Some time ago, I was talking to a very senior politician from the Congress, a low-profile but powerful leader. I can't give his name as the whole conversation was off-the-record. There was another journalist friend with me. We were talking about politics in general and Sonia Gandhi in particular. In order to provoke this extremely mild-mannered politician into sharing some perspective, I asked why the Congress had allowed Sonia Gandhi to lead the party for so long, considering she is a foreigner and probably does not know India well enough. Being a seasoned person, he did not take the bait but made one remark which has stuck with me. "Don't have any illusion. Sonia Gandhi is the sharpest politician in decades; she has used it to her advantage that her rivals in the party - and outside - assumed that she is naive and is the Party President just because of her surname."
I was reminded of his words yesterday when the news arrived that Sonia Gandhi had instructed her state units to bear the costs of the train tickets for migrant workers who are stuck at different places due to the lockdown and are on the verge of starvation. The Modi government in its order has instructed all the state governments to collect tickets from the railways and distribute them among migrant workers; the order says the money has to be submitted to the railways. In a video, Sonia Gandhi lambasted the Modi government, saying that at a time when poor migrant workers are severely suffering, the Modi government is charging them to return home. Her video caught the imagination of the people. The Modi government and the ruling party, the BJP, and its troll army did not know how to react. The central government went into hiding and was busy doing damage control through planted stories via its friends in TV channels.
Sonia Gandhi's video strongly underlined two things: one, the Modi government has been callous in its treatment of poor migrant workers. It was not only insensitive on the part of the government but also inhuman to charge the poor who have no money to even feed themselves; many of them out of desperation and a sense of survival have been walking for hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes. The question that was immediately asked on social media was how a government could be so callous to their plight. Secondly, Sonia Gandhi's video further exposed the Modi government by showing that its fight against the Coronavirus lacks proper planning, it has no long-term perspective and there is a total lack of micro-management in its handling of the situation. It also established that the government is run by bureaucrats and there is zero political input from the ground in policy formulation and articulation. After demonetization and GST, this is the third big event which signals that Modi does not trust anybody except himself and that the government is run without any proper homework in understanding and executing decisions.
The government, which was totally oblivious of the Corona crisis till March 17, suddenly woke up the next day to announce a Janata Curfew; later, at four hours' notice, it announced a national lockdown, which led to chaos in many parts of the country. The worst sufferers were the poor who were living in different metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Pune, Surat, to earn a meager living. Abandoned by their employers, with almost no money in their pocket, they were left to fend for themselves and globally, this created a very ugly picture of thousands of people walking down highways. It was a national embarrassment. Sonia Gandhi through her video has reinforced this point again. Her timing was perfect. Officially, the Railways could not contradict her as the Railway Board chairman B K Yadav had already confirmed the same and documentary evidence was flying around on social media. It was left to the Health Ministry official in his daily Corona briefing to say that the interpretation of the government order is not correct and that the centre will bear 85% of the cost with the balance borne by the state government. But by then, the damage had been done.
Many people have termed Sonia Gandhi's move a master stroke. In my opinion, she may have won a few brownie points but giving it more due than that is hyperbole. There is no denying the fact that the Congress from the very beginning has been warning the government to wake up to the Corona crisis. In the second week of February, Rahul Gandhi had alerted the central government to take the Corona pandemic seriously. On January 30, India confirmed its first Corona patient. While China, South Korea, Italy and Spain were all dealing with the crisis in different ways and with vastly disparate results, the Modi Government did nothing. In fact it was busy hosting Mr. Donald Trump in Ahmedabad in the fourth week of February. And on 13th March, national Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan was heard saying that there was no national medical emergency and any one talking about it was creating panic. But does it mean that people believe that the Modi Government has messed up? My answer is a resounding "No". Mr. Modi is still hugely popular. His pool of admirers and supporters, huge by any stretch of imagination, still believe that it is because of him that India does not have to suffer the way USA and other European countries are suffering. He is being presented as the only global leader who has successfully dealt with containing Coronavirus.
Sonia Gandhi raised a genuine issue quickly and effectively and her move will improve the Congress Party's image. But Modi is in a different league. His communication skills are brilliant. His connect with the people is direct. As during demonetization, he will once again come up with some personal emotional moment that will strike a national chord. Back then, he had asked for 50 days; if he were to fail, we could hang him from a lamppost, he had said. And he was forgiven the nightmare that followed. Also, due to his communication skills, he is able to come across as clearly distinct from his government. Anything that is good is attributed to him and any mess goes to the credit of the faceless bureaucracy. The general refrain is "Modi is trying but... "
The Congress then did not have the machine to turn this event into a huge issue as it does not even today. Modi has that extra advantage - with the added support of the media, he can get away with much. He has the organisational might of the BJP, the RSS and his loyal army in the social as well as mainstream media. Therefore, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress should not be too excited. It's a small gain and a temporary one. Modi will wipe it out quickly. That is the sort of politician he is.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)
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