Tiff between TDP, Congress over airlifting pilgrims takes ugly turn

Members of Parliament belonging to the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress made themselves the butt of ridicule at the Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun on Wednesday when they engaged in scuffles and hurled invectives at one another over the issue of ferrying pilgrims from Uttarakhand.

The incident, which took place in full public view, climaxed the three-day-old game of one-upmanship being played out by the two parties ever since TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu, returned from his 10-day holiday in the U.S. Their ugly behaviour overshadowed the efforts to provide relief to suffering pilgrims of whom nearly 300 are untraced and a few hundreds remain stranded in Badrinath and Harsil.

Mr. Naidu had stolen a march over the Congress by rushing to AP Bhavan in Delhi, staging a dharna there and rushing to Dehradun to work out the logistics to bring back the pilgrims. He outsmarted the government by chartering an aircraft from Delhi, bringing back 180 pilgrims to Hyderabad and buying flight tickets for others in regular flights.

Piqued over what they perceived a ‘Modi-style’ Rambo act to expose the government, Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy himself rushed to Delhi and announced that a special flight would be operated from Dehradun to Hyderabad at 5.25 p.m. Wednesday. Not to be left behind, the TDP leaders also a hired an aircraft from Jolly Grant and Mr. Naidu himself reached there from Delhi.

At around this time, Congress leaders V. Hanumanth Rao, MP, Union Minister P. Balram Naik, and Ministers -- N. Uttam Kumar Reddy and D. Sridhar Babu -- were directing pilgrims towards the Congress government’s aircraft. The competition reached a new low when TDP MPs Ramesh Rathod and K. Narayana began wooing the same pilgrims to board the Vizag-bound, TDP-sponsored plane. “It reminded me of how private bus operators poach passengers in semi-urban bus stands,” remarked a shocked pilgrim.

While Mr. Uttam Kumar Reddy and Mr. Narayana were arguing fiercely, Mr. Hanumantha Rao intervened and confronted them over preventing passengers from boarding the government’s flight. It was now the turn of the burly-looking MP Ramesh Rathod to enter the scuffle. He pushed back Mr. Rao while CISF personnel rushed to scene and separated the squabbling MPs. Amid sloganeering from both sides, Mr. Naidu watched the unfolding drama from a little distance away.

Finally, the flights arranged by the TDP and the State government took off within a span of ten minutes for Hyderabad. According to agencies, Mr. Naidu termed the incident unfortunate and that there should not be any competition over a tragedy. He declared that his party would not stop the “service” to pilgrims until the last one of them is sent back. He accused the Kiran Reddy government of totally failing to help the pilgrims from AP.