Ever since the economic and human consequences of the lockdown began to manifest themselves, I have been wondering whether the Modi government is heartless, or simply stupid. At first, I thought it was well meaning but stupid. But as the days and then weeks have passed without a single move by his government to mitigate the misery, anxiety and destitution that it has visited upon India’s poor, I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that this government does not have a heart.
The very first concern of a government contemplating a decision that will take away the livelihoods of more than a hundred million daily wage earners should have been – How can we protect them during the period when they have no work?
Its second concern should have been – How can we keep the engines of the economy – its factories and shops, its airlines and surface transport systems in good working order, so that they can spring back to life the moment the crisis is over?
Both questions must have crossed the minds of policy makers. But they were pushed aside, almost certainly by Narendra Modi himself. Instead, he announced the lockdown, giving four hours’ notice, to bring India to a standstill.
Ever-willing not to think the worst of our government, we chose to believe that Modi had done this to nip the spread of coronavirus in the bud. But as the days passed, the distress of the poor increased, the calls for financial help from state governments multiplied, and the number of new cases kept rising. And as he maintained his now familiar stony silence – punctuated only by banging thalis, lit diyas and rose petal showers from military aircraft – the suspicion hardened that Modi simply did not care.
For me, this became a certainty when the Indian Railways and airlines began to demand payment for bringing stranded Indians back to their homes. The contrast between this and V.P. Singh’s evacuation of more than 111,000 Indians trapped in Kuwait by Iraq’s 1990 invasion of the country, was the trigger for my belief.
As media adviser to V.P. Singh during his prime ministership, I found myself in a ringside seat to witness the decision-making process in 1990. The first thing he thought about, before considering even the foreign exchange crisis that Iraq’s invasion would trigger, was the security of the 170,000 Indians who were working in Kuwait at the time. Although Saddam Hussein’s government assured us that it would keep them safe, most of Indians there wanted to come home. So when ferrying them back directly from Kuwait proved too difficult to arrange, Singh got Saddam Hussein to agree to our transporting them 1120 kms overland via Basra to Amman and flying them home from there.
Not willing to take all of Air India’s handful of Boeing 747s out of commercial service, he turned to Indian Airlines. IA had just obtained its first two Airbus A 320s of which one had crashed five months earlier in Bangalore because of a pilot error caused by a faulty cockpit design. The other had been grounded, so V.P Singh broke all the Indian civil aviation rules and pressed it into service.
That aircraft then flew flawlessly 16 to 18 hours every day for the next two months, till all the 111,000-plus who had wanted to return had been repatriated. All in all, Air India and Indian Airlines flew 488 return flights. Till today, that remains the largest rescue airlift the world has known.
But even though India was sinking steadily into its terminal foreign exchange crisis and the operation was likely to cost close to a billion dollars, I cannot recall a single discussion, whether formal or informal, in which either V.P. Singh, or foreign minister Inder Gujral, even considered charging anything from the evacuees.
The difference between V.P Singh’s behaviour then and Modi’s now is not based on any pragmatic calculation, be it economic or political. India’s foreign exchange balance may be somewhat precarious today but it was catastrophic then. Singh was already coming to the unpalatable conclusion that India would have to pawn the 55 tonnes of gold the Reserve Bank held to give the guarantee needed for the short term loans it was still having to take to stave off national bankruptcy. So every penny of foreign exchange counted.
What’s more, when Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, V.P Singh not only headed a minority government but had come to know a month earlier through the Intelligence Bureau, that the BJP had decided, in a secret conclave, to bring down his government after Advani’s Rath yatra terminated in Ayodhya on October 30. Nothing he did or did not do would change what was going to happen.
V.P. Singh simply knew that India had a duty to bring the Indians in Kuwait back to their homes because they could not be held responsible for their plight. So the question of making them pay did not even arise, even though by Indian standards they were no longer poor.
In sharp contrast, Modi has a profound moral responsibility to the poor today, because it is his decision that has forced them to flee for home. But this is something that neither he nor anyone else in the Sangh parivar is willing to concede. Instead, he is talking about the need for the poor to become self-reliant. This is a dimension of Hindu Rashtra that perhaps even its supporters had not thought of so far.