Kerala and New Delhi already seemed to be squabbling over the whether India should accept aid from the United Arab Emirates in the aftermath of devastating floods. But on Friday, the controversy was taken to another level, after the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to go on an offensive claiming that there had been no UAE offer in the first place.
Kerala BJP President Sreedharan Pillai demanded an explanation from the state’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, asking him to explain from where he got the news about UAE’s offer. Vijayan had tweeted on August 21 that the Gulf country was willing to give Rs 700 crore in financial assistance to Kerala. The news quickly became political because that amount turned out to be more than the Rs 600 crore that the Centre has, so far, committed to Kerala. The BJP’s Amit Malviya on Friday called this a “non-existent offer.”
To rewind, here’s the sequence of events:
- Soon after the scale of the floods became apparent, the UAE said it has a “special responsibility” to help Kerala as its people have been a part of its success story. On August 18 it set up an emergency committee to assist in relief work.
- On the same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked UAE’s Vice President Sheikh Mohammad Al Maktoum for “his gracious offer to support people of Kerala during this difficult time.”
- On August 21, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tweeted about an offer for Rs 700 crore from UAE, which he said had first been told to Yusuff Ali M.A., a businessman from the state whose Lulu Group is one of the largest retail chains in the Gulf. Vijayan said that the offer was communicated to Modi by Sheikh Mohammad Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
- There was no denial from either the UAE or from Modi the following day. Instead, there were news reports that said Modi was unlikely to say yes to the offer, according to unnamed sources, and would stick to the policy that India would handle the rehabilitation efforts with domestic funds.
- On August 22, the Ministry of External Affairs seemed to make this official, saying, “The Government of India deeply appreciates offers from several countries, including from foreign governments, to assist in relief and rehabilitation efforts after the tragic floods in Kerala. In line with the existing policy, the Government is committed to meeting the requirements for relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts. Contributions to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund from NRIs, PIOs and international entities such as foundations would, however, be welcome.”
- What followed was a campaign calling on the Modi government to make an exception to the policy, or to compensate Kerala with the same amount if New Delhi was saying no. Some even pointed out that the Modi government’s 2015 National Disaster Management Plan says the Centre may accept an offer in the case of a calamity. Union Minister KJ Alphons, of the BJP, said that he was “appealing to my senior colleagues to make a special consideration for the state. I appeal to them to make a one-time exception to the policy”.
- On August 24, the UAE’s ambassador to India told the Indian Express that the country has not made any announcement about a specific amount of aid it would give India. “The assessment of relief needed for the flood and aftermath is ongoing. Announcing any specific amount as financial aid, I don’t think it is final, since it is still ongoing,” said Ahmed Albanna.
- Meanwhile, on the same day, the BJP stepped up its attack on the Kerala government, asking where the news of the offer came from and calling it non-existent. Some referred to the UAE ambassador’s statement as a “denial” although technically UAE had only said that no figure is final, and did not deny the offer.
So what is going on here?
If the Kerala government is to be believed, the UAE told Yusuff Ali it was willing to help. This information was then communicated to Modi, presumably keeping Vijayan in the loop. Vijayan then announced that UAE would be giving Rs 700 crore, only to have MEA say “no, thank you”, and the BJP to turn around and deny an offer in the first place.
If the BJP is to be believed, the Kerala government made up the Rs 700 crore offer to shame the Centre, which had only committed to Rs 600 crore, knowing that the government would say no to foreign aid regardless.
A third theory might be that the offer was made, but recognising the way it would reflect on India, and going by previous policy, it became clear that the Centre was going to say no. Subsequently, Vijayan went public regardless, as a means to push New Delhi into accepting the offer for aid to help deal with the massive devastation caused by the floods. Recognising that this reflects badly on the Centre, the BJP has gone on the offensive claiming the offer was made-up, knowing the UAE will not contradict it for diplomatic reasons.
How will we know the truth?
Look at the people involved in the matter. Vijayan’s claims about how things went are already public. He claimed the offer was made to Modi, and the government then said no. Three other sources could add further light to this:
- The UAE government. Remember, UAE has not denied making the offer. It simply said that the amount is not final. From a diplomatic perspective, this makes sense – why announce a number if you’re unsure whether New Delhi will accept or not? The UAE has nothing to gain from embarrassing India, and so it is unlikely the country will say anything beyond the statement given by the ambassador.
- Yusuff Ali. The businessman may be privy to the amount that UAE was offering. But he has close connections to the leadership in all three places, Thiruvananthapuram, New Delhi and Abu Dhabi, and it is unlikely he will go public about any of these matters, so as to not upset them.
- The Prime Minister’s Office. Vijayan claims the offer was made to Modi, not to him. Modi has not yet said anything about this, though the BJP is now calling it a non-existent offer. Will Modi or his office clarify about the conversation with the Emirati leadership?
Until one or more of these three speaks up and clarifies, the only information will be the claims made by the Kerala government.
There is, however, one more thing to consider: Why would Kerala make up an offer from the UAE? The BJP’s answer is that it was a conspiracy to shame the Centre because it had committed only Rs 600 crore. This theory presumes that the Kerala government was willing to endanger its relationship with the UAE, where hundreds of thousands of Keralites live and with which it has important trade ties. Does the BJP really believe that Vijayan would pull this offer of Rs 700 crore out of thin air, and announce it on Twitter, tagging the UAE leadership and the prime minister of India?