It was three decades ago that a senior American diplomat Robin Raphel, who had served in New Delhi in the early 1990s, famously boasted that she needed only three minutes to rake up a controversy in India.
The raging controversy over the Modi government’s policy on receiving the aid offer from the United Arab Emirates shows how little India has changed since then.
If anything, the furious 24x7 media reportage and the hopeless political polarisation in the Indian opinion, especially in the most recent years, have made matters worse.
There has been a tidal wave of criticism about Modi government’s policy on receiving foreign relief aid – almost entirely due to prejudices, vanities or acts of dissimulation. None of the critics appeared to be aware while making free-wheeling opinions that the Modi government indeed has a well-laid policy on the topic of disaster management.
And they included a central and state minister, top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India(Marxist), and surprisingly, even two ex-foreign secretaries who, in particular, should have known that while opinions may vary, facts are sacrosanct.
Leaving behind the ad-hocism of successive past governments, the government unveiled its National Disaster Management Plan, a 200-page document in May 2016 – by the way, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature. The policy document unambiguously says that while India will not solicit foreign help, it will accept aid offers and it goes on to spell out the modalities of receiving relief assistance from abroad.
Significantly, the Ministry of External Affairs had even issued a clarification as recently as on August 22, obviously taking note of the silly public discourse taking place, that aid is welcome for Kerala’s flood relief although the government of India is committed to address national disasters out of own resources.
Ironically, while the controversy was raging all around us, an Emirates Air Cargo flight landed in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday, bringing 175 tonnes of relief goods to Kerala donated by the UAE leadership, “government entities, humanitarian organisations, residents and businesses in their support of Kerala.” Thirteen more flights are expected.
Haven’t our self-styled opinion makers made asses of themselves?
Looking back, the Delhi-based so-called national media started all this ruckus by putting out the fake news citing so-called sources that India rejected the UAE Crown Prince’s offer of help that was conveyed personally to Modi.
This was despite Modi’s own tweet in plain English stating his appreciation of the offer from the UAE in which there was no trace of vanity or regret that his government intended to spurn the offer:
One senior journalist with a national daily based in Delhi added masala to the fake news by writing:
“It would be ridiculous to expect the present government to suddenly reverse that policy and accept foreign aid. Successive Indian governments have also discovered that once you open those gates, you end up with a lot of unnecessary diplomatic obligations, doubtful assistance and very little upside.”
Regrettably, sections of the CPI(M) state leadership in Kerala seized on the fake news to pillory the central government for its discriminatory policies toward the state, while on the other hand, the BJP state leaders whom the fake news put on the defensive, went overboard to justify why India should not accept foreign aid offer.
The rest is history.
Major foreign media organisations picked up the story as presaging a first-rate political confrontation shaping up between the Kerala state government and the central government – including New York Times, Fox News, Deutsche Welle, etc.
Curiously, however, neither the Kerala leadership nor the Modi government joined issue. The Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has publicly expressed more than once his gratitude to the help from the Centre and also counselled everyone against raking up controversies when there is a crisis situation in the state.
As for Modi, he has tweeted not less than 16 times in the period of 10 days since August 15 underscoring his personal anguish and profound sense of involvement in assisting Kerala to pull through this tragedy. This includes his Onam greetings on Saturday where he tweeted:
All in all, it is abundantly clear that this has been an utterly wasteful controversy that we all could have done without.
The bottom line is that Kerala needs all the help it can get from the Centre and from any other sources, given the sheer magnitude of the tragedy.
There is not a single Malayali who has not been affected directly or indirectly by this tragedy, ensuing from a monsoon that has been the heaviest in a century, exceeding the average rainfall by almost 50%.
No one anticipated it – and it was simply impossible for anyone to anticipate it – and we are, therefore, reduced to a sad situation of having to pick up the broken threads of life where the receding monsoon left them behind.
People who live outside Kerala and have not witnessed what the residents of the state have gone through during the past fortnight have a choice between either keeping quiet and mutely witnessing the calamity (and what is still unfolding) or preferably, doing something in financial, material or practical terms to help in the state’s rehabilitation and reconstruction.
The decent thing, of course, is not to complicate the situation under any pretext.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former ambassador.