The India Cable: Amit Shah's 'Gang' War, Lies Behind Official Praise for Liberal Media

Plus: HC wants ailing Varavara Rao in hospital, Obama and Biden tie Indians in knots, MP to regulate interfaith marriage, Indian Sweatshops Supply M&S, and tea shortage looms

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
November 18, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The states have never intervened in sensitive matters of foreign policy but in New India, the line is easily crossed. Arunachal Pradesh has ventured into India’s ongoing tensions with China. “It is a fact that Arunachal does not share a direct border with China. The direct border is with Tibet. Nobody can erase history,” said Pema Khandu, chief minister of the north-eastern state, which is claimed by China as ‘Southern Tibet’. In June too he had called the Line of Actual Control with China in Arunachal the ‘Indo-Tibet border’. This is the second time he has said this. After deciding in April that all investments from China need government approval, India now considers allowing up to 26% without government approval. Bill Clinton would have agreed ― finally, it’s the economy, stupid.  

Assam’s problems with its neighbouring states continue unabated. Earlier, it was Mizoram and now, citing illegal encroachments, the Karbi Students’ Association and other student bodies have started an indefinite economic blockade of Nagaland. The last blockade ended less than a fortnight ago. In another surprising development, 11 fake army personnel were nabbed near Guwahati airport. It was found that one of the accused had given others fake appointment letters to provide security at the airport. And about 40 km from Guwahati, Milan Mahanta, a reporter with leading daily Pratidin, was tied to a pole and beaten by five gamblers. He had been doing a story on gambling. 

The Bombay High Court has directed that  81-year-old Telugu poet P Varavara Rao, currently incarcerated in Taloja prison, be shifted to Nanavati Hospital for treatment and that he not be discharged without informing the court.

Varavara Rao. Image: Twitter

The court also ordered the state to share details with his wife of the examination Nanavati Hospital conducted through video consultation of Rao. The directions were issued after senior counsel Indira Jaising informed the court that the report provided to the family on Tuesday afternoon was incomplete and did not have any details of the tests done on Rao. The one page report provided by the state through WhatsApp had no information regarding dementia and the urinary tract infection which Rao is suffering from.The court will hear his wife P Hemalatha’s petition today

The bogey of inter-faith marriages is being repeatedly raised by the BJP, and Madhya Pradesh has become the fifth state ruled by the party to announce its decision to enact a law to ban inter-faith marriages that do not conform to official norms and rules and impose a punishment of five years’ rigorous imprisonment for the offence. In an Orwellian twist, the BJP state government intends to call it the Dharma Swantantrya Bill 2020, or Religious Freedom Bill 2020. No similarity to Nazi Germany’s obsession with Rassenschande and the racial laws which flowed from it which prohibited intermarriage between Jews and ‘Aryans’ – considered to be a major threat to the racial purity of the German people.

Indian students contributed US$ 7.6 billion to the US economy in the academic year 2019-20, despite a 4.4% drop in the total number of Indian students. The UN Security Council has become an ‘impaired’ organ of the organisation, India’s representative to the global body said, alleging that a handful of countries were stopping progress on UNSC reforms. The Women’s U-17 World Cup in India, which was postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19, was on Tuesday cancelled by FIFA.

UK retail chains’ Indian suppliers are sweatshops 

Workers in Indian factories supplying the supermarket chains Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and the fashion brand Ralph Lauren, have said that they are being subjected to exploitative conditions. Women working at a Ralph Lauren supplier said they had been forced to stay overnight to complete orders, sometimes requiring them to sleep on the factory floor. Workers at the supermarket supplier said they had been made to endure conditions which would be unacceptable for staff employed by the same brands in the UK. India is the world’s second biggest garments supplier, after China. 

Biden calling: Two versions

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to US President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday evening, his government’s first interaction with the Democrat who defeated incumbent Republican Donald Trump in the November 3 presidential election. Biden’s call to Delhi followed a set he made to neighbours, European and Indo-Pacific allies and the Pope, and was part of a cluster that included calls with the leaders of Chile, Israel and South Africa. Interestingly, Biden’s readout of the call said that he looks forward to working with Modi on “launching the global economic recovery” and “strengthening democracy at home and abroad”, both of which were missing from the official Indian readout

On vaccine, India vocal for local

India hopes that five locally tested vaccines will help it to control Covid-19, as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna may not be available in quantities soon and may not even be suitable for the country. The five candidates include Russia’s Sputnik V whose “Phase 2 going to Phase 3” trials in India will start next week in collaboration with Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, said Vinod Paul, head of a committee advising the prime minister. Other experimental vaccines are being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which is being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India; Bharat Biotech and the Indian government’s Covaxin; Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D and lastly one being developed by Biological E. Ltd, alongside Baylor College of Medicine and Dynavax Technologies Corp. India has reported 8.912 million infections so far, second only to the United States, and 130,993 deaths due to Covid-19. 

The cold-chain for the anti-coronavirus vaccine candidate developed by Pfizer requires the temperature to be maintained at minus 70 degrees Celsius, posing a big challenge for the government. The government said that a national scheme for COVID-19 vaccine distribution is in the final stages of preparation, but did not provide any details.

Pune-based Adar Poonawala, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, decided to define “a good vaccine”. Earlier, his public comments about the massive infusion of funds (Rs 80,000 crore, he had claimed) that the government of India would have to make to secure a vaccine for all had elicited a lot of criticism. Serum Institute is the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world by volume and is involved in testing the Oxford vaccine.

A Chinese Covid-19 vaccine which induces an immune response has also been found to be safe. The results were published on Tuesday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, adding to the number of vaccine candidates under trial that have been found safe. 

Economy stress and distress signals

There is bad news on the economy ― the number of firms contributing to the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) fell by over 30,800 from September to October. This is the first fall since April. The number of contributors to the provident fund too fell by 1.8 million last month. There was a surge in second quarter corporate profits, which would have also owed to the lowering of fixed costs of firms including salary bills, so all the talk of ‘green shoots’ may conceal larger problems. 

Also, talk of a ‘fall’ in unemployment rates (which is no longer in double digits) conceals a complex picture. The labour force participation rate has fallen, and that often shows up as a fall in unemployment as people have given up on finding jobs. This is happening more in urban areas and in both rural and urban areas, figures are still not back to pre-Covid levels. The demand for jobs guaranteed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is another index for rural joblessness. In October, demand came from 2.44 crore households. This has not been fully met as only 1.96 crore households got work.

Almost 99% of non-MSME companies are unlikely to opt for the Reserve Bank of India’s one-time debt restructuring, according to a report by Crisil Ratings. The finding is based on a preliminary analysis of 3,523 Crisil-rated non-micro, small and medium enterprises, the report said. In August, the RBI had allowed one-time restructuring for personal loans and for non-MSME corporate borrowers having an aggregate exposure greater than Rs 25 crore, which are affected by Covid-related stress. Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan has said that the Modi government’s fiscal response to the pandemic was just relief and not a stimulus.

The behemoth Reliance Industries is net-debt free. Or is it? A special report today says it is not, as in a rush to declare itself net debt free, it had been a little cavalier with the definition of net debt in March 2019, and in subsequent annual reports. In June, too, there were suspicions on other grounds that it is not actually net debt free. 

India is heading for a massive shortfall in tea output this calendar year over 2019 due to the lockdown. And 10 central trade unions are going ahead with their planned nationwide general strike on November 26 and have also announced their support to a two-day farmers’ agitation next week.

As always, economist Kaushik Basu, formerly the chief economic advisor, shows India the mirror. Never mind the spin, it is the nation worst affected by Covid as well as economic distress. The poor need support, says Basu.

Unholy jibe

Home Minister Amit Shah called the multi-party Gupkar alliance in Jammu and Kashmir the ‘Gupkar Gang’ and an “unholy global gathbandhan”, attracting a sharp riposte from former chief minister Omar Abdullah. He said, “ I can understand the frustration behind this attack by the Hon’ble Home Minister. He had been briefed that the People’s Alliance was preparing to boycott elections. This would have allowed the BJP and the newly formed King’s party a free run in J&K. We didn’t oblige them.” Abdullah was referring to Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party.

Mehbooba Mufti, the other former chief minister of the PDP, who was in office courtesy the BJP until June 2018, also hit back, asking if it was now anti-national to fight elections in alliance. “BJP can stitch as many alliances in its hunger for power but somehow, we are undermining national interest by putting up a united front,” she bristled.

Later, National Conference leaders Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah self-isolated themselves after one of their secondary contacts tested positive for Covid-19. The Congress also hit back at the Home Minister, saying that it had aligned with the Gupkar alliance only for electoral purposes and asked the BJP why it had formed a government in Jammu and Kashmir with the PDP if the PDP was “anti-national”.

Centre cites liberal media as alibi for its own failings on Tablighi coverage

In a move that has raised eyebrows, the Centre has defended its failure to act against the bigotry-filled media coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in March and its consequences for the spread of the pandemic, by (hold your breath) citing the objective coverage provided The Wire, The Print, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times and two opinion articles. Based on their coverage, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said in an official affidavit that newspapers have “carried largely factual reports in this context” and the online news portals named “undertook objective reporting”. “The media has made a clear distinction between the organisers and attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat event and the larger Muslim community in general.”

The Centre’s position is curious for four reasons. First, ministers and BJP leaders are often quick to brand The Wire and other online portals as “fake news” when they publish material that shows the government or Sangh parivar in a poor light and actually said in court during the Sudarshan TV hearing that there is urgent need for their regulation. Second, most of the media platforms the government is now using as a crutch to justify its permissive attitude towards communal TV channels had also reported extensively on the forced exodus of workers from India’s cities after the lockdown was imposed in March. But the government’s view then was that the exodus was triggered by “fake news”. Third, the Centre’s affidavit is silent about its own statements linking the Tablighis to the spread of Covid-19. Fourth, it says not a word about the role played by its favourite TV channels – Zee, India TV, Republic etc – in using phrases like ‘Corona Jihad’ and why the relevant provisions of the law were not invoked against them.

Indeed, the Centre got it in the neck for this last omission, with Chief Justice Bobde pointing out that there was nothing in the affidavit on the core question of the government’s own obligations.. 

In an observation that could have unpredictable implications for freedom of the press, he made it clear that ‘self-regulation’ was not good enough. Chief Justice Bobde said: “What is shown on TV channels is of great consequence for the country.” He wanted to know what the Centre had done to invoke the Cable TV Act to regulate content. The bench suggested that if the Centre did not have a mechanism for control, they would look for an external one. “If it does not exist, then you create an authority, else, we will hand it over to an outside agency.” The top court had already slammed the Centre in its earlier affidavit in October, also about communalisation of the pandemic, and this was the second affidavit. Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta pleaded for more time to file again, and the Centre has got three weeks for its third shot. By the way, the Centre said the IT ministry had issued 743 orders taking down offensive tweets related to Covid-19.

The Long Cable

Obama memoir starts panel wars in India, comments on Modi awaited

Sidharth Bhatia

Barack Obama’s memoir The Promised Land is attracting a lot of attention in India. With every extract published, the shrill reactions fluctuate from the ecstatic to the subdued.

The first bit was greeted with hoots of approval by supporters of the BJP, since they were critical of Rahul Gandhi. The BJP universe has always sought to portray the Gandhi family scion as somewhat dim, calling him a ‘Pappu’ or simpleton. On his part, Gandhi did little to actively dispel that notion, and in the early days of the post-Modi world, he did come across as slow and uncertain.

A review of Obama’s book in the New York Times by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie revealed that the former US president  felt that Rahul Gandhi had “a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.”

That was enough. As if on cue, government-friendly TV channels held special panel discussions on this monumental subject. BJP spokespersons ― including Tom Vadakkan, a former Congressman who was once said to be close to the Gandhi family ― thought Obama’s observations were spot on. “Reality has dawned in the international community that Rahul can’t lead,” Vadakkan said. Predictably, the Congress hit out at the former US president’s “churlish comments”.

Indians are always quick to take note of what foreigners, especially Americans, think of them. A small critical comment raises hackles and the merest hint of a compliment sends Indian spirits soaring. And this is a US president, after all, who is considered to be well-disposed towards India.

But after that initial bit about Rahul Gandhi, which warmed the cockles of the BJP’s heart, more excerpts have shown that Obama had high regard for former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, “a man of uncommon wisdom and decency,” and thought that Sonia Gandhi was “shrewd and with a forceful intelligence.” There’s much more, including the observation that Gandhi chose Dr Singh as prime minister because he posed no political threat to Rahul Gandhi. And so on and so forth.

But these observations have  been greeted with radio silence. Both parties, having reacted virulently to the first instalment, cannot now suddenly hail Obama’s sagacity, especially because he also presciently mentions the “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP” which, he was afraid, the Congress would not be able to confront.

Since the book ends in 2012, there is not much on Narendra Modi, but the second part is bound to contain Obama’s view of the Indian prime minister, who never tired of referring to him in familiar terms and greeted him at Delhi airport with a hug. That was also the time when Modi proudly wore an expensive, mongrammed suit with his own name, ‘Narendra Damodardas Modi’ running down it in gold thread, a cringeworthy moment that has never been repeated. Will Obama say something about that suit? Or let it pass.

Even ex-presidents like a bestseller, and this book is going to be one in India. Already, readers have pre-booked copies of this 768-page doorstopper of a book which costs, even after a discount, a hefty Rs 1,500 rupees ($20), far above the usual book prices in India.

Prime Number: 60%
The percentage of children who were unable to access online learning opportunities because families had no smartphones, or too few (due to siblings who were also in school), and who had difficulty in using apps for online learning, as per ‘Myths of Online Education’, a study by Azim Premji University. Teachers in the implementing states reported that out of 30,511 children who attended regular classes, only 11,474 were actually attending online classes. The problem was exacerbated for children with disabilities, with 90% of teachers who taught them reporting that they were unable to participate in online classes. The study encompassed 1,522 public schools in 26 districts spanning five states ― Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, and Uttarakhand. The latter two states had not implemented state-level initiatives for online methods of teaching.

The study also found that 90% of parents are willing to send their children to school if their health is taken care of. Around 65% of parents felt that reopening of schools would not pose a problem for their children’s health. 

Lakshmi Vilas under moratorium

The Reserve Bank of India has placed troubled private lender Lakshmi Vilas Bank (LVB) of Tamil Nadu under a one-month moratorium. The apex bank has also superseded the board of directors of the LVB. During the moratorium, withdrawals are capped at Rs 25,000.

Thereafter, the RBI put out a draft scheme of amalgamation of LVB with DBS Bank India, a wholly-owned subsidiary of DBS Bank Singapore. LVB would cease to exist and its shares would be delisted from stock exchanges. None of the bank’s 3,000-odd employees would be laid off.

Deep Dive

PDS helps to prevent stunting

Children of poor families left out of the Public Distribution System (PDS) are most likely to have stunted growth, says a new study, ‘Malnutrition and Poverty in India: Does the use of public distribution system matter?’ Its author, Basant Kumar Panda, finds that children from poor families without ration cards were 43% more likely to be stunted. States particularly guilty of leaving out poor families from the PDS are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The Supreme Court “was never perfect, but the signs are that it is slipping into judicial barbarism,” writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and he also explores dimensions of “democratic barbarism”.

  • The huge credit expansion underway in the financial system, from banks to online outlets and beyond, is very lopsided and fundamentally unsustainable, warns Vivek Moorthy, as bank credit to industry has been shrinking, while that to consumers has been growing rapidly.

Listen up

Christopher Lee speaks about contemporary discussions of decolonisation, Third Worldism, and the emergence of the Global South, thus reestablishing the Bandung conference’s importance in twentieth century global history. 

Watch Out

This discussion organised by the Kings India Institute focuses on urban planning as a site of the operation of caste power and explores how caste relations are being reconfigured by the politics of land and infrastructure in the growing cities of South Asia. 

Drawing on field-based and archival research conducted in different parts of India, the speakers show how colonial and postcolonial planning practices interact with extant caste relations and anti-caste political assertions. The panel – Bhuvaneswari Raman of Jindal Global University, Kalaiyarasan A of Brown University and Malini Ranganathan from American University – explores how colonial modernity, postcolonial capitalism and evolving caste dynamics shape contemporary urban forms in India.

Go to Pakistan!

GoAir had to go to Pakistan due to a medical emergency on board, when a passenger sickened and fell unconscious on its Riyadh-Delhi flight. The plane landed in Karachi but was back on course to Delhi by last night. 

Surviving National Journalism Day

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