“The government and the political leadership are undoubtedly facing very many unprecedented challenges at the level of governance, logistics and financial management. In spite of all that one thing is clear. In terms of popular perception, our leadership remains supreme. No individual or organisation has been able to counter it even remotely or exploit the lockdown hardships faced by the people for political gains. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is miles ahead on popular appeal, once again underscoring the TINA factor.” This was how a senior Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activist based in Lucknow analysed the political play in the country on May 11, seven days ahead of the conclusion of Lockdown 3.0.
The RSS leader said this when Frontline brought to his notice some incisive questions that a number of political scientists and observers had raised on the s deficiencies in Modi’s governance during COVID times. He not only roundly rejected these criticisms but also went on to add that the widespread perception in many parts of India was that the Tablighi activists played a big role in spreading the virus and this communal impression was giving a fillip to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associate organisations (“Clueless captain”, Frontline , May 22, 2020). Obviously, this was not the opinion of a single leader based in north India and it had wide currency across the Sangh Parivar network. Scores of Hindutva activists affiliated to Sangh Parivar outfits in States in northern and eastern India shared similar opinions with Frontline . Cumulatively, these expressions could be termed as a pervasive state of smug political confidence.
However, in barely a week, new signals emanating from these Sangh Parivar segments and different echelons of the Union government indicated an erosion of that confidence owing to a number of developments on the ground and people’s reaction to them. Central to these developments was the torturous journeys of lakhs of migrant labourers from different parts of the country to their native places. A majority of these migrants were trudging great lengths barefoot without food and water or other facilities in the blistering heat. Both mainstream media and social media had been highlighting the heart-rending plight of these marginalised sections from the first week of Lockdown 1.0.
According to sections of the BJP and the RSS, these early reports did not evoke significant public response because of the widespread impression that this reverse migration would be over in a few days. “However,” pointed out a former BJP Minister from Jharkhand, “even after 50 days of continuous lockdown there were no signs of abatement of the ‘miserable mass journeys’, and this seemed to steadily change the dynamics in terms of the reactions of the fleeing labourers and their families and the perception of the public which was observing this exodus. The reactions from both sections got increasingly rancorous and even abusive against the leadership of the BJP and its partners in different States. Media interactions with migrant labourers in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh resulted in openly abusive comments against leaders such as Narendra Modi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.”
The former Jharkhand Minister was also of the opinion that this change in mood became pronounced towards the end of Lockdown 3.0. “I would say that it is all these accidents involving migrant labourers and their horrendous deaths in different parts of the country that has primarily led to a shift in the public perception vis-a-vis the political leadership. You had the Aurangabad train accident on May 8, followed by a series of road accidents happening almost on a daily basis. The public response was no longer in a condoning mode and there were more and more calls seeking greater responsibility and involvement from the political leadership.”
Several workers of the BJP and constituents of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in different parts of north India, from Meerut and Ghaziabad in western Uttar Pradesh, closer to the national capital Delhi, and from districts like Chapra and Kishanganj in Bihar agreed with the former Jharkhand Minister’s take on the shift in mood. Janata Dal (United) leaders in Patna and Kishanganj were of the view that the Union government would have to take urgent measures to tackle the migrant labour situation in order to rebuild people’s confidence.
Almost all NDA leaders and activists that Frontline spoke to were of the view that the Prime Minister’s exhortation for an “Atmanirbhar Bharat” fell way short of the expectations that the people had from an economic relief package at a juncture like this. The refrain from these leaders and activists hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was that the details of the package as delineated by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her press conferences held on five consecutive days in the third week of May were too scattered. The press conferences had the professed aim of explaining the “new financial package” of Rs.20 lakh crore announced by the Prime Minister along with specific measures for micro, small & medium enterprises (MSMEs), agriculture, migrant workers, defence, businesses and other segments.
The announcements day after day were about big-ticket reforms in sectors ranging from small- and medium-scale industries to coal production to aeronautics, but even economists and financial experts otherwise favourable to the Modi government called them out and observed that they did not contain specific relief measures to address the deep economic distress caused by COVID-19 (story on page 8). In many ways, the press conferences symbolised the deep sense of confusion and lack of direction prevailing within the Central government in relation to combating the effects of the pandemic, especially its economy-related implications.
The Finance Minister chose to ignore many pointed questions on the Ministry’s “package proposals” raised by experts in diverse fields such as agriculture, small and medium scale industries, and coal mining. Her response to a question on the plight of migrant workers particularly was marked by flustered and melodramatic bluster, which made it evident that the mass reverse migration of workers and their families and the public reaction to it had touched a raw nerve in the central leadership of the BJP too.
The query from a journalist on former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s interaction with a group of migrants in Delhi’s Sukhdev Vihar so irked the Minister that she called it “dramebaazi” (charade). She went on to add that Rahul Gandhi had wasted the labourers’ time by stopping them for the interaction. “If he was so keen on helping them, he could have carried their suitcases and bundles and walked along with them and talked,” she said.
An array of leaders, including Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, condemned these comments as “insensitive”. The official reaction from the Congress leadership, however, was to dismiss the Finance Minister’s comments as “frivolous”.
A senior JD(U) leader was of the view that the Finance Minister’s “rant” should be seen in conjunction with some other important developments in the Union government. “There is no doubt that there is an element of desperation in this rant. To understand its full import, you need to also look at the somersault the Ministry has been forced to do on the rural employment guarantee scheme, MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]. Nirmala Sitharaman has allocated an additional Rs.40,000 crore for the scheme now. This is over and above the Budget estimate of Rs.61,000 crore. She had also said this would generate 300 crore more person-days of work and address the need for work for the returning migrants. This scheme, originally implemented by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance [UPA] government in 2004, was systematically lampooned by the BJP at that time. Even Narendra Modi is on record saying that every single rupee spent on the scheme was a colossal waste of public money. But now, in these trying times, the BJP has come to the realisation that only cash transfer schemes such as these would put money into circulation in the rural sector. The very manner in which the BJP leadership has had to succumb to this scheme is a sort of political surrender. No wonder it has rankled the Finance Minister,” the senior JD(U) leader told Frontline .
Rahul Gandhi rubbed in this point while welcoming the additional allocation. In a tweet, he thanked the Prime Minister for approving a 66 per cent hike in the allocated budget for the scheme. Gandhi concluded his tweet with a video clip, in which Modi can be heard saying, “MNREGA aapki vifaltaon ka jeeta jagta smarak hai” (MGNREGA is a testimony to your failures).
Even as they welcomed this higher allocation to MGNREGA, the Congress and all other opposition parties strongly condemned the other economic measures that Nirmala Sitharaman delineated in her press conferences. One of the key decisions that was roundly criticised was the disinvestment of important public sector units, including notified strategic areas such as space research.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury pointed out that this decision was just to “provide more avenues for the loot of the Prime Minister’s cronies, foreign and domestic corporates. What has whittling down the public sector got to do with the COVID crisis? This is pathetically misleading and a deliberate ploy to facilitate loot.”
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, too, came out strongly against the move to disinvest public sector units. “The public sector built India. It made India strong and self-reliant. Now, in the name of Atmanirbhar Bharat, Modi-style, the public sector is being taken to the shamshaan ghat [cemetery]. Many of the announcements made by the Finance Minister in her press conferences require parliamentary approval and scrutiny. It is imperative that Parliament is convened at the earliest,” Jairam Ramesh said.
Leaders like Sitaram Yechury and Akhilesh Yadav, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and president of the Samajwadi Party, told Frontline that a number of measures the Finance Minister had announced clearly pointed towards a subversion of the democratic processes in the country and a blatant promotion of crony capitalism. “What this means is that along with battling the COVID crisis the people of the country will have to carry out a spirited battle against this no-holds-barred advancement of devious economic vested interests,” Yechury told Frontline .
Akhilesh Yadav was of the view that these measures signified multiple threats to people’s health on the one side and their overall well-being and existence as human beings on the other. “In other words, the struggle would be for good physical health of the people and for a robust democracy.”
The Congress has taken the initiative to build a common platform of opposition parties to highlight these concerns and issues. A meeting to discuss this was convened on May 22 in Delhi. As many as 18 parties, including the Left parties, the Trinamool Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam and the Nationalist Congress Party attended the meeting. However, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Aam Aadmi Party did not attend it.
Yechury placed a charter of demands before the meeting, which was to be submitted to the Union government after wider consultations with all opposition parties. The demands included direct cash transfer of Rs.7,500 every month to all families outside the income tax bracket for the pandemic period; 10 kg foodgrains free to all needy individuals every month for the next six months; free transportation for all migrant workers to their native places; immediate procurement of the rabi harvest and minor forest produce at minimum support price (MSP); and initiation of steps to provide seeds, fertilizers and other inputs to farmers preparing for the kharif crop.
The charter also demanded the reversal of all unilateral policy decisions, particularly the annulment of labour laws, and pointed out that substantial funds had to be released to State governments, which are in the front line of combating the pandemic. It also called for an immediate stop to communal profiling, targeting and arresting of peaceful protesters and people expressing dissent under draconian laws such as the Sedition Act, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act (NSA). It also asked for the release of all political prisoners, particularly those arrested in Jammu and Kashmir and jailed inside and outside the State.
Even as opposition leaders point to the manifold pitfalls to democracy ingrained in Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat, Sangh Parivar and NDA insiders continue to share their apprehensions on the short-, medium- and long-term political impact of the reverse migration. “There is little doubt that Modi still has the TINA advantage, but can we take it for granted that it will last in the face of this unprecedented crisis? There are doubts,” the same senior RSS activist from Lucknow, who was the epitome of confidence not so long ago, admitted to Frontline .
According to the political and economic affairs analyst Seshadri Kumar, the reverse migration and its after-effects pose the biggest political challenge to Modi to date. He pointed out that Modi overcame the debilitating effects of demonetisation and its political impact with his rhetoric and by making the poor think that he was causing more harm to the rich than to the poor. “But the reverse migration offers no scope for such rhetorical excuses. Not only has this situation been harrowing for Modi’s base, he is making it worse by repealing all labour laws all over the country. Add to this the widespread job losses among the middle classes—tens of millions are likely to lose their jobs because of COVID—and Modi is on extremely shaky ground. There are going to be a lot of people out of work because of COVID across the board. Those who get jobs are going to be squeezed by brutal work conditions—no overtime, 12-hour workdays, no holidays, no unions.”
“The fact that Modi decided to go all out with his privatisation drive at a time like this suggests that he has given up on getting the support of the working class in the next election. Throwing in his lot with the Ambanis and Adanis suggests that he is now pinning his hopes on buying the next election with help from India Inc. Of course, the next general election is four years away, but coronavirus’ effects are going to last years, if not decades,” he said.