Congress President Sonia Gandhi launched a fierce attack on the Narendra Modi government on Friday for its policies with regard to the COVID-19 challenge, saying that the Centre was uncertain about the criteria for lockdowns and did not have an exit strategy. She described the fiscal stimulus package declared by the government a cruel joke on the country.
Gandhi, in her opening remarks at a meeting of 22 like-minded parties held through video-conferencing, remarked, “That the present government has no solutions is worrying, but that it has no empathy or compassion for the poor and vulnerable is heartbreaking.”
Setting the tone for the meeting of opposition parties, the first since the country was hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and the first to be held through virtual means, Gandhi hit out at PM Modi, saying, “The initial optimism of the prime minister that the war against the virus would conclude in 21 days has turned out to be misplaced. It seems that the virus is here to stay until a vaccine is found. I am also of the view that the government was uncertain about the criteria for lockdowns, nor does it have an exit strategy.”
Noting that successive lockdowns have yielded diminishing returns, she said government also stumbled badly on the testing strategy and the import of test kits.
With regard to the government’s fiscal stimulus package of Rs 20 lakh crore, she said that even as every economist of repute had advised an immediate need for a massive fiscal stimulus, what was announced turned out to be a cruel joke on the country.
Underlining another important item on the agenda of the meeting, the Congress president spoke about the issue of migrant workers and their struggle to go back home. “The defining image of the pandemic has been the lakhs of migrant workers, many with children, walking hundreds of kilometres, without money, food or medicines, desperate to reach their home states,” she said.
Besides the migrant workers, the 13 crore families in the bottom half of the population, including tenant farmers, landless agricultural workers, laid off or retrenched workers and employees, shopkeepers and the self-employed have been “cruelly ignored”.
Gandhi said that 5.8 crore out of the 6.3 crore MSMEs, and organised industries, including large businesses, have not received adequate help from the government.
“Many of us like-minded parties had demanded that cash must be transferred to the poor, that free grain must be distributed to all families, that buses and trains must be arranged for the migrant workers to go back to their homes. We emphasised that wage assistance and wage protection funds must be set up to protect the employees and the employers. Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” she said.
She said that instead of offering succour, the government had embarked on a “wild adventure of so-called reforms including a grand clearance sale of PSUs and repeal of labour laws. There is not even a pretence of consultation with stakeholders or debate in Parliament. We deplore these unilateral moves.”
Noting that a number of renowned economists are predicting that 2020-21 will end with negative growth of up to minus five per cent, she said the consequences will be catastrophic.
Gandhi also accused the government of being undemocratic in its functioning, saying all power was now concentrated in the Prime Minister's Office. “The spirit of federalism which is an integral part of our Constitution is all but forgotten. There is no indication either if the two Houses of Parliament or the Standing Committees will be summoned to meet,” she said.
Gandhi invited opposition parties for a meeting in an effort to build a coordinated approach in taking on the government with regard to its handling of COVID-19 and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.