Down and out since the 2019 general election, the Congress has stirred to life again to pressure the Bharatiya Janata Party to relieve the massive human distress caused by the lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Tuesday saw hectic politics over the problems of migrant workers stranded in cities, tens of thousands of whom have chosen to walk hundreds of kilometres back to their home villages. On May 16, the Congress decided to act on this. Party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wrote to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath offering to provide 1,000 buses to transport migrants back home.

Her letter claimed that 65 migrants had been killed in road accidents even as the Uttar Pradesh government had made no arrangements for their safe return.

Bus politics

The Uttar Pradesh government initially ignored the offer. Accepting Gandhi’s offer would, of course, be an admission by the BJP-run Adityanath government that it lacked capacity to deal with the crisis. However, as the migrant issue kept attracting more and more public attention, the Uttar Pradesh government relented on Monday.

It was a tactical retreat.

At first, the Adityanath government asked the Congress to send the buses to Lucknow – a request that the Congress protested was absurd. It made little sense for empty buses from Delhi and Rajasthan
to travel halfway across Uttar Pradesh to Lucknow when they could have been used to transport migrants living in the National Capital Region.

Uttar Pradesh relented, requesting the Congress to hand over buses to the district magistrates of Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddh Nagar (both districts that abut Delhi). However, there were twists even then: the Congress alleged that some of its buses were intentionally stopped at the Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh border, sabotaging its attempt to get the buses to Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddh Nagar.

The Uttar Pradesh government fired even more salvos. It alleged that that about 100 vehicles on the Congress list were not buses (but were cars or other kinds of transport). It added that 297 buses lacked either fitness certificates or valid insurance papers.

This resulted in the Uttar Pradesh police arresting the Congress state chief Ajay Lallu on charges of cheating and forgery – a scene that the Congress made sure to broadcast. An FIR was also made out against the secretary of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for a “factually incorrect” list of buses.

The Adityanath government’s constantly changing position on the Congress’ buses and decision to use the nuclear option of arresting a top Congress leader on camera makes it clear that the BJP was on the backfoot.

Train fares

This isn’t the first time the Congress has pushed on the issue of stranded migrants. On May 4, the party highlighted the fact that migrant workers were being asked to pay their own fares to travel on the special worker trains being run between states. Instead, party president Sonia Gandhi offered to pay the fares, with various state units taking up the issue as a public cause.

The BJP retorted by claiming that the Union was subsiding 85% of the fare – an incorrect claim. What is far more probable is that the fare was kept to act as a filter on the number of migrants going home, given that mass travel could help the virus spread.

While the Modi government did not relent on the fares, it had on Tuesday decided to increase the trains that will run, removing the clause that made it mandatory to seek the permission of destination states before a train can be operated.

Even as the Congress has been vocal on the migrant crisis, however, interventions by Rahul Gandhi have been more low key. Over the past weeks, Gandhi has held interactions with economists Abhijit Banerjee and Raghuram Rajan as well as with the media. In these discussions, he has been non-combative, packaging himself as a constructive opposition leader with suggestions to offer to the government.

Buses arranged by the Congress are stopped at the Rajasthan border by Uttar Pradesh authorities. Credit: PTI

Inflection point?

Till now, the BJP has faced few political repercussions for its administrative failures in administering the lockdown. This is a repeat of the situation during demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax. Ironically, Modi’s personal popularity ratings have in fact gone up. The enormous misery Indians have experienced has led them to repose even greater faith in the larger-than-life figure of the prime minister, even though, paradoxically, much of that suffering has been caused by his government. A concerted media campaign to blame the pandemic on Muslims has resulted in anger being channeled on communal lines – a fact that helps the BJP.

Yet, as the BJP’s jumpy reaction to attacks by the Congress on the migrant crisis shows, the BJP is wary of losing its grip on the narrative.