The economic crisis in the Gulf has prompted an unusual alliance in Kerala. On Friday, the opposition Congress joined hands with the southern state’s ruling Left Democratic Front, headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party after the Union government on Thursday rejected a state minister’s application for a diplomatic passport.

With thousands of Malayalis trapped in labour camps in Saudi Arabia after their employers stopped paying their wages nine months ago following a slump in oil prices, the Kerala government aimed to send a delegation to the kingdom on Friday to offer legal assistance. The team was to be headed by KT Jaleel, the minister for local self-government.

The labourers also faced food shortages, a fact that came to light on July 30, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj appealed to the Indian embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah, along with the three million-strong diaspora in Saudi Arabia, to feed their fellow-Indians. Union Minister of State for External Affairs, VK Singh, travelled to Saudi Arabia on Thursday to monitor the crisis.

However, Kerala's plans to launch its own initiative were grounded on Thursday when the Ministry of External Affairs rejected Jaleel’s application for a diplomatic passport. It did not give any specific reasons.

Political motivations claimed

Jaleel had his own theory about the decision. “I think Uttar Pradesh Assembly election may be the reason for denying me the diplomatic passport,” he said at a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday. “Election to the UP Assembly is round the corner. If a delegation from Kerala visits Saudi on diplomatic passport, UP may also raise such a demand as a majority of the stranded people are from that state.”

He added: “The Kerala government wanted to ensure justice to hundreds of workers who are struggling without wages and food. No one could clearly understand the difficulties faced by the migrant workforce, including Malayalis. The visa denial deprives scores of people from Kerala a chance for legal assistance.”

Kerala chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, told journalists on Friday that he was baffled by the Centre’s decision. “It is unfortunate that MEA turned down the minister’s application. We decided to send him as many in Kerala are worried about the condition of their relatives in Saudi.”

As the controversy unfolded, the ruling party found an unusual ally with the opposition Congress making a statement about Jaleel in the Lok Sabha on Friday. Though the CPI (M) has five members from Kerala, it was Congress member, KC Venugopal, who brought up the issue during Zero Hour. “The government should explain the reasons for denying diplomatic passport to the Kerala minister,” he demanded. Parliamentary affairs minister, Ananth Kumar, said that Sushma Swaraj would speak on the matter later.

Congress member Ramesh Chennithala, who is the eader of Opposition in the Kerala, also took the opportunity to criticise the BJP government. “It was a wrong decision," he told journalists on Friday. "The centre should revise the decision.”

In its defence, the BJP Kerala unit said that the state government was creating an unnecessary controversy. “Jaleel knew that his diplomatic passport application would be rejected,” said BJP state president, Kummanam Rajashekharan on Friday. “What is the use of sending a minister when a Union Minister is managing the crisis in Saudi?”

The Kerala government is anxious about the situation in Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom braces to implement second round of Nitaqat (localisation) programme. The programme, which will be introduced in December, aims to put an end to the dominance of expatriate workers in critical jobs and bring down the Saudi unemployment rate, which stood at 5.6% in the second half of 2015.

This move will strain Kerala’s economy, which is heavily dependent on remittances from Malayalees in the Gulf. In the third quarter of 2015-'16, the state received remittances valued at $14.9 billion (Rs 1 lakh crore). An estimated 20% of the state's households – 2.4 million families – depend on this money for their needs.

Supplementary efforts

Some in the state believe that Malayalis in the Gulf could do with the help of a minister from Kerala, even as the Centre continues its own efforts.

Among them is Malayalam filmmaker PT Kunju Muhammed, the president of Kerala Pravasi Sangham, a non-profit organisation for non-resident Keralites. He recalled, for instance, the stellar work during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by TK Hamza, who served the EK Nayanar ministry from 1987 to 1991 as minister for works, Haj and Wakf.

“The Kerala Minister had flown to Jordan’s capital, Amman, to help facilitate the repatriation of Malayalee workers from Kuwait," said Kunju Muhammed. "Likewise, Jaleel could have been helped VK Singh.”

PM Jabir, a migrant rights activist in the Gulf, believes Jaleel’s presence would have boosted the morale of migrant community in Saudi Arabia. “The Centre shouldn’t have mixed politics with migrant labourers’ issue," he said.