The India Cable: Bharat Bandh Tomorrow Unites Opposition; Soaring Markets, Stagnant Wages

Plus: UP makes more ‘love jihad’ arrests, CAA as Bengal election ploy, Diljit Dosanjh wins hearts and minds, foreign hand for farmers undeterred, and thank you world, but we have our metal monolith

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 7, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The Centre has said nothing yet but the Bharatiya Janata Party has announced in Bengal that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act will be implemented from January. Elections in the state are due in April 2021. Over 140 petitions challenging the Act have been pending for nearly a year in the Supreme Court. The court had declined to stay its implementation in December 2019, and in March this year, it said that it may first hear review petitions pending in the Sabarimala case

The blueprint for a new Parliament building, modeled on the Pentagon but with a Holiday Inn finish, has been unveiled. Till the Supreme Court finally decides the matter, there will be no construction, demolition or felling of trees in the Central Vista project, but the foundation ceremony will be held on Thursday. 

University-educated legislative council voters in Varanasi and its neighbourhood have handed a defeat to BJP candidates, in the Uttar Pradesh legislative council elections. This came a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his parliamentary constituency a visit. Addressing BJP workers in Uttarakhand, party president JP Nadda made an intriguing comparison between Donald Trump, who apparently lost the election due to his mishandling of the pandemic, and Modi, who took the “bold decision” of imposing a lockdown. Goodbye to howdy, namaste and all that.  

Modi and his government have been prevaricating on the main question about the vaccine: will the Centre foot the bill? Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh posed it in a letter to the PM yesterday, asking him if the Covid-19 vaccination programme would be entirely funded by the Centre, including the cost of vaccines and infrastructure. Meanwhile, Pfizer has signalled its desire to introduce its Covid-19 vaccine in India but asserted that its product, already introduced in the UK, would be available only through the government under its global policy to refrain from private sales during the current pandemic phase. But the Oxford and AstraZeneca vaccine could be available in the Indian private market by March, via the Serum Institute of India, the vaccine’s Indian manufacturing partner.

Officials in Andhra Pradesh are investigating an unidentified illness which took 140 people to hospital over the weekend. And it turns out the Enforcement Directorate is not investigating jailed media baron Peter Mukerjea’s claim that his INX company – which is at the centre of a bribery scandal – is actually owned by Mukesh Ambani and his family and friends.

The protesting farmers’ call for a Bharat Bandh tomorrow has finally stirred the Opposition to unified action. A joint statement by Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Farooq Abdullah, MK Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav, Sitaram Yechury, D Raja, Tejashwi Yadav, Dipankar Bhattacharya of the CPI(ML) and others, states that the new farm laws would mortgage Indian agriculture to corporates. Regional parties and groups are acting locally. In Assam, for instance, 14 Opposition parties have declared their support for the general strike. 

Living up to his name, Punjabi singer Diljit Dosanjh has won hearts and minds by donating Rs 1 crore on the quiet to buy warm clothes for protesting farmers. Free wi-fi has been installed at the protest site on the Singhu border by an unknown benefactor ― the farmers call it “gupt sewa”, or ‘secret service’ ― but the police have moved in with internet jammers in the area. 

The Bangla cartoonist Gandhamadan suggests that the government’s attitude to farmers is a suicide pill (The Bangla text reads: “If you win the throne on the peasant’s vote and then kick him…”). Sections of the press which have tried the familiar routine of demonisation should take note, too.

Citing the recession and the absence of a stimulus, the Times of India group this weekend reduced Mumbai Mirror to a weekly and took Pune Mirror and Ahmedabad Mirror out of print altogether. This is the closest that the big media could possibly get to criticising the disastrous economic policies of the government. 

The government’s financial interventions are altering the media landscape. The statement from TOI also blames a hike in newsprint duties, which made operations unviable. On November 24, Huffpost India had to shut down suddenly following the acquisition of its parent company by BuzzFeed. New regulations for foreign direct investment in digital media made it impossible for BuzzFeed and its subsidiaries to operate here.  

A contempt petition has been filed in the Supreme Court by a law student against comic artist Rachita Taneja for her cartoon on the apex court, which she posted on Twitter. Attorney General KK Venugopal said on Sunday that curbing free speech on social media would adversely affect democracy. But he added that institutions and governments could always respond to “misuse” with contempt proceedings. He’s been busy as a beaver clearing those recently. We fear that another application may soon come his way.

While the digital boom during the pandemic is talked up in the press, a family deeply immersed in literature (they are the publishers of Perumal Murugan, Sundara Ramaswamy and Ashokamitran, for instance) opens Sudarsan Books, a physical bookshop in Nagercoil of the old school ― the owner is seeking recommendations from the public about titles to stock.

And as the US begins to rethink its position on cannabis, see this wonderful cartoon history thread by @penpencildraw on the bizarre history of the soft drug in India.

Error 404: File not found

In a brazen move to stonewall an RTI request, the Health Ministry has said that it doesn’t know the physical location of the records of the Covid-19 vaccine expert group which was constituted in August. Venkatesh Nayak had approached the ministry seeking details of its constitution and operations, such as dates of meetings, a copy of the detailed agenda circulated in relation to every meeting, presentations made and material shared with the foreign ministry. 

UP channels its inner 1930s Germany 

A pregnant Hindu woman aged 22 was heckled and humiliated in public by Bajrang Dal workers for marrying a Muslim youth in UP’s Moradabad district, when the couple went to the sub-divisional magistrate’s office at Kanth to get their marriage registered. The saffron outfit termed it as ‘love jihad’ and its activists  forcibly took the couple to the police station. The husband and his brother, who was also with them, were arrested by UP Police while the woman was handed over to her parents (some reports say she was sent to a women’s home).

The family of the first person arrested under the disgraceful ‘love jihad’ law in UP has accused the police of forcing them to sign a statement declaring that investigators did not use force or harass them. Six FIRs have been filed in five districts under the new ordinance, and 29 persons booked under the communal law. Ten of them have been arrested. 

BJP beset by farmers

The BJP’s cup of woes is filled to the brim by protesting farmers, who have accused the Modi government of using delaying tactics over their demands to roll back the farm sector reforms and will intensify the siege of the national capital by blocking all highways. Multiple bank unions have extended their support to the farmers protesting against the three new agri-marketing laws that were recently passed by the Centre. Students representing multiple unions, some IITs and the Ayurveda College in Dehradun have urged all students to support the bandh tomorrow. 

In Haryana, the BJP-JJP coalition government remains under pressure with seven JJP MLAs supporting the protesting farmers. In Rajasthan, BJP ally Rashtriya Loktantrik Party extended its support to the agitation and its MP Hanuman Beniwal said in a video message that he will also take a call on support to the NDA after December 9. 

The farmers’ langars are not just feeding the protesters, but have also come as a boon to the underprivileged in the vicinity of the protest. The security forces are also invited, and the meetha chawal is mighty tasty. 

Foreign helping hand

British MPs have opened a new and wider flank on the protest, going beyond Canadian concerns and raising questions about the “impact” of the farm laws. About 36 parliamentarians from various parties, some of them with Indian roots, have urged the UK government to speak up for the Indian farmers’ right to protest peacefully. Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, also said, “...people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and authorities need to let them do so.”

The government had sharply criticised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for backing the farmers’ right to protest, issued a demarche and warned of damage to bilateral ties. In a childish peeve, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar pulled out of the next meet of a Canada-led group of foreign ministers on Covid-19. India’s vaccine choices are governed by financial compulsions, and this was an opportunity to reduce the sticker shock by discussing intellectual property costs. 

But Trudeau reiterated his support after the Indian reaction, and the government has fallen silent after that. It has not responded to signals from either the UK or the UN. Modi has invited Boris Johnson to be chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations, and his government’s reaction to the British MPs would be interesting. Even in the case of the US, the prevalent view is that “over time a growing perception among Americans that India is at best an illiberal democracy could lead to weaker ties.”

Thousands protested in central London on Sunday in support of the Indian farmer. A crowd of demonstrators converged on the Indian high commission in Aldwych and groups marched around the Trafalgar Square area. 

Twitter disconnects PEN writer

On Sunday, Twitter suspended the account of journalist and writer Salil Tripathi. Ironically Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, is an absolutist defender of the freedom of expression. Salman Rushdie termed it “outrageous” and writers like Hari Kunzru, Suketu Mehta, Manan Ahmed, Amitava Kumar, Amitav Ghosh, Mirza Waheed and Nilanjana Roy demanded an explanation from Twitter. It appears that the social network objected to his recitation of a poem for his mother, which features 1947, MF Husain, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. Why? Judge for yourself, from this May 2010 video.

As if cutting off J&K from the world for nearly a year was not enough, The Intercept details activities by the social media police there ― journalists are quizzed about their tweets, even their taste in poetry. 

More Chinese villages established

China has constructed at least three villages only 5 km from the Bum La pass which lies close to the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan in western Arunachal Pradesh, 37 km from Tawang. Beijing disputes the boundary between India and China in this region and the new constructions here could be a significant step towards reinforcing its territorial claims along the Arunachal Pradesh frontier. This comes a week after high-resolution satellite images appeared of Chinese village construction in Bhutanese sovereign territory, just 7 km from the site of the Doklam face-off between Indian and Chinese forces in 2017.

Nomadic herders can’t cross the line

In Ladakh, every winter, when the temperature drops to minus 50 degrees Celsius, nomadic herders on the Indian side of Pangong Lake, which is claimed by both India and China, wait for it to freeze over so that they can pass over with their livestock in search of greener pastures. But with Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a stand-off stemming from their deadly clash in June at the disputed Himalayan border, herders have not been able to pass to the other side. With both sides upgrading their living facilities as their troops hunker down for long stays in the frigid winter, this barrier may not be temporary.

Deep Dive

Urban Employment Guarantee

The income crisis brought on by the pandemic is not a purely rural phenomenon. Apart from  MNREGA, workers in the cities need guaranteed incomes now. 

The Long Cable

Markets soar, wages stagnate and a dangerous nexus is born

MK Venu

The stock markets have soared while sustained recovery of the real economy remains in doubt. The yawning gap between the real and financial economy suggests that sustained recovery of demand may be some time away. Direct fiscal stimulus in India has been inadequate, as most credible economists have opined. A CEO of the Tata Group says that even if pre-Covid levels of production are achieved, industries would still be operating at only 65 to 70% capacity. New investments will come only when capacity utilisation nears 90%.   

The financial economy is running way ahead of the real economy on the back of unprecedented liquidity pumped in by central banks around the world, led by the Fed. During the 2008 financial meltdown, the US Federal Reserve printed dollars and its deficit expanded from $800 billion in 2008 to over $4 trillion by 2016. The freshly minted money largely went to repair the balance sheets of large banks, insurance giants and other corporates. Corporate profits improved but the salaries of the middle class stagnated. For years, there was no sustained recovery in the real economy, or quality employment. The Covid crisis hit when the Fed was beginning to wind down its bloated balance sheet, but it has probably ballooned to about $7 trillion. Add to this the liquidity shots injected by banks in the EU, China and Japan and we have a perfect recipe for possible future asset price bubbles in equity, debt, commodities, gold, real estate etc.

Unprecedented liquidity injections have widened, more than ever before, the gap between the real and financial economy. In the 1980s, global GDP was the same as the total market value of stocks and bonds. Today, the value of stocks and bonds is more than four times that of global GDP, a bubble waiting to be pricked. The lagging real economy impacts the poor and the lower middle class, which do not benefit from asset price inflation.

This was the experience around the world after central banks pumped in cash and credit after the 2008 meltdown. The world, and especially emerging markets, saw subpar economic growth and a very muted rise in incomes of the middle class and the poor in the decade after. Are we about to repeat the same pattern? In an insightful analysis in The Indian Express Sajjid Chinoy, a member of Prime minister’s economic advisory council, suggests that the big risk to sustained demand-led economic recovery is that current liquidity injections and cheap credit are going largely towards improving corporate balance sheet and profits, at the expense of wage and employment growth

“So even as the economies heal from Covid-19 the distribution of incomes across capital and labour risks are becoming very skewed in favour of capital. Why does this matter? Equity issues apart, this portends ominously for future demand,” writes Chinoy. In fact, this skew of returns in favour of capital and away from labour has been happening over the past decade and more, and is revealed by a decreasing share of wages, as opposed to profits, in the overall economic value added. The skew is sharpened and accelerated after every big global economic crisis ― in 2008 and 2020 ― as unprecedented monetary measures improve big corporate balance sheets while weakening wage growth and quality employment. This is broadly recognised by economic analysis from both the left and the right. 

Witness the manner in which the wealth of entrepreneurs as reflected in stock value has gone up multifold, even as the incomes of daily wage workers and salaried employees have been smashed in the post-Covid period. Only sustained and secular growth recovery can correct this, and this will be the biggest economic challenge for years ahead. The political economy spawned by these circumstances also produces a new politics of a close nexus between big business and populist leaders, a red flag for the health of democracy. 

Prime Number: 42.5%
That’s the percentage of Indians with disabilities who reported difficulties in accessing routine healthcare during the lockdown, discovered by a study conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Hyderabad. The study also found that 28% had to delay their medical appointments during the period and 58% with pre-existing health conditions faced difficulty in accessing routine medical care.

Indian companies changing domicile

Internet entrepreneur Sanjeev Bikhchandani says an estimated Rs 17 trillion of market cap has been transferred abroad after young Indian start-ups were forced to shift their company domicile overseas by foreign investors promising the funds they need for growth. “Shades of the East India Company type of situation here ― Indian market, Indian customers, Indian developers, Indian workforce. However 100% foreign ownership, foreign investors. IP and data transferred overseas. Transfer pricing issues foggy,” he said.

Farmers prompt actors

Indian actors have been panned for jumping up to shout out for cool causes (which are outside the Indian jurisdiction, like Black Lives Matter) but stay mum on issues right here at home. But, there are “green shoots” visible now. But some have now found a voice, prompted by the farmers’ chutzpah.

Merry Christmas beating

The Bajrang Dal has rung in Christmas early in Assam with one of its workers announcing that any Hindu going to Church on Christmas would be beaten up. A Bajrang Dal office-bearer, Mithun Nath, said publicly at a function in Cachar district that the Hindutva group takes pride in being called “gundas” (goons). “The press calls us Gunda Gang,” he said, adding that he did not care. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Denouncing the Modi government’s move to almost scrap Ambedkar’s 75-year-old post-matric scholarship scheme, Sukhadeo Thorat says that there is moral and legal justification for comprehensive support to the Scheduled Castes. The government should realise that whether we take the ancient period (after the Manusmriti circa 200 BC) or the medieval or British period till 1882, untouchables were denied the right to education mainly due to high-caste hostility. 

  • Calling them lapdogs, Tavleen Singh says that the media has been ‘managed’ in ways by the Modi government that are so unsubtle that when a group of TV reporters went to meet farmers at the barricades on Delhi’s northern border, they were chased away by angry Sikhs who said they had no wish to talk to “godi media”.

  • Hyderabadi culture is not the Nizam stereotype which was demonised by the BJP. It is modern and traditional, inclusive and savvy, writes Dinesh Sharma. It should be preserved, not eradicated.

  • Aakash Singh Rathore marinates and skewers Rashmi Das, member of the executive council of JNU, who recently penned the awful article Who’s Afraid of Vivekananda?, in which she pointed out that the monk “taught us kingly values. These will permeate JNU now and make it grand.” Unfortunately, the monk’s responses can no longer be canvassed. A pity, because they would have been colourful. 

Listen up

Longstanding damage to the environment in India and South Asia has widened inequalities of varying types, says environmental historian Sunil Amrith in a Himal podcast.

Watch Out

In Search of India’s Soul is the perfect watch, exactly a day after 28 years of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Watch this two-part documentary by Aatish Taseer. 

Our monolith is bigger than their monolith

Over the last week, there has been much excitement internationally about the mysterious appearance of metal monoliths in Utah, California and Romania, like the one encountered by Moon Watcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or, like a gigantic Juul vape pen. We advise persons overseas to calm down. These are piffling little things just a few metres tall, while India has one which is visible from space

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.