New Delhi: The debate over whether he should have drawn Rajiv Gandhi into the high-pitched electoral battle or not was hardly over that the prime minister Narendra Modi on Monday crossed another lakshman rekha.
At a rally in Bengal’s Jhargram, soon after his visit to the cyclone-hit Odisha in the morning, the prime minister launched an attack on chief minister Mamata Banerjee for not responding to his calls when he tried to contact her to speak about the calamity.
“Today, I am back from Odisha after reviewing the situation in the aftermath of the cyclone. I had called ‘Didi’ twice to discuss the issue with her. I waited for her to call back, but she did not respond,” he said.
“She is so arrogant that she did not speak to me. ‘Speedbreaker’ Didi is more interested in doing cheap politics instead of tackling the situation,” Modi added.
On May 4, PTI carried a report quoting a PMO official that the prime minister tried reaching out to the Bengal chief minister but got no response. “Two attempts were made by the prime minister’s staff to connect Modi with Banerjee over phone. On both the occasions they were told that the call would be returned. On one occasion they were told that the CM is on tour,” the official, who was not named, was quoted as saying.
The official also added that the prime minister had spoken to the governor Keshari Nath Tripathi regarding the situation.
The PMO’s allegation, however, elicited no response from the Bengal government.
Interestingly, the PTI report came a day after the Trinamool Congress alleged the Centre had made no attempts to reach out to the state government.
Cyclone Fani hit the Odisha coast and parts of Bengal on May 2 and left the region completely devastated. While the state governments have been struggling to restore normalcy, people are struggling without any basic facilities like electricity and potable water. Most electric poles have been uprooted. Internet lines continue to be down. Telephone networks have remained erratic. Owing to a lack of any connectivity, banks have shut shop, leading to a severe cash crunch.
In such a situation, the prime minister attempting to gain political advantage over his rivals over a natural disaster have raised eyebrows.
Four days after the cyclone left the Odisha coast ravaged, the prime minister Narendra Modi on Monday flew over coastal Odisha to take stock of the situation. His visit was constantly being televised. Pictures and videos of the prime minister looking down from his helicopter did the rounds of social media.
Then Modi himself posted a tweet claiming how the Centre and Odisha government worked in tandem to control casualties. However, while he said how he had been monitoring the situation for the last “six-seven” days and extended all possible help to the state government, the chief minister Naveen Patnaik, standing by his side, looked visibly morose.
India stands in solidarity with the people of Odisha. https://t.co/rP7P4U7EEs
— Chowkidar Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 6, 2019
Patnaik has been credited for developing one of the best disaster relief mechanisms in India during his 19-year-old regime. He had wrested power from the Congress soon after the super cyclone of 1999 had caused massive destruction and had left around ten thousand people dead.
Fani, similar in its intensity, however, saw 29 deaths as the state government had organised massive evacuations before the storm made a landfall.
Soon after he praised Naveen Patnaik for his efforts, the prime minister, however, got into a political debate over the handling of cyclone in Bengal.
Banerjee, however, soon responded. At a rally in Gopiballavpur sub-division of Jhargram, she said that she could not talk to him because she was in Kharagpur to monitor the situation as Fani moved towards Bengal. She agreed that Modi had called her for a meeting at Kalaikunda (another division of Jhargram), where he was addressing an election meeting on Monday.
“Are we his servants that we have to go wherever he beckons? Now he will allege that I have not responded and not extended cooperation. My (poll) meeting at Jhargram today was already fixed. Election is on in West Bengal, while it is over in Odisha. Why should I share the dais with an expiry prime minister during election time?” she shot back.
The prime minister initiating a political tug-of-war over the cyclone, many observers say, is unfortunate as lakhs of people are still struggling to survive without basic amenities in the storm-ravaged areas.
“People are living in the dark for several days now. There is a shortage of drinking water. Such is the crisis that a generator worth Rs 5,000 is being sold for Rs 20,000. Thieves and dacoits have become active. There is no cash in ATMs,” senior journalist Ashutosh Mishra, who is based out of Bhubaneswar, told The Wire.
This is the second time over the last two days that the prime minister has been accused of lowering the political discourse.
On May 4, the prime minister in a Uttar Pradesh rally had said that the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi died as the most corrupt Congress leader.
Attacking his son and the current Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, Modi had said, “Your father was termed ‘Mr. Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘Bhrashtachari No. 1’.”
The comment has drawn criticism from a large section of political leaders and civil society alike. They pointed out that the Congress leader was killed at the hands of terrorists and was exonerated of all charges in the Bofors scam during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministerial tenure in 2004.