The India Cable: EC loses in Bihar, New Rules for Digital News and Arnab Jumps Court Queue

Plus: Hope on Ladakh border, copyright law changes to break Mumbai monopoly, why US politics could play football with India, and the government asks you to light a dung diya for Diwali

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
November 11, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal 

Bihar’s mandate has been won by a hair’s breadth by the ruling National Democratic Alliance ― which The Indian Express derided as ‘Nitish Dented Alliance’, indicating the stunting of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) ― for reasons not abundantly clear. With much more certainty, it can be said that the Election Commission has lost. It has faced allegations of miscounting, and of a biased response to requests to recount. A thread of replies to the last press conference of the institution, held at 1 AM today, shows an unprecedented withdrawal of public faith in the institution. The delay in counting is found to be suspicious, there are hints of deals made under cover of darkness, and there are calls for electronic voting machine data to be preserved, along with the paper trail, presumably for forensic reasons. The EC had invited controversy by attributing delay to Covid-19, without explaining further. Over the last six months, the pandemic has been used to justify all sorts of things, from delayed deliveries to docked pay. People suspect the excuse now. 

The EC insists that it is not under the influence, and really, allegations do not matter unless evidence is offered. But public perceptions do, since the credibility of institutions rests exclusively on them. The EC was a toothless tiger until TN Seshan made it one of the pillars of democracy with his no-nonsense approach. But ever since the EVM controversy began, it has been faltering, and so has faith in the integrity of elections.

While the rest is open to surmise, this election definitely marks the arrival of Tejashwi Yadav, who successfully urged the electorate to think about livelihood and quality of life issues, which should ideally steer voter choice, rather than ancient wrongs and spanking new temples. And ironically, far away from Bihar, the Shiv Sena, not long ago persecutors of Biharis in Mumbai, has taken credit for the survival of Nitish Kumar as chief minister.  

Last month, the government began a process of private consultations with stakeholders towards amending Indian copyright law. The provocation, apparently, was increasing reliance on digital media during the pandemic. The Department of Promotion for Industry and Internal Trade is examining the possibility of decriminalising some provisions, to make it easier to do business and to reduce the caseload of courts. To break the monopoly of Mumbai over cinema and music, multiple copyright societies are being considered, at the request of southern, Bhojpuri and Bangla production houses. 

The Mumbai police have arrested Ghanshyam Singh, distribution head of Republic TV, for rigging TRP ratings for cash. The Supreme Court is hearing Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami’s bail plea today, with Dushyant Dave, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, wanting to know if he has been given the right in perpetuity to jump the queue. 

Once more, Bihar shows the way

The Election Commission called it a day at 4:30 am today, when counting closed. It was a close election, with eight seats decided with a margin of less than 1,000 votes ― they decided who forms the government ― leading to questions about the impartiality of the Election Commission and the NDA state government.

The left parties did well, a novelty in our times, and Asaduddin Owaisi was accused of being the B-team of the BJP, and fracturing the Muslim vote. But a closer analysis of 17 constituencies where his party contested suggests that his mileage varied, and no plot was afoot. 

Bihar election: the reading list today

Coming to a website near you, new rules for digital media

A government ordinance on Tuesday amended the official document which lists out which ministries have supervisory authority over various subjects and activities in the country:

In the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, in THE SECOND SCHEDULE, under the heading “MINISTRY OF INFORMATION AND BROADCASTING (SOOCHANA AUR PRASARAN MANTRALAYA)” after entry 22, the following sub-heading and entries shall be inserted, namely:-


22A.  Films and Audio-Visual programmes made available by online content providers.
22B.  News and current affairs content on online platforms.”.

What this means is that the decks have now been cleared for the I&B ministry to propose or even introduce legislation (perhaps via an ordinance, given the Modi government’s style of functioning) to regulate or control “news and current affairs content on online platforms”.

The expectation is not unreasonable. During the Supreme Court hearings on the Sudarshan TV case – in which the court had injuncted the telecast of a communally inflammatory programme accusing Muslims of plotting to infiltrate the bureaucrat as a form of ‘jihad’ – the government’s lawyer, Tushar Mehta opposed the court’s involvement but said there was urgent need to regulate digital news platforms. Mehta claimed digital media in India was “unregulated”, unlike the country’s television and newspapers.

In fact, India’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of press, subject to some restrictions, all of which also apply to online/digital news platforms. In addition, there is the Information Technology Act, which creates further rules for digital content. So the suggestion the government makes that digital news is “unregulated” is patently false. The underlying impulse of involving the I&B ministry is evidently to introduce special rules and regulations to cramp and hinder digital media, which has so far managed to do independent journalism, bucking the noticeable trend in the print and TV space of giving the government an easy ride. This trend is so evident to the rest of the world that India’s standing in the global press freedom index has steadily fallen over the past few years.

Industry gives for Covid ― to PM-CARES 

Azim Premji is India’s biggest philanthropist donor with a contribution of Rs 7,904 crore, as per the EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List 2020, followed by the founding chairman of HCL Technologies, Shiv Nadar, and his family, who contributed Rs 795 crore. India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, was in the third spot, with his family’s contributions at Rs 458 crore.

Industry captains responded to the raging pandemic by repurposing their donations to fight COVID. The top donor was Tata Sons with a Rs 1,500 crore commitment, followed by Premji at Rs 1,125 crore and Ambani at Rs 510 crore. The bulk of the corporate commitments seemed to have been given to the PM-CARES Fund, with Reliance Industries committing Rs 500 crore, and Aditya Birla Group donating Rs 400 crore, the report said.

Hope as strategy

Senior military commanders of India and China were “ironing out the modalities” of the way ahead and were very hopeful of reaching an agreement that is mutually acceptable and mutually beneficial, said Army Chief General Mukund Naravane on Tuesday, on the situation in Eastern Ladakh. Reports suggest that a three-step disengagement plan from the two banks of Pangong Tso is likely to be implemented by the two sides soon. General Naravane also asserted that there was no shortage of extreme weather clothing or equipment for troops deployed on the front line, but they “had to go in for certain emergency procurements” for the additional troops that had been deployed on the China border. 

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came face to face with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the virtual SCO summit, for the first time since tensions erupted in Ladakh, spoke about the importance of respecting one another's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Dung ho!

India’s latest salvo against China is not to be sniffed at. Ahead of Diwali, the country’s biggest religious festival, a government-run campaign is urging patriotic Indians to swap once popular, cheap Chinese-made festive lights for environmentally friendly oil lamps made from cow dung. Behind the campaign is the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), a group set up under the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairy, last year to conserve the nation’s cattle population. 

Arnab jumps the queue…

Supreme Court Bar Association president and senior advocate Dushyant Dave’s letter to the Justices raises important questions, asking why a TV anchor’s bail hearing in an abetment to suicide case was listed as urgent. Why does it happen every time he approaches the top court, while other petitioners languish in jail for months as they wait for their appeals to be listed? And despite the fact that his latest petition had nine ‘defects’, according to the court’s registry itself?

The Supreme Court held a special hearing today, during its Diwali recess, to examine Republic TV owner Arnab Goswami’s plea for bail (live updates on Republic TV’s website, the hearing was still on when The India Cable closed for the day), with Harish Salve batting for Arnab and Kapil Sibal for the Maharashtra government. After his plea for interim bail was rejected on Monday by the Bombay High Court, which said that by law Goswami should seek regular bail in the sessions court before approaching the higher courts, the Republic TV boss moved the top court on Tuesday. The Supreme Court bench hearing the matter comprises Justices DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee.

…While Kappen languishes

The wife of a Kerala journalist arrested 36 days ago and lodged in a jail in Uttar Pradesh has questioned the double standards of the BJP leadership that has been speaking up for Republic TV owner Arnab Goswami but not for her husband. Raihanath Kappan, wife of Delhi-based journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested while on his way to Hathras to cover the infamous gang-rape and murder of a Dalit girl, followed by a government cover-up, said her husband was only trying to do his job when he was arrested.

“Why this double standard? Goswami is an accused in a suicide abetment case. Why are these people not questioning the arrest of my husband and other journalists and activists jailed on cooked-up charges?” Raihanath asked.

The Long Cable

Bihar: The poor chose safety net, extended NDA’s lease

MK Venu

Here is a paradox: if the Bihar election was so palpably dominated by the issue of unprecedented unemployment in the midst of post-Covid economic devastation, how did the NDA alliance manage to scrape through, past the halfway mark? There was massive anti-incumbency against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, which is reflected in his party’s all-time low strike rate, winning only about 37% of seats contested. There was also visible support for the main opposition leader, Tejashwi Yadav, who caught the imagination of the youth by pitching employment and livelihood as the core issue. He has done well for the RJD. The left parties also notched up impressive wins. Yet the Opposition alliance did not succeed, largely because the BJP won over 70% of the seats it contested and lifted the prospects of the ruling alliance. The consensus among political analysts is that PM Modi’s projection as the face of the NDA benefited the alliance. It seems that voters were willing to continue to trust Modi, in spite of the well-documented failures of the Centre in handing the pandemic, as well as the economic slide which had predated it. Continuing faith in the Central government’s leadership could have played a role in the BJP winning the bulk of the by-election seats in UP, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat as well. 

The results in Bihar and the by-election can be read as the response of the poor, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and the loss of jobs and income, who may believe that in hard times, the Central government, with all its resources, is best placed to take care of their basic welfare needs ― food grain, emergency health care etc. In his many public meetings in Bihar, Modi had sharply pushed the idea that people are better off if the Centre fully backs the state’s efforts to deliver welfare. This message may have inclined many voters in favour of the status quo. It is human nature to be more risk-averse in bad times.

However, this need not signify that the voter is satisfied with the general state of governance in Bihar, or elsewhere in the country. Even if one assumes that the Bihari voter chose to maintain the status quo largely by reposing faith in Modi’s ability to fix the economy and deliver welfare, the urgency for the ruling party to perform will only increase as India emerges from the pandemic. The facts on the ground haven’t changed. Bihar still has the lowest employment rate as per CMIE data ― only 1 in 3 persons above the age of 15 is employed. By WHO standards, there should be one doctor per 1,000 population, but in Bihar there is one doctor for 42,000 people. Women’s participation in the labour force (women actively looking for work) is less than 4 out of 100 in Bihar. These numbers suggest a dysfunctional economic system. The people of Bihar may have extended the lease for the NDA alliance, but it would be a mistake for the BJP to gloat over the Bihar result.  

In almost all state assembly elections held after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s vote share has uniformly declined 10 to 13 percentage points, as in Bihar. The number of assembly segments currently held by the BJP in all these states is less than half of what it held, based on the Lok Sabha vote, in 2019. While it is true that state and Lok Sabha elections are guided by different dynamics, they are not totally divorced, either. And they are likely to overlap much more in the post-pandemic phase of politics, in which livelihood issues will more likely dominate. 


BJP wins, Scindia falters

The headlines may show the BJP comfortably securing power in Madhya Pradesh after the bypolls, in which it won 16 seats, but victory for Jyotiraditya Scindia has not been as clear. Of the 16 Congress MLAs who went with him to the BJP from his Gwalior-Chambal region, only nine could win the elections.

Pub fire relief

A Mumbai court has discharged two owners of Kamala Mills Compound, who were booked in connection with a fire at a pub in the premises in 2017, which led to the death of 14 people. The court, however, rejected the discharge pleas of owners of the pub and restaurant, BMC officials and other accused, who will face charges under relevant sections of the IPC and Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Act.

Deep Dive

History of Bihar Politics

As the nation ponders how politics has changed (or not) in Bihar, it is useful to read Rakesh Ankit’s account of its political history: Caste Politics in Bihar: In Historical Continuum. Ankit, who teaches at Loughborough University, UK, traces the thread back to the Janeyu Andolan of the 1920s, “which saw the Yadavs and other lower castes sanskritising themselves by wearing the Brahmanical thread”. Violent clashes between “the Yadav, Kurmi and Koeri castes and their upper-caste adversaries” followed. The paper analyses how politics in Bihar has evolved from that time, using state records, news editorials and English as well as Hindi scholarship.

Rasmus Klein Neilsen, director of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, has released a paper on the effect of the pandemic on independent news media globally. It finds that the disruption of physical distribution chains harmed print publications, but more significantly, at times of crisis, people turn to independent media as sources of credible information and insight.   

Vice chancellor steps up

Vice Chancellors generally do not regard themselves as pioneering guinea pigs, but the Aligarh Muslim University VC has registered himself as the first volunteer of the Covaxin Phase 3 trial that the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College in his university is conducting. 

AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria has again highlighted the perils of Covid combining with bad air, of which there is plenty in the capital. He told an ASSOCHAM webinar that there are three major reasons for the current rise in Covid-19 cases ― fatigue and lack of appropriate behaviour, as people are crowding together and not wearing masks; respiratory viruses peaking during the winter months and Delhi’s dangerous air quality in this season. “We have done a study in which we have followed all our admissions in the emergency room for two years, and what we found was that whenever the air quality index worsened, there was an increase in admissions of children and adults for respiratory diseases in the next 5-6 days. This has been seen for the last 2-3 years, and now with excessive air pollution and Covid-19, this is going to become a huge burden.” At 7,830 cases, the capital has seen its tallest spike so far.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Prabhat Patnaik suggests that in their struggle against divisive elements, democratic forces must work for a New Deal which, instead of offering a minimum basic income that smacks of largesse, institutes a regime of fundamental economic rights.

Listen up

Of 300 Ramayanas

Teacher, translator and scholar Arshia Sattar, who has translated the Valmiki Ramayana, talks to Sidharth Bhatia about different traditions of the Ramayana that are recounted in India and Southeast Asia.

Watch Out

India could become a political football in US

Ashley Tellis tells Karan Thapar that there is likely to be an increase in constituencies in the United States that voice concern about Indian democracy and India’s treatment of minorities. As he put it, there’s rising concern in the US about these issues. However, he added that there’s a real possibility that if Democrats raise these issues their Republican opponents might choose to take the opposite stand. If that happens, the traditional bipartisan consensus could easily erode and lead to India becoming a political football in the US.

Dial tone

‘Lockdown’, the containment measure implemented by governments around the world to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, has been named the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year 2020.

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.