One Modi-Centric Cabinet Makes Way for Another; Cairn To Seize India Govt Assets In France

Plus: India ruled by Constitution, not shastras, says Uttarakhand HC, OIC can mediate India-Pak on request, Canada, Germany open to Indians, rural India's debt burden,Olympian Keshav Chandra Datt dead

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
July 8, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

A French Court has allowed Cairn Energy to seize 20 Indian government properties in Paris to recover an arbitration award. An arbitration court had ordered the Indian government to pay $1.2 bn in damages to the company in a retrospective tax case. “Government is trying to ascertain the facts”, an official press release said. Which means they haven’t received any official communication from the French court, in Prescribed Format vide Nodal Officer (West).

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has “condemned in the strongest terms the deliberate neglect and targeting by the government of India” that led to the death of human rights defender Father Stan Swamy. It calls it “a stark reminder of the egregious and ongoing persecution of India’s religious minority communities.” The USCIRF has taken an unprecedentedly grim view of the state of India’s minorities under this government before, and this will hurt more.

Dilip Kumar has been laid to rest with full state honours. News of his death drowned out the passing of a man who was just as celebrated in his time ― legendary hockey half-back Keshav Chandra Datt, the last surviving member of the 1948 Olympics team which beat Great Britain 4-0 on home turf in the final at Wembley. But the Olympics universe took note. India had won three golds consecutively before that, but this was the first win under its own flag. The victory gave resolve to a newborn nation, shaken by Partition. In 1952, Datt helped India to another gold at Helsinki. Born in Lahore and settled in Calcutta after Partition, he was 95.

Boris Johnson’s decision to not close Britain’s borders to arrivals from India is continuing to haunt him. Opposition leader Keir Starmer launched into him: “Let’s be clear why infection rates are so high ― because the Prime Minister let the Delta ― or we can call it the Johnson variant ― into the country.” The Mirror noted that the PM “looked aghast” at the mention of the “Johnson variant.” Delta is now the biggest variant in the US.

The Supreme Court has directed the Union and state governments to file status reports complying with its 2019 judgement that ordered recruitment to vacanies in information commissions within six months. It has also directed governments to list the steps taken. 

The Editors Guild of India yesterday expressed deep concern that images of Muslim women were put up “for auction” online and shared via social media in a derogatory manner. Images of hundreds of women were uploaded via an auctioning app called ‘Sulli Deals’ on Sunday. ‘Sulli’ is a derogatory term referring to Muslim women. The app has been taken down by GitHub.

Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah is back home from hospital. Congressman Virbhadra Singh, six times chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, who also served as minister of the central government four times, died in Shimla today of post-Covid complications. 

Indian scientists have discovered a new plant species in Antarctica. The biologists, from the Central University of Punjab, have named the moss Bryum bharatiensis.

And at 8 o’clock tonight, on the eighth day of the month (a deliberate reminder of the drama of demonetisation) Indians are being invited to turn out the lights to remember the custodial death of a prisoner of conscience. 


Dilip Kumar remembered across borders

Tributes poured in for the colossus. Dainik Bhaskar reports Lata Mangeshkar speaking about his decision to her and his own counsel in a case concerning black money, filed by a producer in 1963-64 ― after reading up on law for a month. That’s beyond method acting. Amitabh Bachchan doffed his hat to Yusuf Sahab. Vir Sanghvi recalls that he “dreamt of an India that overcame the divisions of religion and progressed to take its place as one of the great nations of the world”. Read the messages from Sharmila Tagore where she cites Satyajit Ray on his prowess, and Waheeda Rahman on the gentleman actor. There is Khalid Mohammad, Bharati S Pradhan, Mrinal Pande, The Guardian and The New York Times. Dawn says that the Golden Age of Indian cinema is over. In 1997, on a visit to Pakistan, Sunil Dutt and he were interviewed. Funeral prayers were offered in absentia in his hometown Peshawar yesterday.


Constitution, not Hindu Shastras govern India: Uttarakhand HC

Days after it cancelled the Char Dham Yatra and asked for its rituals to be live streamed, the Uttarakhand high court yesterday took exception to a submission by the BJP state’s advocate general that “shastras might not permit live streaming of the rituals”. The court reacted sharply: “…Shastras do not control this country, what controls this country and guides us for our future is the Constitution of India and that’s where we stop. We cannot go beyond the Constitution and the laws thereunder… We are a democratic country ruled by rule of law. We are not a democratic country ruled by the rule of shastras.”

The bench asked the AG to not get into religious arguments as they have no legal backing. “If there is a bar in the IT Act then please show me those provisions of the Act which say no live streaming can be permitted from the temple,” the chief justice said. 


OIC wants to visit Kashmir after meeting with Indian ambassador

India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ausaf Sayeed met the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Countries on Monday, following which the OIC issued a statement that he reviewed a number of issues with Sayeed “concerning the situation of Muslims in India, along with the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, and relevant and OIC resolutions opposing any unilateral actions on the issue.” It also said that the organisation stood ready to mediate between India and Pakistan, “if the two parties would so request”. He apparently also conveyed to the Indian ambassador the “desire” of the OIC Secretariat to dispatch a delegation to the “disputed territory” in line with relevant resolutions of the OIC council of foreign ministers. There is no official Indian reaction to the statement. India had successfully cultivated the OIC when Sushma Swaraj was minister but the souring of the relationship has been more than apparent since then. Why the Indian ambassador was asked by the MEA to call on the OIC head is not clear. The Hindi phrase, ‘Aa bail, mujhe maar’, seems apt.


Ambani versus Adani?

Mukesh Ambani’s $10 billion entry into renewable energy could drive solar tariffs further to the ground and ignite bidding wars with fellow billionaire Gautam Adani, who, like Ambani, is from Modi’s home state of Gujarat. They have mostly avoided operating in each other’s space, and the renewable energy push by Reliance Industries and the Adani group of companies will be their highest profile face-off.

Ambani announced last month that he would build 100 GW of solar energy capacity over the next nine years. He said his group would spend $10 billion in the next three years building solar manufacturing units, a battery factory for energy storage, a fuel cell factory, and a unit to produce green hydrogen. Three days later, Adani announced that his green energy venture would add 5 GW every year this decade, from a current level of about 3.5 GW.


The Long Cable

One Modi-Centric Cabinet Makes Way for Another 

Siddharth Varadarajan

I don’t know what prompted one newspaper’s choice of lead photograph today but their unaesthetic montage of Narendra Modi’s new cabinet ministers tells us all we need to know about the nature of the government we have in India today and why the latest reshuffle and expansion of the Union cabinet is unlikely to change anything substantive about it. 

Each minister is seen not by himself, as might normally be the case in a collage involving 15 faces, but as a prop for the Dear Leader, making it evident that the two are inseparable and that the member of cabinet is merely an appendage or extension of the Prime Minister.

If this is a cunning editorial point the newspaper’s editors are making, I doff my hat to them. But if, as I suspect, poor design sense is at play, we can still be grateful to them for providing us visual confirmation of how central Modi is to the Modi sarkar. So Modi has expanded his council of ministers to 77, but each of his chosen men and women are there only to magnify his own role.

Wednesday’s cabinet reshuffle comes at a time when the government’s credibility has sunk to an all time low. As he examined his list of names, Modi knew that virtually every minister – from home, finance and defence to health, education and IT – was either underperforming or proving disastrous in his or her area. The effects of this mishandling are all around – in Ladakh, on India’s farms and cities, even in cyberspace. Nowhere is this more glaring than in health, where the handling of the pandemic has been nothing short of catastrophic.

That Harsh Vardhan was singularly unsuited for the job was clear when his ministry stuck to its ‘all is well’ song even after the WHO had declared Covid-19 a global pandemic in March 2020. His unscientific comments and associations (including with businessman-quack Baba Ramdev) as the pandemic raged was further proof of the need for a change. Brazil has changed health ministers twice in the past year, the Czech Republic four times while other countries have also seen their health ministers eased out for poor performance. The reason Modi persisted with Harsh Vardhan is because it was the Prime Minister who was personally driving all of the pandemic-related policies that were to prove so costly for India, especially the failure to prepare for the disastrous second wave and for adequate doses of vaccine.

By sacking Harsh Vardhan as part of a wider reshuffle in which other high profile ministers like Ravi Shankar Prasad (IT), Prakash Javadekar (Information and Broadcasting)  and Ramesh Pokhriyal (education) were also ousted, Modi hopes to pin the blame for 400,000 deaths on the talentless minister while also downplaying the singular nature of the tragedy that he himself has presided over. 

In my assessment, Javadekar and Prasad are collateral damage, sacked to provide cover for the PM. The speculation in political circles is that they paid the price for the manner in which they have alienated the media and social media companies like Twitter with their bullying. I doubt this was the case. Let us be very clear: the attempt to control India’s media, and especially its feisty digital players is Modi’s agenda. The attempt to ensure Twitter un-levels the social media playing field by giving a free run to official fake news while choking off legitimate criticism is also Modi’s agenda. Neither of these goals, as expressed in the government’s obnoxious IT Rules, 2021, is going to be abandoned. Indeed, the choice of Anurag Thakur – a man who exhorted BJP supporters to ‘shoot the traitors’ during a public rally in Delhi in 2020 – is a sign that the attack on independent media will likely intensify.

As for the rest of the cabinet, the allocation of portfolios holds little significance since we are dealing with a highly centralised Modi/PMO driven governance system in which the whims, fancies and ideological prejudices of the Prime Minister – rather than statecraft, data, research and professional advice – drive policy. So we have the hokiness of a new ministry called “Cooperation”, which is supposed to promote cooperatives, being hailed as Modi’s “visionary” creation. And handed over not to the minister of agriculture or any other department which actually deals with cooperatives but to home minister Amit Shah. Many of the other portfolio combinations also make no sense – urban development and oil, shipping and AYUSH, railways and telecom, environment and labour, I&B and sports. Either this means there is a serious shortage of ministerial talent or Modi sees these ministers as conduits for the implementation of policies that the PMO will drive. Those expecting good things to emerge from the reshuffle had better look for positivity elsewhere.


Reportedly

Newly inducted Minister of State for Law and Justice SP Singh Baghel won the last Lok Sabha election from Agra, which is a reserved SC seat. He has earlier contested and won elections as a general candidate from the Samajwadi Party, has been an OBC leader in UP, and was national president of the BJP’s OBC Morcha. He won the last Assembly election in UP from the reserved seat of Tundla on a BJP ticket and survived a challenge in the High Court. Oddly, though Baghel is elected from a reserved seat, news reports continue to call him an OBC leader and see his presence in the ministry ― and the implications for the UP elections ― through that prism. 


Singapore to allow trickle of Indian migrant workers

Migrant workers from India will be brought into Singapore on a “small scale” and in a “calibrated manner” this month through a pilot programme led by the construction, marine and process sectors. If successful, this method will be used to facilitate a steady inflow of migrant workers, The Straits Times reported, quoting a joint statement by the Singapore Contractors’ Association, Association of Singapore Marine Industries and Association of Process Industry. The move comes after zero incidence of Covid-19 in the first few batches of workers entering from Malaysia under the pilot project.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, these sectors have been severely affected by restrictions on the inflow of migrant workers. Currently, those who have recent travel history to Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India are not allowed to enter Singapore under enhanced border restrictions.


Prime Number: 78 of 81
That is the number of ministers in the Modi council, with only three slots left until the government hits the 15% upper limit mandated by the Constitution. So much for the ‘Minimum Government’ slogan that Modi publicised in 2014, and which the media amplified.  

Tripura protests against shifting 1971 war memorial

Political parties and social organisations in Tripura are protesting against moving the memorial of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War from the heart of Agartala to a memorial park built on the outskirts of the state capital. Shifting of the war memorials from Post Office Chowmuhani at Agartala began last November and the then West District magistrate Shailesh Kumar Yadav said it was partly being done following the Indian Army’s long-standing demand to bring both memorials together.


Deep Dive

The bankruptcy process is able to recover only about 39 paise for each rupee of defaulted loan. Is it good enough, asks Vivek Kaul in Mint as he explores why the IBC process which came into existence in May 2016 is falling short.


Assam ecosystem will take a decade to recover from Baghjan fire

Ecosystems damaged in the 2020 Baghjan oil and gas leak fire in Assam, which took over five months to douse, might take at least a decade to recover 70%-80% of their original form, according to a report of the one-person inquiry commission set up by the Assam government. It says that “estimated carbon earnings were valued at Rs 18,234 crores (during restoration) and this resulted in net liability of Rs 6,800 crore over a period of 10 years”. The analysis also spelt out ecological restoration recommendations and a budget to draw down carbon by managing trees, but some experts are sceptical while others have called for long-term monitoring.


Canada opens for Indians

Canada, Germany and Maldives have opened up non-essential travel for Indian citizens. From next week, Indians will be allowed to enter Canada by taking connecting flights as direct flights remain prohibited till July 21. Indian travellers will have to produce a negative Covid-19 test result taken at the final point of departure to Canada. Canada has so far approved the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Covishield, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. It has not approved Covaxin and Sputnik V.


Rural India deeply indebted

A Reuters investigation showed most of 75 households in an UP cluster, with 518 people, had taken out debt of Rs 61.2 lakh, more than 80% of which remains unserviced. Their household incomes have slumped nearly 75% on average. Big debt and low income in the countryside will hold back any economic recovery the government is trying to generate and also dent private savings and investment for longer than expected. Sales of everything from biscuits, tea and lentils to auto parts have taken a hit, vendors say. Shops that families have run for generations have shut down.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The latest cabinet reshuffle holds no promise of good governance, writes Harish Khare. “There is hardly any evidence of exceptional talent and nor will any of the new ministers ever stand up to the Prime Minister's Office.”

  • Posterity will blame the judiciary for the incarceration and unfortunate death of Father Stan Swamy, and the continued imprisonment of so many others like him, writes AP Shah.

  • Shyam Saran writes that Xi Jinping believes that China is powerful enough to crush opposition to what it considers its core interests. These interests expand with the accumulation of greater power. This has immediate implications for India, the India-China border conflict but also in terms of China’s attempt to establish an Asian order dominated by it.

  • The timing and intensity of the next wave depends on immunity after natural infection, people’s adherence to Covid-appropriate behaviour, vaccination coverage, and the emergence of new variants and their transmissibility. In order to delay the next wave, a dynamic unlock strategy is key, writes Chandrakant Lahariya.

  • “NIA didn’t question Father Stan Swamy even once after arrest,” says his lawyer, Mihir Desai.

  • Modi’s India is a living nightmare for the country’s Muslims. And Muslim journalists, the first in line to report and write on it, to confront it and document it as professionals, have become moving targets, writes Mohammad Ali in The Baffler


Listen Up

Published in 1879, Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem ‘The Light of Asia’, about the life and message of the Buddha, still resonates across the world. Weaving together literary, cultural, political and social history, author and parliamentarian Jairam Ramesh discusses his new book on the poem. 


Watch Out

India’s public policy response to the pandemic: hear former health secretary K Sujatha Rao on Manthan on Sunday.


Over and Out

An ordinary chess set can sell for $20, but a handcrafted wooden set certified for the World Chess Championship costs $500. See the making of pawns, kings, queens, knights and rooks, at an Amritsar-based chessman carving unit.

Malik has Malayalam filmstar Fahadh Faasil’s character ageing from 21 to 58 and for this, the actor reportedly lost about 15 kilos over some time. Read more in Faasil’s interview.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, 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.