View: Migrant workers’ train fare brings the first sign of life in a Corona victim called the Opposition

A crisis tends to unite the people, with the government as the rallying point. That is how it should be. However, this does not obviate the fact that crises strengthen the party holding office and weakens the hold of the Opposition on the public imagination. In the context of the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not just Prime Minister Modi’s personal popularity that has increased but also the sway of the BJP’s politics. The Opposition has not been able to make its presence felt, except in remarkably obtuse ways, such as asking the government to stop taking out advertisements in newspapers — till the government decided, in an unfathomable act of meanness, to ask the stranded, penniless, often starving migrant labour to pay for their train journey back home.

In a crisis, the executive needs to function without its every step being hobbled by the judiciary or the legislature. However, this extraordinary degree of freedom can lend itself to abuse. And it certainly has been, with protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act being conflated with perpetrators of the riots that followed ruling party politicians’ threats to remove the protests.

These protesters, including a pregnant woman, have been slapped with charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prvention) Act. The history of arrests made under such stringent laws meant to quell terror and challenges to the unity and integrity of the country is that those arrested have been left off by the courts, but after 10 to 15 years of harrowing loss in jail, essentially maiming their lives and embittering large sections of the populace.

The boundless irresponsibility of the Tablighi Jamaat, which went ahead with an international gathering in Delhi in violation of a law in force against gatherings larger than 200 and after Saudi Arabia had banned, for fear of the Covid contagion, an important religious pilgrimage to its holy places by the faithful from foreign lands, gave Islamophobia free rein, on social media and sections of the mainstream media. The BJP, which is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and is thus committed to converting Muslims into second-class citizens in this country, made significant ideological gains. Bio Jihad joined Love Jihad in the campaign of calumny that is the primary weapon of sectarian politics.

In several parts of the country, the ideologically driven, as well as opportunists, campaigned to boycott Muslim vendors and traders. This included a BJP member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly. The BJP president, of course, pulled up the MLA, just as Pragya Thakur had been pulled up for praising Gandhi’s assassin in public but continues, none the worse for that reproach, as an honourable BJP Member of Parliament.

Politics did not just become more sectarian. It became more authoritarian as well. The Centre began dictating to the states, using the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The government ordered two television channels in Kerala off the air because it did not like criticism of the RSS in their reportage of the Delhi riots.

In BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, criticism of the government became tantamount to treason. Pronouncing the word Azadi (freedom) is seditious, declared the UP chief minister. The police came to Delhi to serve notice on the editor of a Delhi-based online journal for ‘an objectionable comment’ against the honourable chief minister. Intolerance of criticism is, of course, a hallmark of authoritarian politics.

The order that every private sector employee and civil servant should instal the Arogya Setu application on their phone is another encroachment on the citizen’s constitutional rights. In contrast to Singapore’s contract tracing app, which collects data on three parameters, the Indian government’s app collects data on six parameters, including geopgraphical location. Further, the Indian app uses a static device identity tag, making it easy for hackers to target, while the Singapore app changes the device ID every 15 minutes. Further, a white paper outlining the risks and benefits of the app preceded the Singapore app, whose source code is openly available.

The biggest drawback of the Indian app is that there is no law to protect data in India. While Justice Srikrishna, who framed the draft law, had recommended a separate law to lay down the parameters for state access to citizen data and provide against abuse of such access, India has not passed a general data protection law and not even framed a law to hold the state to account on its use of citizen data. In this background, the Arogya Setu app is a double-edged sword. It can, on the plus side, help trace the contacts of those infected by the corona virus, provided some 60% of the population instal the app on their phones, but, on the flip side, also serves as a handy tool for state surveillance of citizens.

The government should make a formal statement on how much data it would collect, how long it would store the data and to what purposes the data would be used and what penalty would be levied on any official violating these provisions. In the short run, the trade-off between privacy and public health would be bearable, with such assurances. The app should be withdrawn when Google and Apple announce their own jointly developed contact tracing app that would be more effective, thanks to its ability to communicate across operating systems, store data on the phone until and prevent the state from snooping.

The Opposition kept sniping at the government, demanding more relief to small and medium enterprises, the poor and so on. Rahul Gandhi, probably attempting to return as Congress president, has been holding sage conversations with Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee. All wholesome stuff, but not anything that would turn a hair on the common man’s pate or stir his blood. Even when the migrant workers locked down in transit were sprayed with disinfectant like vermin and left starving, the Congress and other parties did little.

Then came the rail fare opportunity. The Railways messed it up by refusing to bear the cost of the migrants travel back home. For a government that spent some Rs 4,800 crore on publicity in its first term to refuse to spend a few hundred crore on helping internal migrants reach their homes from wherever they had been left stranded was callous and, worse, reeked of contempt. The Congress pounced on this opportunity, with Ahmed Patel telling state party units to collect the money and pay the migrants’ fare.

The government made a deft public relations counter, claiming that it bears 85% of the cost of running these migrant trains. This figure, pulled out of some mysterious hat, has not been justified with any break-up of the costs. Migrants are paying the sleeper class fare for their journey. No theory of marginal cost pricing would hold this to be any more subsidised than normal passenger fares. At a time when the entire capital stock of the Railways is locked down, generating only costs for the organisation, the migrants offer a welcome stream of income.

The “we-bear-85%-of-the-cost” claim might have served to take the sting off the Congress move in the media, but it will make no impression on the migrants, who have, for the most part, to ask their relatives back home to send them the money needed to purchase their tickets for the ride. What matters to the migrants would be the help the Congress, or any other party, provides, not fanciful claims that make headlines in the media. Money provided for the ticket would be remembered with gratitude and the memory would remind them, also, of who and what brought them to their plight in the first place.

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