The India Cable: Arnab Wants Bail, Biden-Harris Wait but Samosa Caucus Holds On

Plus: Government pushes for new TRP system, Covid vaccine by January, RIL share value and Mukesh’s waist size, and and why we mustn’t forget the migrant worker

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 5, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Three more Rafale fighter jets have landed in India from France, this time with much less fanfare than the first batch which landed in September to a loud PR and media campaign. Chief of Army Staff General Mukund Naravane started his three-day Nepal tour yesterday by visiting religious places in Kathmandu and Basantapur. 

Arnab Goswami is in judicial custody following his arrest in a case of abetting suicide. 

A number of media organisations have criticised the action as excessive use of state power. Central ministers and senior BJP members have weighed in for Goswami, while Opposition leaders point to their silence about other journalists targeted by the UP police. The editors of the New York Times have floundered in covering the story, describing the Shiv Sena in a tweet as “progressive” and Goswami as “conservative”. They have no idea that traditional binaries and classifications no longer make sense in India.   

Trains are not running on time. In fact, they’re not running at all, asserts the Rail Ministry, as it continues to confront the Punjab government with restrictions on train movements in the state. 

The end of Article 370 was supposed to flood Kashmir with loads of development, but the burden of getting it done has now been shifted to newly-formed District Development Councils ― essentially a ploy to undermine traditional parties and legislatures ― which will see elections in eight phases from November 28. Be prepared for a boycott by mainstream parties, meagre polling and BJP proxies winning in Kashmir. 

Looking beyond India, a powerful burst of radio waves washed over Earth, lighting up radio telescopes in North America. Now, astronomers have located the source of this strange signal which, sadly, is not a message from ET. Telescopes have picked up such fast radio bursts before, but always from outside our galaxy. This time, three pieces in Nature say it’s from the Milky Way.


Novel vaccine 

India’s daily Covid-19 count again crossed the 50,000 mark on Thursday, with the country registering 50,210 fresh cases in the last 24 hours, which also recorded 704 deaths due to the virus. The total tally of infections in India now stands at 8.36 million.

A safe and effective vaccine against the novel coronavirus may be available in India by January 2021, “if approvals from regulatory bodies are in place in time”, says Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute of India which has joined hands with British-Swedish pharma major AstraZeneca to produce the coronavirus vaccine. Developed by the University of Oxford, Covishield, as the vaccine is called, is currently in the Phase II/III clinical trial in the country. 

Theatres, swimming pools and yoga centres are open from today in Maharashtra, one of the states worst affected by Covid.


Relax, have a samosa

We don’t know yet if Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris will make it to the White House but Indian-American Democrats in the US Congress, who call themselves the ‘Samosa caucus’, have been re-elected to the US House of Representatives, and could increase their strength by one more member. 

Dr Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal (left to right, above) are home and dry. Hiral Tipirneni was neck and neck with her Republican opponent in Arizona at the last count, and could win. Over a dozen Indian-Americans have won state polls, too.  


Lights, camera, Arnab 

Arnab Goswami, frontline commando in the Centre-state tussle in Maharashtra, has been remanded to judicial custody for 14 days after the court dismissed his allegation that he was assaulted in his home by the state police. He was taken away after a 14-minute resistance struggle, when he ‘noticed’ cellphone cameras recording his arrest and rose to the occasion. He spent the night at a local school which is designated as a Covid centre for the Alibaug prison. He is charged with abetting suicide, and not for his journalistic work. The Mumbai Police has now filed an FIR against him, his wife and son and two others for assaulting the police. In the course of the assault drama, Goswami took the name of “my Prime Minister” in vain. But his lieutenant obliged. 

Amit Shah was joined by Union ministers Prakash Javadekar, S Jaishankar, Smriti Irani and Piyush Goyal, along with Devendra Fadnavis and BJP president JP Nadda in condemning the arrest. The E-word and the name of Indira Gandhi were invoked several times. But the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress scoffed at the “selective outrage” of the BJP, pointing to the detention of freelance journalist Prashant Kanojia and the FIR against Scroll Executive Editor Supriya Sharma, both in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, besides countless other cases the police has filed against journalists there and in other BJP-run states. Discussion on social media also recalled those detained for long periods without trial in the Bhima Koregaon case and the targeted violence in Delhi in February. Today, the Bombay High Court began hearing Goswami’s petition to quash the FIR leading to his arrest. At the time of publication, the hearings were still on with Goswami’s counsel, Harish Salve, asking for immediate bail and the bench indicating it wants to hear the state first.


Salary snafu in central universities

Four days into November, teachers and other staff at about half a dozen central universities are yet to receive salaries for October, marking a record delay in the history of public-funded educational institutions. Among these universities are Visva-Bharati in Bengal, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri National Sanskrit University in Delhi, Nagaland University, Jharkhand University and South Bihar University.

Central university teachers and other staff are paid their salaries on the last working day of the month, but it has been delayed because of migration to a new payment system, where every Central university has to open a “treasury single account” (TSA) with the Reserve Bank of India, validated by the UGC.


Towards a new TRP system

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has set up a four-member committee to make “recommendations for a robust, transparent and accountable ratings system (for television) in India”. The decision comes a little over two weeks after the parliamentary panel on Information Technology, chaired by Shashi Tharoor of the Congress, took up the issue of Television Rating Points (TRPs). The panel had noted that TRPs can be “easily manipulated”, amid allegations of a scam involving certain news channels. The committee consists of Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi V Vempatti, Dr Shailabh from IIT Kanpur, Rajkumar Upadhyay from C-DOT and Pulak Ghosh from the Centre for Public Policy. It will submit its report in two months.

At the same time, the News Broadcasters Federation, an alternative industry group founded by Arnab Goswami, has written to the Prime Minister seeking an independent national body to “deal with misconduct by professional journalists”. Goswami’s Republic TV is one of the channels being probed in the TRPs for cash scam. 

Zee News anchor Sudhir Chaudhary is asking if it is time to quit journalism. We are tempted to ask: how about doing some journalism, first?


The Long Cable

India on the move

Seema Chishti

Peepli Live, with its portrayal of live news and its ability to destroy lives, is a metaphor now. But its most underrated moment is the last scene, when the lead protagonist escapes the attention of insane TV crews and reaches Delhi, mingling with the millions of migrants engaged as ‘labour’ to help prepare the capital for the Commonwealth Games.

The poignancy of countless such journeys was brought into sharp relief as the reverse migration was undertaken, hurriedly, with great difficulty, sometimes on foot by over 10 million Indians (that’s the official figure) rushing home to escape hunger during the nationwide lockdown, which was announced with barely five hours’ notice in March. The journeys sometimes became stories of heroism, like that of a young girl who took her disabled father home on a bicycle, or tragedies, as lives were lost on railway tracks, leaving behind only packed meals of rotis strewn at the scene of the tragedy, mute reminders of why these people had left their homes for the cities in the first place.

In the entire pandemic-stricken world in 2020, India was the only country with distress migration. It was also the first time after 1947 that such sudden and large-scale migrations were seen here. Chinmay Tumbe, author and student of India’s internal migrants, had said in April; “This is a good time to conceive a new approach to providing social security to migrant workers. The Working Group on Migration published a report in 2017 by what was then called the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and that should be taken seriously. There is a serious public health issue faced by migrant workers which has little to do with Covid-19. Malnutrition levels among kids of construction workers on construction sites are on par with what is found in sub-Saharan Africa.”

To not forget those images and statistics would be the best first step towards providing a modicum of relief and justice to migrant workers. Two important initiatives seek to memorialise. More than 120 million people lost their jobs in April due to the lockdown, 75% of whom were working in the unorganised sector. The Digital Empowerment Foundation has spoken to 60 migrant families in 17 villages and has put together 30 short films, 60 text interviews and a documentary to record the journey of the migrants. The Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of volunteers that was involved in coordinated relief efforts to support migrant workers during the lockdown, have announced “a SWAN Fellowship to provide migrant workers, from rural and urban areas, an opportunity to document their experiences in their own words, and to promote local, community-based leadership of workers through support and advocacy”. Six migrant workers would be identified as SWAN Fellows. Each will receive a stipend of Rs 4,000 per month for an initial period of six months.

(https://themigrants.in/)

Four million of them have travelled back to Bihar. Election Commission data confirms that 16.6 lakh migrant voters are on the rolls and 2.3 lakh have been added in 2020. This is not just about migrants as individual voters, as each person’s situation affects multiple families. Their dramatic return has enriched the electoral debate in Bihar, bringing the focus back to the incredibly high unemployment figures in the state ― CMIE evaluated unemployment in April-May 2020 at just under 24% nationally, but Bihar saw it skyrocket to over 46%. Currently, the numbers are 6% and 12%. The strength of the adolescent and young adult population of Bihar is much higher than the national average, those aged 18-29 make up 24% and they are flocking to rallies. They have only seen the Nitish Kumar-BJP government in the state, and issues like the Babri Masjid, which had set the 1990s alight, or Article 370, do not kindle any memories or feelings among them.

The pandemic, lockdown and economic collapse directly led to migrants fleeing, and to those disturbing images of harried journeys. Those images are influencing our politics today and leaders of all colours are being forced to respond to the distress that is so visible on the ground. Politics must be forced to migrate to issues that matter – and real lives, which parties should compete to improve.


Reportedly

RIL scrip down, Mukesh lost weight

Earlier this week, the share price of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) fell 9% in a single day amidst a rising market and created a lot of investor curiosity. Why was this happening to India’s most valuable company?  Some analysts said this was routine selling by investors for profit booking, and others that RIL’s quarterly results were not up to expectations.

However, what is being talked about in whispers across the investing world is the health of RIL’s CMD Mukesh Ambani, who has been living outside London with his family and key advisors for three months. Though Ambani has appeared in public via Zoom a few times ―  having visibly lost a lot of weight ― there is no official word about any problem with his health.

In modern market economies like the US, it is mandatory to inform shareholders via stock exchanges about any hospitalisation of the CMD, but there is no such rule in India. So speculation abounds about Ambani’s health, and issues surrounding the future management structure of RIL, which is on the cusp of becoming a big tech and retail giant. Some institutional investors believe the fall in the share price did have something to do with these concerns.


Alimony up front

In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court has laid down a fundamental guideline for matrimonial cases ― deserted wives and their children are entitled to alimony from the day they file an application in a court. The purpose of alimony is to prevent the destitution of women and children, and this is not served if its delivery is delayed until a case has run its course. This period could run into years, and women and children cannot be left to fend for themselves.   


ISRO gets a breather

The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the execution of an arbitral award that required the Indian Space Research Organisation’s commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, to pay compensation of about $1.2 billion to a Bengaluru-based startup, Devas Multimedia Private Limited, over the cancellation of a 2005 agreement.

A federal court in Washington had on October 27 ordered execution of the award dated September 14, 2015 in favour of Devas Multimedia and asked the Indian government entity to deposit the compensation with 18% annual interest, that added up to $1.2 billion.


Prime number: 1.97 crore
The number of people in Karnataka, 27.3% of the state’s population, who are either infected by coronavirus or had the infection in the past. The data, as of September 16, is from the sero-survey conducted by the state government. This is around 20 times the official case count of the virus in Karnataka. 

Deep Dive

Farm fires

Vivek Kaul delves into the history of policy incentives and other steps that have led to the present cropping patterns and agricultural practices in Punjab, which poison Delhi’s air every November. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Ram Guha writes an obituary in The Financial Times of a “fighter for freedom who made his mark across three continents” ― ES Reddy, historian and anti-apartheid campaigner, who died last week in the US.

  • With the US elections still hanging in the balance, former foreign secretary and ambassador to Beijing Vijay Gokhale declares the only certain winner: ‘America First’. There can be no return to the old America, which was about freedoms and open borders. Now, anxieties about immigration and outsourcing, and a difficult relationship with China, are here to stay. 

  • Raising the diet of the people from subsistence level to a higher level of nourishment and overcoming the triple deficit is the only way that health, education, skills, employability and the earning capacity of our demographic dividend can improve, write Veena Rao and R Shankar. The triple deficit refers to low weight, stunting and wasting among children, low body mass index and stunting among adolescents, and lack of low-cost fortified energy food in the market. 


Listen up

Andrew B. Liu discusses his book Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, with Lukas Rieppel. He challenges past economic histories premised on the technical “divergence” between the West and the Rest, arguing instead that seemingly traditional technologies and practices were central to modern capital accumulation across Asia. He shows how competitive pressures compelled Chinese merchants to adopt abstract industrial conceptions of time, while colonial planters in India pushed for labour indenture laws to support factory-style plantations.


Watch Out

Talk of ‘love jihad’ is now rampant, and is being presented as a fit subject for legislation. Time to watch this documentary made by Paromita Vohra in 2007 for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). It digs deep and leaves very little unsaid.


Tailpiece

The venerable New York Times said it, but had the presence of mind to correct it before the Shiv Sena could take offence.


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.