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BJP Celebrates Murmu’s Victory As Its Own; Why the Internet Sniffing Scandal in Mauritius Should Matter to Indians
Govt spends Rs 300 crore a year on ads, Dhaka urged to import Indian meat, on RRR Spectator says it reflects ‘nastiness of today’s India’, rather than British India, PR-driven Modi in 'driverless' car
A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
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Snapshot of the day
July 22, 2022
A car ride can be totally lit if you’re in the right seat. As the cartoonist Manjul says, it looks like the car is driverless.
On Saturday, PM Narendra Modi inaugurated the Bundelkhand expressway in UP, boasting about the world-class infrastructure. It took just one spell of rain to expose the truth about the BJP-ruled state’s infrastructure projects. The same thing happened with the Pragati Maidan tunnel Modi inaugurated recently.
This news will not make headlines very widely: the government spent Rs 911.17 crore on ads in newspapers, on TV channels and the web in the past three years. This is only the bill run up by the Central Bureau of Communications from financial year 2019-20 till June 2022, excluding other institutions, government bodies and PSUs. And don’t even talk about World Press Freedom Rankings, says the government, after failing to game it.
As of March, bad loans of commercial banks (outstanding for 90 days) fell to Rs 7.42 trillion, from a peak of Rs 10.36 trillion as of March 2018. This has happened primarily because of write-offs, as bad loans at least four years old are dropped from banks’ balance sheets. In FY22, Rs 1.75 trillion in loans were written off, and for March 2018 to March 2022, it was Rs 8.53 trillion.
Droupadi Murmu will be the next President of India and will be sworn in on Monday. She won 60% of the total vote value. Opposition candidate Yashwant Sinha said: “India hopes that as the 15th President of the Republic she functions as the custodian of the Constitution without fear or favour.” The President-elect is yet to hold a press conference to lay out her thoughts and ideas on being India’s first citizen. She is the first tribal to be elected to Rashtrapati Bhawan and her village in Odisha celebrated. But what stood out was the celebration by the BJP as if it were their political victory. The President of India’s job is non-partisan and disconnected from the ruling dispensation. But Modi’s photos and name were all over celebrations in the capital.
Next up is the election of the Vice President, a contest between the NDA’s Jagdeep Dhankar and the opposition’s Margaret Alva. Except that at least one major opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, has said it will abstain and not back her. Alva has urged Mamata Banerjee to reverse her party’s decision.
A Christian pastor’s plight points to a community under siege in Madhya Pradesh. On December 5, the police arrested Ramesh Vasunia, a pastor from the tribal village of Padalva, for forcing neighbours to convert to Christianity. The FIR was based on the written complaint of Moga Vasunia, 70, a Hindu pandit from the same village. But Moga Vasunia denied it. He claimed he could not read or write. He also denied stepping into the prayer hall where Pastor Ramesh had allegedly carried out the forced conversion. Yet, seven months later, Ramesh Vasunia remains in jail. He has appealed for bail five times. His family alleges it is meant to intimidate him to give up his faith.
Inflation and the cost of living have shot through the roof. And a Union minister has disgraced himself, haggling with a young corn-seller.
The government has announced that a GST rate of 18% will apply to all scientific equipment in public-funded research institutes, up from the earlier concessional rate of 5%. Worried that scientific research will suffer, scientists have called for supplementary grants. This is how much Hindutva cares for science.
On Tuesday, the Centre notified amendments to environmental impact assessment rules, exempting highway projects of defence and strategic importance within 100 km of the LoC or border from requiring environmental clearance.
The Home Ministry said yesterday that it does not have any data on internet shutdowns. India is known as the world internet shutdown capital. There is data aplenty, but the Union government does not have it.
The Supreme Court yesterday declined to entertain a plea to pray to a ‘shivling’ purportedly identified during the survey by the court commissioner within the Gyanvapi mosque complex. A bench presided over by Justice DY Chandrachud deferred the hearing on a plea by the Committee of Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Varanasi to October. It had challenged the Allahabad High Court's order, which had upheld the decision to appoint the court commissioner.
The Indian embassy in Dhaka recently wrote to the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock of Bangladesh with a request to resume the import of meat from India. The Bangladesh government has stopped the import of frozen meat, especially buffalo meat, from India to protect its domestic industry. Bangladesh used to import meat from 14 countries led by India, but is now self-sufficient. Hindutva goons in India routinely attack Muslim cattle traders, and BJP state governments ban beef and target buff by shutting down slaughterhouses, but the Modi government wants to help big meat traders make money from Bangladesh.
The ruling BJP lost the mayor’s office in three local bodies, two of which went to the Congress in the second phase of the Madhya Pradesh municipal elections. It lost the post in Morena — stronghold of Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar — and Katni, turf of the party state president and MP VD Sharma. The BJP has won nine of the 16 mayoral posts up for grabs this election, down from its 2014 clean sweep. The Congress, meanwhile, has gone up to five from zero, and AAP has won in Singrauli. With five mayoral positions, the Congress put up its best performance since Madhya Pradesh introduced direct elections to the post in 1999. The party’s best performance before this was in 2009, when it won Dewas, Ujjain and Katni.
Finally, airlines can’t charge additional fees for issuing boarding passes at airport check-in counters, the Civil Aviation Ministry said yesterday. Airlines such as IndiGo, SpiceJet and Go First now charge Rs 200.
Over 4 crore cases were pending before district and subordinate courts across India as on July 15. About 59.5 lakh cases are pending before various High Courts. 72,000 cases were pending at the Supreme Court of India as on July 1.
Gautam Adani, a firm favourite of the present dispensation, has overtaken Microsoft’s Bill Gates to become the fourth-richest person in the world, according to the Forbes list. Even as Covid-19 wiped out the finances of the majority of Indians, Adani’s wealth zoomed. A controversy has been brewing over the tweaking of rules to benefit Adani.
Forbes India and INCA have announced their first-ever list of India’s Top 100 Digital Stars, of content creators across nine categories ― comedy, beauty, fashion, business and finance, fitness, food, tech, travel and social work. Nikhil Sharma, popularly known as ‘Mumbiker Nikhil’, tops the list, followed by Abhishek Upmanyu and Komal Pandey. In terms of engagement, Natasha Noel is on top, and Ashish Chanchlani has the highest followers.
Progressive writer, intellectual and human rights activist from Udupi, G Rajashekhar, passed away aged 76 in Bengaluru on Wednesday. His book Bahuvachana Bharatha (Plural India), won the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award in 2017. However, he declined it to highlight growing communal violence in the country. A trenchant critic of Hindutva, Rajashekhar was born in 1946 in Gundmi in Udupi district of coastal Karnataka, considered the southern heartland of the Sangh Parivar, and was often the target of powerful right-wing groups.
Robert Tombs, author and emeritus professor in history at the University of Cambridge, has written a scathing review of superhit film RRR in The Spectator. “It does not record the nastiness of 1920s British rule, but it does reflect the growing nastiness of today’s India,” he wrote.
SC seeks compliance report on hate speech, mob control
The Supreme Court has asked the Union Home Secretary to compile information regarding preventive, corrective and remedial measures taken by states in compliance with its earlier judgments in Kodungallur Film Society vs UoI, Tehseen Poonawalla vs UoI and Shakti Vahini vs UoI.
In Poonawalla, the apex court had issued comprehensive guidelines for preventing mob violence and lynching. In Kodungallur Film Society, directions were issued to control vandalism by protesting mobs. Directions to prevent, curb and remedy honour killing followed in Shakti Vahini. The petitioners submitted that the proliferation of hate speech and consequent crimes showed that the court’s directions have been ignored.
In Assam, beneficiaries of populist schemes to be marked out
The BJP-led Assam government has tried to insult poor beneficiaries of the government scheme Arunodoi, by putting up signboards outside their houses so they could be easily identified. Under the scheme, 19.1 lakh BPL families receive a monthly financial assistance of Rs 1,000. CM Himanta Biswa Sarma had said a signboard with “Arunodoi family” inscribed on it would help the government weed out undeserving beneficiaries.
“If a rich person has this signboard outside the house, nobody will marry his or her daughter to that family. So, we feel the rich people, who became beneficiaries by mistake, will withdraw their names from the list. We want only eligible families to get the benefit of the scheme,” he said. His government wants to put up the signboards by December.
Rupee may fall further yet
The rupee, which has hit 80 against the US dollar, may fall further in the medium term due to higher crude prices and imports, and the current account deficit, says a report by Swiss brokerage UBS Securities. Trade gaps are rising amid a massive sell-off by foreign funds, which have withdrawn $29 billion or 4.4% of their India holdings this year.
Forex reserves remain reasonably good at $580 billion, down from the peak of $642.4 billion in September 2021 on valuation adjustment and RBI’s market intervention of over $40 billion to support the rupee. Reserves cover 95% of external debt, up from around 70% in FY13. External debt increased by $91 billion in the past five years to $621 billion, which is 19.5% of GDP. It has grown $150 billion since FY17.
SC says law allowing abortion at 24 weeks applies to unwed mother too
The Supreme Court has passed an ad interim order to allow an unmarried woman to abort a pregnancy of 24 weeks arising out of a live-in relationship, subject to a medical board constituted by AIIMS Delhi concluding that it would not endanger her life. A bench led by Justices DY Chandrachud observed that the Delhi High Court took an “unduly restrictive” view of the provisions of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules while declining the woman interim relief. Noting that after a 2021 amendment, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act uses the word “partner” instead of “husband” in the explanation to Section 3. The court said that this shows the legislative intent to cover unmarried women under the Act.
The Long Cable
Why the Internet sniffing scandal in Mauritius matters to Indians
Unknown to most people in India, the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius has been hit by a political controversy over allegations that the government of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth may have authorised the installation of surveillance equipment – by a team of Indian technicians – at its main Internet cable landing station.
Ironically, the ‘Indian’ dimension to the scandal emerged only after an embattled Jugnauth outed the nationality of the ‘technicians’ – until then, it was only known that they were from another country – and revealed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in on the decision to let them “survey” the landing station at Baie Jacotet on the southern cost of Mauritius.
Let us recap what is known so far. On June 30, 2022, Sunny Singh, CEO of Mauritius Telecom, resigned from job he had held for seven years. “I am unable to continue without compromising my values and that is not an option for me,” he wrote in a letter to employees of the company which provides telephone and internet services. Since then, the chief technology officer of MT has also resigned, noting cryptically that he too was “making a choice to stand by my values and do the right thing.”
In a radio interview, Singh has revealed the reason he quit: Jugnauth had asked him to allow a “third party” to instal equipment to monitor internet traffic at the landing station.
The issue was raised by the opposition in parliament on July 5. Jugnauth denied issuing any order to instal equipment “to enable sniffing, interception, monitoring or recording of internet traffic to and from Mauritius.” But with the controversy not ending there, he made another statement the next day, little realising the can of worms he was thereby opening:
“There was a security issue, and it was necessary to do this survey in Mauritius. I have personally approached Shri Narendra Modi to send a competent team for this survey. In Mauritius, we don’t have the technicians for this survey, but even if we did, we preferred to go for this Indian team of technicians,”
As if bringing Modi in as a player in the ‘survey’ was not bad enough for New Delhi, Jugnauth added further fuel to this fire by saying that Sherry Singh’s lack of cooperation had embarrassed him vis-a-vis India. “What was I supposed to tell Shri Narendra as I was leaving the next day for India”, he said.
Taken together, many in Mauritius reached the obvious conclusion that the request for the internet landing station “survey” most likely emanated from Modi in the first place. Why else would Jugnauth say Singh had placed him in a difficult position?
The opposition has now demanded an independent probe but Jugnauth, who asked the police to open an investigation into Sherry Singh, says the police must be allowed to complete its job. With public outcry growing, however, the political storm is not going to blow over any time soon.
For India, the scandal is a PR disaster with harmful consequences for national security. India has very close security ties with Port Louis, so close in fact that Mauritius’s National Security Advisers, including the incumbent, K. Ilango, have traditionally been retired intelligence and military officers deputed by New Delhi to the sensitive post. Thanks to the internet sniffing scandal, this arrangement too has now been flagged as a concern in the National Assembly, prompting Jugnauth to accuse the opposition of ‘India-bashing’.
To be perfectly clear, it has not yet been firmly established that (1) an attempt was made to place surveillance equipment at Baie Jacotet and (2) India is behind this move. But the incident does point to the dangers of security over-reach. Over two-thirds of Mauritius’s population trace their ancestry to India and favour close ties with it. But most would readily draw the line at compromising their privacy or jeopardising relations with other countries. After all, the SAFE cable at the landing station runs from Malaysia to South Africa.
If it emerges that the attempted surveillance of internet traffic emanated as an Indian initiative, this means the Modi government has learned nothing from the huge controversy its use of Pegasus spyware triggered last year. This would also raise questions about the use of ‘sniffing’ and other surveillance tools over the internet traffic of people in India.
Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has been discharged from Apollo Hospital in Delhi two days after he complained of abdominal pain. The day before, he had drunk a glass of water directly from Kali Bein, a holy rivulet in Sultanpur Lodhi, Kapurthala on the 22nd anniversary of the cleaning of the river. He had announced the launch of a statewide campaign to clean rivers and drains in the state. He is new to the post, but he will soon learn from his party leader the art of pulling off PR stunts without endangering himself.
Prime Number: 35 lakh
The number of NRIs residing in the UAE, the highest among the Gulf countries. There are 21.6 lakh Indians in Saudi Arabia, 10.29 lakh in Kuwait, 7.8 lakh in Qatar, 6.26 lakh in Muscat and 3.2 lakh in Bahrain.
The third issue of Desi Books Review features seven books and almost all of them focus on the past or the future with the present depicted as either tragedy or horror.
Op-Eds you don’t want to miss
As the Ladakh border crisis has demonstrated, Pakistan is a reality India has to deal with. Treating it as a domestic political issue or as only a subset of the China problem will not work, writes Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable).
Speaking truth to power, human rights activists represent a future India. One should celebrate them as exemplars, long after this regime becomes yesterday’s newspaper, writes Shiv Visvanathan.
Shoaib Daniyal writes that Zubair’s bail is a bright spot, but India’s judiciary needs to do much more to protect journalists. India is one of the most dangerous places for journalists, with the state trying to stamp out watchdog journalism.
From slavery in the Kaveri valley to the violence committed by emperors on elephant-back, the evidence shows us that the Chola empire was no different from its contemporaries. It was only a golden age for its kings, writes Anirudh Kanisetti.
With elections in Gujarat ahead, the need for short-term gains at the hustings actuated the arrest of Teesta Setalvad and former DGP RB Sreekumar, and the police theory about a political conspiracy engineered by Sonia Gandhi to destabilise Modi’s government 20 years ago, writes RK Misra.
Military talks on Ladakh have run their course. The choice before New Delhi is to either live with the status quo or raise the level of engagement, leading to a summit for an interim border agreement, writes Lt Gen HS Panag (retd).
Shuchi Bansal says that over the last two years of the pandemic, KBC viewership declined considerably. Will the new campaign about fake news bring back its audience?
Read an excerpt from Aravind Jayan’s debut novel, Teen Couple Has Fun Outdoors, where a family deals with shame and unexpected rebellion brought about by a leaked intimate video.
Madhava Prasad discusses the political significance of cinema in south India.
Chennai prepares for the 44th Chess Olympiad on the 28th of July 2022. Vanakkam Chennai Chess is the welcome anthem, released yesterday.
Over and out
Once looked down upon, second-hand clothes are now fashionable in South Asia. Instagram-based thrift stores across India, Pakistan and Nepal are making used clothes popular — even desirable — among young shoppers.
A Kerala bus stop bench was cut into sections to distance boys and girls. The response of students to moral policing is epic.
That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.