The India Cable: Centre Blinks on Farm Laws but Not Enough, Modi’s Kant Bemoans ‘Too Much Democracy’

Plus: Vaccine season may begin soon, China cancels joint stamp launch, arms purchases from US peak, India slips in spam rating and Central Vista recalls unhealthy tradition of monumental architecture

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 9, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

It was V-Day in the UK, as the vaccination season began with a 90-year-old woman receiving the Pfizer shot in the West Midlands. Today, the Centre is flying 60 foreign envoys to Hyderabad, to brief them about Bharat Biotech and Biological E, the two biotech companies working on a Covid-19 vaccine. An earlier plan to visit the Serum Institute in Pune has been scrapped. Bharat Biotech, which has developed an Indian vaccine in collaboration with the government’s National Institute of Virology and the Indian Council for Medical Research, is in Phase 3 trials with over 25,000 volunteers, but there are controversies about its results released so far.

After the government spoke in two voices on whether India would have universal coverage, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan has said, “Every single Indian who needs to be vaccinated will be vaccinated.” Those in greatest need are health workers, frontline workers including the security forces, those above 50, and those below 50 with comorbidities. With the imminent reopening of schools in mind, teachers are being considered for priority access.  

Hospitality firm OYO has laid off around 300 employees, mainly from its renovation and operations departments. Auto sales, a key measure of economic growth, fell by 19.29% in November, as there are questions about the health of banks. And in South Asia, only Pakistan’s inflation rate is higher than India’s, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Yesterday’s Bharat Bandh drew a mixed response, and was most successful in Punjab and Haryana, which were completely shut down, and 50,000 government staffers went on leave. In Delhi, markets and offices were open, but people generally stayed home. The strike was completely peaceful, and the Centre’s anxieties about far Left organisations and extremist groups taking advantage of the situation proved to be misplaced. However, the impasse is yet to be broken, with Amit Shah telling 13 farmer leaders that the three contentious farm laws will not be repealed, though it softened its stand a little on Wednesday afternoon by sending 10 proposals for amendment/review.

Early indications are that the farmers are not satisfied with these suggestions. Clearly, the farmers have understood Shah’s “chronology”! Five Opposition leaders ― Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Sitaram Yechury, D Raja and TKS Elangovan ― are to meet the President of India this evening and ask him to urge the government to repeal the laws.   

Drawing attention to the invisible hyphen that connects ‘Jai Jawan’ with ‘Jai Kisan’, armed forces veterans came out in support of the farmers’ protest, urging the government to accept their demands: “We understand the pulse of serving armed forces personnel, 80% of whom are from the farmer background and are a part of the very organic jawan-kisan link. Neglecting the importance of this organic link can seriously affect our country’s security.” Indeed, agitators have said that the soldiers serving in Ladakh are their sons, and if they called them home, would RSS cadres go to serve in their place? 

In solidarity with the ongoing farmers’ movement, a senior agricultural scientist, Dr Varinderpal Singh, Principal Soil Chemist at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, went up on the dais at an event organised by the Fertilisers Association of India in the capital on Monday, but refused to receive an award from Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilisers Sadanand Gowda. “My conscience does not allow me to receive this award when our farmers are on the roads,” he said, and after raising a slogan in support of the farmers, he returned to his seat in the audience, turning down repeated requests by the organisers to accept the award.

While on the subject of awards, the Bad Sex in Fiction awards are cancelled for 2020 because “the public has already been subjected to too many bad things this year.” 


Kant’s cant and recant

Amitabh Kant, flamboyant CEO of the NITI Aayog, described as both Modi’s Immanuel Kant and cheerleader by The Telegraph, said at an online event on Atmanirbhar Bharat organised by Swarajya magazine that India is “too much of a democracy”, and praised the Prime Minister for steamrolling the farm laws through. When the going got tough, the PTI story was taken down from the websites of several leading newspapers

This is a worn-out argument that authoritarian-minded leaders and analysts have made and has been countered in the past by social scientists who argue India’s problem may actually be the opposite: too little actual democracy.

But having said what he did, not once but twice in the course of a single interaction, Kant  denied having said it. He is right there on video, at the 33 minute mark:

Earlier this year, several indices on democracy awarded India a serious downgrade. Now Kant speaking his mind, then recanting, and media organisations compliantly pressing the delete button, speaks volumes. This, at a time when complaints of public grievances against the Modi government have touched a record high of 2.1 million this year, up by 15% from last year.


After farmers vs Shah, Centre makes 10 proposals

While the BJP-led NDA is under pressure to resolve the farmers' protests, farm leaders are under pressure not to give in. That is why no breakthrough could be achieved after nearly four hours of discussions where Home Minister Amit Shah rejected the demand to repeal the three farm laws in his short-notice meeting on Tuesday night with 13 selected farmers’ leaders ― eight from Punjab-based peasant unions and five from broader national organisations of farmers ― as the protests entered the 14th day. 

Shah’s efforts, a day before the scheduled sixth round of talks between the government and farmer unions, were aimed at ending the protests which have attracted global attention for leaving the Modi government rattled. After the meeting, the farm leaders announced that there would be no further talks with the government as they await its proposal for certain amendments. Though Shah proposed another round of talks on December 10, the unions said they would take a decision after studying the Centre’s proposal, handed over Wednesday.

The proposal has 10 points, which are being deliberated upon by the farm unions and are likely to be rejected as they seek withdrawal of the four laws. These include  a consideration of the Minimum Support Price as a floor price, restoring the jurisdiction of civil courts, which the laws had ousted, taking farmers’ concerns on the proposed ban on stubble burning, and an assurance that farmers won’t lose their land. 


After Aarogya Setu collapse, a new vaccination app

After the tremendous and globally acclaimed failure of its Covid-19 contact tracing app Aarogya Setu, the Modi government has now developed the Co-WIN app for real-time monitoring of COVID-19 vaccination. As per the health secretary, the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 has recommended that around one crore health workers should be given priority in the vaccination drive. The second priority will be the nearly two crore frontline workers (personnel from state and central police departments, armed forces, home guard and civil defence organisation, including disaster management volunteers and municipal workers), followed by the 27 crore people who are above 50, and those under 50 with associated comorbidities. But the bureaucrat was quick to add that this is the recommendation of the expert group, and the government is yet to decide on it. Meanwhile, we have a somewhat honest acknowledgement of the government’s ineptitude from the foreign minister.


Stamp of disapproval

China has cancelled the joint launch with India of a commemorative stamp amid the ongoing military standoff along the disputed border in eastern Ladakh, without providing any reason. The stamp was to be jointly launched as part of celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1950, and was agreed upon during the second informal summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping held in Chennai in October 2019. 

Commemorative stamp and first day cover (Source: china-embassy.org)

“Chinese incursions are at the heart of the problem” in Ladakh according to the foreign minister but asked when the next round of talks would be held on the border crisis, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a media briefing that China and India have been in “close communication on the border issue through diplomatic and military channels to further ease tensions… The two sides will hold consultations over specific arrangements for further talks on the basis of acting on existing consensus reached through previous talks.” Whew!


The Long Cable

Make it large: Monumental architecture and the Central Vista

Seema Chishti

Like other art forms, architecture has never been divorced from society or politics. In 2015, the American Institute of Architects refused to design death chambers or prisons for solitary confinement in the US. They closely explored the “ethical boundaries of architecture”. The prisons they wanted designed, with more sunlight and conveying the impression of larger spaces in the same area, had the potential to change lives.

Demolitions and constructions, whether it is the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas or the Babri Masjid by political vandals, or the setting up of huge statues of Ambedkarite leaders in parks by Mayawati, have loudly signalled and shaped politics. Shock and awe and the desire to leave one’s imprint on posterity have been the hallmark of emperors, but contemporary leaders have also seen grand buildings as a way of signalling invincibility.

The new Central Vista in the heart of Delhi, which has been plagued by controversy and charges of side-stepping regulations, will witness a ‘bhoomi pujan’ tomorrow, despite comments by the Environment Ministry last month which would be a huge red flag to a regime with the slightest sense of caution. The expert appraisal committee (EAC), which met on November 25, asked the PP (Project Proponent, the authorities in this case) to refrain from “the piecemeal approach for the proposed development and redevelopment”. The PP agreed to withdraw the proposal in the present format. The “EAC (Infra-2) decided to return the proposal in original and asked the PP to apply afresh while adopting an integrated approach for the proposed development/redevelopment.”

It is confounding, but the Supreme Court in its wisdom on Monday attempted to appear both vigilant and most accommodating of the executive’s wishes. It has shown vigilance about several petitions contesting the green light accorded to the Central Vista, by staying construction and demolition, but it has allowed the Centre to go ahead with the foundation stone laying ceremony.

Speaking of the Central Vista, Prem Chandavarkar has written that it had “been transformed since 1947 into a symbol of democratic India. But the proposed redevelopment will reduce public space, highlight the spectacle of government and seems to reflect the authoritarian turn in our democracy.”

The love for big and impressive buildings surpassing anything before bears no resemblance to Germany in the 1930s. None at all. Judge for yourself. Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s architect and trusted confidante, in his memoirs Inside the Third Reich, offers a window into Hitler’s mind and of his desire to rebuild Berlin to reflect his grand vision of Germany. Hitler was obsessed with the People’s Hall (Volkshalle) with a gargantuan dome. He dreamed of boulevards fancier than those of Paris, and it was all against the backdrop of the parade ground that Speer built for the Nazi party meeting in 1934. The refashioning of Berlin remained incomplete as the tide of war turned against the Axis, but Hitler’s intent was to build for imperial objectives, rivalling Roman, American and French structures. That the USSR was building something in Moscow which was larger than his dome riled him no end.

In Nazi Architecture as Affective Weapon, the scholar Gaston Gordillo wrote: “Under the motto ‘always the biggest,’ Hitler wanted to build at a scale previously unseen in the history of empires. As Hitler put it to Speer’s wife, “Your husband is going to erect buildings for me such as have not been created for four thousand years.” In The Führer’s Buildings, Speer had hailed Hitler’s “brilliance” for conceiving buildings of such a scale that they would last “for eternity.” He had articulated his ‘theory of ruins’, and wanted monuments to be built in stone and brick, not steel and concrete, so that centuries later, after the buildings were brought down like the structures of the Roman Empire, the ruins would still convey the magnificence of Nazi Germany.

Hitler’s architectural bombast was on full display at the Nazi pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, where it faced off against the Soviet pavilion. The world was in turmoil – and it reflected starkly in the grand show. Despite the Nazi obsession with the monumental display of their ideas and greatness, it is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, commissioned for the modest Spanish pavilion by the Republican government, which has survived, while the monuments of the Third Reich are forgotten.


Prime Number: $3.4 billion
That is the volume of India’s weapons procurement from the US in the final year of the Donald Trump administration, up from a meagre $6.2 million in 2019. This comes at a time when sales of weapons from the US to other countries dipped to $50.8 billion in 2020 from $55.7 billion in 2019. India purchased weapons worth $754.4 million in 2017 and $282 million in 2018, while between 1950 and 2020, US sale of weapons to India was $12.8 billion.

In 2020, US sales of weapons to Pakistan was $146 million, in 2018 it was $65 million and in 2017 it was $22 million. In 2019, there was no sale to Pakistan. In fact, the US refunded $10.8 million to Pakistan, taken for the purchase of weapons. Between 1950 and 2020, Pakistan purchased weapons worth $10 billion from the US.

Court clears way for highways

The Supreme Court has clarified that the Central government is not required to obtain “prior environmental or forest clearance” before declaring a stretch of land as a national highway, and express its intention to acquire the land. However, clearance must be obtained by the executing agency in terms of this notification before commencing actual work or executing the proposed project, it said.


NZ mosque killer’s India travels

Brenton Tarrant, the Australian-born attacker who killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, travelled extensively around the world, including to India in his longest overseas stay from 21 November 2015 to 18 February 2016, before moving to New Zealand to carry out the country’s worst massacre in 2019, according to the 792-page Royal Commission of Inquiry report. The report does not believe that the travel fuelled his racist views to any great extent. 


Deep Dive

On Life after the anti-Citizenship Law Protests.

On December 11, 2019, the Indian Parliament passed amendments to the Citizenship Act that sparked off an unprecedented nationwide protest movement against the legislation, the controversial promise to institute a National Register of Citizens and other government policies that discriminate against Muslims and violate Constitutional norms. One year later, after riots in Delhi, a deeply flawed investigation into the communal violence and the Covid-19 pandemic putting a halt to public sit-ins, this report in Scroll.in returns to speak to some of those who participated in that moment. 

It draws attention to the breakdown of the rule of law in UP. A good example of what happens “when courts vacate the field almost entirely”.


Lack of interest would break banks

Reiterating its stand before the Supreme Court, the Modi government has refused any waiver of interest on loans and advances taken during the six-month moratorium period. “If the banks were to bear this burden, it would necessarily wipe out a substantial and a major part of their net worth, rendering most of the banks unviable and raising a very serious question mark over their very survival,” said the solicitor-general, stating that a blanket waiver of interest would mean foregoing an estimated Rs 6 lakh Crore. 

“Of course”, observed the Supreme Court, orally. “The court will not pass an order which will lead to the economy going haywire.” Don’t they know that the Modi government is doing a fine job already?


Speaking up

Punjab-born Raj Chouhan took the oath as Speaker of British Columbia, Canada, becoming the first India-born person to occupy the Speaker’s post anywhere abroad. Chouhan, who went to Canada from Gauhar village near Ludhiana in 1973, was Deputy Speaker in the outgoing assembly.


Court prescribes humanity for Taloja Jail officials

It’s high time that workshops are conducted for jail officials, the Bombay High Court said on Tuesday while reacting to the Taloja Jail officials’ refusal to accept new spectacles sent by the family of 70-year-old Gautam Navlakha, a civil liberties and human rights activist arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case. Navlakha has been in Taloja jail since his arrest on October 1, 2018, and is almost blind without glasses.

“We gather from news reports that Navlakha has lost his spectacles in jail and when his family sent him a new pair, the jail authorities refused to accept them,” said the bench of Justices SS Shinde and MS Karnik. “Can this (spectacles) be denied?” the bench asked. “These are human considerations. Humanity is most important, everything else will follow subsequently,” the judges added.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • As the Modi government mishandles another major issue in the farmers’ protests, after the anti-CAA protests and abrogation of Article 370, it has created a terrible situation for Indian diplomats, who have to deal with another cascade of criticism abroad, observes Seema Sirohi.

  • The government has used all the tricks at its command but the farmers are still blockading Delhi, prepared to hold on for months, says Aakar Patel. Their demands will have to be met, of course, and then this government will move on to the next big idea, without an apology or an explanation.

  • Radhika Ramaseshan assesses what Rajinikanth’s entry into politics in Tamil Nadu could portend. Its politics was anchored in filmdom as the epic successes of MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa proved. But stars like Captain Vijayakanth, Vijay and Kamal Haasan couldn’t change anything.

  • Vijayendra Mohanty says it is time to unpack the "they're doing politics" rhetoric. Doing politics is okay, we should all do it, he reckons.


Listen up

Most claims about yoga are misleading. It is neither 5,000 years old, as is commonly claimed, nor does it mean union, at least not exclusively. In perhaps the most famous text — the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali — the aim is separation, isolating consciousness from everything else. And the earliest evidence of the practice dates back about 2,500 years. Yoga may well be older, but no evidence exists. In this podcast, Daniel Simpson, author of The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices,offers an overview of yoga’s evolution from its earliest origins to the present, and dispels many myths about the practice. 


Watch Out

This ‘Actresses’ Roundtable’ was more square than round, since it was done virtually. Eight leading ladies of Hindi films and shows who delivered some of the strongest performances in 2020 talk to Rajeev Masand about this difficult year and how it changed them, the work they could do and the roles they played: Shabana Azmi, Tillotama Shome, Taapsee Pannu, Deepika Padukone, Rasika Dugal, Janhvi Kapoor, Kiara Advani and Tripti Dimri are here. 


India loses spam rating but leads in petrol taxes

India’s grim slide continues, across the board. It has dropped a few ranks in even the number of spam calls received this year. It was fifth and is now at number nine, with 34% fewer spam calls, reports Truecaller. Gujarat gets the maximum spam calls within India, says the report. 

But at 63% of the pump price, India has the world’s highest rate of taxation on fuel. This occured after the cash-strapped Modi government raised excise duty on petrol by Rs 13 per litre and diesel by Rs 16 in two tranches on March 16 and May 5 this year. The Centre’s receipts from excise duty, the bulk of which comes from petrol, diesel and crude oil, has shown a sharp 40% year-on-year jump in the first seven months of this fiscal, even as the pandemic and the economic recession brought down overall tax receipts by 16%.


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.