The bitter tussle over the migrants’ bus crisis in Uttar Pradesh between the Congress and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath may hardly be a come-and-gone showdown of the two mighty political rivals. Yet, it appears to have at least been shelved for the time being by both the parties, leaving the migrants in the cold.
The reason behind this is that the poor migrant workers trudging along the highways from big cities to their native places amid the current COVID-19 lockdown remain unmoved by the barbs exchanged between Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi and her BJP rivals.
In fact, the migrant workers are too angry to be able to pay even the slightest heed to party politics or the possible neglect they may face because of it. They are too keen to hit their homes and to spare a thought about anything else is right now unthinkable for them.
“In sheer anger and disgust they may well snatch even a water bottle that they may find on the way, but fixing responsibility for their plight on a political party or leader is a distant call that they can ill afford right now,” says a longtime Aligarh-based observer of UP politics. He also warns against drawing any political conclusion right now about the migrants’ exodus from their workplaces, or the upheaval and daily media debates caused by it.
Perhaps political players know about this. So the three-day long wrangling — from May 17 to 20 — between Congress general secretary for UP Priyanka Gandhi and the state administration came the other day to a rather tame end. The former withdrew nearly 1,000 buses that were hired by her party to ferry the migrants and thus, were lined up at UP’s borders with Delhi and Rajasthan, near Agra. The UP government was unrelenting for one reason or the other to let the buses enter and ply in the state to give the migrants a free ride home with the fleets’ cost to be borne by the Congress.
The terribly tired migrants reaching their villages undergo at least two weeks’ quarantine. And through this, the state government officials via elected leaders of the village panchayat are supposed to keep a watch on the migrants.
The migrants are too exhausted after days of wayfaring on foot or hitchhiking and, thus, willingly accept to remain confined to their homes or quarantine centres marked for them. This is how the Yogi government shied away from its offer once made (before the Congress could make a move) to provide thousands of buses to bring migrants home from other states. It feared that the returnees may well break the mandatory quarantine on being quickly and comfortably ferried in buses. This is what those in the know of things indicate.
The other reason cited by them is that the UP administration prefers a slow and staggered entry of migrants in the state so that officials are able to keep things manageable for them. The sudden and wholesale entry of lakhs of people from far off towns could make spotting COVID-19 cases with limited resources for tests and treatment impossibly difficult for the officials.
Yet, none of these constraints figured in the political battle that broke out when Congress deployed buses amid the Uttar Pradesh government’s dithering over providing transport to the migrants. Earlier, the state government had brought in students in buses from coaching institutes in Kota, Rajasthan. This led to expectations to bring the migrant labourers too in buses.
The Congress acted upon the cue and, thus, the BJP was sent into a tizzy. Soon it was a full blown battle between Priyanka Gandhi and the Congress on one side and Yogi, his cabinet peers and their babus on the other. Both sides tried to hold to their guns with an eye upon subsequent public support.
Though the Congress may look to be more people savvy after its bus move, the BJP countered it without an outright rejection of the Congress offer. Instead, it dragged the grand old party into lengthy arguments over small intricacies that went on for days before thwarting out the Congress plan.
In the BJP’s scheme of things, this was thought to be a necessary investment for the future to browbeat the Congress. This is more so since the COVID-19 crisis is estimated to peak before the assembly elections in Bihar, which has an overwhelming migrant population.
In case the disease attains epidemic proportions, the BJP’s shooting down of the Congress’ bus move can well come handy for the BJP and RSS in putting the blame on the Congress for encouraging migrants’ exodus to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and thereby spreading infection in these densely populated states.
As one may recall, it was through the initial days of COVID-19 lockdown, or since March-end or so, the BJP had actively been trying to build a narrative to target the members of Tablighi Jamaat, and through them the Muslims for spreading coronavirus. Thus, the party prefers to guard against any change in such widely shared apprehensions. More so since these still run high through vast parts of its bastions like UP, and the mass entry of harried migrants to the province could well muddle this.
Anyway, trapped amid such shrewd moves, whether courtesy Tablibghi Jamaat or the free bus ride for migrants that were flagged off by the higher ups from the two main political parties, are poor, hapless and ever languishing working class.
(The writer is a Delhi-based independent journalist. His twitter handle is @abidshahjourno)