There will always be different versions of the story behind the Rs 700-crore aid that was reportedly offered to Kerala for its post-flood relief and reconstruction by the Government of the United Arab Emirates. The story, which began with a social media communication from Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, took an interesting turn when it was stated that the Centre had a policy of shunning all foreign aid for disasters, a policy that had been in place since 2004.
Thereafter, and quite predictably, a political storm erupted with the left Democratic Front Government of Kerala demanding that the Narendra Modi Government was being wilfully discriminatory towards the people of Kerala. Some other proponents of federal politics went a step further and claimed that the whole of South India was being discriminated by a North India-dominated Delhi Establishment. Finally, just when things threatened to get out of hand and divert focus from the massive relief and reconstruction work ahead in Kerala, the UAE Embassy in Delhi clarified that no such massive aid had been offered in the first place. This in turn led to finger pointing and charges of fake news being disseminated.
The true story of what exactly happened and whether there was a genuine misunderstanding or a mid-course correction by the UAE authorities will probably take some time to emerge. Whatever the real facts, the entire incident led to spirited and even ugly battles being fought in the social media.
On the one hand were those who accused the Modi Government of callousness because the BJP had limited political stakes in Kerala. It was suggested that the BJP, being a North Indian and Hindi-speaking party, could never feel the pain of the Kerala people. At the other end of the spectrum were those who cited national self-respect as the main reason why India has shunned all foreign aid since 2004. The more conspiracy-minded of the aid sceptics even detected a hidden religious angle to the UAE’s apparent generosity.
By next week, this particular controversy will have been forgotten and the gaze will shift to issues such as the contention that the problem of heavy rain was compounded by environmental neglect and shoddy water management by a neighbouring State Government. In time, as invariably happens, there will be some furore over the distribution of relief and compensation, not to mention the sectarian dimension that is never absent from Kerala.
However, it is worth dwelling a little over the UAE aid kerfuffle for what it reveals about the state of political discourse in pre-election India. In particular, it is worth studying the controversy for what it reveals of the nature of the opposition to the Modi Government. There were, it would seem, three distinct strands of Modi-baiting.
First, and the perhaps the most relevant but alas the most insignificant issue to be raised centred on the existing prohibition against aid assistance. This was an issue that agitated ‘concerned’ foreigners in the main. Accustomed to a culture of international mobilisation for disaster relief — from the Tsunami in Sri lanka to the cyclone in Haiti — there was genuine consternation that India believed it could manage the R&R from its own resources. Predictably, this was attributed to the xenophobic underpinnings of the Modi Government, a Government that the Western liberal intelligentsia now loves to hate.
Secondly, the controversy witnessed a concerted — and I may say, cynical — attempt to pit Kerala and even South India as a whole against both the Centre and the rest of India. There was a spurious argument that the Gujarat earthquake of 2000 saw a massive injection of foreign assistance, including by Governments overseas. It was therefore contended that Modi was comfortable with foreign money when it came to his home State and squeamish when it came to Kerala. Of course, the crucial fact of the ban on foreign aid coming into play in 2004 was conveniently left out.
Equally insidious was the attempt to create a North-South divide using the argument of federalism. It was made out that the South was being constantly short-changed by the Hindi belt whose chief representative was Modi. This line of thinking wasn’t confined to Kerala alone. It found an echo even in distant West Bengal where the opposition to the BJP and Modi is steadily taking on a distinctly parochial complexion. Whether this growing anti-Hindi tirade has the formal blessings of the architect of the Federal Front is a matter of conjecture. However, it is undeniably true that the 2019 election will witness attempts to use language and ethnicity to break any form Hindu consolidation. The Kerala controversy provided a foretaste.
Finally, what is significant about the furore over UAE aid in Kerala was that the chief instigators of the anti-Modi rhetoric were media professionals, with a significant section employed in the English language media. While politicians were quite restrained, not least because their priority was to be present in helping out distressed people, the pot of discord was being stirred by those who have emerged as the proxy warriors for the anti-Modi front. Neutrality — always elusive at the best of times — has long been discarded by the media and, in recent times, so has restraint. What is becoming increasingly clear is that a significant section of the media establishment — particularly those based in Delhi — now see their principal mission next year as the defeat of Modi and his replacement by anyone else, but preferably Rahul Gandhi. This is not to suggest there are no partisan voices for Modi. Of course there are. But the weight of media consensus is weighed heavily against the Prime Minister. During the election campaign he must be prepared for a barrage of adverse publicity. The media will become an important mobilising tool for the anti-Modi forces.
What is interesting is that the Prime Minister remains unfazed by these controversies. He seems to be steadfast in sticking to his central narrative of performance, hope and leadership. The election will be a test between the big Indian picture and what Burke once dubbed the chirping of grasshoppers.