The India Cable: Daily Infections Breach 1 Lakh Mark; Rafale Scam Back In Focus

Plus: Maoists kill 23 jawans, Hindu iconoclast smashes Sai Baba idol, EVMs found in private cars, TikTok alleges harassment, selfies are ‘killfies’ in India, and backdrop of Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink

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
April 5, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Over the weekend, India crossed the psychological mark of 1 lakh new Covid-19 cases per day ― 1,03,558 new cases and 478 deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Union Health Ministry. Maharashtra does not face the second lockdown that Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had sought to plan for, but a night curfew and limitations on activities and services, plus weekend lockdowns. Economic activities face fewer curbs than was expected. 

Ambushed by Maoists, 23 CRPF jawans were killed in firing that lasted for three hours in the district of Sukma, which has borders with three states, 540 km south of Raipur in Chhattisgarh. Bodies were found scattered in a radius of 1 km. Following the attack, Home Minister Amit Shah, who has been campaigning 24x7 for the Assembly elections, has finally found time to attend to his portfolio.  

In the latest twist on the citizenship issue, with voters in Assam and West Bengal having different opinions on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the West Bengal BJP now says, contradicting Amit Shah’s infamous ‘chronology’, that it will only implement the CAA in West Bengal, and not conduct the National Register of Citizens exercise, if voted to power in the state. 

India is witnessing another chronology in full play ― if elections are held, like clockwork, central agencies will raid the Opposition.

Several huts in the Kumbh Mela area in Haridwar were burnt to ashes on Sunday as the Bairagi camp caught fire, officials said, confirming the second such incident within 10 days. And last night, a fire gutted shanties in the Rohingya refugee camp in Jammu. 

Do EVMs prefer private transport? A set of machines in Assam were found travelling in a BJP candidate’s car. The EC suspended a few staffers, apparently for hitching a ride after their own car broke down, instead of waiting for official transport. Inconveniently, the car they chose belonged to a BJP leader. In Karimganj yesterday, a few EVMs were again reportedly seen in a private vehicle. 

A fake schedule of public exams conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) for classes 10 and 12 is doing the rounds on social media. The board has clarified that the exams will be held as scheduled, between May 4 and June 10. The document that is being circulated on social media has been made by tweaking last year’s exam circular. 

Saudi Arabia is no longer among the top four oil exporters to India; they are Iraq, the UAE, the US and Nigeria. And a reminder: 351 farmers have died so far in the protests against the Centre’s farm laws. 

Covid curve rising

For the first time ever, the total detected cases have crossed 1,00,000 in a day in India. Five hundred and thirteen deaths were recorded in the last 24 hours, which pushed the death toll to 164,623.  “India Covid curve beats US, set to surpass Brazil,” ran the Hindustan Timesbanner headline yesterday.

According to the numbers provided by the Union Health Ministry, the number of daily Covid-19 cases have shot up 10 times in a span of 50 days. The central government finally held a special ‘high-level’ meeting on Sunday to discuss rising cases as well as vaccination plans, as India recorded 93,249 new cases of Covid-19 on Sunday which pushed the country’s infection tally to 12,485,509.  Assam Health Minister (and perennial chief minister in waiting) Himanta Biswa Sarma came under heavy fire for saying that no masks are required (listen from 32:10) in his state. 

Stubbornly, he insisted he was right on Sunday. The PM is also being criticised for irresponsible signalling on public health ― relentless electioneering with no regard for pandemic norms, and his visible support for the Mahakumbh, which has been flagged as a possible superspreader event.

Imran flip-flops on friendship

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that until and unless India retracts its “actions leading up to the revocation of Article 370” in Kashmir, the relationship between the two neighbouring countries cannot be normalised, according to Pakistani channel PTV News. Khan’s statement comes days after Pakistan took a U-turn on the resumption of trade between the two countries. Earlier in February, the nuclear neighbours surprised the world by announcing their resolve to observe the ceasefire on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. Later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wished Imran Khan on Pakistan National Day, and Khan thanked Modi.

Satinder Lambah, who ran the official back-channel diplomacy between India and Pakistan in 2005-2014 has stressed that a previous deal on trade that was derailed in 2014, and the agreement on Jammu and Kashmir, remain valid.

TikTok’s Chinese owner alleges harassment

TikTok promoter ByteDance has told the Bombay High Court that a government freeze on its bank accounts in a probe of possible tax evasion amounts to harassment and was done illegally. ByteDance in January reduced its Indian workforce after New Delhi maintained a ban on its popular video app TikTok, imposed last year after a border clash between India and China. Beijing has repeatedly criticised India for banning Chinese apps. 

An Indian tax intelligence unit in mid-March ordered HSBC and Citibank in Mumbai to freeze bank accounts of ByteDance India as it probed its financial dealings. ByteDance has challenged the freeze on the four accounts in a Mumbai court. None of ByteDance India’s 1,335 employees have been paid their salaries for March, due to the account freeze. 

Economy and health kaput

Latest data on countries in Asia and Africa constitute a damning report card for India. How did a country which was recently among the world’s top performers falter on the two metrics which matter in the pandemic era?

The Long Cable

Cloud descends over Rafale deal again

Sushant Singh

On the very day that it was reported that the Indian Air Force would receive another eight or nine Rafale jets from France by mid-May, with some deliveries expected later this month, and complete the first squadron of the latest fighter jets in its fleet, came a bombshell from French investigative news portal Mediapart. The first part of the investigative report reveals how the inspectors of the French anti-corruption agency, the Agence Française Anticorruption (AFA), during a scheduled audit, found that Dassault had agreed to pay €1 million to a small Indian company just after signing the deal in 2016. The person running that company, Sushen Gupta, is already accused of corruption in an ongoing investigation in another defence deal in India.

As the Mediapart report says:

As they combed through the 2017 accounts the AFA inspectors raised an eyebrow when they came across an item of expenditure costing €508,925 and entered under the heading “gifts to clients”. This amount “seemed disproportionate in relation to all the other entries” under the same heading, said the subsequent confidential report of the AFA audit, which Mediapart has seen.

The sum is indeed huge for a gift. Though French law does not set out precise limits, legal precedents suggest that giving a watch or an expensive meal costing several hundred euros can be enough to constitute corruption.

To justify this larger than usual “gift” Dassault supplied the AFA with a “proforma invoice” dated March 30th 2017 which was supplied by an Indian company called Defsys Solutions. “This invoice, which related to 50% of the total order (€1,017,850), was for the manufacture of 50 models of the Rafale C, with a price per unit of €20,357,” the AFA report said.

The AFA inspectors who found these details in mid-October 2018 asked the company for an explanation. Why had Dassault ordered an Indian company to make models of its own aircraft, at €20,000 a plane? Why was this expenditure entered in the accounts as a “gift to client”? And were these models, each one of which was supposed to be the size of a small car, really ever made?

Mediapart understands that the Dassault group was unable to provide the AFA with a single document showing that these models existed and were delivered, and not even a photograph. The inspectors thus suspected that this was a bogus purchase designed to hide hidden financial transactions.

Most interestingly, the AFA decided not to refer the matter to the French prosecutors even though the Indian company Defsys Solution, run by the Gupta family, is not a specialist in making aircraft models. Sushen Mohan Gupta had reportedly worked on the Rafale deal as an unregistered agent of Dassault and was arrested in March 2019 by the Enforcement Directorate in the VVIP helicopter scam. The French public prosecution services’ financial crimes branch, the Parquet National Financier, which was also looking into the Rafale deal, took no further action.

These are serious questions about this transaction which could, if proven during investigation, amount to “payments for undue influence” or “agents/agency commission” under the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) which governs defence procurement by the Indian government. In such cases, if wrongdoing is proved, the deal has often been put on hold or cancelled and the foreign company blacklisted. But as reported by N Ram in The Hindu on February 11, 2019, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, met in September 2016 and ratified and approved the “Non-inclusion of the Standard DPP Clauses related to ‘Penalty for Undue Influence’, ‘Agents/Agency Commission’ and ‘Access to Accounts’ in the Supply Protocols” in the Rafale deal.

This means that even if a case of corruption is made out by the French authorities, the deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets will not be affected in any way. That would allow the IAF to breathe a sigh of relief as it has been struggling with a strength of 30 fighter squadrons against a requirement of 42. Rafale is also the most modern and advanced aircraft that the IAF now has in its fleet, which allows it to re-establish technological superiority over the Pakistan Air Force, after having lost that edge, a harsh reality driven home during the Balakot crisis of 2019.

Since the time the Modi government signed a contract with France for 36 fighter jets under a €7.87 billion Inter-Governmental Agreement in September 2016 with 13 India-Specific Enhancements (ISE), the Rafale deal has been under a cloud. The questions about Dassault’s selection of the Anil Ambani group as offset partner, the high price paid by India for the French fighter jet due to the fixed design and development cost of the ISE, the dropping of various anti-corruption clauses from the deal, the overruling of objections by Defence Ministry bureaucrats, the masking of exact amounts in a CAG report and the judgment of the Supreme Court which was based on submissions in a sealed envelope, have never been satisfactorily answered. Just when it seemed that the matter had been buried for good, Mediapart has revived a tale which would not be to the liking of many in the power circles of ‘New India’.


Targeting the victim

A woman said to be featured in a ‘sex video’ allegedly involving BJP MLA and former minister Ramesh Jarkiholi, has accused the state police of bias. In a letter to Bengaluru Police Commissioner Kamal Pant, the complainant claimed she has been questioned multiple times whereas the accused was questioned only once, for only three hours. 

“After seeing the entire process, I am in doubt whether I am a victim or an accused,” the woman said in her letter, which has been made public on social media. Further, she alleged that the SIT questioned the accused for only three hours and left him scot-free without any restriction, while she has been subjected to relentless questioning. “Though Ramesh Jarkiholi has not mentioned my name in his complaint, police raided the place where I was staying as a paying guest and destroyed all the evidence there to present me as an accused under pressure from the government,” the woman alleged in her letter. 

Prime Number: 5%
Retail and wholesale inflation have risen and hardened. Retail inflation soared to a three-month high of 5% in February, while WPI (wholesale) inflation surged to a 27-month high of 4.2% in the same month, largely led by strengthening prices of fuel, food and manufactured products.

Hindu iconoclast demolishes Sai Baba idol in national capital

Shirdi Sai Baba’s idol has been demolished in Delhi, and he has been labelled a ‘jihadi’. According to a report by Scroll, Sai Baba’s religious ambivalence is unacceptable to many Hindu spiritual leaders, who have campaigned against his worship by claiming that it “pollutes the flow of the Sanatan Dharam”. Soon after the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, a Dharam Sansad or conclave of Hindu priests passed a resolution that he should not be worshipped. The man responsible is an associate of Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, a Hindutva extremist who made repeated calls for violence against Muslims in the run up to the Delhi riots of February 2020.

Mufti says PAGD going strong

Former chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti has dismissed speculations that the PAGD, an alliance of six mainstream parties, is headed for a break-up, stressing there is no alternative to staying together as the Centre’s “onslaught” against the people of Jammu and Kashmir has to be taken “head-on collectively”. 

“A coalition of this kind will take time to settle down,” the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chief told PTI, terming the recent rumblings in the alliance expected “teething troubles”. Her comments come in the backdrop of the exit of one of the PAGD constituents, the People’s Conference, and suggestions by some of her party members that she should also reconsider the PDP’s relations with the National Conference, and whether staying in PAGD remains pertinent.

Deep Dive

What lies below, in Tamil country

The Keeladi excavations may alter the world’s ideas about the Tamil Sangam period, and the origins of the culture we now identify as ‘Indian’. So why is this key archaeological project not making rapid progress? Sowmiya Ashok digs in.

In India, selfies are ‘killfies’

Just three months into the year, India has already recorded half a dozen deaths of people taking selfies. And that’s just the ones on the record. Police officials say the actual number of selfie fatalities could be much higher, possibly in the thousands, as many cases go unreported and the selfie is not recognised as an official cause of death.

Around the world, the simple act of snapping photos of oneself has become such a life-threatening activity, some refer to it as a “killfie”. The scourge of death by selfie is particularly intense in India, which has in recent years been dubbed the “selfie death capital of the world”. In 2018, researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences found that about half of the world’s 259 reported selfie deaths between 2011 and 2017 occurred in India.

H1-B wage levels to be determined

The US Department of Labour has sought feedback from the public in the next 60 days for determining wage levels for the employment of various immigrants and non-immigrants, including those on H1-B visas, the most sought-after work visa among Indian professionals.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • In The Guardian, Achal Prabhala and Leena Menghaney make a strong case for waiving patents for Covid-19 vaccines, citing hypocrisies on all sides and flagging the problem of the world’s poorest countries depending on one private Indian manufacturer for vaccines.

  • The persecution of Muslims is no longer about divisive politics ― the real motive is to dehumanise them, says NC Asthana.

  • Salman Rushdie writes on the completion of 40 years of his landmark book, Midnight’s Children and says that, “right now, in India, it’s midnight again.”

  • The Indian government is afraid of digital news because it dominates independent reporting. The government wants to muzzle that, writes Aakar Patel.

  • The India Forum has two insightful pieces on farmer protests. Jens Lerche writes on what Jat power means, and its limitations. Satendra Kumar writes that the ongoing farmers’ protest has shown the potential to heal the wounds of polarised western UP, and rising farmers’ identity has a great potential to change political equations in north India.

  • K Srinath Reddy urges everyone to fight the war and not battle waves. We must not let ourselves get trapped in a see-saw of lockdowns and laxity, but should ensure testing, tracing and masking/distancing.

  • Suraj Yengde reviews Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, bringing us key insights into questions of class, caste and race in the United States and India.

  • Poor demand, low GDP growth, dropping sales, higher corporate profits through reduced costs, accompanied by a stock market boom and pockets of revival in high-end real estate ― this is the picture that the Indian economy presents, writes Aunindyo Chakravarty.

  • UDF or LDF in Kerala? The people’s choice will have implications for the ‘Kerala model’ as it will decide the role of planning and social oversight over the process of economic development and conserving the environment, argues Subin Dennis.

Listen Up

Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) joins Amit Varma in The Seen and the Unseen to discuss the state of India’s military, his experiences in Kashmir, threats from Pakistan and China, the danger that politics poses to national security, and the complex matrix of change as it happened in India in the 1990s.

Watch Out

One for the ages! As the world moves on to IPL this week, this is some test cricket from 1983. Gavaskar, Marshall, Holding… what else could you ask for? At a now-infamous stadium before it was named after PM Modi, and the ends were not Reliance and Adani.

Over and Out

For the playwright Tom Stoppard, a spell in India offered “a lost domain of uninterrupted happiness.” The high point of that domain was Darjeeling, with a view of the Himalayas, while the city was busily multinational. More details in The New Yorker on how Indian Ink took shape.

Meet the Indian-Americans behind some of the most popular startups and technology firms in the US, including Robinhood and Clubhouse.

A misfired political tweet by BJP Yuva Morcha Chief Tejasvi Surya after breakfast at a restaurant in Coimbatore in poll-bound Tamil Nadu has caused him and his party much embarrassment.

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.