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Home Ministry, Rashtrapati Bhavan Reject Manipur RTI on National Security Grounds; Simultaneous Elections: Why Now?
Japan & G7 want India to lead global South, SPM killing Indians 5 years early, vax makers like Serum Institute scalped South Africa, what Sanatana Dharma means in Tamil Nadu, Ajit Ninan passes away
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 8, 2023
Cardiovascular diseases reduce the average Indian’s life expectancy by about 4.5 years, and child and maternal malnutrition reduces it by 1.8 years. But analysing data from the Air Quality Life Index 2021 shows that the average Indian resident is set to lose 5.3 years of life expectancy to air pollution by particulate matter. Northern India is affected worst and New Delhi leads this macabre ranking with almost 12 life years lost. UP and Haryana come a distant second and third with the fatal number in the range of eight. Rajasthan and the eastern end of the Indo-Gangetic plain are best off, but even there, five to six years are lost, says The Hindu.
On the Manipur crisis, the government is seeking shelter in the lee of Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, which puts the State under no obligation to disclose information which would “prejudice the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign States or lead to incitement of an offence.” RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak had sought information on the state government’s communications with New Delhi as the ethnic violence played out and Manipur was effectively partitioned. Rashtrapati Bhavan and Amit Shah’s Home Ministry both took cover behind Section 8(1)(a).
Today, PM Modi has scheduled bilateral meetings with US President Joe Biden, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina and Mauritius PM Pravind Jugnauth. “The New Delhi declaration is almost ready. Only once it is agreed to by the Leaders at the Summit will we discuss its details,” lead Sherpa Amitabh Kant has said.
“It is in the interest of Japan and the G7 that India plays a leading role in the ‘Global South’, not China,” a strategic affairs commentator in Tokyo has told Ananth Krishnan of The Hindu. “As Chairman of the G-7 this year, it’s been a priority for Japan to collaborate with India as a bridge to narrow the divide on many issues between the G-7 and the G-11, that is the rest of the G-20 except for China and Russia, which are trying to counter the G-7 world order,” he said.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative for the export of grain from Ukraine and Russia, which lapsed in July, increasing food inflation everywhere, may be revived in talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is committed to resolving the issue by giving Russia more access to financial markets despite sanctions, in exchange for Russia lifting the blockade on shipments from Ukraine via warm water Black Sea ports.
The Modi government has pulled out all the stops to turn the annual G20 meet into a diplomatic funfair ― Bloomberg calls it a “not-so-subtle India election kickoff ― but it may suffer the indignity of failing to issue a joint leaders’ statement, which has never happened before. Even if it issues a chair’s summary demonstrating a meeting of minds on most issues, “a fractious G20 would also make many question the relevance of the forum in a fast-changing world.”
On his first trip to India as UK PM, Rishi Sunak is expected to urge Narendra Modi to take a stand on Ukraine and “call out” Russia for invading Ukraine. Modi is likely to remain unmoved.
Ireland-based ACG Aircraft Leasing wants Go First to replace parts like emergency slides and fan blades on its aircraft grounded in India. It also says that Go First has installed its engine in another lessor’s plane, and wants it back. Bankruptcy proceedings have frozen the airline’s assets and made it difficult for lessors to get back their planes.
The rupee has steadied ahead of the G20 summit and saved itself from embarrassment ― with a little help from the RBI, says Bloomberg.
Ten years after the Muzaffarnagar riots, 11 families are still trying to get their kin declared dead. The delay is not because of red tape but procedural lapses in finding the bodies, a murky probe, and incidents of gross negligence, reports The Quint.
IIT Mandi director Laxmidhar Behera has said that Himachal Pradesh is reeling under landslides and cloudbursts because people are eating meat and butchering animals. “Say no to meat,” he exhorted his students.
The hugely popular news cartoonist Ajit Ninan, who drew for both older readers and children, has died in Mysuru aged 68. He will be remembered for his work in India Today, Indian Express and the Times of India, especially fixtures like ‘Just Like That’ and his early creation for Target magazine, Detective Moochwala.
Vax makers including Serum Institute scalped SA
The Toronto Globe and Mail reveals that Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers allegedly sold doses to South Africa at inflated prices and demanded huge advances. These contracts, reportedly the first to be released in any country without redactions, disclosed that South Africa faced a $734-million bill for vaccine agreements with four entities in 2021. Shockingly, $95 million was paid upfront without a guarantee of timely delivery. Pfizer reportedly charged South Africa $10 per dose for 30 million doses, requiring a $40-million advance payment, with only half being refundable. This price per dose was 32% higher than what Pfizer reportedly charged the African Union. India’s Serum Institute is also accused of charging South Africa double the rate it applied to the EU.
“In our scramble for desperately needed vaccines, South Africa was forced to hand over unimaginable sums of money for overpriced vaccine doses,” said Fatima Hassan, a human rights lawyer who heads the Health Justice Initiative, which uncovered the contracts. “Put simply, pharmaceutical companies held us to ransom. And we must ask: Did they do it to other countries, too.”
Massive antibiotic use at Kumbh
A recent study supported by the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University and Unicef has raised concerns about excessive antibiotic prescriptions at the Kumbh Mela, the world's largest religious gathering. Tens of thousands of pilgrims, often presenting with respiratory tract infections, have reportedly been prescribed antibiotics by festival clinics, BBC reports. Such overuse of antibiotics contributes to antimicrobial resistance, which WHO considers to be a major global health threat. In 2019, antimicrobial resistance led to 1.27 million deaths worldwide, and the number will rise to 10 million by 2050. India, with the world’s highest rate of antibiotic use, faces neonatal infections that alone claim nearly 60,000 newborn lives each year. Researchers suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated antibiotic use issues. The study analysed data from over 70,000 patients attending Kumbh Mela clinics during the 2013 and 2015 editions.
Fingerprint fraud in Bihar
Bihar has become a hotbed of bank fraud by fingerprint-cloning, which takes advantage of the Aadhaar-enabled payment devices which were deployed for people to access the banking system in villages without bank branches. The volume of fraud by cloning fingerprints ― an easy process using plastic substances ― is not known, but the number of cases is huge. And about Rs 1,000 crore is withdrawn as cash every day using this system.
In May this year, John Brittas, Rajya Sabha MP of CPI (M) had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take cognizance of cyber financial fraud through Aadhaar Enabled Payment System.
Radical right populism the same everywhere
While the BJP in India under PM Modi, has been identified as a “populist radical right” (PRR) party, a new study published by Cambridge Online Press reveals that individuals who express a strong affinity for the BJP exhibit more pronounced populist and nativist attitudes than the broader Indian citizenry – which suggests that the party’s appeal is tied to populist and nationalist sentiment. However, authoritarianism is not a defining trait of BJP supporters, unlike the experience in other PRR parties globally. The research underscores a global trend, highlighting similarities between the drivers of support for European PRR parties and the BJP. This suggests that radical right populism is a consistent global phenomenon in terms of both political supply and demand. The study also notes that in India, the role of ideology in party choice has been underreported.
The Long Cable
Simultaneous elections: why now?
Ajay K Mehra
With the constitution of a committee of seven chaired by former president Ram Nath Kovind to make recommendations on simultaneous elections at each of the three levels, PM Modi has taken the first step towards concretizing an idea which had featured in the 2014 election manifesto of his party.
For the first time, an ex-president is chairing a panel on an intensely political and already decided issue. The pliable president has been a feature ever since Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, and endorsing the prime minister’s stand is constitutionally and politically problematic. Ram Nath Kovind, who joined the BJP in 1991 and has donated his ancestral home in Paraunkh to the RSS, became president at Modi’s behest. We have to wait to know the stand of the other seven.
Modi secured the recommendation of a parliamentary standing committee on the issue of simultaneous polls in December 2015. However, the committee had thought of streamlining elections into two phases – one concurrent with Lok Sabha elections, the other in the mid-term of the Lok Sabha, at two levels, not three. It considered such a reform ‘important for India’ to focus on the country’s development agenda to compete with other nations. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has responded positively. Now, the new panel is tasked with the legitimization of simultaneous elections at the three levels of the Union, states and local bodies.
Indira Gandhi broke the simultaneity of elections after 1971 to neutralise the satraps in the Congress, and the decline of the party followed in 1989-1996. But the ‘one-party-dominant system’ and ‘the Congress system’ that functioned alternately in governance and the Opposition, despite the existence of several ideologically diverse dynamic parties, fractured. It caused instability in 1977-80, 1989-90, and 1996-99, until a federalized coalition system emerged as a bipolar/binodal configuration around the Congress and the BJP between 1999 and 2014. The 2014 and 2019 absolute majority for the BJP and a two-thirds majority for the National Democratic Alliance crushed the Congress, and Opposition strength contracted to a third.
Ever since the 1967 elections, unstable coalition governments in the states didn’t last their term, and midterm elections were frequent until 1971, when the Fourth Lok Sabha was dissolved to hold a mid-term poll and the rupture in simultaneous elections was complete. In 1972, Indira Gandhi dissolved and reelected 18 Legislative Assemblies. The extension of the Lok Sabha for a year (1975-76), the dissolution of the state assemblies by the Morarji government in 1978, and Indira Gandhi returning the compliment in 1980, only intensified it. The following years witnessed an increasing scattering of the election process as the fracturing of the party system intensified since 1989; state/regional parties proliferated, consolidating in their strongholds and upping their stakes in New Delhi as they coalesced with national formations.
Elections in India have thus become year-round ‘event management’, a continual exercise that is the world’s biggest, especially counting local body elections. No wonder the 170th report (1999) of the Law Commission of India suggested comprehensive political, institutional and electoral reforms along with measures to ‘achieve the desired goal of one election for Lok Sabha and to all the Legislative Assemblies simultaneously.’
A NITI Aayog paper in 2017 argued for ‘one nation one election’. It reasoned that since in the parliamentary system the legislative bodies do not have a fixed tenure, the two sets of elections could be synchronised in two phases between the 2019 17th general election and the midterm of the 17th Lok Sabha in 2021, by adjusting the tenure of legislative assemblies. In case of a midterm dissolution of the Lok Sabha, “there could be a provision for the President to carry out the administration of the country, on the aid and advice of his Council of Ministers to be appointed by him till the time the next House is constituted”. With the local bodies’ elections added this time in the suggested process, major constitutional issues are at stake in the initiative, whatever the proposed panel of loyalists suggests.
The Law Commission’s 170th Report, quoted to justify the NITI Aayog’s proposals, lays greater emphasis on the reform of the party system in the perspective of the proliferation and weakening of the parties and deinstitutionalization of the party system. Anomalies in party funding and its impact on the electoral and political processes are highlighted and streamlining is suggested. If undertaken, these would strengthen the party system and remove causes of instability.
The question is, what prompted PM Modi and the BJP to push for simultaneous election at full throttle? International and Indian experiences could provide possible answers, for the government’s rationale economics of elections, time management, better coordination and governance is not credible. Let us begin with the international experience.
Available evidence, particularly from the UK, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Germany, the US and Europe suggest that simultaneous elections yield more aligned results between national and regional elections. Simultaneous elections also appear to contribute over time to the nationalisation of party systems and bring greater cohesion in them. But on the contrary, in 2000 in Ukraine, with simultaneous elections, differences persisted at the two levels.
The late scholar and journalist Pran Chopra suggested in 1999 that ‘simultaneous votes of no-confidence in the incumbent and confidence in the alternative’ would be ‘much safer’ and ‘would eliminate the need for a mid-term poll.’ Obviously, if the political reforms and institutionalisation of the party system is initiated by this government with the active support and participation of the Election Commission of India, the number of elections would certainly be reduced. In the interim, instead of the complex road-roller system proposed, elections to the Legislative Assemblies each year, as also to the Lok Sabha in the year it falls, could be clubbed, making the process annual. Slowly, but surely, simultaneity would emerge with stability in the system.
(The writer was Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 2019-21 and Principal, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, Delhi University (2018).)
Prime Number: 25% of 960 = only one mugshot
The G20 summit is on, and the Centre has left no part of New Delhi unoccupied by outdoor publicity. On a 12 km stretch of road between Indira Gandhi International Airport and the ITC Maurya and Taj Palace hotels, Newslaundry counted G20 promotional displays. Along both sides of the road, a staggering 963 G20 promotional installations were observed in a variety of formats, including billboards, flex boards, banners, digital panels, art pieces and liveries. Notably, 236 of these installations prominently featured the beaming visage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Breaking it down further, for every kilometre of this route, there were an astonishing 80 promotional elements in various forms. Nearly 20 of these installations showcased PM Modi. Or, for every 100 metres along this stretch on average, there were approximately eight promotional displays of all types, with about two specifically featuring Modi.
“President of Bharat” Draupadi Murmu, as head of state, has invited all G20 leaders for the summit. She is invisible in the branding blitz.
Compared to other excesses like weaponising the enforcement agencies and the taxman, transforming the architecture of New Delhi might seem like the most innocuous thing on Narendra Modi’s agenda. But Daniel Brook learns from the city’s leaders and conservationists that the effort is part of the Prime Minister’s plan to sideline the central institution of democracy, and to erase cultures that are deemed to be foreign from public structures. The New Yorker reports on a multibillion-dollar plan hatched by Narendra Modi to transform New Delhi by erasing the old.
Opeds you don’t want to miss
Anand K Sahay writes of the embarrassing contrast ― a country hosting a G20 meeting, while a chief minister who was most reluctant to contain an ethnic conflict holds a press conference to abuse a journalists’ body for reporting on the state, even as his police launch FIRs against its members.
Under the new “social warrior” scheme, army soldiers on leave will now make people aware of the Modi government’s schemes. Soldiers should not become a tool for promoting the ruling party, writes Lt Gen HS Panag (Retd).
“The bitter truth is that the security situation in 2023 Manipur is worse than it was in Kashmir for the simple reason that [in the latter,] armed civilians were never brazen enough to mount attacks on neighbouring villages,” writes Manvendra Singh.
No purpose is served by reviving the Bharat-India debate. It was settled by the Constituent Assembly, which kept both names. India is an ancient name. Only a fool or a liar would claim it was given by the British, says Vir Sanghvi. “We were India since Alexander’s time. Why drag the British into it?”
Even if surgically dividing India from its conjoined twin Bharat was a clever political strategy to label the Opposition as inauthentic Anglophiles, it’s a pretty poor show in the eyes of the world, writes Mrinal Pande.
The G20 is gearing up for a deal to triple renewables capacity, but it’s yet another fudge, writes Jess Shankleman. It will make scant progress in the fight to keep temperatures in check.
The Guardian uncovers a scandal that was buried in Bangladesh five decades ago, but is still affecting lives today. Poor, vulnerable mothers say their babies were stolen from them as the country opened up to adoption from the West. Who took them? Where are they now? Can families still be reunited? Listen here.
“Even if you start a cockfight in the street, people gather in thousands in this country. This [G20] spectacle is even bigger.” With Vishnu Sharma, Sushant Singh discusses how the G20 meet has become a spectacle with no substance.
Over and out
In the vibrant tapestry of India’s diverse cultures and beliefs, the interpretation of Sanatana Dharma varies. But it’s determinedly different in Tamil Nadu, which has had distinctive traditions from antiquity and strong movements and political parties opposed to caste discrimination, the rigidity of modern Hinduism and the Manusmriti, which provides an ideological basis for Sanatana Dharma. The News Minute provides context to Udayanidhi Stalin’s dismissal of Sanatana Dharma as a “disease”.
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.