Lucknow: At the centre of the goof-up that has left the Congress red-faced in Uttar Pradesh over its offer of 1,000 buses for migrant workers is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s personal aide Sandeep Singh, a former Leftist leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
On Wednesday, the three-day tussle between Vadra, the Congress general secretary in-charge for UP, and the Yogi Adityanath government came to an end with the Opposition party unable to fulfill its objective of providing transportation to migrant workers.
While the party has publicly blamed the Adityanath government for its unwillingness to work out a solution towards the plight of migrant workers, Congress sources told ThePrint that it was Vadra’s office that fell short on its promises.
The party has got huge media attention due to the controversy, but the ultimate result could have been different if Vadra’s office had done its homework on the list of buses, said the sources.
“If we senior leaders were handling the communication process between UP government and Priyanka Gandhi, then the result could have been different. An inexperienced team fell into the trap of BJP government,” said a senior member of UP Congress who didn’t wish to be named.
Singh, who joined Vadra’s team ahead of Lok Sabha elections 2019, and Congress state president Ajay Lallu are facing an FIR for forgery of documents. Lallu was arrested late in the evening from Agra, where he was trying to secure permission for buses to enter from Rajasthan.
The immediate result for the party is nothing of what it planned to achieve amid a humanitarian crisis in the country. However, it is still claiming some success.
“As we all know, the Yogi government has followed arbitrary and archaic politics in the name of blocking these buses. Still, it has given a chance to Congress to be back in the limelight in UP,” said a source in the UP Congress. “Although there could be a different result if we had better homework.”
Both the party leaders highlighted that 586 buses were found to be in order, but even those weren’t allowed to operate.
The bus details blunder
The row started Monday when the Yogi Adityanath government accepted Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s offer of 1,000 buses to ferry labourers, in an apparent bid to hit several political targets.
Within hours of accepting the proposal, Awanish Awasthi, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), asked Vadra’s office to provide the details of buses and drivers, and to send the buses to Lucknow. When the Congress protested this in an overnight drama, the government sought the buses at Noida and Ghaziabad borders Tuesday, along with fitness certificates and insurance documents among other details.
On Wednesday, the Adityanath government claimed that it unearthed massive irregularities in the list of documents related to the 1,000-plus vehicles submitted by Vadra’s team.
According to the government, documents related to 463 out of 1,049 buses offered were either fake or incomplete. Out of these, fitness certificates of 297 buses were not provided; 98 had numbers registered for ambulances, autos, bikes and other vehicles; and no data was available in the case of 70 vehicles.
UP Deputy CM Dinesh Sharma highlighted some of these numbers at a press interaction in the state capital.
Gandhi’s staff led the exercise
The entire Congress exercise, which came after Priyanka Gandhi Vadra raised the issue of UP government’s negligence towards migrant workers on social media, was led by her aide Sandeep Singh.
He handled official communication with Uttar Pradesh government officials regarding the permission for the buses.
Singh was a leader of the All India Students Association, the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), in Delhi’s JNU. He had grown close to former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi who later attached her with Vadra after she became a party general secretary last year.
Zubair Khan, All India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary in-charge of UP Congress and former MLA from Rajasthan, coordinated the buses from Rajasthan. Rohit Choudhary, another AICC secretary in-charge of UP Congress, coordinated the activities at the Agra border in UP.
Other Vadra office staff were monitoring overall activities.
What the Congress says
Prior to his arrest, Congress UP chief Ajay Lallu alleged that the Yogi Adityanath government was “messing” with the data.
“A list with details of 1,096 buses was submitted to the UP government by Priyanka Ji’s aide Sandeep Singh. Now, the state government is messing with the data,” he told ThePrint.
“We had brought more than 500 buses from Rajasthan and parked them at UP border, while more than 300 were parked at Delhi-Noida border, but the state government did not permit them to come inside UP,” he said.
According to Lallu, the vehicles were mostly sourced from private operators.
“We were ready to replace these vehicles (with document issues) after verifying their details. Our only assertion was that to allow us to send as many buses that were available now. We will soon arrange for the rest,” he said.
At a press conference Wednesday, UP Congress legislature party leader Aradhna Mishra also said the government has forcibly blocked all these buses.
They should have stopped only those buses that didn’t have fitness certificates in order. Rest of them should be allowed to operate, she said. “We are accepting if there is any mistake in the data of buses. We will verify it and can send more buses. But this government seems unwilling to give us permission for operating buses.”
Rebel MLA’s questions
Amid this controversy, Congress faced another blow to its campaign Tuesday after a rebel MLA questioned the party’s motives.
Aditi Singh, the Congress MLA from Raebareli who was once considered to be a close confidante of the Gandhi family, asked in a tweet what the need was for “stooping to such low-level of politics” in a time of crisis.
“What kind of cruel joke is it? If buses were indeed available then why were they not operated from Punjab and Maharashtra?” Singh asked. Praising CM Yogi Adityanath, she said he had previously worked for safe passage of UP students stuck in Rajasthan by arranging special buses last month.
आपदा के वक्त ऐसी निम्न सियासत की क्या जरूरत,एक हजार बसों की सूची भेजी, उसमें भी आधी से ज्यादा बसों का फर्जीवाड़ा, 297 कबाड़ बसें, 98 आटो रिक्शा व एबुंलेंस जैसी गाड़ियां, 68 वाहन बिना कागजात के, ये कैसा क्रूर मजाक है, अगर बसें थीं तो राजस्थान,पंजाब, महाराष्ट्र में क्यूं नहीं लगाई।
— Aditi Singh (@AditiSinghINC) May 20, 2020
The Congress party has distanced itself from her comments. It had submitted a letter to the UP Speaker in October last year, seeking Aditi’s disqualification as an MLA. She was accused of violating the party’s whip.
How BJP is cornering Congress
The rebel MLA’s statement has given the state BJP leaders additional space to corner the opposition.
“The statement of its own MLA must work as a reality check for the Congress. This is no time to trade verbal duels,” BJP state spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi told ThePrint.
Echoing similar sentiments, Uttar Pradesh BJP spokesperson Chandra Mohan said, “They were lying all along. If buses were available in the Congress-ruled states then why not they were made available from there? Why were forced into trucks? All this is just a big publicity stunt.”
However, this political dogfight sidelined the migrant workers, who were meant to benefit out of the clash.