Senior Congress leader, Lok Sabha MP and former information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari has attacked the Narendra Modi government over the delay in releasing a stimulus package for MSMEs and its handling of the migrant crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic. In an exclusive interview with International Business Times, India, Tewari spoke at length about the government's response to the pandemic, the issues concerning the poor, communal hatred, and the economic crisis.
Excerpts from the interview with Manish Tewari:
A section of people have praised India's efforts to contain Covid-19, while the other criticised them. How do you rate Modi govt's response to the pandemic and what, according to you, should have been the govt's response to flattening the curve?
The first thing that we need to understand it that a lockdown was possibly essential in order to buy time for both the health infrastructure to come up to speed and also stop the rapid proliferation of Covid-19. However, a lockdown is not an enduring solution to Covid-19. The virus is here to stay in the absence of a vaccine and ultimately it will run through the society. So, therefore, we have to really find a modus operandi of being able to live with this pathogen and try to keep both hospitalisation and fatalities at the minimum till the time a sustainable vaccine doesn't get widely used.
So, under those circumstances, it is too premature at this point in time to really evaluate the efficacy of a lockdown and perennial strategy because when the lockdown took place or when the Janata curfew was announced on March 22, India had 340 infections and 7 deaths. Today, the number is over 23,000 and the number of deaths is also close to 700. So, under those circumstances, had the lockdown not taken place, could these numbers be higher as some mathematical models really project them to be? These are things that will have to stand the test of hindsight. So, its an evolving situation and let's wait for the situation to settle down and then make a very hardheaded analysis of what was done right and was done wrong.
The lockdown has left lakhs of migrants without food, shelter, and jobs. The govt has announced a stimulus package and claimed they won't let anyone sleep hungry. Do you think the stimulus was not enough to address the concerns of migrants? And what the govt needs to do now to address the migrant crisis?
Well, the short notice lockdown has actually revealed the worst of Indian society once again that we don't care about our poor and marginalised and disempowered. The manner in which we have as a country treated out migrants should make every Indian hang their head in shame. So on one end of the spectrum, you have people putting on Facebook the new recipes they are trying and generally treating the lockdown as a luxurious holiday and on the other hand, there are 110 million people who are struggling without food shelter and transport on the roads to get back safely to their homes. And in the manner in which they were doused with chemicals, forcibly detained in quarantine camps and even now continue in those camps despite the fact that their routine period ran out a long time back is possibly the worst manifestation of insensitivity which the government and we, as a society, have displayed. We have completely and absolutely failed our poor in every sense. And therefore this is something going to become an enduring blot on the face of this nation in the months and years ahead.
The lockdown has also ruined the economy. Industries are shut, lakhs of people have lost their jobs and MSMEs are among the worst-hit. I see Rahul Gandhi also raising this issue, but still, there has not been a relief package for this sector. Why is this delay?
Well, the global economy has been devastated, to say the least. And the relief and rehab package which the government had announced constitutes only 0.7 per cent of the GDP of India. The combined expenditure of the central and state governments put together is 80 lakh crores. We can easily, through a process of expenditure rationalisation, be able to find the money in order to provide Rs 5,000 per month, at least for the next three months, to the 11 crore families at the bottom of the pyramid. This would cost about 1 lakh crore but we can easily find the money in order to give both the salary support as well as credit support to our medium and small enterprises which again employes 11 crore odd people. So, therefore, I don't think there is a paucity of resources, However, there is both a paucity of imagination and possibly the wisdom as to how an economy is run.
There has been a rise in communal hatred amid Covid-19 pandemic. There have been reports showing how people are not buying fruits and vegetables from Muslims. Recently, the UAE princess also raised the issue of "Islamophobia" in India. Do you think there is "Islamophobia" in India? And should PM Modi come out and address the issue, especially after Arab countries have expressed concern.
I don't think that there is any Islamophobia in Indian society. The fact is that the Tablighi Jamat did make a mistake by not canceling that congregation which had a lot of international delegates also. At a point in time when public gathering around the country and the world were being cancelled as both the infection and death rates were mounting, they should have been careful. Unfortunately, their carelessness has caused a certain amount of disquiet in society. But its suffice to say that except for the lunatic fringe which is always omnipresent in India's social media, there is no available hatred towards any minority in the society. I think India's syncretic bonds are strong enough to surmount any attempt to be able to drive a wage between the communities.
Your Party President Sonia Gandhi has accused the BJP of has accused the BJP of spreading the 'Virus of communal hatred'?
At this point in time, when the entire focus should be on combating the pandemic, the manner in which the ruling party still goes about its cynical politics is extremely unfortunate. And it seems that some people in the ruling establishment do not grasp the gravity of the situation.
Will you condemn the ink attack on Arnab Goswami? He has accused your party. Your views on the entire Arnab Goswami episode?
I don't even want to dignify that question with a response. I think certain people are too inconsequential to be even worth commenting upon.
Does Congress party see an opportunity to bounce back post coronavirus? What would be your party strategy?
We see this as a humanitarian tragedy, we don't see this as a political opportunity. So, therefore at this point in time, our entire attention is focused on how best can all elements of the national power be brought to together so our people can be insulated from the effects of the pandemic.