The India Cable: Decoding Modi's Vaccine U-Turn; Judge Delivers Truly Learned Order on LGBTQIA+

Plus: China-India trade shoots up, returning migrants don’t get work, cartoonist ready for jail, Kudvas debarred for Franklin Templeton diddle and women train for Olympics in Bengaluru ― on Tokyo time

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
June 8, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

After the quick and dirty changes made to the vaccine policy on national TV yesterday, India is heading for a U-turn-shaped recovery. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the avatar of village schoolmaster, undid his own ‘liberalised’ vaccine policy, forcing many leading lights in his government to eat their words. Here’s what the finance minister had to do then and now, in defence of the PM. But a section of the press, which has its ear firmly in the government’s grasp, was not taken unawares. Here is a quick explainer on the Modi government’s vaccine policy flip-flops. And The Hindu fact-checks Modi’s extraordinary claim that India earlier didn’t have vaccines, because historical records establish that India, even before Independence, was among the countries that indigenously manufactured vaccines within years of their discovery.

Dainik Bhaskar says that “Modi’s 56 inch chest was deflated a bit in 56 days by the Opposition and the media,” so this was a way to get back, by “patting his own back”. And the Morning Consult’s Global Leader Approval Rating Tracker offers interesting seismological graphs about Modi’s fortunes.

More changes in vaccine policy: people planning to fly out of the country for education, employment or as part of the Indian contingent to the Tokyo Olympics will be allowed to take the second dose of Covishield prior to the prescribed time interval of 84 days. But only after 28 days from the date of the first dose. But why was the gap widened in the first place? Interesting fact: Maharashtra and Gujarat account for nearly 42% of India’s 28,252 mucormycosis cases. 

As lockdown restrictions have started easing in states which receive migrant workers, such as Goa, Mumbai and Delhi, they have begun returning in search of work. But there are complaints that jobs are scarce despite the easing, and that most factories are refusing to let them in. The government has no plan to address the issue.

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has decided to debar Vivek Kudva, head of Asia Pacific for Franklin Templeton, and his spouse Roopa Kudva (who is partner and MD of Omidyar) from the capital markets for a year besides imposing monetary penalty for fraudulent and unfair trade practices. It notified that the husband-wife duo and Vivek Kudva’s mother Vasanthi redeemed their personal investments from the beleaguered six debt schemes of Franklin Templeton Mutual Fund, based on confidential and non-public information. 

Twitter is believed to have approached the government to seek more time to comply with the new IT rules. Meanwhile, it has agreed to block access in India to four pro-Khalistan handles at the government’s request. And last week, Facebook took a step that could bring it into conflict with the Indian government, with which it has enjoyed a pleasant relationship. Its independent Oversight Board has recommended transparent content policing, and the application of the same standards to all, irrespective of political standing. This is a fallout of MAGA mobs storming the US Capitol. Historically, Mark Zuckerberg has disfavoured controls on elected officials and favoured ‘newsworthiness’ over content rules. Its record on hate speech is particularly poor in India, and it has been a darling of the government and corporations.  Worldwide, an internet outage on Tuesday afternoon led to many popular websites going offline, including the New York Times, the Guardian and Amazon.


Historic LGBTQIA+ order from Madras HC

The Madras High Court pronounced a historic order, giving guidelines to create a safe environment for LGBTQIA+ people, including a suggestion that action be taken against ‘conversion therapy’ — an illegal pseudoscientific practice that claims to ‘cure’ queer persons. Justice Anand Venkatesh prepared well for the case, taking time to learn about the queer community with a psychologist, and interacting with its members. The Madras HC is ‘learned’, in the real sense of the term. 


Manjul: Have software, will cartoon

“I have no software installed in my system other than that required for making cartoons. I will keep making then even if the big forces put me behind bars; I just need paper and pencil,” says Manjul, the popular political cartoonist who received an email from Twitter on Friday. The Centre requires it to take action against his handle, alleging that his content violates the law(s) of India.

“I have a kid and family to take care of and it’s not feasible for a small person like me to fight against such a big institution by hiring a lawyer. If they really want me put behind bars to curb my voice, I’m ready to go,” Manjul told Siasat.com. He said that he has been facing regular hate messages and threatening calls, including from some of his friends. “But that won’t stop me working.” 


Farmers win Battle of Tohana 

Farmers were detained at the police station in Tohana, Haryana, and it soon became a protest site. Later at night, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha claimed a major victory ― all its demands were conceded, all three arrested farmer leaders were released, and cases against protesting farmers were set to be withdrawn.


Supreme Court to live stream proceedings

Almost three years after the Supreme Court agreed to live-stream proceedings, its e-committee led by Justice DY Chandrachud has come up with draft guidelines containing a regulatory framework for the purpose. Maintaining that the rules were aimed at “greater transparency, inclusivity and access to justice”, the top court has invited suggestions on the draft guidelines by June 30.

The draft rules envisage installation of cameras in the courtroom covering at least five angles, one aimed at the Bench, another two at the advocates arguing the matter, and a fourth and fifth covering the accused and deponent/witness. A sub-committee of judges of the Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Karnataka High Courts would frame model live streaming rules.


The Long Cable

Why did Modi have to appear on TV again? It’s complicated

MK Venu

A simple and rational modification to the vaccine policy did not really require an address to the nation. The PM could have just issued a statement clarifying that 75% of all vaccines would be purchased by the Centre and delivered free to states. It would have been par for the course in any other country.

Yet, Narendra Modi chose to make an announcement on national TV because his government has looked very incompetent and confused after May 1, when it foisted the burden of purchasing vaccines on to state governments and the private sector at prices much higher than what the Centre had paid for acquiring Covishield and Covaxin in the first round. There were also the scathing remarks of the Supreme Court, which was engaged in a suo motu judicial review of the vaccine policy and had called it “prima facie irrational and arbitrary”.  Justice DY Chandrachud chose to weigh the policy against the contours of the national universal vaccination programme and raised serious questions about the government’s failure to provide free vaccination to the 18-44 group. A constitutional issue over discrimination would have arisen. The SC also spoke of the problems caused by decentralised and unsuccessful procurement by states, when all governments in the world had resorted to centralised buying.

Perhaps realising his mistake, the PM chose to say at some length that he had merely acceded to the states’ demand to be allowed to buy some vaccines on their own from the global market. But after the states failed to buy from global firms, the Centre was now going back to its earlier policy of national procurement, he said.

Even assuming states were clamouring to buy vaccines on their own – it seems West Bengal might have been the only one to have written to the PM on this – it  is a moot question why the PM so readily agreed to their demand. Major policy changes are taken after research, inquiry and discussion. If the PMO had simply asked US pharma associations, it would have known that decentralised puchases wouldn’t work. It doesn’t make commercial sense for a company to deal with 30 states. Beside, the PMO was very well aware of critical regulatory issues which are the domain of the Centre, like indemnifying US pharma companies from liability and fast-tracking emergency use authorisation.

When some of these critical issues were still unresolved on May 1, how could the PMO adopt a policy of states buying directly? Clearly, the Centre was disingenuous in crafting the policy. Perhaps it knew that global companies would not want to deal with the states, purely from a regulatory perspective. So India wasted a full month in a futile Centre versus state debate, which is so relished by TV channels. 

It is also possible that the Centre was just buying time to fix its vaccine production scale-up, which was lagging badly. The month of May saw a sharp drop in daily vaccinations, compared to April. The Centre may have used this period to distract attention from its own failures while making much overdue moves to help the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech expand capacity, and to smooth the entry of Sputnik V.

Whatever the reasons, we lost a crucial month when China was vaccinating 15-20 million a day. It has already completed 800 million jabs, and by early July, China will have nearly covered its entire population with one jab! That’s real atmanirbharta, at scale and at high speed. 

The Supreme Court has also asked the PM for details of negotiations conducted with vaccine manufacturers since last year. This would help us figure out why the Centre is not even ready to meet its initial promise of fully covering the 300 million Indians considered most vulnerable ― frontline workers and the aged ― by the end of July.  

Fortunately, the Centre has clarified that the budget provision of Rs 35,000 crore for vaccination will be used to deliver free vaccines to states. This was somewhat unclear so far. The government has set a target of roughly 2.2 billion jabs by December-end. Assuming that the Centre purchases its 75% quota largely from the two domestic players, and if one takes an average price of Rs 400-450 per dose, the total subsidy could go up to Rs 70,000 crore or even more, if some of the quota is fulfilled from Sputnik and others. This is close to the Rs 80,000 crore subsidy figure cited by many experts last year. 

The larger question remains ― if all these elements of the vaccine policy were so clear to us six months ago, why are we in this mess today? Let’s hope the Centre gives the Supreme Court some clarity on this.


Reportedly

Some BJP-run state governments are facing internal turbulence. After UP, it is now the turn of Karnataka, where Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa yesterday asked BJP legislators to refrain from “collecting signatures or making political statements”. Some 65 MLAs are said to have signed a letter to keep him in the top post, following fresh speculation over Yediyurappa’s tenure when he offered to resign if the high command wanted him to do so. 

This came just hours after Honnali MLA MP Renukacharya, the CM’s political secretary, said 65 MLAs were on Yediyurappa’s side. Contradicting Renukacharya, Hubli-Dharwad (West) MLA Arvind Bellad, whose recent visit to New Delhi triggered speculation over attempts to dethrone Yediyurappa, said there was no pro-Yeddyurappa signature campaign. Meanwhile, the BJP has constituted a 10-member committee, including Yediyurappa himself, to address legislators’ grievances so that they stop washing dirty linen in public. But as we know from past experience, a mere committee won’t stop the suds from spreading. 


China-India trade shoots up

The General Administration of China Customs (GACC) released data which revealed that China-India trade had increased by 70% year-on-year in the first five months of this year, making India Beijing's fastest growing trade partner among major countries. Bilateral imports had fallen sharply by 23.1% in 2019, while India’s imports from China had dipped by 24.8%. GACC yesterday released data which showed that in the first five months of 2021, last year’s losses were recouped and there was also a significant increase compared to 2019.


Prime Number: 23 million
That's the number of vaccine doses administered to 114 of India's least developed districts, which is the same number of doses as have been administered across nine major cities ― New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Thane and Nagpur. India has administered more than 22.2 crore doses since starting its campaign in mid-January, but less than 5% of its 95 crore adults have had the second dose. Of the 10 districts with the lowest vaccination coverage, six are from UP, shows an analysis of data from the government’s CoWin platform by Scroll.in.

Court allows police case against Kerala BJP chief

A court in Kerala’s Kasaragod district has allowed the police to register a case under election laws on a complaint against state BJP state chief K Surendran and two other party leaders after a candidate alleged that he was paid money to withdraw his nomination for the April 6 Assembly polls. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate K Sundara last week told the media that he was given Rs 2.5 lakh and a smartphone to pull out from the election from the Manjeswaram seat ― from where Surendran was contesting. He also said that he was offered Rs 15 lakh, a home, and a wine parlour in Karnataka if Surendran won.


Deep Dive

Article 14 looks at violations of the line clearly laid down by the Supreme Court on April 30 ― that people calling out pandemic mismanagement or giving information about it would not be persecuted by law enforcement. FIRs continue to be filed in UP.


 Location Bengaluru, time zone Tokyo

The Indian women’s team for the Tokyo Olympics have been training at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bengaluru. Their schedule will ensure the biological clocks of the players are in sync with Tokyo time. But the hockey team management seems to have ignored the power of the circadian rhythm

Our sleep and wakefulness pattern is governed not by bedside alarm clocks but by the perpetual cue provided by the sun. Tinkering with the body’s clock — automatically set for Indian Standard Time — to match a zone which is three and a half hours ahead, while training at full intensity, is inviting disaster. It could undo the gains made in training, and jeopardize the mission in Tokyo. 


Harbhajan apologises

Veteran Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh yesterday unconditionally apologised for a social media post in which he shared a picture of Khalistani militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to pay homage to the dead of Operation Bluestar in 1984. The 40-year-old off-spinner said he posted a WhatsApp forward on the 37th anniversary of the operation without realising that the man in the picture was Bhindranwale. “I just wish to clarify and apologise for an instagram post yesterday. It was a WhatsApp forward that I posted in a haste and without even realising the content used and what it signified and stood for,” he said in a note posted on Twitter.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The Times, London, has its view on India’s Twitter threat: ‘Modi Brought Low’. The country’s second coronavirus wave is a challenge to the prime minister’s leadership, said an editorial, “but he must not resort to strong-arm tactics.”

  • It’s too soon to say that India’s second Covid-19 wave has ended, says Dr K Srinath Reddy. He explains what the country can do to prevent a rise in cases when lockdowns ease.

  • Live Law’s Manu Sebastian writes that free vaccines for all is a powerful impact of the Supreme Court’s judicial review, while Bar & Bench’s Murali Krishnan looks at what the apex court said and how the PM responded.

  • V. Venkatesan parses the Tarun Tejpal judgment to question the reliance placed by the judge on the testimony of one defence witness in discrediting the complainant’s version. He argues that the judge’s findings are bad in law and out of sync with well-established judicial precedents,

  • An EPW editorial speaks of the slow vaccination rate as “the sword of Damocles over the economy” ― recurring waves of the pandemic are the biggest threat to the recovery of economic growth. 


Listen Up

Hear Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife, serialised by BBC Sounds ― The Guardian terms it a “sparky satire of startup culture and the modern search for meaning, [in which] a computer scientist who launches a social media app with her husband has to find her own voice, both in the boardroom and her marriage.”


Watch Out

Watch this three-part cricket documentary series anchored by Mike Atherton: ‘Spinwash ’93 | England's unforgettable tour of India’


Over and Out

The Press Information Bureau does do some odd ‘fact-checks’, but the latest is particularly extraordinary. Apparently, someone had forged a letter in which Home Minister Amit Shah congratulated the UP chief minister for Covid management. PIB went out of its way to debunk it, like a good foot soldier. “Umm wut?!! Why would anyone want to fake AS complimenting UP CM on "doing a good job"? This is comical. Is AS throwing UP CM under the bus now?”, one person responded on Twitter.

India’s Sunil Chhetri, who struck a brace in his team’s 2-0 win over Bangladesh in Doha, overtook Argentina’s Lionel Messi on Monday to become the second-highest active international scorer, with 74 goals. The 36-year-old striker, who helped India register a first win in the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers, is only behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (103) in the active international goalscorer list.

Tillotama Shome won the best actor award at the 23rd UK Asian Film Festival for Raahgir.


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.