The India Cable: From Gujarat to UP, Fudged Covid Numbers and the Real Story of the Modi 'Model'

Plus: UAE confirms India-Pak mediation, 15,000 Ram temple donation cheques bounce, Haffkine Institute to make Covaxin, EC won’t hasten WB polls, Myanmar lawmakers in India challenge junta

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 16, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India added a record 2,17,353 new coronavirus infections and 1,185 new fatalities in a day, as per Health Ministry data. Ranjit Sinha, controversial former chief of the CBI and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, has died at 68, after testing positive for Covid-19 yesterday. 

Swami Kapil Dev from Madhya Pradesh, head of the Maha Nirvani Akhara, who had tested positive for the coronavirus, died in Uttarakhand’s Dehradun, after attending the Mahakumbh at Haridwar. The Niranjani Akhara has announced the end of its participation in the Kumbh Mela after several sadhus tested positive for Covid-19. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, who had defended the relaxation of pandemic norms at Haridwar, saying that faith would dispel fear, ironically caught Covid-19. A BJP leader said on TV that he too had Covid-19, after going to the Kumbh, but defended the holding of the event regardless. 

The Delhi High Court has today allowed 50 people to offer namaz at Nizamuddin Markaz five times a day on the first floor of the building during Ramzan, because the Delhi Disaster Management Authority has restricted all religious gatherings and congregations. Curbs on the organisation, and its unfair demonisation last year, are being contrasted with the reckless relaxations at Haridwar.   

The Uttarakhand Chief Secretary claims that the state government has passed orders limiting religious and social gatherings to 200 people, but the Kumbh is excluded. Disturbing images of two patients in a bed in Delhi’s LNJP Hospital have come to light as Covid-19 cases surge in the national capital. All staffers at the residence of Justice MR Shah of the Supreme Court have tested Covid-19 positive.

After school board examinations for Class 12 were postponed and Class 10 examinations cancelled, the Centre has postponed the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (postgraduate) or NEET-PG medical exam. It was scheduled for Sunday and nearly 1.7 lakh medical aspirants were to appear.

The Department of Science and Technology has granted approval to Haffkine Institute in Mumbai to produce Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin on a technology transfer basis. 

A group of over 170 world leaders and Nobel Prize winners have urged US President Joe Biden to support a waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to boost global vaccination rates, in the common interest. India and South Africa had moved this proposal at the World Trade Organization in October, but perhaps keen to adopt different positions nationally and internationally, the Modi government is mum about it here!

The Congress has emerged as the single largest party in the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council in Meghalaya, winning 12 of the 29 seats for which elections were held on April 12. The National People’s Party, which heads the state’s ruling coalition, came a close second with 11 seats.


Election Commission’s ‘ventriloquism’:

The Election Commission ruled out any plans to club the remaining phases of the West Bengal Assembly elections into one phase. Polls have been held for 135 seats, and the remaining 159 seats go to the polls in April 17-29 in three phases. Allowing large, mask-less rallies, which are as hazardous as religious congregations, has added to the black marks in the Election Commission’s dubious record. Now, its reluctance to quickly finish the election process despite clear and present danger is attracting derision. Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi pulled no punches when he said clubbing phases would be “sensible, desirable and doable. Saving lives at all costs is the foremost objective.” In 1991, the reformist CEC TN Seshan had postponed elections without waiting for executive direction, following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Now, it’s not the same EC. 


High Court questions Gujarat Covid figures, UP conceals cremations

The Gujarat High Court yesterday raised questions about the authenticity of the BJP state government’s Covid-19 management data and said that it had doubts about its integrity. This is the first time that the government has been criticised publicly for not sharing the true figures. For the past two or three weeks, media reports from small towns and cities have been claiming an alarming number of deaths in hospitals but on government records, the death rate remained low. In violation of guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research, the state government doesn’t count deaths of infected persons who had prior illnesses or co-morbidities. This is why the Covid-19 mortality rate remains low across Gujarat, though crematoriums are running round the clock in major cities.

Meanwhile, in Lucknow, most of the main markets including Hazratganj and Aminabad have been voluntarily closed by traders for a few days, to break the chain of transmission. UP Chief Minister Adityanath has been admitted to a superspeciality allopathic hospital after testing positive for Covid-19 ― no traditional medicine for the yogi. The state administration yesterday erected metal sheeting around the main crematorium of the city and barred “unauthorised” people from entering the place, after disturbing videos of scores of funeral pyres went viral on social media. Videos from another angle were taken last night. Rather surprisingly, the sheeting was not orange in colour, but the usual blue. The ruling BJP has decreed that even bed sheets in public hospitals must be orange.

In other news of the pandemic, millions of vulnerable people are at risk of missing out on Covid-19 vaccines as authorities test a facial recognition system based on the Aadhaar ID for authentication in the eastern state of Jharkhand, and plan to roll it out nationwide. India’s ambassador to Moscow has said deliveries of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to India were expected to begin before the end of this month. The Modi government will import 50,000 metric tonnes of medical oxygen to cater to “an unusual surge in demand” even as it claimed that oxygen availability in the country was adequate. Nine bank unions have asked the Finance Ministry to reduce banking days and allow branches to work with minimum staff. In the wake of the influx of migrant workers from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab and other states on overloaded trains to Uttar Pradesh, the state government has directed district magistrates to open quarantine centres and kitchens


Inflation shoots up, rupee crashes

The wholesale price index-based inflation shot up to an eight-year high of 7.39% in March on rising fuel and metal prices. It has been climbing steadily for three months. Inflation in pulses was 13.14% in March, while in fruits it was 16.33%. Inflation in the fuel and power basket was 10.25% in March, against 0.58% in February, mainly on account of rising prices of petrol and diesel. Retail inflation, as per data released earlier this week, rose to a four-month high of 5.52% in March. Yesterday also saw the rupee holding on as Asia’s worst-performing currency. More losses are expected as localised lockdowns and restrictions begin hitting the economy.


BJP’s Facebook friendship

Facebook had planned to remove fake accounts in India – until it realised a BJP politician was involved. In a special investigation, The Guardian reveals that a whistleblower points to double standards in Facebook’s enforcement of rules against the powerful. Earlier, Facebook’s head of public policy for India, Ankhi Das, overruled policy staff who had decided that the BJP politician T Raja Singh should be designated a “dangerous individual” – the classification for hate group leaders – for his anti-Muslim incitement, according to an August 2020 Wall Street Journal report. She later resigned.


The Long Cable

The pandemic has shown Modi for the incompetent administrator he really is

Siddharth Varadarajan

The National Disaster Management Act makes it a criminal offence to circulate “a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic” (Section 54). As the pandemic took hold in India in March and April 2020, this Section was used to file criminal cases against journalists who questioned the government’s handling of it – such as the unplanned and disastrous lockdown, the shortage of essentials, the flouting of Covid norms by politicians. (Disclosure: I was also one of those charged).

Sadly, the Act is silent about the culpability of those who give the public false assurances about the severity of a disaster, leading to complacency.

Had the law been explicit about criminalising false assurances,  the first person who would have been booked would surely be Tirath Singh Rawat, the chief minister of Uttarakhand. Not only has he allowed the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar to be held despite the new surge in COVID infections but has actually been reassuring Hindu pilgrims that they need not worry about being infected because Maa Ganga would keep them safe.

The result: hundreds of cases have emerged from Haridwar and there will be many more as infected pilgrims head home to villages and towns across north India.

It is easy to blame the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s kumbh obsession – both at the Central and State level – on the Hindutva ideology, blind superstition and  double standards of its leaders. These are the same people who had taunted the Tablighi Jamaat (and by extension, all Muslims) as ‘corona bombs’ last year for having congregated in much smaller numbers at a time when there was zero public awareness about Covid. And yet it is worth asking why Hindu chauvinists would want to willingly push Hindu believers into the jaws of death.

The answer has been staring us in the face pretty much since 2016, when Narendra Modi plunged India down the disastrous rabbit hole of demonetisation. The fact is that the Prime Minister and his Sangh apparatchiks are quite simply the most incompetent and callous set of administrators India has ever seen since independence. So preoccupied has civil society been by the blatant communalism of the Modi regime that nobody noticed their fascism comes without ‘the trains running on time’.

The pandemic has seen one catastrophic decision after the other.

  • The delayed realisation that this was a disease that needed to be taken seriously because the priority mid-March 2020 was toppling the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.

  • The sudden lockdown, announced with no planning or consultation with official stakeholders.

  • The assault on the media instead of getting the administration to plug the shortcomings that journalists were highlighting.

  • The communalisation of the pandemic.

  • The false bravado in claiming India was doing better than others, which played a major role in the public lowering its guard.

  • Touting fake technological solutions like Aarogya Setu. Promoting bogus ‘AYUSH’ remedies, especially those produced by businessmen close to the ruling party.

  • The woefully inadequate fiscal and administrative measures to protect the economy and the most vulnerable citizens.

  • The refusal to allow proper parliamentary oversight of government policies throughout this period.

  • The petty politics over vaccines – in which the government was looking to score on the PR front rather than actually creating capacity for inoculating the population.

  • The failure to maintain proper data on deaths.

  • The irrational flouting of social distancing guidelines by encouraging large religious congregations like the kumbh and getting the Election Commission to stretch the West Bengal election over eight phases.

The list can go on and on.

If Modi had been serious, he would have understood from the dynamics of the second wave which countries like France, the UK and the US have experienced that India needed to prepare for a resurgence. Since vaccines are pretty much the only long-term line of defence, the priority ought to have been to ensure India had access to at least 2 billion doses by the middle of 2021, so that 60-70% of the population could get their double shot quickly. Instead, as Vasudevan Mukunth wrote in The India Cable this week, the vaccine approvals process has been unusually opaque. The government has also not been willing to commit the required financial resources needed to ensure vaccine production quickly ramps us. That is why India “lost the vaccine war”.

Now that the tsunami of cases has struck, the BJP is doing what it does best: covering up the truth. In states that it rules, evidence is mounting of a serious undercounting of both cases and deaths. Worse, it cannot bring itself to do the least that a sensible government would do: cancel mass gatherings. There is an election to be won by any and every means in West Bengal. And there is no way a party that swears by ‘Hindutva’ can afford to now admit that it has been playing with the lives of Hindus in Haridwar. 

While this too shall pass, the question is what the voters of Uttar Pradesh and India will make of Narendra Modi’s model of governance when they go to the polls in 2022 and 2024.


Reportedly

About 15,000 bank cheques with a face value of Rs 22 crore, collected by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, have bounced. According to an audit report of Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra, a trust set up by the Modi government for the construction of the temple, the cheques bounced due to lack of funds in bank accounts or technical error. Around Rs 5,000 crore was collected during the drive. But there are bigger questions about the hundreds of crores that the VHP has collected ever since BJP leader LK Advani went on a Toyota rath, with Narendra Modi for a manager, on a yatra that eventually led to the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992. How about an audit of those collections?


Prime Number: 210 million
The number of television viewing households in the country in 2020, as per Broadcast Audience Rating Council. At the end of 2018, there were over 197 million TV-viewing households.

UAE role in Kashmir talks confirmed

The United Arab Emirates played a role in bringing down the tension between India and Pakistan and getting their bilateral ties back to a “healthy functional relationship”, Emirati ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba has said. He brought up the issue himself while responding to a question, acknowledging his country’s role in “bringing Kashmir escalation down” between the two neighbours. “We try to be helpful where we have influence with two different countries. So, India and Pakistan was the most recent one,” he said. 

India and Pakistan are signatories to the 1972 Simla Agreement which mandates that all issues between the two countries, including Kashmir, will be resolved bilaterally. The External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi did not give a direct reply on being asked about UAE’s role. Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman stopped short of categorically denying its involvement in some kind of backchannel talks with India.   


Tatmadaw challenged from within India: Report

There are reports from “an undisclosed hillside location in India” that Myanmar’s ousted lawmakers are working on challenging the junta from here. Reuters spoke to two of the 12 lawmakers who have crossed over into India, and to a Myanmar politician, all involved with the CRPH, a body of ousted lawmakers that is attempting to re-establish the civilian government and displace the military. India’s position on the army, which has wrested power from the democratically elected government, has been wishy-washy and confused from the beginning. However, thanks to local sentiments in the states bordering Myanmar, India is the only country accepting refugees from its neighbour. 


Deep Dive

The University of Oxford’s Our World in Data covers the pandemic by the numbers. Everything about the crisis in India is here, in perspective, and visually comparable with the situation in other countries ― infections, trends, vaccinations. It’s a useful resource because in India, not only is the integrity of data in question, but data is being concealed and wilfully misread. We have dodgy spreadsheets, and tin sheets to mask cremation grounds. 


Umar Khalid gets bail but is not free

A Delhi court has granted bail to Umar Khalid in a Delhi riots case where among other bail conditions, he has been directed to install the Aarogya Setu app on his phone upon his release. The court also held that chargesheeting Umar Khalid in this case on the basis of “such insignificant material” was unwarranted. He will, however, remain in jail because of another FIR in which he is booked under UAPA, with similar charges.


Second Covid wave’s economic damage

“It is likely that reported year-on-year GDP growth in the quarter ending March will dip into negative. Even before the second wave struck, the Statistics Office was forecasting GDP growth at -1.1% year-on-year for the quarter. And now with gross value added (GVA) likely to be weaker, GDP growth for the quarter ending March could come in even more negative. Furthermore, the q-o-q sequential momentum in the quarter ending June will likely come in negative.” This is from a research note by Pranjul Bhandari, chief economist, India HSBC Securities and Capital Markets (India) Private Limited, and it tells us of the significant economic cost extracted by the second wave of the pandemic.


An Assam ‘Muslim Census’ now

In a shining example of how bigotry once fanned by the state can only lead to worse consequences, the Janagosthiya Samannay Parishad, Assam (JSPA) yesterday launched a portal for conducting the first-ever so-called census of Assamese Muslims, for distinguishing them from their migrant, Bengal-origin or Bengali-speaking co-religionists. The three-month exercise, says this report with a straight face, is “seen as a small-scale version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), has a cut-off period corresponding with the British annexation of Assam in the early 1800s.” 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • An editorial in the EPW comments on the Bangladesh model, which shows that mutually reinforcing economic and social policies foster inclusive growth.

  • Forbes, India and Pandora’s pandemic box: P Sainath writes on the year the GDP contracted 7.7%, another round of ‘reverse’ migrations is in progress, farmers wait unheeded at the gates of Delhi, and Indian billionaires hit the jackpot.

  • The fairytale success of Lijjat Papad ― a multimillion dollar venture founded by seven women in a crowded Mumbai tenement in 1959 with seed capital of Rs 80 ― belies its revolutionary feminist aspirations, according to the AFP.

  • The contempt for journalism in Kashmir and the impunity with which press freedoms are curbed aren’t rooted in the government’s claims that journalism is inciting violence. It is to hide their misdeeds, writes The Kashmirwalla in an editorial. 


Listen Up

With Indian elections underway — and in a moment when ethnic nationalisms are on the upswing around the world — Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Brown University, discusses how religion has contributed to the Hindu nationalist turn.


Watch Out

Prof Aishwary Kumar discusses Dr BR Ambedkar and his nuanced understanding of rights, resistance and citizenship in this conversation with Huzaifa Omar Siddiqi.


Over and Out

The winning shot from Steve Waugh:


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.