Keeping the expat workers in the Middle East happy is a habitual trick that Kerala politicians play all the time, but trying to exploit a minor employment crisis faced by a few thousand Indians in Saudi Arabia by a state minister was silly or rather foolish.
What’s sillier was that both the CPM, which leads the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), and the Congress, which is in the Opposition, have joined hands in this ill-timed foolery.
The issue is this: about 3000-4000 labourers are stuck in Saudi Arabia for a few months because the construction company that had employed them have stopped paying them and they are even out of food or shelter now. Because of the tough migration and labour laws in the kingdom, they cannot look for another job, and since they don’t have money and passports with them, they cannot return home. The crisis became national news when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj started tweeting about the Government of India’s intervention when she was alerted about 800 starving workers.
Since then, both Swaraj and her ministry have been proactive in both providing food through the embassy in Riyadh and consulate in Jeddah and assuring the stranded Indians that their government would not abandon them. Minister Gen. VK Singh was immediately sent to Riyadh for negotiations with the Saudi authorities and to assure Indians of their safety. “I assure you that no Indian worker rendered unemployed in Saudi Arabia will go without food. I am monitoring this on hourly basis,” Swaraj said in one of her many tweets on the issue on 30 July. And she kept her word. Singh’s intervention was effective with the Saudi government also joining hands with assurances and supplies.
While Sushma, Singh and her ministry were engaging with the Saudi government, the Kerala government also had a brainwave - it too wanted to send a minister to assure support to the Malayalis among the stranded workers. The noise was justified because, although the numbers among the crisis-hit workers are not considerable, the government ought to show that they care because Middle Eastern remittances are the state’s socio-economic backbone.
However, what followed was bizarre. The minister who was deputed for this task, KT Jaleel, told the media that he was unable to go because the Centre had refused him a diplomatic passport. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the Centre’s move was “unfortunate” and “mysterious”. Not to be left out of the outrage, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said the denial was a “serious lapse" on the part of the Indian government. On its part, the government of India said that it was doing everything that was required in Saudi Arabia and it didn’t want a rush of VIPs.
Evidently, everything that the Kerala government did and said was pure posturing. First of all, the people in distress are from all over India and not just from Kerala, and secondly, external affairs is the sole responsibility of the government of India. Kerala, of course, should be concerned about the wellbeing of its workers, but the interlocutory right to deal with foreign governments is not with them. If the state was serious, it should have exerted pressure on the Centre and coordinated with the foreign ministry. Running a parallel diplomatic effort is not possible in the book.
More than his inability to visit the affected workers from Kerala, Jaleel and the chief minister seem to have been put off by the denial of a diplomatic passport that the minister wanted overnight. He made a big fuss about it in the media and even made it out be a snub to the earnest efforts of the state to help its expat workers.
However, what Jaleel hid from the media was that he was not eligible for a diplomatic passport at all because according to the government of India guidelines, “Diplomatic and official passports are issued to people holding diplomatic status or deputed by the government of India for official duty abroad”. Did Jaleel have a diplomatic status or had he been deputed by government of India on any overseas duty? No!
Even if he assumed that he was eligible, bemoaning in public amounts to misinforming people and manipulating their sentiments. Unfortunately, the hype-driven local media chose to broadcast his deprivation lament and not his ineligibility.
In a TV show, in which the minister announced that he was unable to go to Saudi Arabia because he had been denied a diplomatic passport, an MP from the CPM highlighted the privileges of such a possession. He also gleefully said that he had one. But what he didn’t say was that as a member of parliament, he fulfilled the eligibility criteria. This is what government of India says: “Members of Parliament and their spouses are entitled to Diplomatic Passports, which are issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, Patiala House, New Delhi.”
So, the real hardship faced by the workers from the state, which by a crude law of averages must be about one third of the total, was eclipsed by a minister’s desire for a diplomatic passport and the Centre’s denial. It’s time that somebody told the state that Jaleel was not eligible for that privileged passport with a brown jacket and the denial was legally the right decision.
Now, an equally important question. Should Jaleel have gone to Riyadh and Jeddah? What could he have done there?
The answer is an unequivocal NO because the Centre is the interlocutor in external affairs. Even with the most liberal federal autonomy, only the Centre should deal with foreign governments because otherwise it would be a mayhem that no foreign government would entertain. It’s an issue of national security as well. Imagine all the provincial ministers of the world holding diplomatic passports! Immigration counters and overseas missions will go crazy.
In this case, it was a tweet by a stranded worker that propelled Swaraj into action and her ministry reportedly has done a commendable job. For the government of India, it’s about the workers from the country, not a single state. And that’s the way it should be. Once one is out of the country, what gives one protection is the backing of one’s national government, not provincial government or provincial identity. The passport is the national identity.
It doesn’t mean that Kerala should leave everything to the Centre. What it should do for its expat workers is offer continuous, 24/7 consular assistance through the Centre because on foreign shores, Kerala is indistinguishable from India. It has to constantly lobby with the Centre and even get involved in policy formulation regarding Indian migrants. It’s public knowledge that compared to countries such as Philippines, Indian assistance to its overseas workers is a sham. This is what Jaleel and his government should focus on so that crises such as the present one are averted or better addressed.
CPM should have learned the fallacy of its trick beforehand because in the past it had tried to import kerosene from Venezuela knowing full well that it was impossible by the book.