Of marching migrants and Brand Chaiwala

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s admirers are always quick to point out his humble origins to justify their unquestioning love for him. “He has made it in spite of being a chaiwala in the past. He made it on his own merit (as opposed to you-know-who, the dynast),” is something I keep hearing.

Modi’s PR machinery makes a great deal of his tea-seller origins. So much so that even US President Donald Trump brought in the “chiwala” (sic) reference while addressing a massive  crowd in India during his last visit. “Prime Minister Modi underscores the limitless promise of this great nation,” Trump said.

Fine. But despite his purported chaiwala origins, Modi doesn’t seem to display adequate compassion for the people of the class he once belonged to. Let’s take the example of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. His two speeches are good indicators of whom he addresses, and prioritises, and it is certainly not the chaiwala class.

Take the first one in which he asks every one to clap, ring bells and bang plates for five minutes at 5 pm after the 14-hour junta curfew on March 22 to thank doctors and health-workers. It is a good thought to thank the health workers on the frontline, even though the idea may be copied from Europe where the gesture was spontaneous, organic and not mandated by the state. It is a lovely picture–people clapping from balconies and windows, creating a resonance without physically coming together. But in the Indian context, it becomes ironical.

Would any Prime Minister have asked his people to come to their balconies and windows to clap, if he has in his mind those countless Indians who don’t have a roof above their heads? How many Indians have balconies? Would any Prime Minister ask his people to bang their plates if he had spared a thought for those who had nothing at all to eat on those plates?

What happened at 5pm on March 22 was a nightmare to say the least. Images of people crowding in front of buildings, taking out processions and even dancing on the streets, chanting “Go Corona Go” (also thanks to the BJP machinery for “motivating” plate-bangers by saying continuous banging kills viruses) came from everywhere. This is our reality: unlike Europe, we are in large numbers and we live in clusters; and countless live in slums and on the streets.  A small, very small section of us live in gated communities or have homes with balconies. If the PM had thought of that vast majority, I do not think he would have made such a bizarre request, and consequently risked community transmission of coronavirus.

Now, the second speech in which he ordered a 21-day lockdown in India with effect from midnight of March 24. Sounding a war call, he asked people to stay indoors for three weeks from midnight. He said that at 8pm. And, he did not say how the people were supposed to eat. There was not a single word on daily-wage earners–chaiwalas, like him once upon a time–and migrant workers. This, after he had in his earlier speech asked people to not hoard essentials.

Follow-up press releases were issued by the government announcing that essentials are exempted from the lock-down, but by then the damage was done. Reports of frantic panic-buying came from all across the country. If there was a chaiwala inside him, would he have not thought through this the first thing while drafting the speech?

Modi’s sudden, unplanned lockdown dealt a heavy blow to the migrant workers of this country. Their lockdown-induced pain shall remain our shame for a long, long time to come. Thrown out of their jobs, asked to vacate by their landlords, they have nowhere to go. Besides, in times of crisis, it is a normal human wish to head home and be with near ones. This is exactly why Indians abroad are rushing home, and they are being flown in on special flights arranged by the Indian government.

It’s the migrant workers who have no transport whatsoever: no buses or trains in a lockdown. Hence, they are walking all the way to their homes hundred of kilometres away, with their families, hungry babies slumped on their shoulders. Some are adopting unsafe ways to smuggle their way home. Maharashtra Police seized two container trucks ferrying 300 migrant workers.

As if this was not enough, the home-bound workers were harassed by the police trying to enforce the lockdown. They were beaten up and Uttar Pradesh police even made some of them crawl on the road in the afternoon heat.

Even as I write this, highways across India are scenes of this silent, slow march of humanity.  Extremely tragic, and more so because this was entirely avoidable with a bit of planning.

Do they have enough to eat? Will they make it? And the children? Did these questions not come to our chaiwala-turned PM’s mind? Three days have passed since the lockdown announcement, not a single word yet on the plight of the millions of migrant workers. SpiceJet has reportedly offered to step in. One report says the government is “working on a plan”, according to which the centre may issue an advisory to the states asking them to open transport lines for migrant workers.

It’s another thing that the idea of social distancing and lockdown now totally goes out of the window as hordes of them walk home, bundled together.

What was our PM thinking? Or more importantly, who was he thinking about? Only those who clapped and banged their plates from their balconies? I know his followers will be quick to remind me that he has announced a financial package for the poor and migrant workers will also gain from the direct bank transfers. I don’t dispute that; but this is not so much about money or relief right now. It’s about a large section of the Indian population not mattering at all.

Brand Chaiwala and all that is all good. Coronavirus pandemic had presented an opportunity for the brand to shine, and a chance for the PM to live up to his brand image. He failed. Will Brand Chaiwala work even after this?

(updated to include slight edits on March 28, 17.49)





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