Supreme Court Inquiry Into Pegasus Sought; Vaccine Targets Falling Short

Plus: Mamata in Delhi to meet PM, President over Pegasus, political uncertainty in Karnataka, pandemic has indebted Indians, and in a corner of the republic, the banana is the solution

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 27, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is in Delhi on a five-day visit for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, their first after the assembly elections and his disgraceful “Didi-o-Didi” catcalls on the campaign trail. Various state issues, including the vaccine shortage, are on the agenda, but her “unwavering” attention will be on the Pegasus scandal. Yesterday, her government announced a judicial commission to probe the issue. “If somebody refuses to wake up, they have to be forcibly woken up,” she said. The West Bengal government-appointed probe is likely to force the Centre to open an investigation with a wider ambit across states. In Delhi, Banerjee will also meet President Ram Nath Kovind and Opposition leaders

In another instance of “too much democracy”, a team of political strategist Prashant Kishore’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), which has been camping in a hotel in Agartala since last week to assess the political situation and potential support base for the Trinamool Congress, is being questioned by local police. The police called the detention “routine.” Meanwhile, Congress politician Alka Lamba in Delhi put out pictures of the police at her residence, there to prevent her from joining the first all-women’s Kisan Sansad protest held at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar yesterday, which was attended by about 200 women farmers. Of course, the two events are not connected. However, instructions to the police could be similar. 

The Modi government has said that it has no official count ― not the exact figure, just an estimate ― of the black money stashed in Swiss banks for the last 10 years. Minister of State for Finance Pankaj Chaudhary admitted this in the Lok Sabha in reply to a query by Vincent Pala of the Congress, who also wanted to know when the amount is expected to reach India. The minister said media reports have not taken account of the way the figures have to be interpreted, which has resulted in misleading headlines and analyses.

The BJP government is consistently in a state of denial about critical data it is expected to have ― no data on farmers who died during the protests and, worse, no data on how many died for lack of oxygen during the second wave of the pandemic. It is forcing ordinary people to speak up. Like in this first-hand account of a death in a leading Delhi hospital which ran out of oxygen.

India’s controversial €7.8 billion deal for 36 Rafale jets “gathered all systemic elements” of international corruption and the deal’s conditions were “to the detriment of renewal of obsolete Indian air defence”, says the French NGO whose complaints in the matter have led to an independent judicial probe in France. (Reminder: There has been no move to enquire into the possible violation of Indian interests within India after the revelations by French investigative site, Mediapart.)

Political consultant Prashant Kishor spoke recently about how the BJP can be defeated nationally. “The BJP has not been able to win more than a fifth of the 200-odd seats in seven states in eastern and southern India as regional parties have been able to effectively prevent the party from making inroads. The remaining 340-odd seats are in the north and the west of the country, where the BJP is influential. A challenger can pick up around 150 seats in these parts, reducing BJP’s margin.”

Reports of girls and young women being brutally assaulted by family members have recently made headlines. The incidents have also put the spotlight on how unsafe girls and women are within their own homes. A teenager in Deoria, UP, was killed last week for wearing jeans, but it signals a deeper problem with society, and politicians and others who encourage misogyny.


6 Assam cops dead in Assam-Mizoram boundary clash

Things are completely out of hand in the Northeast, among the states administered by the BJP-led NDA. Just two days after Union Home Minister Amit Shah conducted a closed door meeting with the chief ministers of the region’s states in Shillong, violence broke out along the disputed Assam-Mizoram border. Six Assam policemen were killed, while over two dozen others, including civilians, were injured in clashes with the neighbouring state. There were reports of fresh firing along the border near Assam’s Cachar district and Mizoram’s Kolasib district. An Assam Police official blamed it on an alleged attempt by Meghalaya to erect electricity poles on Assam land in the Khanapara area of Guwahati, which it foiled.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted that six Assam Police personnel were killed in firing by miscreants from Mizoram along the inter-state border in Cachar district. A war of words on Twitter broke out between the chief ministers of the two states. Mizoram’s Zoramthanga accused the Assam Police of lathi-charging and using tear gas while Assam Police claimed that a large number of “miscreants” from Mizoram had pelted stones and attacked Assam government officials. Following a territorial dispute, there were clashes along the interstate border in August 2020 and February this year. Given the lost festering dispute and growing signs of tension over the past few months, Shah’s failure to prevent violence is inexplicable.


Indians “mired in massive medical debts” by pandemic

Covid’s second wave has taken its toll on the living too. The massive out-of-pocket expenditures that Indians have had to incur have impoverished many families which were well above the poverty line before the pandemic struck. In a detailed report, the Associated Press says the health insurance scheme launched by Prime Minister Modi in 2018 was intended to cover around 500 million people and was hailed as “a major step toward easing medical costs”. But it doesn’t cover primary care and outpatient costs, which comprise most out-of-pocket expenses. So it hasn’t “effectively improved access to care and financial risk protection,” said a working paper by researchers at Duke University.

Another paper by the Duke Global Health Institute and the Public Health Foundation of India, found costs of ICU hospitalization for Covid-19 are equivalent to nearly 16 months of work for a typical Indian day labourer or seven to 10 months for salaried or self-employed workers.


Karnataka BJP uncertainty continues

Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, considered the BJP’s most popular face in the state, was asked to step down and resigned yesterday. He has been CM four times, but has been in office for only three years. The BJP’s high command had almost scripted this exit, with most decisions being directed from Delhi. The process of consultations with central emissaries “may take three to four days and the BJP high command is expected to arrive at a consensus on his replacement by the end of the week. The process of electing a new leader of the legislative party is expected to take place after. The BJP MLAs would be asked to symbolically elect the next CM of the state but this will be as per the directions of the senior leadership,” reports the Newsminute. Hear this podcast for background.

Having ousted Yediyurappa, the BJP risks losing the support of Lingayats, the party’s largest vote bank. Kudalasangama-based Panchamasali Mutt seer Jagadguru Basava Jaya Mrityunjaya Swami has demanded that the BJP must make a leader from the Lingayat community of north Karnataka chief minister. The party also hopes to win over the Vokkaligas, the other dominant community, to gain an edge over the JD(S) and Congress that are led by Vokkaligas HD Kumaraswamy and DK Shivakumar, respectively. 

The organisational discomfort in several BJP states can be gauged by the fact that it has had to make four chief ministerial changes since May ― if Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal being replaced by ex-Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma is taken into account.


Pegasus update

Director of the Hindu Group of Publications N Ram and Asianet founder Sashi Kumar have approached the Supreme Court, seeking an enquiry by a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court into the Pegasus surveillance scandal. The petitioners also sought directions to be issued to the Union government to disclose if it or its agencies have obtained licenses for Pegasus spyware, or used it either directly or indirectly, to conduct surveillance as alleged.

“We want the government to agree to a debate on the issue, but it is not ready. What we are saying is that if you (the government) do not agree to this and answer our questions, why should we allow you to transact your business?” Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said outside Parliament after it was adjourned yesterday, with the Modi government adamant about not allowing a discussion or ordering an enquiry into the spyware issue. The parliamentary panel on information technology led by Tharoor is likely to question top government officials, including from the Home Ministry, later this week on Pegasus snooping allegations. The agenda of the meeting is, ‘Citizens’ data security and privacy’, according to a notification issued by the Lok Sabha Secretariat.

The Wire has found that Tamil nationalists and Periyarist were of interest to the Indian government client of the Israeli NSO Group, which is behind the Pegasus spyware. They have been associated with the protests against Sterlite and the May 17 movement, which has protested against the killing of Sri Lankan Tamils. A number of businessmen are also on the snoop list: Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways, Ajay Singh of SpiceJet, Prashant Ruia of the Essar Group, besides officials from both Reliance groups as well as from the Adani group.

There is more that activists, journalists and democracy defenders are doing to get to the bottom of Pegasus affair. Watch this.


Reportedly

After an incident in the BJP’s Kerala unit, termed the ‘Kodakkara money heist’, in which its state chief faces criminal proceedings for moving money illegally in the state to secure support for cash, Jharkhand has emerged as a problem state for the party. Three persons have been arrested for trying to topple the Hemant Soren-led government. Yesterday, Naman Bixal Kongari, a Congress MLA, claimed that he was offered money if he helped to topple the coalition government in the state. The BJP’s reputation for making money talk is turning into notoriety. 


Shortages in the military

The Indian Army has a shortage of 7,912 officers, while more than 90,640 vacancies for soldiers are also lying vacant. The Navy, the third biggest of the three defence services, stands second in terms of manpower shortages, as it is short of 1,190 officers and 11,927 sailors in its ranks. The IAF is short of 610 officers and 7,104 in other ranks. 


Prime numbers: Rs 1,921 crore

This is the money spent by the Modi government on advertisements in print, electronic and digital media in the last three years ― Rs 943.84 crore in 2018-19, Rs 612.04 crore in 2019-20 and Rs 365.47 crore in 2020-21.


Joblessness increases again

The unemployment rate in rural and urban India climbed in the week ended July 25, reversing the gains made a week ago, fresh data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows. The national joblessness rate climbed to 7.14% in that week as against 5.98% in the previous week, which ending on July 18. However, rural unemployment took a sharp upward turn to 6.75% from 5.1% in the period a week earlier.


Deep Dive

The poorest 10% of Indians face a risk of dying from air pollution that is nine times higher than for the richest 10%, according to a study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. To see how wealth is linked to air pollution exposure in the second most populous nation, researchers examined data expenditure for different income groups to estimate the pollution that such spending habits were likely to produce. They mapped anticipated air pollution and used it to estimate related health impacts. No surprises: the team, led by Fabian Wagner, found that while higher net-worth individuals contributed most to air pollution levels, it was poorer individuals who suffered the most from it.


Apex court offers no relief to Gambhir

The Supreme Court has refused to stay the proceedings against BJP MP Gautam Gambhir’s foundation in a case of illegally procuring and distributing Covid-19 medicines. It asked the petitioner to approach the Delhi High Court to seek remedy.

The Delhi government’s drug controller had earlier informed the Delhi High Court that the foundation was found guilty of unauthorisedly stocking, procuring and distributing Fabiflu to Covid-19 patients. The High Court had deprecated the manner in which a huge quantity of the drug was procured and said genuine patients who needed the medicine at that time could not get it as the bulk of the stock was taken away by cricketer turned politician Gambhir.


India’s vaccination target won’t be met

Contrary to the health minister’s assertion in Parliament last week, an analysis of government data by Reuters has shown that India will miss its target, announced in May, to administer 51.6 crore Covid-19 vaccine doses by the end of the month. India has so far distributed some 43 crore doses, which is more than any country except China, but less than many countries as a proportion of population. It wants to inoculate all its estimated 94.4 crore adults by December. 

To meet the July-end target, however, the authorities would have to more than triple average daily vaccinations to 1.4 crore doses a day. But that would not be possible, based on the latest supply projections for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. The maker of the only approved homegrown shot is struggling to boost output. The government had planned on deliveries of 6-7 crore Covaxin doses monthly from July or August. But Bharat Biotech will only supply 2.5 crore doses this month and 3.5 crore in August, as a new production line in Bengaluru is taking time to come on stream, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told Parliament last week. Mandaviya had added that the supply shortfall “would not affect our immunisation programme” but offered no explanation for what is clearly a statistical paradox.

The country’s drug regulator had controversially approved Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin for emergency use in early January without efficacy data. But the company has violated almost all its supply commitments to the government. Immunisation efforts have also been hobbled by a delayed rollout of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. And legal obstacles in the Indian system have prevented India from receiving US donations of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. They are being used in all other countries in the region, and the Indian government is still pondering the legality of accepting vaccine donations. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Arundhati Roy writes in the Guardian, “We are headed towards being governed by states that know everything there is to know about people, and about which people know less and less. That asymmetry can only lead in one direction. Malignancy. And the end of democracy.”

  • The second coming of Pegasus can’t be swept under the carpet after a few days of screaming headlines, writes Parakala Prabhakar. Joining the dots shows a pervasive pattern of surveillance, with deep implications. 

  • Debashish Roy Chowdhury writes in Asia Times on India’s “dark night”. He speaks of the irony of Western politicians wringing “their hands over crackdowns in Hong Kong, [while] few notice the plight of the world’s largest democracy.”

  • The Modi government is run like a kingdom and the elected leader does not need to respond to questions or hold press conferences, writes Aakar Patel as he contemplates India’s future. 


Listen Up

How does the conflict in Kashmir affect the everyday lives of people? How is the trauma processed? And what stories are lost in routine reportage of the area? Author Farah Bashir talks to Sandip Roy about her memoir, Rumours of Spring, which is an intimate history of Kashmir told through the eyes of a young girl.


Watch Out

Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Mooed Yusuf tells Karan Thapar that the window of hope and expectation in India-Pakistan relations, that opened in February with the reconfirmation of the 2003 ceasefire, “is perhaps still there,” if India is willing to create a conducive environment.


Over and Out

Banana farmers in Tumkur, Karnataka, have learnt to make banana flour and get better prices for their produce, which used to hit rock bottom periodically. We don’t know about the republic, but the banana solution appears to be working at the local level.


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.