The India Cable: Amit Shah Bags MLAs in Bengal, New UK Virus Strain Prompts Flight Ban

Plus: Vaccine may come in Jan, Health Ministry cash-strapped, Adityanath lets 'cow mother' starve, vendetta against Farooq, there’s a Patel in the White House and where on earth is Rakabjung?

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
December 21, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Over the weekend, India faced a double ignominy: its Covid-19 infections officially crossed the 10 million or 1 crore mark ― 1,00,55,560 to be precise, along with 1,45,810 deaths ― and the much-vaunted cricket team reflecting ‘New India’ as per its captain Virat Kohli, was all out for 36, the lowest score ever in an innings by an Indian team. The record so far was 42 against England in 1974, and the Emergency was officially declared a year later. What was that about history rhyming but not repeating itself?

The new coronavirus strain in the UK has not only led to a stringent lockdown but now prompted India to halt flights to and from London for the rest of December to ensure against its spread. If the flight ban continues into January, the visit to Delhi of British PM Boris Johnson as Narendra Modi’s guest for the Republic Day parade will be in jeopardy.

Amit Shah’s rallies and events in West Bengal, including in Tagore country ― Bolpur and  Santiniketan ― were well-attended, even if he insisted on explaining Rabindranath to Bengalis who know better than him. He also had a “typical” Bengali meal in a village and at a baul folk singer’s home, which were not typical at all, on account of being vegetarian. Ganja, strongly associated with baul culture, was also conspicuous by its absence. In East Medinipur, Shah bagged Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Suvendu Adhikari, eight more MLAs ― including two from the Congress and the Communists ― and an MP. He joked that by the time of the state elections, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee would be the only leader left in the TMC. Meanwhile, according to wags in Kolkata, the hottest political rumour is that “Didi is still in the TMC”. 

Jokes apart, the election will probably be a neck and neck contest, but the fully loaded pockets of the BJP could give it an edge. Banerjee is reaching out to Opposition leaders including Sharad Pawar, Arvind Kejriwal, MK Stalin and others for a joint rally in Kolkata next month. And in the Darjeeling hills, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leader Bimal Gurung is back in the fray. He believes that his community has been cheated by the BJP, and is promising to make Mamata Banerjee chief minister again.  

In September, the Opposition had complained to President Ram Nath Kovind about the government disregarding their view that the farm bills should be sent to a parliamentary panel. The farmers’ agitation could have been avoided if that had been done. Meanwhile, voices of the Punjabi diaspora, which has stood up for the dignity of protesting farmers in India, are ever-louder. And the government has written to farmers inviting them for talks and asking them to pick a date.

Useless “Covid-19 immunity boosters” from India are being sold over the counter in London, the BBC has found. The Coronil herbal remedy is on sale in predominantly Asian neighbourhoods across the capital. Manufacturers Patanjali Ayurveda claim the pills protect against “respiratory tract infections”. Tests carried out for the BBC show that they offer no protection from coronavirus. While on the subject of fraud, Nehal Modi, younger brother of fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi, has been indicted in New York for fraudulently obtaining diamonds worth over $2.6 million from one of the world’s biggest diamond companies in Manhattan.

Deutsche Welle says that as Hindu nationalism grows, the ruling BJP’s policies and practices in Gujarat have served as the model for “systemic, nationwide discrimination.” And here is an explanatory list of some of the laws/norms that have been or will be aggressively flouted by Modi’s Central Vista project, in a series of lethal blows to the Delhi Master Plan. 

The Uttar Pradesh ordinance on religious conversion was promulgated on November 27 and since then, it has been invoked roughly once every 48 hours, with at least 34 arrests so far. The Allahabad High Court has granted bail to a Muslim man arrested for offering namaz at a Mathura temple two months ago. The police had offered no evidence that he had intended to cause communal disharmony, the court said. In another matter, it has directed the immediate release of a man who was kept for eight months in illegal confinement, as his surname, ‘Kumar’, was missing in the bail order. 

In a surprise development, Nepal will hold general elections in spring after Prime Minister KP Oli called for the dissolution of Parliament, though three years of his term remain. India has been courting Oli’s government of late but his tenure has otherwise been marked by a deterioration of ties with Delhi.

Formalisation of the economy took a beating in October, compared to the previous month, payroll data shows. Net additions to the Employees’ Provident Fund fell by around 19% to 11.54 million in October from 14.19 million in September. Taxes on petrol and diesel remain stunning. They have risen by 348% on petrol and 894% on diesel since May 2014. And the states get even less than they did in 2014.

Where’s the vaccine?

“Maybe in January,” said Health Minister Harsh Vardhan. The Drugs Controller General of India is examining applications from Bharat Biotech, the Serum Institute of India and Pfizer for emergency use authorization for their vaccines. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute, said: “Government should indemnify vaccine makers against lawsuits.” A volunteer in Chennai has claimed that he suffered adverse effects from the Oxford vaccine trials. 

The government has convened an urgent meeting of the Joint Monitoring Group about a new strain of Covid-19 causing a Christmas lockdown in the UK. A growing body of research explores the relationship between Covid-19 and inequality. Rather than being a great equalizer as early discussion suggested, the pandemic both reflects and exacerbates existing inequalities, across and within countries. 

Ministries strapped for cash

The Modi government’s scrapping of the Winter Session, ostensibly due to the pandemic but actually to avoid discussion on the farmers’ protests, has left central ministries and departments strapped for cash. They are using savings from other departments to meet immediate expenses. There can be no supplementary demand for grants before the Budget session, which usually starts in late January. The supplementary is generally placed in February.   

The issue will impact at least two ministries — Food and Consumer Affairs and Rural Development — which have already exhausted their budgetary allocations. Health and Family Welfare had spent 70% of its allocation till October. With approvals for vaccines underway, it may need additional funds for the vaccination drive, which is expected to kick off in January.

India says restore peace, China says maintain it

India and China held another round of diplomatic talks on Friday. Their statements differ subtly, yet significantly: Beijing said the two sides agreed “to jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas” while Delhi said that they agreed to “fully restore peace and tranquility”. ‘Maintain’ does not mean ‘restore’, even in diplomatic parlance. As if on cue, Chinese vehicles continue to enter Indian territory in Ladakh. 

The Chinese Western Theatre Command, responsible for the whole of the Line of Actual Control with India, has a new commander, General Zhang Xudong. Not much is known about him, or if his appointment could lead to any change in the situation on the ground. 

In an interview, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat made important observations about India’s rationale for a resolution of the border crisis in Ladakh: “We don’t want a permanently defensive line to be drawn. Of course, negotiations will happen at the political level, it is already happening at the military and diplomatic levels. Some resolution will be found because you don’t remain in eyeball to eyeball confrontation for years. Everybody talks of Sumdorong Chu (an Indian Army-PLA standoff in Arunachal Pradesh in 1987) lasting seven years. That’s not the way we want to go this time. The climatic conditions in Sumdorong Chu and Ladakh are very different.” The good General perhaps forgets that the Chinese also have a vote in this matter.

India, Pak scrap as UN is hit

Following investigations, India has refuted Pakistan’s allegations that Indian troops deliberately targeted a UN vehicle along the Line of Control. The Ministry of External Affairs said Pakistan should responsibly investigate its “lapses” instead of repeating “baseless and fabricated” allegations against India to cover up its own “failure” in ensuring the safety and security of UN personnel in territory under its control. Pakistan on Friday had alleged that Indian troops targeted a vehicle of United Nations Military Observers (UNMO) in the Chirikot sector along the LoC. 

The UN has confirmed that a vehicle of the UN Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) was hit by an “unidentified object” near Rawalakot on the Pakistani side of the LoC in Kashmir.

Government, Facebook versus Farmers

The Kisan Ekta Morcha’s Facebook page was taken down by the social media company, but restored later after public outrage. The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), one of Punjab’s largest farmer organisations, says it has been asked by a Central agency to submit its registration details, which allow it to receive foreign funds. In the Supreme Court, the Modi government continues to drive a wedge between farm protest leaders.

Intensifying their agitation, farmers will observe a day-long relay hunger strike at all protest sites and halt toll collection on Haryana’s highways on December 25-27. Leaders of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SMK), a joint front of farmer unions, announced escalations including relay hunger strikes, and will reach out to BJP allies. They also appealed to citizens to fast as a mark of gratitude to farmers, and to clang utensils in protest on December 27 during PM Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio address.

The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front government in Kerala could decide today to convene a special session of the Assembly on December 23 to move a resolution against the Centre’s farm laws. The state government has also decided to move the Supreme Court, since provisions of the laws infringe on the powers of states.

From clothes to toiletries to medicines, protesters at Delhi’s Ghazipur border can write what they need on a wall. Just any old wall until yesterday, it is now the ‘Neki ki Deewar’ (Wall of Goodness). Two kiosks at this masonry bulletin board accept donations of necessities and distribute them to protesters.

To combat misinformation against farmers, they now have their own IT cell and a Kisan Ekta Morcha channel on YouTube. In less than a week, it has acquired 4.35 lakh subscribers.

Chronology broken

Home Minister Amit Shah is eating bhaat and giving interviews on charpoys in West Bengal. Having thundered about “termites” and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act earlier, he is now saying nothing at all about the NRC. Maybe it is because the Assam and West Bengal elections will be held simultaneously and Assam is not happy about the discriminatory law.

Wistron to sacks top official after Apple puts it on notice

Apple Inc has placed its contract manufacturing partner Wistron on probation and won’t give it any business until it takes “complete corrective actions” following violence at its Narasapura plant. It said that its Supplier Code of Conduct was violated and Wistron failed to implement proper working hours. The Taiwanese firm, the first Apple supplier to produce iPhones in India, also said that it will sack its vice president who oversees the India business. Unsurprisingly, the state government in Karnataka had vilified and arrested workers before ascertaining the facts. The state’s labour department did report on employer violations over the weekend.

Cow care hypocrisy in UP

UP chief minister Adityanath’s priority is to protect the “cow mother”, but his government stopped funding its cowshed project months ago, leaving the animals to starve to death. Panchayat heads from Banda district in Bundelkhand have jointly written to the CM, threatening to release cows in their care unless funds and arrears materialise by December 25.

The state government is supposed to pay village panchayats Rs 30 per day per cow. However, funds dried up in February and April. In February 2019, Adityanath had allocated Rs 613 crore towards cow welfare, but no allocation was made for the current fiscal.

The Long Cable

Mumbai’s land wars: notes on the Underground

Sidharth Bhatia

When old allies turn foes, all bets are off. Nothing is too big or too small to feud over. The BJP and the Shiv Sena, which is now in power in Maharashtra, were coalition partners for five years from 2014 but the relationship was not easy. Now that they are on opposite sides, it is positively toxic.

The latest bitterness is over land ― specifically, land for infrastructure projects which both are promoting. The Sena wants to get an underground Metro line in Mumbai done on time, and the BJP is fully committed to a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The former is a desperate necessity for the city’s hapless commuters, the latter a vanity project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which means that every BJP member supports it.

During the tenure of the BJP and the Shiv Sena, the Metro line was on the priority list, and involved creating a depot for train maintenance. The government chose a pristine, green area – the 16 sq km Aarey park occupied by tribal communities and even wild animals. A favourite picnic spot for generations, it is an ecologically-sensitive area and a green lung for the heavily polluted metropolis.

Activists objected, saying hundreds of trees would be cut down and real estate for the rich would come up. Citizens’ groups said Aarey was a forest and therefore out of bounds for development. The Sena offered lukewarm support at first for the choice of Aarey but then, despite being in the government, promised to shift the depot. The government, unmindful of the protests, did what was feared ― it sawed down a large number of trees in an overnight operation. 

Within a year of coming to power, the Sena nixed the Aarey site and shifted the proposed depo. Now it was the turn of a piqued BJP — the Delhi government claimed that the new spot was owned by a central agency and the state was trespassing. The Bombay High Court put a stay on it.

The Sena showed it could play the game of one-upmanship. The chief minister did some thinking aloud and said it could consider alternate spots like the very location where the Mumbai terminus of the bullet train was to be built. It was the BJP’s turn to go ballistic.

Political sniping is definitely involved, but there is a big difference. The Metro Line is more than half-completed, while the $15 billion bullet train project has barely begun ― reports indicate that the launch date of 2023 has been postponed by five years.Many have questioned the need for this boondoggle project which will serve just a few thousand passengers.

The net result of this conflict is that the Metro deadline will not be met. The lockdown halted construction for months, and uncertainty over the location of the depot will cause further delays. The BJP is not winning friends in Mumbai with its intransigence, and the real losers are the citizens, who have to wait for the Underground.


Moral science lesson for Modi

On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Gurdwara Rakabganj near Parliament House in New Delhi and paid tributes to Guru Tegh Bahadur. Incidentally, the Guru Tegh Bahadur Memorial is near the Singhu Border where farmers are protesting. The sudden visit caught the gurudwara authorities by surprise. Cynics say that it was unannounced to avoid protests, sloganeering or showing of black flags to Modi. 

But what caught everyone’s attention was the recitation of the Gurbani in the background when Modi was in the gurudwara: “No matter how many religious texts a man reads, it is all a waste unless he thinks about the welfare of humanity… And when the end comes, where and how long will he run?”  Chance may have directed the choice of passage, but its burden was not lost on Modi’s political opponents.

Kashmir vendetta

In a brazen move reeking of vendetta, the Enforcement Directorate has attached all the residential properties of Dr Farooq Abdullah, five times chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and sitting MP from Srinagar. This is in connection with its money laundering probe linked to alleged financial irregularities in the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association. Abdullah’s son Omar wonders how ancestral property can be seen as “proceeds of crime”.

There’s a Patel in the White House

US President-elect Joe Biden has named Indian-American Vedant Patel Assistant Press Secretary in the White House communications and press team. Born in Gujarat and raised in California, Patel is a graduate of the University of California at Riverside and the University of Florida. He is the third Indian-American in the White House press shop. 

Patel is senior spokesperson of the Biden inaugural committee and served as regional communications director of the campaign. Previously, he worked as communications director to Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, was western regional press secretary at the Democratic National Committee, and Communications Director to Congressman Mike Honda.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Prem Shankar Jha dives into details on what assails the farm economy and why infrastructure must be fixed by the government. The bitter experience of vegetable growers has shown the farmers who are surrounding Delhi today that the ‘market’ upon whose mercy Modi wants to cast them is exploitative and merciless. 

  • Even if the economy grows by 30% in the first quarter of next fiscal, the real GDP in April to June 2021 will be more or less where it was during April to June 2019. We will be where we were two years ago, argues Vivek Kaul.

  • The term ‘conflict of interest’ baffles Indian cricketers and officials as much as the unified field theory. Sharda Ugra on BCCI Chief Sourav Ganguly’s many conflicts. 

Listen up

Saiba Varma vividly describes violent state and non-state regimes, and the machinery of militarised care in Kashmir. While the clinic for psychological trauma is presented as distinct from the violence in Kashmir, medicine and militarism are in fact intimately bound. Varma, author of The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, exposes the brutality and irresolvable contradictions, inconsistencies, and fissures haunting state projects of domesticating populations through militarised care. 

Watch Out

Actor Gul Panag’s powerful and impassioned speech (in Punjabi) to the protesting farmers.


Jungian slip

BJP social media handles miscalled the Rakabganj Gurudwara as ‘Rakabjung’ ― which sounds like a fighting word ― and amazingly, the error was reproduced verbatim by some media professionals. 

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.