal with the unprecedented situation brought on by the manner in which lockdown was announced and executed. I had specifically mentioned the organising and running of community kitchens and food distribution in the first letter. By the time of my second letter, the situation with respect to the farm and migrant workers and large numbers walking home for thousands of miles had grown much worse. My letter had flagged the fact that from all accounts, there was more than enough rice and wheat available in our reserves with the FCI [Food Corporation of India], and that these should be released without further delay to feed our people. Some reports that sanction had been given by the Cabinet to diverting grains for the manufacture of ethanol and hand sanitisers was truly alarming.”
In the run-up to the “flower show” he had noted as follows: “Furthermore, in my humble opinion, at a time when all our resources are fully stretched, we could have better utilised the money that will be spent on the events, towards assisting those most in need at this time, to reach their homes safely and thus minimise the pressures on them. Imagine the visibility and interaction with the personnel from the Armed Forces—and the building of relationships between civil and military.”
Evidently, there were no takers in the current dispensation at the Centre for the former Navy Chief’s opinion.
Train fare burden
The Union government even messed up the lockdown relaxation plans. One of the supplementary plans announced along with Lockdown 3.0 was to run trains (“shramik specials”) to take migrants stuck in different States back to their homes. The happiness that the initial order created among lakhs of migrant labourers across the country turned to shock and horror when the Railway Ministry directed the State governments to collect the ticket fare from the workers boarding such trains. In many places the workers were also charged for food.
This, expectedly, generated a political controversy. All the opposition parties, ranging from the principal opposition Congress to the Left parties and regional outfits such as the Samajwadi Party and the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha, castigated the order. Congress president Sonia Gandhi condemned the directive in strong terms and added that her party had asked the Pradesh Congress Committees to bear the cost of the rail travel of every needy worker and migrant labourer. She also added that there had to be provisions for the safe travel of migrant workers. The Central government and the Railway Ministry chose to ignore the Congress’ demands.
Though initially stung by the Congress’ offer to pay the migrants’ train fare, the BJP branded Sonia Gandhi’s directive to the Congress units as a “political game” and an instance of “playing to the gallery”. The ruling party also sought to assert that the Railway Ministry was paying 85 per cent of the fare and that the State governments run by the party will pay the remaining amount.
Even as the ticket fare controversy caused some major loss of face for the Union government, the B.S. Yediyurappa-led BJP government in Karnataka took some questionable actions. It cancelled many “shramik special trains” after the Chief Minister’s discussions with prominent builders in Bangalore, who apparently argued that letting the migrant labourers go would hamper their business and the economy of the State. The decision evoked widespread public anger and ultimately the government was forced to rescind the order cancelling the special trains.
In spite of the BJP leadership’s claim that the party-run State governments would supplement the Railway Ministry’s concession of 85 per cent and pay the remaining 15 per cent of the ticket fare for migrant workers, the Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government continued to charge the fare from the workers themselves. The State requisitioned the services of the highest number of trains. In the first 10 days of May, the State was expected to receive more than 100 trains from different parts of the country. Lakhs of migrant workers are expected to reach the State and there are apprehensions about the government’s preparedness in terms of infrastructure and medical facilities to handle the influx (Story on page 15).
At the time of writing this, approximately 60,000 migrant workers have reached different parts of Uttar Pradesh. Despite Yogi Adityanath’s claim that buses have been provided for every returnee, there are reports of hundreds being stranded at railway stations and making way to their villages on foot. But the Chief Minister continues to warn people not to move on foot. He has also repeated the claim that the manner in which the BJP governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh are combating COVID has won global praise.
Notwithstanding his self-praise, sections of the officialdom in the Central government and in the country’s most populous State are of the view that apart from the lockdown, the political leadership has not come up with any concrete medical relief plan. “Some suggestions are being discussed and plans are being formulated vis-a-vis the economy, especially in relation to providing immediate cash transfers to people below the poverty line, but no one seems to have a clue on how to go about in the medium and long term,” a senior Union Health Ministry official told Frontline . He was also of the view that the Prime Minister had by and large refrained from making public pronouncements after the announcement of the second lockdown primarily because his administration’s cluelessness. This silence was conspicuous, they said.
Rahul Gandhi’s initiatives
In the meantime, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi interacted with several public intellectuals, including Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee and former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan, on issues relating to the pandemic and its implications for, among other things, the economy.
Addressing an online press conference, Rahul Gandhi pointed out that lockdown did not mean switching a key on and off and that the Union government needed to be transparent in its strategy to reopen the country as well the economy. “We need to understand how they plan to open the lockdown and what will be the criteria for it. Migrants need support and money now, and today. Micro, small and medium enterprises need help immediately, not tomorrow. The Centre must immediately transfer Rs.65,000 crore into the bank accounts of poor and migrant population to give them financial support in these difficult times. There has to be a conversation between States and the Centre to oversee this. It requires a psychological change. We need to decentralise power in dealing with the virus. If we keep this fight in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), we will lose. The Prime Minister must devolve power. Our Chief Ministers are complaining that the coronavirus zones are being decided by the Centre. This should be done by local governments. If we centralise, there will be a calamity. The Prime Minister has to trust Chief Ministers, and Chief Ministers have to trust district magistrates.”
The issue of centralisation of powers that Rahul Gandhi flagged in the press conference has been stressed by several opposition-led State governments, including Kerala, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Their common complaint is that they are being pushed into fiscal distress with the Centre providing them no resources to fight the pandemic.
Making an incisive comment on a social media platform about the overall political and governance stasis, the political scientist professor Balveer Arora, Chairperson of the Centre for Multilevel Federalism, pointed out that the situation as a whole signified a lack of political leadership on the part of Prime Minister Modi and this would not be forgotten. “Who is the chief strategist at the helm, combining inputs from epidemiologists and economists? The Prime Minister has so far provided comic relief, from clanging to candles to petals. We are witnessing the greatest mass misery, destitution and pauperisation since Partition. The shame and scandal of migrant workers trudging back home will remain a blot on republican memory for a long time, surpassing by far the suffering caused by demonetisation. At least then the population were at home and confident of earning their livelihood again. Even now, there is no word from above whether migrants should stay put or go home. We are if nothing else a common market, which requires a common strategy and vision. Only a leader with a vision can provide that. As PM CARES remains a slush fund of no use to the suffering, the party which once proclaimed the oneness of India has paradoxically managed to fragment it by pursuing petty electoral calculations to divide and rule. It has used federalism to settle political scores, in the process weakening the nation more than ever before in its independent history. As we head into the worst economic recession we have known in living memory, it is the lack of leadership which is being cruelly felt in New Delhi.”
Arora went on to add that “there are some notable exceptions at the State level, but they labour under the constraints of the common market and a centralised federal structure”. The pandemic is historic, so is the economic crisis. It is separating the grain from the chaff in terms of leaders who measure up and those who do not. And India’s long-suffering poor, whose ranks are swelling, pay the highest price. Later, talking to the portal Newsclick, the former Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor pointed to the possible political fallouts that could expose the lack of leadership at the Centre.
When this perception about leadership was brought to the notice of a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow, his response was a derisive laugh.
In his view, the COVID situation in the country, especially in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in north India, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the south and West Bengal in the east are giving a fillip to the BJP and other organisations in the Sangh Parivar. “Clearly, an impression has set in, especially in these States, that the Muslim minorities are the propagators of the virus. All our cadre need to do is to spread the word a bit. And it is working very well. Notwithstanding all the learned professors, intellectuals and journalists may perceive vis-a-vis the failures of the Union government, the march of the Hindutva is bound to continue.” Grassroots reports gathered by Frontline from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar largely reflect the leader’s contention and confidence.
Incidentally, Admiral Ramdas had, in his letter to the Prime Minister, referred to the growing communalisation of the COVID situation too. “Given the continuing and open targeting of some sections, like care-givers, doctors and nurses, etc., and our Muslim citizens, especially after the Tablighi Markaz incident, I had requested the Honorable Prime Minister that a signal from him was urgently required in order to put a halt to this deplorable and avoidable communal colour being added to a tragic health pandemic.” This appeal too was met with silence and inaction.
As human misery grows across India, large sections of the Sangh Parivar perceive the state of inaction on this count as something laden with the promise of sectarian political gains.