The India Cable: BJP Bringing Social Media in Line for 2024; Doctors Take On Ramdev’s Quackery

Plus: Tikait calls govt ‘company sarkar’, Lakshadweep BJP in revolt, demonetisation increased stone-pelting in J&K, Centre’s false accusation of vaccine wastage, fuel prices rise 13 times in 22 days

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
May 27, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

“India’s race to vaccinate its population has slowed to a standstill as the world’s largest manufacturer of jabs is forced to ask overseas suppliers for doses. The number of people jabbed each day has decreased by almost two-thirds while states have been told to arrange their own supplies by Delhi. Local officials say vaccines are running out and second doses of jabs cannot be arranged,” says The Times, London.

“There are fears that Covid-19 is running rampant in India’s notoriously overcrowded prisons as the devastating second wave ravages the country.  The latest figures for occupancy, from 2019, show that the total jail occupancy was 118.5% across the country. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, it is 167.9%. Social distancing in such a situation is clearly impossible,” reports The Telegraph (UK).

At an event organised by the Indian Women’s Press Corps to mark six months of the farmers’ protests, farm leader Rakesh Tikait has said that a “party sarkar” would have yielded long ago, but the present government cannot because it is a “company sarkar”. Leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, which leads the movement, said that the agitation would continue indefinitely, since to roll it back would encourage the impunity of the government. Tikait said it could continue until the general elections in 2024 ― if the three farm laws could be introduced in the age of Corona, they can be withdrawn too in the age of Corona. 

Arun Dwivedi, brother of Basic Education Minister Satish Dwivedi in the UP government, who was appointed professor in a public university from the Economically Weaker Section quota, has been forced to resign. The university authorities had threatened to move against him if his EWS certificate was found to be fake.

Fugitive diamond-wallah Mehul Choksi is in the custody of investigators in Dominica. He was trying to flee to Cuba. While India has an extradition agreement with Antigua, it has none with Cuba or Dominica. In Lakshadweep, demands within the BJP for the recall of administrator Praful Khoda Patel are growing, with the exit of eight Yuva Morcha members. The Muslim-dominated Union territory, at peace until the new administrator went berserk with reforms (including a blanket beef ban), plans to address a mass petition, backed by all non-BJP parties and unions, to the President. NCP President Sharad Pawar has asked the prime minister to intervene.    

Bangladesh has signed a $200 million currency swap deal with Sri Lanka to help Colombo tide over its debt crisis. After a one-hour phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping,Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari thanked him for granting one million vaccine doses. She had made a similar request to the Indian President, to no avail. 

According to the state civil supplies departments, the all-India monthly average retail prices of six edible oils are at their highest in 11 years. Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey said that “there has been a 62% spike in the prices of domestic edible oil”. The monthly average retail price of mustard oil (packed) was 39% higher than in May last year. It was the cheapest in May 2010, at Rs 63.05 a kg. Pakoda-making as an entrepreneurial venture, which the PM had recommended to the unemployed some years ago, would now require serious start-up capital. 

Pan-India retail sales declined by nearly 49% in April against the pre-pandemic levels of April 2019, according to the Retailers’ Association of India. The Nobel laureate economist Abhijit Banerjee says that the government should be spending a lot more to help people in the second wave. “I’m not sure the government is calling it right. Is it possible to spend an extra 2% of GDP on this right now? Probably ― many countries have borrowed 10 times that amount.”

HDFC Bank CEO Shashi Jagdishan struck a worrisome note when he said, “For the first time in so many years we probably may not have a grip on what is going to happen.” He referred to the high probability of retail loan defaults in the second wave, and its unprecedented effect in rural markets. 

The Lancet’s Citizens’ Commission on Reimaging India’s Health System has suggested eight urgent actions to “address one of the greatest humanitarian crises facing the country since its Independence.” It said that vaccine procurement must be centralised.

The Niti Aayog has responded to criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic with a dodgy fact check that doesn’t address the billion vaccine question: why is India’s daily vaccination curve going down instead of up?

And the cyclonic storm Yaas, which made landfall in Odisha yesterday, weakened and caused far less damage than was expected, though over a crore of people were affected and lakhs of homes damaged. In search of drama, Bangla channels created amateur theatre.


Vaccine wastage charges false 

Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh clarify that their vaccine wastage rates are nowhere near those claimed by the Modi government. Data from the Union Health Ministry showed that Chhattisgarh had 30.2% wastage, but the actual figure was only 0.95%. The Centre claimed a wastage rate of 37.3%  in Jharkhand, while the actual rate was only 4.635%, lower than the national average of 6.3%. Both are Opposition-ruled states. Not surprisingly, the Chhattisgarh Health Minister said that the Centre’s charge is “politically motivated.” 

Journalists accessed the detailed state-wise supply tables, which the Centre has stopped releasing, to show that the wastage, as per its own data, was 7% and 6% for Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. No state-wise supply data was supplied yesterday by the Health Ministry. A mistake made on May 20, when only 14 lakh were vaccinated but 48 lakh claimed, remains on the record. So the actual number vaccinated is 34 lakh less than what is being claimed. There is also unease about numbers being chucked about and claims made about the “biggest vaccination plan”, without clearly stating what percentage of Indians have been vaccinated.


Centre limits states’ vaccine procurement

Documents that show the Centre has capped the number of vaccines the Delhi government can directly purchase from manufacturers contradict the “liberalised” vaccination policy which came into effect on May 1. The Centre, the sole procurer of vaccines, had announced on April 21 that state governments and private hospitals could directly buy up to 50% of the stock of Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. But in letters sent to the Delhi government by the Union Health Ministry on May 17, the Centre continues to allocate the quantity of each vaccine that the state can procure directly. 

NDTV reviewed two letters sent by Manohar Agnani, Additional Secretary, Union Health Ministry, to Vikram Dev Dutt, Principal Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, Delhi Government, which state that 3 lakh doses of Covishield and 92,000 doses of Covaxin are available to the Delhi government for direct procurement in June. The letters also mention the number of doses allocated to Delhi under the Centre’s free supply scheme for vaccinating those above 45.


GST extension sought

Finance ministers of Opposition-ruled West Bengal, Jharkhand, Punjab, Kerala, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh met yesterday and deliberated on the extension of the compensation period by three to five years, ahead of the GST Council meeting tomorrow. This will be the first meet in nearly seven months. 

The Council will also take up the shortfall in compensation cess collected in FY22. Last year, the central government made up the shortfall by extending loans of Rs 1.1 lakh crore to states. It funded only part of the shortfall, arguing that it was on account of an “act of God”.


The Long Cable

BJP coercing platforms into position for 2024

MK Venu

There is rich irony in the face-off between the Modi government and big tech platforms, mainly Twitter and Facebook, because the BJP has been by far the biggest beneficiary of their reach and network effect. Whistleblowers have revealed that some of these social platforms helped Modi win the 2014 general election. Modi has the highest following in India on Twitter, over 68 million. The BJP’s IT Cell thrives on these platforms, using borderline divisive and hate messaging via its famed ‘WhatsApp Universities’, a poison ivy league headed by faceless vice chancellors from the Sangh parivar. 

So what is the Modi government complaining about? This is the all-important question.

The BJP cannot do without Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. In the 2024 elections, they will play a bigger role than ever in political campaigning and messaging, both for the ruling party and the Opposition. Obviously, the Modi regime is trying to pressure them so that they are open to doing deals in the future. Coercion, via new rules for intermediaries, is meant to ensure that they are more accommodating of the ruling party than the Opposition while implementing internal policies on unacceptable content.

This was starkly evident when Twitter flagged BJP spokesman Sambit Patra’s controversial tweet, about an alleged Congress campaign toolkit, as “manipulated media”. The Congress filed a formal complaint with the Delhi Police Commissioner and wrote to Twitter saying the toolkit (purported to be campaign material) released by BJP under the Congress letterhead was forged. After examining the complaint, Twitter flagged Patra’s tweet as manipulated. He was retweeted by several Union ministers, embarrassing the government. 

In retaliation, the Modi government took the extreme step of having the anti-terror squad of the Delhi Police swoop down on the offices of Twitter in Delhi. 

This was a blatant case of the government trying to influence the working of Twitter’s internal policy on fake news, to make it play a partisan role. 

The petty partisanship of the ruling party was even more visible as Delhi Police refused to act on a Congress complaint of forgery. Perhaps this is why the Congress also filed a complaint in a state not ruled by the BJP. One must recall the CBI showed blatant bias by not arresting BJP leaders in the Narada sting case ― even the Supreme Court commented on it. Such biases in implementing the rule of law is likely to appear in social media if the new rules, giving the government huge discretionary powers, are extended to intermediary platforms like Facebook and Twitter. WhatsApp has gone to court, saying that the new rules are unconstitutional and violate privacy as a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution.  

“We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that violate privacy of our users, but we will continue to engage with the government on valid legal requests,” a WhatsApp spokesperson has said. The platform will cooperate with the government on regulatory matters but cannot compromise its global privacy policy, which mandates end-to-end encryption. This may be a requirement under US law, which guarantees privacy and free speech under the First Amendment. So this face-off could create tension between the US and Indian authorities. Twitter has indicated it will seek the intervention of the US government in resolving the impasse.

While WhatsApp has challenged the new rules in the Delhi High Court, Twitter has issued a sharply worded statement calling the late night police ‘raid’ (or ‘serving of notice’) an example of intimidation:

“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules.”

Earlier, it had defied the Modi government at the peak of the farmers’ protest, when it generated massive global sympathy in its favour. Twitter took down some posts at the authorities’ request, but refused to remove others citing protection of free speech. 

The intermediary rules for social platforms are part of a larger package of rules for OTT platforms ― entertainment companies as well as online news media ― giving the government unbridled powers to take down content without even informing the publisher.  

The new rules for online news media have been challenged in High Courts as unconstitutional and violative of the mother IT Act of 2000. One fundamental illegality is that they were framed as subordinate legislation, and were not taken to Parliament. How can such a drastic alteration of free speech laws be effected without Parliament’s scrutiny? 

The Modi government has clearly stirred up a hornet’s nest with its new rules for social media platforms, OTTs and online news media. The larger objective is clearly to muzzle and control the flow of information. Big social media platforms have become very powerful and politicians around the world are wary of their growing capacity for information hegemony. But ruling politicians also do deals with them, as we have seen in India and the US. When politicians suddenly turn against them, they do not inspire confidence. 

The Modi government’s commitment to the privacy of citizens and the right to free speech is so low that many would trust a platform like Twitter over the government. The ruling dispensation, with its incessantly authoritarian ways, is solely responsible for this state of affairs. 


Reportedly

Ram Kisan Yadav, the yoga televangelist and businessman better known as Ramdev, is continuing to get slammed by doctors. The Indian Medical Association, Uttarakhand, has served him a defamation notice. If he doesn’t post a video taking back his remarks against allopaths and tenders a written apology in 15 days, Rs 1,000 crore will be demanded from him. The feisty Dr Jayesh Lele, general secretary of the IMA, who had shut up the babaji on live TV, has called for his arrest, and now, a police complaint has been filed against him

But the BJP government owes Randev politically for crucial and vocal support, and he has said on video: “No one’s father can dare to arrest me.” Brave words, from the man who unforgettably leapt off the stage in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan in June 2011, when he was supporting the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal movement, and tried to evade police disguised in a white ladies’ chikan salwar suit. 


Thoothukudi cases withdrawn

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has ordered the withdrawal of 38 cases, including against party leaders, filed during the anti-Sterlite protests in May 2018 in Thoothukudi. This follows his announcement on May 21, on the recommendations of the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan commission, that most cases, except those handed over to the CBI or relating to damage to public property, would be withdrawn.


Prime Number: 13
The price of petrol and diesel, after being damped down for the state elections, has risen 13 times in the last 22 days. The Centre has zero credibility when it says that the price rises independently, because it could control it just before polling. It makes massive sums from fuel cesses, which it does not share with the states.

The colour of misinformation changes

A study on online misinformation during the second wave of Covid-19 by Joyjeet Pal and Zainab Akbar of the University of Michigan, found a dramatic rise of ‘utilitarian’ misinformation, purporting to ‘deal with’ the issue, compared with blame-oriented misinformation, purporting to find ‘those at fault’, which circulated in 2020. 


Deep Dive

Black money and stone pelting

A new paper by C Christine Fair, Digvijay Ghotane and Parina Patel evaluates the Modi government’s claim that demonetisation would curb stone-pelting in India’s restive Jammu and Kashmir by rendering valueless the copious illegal currency that, according to India, Pakistan pumped into the state to pay protesters to throw stones. Assembling a novel dataset and controlling for other factors, the authors find that demonetisation corresponded to increased stone-pelting. 

This finding, the authors note, is important for two reasons. First, Indian efforts to depict all protests in Jammu and Kashmir as Pakistan-funded delegitimise Kashmiris’ grievances and diminish public appetite for addressing them. Second, the current populist government, which caters to Hindu nationalists, selectively curates facts to justify its actions, to the detriment of democratic accountability and governance.


@PenPencilDraw remains anonymous

The handle on Twitter and Instagram has become a go-to for pandemic-related political satire and memes in India. Though new followers flock to PenPencilDraw every day, the artist behind the handle has chosen to remain anonymous. In an email interview with Quartz, they said they were a lawyer and learned to draw during a sabbatical, adding that their “drawings of feet are a terrible giveaway” that they aren’t formally trained. 

“A lot of the work is related in some way to what’s happening around us, so it can’t but be political,” they said. “This is a particularly dark time in India, and I’m lucky to have the privilege to channel some of my frustration and anger (that many others also feel) into art.” They also have a book coming out in August, written by Aakar Patel, The Anarchist Cookbook: A Toolkit for Why and How You Should Protest.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Raman Jit Singh Chima writes that the Indian government’s recent moves are more about intimidating tech sector actors, and less about combating Big Tech.

  • By allowing Hindutva ideology to become entrenched in our communities, in religious and social spaces as well as in politics, we have betrayed our faith itself, writes Sunita Vishwanath in Foreign Policy.


Listen Up

At 69, Srilatha Batliwala is a feminist grandmother of four and sees “grandmothering” as a metaphor for how she operates in the world of feminist and social justice movements. Listen to her on the Two Old Bitches podcast.


Watch Out

This is the song on YouTube calling for democracy in Lakshadweep that Dweep Diary, the islands’ leading news site, reported on.  


Over and Out

Summer getaway plans? Your choice is limited to Russia, some CIS states like Ukraine, Egypt and South Africa. These are some of the few countries that have kept their doors open for Indian tourists, with minimal travel restrictions. 

Mathematicians Samit Dasgupta of Duke University and Mahesh Kakde of the Indian Institute of Science have finally found some of the numerical building blocks David Hilbert asked about more than 100 years ago.

Today, Vimeo is a public company, after 16 years. As Indian-origin American businesswoman Anjali Sud rang the opening bell, she said it all started when she stopped competing with YouTube and did it her way. “We put creators first, and put the power of professional-quality video in the hands of millions,” she posted soon after Vimeo was listed on Nasdaq. She took over as the platform’s CEO in 2017.  


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.