The India Cable: EC Loses West Bengal; Modi Monitors Oxygen, Bodies Pile Up

Plus: Vaccine policy violates right to life, ‘blood on our hands,’ writes editor, vaccinations plummeted in last fortnight, Congress oxygen embarrasses MEA, and Pune slum homes get Google addresses

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
May 3, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Yesterday, the Election Commission lost West Bengal in an Assembly poll that is being read as a referendum on the Modi government at the Centre. 

The EC’s servers crashed, too, exactly when the tide was turning in favour of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the closely fought contest with her estranged lieutenant Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram. Since the stature of the EC is currently unimpressive, distrust followed in Bengal and the day ended in confusion, until Banerjee conceded defeat in the battle, but victory in the war.  She is now likely to stand for election from Khardah, the assembly seat which the Trinamool won but whose victor is now dead from Covid-19. 

The EC had moved the Supreme Court against the Madras High Court’s April 26 oral observation that it was singularly responsible for the Covid-19 situation in India, and that its officials should probably face murder charges for failing to ensure adherence to Covid-19 protocols. Its bid to get directions to media houses to refrain from reporting on oral observations made during court proceedings received a strong rebuff from the apex court.

Candidates who had switched allegiance to the BJP for electoral advantage have not prospered. Bangla news channels labelled them ‘dal-badlus’ ― switcheroos. Farm activist Akhil Gogoi, who has been denied bail under the UAPA, has done a George Fernandes, winning the election from jail. Poll strategist Prashant Kishor has called it a day, after urging Opposition parties to take the Election Commission to task for constantly tilting the board to favour the ruling party. He also said that communalism can only take a party so far. 

In the count that matters, 368,147 fresh Covid-19 infections were recorded yesterday, and 3,417 fatalities, pushing India’s tally of total cases to 19,925,604, and its death toll to 218,959. Now, India accounts for more than half of the world’s Covid-19 load. As election rallies continued, here is evidence that the growth rate of average daily cases in the states which went to polls accelerated. As many as 24 patients, including 23 suffering from Covid-19, died in Karnataka's Chamarajanagar due to an oxygen shortage in the district hospital in the last 24 hours. As per the Solicitor General in the Supreme Court, Modi has been personally monitoring oxygen supplies for over a week now, which has seen more deaths in the national capital too.

Thirteen Opposition leaders including Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, HD Deve Gowda, chief ministers Uddhav Thackeray, Hemant Soren, Tejaswi Yadav, MK Stalin, D Raja, staunch rivals like Mayawati and Akhilesh in UP and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and the CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, signed a joint statement asking the government to “focus” on providing uninterrupted oxygen supply and mass and free vaccination for all, using the full amount of Rs 35,000 crore budgeted for Covid-19.

The Economist writes, “What has shocked millions of Indians, including much of his own base, is Mr Modi’s deafness to widespread suffering. As the misery has mounted, he seems to have grown more distant, avoiding the limelight and commenting in increasingly stilted soundbites.”

“They’d lie there, watching the patient gasping, unable to breathe, and they knew we weren’t giving oxygen because there wasn’t any. The look in their eyes was one of pure terror. They knew it could be their turn next,” Dr Chahat Verma tells The Guardian about her harrowing experience at the Ganga Ram Hospital last week, when oxygen was periodically running out.

A social media post by China’s top law enforcement body juxtaposing the country’s successful launch of a module into space with grim cremation pyres in India was deleted after it sparked online criticism in China.

Col Dr Moses Beatus Mlula, defence advisor of Tanzania, died of Covid-19 at the Base Hospital in Delhi Cantonment on April 28, the High Commission of Tanzania has announced. He is the first foreign diplomat to fall to the virus in India. 

Here are 12 reasons why the second wave of Covid-19 in India is a man-made disaster. CNN reports that social media is a lifeline for desperate Indians. And a threat to Narendra Modi.

A La Nina variant may power this year’s monsoon. Research shows an increase in frequency of cyclonic storms over the Bay of Bengal. “Usually, that would mean a normal to above normal summer mon­soon for India. Rainfall pre­dictions issued so far also in­dicate that.”

The IPL match scheduled for this evening in Ahmedabad has been cancelled as players are sick. Varun Chakravarthy and Sandeep Warrier have tested positive. Despite the wave of completely avoidable death sweeping the country, the Centre has not placed fresh orders for vaccines for more than a month. The last order of 12 crore doses was placed in March. 


Vishwaguru diplomacy grumbles about Youth Congress oxygen

A red-faced External Affairs Ministry urged embassies in New Delhi “not to hoard essential supplies, including oxygen” after an embarrassing episode in which the Philippines embassy and New Zealand, high commission sent an SOS to the head of the Indian Youth Congress for oxygen cylinders, which were delivered. When Congress leader Jairam Ramesh made this public on Twitter, bringing to the notice of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar the fact that the Opposition’s youth wing was seen to be more reliable than the government, the minister rudely tried to allege that the oxygen delivered to the Philippines embassy was “an unsolicited supply… for cheap publicity”. The Youth Congress put out the full conversation with the embassy, nailing the minister’s lie. 

As if that were not humiliating enough, the New Zealand embassy placed a similar request on Twitter, and was duly helped by the Youth Congress. Once bitten, twice shy, the minister kept silent but got the embassy to withdraw their request. Embarrassingly, it was patently under government pressure. More than 40 countries are helping India during the second wave of the pandemic, but their diplomats in India feel that they cannot depend on our government for emergency aid. This is vishwaguru diplomacy. And the question remains: what exactly is “unsolicited” oxygen?


Centre’s vaccine policy violates right to life

A Bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat directed the central government to “consider revisiting its current vaccine policy to ensure that it withstands the scrutiny of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India.”  It noted that to remain consistent with the right to life, which includes the right to health, the Centre should procure all vaccines and negotiate the prices with manufacturers. It observed that the end use of the vaccines, whether purchased by the Centre or the states, is the same. 

“In other words, while procurement would be centralised, distribution of the vaccines across India within the States/UTs would be decentralised. While we are not passing a conclusive determination on the constitutionality of the current policy, the manner in which the current policy has been framed would prima facie result in a detriment to the right to public health which is an integral element of Article 21 of the Constitution,” the order said. The Supreme Court has also directed the Centre to ensure that oxygen demand projected by the Delhi government is met before midnight tonight. And it has warned state governments and the Centre not to try and intimidate or criminalise individuals who turn to social media seeking medical assistance for loved ones.

In London, Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla told the Financial Times that India’s severe vaccine shortage would continue through July, when production is expected to increase from 60-70 million doses a month to 100 million. Poonawalla said the company had been maligned by politicians and critics over vaccine shortages, pointing out that the government, not the company, was responsible for policy. The head of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer announced on Saturday that he would return to India in a few days. In an interview with The Times, he had said that he left the country partly because of unspecified “threats” from senior politicians and business figures, demanding access to vaccines.


What the voter said

Quick election takeaway: The BJP had 36% of all MLAs in India at its peak in May 2018. Since then, the party has ceded ground in several large states and the share has dropped to 33%.

The Assembly poll results were followed in a funereal atmosphere in many TV studios, including Doordarshan. Kerala made history by re-electing the incumbent Left government for the first time in four decades, West Bengal returned India’s only woman chief minister for the third term, and Tamil Nadu saw a new dawn for Dravidian politics, with MK Stalin set to run the seventh DMK government, the party’s first after a decade of AIADMK control. Assam returned the BJP, but it is not clear that Sarbananda Sonowal will be sworn in again. Puducherry, as expected, went with the NR Congress, the breakaway group now aligned with the BJP. How the electoral system was vitiated in innovative ways has been under-reported. The impact of the setback for the BJP in West Bengal, Covid mismanagement in UP and Gujarat elections next year is an existential and organisational challenge for the ruling party. 

KK Shailaja has won with the highest margin ever in Kerala, which is now BJP-mukt. Public anger about holding an Assembly by-election during the Covid-19 spike has cost the ruling BJP in at least one seat in Madhya Pradesh. The ruling party lost the Damoh seat, with old Congress warhorse Ajay Tandon defeating BJP candidate Rahul Singh Lodhi by a handsome margin. Lodhi was elected MLA from the Congress but resigned to join the BJP, and was punished by the voters. 

After asking “if heavens would fall” if counting for the UP panchayat polls was delayed, the Supreme Court allowed it anyway. In Kanpur, for the first time in 15 years, the village head in Bikru, where eight police personnel were killed in an ambush last year, is not from the family of slain gangster Vikas Dubey.


High courts demand answers

The Delhi High Court heard the issue of oxygen supplies to the city’s hospitals. The Centre tried in vain to evade the responsibility of arranging for oxygen tankers. It has filed an application seeking a recall of the court’s Saturday order, which warned of contempt if 490 MT of oxygen was not supplied to Delhi. The bench had passed the order after eight patients died in Batra Hospital, where oxygen supply failed. 

The Solicitor General urged the court to not go into the issue of tankers, which could impair Covid management. The Solicitor General said that other states are not complaining about oxygen. “Because they are getting oxygen,” the Bench retorted. The court has also asked for details of oxygen concentrators destined for hospitals, but stuck in customs.

After the Amicus Curiae told the Madhya Pradesh High Court on Friday that despite the Court’s direction to maintain supply, there were about 60 deaths for lack of oxygen, the court was scathing about the BJP government


The Long Cable

What Bengal thinks today…

Siddharth Varadarajan

Gokhale’s famous dictum about the rest of India taking to what Bengal does is being quoted by critics of Narendra Modi in the aftermath of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s spectacular defeat in the assembly elections in that state. The sentiment is admirable but it is not clear if the conditions that can make this possible are being fully understood.

In the face of a communal campaign, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress actually saw an increase in vote share compared to the 2016 assembly and 2019 national elections. The BJP’s claim that Mamata’s win is due to the consolidation of the “30 percent”, i.e. Muslim voters, is as self-serving as it is simplistic. That Hindu voters in Kerala and Tamil Nadu also refused to succumb to the party’s blatant appeals to religion lends further heft to the optimism that is so visible  as the three states together account for nearly 20% of parliament’s 543 seats. 

It is not without significance that Mamata took time off in the middle of the campaign to write a letter to all opposition leaders calling on them to jointly resist Modi’s assaults on democracy and federalism. The BJP was quick to dismiss the letter as an example of her tacit acceptance that she had already lost Bengal and was trying to create a national role for herself. But it is now clear that the opposite is true. The letter was an opening shot, and there will be more. Having beaten back a ferocious challenge from the BJP, she will have every incentive to take the battle to the enemy’s camp and challenge him wherever he is strong, including at the national level.

However, two obvious caveats are in order as we seek to extrapolate from the May 2 results: first, the decision dynamics in state and national elections tend to be rather different, and second, the Lok Sabha elections are three years away.

Between now and then, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat go to the polls. The two states represent another fifth of the Lok Sabha’s strength and the BJP is firmly entrenched there. Moreover, there is little evidence yet of the opposition settling its differences in order to mount a clear challenge to Modi and the BJP. As of today, the UP election is likely to be four-cornered. And while Gujarat remains a two-horse race, it is possible others like the Aam Aadmi Party may sense an opportunity.

Nationally, the Congress remains weak and listless. It did poorly in all of the states which went to the polls recently, barring Tamil Nadu where it played a distant second fiddle to the DMK, which won enough seats on its own to form the government without its Congress alliance partner. The Congress’s chief ministers in Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are strong but they reinforce the idea that the party is more ‘regional’ than ‘national’. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi may believe they have three years to decide what becomes of the Congress and the opposition; in reality, any decisions about the party’s leadership and approach are best taken now. 

Modi’s disastrous handling of the pandemic has weakened the BJP’s grip on the middle class imagination, which is so central to national political discourse. His anti-farmer policies have also driven home the point that his government stands for big business and not ordinary folk. From here on, the Sangh’s relentless communalism will yield rapidly declining electoral benefits. But just as Modi’s 2014 victory was long in the making and involved considerable strategising, his defeat in 2021 will require more than just his own incompetence in the face of the coronavirus. Mamata Banerjee and other key opposition leaders have to demonstrate through their action, vision and pronouncements that they have – both individually and collectively – the antidote India so desperately needs to cleanse itself of the toxic material Modi has been pumping into its veins for the past seven years. 


Reportedly

It was believed that Narendra Modi grew a beard to identify with Tagore. Now that the Bengali electorate has firmly rejected him, many wonder if he will lose the beard and, with elections due in Punjab, don a turban.


Prime Number: -8.7 lakh
The pace of Covid-19 vaccinations in India has fallen significantly in the last 15 days. By April 15, around 32.69 lakh doses were admi­nistered in the country daily, on average. However, as of April 30, it was down to 23.72 lakh doses, a drop of 8.7 lakh daily doses. It should have been scaled up rapidly instead.

Deep Dive

As government sources of medical aid and welfare collapsed, many Indians took to Twitter, sending desperate SOS requests to crowdsource vital resources. How did we get here and what does this tell us about the second wave? Here is a forensic reading by Ayushman Kaul and Devesh Kumar.


‘Blood on our hands’

GS Vasu, editor of The New Indian Express, speaks for his fraternity of top editors: “If only the mainstream media, the judiciary and other institutions accountable to the people (not government) did their duty by holding up the mirror, we may not have come to this situation and the ruling dispensations, too, would have done a better job, correcting course whenever they went wrong. As a colleague said, we have come to a stage where we ‘cast our votes and count the dead’. There are too many nights when you go to bed with a feeling that ‘there is blood on our hands’.

The columnist Tavleen Singh observes: “The western media is reporting what is being reported across India by Indian journalists. With one difference. They do not hesitate to blame the Prime Minister for this catastrophe… Indian journalists do hesitate because criticising the Supreme Leader has consequences.”


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Even before the election became a pandemic spreader, it had become the most violent poll season in recent times. Gilles Verniers analyses the import.

  • Combating India’s second wave will require aggressive public health measures, emergency aid and a major global ramp-up of vaccine production, say Krishna Udayakumar and Andrea Taylor in The MIT Technology Review.

  • In 1843 Magazine, Sudipto Sanyal writes on Kolkata’s struggle for oxygen for dealing with Covid-19.

  • The LDF government wasn’t perfect — no government is — but as the country faces the double threat of a pandemic and pandering to communal elements, the Pinarayi Vijayan government showed that leadership that will stand up to both will win, writes Dhanya Rajendran.

  • Chief Justice of India NV Ramana was known for his activist outlook in his early days, when he addressed issues concerning farmers and industrial workers. Will it make for a more active Supreme Court, asks Aditya AK?

  • The BJP’s strategy of fighting Assembly elections in the name of Prime Minister Modi seems to be going awry. It does not seem to strike a chord among voters, writes Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr. 

  • Virologist Shahid Jameel reflects on the causes of India’s devastating second wave and what the world should learn from it.

  • The Covid crisis has handed the biggest political challenge to the Modi government. Can the PM emerge unscathed and find someone to take the blame, asks Chitragupt.

  • There has been shocking, collective policy failure. Focus on controlling the spread of infections, taking care of the ill, vaccination, and genome sequencing now, advises Dr Ashish K Jha.


Listen Up

The Guardian’s South Asia correspondent Hannah Ellis-Petersen tells Anushka Asthana that the situation in India now couldn’t be further from a victory against the virus. India’s crisis is also a crisis for the world. The world’s foremost vaccine producer has had to cut back exports.


Watch Out

A graphic account of how things panned out as the government wilfully dropped the ball on Covid-19 management.


Over and Out

With no address of their own, slum residents had a hard time opening bank and postal accounts or accessing utility bills. Last September, the nonprofit Shelter Associates began a pilot project with Google and UNICEF to provide unique digital addresses to houses in Laxmi Nagar, Pune. Now, they can use Google’s plus codes to direct deliveries and medical care to their front doors.

At her first outing after Prince Philip’s funeral, the British Queen chose to wear a very symbolic piece of jewellery — a diamond-encrusted Cartier rose brooch that was given to her by Asaf Jah VII, the Nizam of Hyderabad, to commemorate her 1947 marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh. India was still under British colonial rule and as the world’s richest man, Jah instructed Cartier to let the then-princess take her pick for her wedding gift. Elizabeth chose an ornate tiara and coordinating necklace which date to 1935. 

Those aren’t bonfires in the park, says Zoya Akhtar.


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.