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EC Bill Downgrades Election Commissioners to Cabinet Secretary Status; Which will Move Voters, Food Inflation or Amrit Kaal Entry Ticket?
Former WB VCs to sue governor creatively for defamation, patent law changes protect Big Pharma, after warm welcome home in India, Sunak roasted back home in UK, Ambedkar film toast of festivals
A newsletter from The Wire | Founded by MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sushant Singh, Sidharth Bhatia and Tanweer Alam | With inputs from Kalrav Joshi and Anirudh SK | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
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Snapshot of the day
September 15, 2023
The bill governing the service terms of election commissioners, which will be passed in the forthcoming special session of Parliament, will reduce their status to that of cabinet secretary, from the present status of Supreme Court judge. The downgrade in authority is causing concern, including in the Election Commission, reports Indian Express. “Being seen as the equal of a Cabinet Secretary means you’re even below a Minister of State in stature. How do you think that will play out when the Commission tries to discipline a Union minister for violations during an election,” the newspaper was told. MG Devasahayam, a former bureaucrat, says the draft signals the end of free and fair elections in India.
Express reporter Shyamlal Yadav says that in the years before the Emergency, the Jana Sangh, the political arm of the RSS, had revived poll reform demands that it had formulated since its inception in 1951 under Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Among them were state funding of elections, simultaneous polls held on the same day and significantly, that election commissioners should be judges and not former bureaucrats of secretary rank.
The Assam Assembly was in uproar today over the allegation of Gaurav Gogoi of the Congress (who had brought the no confidence motion against the Modi government) that Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s wife was connected with a company that had benefited from a central scheme.
Researchers at the University of Hawai’i analysing Chandrayaan-1 data have concluded that electrons from the plasma sheet in the earth’s magnetosphere are contributing to lunar weathering, and may be forming the water molecules detected by the Indian probe.
Come September, Kukis dress in black and raise black flags on the 13th of the month in memory of 115 of their community who were killed in 1993, allegedly by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah). This year, they broke with 30 years of tradition to pray for peace, reports Rokibuz Zaman in Scroll. It is a “conciliatory gesture to bury the hatchet and to bury the past”, and it shows that the Kukis are serious about tribal solidarity, following the incredible violence in which tribals have been pitted against the majority Meitei.
Last month, the United Naga Council spoke of the “blatant lies, lopsided history and fabricated information contained in every statement and memorandum issued by the Kuki-Zo community.” The second-biggest ethnic group in Manipur, the Nagas oppose the Kuki demand for a separate administration. Have the Nagas chosen a side? It’s a complicated picture, says Arunabh Saikia. Meanwhile, the central forces have removed barriers in Bishnupur district, indicating a turn towards normalcy.
“‘One earth, one family, one future’ was the official theme of this year’s G-20 Summit in New Delhi. But for the thousands of delegates from around the world who descended on Bharat Mandapam, the theme could just as well have added: ‘one leader’.” Ananth Krishnan and Suhasini Haidar on how PM Modi turned a routine diplomatic meet into a personalised political spectacle.
Elsewhere, Manimugdha Sharma pokes huge holes in the ‘mother of democracy’ book the Modi government produced for the G20.
The world has been seeing the bright side of India. In August, it landed a rover on the moon. In terms of GDP growth, it’s the perkiest big economy ― though the major sovereign rating agencies place India just above junk category. But in India, there is talk that Narendra Modi’s “hunger for power and dreams of national renewal” could lead him to bend the Constitution, says The Economist. “There are signs he wants to increase the clout of national politics and the central government, and dilute the inﬂuence of India’s 28 states — many of which are not run by his party. Handled badly, that could give rise to regional tensions that disrupt the single market and trigger unrest. Political federalism is not an impediment to India becoming a superpower; it is a condition for it.” Meanwhile, the southern states feel increasingly oppressed, as Modi is deepening fierce regional divides.
Twenty-four vice chancellors in West Bengal who were denied an extension by Governor Governor CV Ananda Bose in May, against the recommendation of the state government, seek Rs 50 lakh in damages for civil and criminal defamation. Bose has said that they could not be retained because “some were corrupt; some stand accused of harassing a female student, some were playing politics.” They have sent a legal notice to the chancellor, who has no legal protection, and not the governor, who does. The roles of chancellor and governor are concentrated in the singular person of Bose.
As with MGNREGA, so with Anganwadi workers ― Digital India is getting in the way. The severely under-compensated child care workers who address the needs of over 4.3 million malnourished children, say that the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s Poshan tracker is hard to use and does not improve the system.
The Tamil Nadu government is training three women as temple priests. S Ramya, S Krishnaveni and N Ranjitha are symbols of a “new era of inclusivity and equality”, said Chief Minister MK Stalin.
Speaking in Philadelphia, Salman Rushdie said that the main threat facing the world is no longer extremism, but authoritarianism and populist demagoguery, coupled with a devaluation of democratic principles among the public.
The Mirwaiz has been under house arrest in Srinagar since August 5, 2019 but the government insists he is free. The detained cleric has moved the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, which has issued notice to the government.
Once a leading institution on the Ashoka campus, with more than 50 staff and interns working in it, the Trivedi Centre for Political Data has seen a quiet exodus of staff since at least May 2023.
Tharman Shanmugaratnam is Singapore’s ninth president. He joins a growing list of people of Indian origin heading governments, administrations and large corporations across the world.
Transmashholding JSC, the Russian company that is the 75% owner of a joint venture with Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd, for producing and maintaining 200 Vande Bharat trains, has now been targeted by the US with new sanctions along with its president, Andrei Bokarev.
This month, Ava DuVernay’s film Origin has been shown at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Based on Isabel Wilkerson book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, it looks at racism in America and the Nazi persecution of Jews through the lens of caste in India. The film by a black woman featuring BR Ambedkar, which conflates race and caste ― which the Hindu right is very prickly about ― is a contender for the Golden Lion.
Homemakers in India make up 50% of all female suicides in India.
Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati have developed pharmaceutical and food products from tea processing wastes ― low-cost antioxidant-rich supplements and organic preservatives for extending the shelf life of vegetable and fruit juices.
The Print reports that text and WhatsApp messages reveal that Bajrang Dal cow vigilante Monu Manesar planned the double murder of Junaid and Nasir. Their phone numbers and the licence number of their vehicle were shared.
And now, crime and punishment of absurd proportions: in Karnataka, a 78-year-old man has been arrested for stealing two buffaloes and a calf in 1965, when he was 20. Actually, he has been re-re-arrested. Apprehended with another man 58 years ago, who has since died, he was granted bail but disappeared. He was arrested again in Maharashtra, and bailed out again. And then his case surfaced among pending files, and they arrested him yet again, over half a century after the event.
Facial recognition loses face
India’s increasing reliance on AI, including facial recognition technology, has raised concerns about the authorities disproportionately targeting minorities and marginalised communities. Facial recognition was used to identify individuals involved in communal clashes in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri last year and the Delhi riots of 2020, and mainly Muslims were charged. As India rolls out AI-based systems across various sectors, from healthcare to criminal justice, the absence of an official policy for the ethical use of AI is a problem, reports Context. It could perpetuate traditional biases, criminalise minorities and benefit the better-off.
Critics argue that AI applications, such as facial recognition, can focus surveillance on Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, transgender persons and other marginalised groups. Linking databases to a national ID system and the expanding use of AI in areas like loan approvals and hiring could widen disparities and limit opportunities for the marginalised.
Welcomed in India, Sunak faces heat back home in UK
After being regaled in India, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced the music back home, where he was heavily criticised by MPs in the House of Commons for not securing tougher wording against Russia in the G20 summit’s joint declaration. The UK is also excluded from a significant economic corridor between Europe and India. Sunak was also grilled about whether he had asked PM Modi about Scottish Sikh Jagtar Singh Johal’s release and whether he raised objections about India buying oil from Russia. Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer described the joint declaration as “disappointing” with “weaker language than last year’s summit”. Sunak was also targeted by Conservative MPs ― Rehman Chishti pointed out that India was one of “44 non-aligned states not supporting against Russia, which is delaying the war in Ukraine… India takes Russian oil, and some now say that it refines that oil and sells the products into Europe, circumventing those sanctions.” Labour MP Barry Sheerman asked, “Did he ask what Modi is doing to stop all the persecution of Muslims and Christians, with their mosques and churches being burnt?”
Meanwhile, PM Modi hopes in early 2024 to host leaders of the Quad, which is a counter to Russia and China, the nations whose anxieties were accommodated in the G20 meet.
In Gyanvapi case, Hindu plaintiffs seems to sway court
The Varanasi District Court has directed the Archaeological Survey of India to collect all the objects and materials found during its scientific survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid premises, including archaeological artefacts and those linked to the Hindu religion, and submit them to the district administration for safekeeping.
Applications filed by petitioners from the temple side alleged that the caretakers of the mosque, the Anjuman Intezamia Masajid, intended to damage signatures of the Hindu faith inside the mosque. Petitioner Rakhi Singh said that the Gyanvapi Mosque premises should be secured to protect “evidence” that emerged from the local court commissioner’s survey last year. However, the commissioner’s report has not yet been admitted by the court, and the findings are not considered as evidence.
Patent law amendments will harm generics
Civil society bodies, academics and experts in intellectual property and public health fear that draft Patents (Amendment) Rules, released by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade for stakeholder input last month, could weaken safeguards against patent evergreening and unwarranted monopolies. The draft rules are intended to streamline patent office operations, but public health experts argue that pre-grant opposition is a key safeguard against patent evergreening and unmerited monopolies, which keeps affordable generics accessible.
The proposed introduction of steep fees for pre-grant oppositions would impede organisations representing patients’ interest, Eldred Tellis, director of the Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust, told The Hindu. “Also, granting the Controller discretionary authority to determine who may file pre-grant oppositions is beyond the scope of the Patents Act and contradicts prior judicial rulings, which clearly allowed organisations like ours, as well as anyone, to file pre-grant oppositions.”
The Long Cable
Will voters wait hungrily for Amrit Kaal, or will food inflation decide the elections?
Stickiness in food inflation had made the UPA government unpopular back in 2013. Double digit food inflation was hurting the poor and the Opposition had begun to taunt Manmohan Singh for his failure, especially since he is an eminent economist, to control food prices. PM Narendra Modi is no economist but he has boasted in the past that his government does better than Manmohan Singh on inflation. But Modi was blessed with falling oil, food and metal prices in the years after 2014, which moderated overall inflation.
However, PM Modi’s honeymoon with low to moderate inflation is all but over and the stickiness in food inflation is worrying the BJP a great deal as several state elections draw closer, along with the general elections next year. Just as food inflation had peaked in the second half of 2013, the trend appears to be repeating in 2023. July and August have seen double-digit food inflation, as India suffered an 11% monsoon deficit for the first time in eight years. Inflationary expectations are clearly on the rise, as the government imposes export curbs on a range of food items. Prices of milk, pulses and edible oil have generally been structurally on the higher side for quite some time now.
Indeed, if food inflation proves to be sticky in the months ahead, it will raise political headwinds for PM Modi and the BJP during the crucial Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Chhattisgarh. The BJP knows that high energy prices, especially that of cooking gas, hurt the party badly in Karnataka, and it cut LPG prices by Rs 200 recently. But prices of LPG, diesel and petrol remain quite high.
Once inflationary expectations build up in the economy, it is very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. The Ukraine war had created the first round of very high inflationary expectations last year. Both food and energy prices soared and there was an unprecedented spike in global inflation. The advanced economies were hit hard and are still grappling with high inflation via blunt monetary policy tools. It may take a while for global inflation to flag and India cannot escape the overall trend of higher inflation and lower growth.
Though there seems to be some recovery (contested by economists like Ashoka Mody) in the April-June quarter, the reality is that India’s GDP has grown annually only about 3.5% for four years from 2019-20 to 2022-23. So incomes have not really recovered significantly and inflationary expectations are getting entrenched even before a full recovery is underway. There is ample evidence from consumption patterns that the bottom 70% of the population, whose incomes were hit badly by Covid, have not recovered yet. Today, Mallikarjun Kharge told the PM to stop diversionary tactics and focus on inflation, because the 20% poorest Indians are bearing the brunt of the problem, brought on by the “grand loot” conducted by his government.
A nationwide survey by CMIE shows that people expect prices to remain high and even their expectation of future income growth is relatively low. This reflects the broader sentiment, even as self-congratulatory claims of India being a beacon of global growth abound.
One can’t help but feel that PM Modi, heady with the G20 success, is in a mood to launch a campaign like India Shining, which his mentor LK Advani had unleashed in 2003 on the back of an incipient economic recovery. Is the BJP again creating a bubble via its own self-seeking narrative? Of course, the India of 2023 is not the country it was in 2003. Today, significant sections of voters seem to be willing to suffer a great deal of hardship before the promised entry into Amrit Kaal. But equally, voters tend to change their minds overnight, and they will keep political parties on tenterhooks in the months ahead.
Yesterday, PM Modi held a massive roadshow in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh. But his social media accounts and official statements show that he has not taken the time to acknowledge the death of three soldiers and security officials in a firefight in Kashmir ― which is continuing. It appears that lives matter less than elections. His ‘G20 victory meeting’ on the day soldiers were killed has drawn flak from BJP supporters too.
Now that the G20 grandstanding is over, Modi is back to small-time politicking.
In Solan, Himachal Pradesh, the development of a four lane highway has been causing landslides since 2015. “The damage to the roads the government will still work on and finish, but what about our homes? Who will be accountable for that?” Poor planning and execution of road widening projects in Himachal Pradesh has weakened fragile mountain slopes and is directly responsible for several landslides in the state, reports Scroll.
Community health workers are a cost-effective way to reduce infant mortality, HIV, tuberculosis, and other diseases. But the reason they’re cost-effective is because this overwhelmingly female workforce is poorly paid, or not paid at all. Despite being praised nationally and globally for their role in improving healthcare access, Asha workers do not have fair pay, social security benefits and safe work conditions.
Opeds you don’t want to miss
The BCCI won the rights to host the World Cup 2023 back in 2013. That is more than enough time to prepare, yet the BCCI has been sluggish in its approach to the tournament, writes Dilip Unnikrishnan.
Given the PLA’s overwhelming superiority in cyber and electronic warfare, as well as the quality and quantity of offensive and defensive hardware, achieving parity will take a long time, considering our modest budget, says Lt Gen H S Panag (R).
Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman correct the government’s real growth figures on the production side by using a more realistic inflation measure and come to the conclusion that the Indian economy is actually decelerating.
It’s hard to believe that SEBI totally lacks the expertise and competence to unravel the Adani maze. It’s more like it’s helpless because Big Brother is watching. “Is SEBI incompetent, unwilling or helpless?” asks Menaka Doshi.
Husain Haqqani on why Pakistan fell behind: “Citing poetry instead of statistics and spouting myths and conspiracy theories instead of facts, Pakistan’s thought leaders and policymakers have kept the nation mired in delusions of grandeur.”
However much the Hindu right seeks to constantly vilify Gandhi, it is he who is responsible for the goodwill India attracts worldwide, which was so evident at the G-20 meet, writes Sagarika Ghose.
Non-monarchical traditions of ancient India were different from modern democracy writes Upinder Singh on why it is misplaced to describe India as ‘the mother of democracy’.
History on film is flammable material for Hindutva, and Razakar: The Silent Genocide of Hyderabad steps out in the dubious company of The Kashmir Files and Kerala Story. This time, the money trail leads straight to the BJP, says The News Minute ― the film is bankrolled by a BJP leader from Telangana, who has an eye on the forthcoming state elections.
Derek O’Brien bids goodbye to the Central Hall, “Indian Parliament’s most sociable, memorable space.”
Jawan is the top-grossing Hindi movie of our era and is triggering widespread comment. The film’s “unmistakable political message is that democracy can’t be left to politicians without the constant vigilance of ‘active citizens’, writes Mukulika Banerjee, adding that “Shah Rukh Khan makes asking serious questions look sexy.” But for Anna Vetticad, “Shah Rukh Khan’s tedious blockbuster has a veneer of being political even as it bends to prevailing winds – and its gender bias does not help”.
Anaemia, which is a serious problem in India, is caused by social, biological and nutrition-related factors. But maybe we can solve this problem just by “decolonizing” the definition of anaemia? Public health academician Kiran Kumbhar speaks with Veena Shatrugna of The India Forum on the challenges in anaemia and undernutrition in India and on recent attempts to dilute the diagnostic standards for anaemia.
Watch the former Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, S Muralidhar, Senior Advocate Rebecca John and Seema Chishti along with author Gautam Bhatia at the launch of Unsealed Covers: A Decade of the Constitution, the Courts and the State. “The key thing to understand is that the line of political space is blurring and shifting…while the executive and the State have the tangible power to get things done and to apply pressure, all that the critic has is the pen,” Bhatia says.
Over and out
The Paperclip traces a fascinating connection between Shah Rukh Khan and Kekoo Gandhy of Gallery Chemould, whose art framing business, inspired by refugees fleeing the Nazis in europe, incubated some of the finest modern Indian artists, including MF Husain, along with a bunch of Italian prisoners of war (incidentally, they also introduced the Gandhy family to risottos and pasta).
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.