Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reply on Monday to the Motion of Thanks debate on the President’s address was a rhetorical statement of his government’s success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and of putting the country’s economy back on track.
When Facts Don't Matter
Modi had an easy time demolishing the opposition’s criticism, especially that of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, because the government was not nailed on the specifics. In reply to Gandhi’s description of two Indias, one of the rich and the other of the poor, the Prime Minister referred to the free ration given to 80 crore people; he recalled that during the influenza epidemic a 100 years ago, as many people died of hunger as from the flu, and that this time around, his government’s decision to supply free food grains saved many lives.
He then talked of the houses built for the poor through the Aawaas Yojana and how it has helped them become prosperous, because that is what owning a house signified.
This is indeed a flippant remark because India’s poverty markers are still high and there is no room for complacency. The poor people living in the houses that the government has made for them have no jobs – they are malnourished because free ration is a subsistence subsidy that does not improve nutrition and health.
Modi also cleverly turned on its head the criticism about rich India and Gandhi’s reference to the two ‘AA variants’ by recalling the criticism of the Nehru and Indira-led Congress governments, which used to be identified with the Tatas and the Birlas. He defended entrepreneurial India, stating that they are ‘wealth creators’, not ‘viruses’. Here, too, Modi was careful to blame the Congress only for keeping the bad company of communists and imbibing the bad influence of opposing wealth creators. He seems to have realised that he is practising what Congress has done for long – let big business conglomerates grow while speaking for the poor.
The Classic Underdog Trope
Modi has played the card of a man with his back to the wall, with the usual trope of how he overcame troubles. He said that many in the world expected India to court disaster in dealing with the pandemic, but the country has emerged stronger because of his government’s policy interventions.
It is a familiar theme wherein he is the underdog against an opposition that wants him to fail. It is a battle of wits and egos, and he can indulge in this jousting game.
Two Reminders on Migrant Workers
The most cynical part of Modi’s rebuttal of the Opposition’s criticism came when he blamed the Maharashtra and Delhi governments for forcing migrant workers from Mumbai and Delhi to go back to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, in order to protect their own people. The fear that the memories of migrant workers trudging back in the summer of 2020 could affect the outcome in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly election must be playing at the back of his mind. Though Modi accused the Congress and Rahul Gandhi of adopting the divide-and-rule policy, it was the Prime Minister who indulged in the same despicable tactics.
Perhaps Modi needed to be reminded that it was Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who organised buses to bring students back from Kota in Rajasthan, where they were preparing for various entrance examinations, and that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar feared that the return of migrant workers would be unmanageable.
Who, Really, Is Playing Divide-And-Rule?
Neither the Central nor state governments had any clue about dealing with migrant workers. The Central government blamed states, saying that they did not have a list of migrants working in their cities and in their states. If Modi thinks that he can dismiss the enormous suffering of migrant workers as a game played between his party and others, as a rivalry between the centre and the states, or as non-BJP-ruled states’ ‘punishment’ to people from BJP-ruled states, who, really, is using the divide-and-rule ploy? Who is shamelessly pitting the Hindi-heartland states against Maharashtra and Delhi?
That is why Modi’s objection to Gandhi’s use of “Union of States” and his weak counterpoint about the sense and spirit of nationalism preceding the Union of States falls flat. The falsetto note of the speakers, including Modi and Gandhi, shows the disappointing quality of political debate in the country.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based political journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)