Modi’s Inept Handling of the Pandemic Has Not Tarnished His Image

Published in thtewire, 20th June 2020

Amit Shah has aggressively launched the BJP’s election campaign, through virtual rallies in Bihar and West Bengal.

Elections in Bihar are scheduled to be held later this year in November while West Bengal goes to polls in April 2021. Bihar, along with UP, has a large number of workers termed ‘reverse migrants’.

What, therefore, will the political consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown be? Will the hardships faced by the ‘migrants’ diminish Modi’s image? Has the crisis given an opportunity to a moribund opposition to dent his popularity amongst the poor?

Conversations with labourers who have returned to Bihar and UP indicate that Modi’s stature is intact, and he will consolidate his political power in these states. This is in line with a survey conducted by Ipsos, an international marketing agency. According to the survey, 87% of people in India approve of Modi’s handling of the crisis. This also reaffirms the notion that Modi remains BJP’s biggest electoral asset.

However, some workers accused Modi of mismanagement during the lockdown and blamed him for police atrocities and the lack of travel facilities. But given the enormity of the crisis, many have given him the benefit of the doubt.

“It so difficult to manage our own little family these days in such a crisis, we applaud Modij for taking care of the entire country”, said Saurab, who reached his village in UP’s Gonda district from Delhi after the lockdown. He worked in the capital city as an electrician and belongs to the OBC caste of Koeri.

There is also a deeply communal narrative, backed by ‘friendly’ news channels and social media, which has attracted the attention of many “migrants”. “It is the kat..[a derogatory term for Muslims] who are responsible for spreading the virus. I saw it on TV news. What can Modiji do?” said a 20-year-old.

And then there is a sense of being let down by the opposition parties. “I voted for Mayawati during the last elections because she belongs to my caste. I will again vote for her. She has been absent during the lockdown and I feel let down. Muslims and Chinese have got together to spread the virus to defame India”, said Ajay Ram. He returned to his village in Azamgarh from Thane, Maharashtra.

Modi, the statesman

First, Modi is seen as a statesman whose image remains unblemished by the misery that the lockdown has imposed on the poor. His speeches on TV where he peddled a mixture of mythology, nationalism, self-reliance, pride and the sacrifice that people must make for ‘Bharat’ has added to the charisma of his already larger-than-life image. This seems to be an inescapable fact.

Conversations with workers indicate that those who have managed to return to their homes blame everyone except  Modi for the ordeal they underwent during the lockdown. Sanjay Kumar, a Dalit from Paswan community, said, “I voted for the trio of Modi-Nitish-Paswan in the last Lok Sabha elections. But Nitish has let us down badly. Bihar is his territory and the quarantine centre was jail-like. We were treated like Pakistani terrorists. I wish Modiji was ruling Bihar”. Kumar had recently returned to his home in Patna district’s Barh block in Bihar.

Chitranjan Sharma, who comes from the OBC badhayi (carpenter) community was more candid. He blamed Arvind Kejriwal for all the hardships he had faced on his way to his hometown in Khagaria in Bihar. “Kejriwal had closed the borders. If it was not for Yogi and his boss Modi, we would not have been able to board the train from Ghaziabad in UP. I will always be grateful to Yogi-Modi,” he said.

Twenty-two-year-old Salmaan, who worked in a shoe factory in Delhi, returned to his village in Firozabad, western UP. He and Ajay Ram claim that they didn’t vote for Modi in the last Lok Sabha elections. Without any hesitation, they said that they would vote for SP and BSP respectively again. But they added, “what can Modiji do to protect our jobs? This is such a big international crisis that even the US is collapsing.” They said that this was not the time to criticise Modi.

Demonisation of Muslims

Second, Muslims and Tablighi Jammat members were not only seen as super-spreaders of the pandemic but also as persons who had been actively conspiring to spread the virus. As is evident from previous plagues that have struck the world, one community – Jews during the Black Death and the gay community during the AIDS pandemic – is singled out as the scapegoat and bears the brunt of the ensuing stigma.

This narrative is also compatible with the Hindutva’s agenda that claims Muslims to be anti-national. Saurabh, for example, was assisted by an NGO-led by Muslims activists to reach his home town, Gonda, in UP. Ironically, he said “Sir, it is the Muslims who have spread this disease. They invited people from all over the world to Nizamuddin knowing that there were restrictions”.

Tablighi Jamaat, an unknown entity until the outbreak of the coronavirus, has been vilified to the extent that even Salmaan. a Muslim migrant, who had never heard of it before, apologetically accused it and said, “Why did the Tabligh have to congregate at this time? They should have found another time for the congregation”. He said he is secure because he lives in a predominantly a Muslim settlement.

TV ‘news’ and the role of social media

Third, it has become evident from the conversations that some of the leading TV channels, WhatsApp groups, social media and sections of the vernacular Hindi press have acted as ‘super-spreaders’ in legitimising the demonisation and stigmatisation of Muslims.

Pandey, Saurabh and Ajay Ram said that they saw on TV channels that the Tablighis were spitting on the vegetables. Ajay Ram said that while he was returning to Azamgarh, he and his friends were constantly being reminded via WhatsApp that they should avoid halting in Muslim localities and should not accept any food from them. Upon being asked what made him conclude that Muslims were to be blamed, Manish Pandey said, “Will all the TV channels, newspapers and WhatsApp message tell lies? Everyone is blaming the Muslims so how could I not believe”.

Nandkumar, in his early thirties, reached his home in Patna from Haryana after spending 15 days at a quarantine centre. He belongs to the Dalit sub-caste Ravidas. He and his family were traumatised after they were boycotted by their upper caste neighbours, fearing that Nandkumar would spread the virus.

Nandkumar said that he did not vote for Modi in the last Lok Sabha elections. However, he too was convinced that the Muslims were liable for the spread of the virus. When asked as to what evidence he had to that effect, he got said, “You sound like an educated man. Read the newspapers and watch the news on TV. And you will get the proof”.

The case of the missing opposition

The three main opposition parties in Bihar and UP – the  Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD, the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samajwadi Party – have gone underground. Mayawati spoke once, but accused the Congress instead of the BJP, for the crisis caused by the lockdown.

The Congress has no political presence in the two states. Priyanka Gandhi’s offer of bus rides to the migrants, seen by some as a clever political move, was a damp squib.Modi’s larger than life stature, the demonisation of Muslims, and the BJP’s determined hold over media and social media has created a potent brand of politics. It will help the BJP sustain its political dominance in UP and Bihar, and the rest of India.

Even committed voters of the opposition, like Salmaan, Ajay Ram and Nandkumar felt let down by the leadership of their parties. And BJP, with its well-oil propaganda machinery, may soon draw them away. These conversations are a reminder of the hegemonic hold the BJP continues to have.

What the COVID-19 Crisis Means for the BJP and Opposition

Published in thewire, 19th May 2020

The content and tone of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest address to the nation were full of contradictory messages. He tried to sound like a statesman, by reminding the people about India’s mythology. Bharat’s contribution to yoga and solar power was foregrounded, he exhorted us to become atmanirbhar and to be vocal for local. He garnished all this with the announcement of a staggering Rs 20 lakh crore package.

Yet his speech left many wondering why he did not mention the migrant worker crisis. He spoke about the ‘demographic dividend’ when lakhs of poor are helplessly walking on Indian roads. Modi spoke soon after 16 migrants were crushed by a train near Aurangabad and in the backdrop of other sufferings that are being revealed daily: a pregnant woman being wheeled on a makeshift cart, migrants clashing with the police and more recently, the death of 24 people in a truck accident in UP.

Some other developments also indicate that Modi has been uncharacteristically indecisive and directionless. And in this process, the opposition is getting the attention, much to the chagrin of BJP supporters. But the big question is whether the opposition will be able to utilise the opportunity.

Cracks in the BJP

First, the chief ministers of the opposition-ruled states have been praised for their administrative skills and compassion. Pinyari Vijayan, Udhav Thackrey, Arvind Kejriwal and others have scored a major political victory over the BJP and NDA ruled states, which are chaotic and give contradictory orders.

Second, Sonia Gandhi’s announcement that the Congress will bear the costs of train tickets of the migrants and Rahul Gandhi’s measured press conferences and interactions with leading economists, along with him reaching out to the migrants in Delhi, have caught public attention and rattled the BJP.

And third, for the first time, a section of the media seen as being partial to the BJP has been challenged for its relentless spewing of communal venom. The opposition parties have gone on the aggressive, filing cases against three prominent anchors of leading TV channels.

Opposition’s limitations

But can the opposition parties exploit these opportunities provided by Modi? It appears unlikely. Let us examine why.

First, the opposition is devoid of ideology and a programme with which people can relate to in their everyday life. The poor identify with Modi because he offers them an ideological package comprising of aggressive nationalism and Hindutva, accompanied by and welfare policies, which I will call ‘socialism plus’.

The opposition’s “secularism” is too abstract, something even political parties do not seem to be able to grapple fully. The opposition was absent during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests, violence in Delhi and the recent villainisation of the Tablighi Jamaat. Instead of making their stand clear, they sublet their secularism to civil rights groups and NGOs. These parties seem to take minority voters for granted, and they give credibility to the appeal of the BJP’s Hindutva by reciting Hanuman Chalisa and paying visits to temples during elections.

The opposition’s left of centre welfarism has been punctured by Modi’s socialism plus rhetoric. Many of the UPA’s flagship programmes such as the NREGA, RTI and Forest Rights Act – though well-intentioned – were either ridden with corruption or have been sabotaged by the government-business nexus.  The UPA is also guilty of drafting the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), something BJP never tires to remind the people about.

Modi’s socialism plus rhetoric has his personal touch. It comprises of direct transfer of cash into Ja Dhan accounts, providing utilities like gas cylinders and cash for toilets and housing. It is more tangible in its outreach and he regularly reminds people about it through aggressive advertising.

The second issue is that most opposition parties are largely dominated by either dynasties or are led by charismatic individuals who are the party in their own right.

The mass appeal of dynasts is limited to their lineage, caste groups and the regions that they represent. Prominent examples are Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav, Uddhav Thackeray, M.K. Stalin, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. Most of these leaders are second-generation politicians who have gained prominence without having to emerge from the grassroots, unlike their predecessors.

Leaders like Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, M. Karunanidhi and Bal Thackeray were products of grassroots politics. They were successful because they had built their political parties by practising street politics and were infused with organisational skills. Most second-generation leaders depend on the political legacy that they inherited from their predecessors. They conduct their politics from the comfort of their homes and their organisations are filled with sycophants. There are family feuds over political succession, money and power.

This is not to say that the opposition does not have any self-made leaders. Arvind Kejriwal, Mamta Banerjee and K. Chandrashekhar Rao are few examples of leaders who have built their party the hard way. In their own ways, they are products of agitational politics. But their parties revolve around their personality cults. They are autocratic and insecure. Their ideology is to remain in power at all cost.

Among the opposition, the only party that stands out is the left. In Kerela, it has demonstrated that an ideologically committed, strong grassroots organisation and leadership can manage a crisis like the COVID-19 effectively. But the left is dogmatic about its ideology and its space is rapidly shrinking, the reasons for which I will not delve into now.

How to challenge the BJP

To meaningfully challenge the BJP, beginning with the small opening provided by its mismanagement of COVID-19, the opposition must acknowledge the following.

It needs to recognise a

and take heart from the fact that around 55% of people voted against the NDA in the last general elections. To capture this large sentiment and convert it into votes, they have to offer an alternative political paradigm to the BJP.

A political paradigm that takes into account matters that govern peoples daily life like culture, religion and gender but one which can challenge Hindutva. They have to coherently offer tangible policies to all sections of society like informal labour, farmers, traders, students and the business community that can challenge Modi’s ‘socialism plus’ economics. These programmes should not be driven by the instrumentality of winning elections. They should build long-term alliances based on a broad ideological programme, one that is tangible and connects with the everyday life of people.

The opposition leaders must lead from the front and give up the comfort of social media activism. They need to get back to conventional forms of politics that involve mass contact programmes and agitational politics that will bring them face-to-face with the people.

To challenge the BJP, they have to patiently and selflessly work like the RSS. They need to combine ideology with practice, that is what RSS did diligently for nearly 70 years before the BJP managed to get a foothold in national politics.

The opposition must be convinced that a patient, committed programme will have rich electoral dividends. This is the only way forward.

Tabligh, Nizamuddin & this Qawali

There is a lot literature coming out on Tablighi Jamaat. It needs to be mentioned that its no coincidence that the Tablighi Markaz (Centre) is located next to the Nizamuddin Dargah. The Tabligh was established to counter everything that sufis like the Nizamuddin preached. In fact it first got active in the Mewat region of Haryana/Rajsathan in and around Alwar where a large population of Meo Muslims practiced beliefs that were borrowed from both Hindu and Islamic rituals. The Tabligh advocats that they give up Hindu rituals and revert to pure Islamic religion. The Nizamuddin Dargah represents syncretic and liminal/shared practices that is followed by large number of poor and the subaltern classes of India. They include both Hindus and Muslims. It is a common belief that if one visits Dargahs like Nizammuddin, Ajmer, Bakhtir Kaki in Delhi, Saleem Chisiti in Agra and other sites on one trip its like like performing Haj in Mecca. They cant afford to go to Mecca. This lovely qawali that I am posting is sung by the famous Farid Ayaz who belong to the Bacha Gharan of Delhi, associated with the Nizamudding Dargah. They are singing verses from 18th century Punjabi mystic Bulle Shah. The Tabligh dislikes such poetry and culture that challenges orthodox Islam. This culture that says that the God can reside any where, it can reside inside me, it could be my lover, I rather dance to please my lover than pray to God five times a day etc etc. Please listen. Its a marvellous rendition that will reassure you and sooth your nerves in such times of bigoted uncertainties. I was lucky to be there when they sang this.

Film Aghaat & Notalgia About Trade Union Mvt in Bombay

Released in 1985, directed by Govind Nihalini, and written by Vijay Tendulkar, Aghaat is a brilliant fictional documentation of the vibrant trade union/working class movement in the pre-liberalisation period of Mumbai. The story is motivated by the internal debates of ideologies and strategies that the TU movement was grappling at that time. It has a brilliant caste of Om Puri, KK and MK Raina, a brief appearance of Naseeruddin Shah at the end, young Pankaj Kapoor, Amrish Puri, Deepa Sahi, Sadashiv Amrapurkar and many others. The story is about a principled left leader Madhav (Om Puri) and his comrades who control the Shivalik Industries trade union. They are challenged by another faction led by Rustam Patel and his henchman Krishnan who are trying to capture the union by the lure of better bonuses, wage hike and by intimidating other left unions and management. Without being overtly rhetorical the film raises questions of militancy, limits of violence as a strategy, wage hike versus job security and safer working conditions for labour, ideology versus instrumentality and gender issues. The class dilemmas of the good hearted management staff that sympathise with the workers struggle versus their duty to be loyal to the company.
Naseer’s character is clearly inspired by the well-known trade unionist Datta Samant. A Konkani, Samant was a a qualified doctor who started his practice in Ghatkopar and came in contact with mill workers. He got the nickname of Doctorsahab and soon led the Congress-affiliated union INTUC. They competed with the left union like CITU at a time when Bombay had nearly half a million mill workers. During the emergency Samant was arrested by Indira Gandhi and on his release continued to hold sway over the working classes. He contested the 1984 election as an independent from one the Bombay Lok Sabha constituency. He was a rare candidate to have won during the Rajiv Gandhi wave elections. Known for his muscle power, he was murdered by the underworld in 1997. By then he had lost his following and charisma. Like it used Samant and dumped him, Congress later patronised the Shiv Sena. We know what happened after that.
Samant’s activism in many ways ran parallel with the other charismatic union leader George Fernandes, who led that famous, Railway strike in 1974. He too was arrested during the emergency and on his release shifted his politics to Bihar and won many elections from there.
Bombay also saw the unique experiment of the Kamani Tubes Industries. Led by trade unionist D Thankappan, some 500 workers formed a cooperative took over the ownership if the company by acquiring 90 per cent shares for Rs 2000 each. Interestingly, this company was later taken over by a Dalit woman, Kalpana Saroj, who came from a humble slum background. She could do that because she had the backing land mafia and influential politicians.
Another brilliant film that captures the lives of mill workers after they were shut is a documentary called Jari-Mari, by Surabhi Sharma. Through her films she has brilliantly documented the everyday lives of the working class through interviews and music.


The film Manthan in many ways reminds us of the times we are living it (it has that haunting song by Preeti Sagar, mera gaam kaatha …i wonder where did she disappeared). The brutality and violence unleashed on poor, the violence in NE Delhi and the way those who unleashed the violence are now our saviours. But it’s also the film about times when there was that Nehruvian dream of building cooperative societies, peoples movements, etc…, and all those things that are taboo now. Directed by Shyam Benegal, released in 1976 it is like a documentary and history of struggle faced by the dairy farmers, which is now known as the Amul. Its a unique film because it was the first successful experiment of what is now called as crowdfunding. Some 5 lakhs dairy farmers funded the film by contributed Rs 2 each. And when it was released it was a big box office hit because they all came on trucks and flooded the cinema halls in thousands to watch it. It has galaxy of stars, many of them were regular actors in many of the Benegal’s films. Naseeruddin Shah , Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Amrish Puri, Mohan Agashe, Anant Nag and others. If i remember correctly about that interview, Benegal told Shohini Gosh that this was the debut film of Kulbhushan Kharbanda. When he was offered the role, he used to live in Kolkata. He came to catch a train to meet Benegal on his two-wheeler, parked it at the Kolkata railway station and then never returned to Kolkata to pick it up. Written by Benegal and Kurien Verghese, the iconic Malyali who went to Gujarat to set up the cooperative and then at a very late age was unceremoniously thrown out of his position (thats a different story). He also set up the management institute IRMA in Anand. To top it all, it had the well-known Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi wrote the dialogues. Shama Zadi was the art director, screenplay written by Vijay Tendulkar and camera by Govind Nihalini (who went on to make films like Aakrosh, Party, Ardh Satya etc). There are many sub-plots in the story. There beautiful unsaid romance between the married Girish Karnard and Smita Patil, which is never resolved. It has dalits getting together to form a cooperative, but being kind of defeated by the upper caste sarpanch and others, it has society elections, being won by dalits and subverted, and lots of other things. The film is available on youtube with a very good copy.. Watch it in times of despair…

Conversations with Cycle Rickshaw Pullers During COVID-19 Lockdown

23 March, 2020

Tahir, Babloo and Aslam pull cycle rickshaws in Jamia Nagar in Delhi. We had interesting conversations about their work, CAA and protests and recent violence in Delhi. And of course, their fears about how they will earn in times of lockdown. All three of them migrated to Delhi and have a rich history of work. Tahir is from Punrea, Bihar, Babloo from Malda, West Bengal and Aslam from Guwahati, Assam. They typically earn Rs 400-450 in a day. The lockdown which began yesterday has hit them badly. Yesterday they could not come out at all and today, all three of them have just about managed to earn around Rs 100 till 6 pm.

Babloo is in his late 30s says he came to Delhi some 8-9 yers ago and lives with four other friends who also pull rickhsaw and belong to Malda. He has been living in Jamia since then. They have a one room apartment and Jamia Vihar. The rent is Rs 3000 per month, so they all contribute Rs 600 each. They don’t have a kitchen and eat at dhabas. Babloo says that they spend around 150-200 daily for food and rent for their rickshaw, which is Rs 50 per day. For last two days the dhabas have been shut and they are surviving on chura and chana. He manages to send around Rs 5000 every month to his family back home, where his two daughters and wife live. He spends five-six months in Delhi and goes back to do farm labour rest of the year. In Malda he works at mango orchards as chowkidaar and then joins the other labour in plucking season. There he earns Rs 300 per day but is also provided two meals a day. Now with the lockdown till 31 March and the uncertain times after that, he and his friends had decided to go back home today, until they heard that all trains are shut. So they are stuck here. He seemed very worried and scared. He says the “dhaba par udhaar chal jaata tha, aur makaan malik bhi kabhi kabhi baad mein kiraya le leta tha, magar ab who kyon denge. Unko mallom hai humaara kaam khatam hai ab. He seemed helpless and distraught”.

Tahir says he is 55 yrs old and left his village in Purnea sometime around 1987. He first went to Punjab to work in agricultural field. But he soon left for Delhi. Waha bahut gaali galooj hoti thi. Kabhi Kabhi maarte peetate bhi the”. He came to Delhi and lived in Rohini for two years. He began pulling rickhaw soon after. Then Babri Masjid was demolished. There was some unrest and violence in other parts of Delhi. So he and his friend came to Jamia and started living here. Like Babloo he also goes back and spends six months in his village. He was all set to go back but is now stuck here. ‘Makka aur gehu ki katai ka time aa gaya hai.’ He hates pulling rickshaw in Delhi summers and loves to spend that time in Purnea. He says the rains in Purnea are lovely. Tahir and his two daughters live with him. He wants to get married soon. He has a son who is 12th pass. He is married with a two year old son and lives independently. He works as a daily-wager (chaprasi ) in some private firm and is paid Rs 300 per day. When he takes leave they deduct his wage. And now the he has been informed to return to job after April 15. Tahir says he will have to feed his son now. Where will he now get the money.

Aslam is a jovial and fun loving fellow. He says he is a mast maula. He came to Delhi as a toddler with his father, who was a rag picker. Father is now dead and his mother has gone blind. He has two daughters and the youngest is a son. He seems very proud of his daughters and says they are in 10 and 12 class and good in studies. They go to govt school. The son is a haraa..mi, a rascal. Aslam says he dabbles in various jobs. He is a plumber sometimes, at other time he does waste picking aur jab mood aata hai rickshaw chalata hoon. He has no connection left with his village in Assam. He says sab kaam khatam hai. In last two days he has on, earned some Rs 100. His wife works as maid in neighbourhood. But they have told her not to come until 31 march. They don’t know where how they will manage. Mahina khatam hone waala hai. Where will he get the money to pay rent.

All three of them had somewhat of an indifferent take on COVID-19. Babloo said its a conspiracy by the rich companies to sell their medicines. He says its looks like an international conspiracy and was completely dismissive about the precautions. How can i take precautions. ‘Khaane ko khaana nahi hai, nahaana to chodo, haath dhone ko paani tak nahi hai. Some what similar was the response of Tahir. But he is worried about his grandson. He says usko bachaana zaroori hai. Hum log mar bhi jayenge to kya hoga. He has approached his cousin for some udhaar, so that they don’t have to compromise on his grandson’s wellbeing in these times of crisis. He is sure his cousin will help. Aslam says he doesn’t care much about Carona. Videshi aur ameer logon ki bimaari hai. But he proudly says his daughters are well-informed and they are making sure we wash our hands regularly. He winked and said unko khush rakhne ke liye unke saamne haath dhona padta
I thought i will ask them about CAA-NRC. That got them talking and excited. Unlike COVID, they were very articulate about NRC. Babloo gave me the entire chronology of how it began in Assam and then the subsequently CAA was introduced to make it Muslim specific. Tahir said that Corona to aayega aur jayega, NRC to yahin rehene waala hai. Aslam laughed and said itne saare musalmaan hai, kahan detention centre banayenge. All three of them seemed to have some kind of an ownership of Shaheen Bagh and Jamia protest. They said they ferried large number of people to the sites of protests. They spent long hours in Shaheen bagh, they would be given free chai and khaana and they would give free rides to people on their rickshaws. Aslam girls participated in the protests and they want to study in Jamia. He says they have made some friends with the young women protestors who call on his mobile to talk to girls…..


The film Gaman, made in 1978 echoes the crisis of migrants workers in Mumabi today, who are leaving the city helplessly in droves in the wake of Coronavirus. This was the debut film of well-known director Muzaffar Ali and also the first film of Nana Patekar. Its a gentle story of predicament of the migrant taxi drivers from Awadh and eastern UP. They are the backbone of Kaali-Peeli taxis in Mumbai (Uber-Ola has displaced the kaali-peeli). The film had late Farooque Sheikh, Smita patil, Jalal Agha and Protima Bedi, who we all lost while they were young. It has that beautiful song “Seene Mein Jalan Aakhon Mein Toofan Sa Kyon Hain”. Written by Sheheryaar , who also wrote those iconic songs for Umrao Jaan. This was Muzaffar Ali first film.

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