Editor's note: Described as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.
The floods in Kerala may turn out to be as calamitous for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as they have been for the state.
The BJP has blundered so badly in the way it has handled the controversy over aid the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supposedly offered as flood relief for Kerala. This may cost the party its chances of being able to increase its political footprint in the state anytime soon. But even the ruling Left and Congress are unlikely to come out of the disaster as shining examples of administrative competence or political conduct, but that should be no consolation for BJP, which has been desperately trying to make inroads into the southern state.
The BJP can only blame itself for this sorry state. The BJP did little to fight the social media onslaught not only from supporters of the Left Democratic Front and Congress but even unattached Malayalis, who rubbished the Narendra Modi government for allegedly not doing enough for Kerala. All you could hear from the saffron brigade's famed propaganda machine was some whimpering noises against the collective thunder of critics.
For days it had appeared as though the BJP had allowed the allegations of the Centre's apathy towards Kerala to be aired freely without rebuttal. Such charges tend to stick in people's minds, made psychologically vulnerable by a disaster as catastrophic as these floods. Add to the mega tragedy the incalculable damage done by repulsive elements, who campaigned against helping "beef-eaters" and accepting aid from Muslim countries, and there could be nothing worse for the BJP. The defence that finally came from the party was a case of too little, too late and had few takers.
Take a look at the timeline of the ruckus over the UAE aid and the BJP's initial silence:
18 August: The first announcement of help came from the UAE through tweets by the country's prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
UAE and the Indian community will unite to offer relief to those affected. We have formed a committee to start immediately. We urge everyone to contribute generously towards this initiative. pic.twitter.com/7a4bHadWqa
— HH Sheikh Mohammed (@HHShkMohd) August 17, 2018
The state of Kerala in India is currently witnessing huge floods, the most devastating in a century. Hundreds have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Ahead of Eid Al Adha, do not forget to extend a helping hand to our brothers in India. pic.twitter.com/cHe4CWzrpO — HH Sheikh Mohammed (@HHShkMohd) August 17, 2018
19 August: Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanks Maktoum for his "gracious offer".
A big thanks to @hhshkmohd for his gracious offer to support people of Kerala during this difficult time. His concern reflects the special ties between governments and people of India and UAE.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 18, 2018
There was no mention of the Rs 700 crore in these tweets, though that does not necessarily mean that the UAE had not offered help worth this amount. 21 August: The amount of Rs 700 crore suddenly cropped up in Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan's tweets. He claimed that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, had made the offer to Modi, and that this was also "informed to" Malayali businessman Yusuff Ali.
CM Pinarayi Vijayan informed that the United Arab Emirates will provide Kerala an assistance of ₹700 Crore. Kerala has a special relationship with UAE, which is a home away from home for Malayalees. We express our gratitude to UAE for their support. #KeralaFloodRelief pic.twitter.com/yfwbt9iEkd — CMO Kerala (@CMOKerala) August 21, 2018
Hours after Vijayan's tweets, reports attributed to sources appeared on TV channels and newspapers, saying India was "unlikely" to accept foreign aid.
The same day, Thailand's ambassador to India also tweeted, saying he had been "informally informed" that the government was not accepting overseas donations.
Informally informed with regret that GOI is not accepting overseas donations for Kerala flood relief. Our hearts are with you the people of Bharat. https://t.co/b4iyc3aQez
— Ambassador Sam (@Chutintorn_Sam) August 21, 2018
22 August: The crown prince called Modi and talked about the "relief and charitable institutions" of the UAE that are helping with flood relief efforts in Kerala.
I spoke to the Indian Prime Minister about the devastation caused by the floods in Kerala. My sincere condolences to the families of the victims. We stand with the Indian people. Our relief and charitable institutions are helping with relief efforts. — محمد بن زايد (@MohamedBinZayed) August 21, 2018
The same day, an official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) ruled out India accepting aid from foreign governments. However, it had said that contributions were welcome from foreign institutions to the prime minister and chief minister's relief funds. It made no reference to the UAE offer.
23 August: UAE Ambassador to India Ahmed Albanna said there had been no official announcement on any specific amount his country would give as aid.
The tweets by the two UAE leaders spoke only about aid from institutions, which India accepts, but not from their government, which it does not. Even the Emirati ambassador in Delhi talked about his country being aware of India's policy and mentioned only institutional help.
However, both the UAE and Qatar have already begun the process of helping flood victims in Kerala. Doha has been sending supplies through the "Qatar Charity". These raise several questions.
Emirates SkyCargo joins the UAE community in their support of the people of Kerala, India by transporting over 175 tons of flood relief cargo. #UAEsupportsKerala https://t.co/1w74tYCFNr pic.twitter.com/NgMsdrskRj
— Emirates Airline (@emirates) August 23, 2018
Although India's logic for not accepting foreign aid from governments is highly questionable, why did the MEA statement focus only on this broad policy and the country's own "domestic efforts"? Why did the statement create the impression that India was blocking all aid from the UAE?
The ministry's statement did mention, albeit tangentially, that India would accept institutional aid. But why was it not made clear that aid extended in this manner was already on the way? Why did the statement not focus on thanking foreign institutional donors and only then mention India's opposition to government-to-government charity? Was the Rs 700 crore figure that the UAE had supposedly offered a figment of the Kerala chief minister's imagination? Was it something Vijayan had manufactured to spite Modi, or was it the total worth of the institutional aid that the UAE was trying to raise through a committee that Maktoum mentioned in his tweet and send to India that would meet the country’s policy requirements?
These questions, which still beg for answers, only amount to a gross failure of the spokespersons of both the BJP and the central government in communicating their side of the story effectively. It was evident all along that the government of neither the UAE nor India had confirmed the supposed offer of Rs 700 crore, and we only had Vijayan's word for it. But the BJP waited till a full-blown controversy exploded before beginning to rebut the figure.
The party also failed to make it clear that the aid being given to Kerala was much more than the Rs 600 crore Modi and Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh had promised, and that there was more to come, as Sreemoy Talukdar pointed out in this article.
The BJP leadership, credited with acute political wisdom and an ability to push the Opposition into all sorts of difficult corners, also failed to foresee the damage social media could do in the hands of hostile and literate people, most of whom had voted either for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Congress.
Vijayan faces the music
The BJP may be in deep waters of its own over its handling of the Kerala floods, but the ruling Left Democratic Front, too, is not entirely unscathed by allegations of dereliction of duty. As the state slowly limps back to life and recovers from the initial shock and sorrow over the deluge, Left leaders are squirming uncomfortably under the spotlight on their government's failures.
Leading the attack on the state government is none other than the Congress. The party appears to have had enough of the camaraderie it showed towards the Left in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, finally remembering that the CPM is its chief enemy in Kerala. But the designs of the Congress to catch political fish in the troubled floodwaters are not lost on those who are heaping ridicule on party chief Rahul Gandhi's European tour while the state grapples with distress.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Aug 27, 2018 13:56:40 IST