Congress chief Sonia Gandhi appeared to have rattled the Modi government by saying on Monday (May 5) that her party would be picking up the tab for the rail fare of “every needy worker and migrant labourer”, prompting a daylong back-and-forth with the BJP on the issue.
This is not the first instance of the Congress’s sharp criticism of the Modi government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. In recent weeks, Rahul Gandhi too has repeatedly hit out at the Centre on issues ranging from the shortage of PPE kits to privacy concerns over the Aarogya Setu app.
Following Sonia Gandhi’s statement on Monday that the Congress would foot the bill for migrant workers travelling home on special trains, the BJP was quick to respond, arguing that 85% of the fare was being subsidised by the Railways, and only the remaining amount is to be paid by the state governments.
But that turned out to be a statistical sleight, with BJP National General Secretary B L Santhosh himself admitting that the “Railways already subsidises 57% of passenger fare” and that “One-third passengers and empty trains on the return journey adds another 28%,” making up the 85% borne by the Railways.
Railways already subsidises 57% of passenger fare . 1/3 rd passengers & empty train on return journey adds another 28%. This 85% is borne by railways . It’s asking another 15% from states of origin not #MigrantLabourers
— B L Santhosh (@blsanthosh) May 4, 2020
Opposition parties were sharp in their criticism of the Centre not paying the ticket fare for these workers, with Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray calling for the government to bear the costs on humanitarian grounds.
Jharkhand Chief Minister and Jharkand Mukti Morcha leader Hemant Soren tweeted, “This is really sad. The central government should reconsider this decision. In this hour of disaster, it is an injustice to the labourers returning home.”
यह वाक़ई दुःखद है।
केंद्र सरकार को इस फ़ैसले पर पुनःविचार करना चाहिए। आपदा की इस घड़ी में अपने घर वापस लौट रहे श्रमिक साथियों के साथ यह अन्याय है। https://t.co/v7Q1kToSYV
— Hemant Soren (घर में रहें – सुरक्षित रहें) (@HemantSorenJMM) May 2, 2020
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said, “Railways is under the Centre, it is shocking and laughable that instead of picking up the costs for the rail fare, the Centre is asking the state governments to pay for the same.”
Notwithstanding this criticism, the non-BJP states do not want to come across as indulging in politics on the lockdown issue, especially at a time when approval ratings for Prime Minister Narendra Modi are high. According to an IANS-CVoter survey, public trust in Modi’s leadership soared in the first month of the nationwide lockdown, from 76.8% on March 25, to 93.5% as of April 21.
“There is good coordination at this time between the central government and all the state governments. The chief ministers meetings with the prime minister are helping. We have no complaints with the Centre regarding the coronavirus crisis.” These lines are not from a BJP chief minister like Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Or Yogi Adityanath. It is actually Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
In an interview to Aaj Tak on Saturday (May 2), the Aam Aadmi Party chief added, “This is a time when we must rise above political differences and the whole country must unite to work on this as one team, no matter which party people are from.”
However, it does not imply that Kejriwal has given carte blanche regarding the COVID-19 crisis. He said he was unhappy with the Modi government’s decision to mark the whole of Delhi as a Red Zone (with restricted commercial activity).
Imploring the Centre to reconsider, Kejriwal said, “Increase the number of containment zones if required, by making the conditions stricter, but let the rest of Delhi reopen.”
Incidentally, Kejriwal isn’t the only chief minister who doesn’t wish to be seen politicking over the COVID-19 response.
Baghel too criticized the categorization of red zones. He said to India Today, “Raipur has had four cases, the last three of which were detected on March 25. Since then, there has been no new case. So, it is surprising that Raipur has been kept as a Red Zone. I have requested the Health Minister to reconsider this.”
On Aaj Tak’s CMs conclave, Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren said, “We do not want to do politics with the Centre or with anyone at such a time.”
But these sentiments have not prevented chief ministers from raising concerns about the Centre’s measures.
At the conclave, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said, “We are demanding that the GST dues to the states be given on time. At the moment, they haven’t been paid yet.”
Gehlot added, “The financial and economic situation of the states during the lockdown is unimaginable. The economy is down massively. This is why we have asked the Central government for a stimulus package.”
Gehlot’s demand has been echoed by his counterparts across the country.
Baghel’s request for ₹30,000 crore, of which ₹10,000 crore be given urgently, has been cold-shouldered by the Centre.
Punjab’s Captain Amarinder Singh too had written to Modi asking for the state’s GST arrears. The Centre released ₹1,237 crore. However, Singh said more money was needed.
Recalling a recent video interaction between Rahul Gandhi and former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, the chief minister said, “Rajan mentioned ₹65,000 crore “for helping the nation tackle the crisis.”
“That is also not enough, at least ₹1.5 lakh to ₹2 lakh crore is required, minimum,” Singh said.
BJP chief ministers too have been critical of the Centre. Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar said, “There is an estimated loss of ₹12,000 crore in Haryana. Revenues are down massively.” He expressed dissatisfaction at the amount of money received from the Centre.
Kejriwal concurs, “Our revenue has stopped. In April each year, we get around ₹3,500 crore in taxes. Last month (April 2020), we got ₹300 crore. If we don’t get taxes, how will we pay our employees? People are losing their jobs. There are so many people who survive on a daily wage.”
The collaboration on policy measures and overlap of roles between the Centre and the states have also resulted in one-upmanship between them.
From multiple non-BJP chief ministers claiming credit for the commencement of trains to transport migrant workers back home, to decisions on extending lockdowns or relaxing restrictions, the almost constant refrain seems to be, “Oh, we did it earlier!”
For example, Captain Amarinder Singh said, “We announced a relaxation before the government of India did – on 17 April.”
Or how Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot stress that the Centre accepted the suggestions of the chief ministers to start trains for migrants, “When we said that the train service for migrant workers be provided, that was done.”
Despite political differences between the Centre and certain states, their partnership is explained succinctly by Amarinder Singh, “I have never seen such a crisis in my 50 years of politics. Even the wars against Pakistan in ‘65 and ‘71 were not crises (compared to this). This is the biggest crisis. We have to fight it unitedly.”