By refusing to acknowledge the deepening humanitarian crisis caused by the exodus of migrant workers during the ongoing lockdown, the Centre has given the Gandhi siblings, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, ammunition to target the BJP.
On Saturday, BJP leaders went into a celebratory mode on social media to mark Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s six years in office even as India continued to cope with the coronavirus pandemic and its high economic and human cost.
It could not be a mere coincidence that Rahul and Priyanka chose May 16 to make an overt gesture of empathy and support for lakhs of migrants across the country who have been plunged into deeper economic distress by the lockdown.
A large number of them have now been on the roads for days, walking back to their native villages; over 50 migrants have also lost their lives -– 25 in Uttar Pradesh’s Auraiya on Saturday morning -– in road and rail mishaps.
After repeatedly urging the Centre for a quick and compassionate resolution to the humanitarian crisis, Rahul, on Saturday, decided to personally meet migrant workers who were walking back to their homes in and around Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh from Ambala in Haryana. Rahul met the migrants near Sukhdev Vihar in Delhi and interacted with them for over an hour.
Later, volunteers from the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee and the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) arranged transportation to ferry these migrants back to their villages and provided them with food, water and face masks. The Congress media cell then aggressively circulated photos of Rahul’s interaction with the migrants on social media. A video clip showed one of the workers expressing gratitude to the Wayanad MP and asserting “kisi ne toh suni mazdoor aadmi ki pukaar”.
Moments later, another video was shared on Twitter by several Congress workers. This video featured a migrant worker, who was contacted by Congress volunteers at Priyanka’s behest. The volunteers reportedly “tracked” the worker after a television news channel tweeted an interview with him in which the man was crying inconsolably as he tried to return to his native village with his children. Congress volunteers were asked by Priyanka to arrange a bus to ferry the migrant and others stranded with him back to their villages.
Shortly before these videos went viral on social media, Priyanka also wrote a letter to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath requesting the Congress party be given permission to operate 1000 buses -– 500 each from the Delhi-Noida border and Delhi-Ghaziabad border –- to ferry stranded migrants back to their homes. This wasn’t Priyanka’s first letter to Adityanath. Since the lockdown began on March 25, she has repeatedly reached out to the UP CM, urging his government to help the needy.
Congress sources say Priyanka has not received a reply to any of her letters. Her latest letter offering her party’s services for arranging buses to ferry the migrants, and also bear the cost for the exercise, is unlikely to receive any positive reply from Adityanath but it does send out a clear message – and one that shows the BJP in very poor light.
These overtures by the Gandhi siblings come days after their mother and interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi urged her party’s state unit chiefs to pick the tab for rail tickets that migrants needed to buy to board the special Shramik Express trains being operated by the Union rail ministry to transport migrant workers.
Sonia’s deft move had come amid reports that the Centre not only wanted the cash and food strapped migrants to pay for their travel back home but was also levying a surcharge for the service. Soon after Sonia’s manoeuvre, the Centre claimed that the fare would be paid by the central and respective state governments in an 85-15 ratio. Some news reports, however, deflated the Centre’s claim within hours.
As Congress chief, while Sonia is advising and overseeing the initiatives taken by her party to help common citizens during the ongoing crisis, party sources say the day-to-day monitoring of these efforts is done directly by Rahul, while in Uttar Pradesh, it is Priyanka, the party’s general secretary in-charge of the state, who is firmly in command.
As a member of the 11-member Congress consultative group constituted by Sonia last month to discuss various aspects of the health pandemic and its economic fallout, Rahul is also directly involved in finalizing the party’s views on different flanks of the crisis.
Despite limitations imposed on physical movement by the lockdown, Rahul has, arguably, been more visible this past month than during the 10 months that preceded the lockdown. He has already addressed three well-received press conferences –- the last of these also specifically catering to regional electronic media –- and grabbed some eyeballs with his interactions with Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee which received huge viewership on platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
Now, his direct interaction with the migrants and intervention for extending them help adds credibility to the image he is trying to build of himself -– that of a leader who wants to work for the poor and marginalized and one who wants concrete ideas to help resolve India’s complex problems even if there are no foreseeable electoral gains from these efforts.
It is also important to note that through the over 50-day-long lockdown, Rahul is the only frontline political leader who made the effort to directly interact with migrants while those in actual positions of power at the Centre preferred to stay within the safe confines of their high-ceiling Lutyen’s bungalows, refusing even virtual media interactions during an unprecedented crisis.
On her part, Priyanka has remained in the shadows, choosing to silently oversee her party’s work in UP while her brother does the talking. Sources say Priyanka, who has the ominous task of reviving the Congress in a state where it has remained on the fringe for nearly three decades now, takes daily stock of what her state-unit colleagues are doing. She also keeps track of the migrant situation in UP, carefully going through the available information on stranded people or those in need of rations and other help.
Congress volunteers are then instructed by Priyanka and her aides to provide necessary help to these people. The Adityanath government’s mishandling of the migrant situation and the absence of the two main regional parties of the state -– Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party -– from the scene, have presented Priyanka an opportunity to revive her party in the most significant political state of the country.
The Gandhi siblings, Rahul in particular, may insist that their response to the crisis stems not from the greed for political gain but out of genuine concern for India’s teeming millions but the electoral dividend that their efforts may accrue cannot be ignored. Modi and the BJP may believe that their ‘headline management’ through the lofty promise of an Rs. 20 lakh crore economic package could salve the wounds inflicted on common citizens by the poor handling of the pandemic and the lockdown.
However, marketing propositions -– Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan being the new fad –- that do not acknowledge ground realities or empathize with the pain of the masses cannot yield incremental electoral gains in perpetuity. Rahul and Priyanka seem to have realized this and their visible solidarity with the marginalized could finally propel the Congress back into the political game of thrones.