The India Cable: Goswami Embarrasses the Godi, Biden Appoints More Indian Americans

Plus: FIR filed in Tandav red herring, NIA shows interest in protesting farmers, tax revenue almost halved, Delhi schools reopen and once more, Kapil Sibal isn’t sure whom he’s representing

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
January 18, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

China has built a village of 101 homes within Arunachal Pradesh, NDTV reported today, citing satellite imagery from Planet Labs, San Francisco. The site on the Tsari Chu river is 4.5 on the Indian side of the de facto border, in Upper Subansiri district. Time lapse between images analysed shows that it was established between August 2019 and November 2020. The Ministry of External Affairs has not denied the report, but said that the Indian government is building roads and bridges to improve connectivity. There are no signs of these near the Chinese village. 

The chats of Republic TV owner-editor Arnab Goswami and former ratings agency CEO Partho Dasgupta, released by the Mumbai Police as part of its chargesheet in a viewership fixing case, suggest that he had advance knowledge of the Balakot operation, and was exultant about its political effects. A 2019 report by Reuters accurately lays out the slide in Narendra Modi’s political fortunes before the Pulwama attack, which was surgically corrected by the Balakot operation before the general election. A statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan alleges that Balakot was for domestic consumption. 

Republic TV has responded with a statement in which it claims to be a bulwark against Pakistan and that Pakistan’s comment is “proof” of the ‘anti-national’ nature of the probe against the channel.

Nidhi Razdan, who quit her job as an NDTV anchor last year for what she thought was a Harvard professorship, came out with her account of being the victim of an online job scam, and possibly phishing. The two stories drew equal attention, but there’s a difference. Razdan wrote a blog admitting to having been foolish. Goswami is revealed to be a malevolent ratings player with no interest in the real news, exulting in viewership brought in by the death of servicemen. A lapse in national security, in which the government is involved, is also visible. 

It’s all very exciting, but the contents of phones should be used only to further investigations and presented as evidence in court. Privacy remains a fundamental right, and the agencies should not be releasing transcripts to the public, whether the phone is Arnab Goswami’s or Rhea Chakraborty’s. In Chakraborty’s case, which was trumped up, there was no real investigation, but there was political capital to be made.  

First citizen Ram Nath Kovind is the first donor headlining the sangh parivar’s drive to raise funds for the construction of the Ram temple, with a numerically auspicious donation of Rs Rs 5,01,000, auspicious news agency ANI reported. The proposed temple stands on shifting sands, undermined by a subterranean stream of the auspicious Sarayu river. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who cannot attend the Republic Day parade because he has locked himself down with the rest of the UK, has invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the G7 meet chaired by the UK, which will be held in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, in mid-June. The beach is a fine prospect, but the Atlantic can be bone-chilling. Australia and South Korea are other guest countries at the G7 meet this year. But Britain is the epicentre of the first known variant of Covid-19, B177, other mutations may follow, and international travel may remain uncertain.

The Guardian reminds us that Mahatma Gandhi’s killer is venerated as Hindu nationalism resurges in India. In the New Yorker, Bill McKibben uses the same example from India ―  where the culture of hate which made Gandhi’s assassination possible was abjured by the state at Independence, but his killer is now celebrated ― to warn the US that it needs to deal thoroughly with the ugliness it has gone through. 

India’s two richest men are now embroiled in the controversy over the farm laws. Both deny any interest in farming, but have become targets of protesters. It recalls Rahul Gandhi’s 2015 jibe about the “suit-boot ka sarkar” ― a government in cahoots with tycoons. Asserting that they would jointly fight the “communal” BJP and the “fascist” Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Left Front and the Congress have said that their seat-sharing arrangement for the forthcoming state assembly elections will be finalised by the end of the month.

The vaccination programme has started in India, but questions remain in the air. Covaxin is incompletely tested and recipients ― state governments and individuals ― cannot choose between it and the Oxford vaccine. In theory, they can refuse the vaccine, but in reality, that choice may not exist. Can hospital staff, for instance, refuse a vaccine without suffering serious peer pressure? Some experts suggest it is better to wait till Covishield is more widely available. 

The experience of migrant workers stranded in the lockdown was uniquely Indian and unforgettable. The New Yorker recounts what Kirtiraj, one of the millions on the road, went through. Remittances to India, a significant part of inflows, dipped this financial year till the end of September by 6.7% compared to last year, according to government data. Rising crude prices and the depreciating rupee are unlikely to send this figure up anytime soon.

The Supreme Court-appointed panel on the farm laws will hold its first meeting tomorrow. It has lost a member already to conflict of interest, but will persist in its task, irrespective of parallel talks which the government may hold with farmers.

And in Delhi, schools reopened today with strict Covid-19 restrictions for students in Class 10 and 12. After 10 months at home, students were welcomed with sanitisers, digital thermometers, balloons and showers of flower petals. For many, it was a homecoming


Biden appoints record number of Indian Americans

US President-elect Joe Biden has nominated or named at least 20 Indian Americans, including 13 women, to key positions in his administration, a new record for this small ethnic community that constitutes 1% of the US population. As many as 17 of them would be part of the powerful White House complex.


No evidence? No problem. Transfer case to UP

In the BJP-ruled states, Kafkaesque drama continues. Comedian Munawar Faruqui, who has spent more than two weeks behind bars in Indore without being charged with a crime or being confronted with any evidence, will be handed over to the Prayagraj Police in Uttar Pradesh over an FIR filed in May 2020, unless a higher court takes notice and acts.


Tandav over nothing

Most people thought, with good reason, that the manufactured controversy over the OTT series Tandav was a BJP ploy to distract attention from the Arnab Goswami case, which raises serious questions about the Modi government and, in particular, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. As if on cue, the I&B ministry has summoned Amazon Prime Video officials in connection with the controversy. An FIR against director/writer Ali Abbas Zafar has been registered at Hazratganj Police Station, Lucknow. 


Tractor Parade on, NIA targets farmers

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha has finalised the route for the Kisan Tractor Parade scheduled on January 26. It would be organised on Outer Ring Road in Delhi. There would be no disruption of the Republic Day Parade, farmer leaders said. All tractors would bear the national flag and farmer organisation flag only, and no flags of political parties would be allowed to fly.

Meanwhile, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is targeting those who are part of the farmers’ protest or supporting it. 

The list of farmers who fought the Khalistanis in the 1980s and 1990s and lost their lives is long. Here are conversations with some who fought and survived. 


The Long Cable

TRP trips Republic, government falls flat

MK Venu

Republic TV and Arnab Goswami will hopefully serve one useful purpose in the midst of the unfolding scandal arising from the WhatsApp chats showing its active collusion with industry regulator BARC, with some help from the government, in the systematic manipulation of viewership to become a No 1 news channel. Whichever way the Mumbai Police investigation of the TV TRP scam goes, it will serve as a template for journalism schools on how not to conduct the business of media. Crucially, the moral and ethical dimensions of the way mass media can manipulate society in a polarised polity should be of particular concern. 

In the TRP saga that is unfolding, there is a heady mix of commercial greed, a cynical grab for viewership at any cost – even using sensitive national security information for the purpose – and the most unconscionable act of stoking majoritarian fires by targeting a large section of the viewership in a highly polarised polity. No wonder the Chief Justice of India said he couldn’t bear to watch the channel and sought assurance of responsible reporting from Republic TV while hearing Goswami’s bail plea.

More recently, Republic TV was fined nearly Rs 20 lakh by a UK regulator, the Office of Communications, for peddling hate content. A panel discussion conducted by Goswami described every Pakistani citizen and child as a terrorist. Of course, no regulator in India has taken note of such incendiary hate content playing on the channel day after day.

These episodes cumulatively reflect the growing impunity with which Republic TV operated. The alleged gaming of the TRP system under the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) was very much part of the culture of impunity in which the channel thrived. “All the ministers are with us,” Arnab tells BARC CEO Partho Dasgupta while they discuss the TRP policy. This confidence reflects the culture of impunity. Clearly, a key component of this impunity was covert support from the establishment, which saw Republic as its mouthpiece in the private sector. Doordarshan seemed harmlessly objective beside Republic TV.

It is also true that the TRP system, governed by manual metering of TV sets in households, was already quite corrupt when Republic TV came on the scene. Other channels were also trying to game the system by paying “service providers”, a euphemism for people who would manipulate meters in households. At one time, BARC officially recorded that 90% of Republic’s viewership in Gujarat came from just one household! Clearly, Republic learnt to play the game much better than others, until the law caught up with it.

The 3,600 page supplementary chargesheet, containing WhatsApp chats between BARC officials and Arnab Goswami, suggests that the top brass of BARC was guiding the channel to improve its TRP ratings.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which has recommendatory powers in fixing regulatory matters relating to broadcast, had suggested a direct digital feedback loop via the TV set-top box to determine TRPs so that manual intervention in the household metering system is rendered impossible. This transparent and foolproof system was opposed by most leading news channels, including Republic. It would have reduced BARC’s power and discretion considerably.

Now that the whole issue has blown up in the face of the industry and the ruling party, some urgent measures may be needed to fix the system. Opposition parties have demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee(JPC) to look into financial fraud in TRP manipulations and the possible compromise of national security indicated in the WhatApp chats. One doesn’t know whether the Modi government would agree to a JPC, because some aspects of the investigation could be very embarrassing for it. For instance, some chats show that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting under Rajyavardhan Rathore had suppressed a complaint against Republic TV for allegedly not paying Doordarshan the regular fee for being on its DTH platform. Doordarshan DTH has massive viewership in rural and semi-urban areas. Big corporations which were misled by manipulated TRPs and had disproportionately advertised on Republic are also injured parties. They would also clamour for a systemic change in the way TRPs are measured.

Whether the Modi government allows a JPC or not, it owes an explanation on how things came to such a pass that one TV channel could enjoy unprecedented clout within the system. Let us not forget that Arnab Goswami is the only journalist whom the top BJP leadership has publicly defended, after the Mumbai Police arrested him recently.


Reportedly

“I can’t even kiss my wife. Who knows (what will happen). There is no question of a hug, though the heart wants it. I am sincere in my words,” said former J&K CM Farooq Abduallah, at a book release function. The octogenarian leader, who was candid and witty in his 35 minute speech, said that one is even afraid of a handshake or a hug in the current situation, and he had not kissed his wife since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.


Prime Number: 48%
That’s the rise in excise duty collection between April and November 2020, despite 10 million tonnes less diesel ― the most used fuel in the country ― and 3 million tonnes less petrol being sold during the eight-month period. The jump in excise duty collection was only because of a record increase in taxes on petrol and diesel in March and May last year, when a revenue-starved government raised the excise duty on petrol by Rs 13 per litre and that on diesel by Rs 16 a litre in two tranches. The excise tax on petrol was Rs 9.48 per litre when the Modi government took office in 2014, and that on diesel was Rs 3.56 a litre. On petrol, it has now risen to Rs 32.98 per litre and that on diesel to Rs 31.83 a litre.

Tax revenue almost halved

According to the Controller General of Accounts, the tax revenue of the Modi government is down 45.5% at Rs 688,430 crore during April-November. For the full 2020-21 fiscal (April 2020 to March 2021), the government had budgeted Rs 16.35 lakh crore as tax revenue. The corporation tax mop-up is down 35% at Rs 185,699 crore and income tax collection is 12% lower at Rs 235,038 crore, CGA data shows.


Deep Dive

Sevanti Ninan traces the transformation of the newspaper industry during the pandemic. The growth of India’s newspapers was driven by advertising, a dependence that had begun to unravel before the pandemic struck with swift and brutal consequences: dailies have shut down and journalists have lost jobs. To revive their fortunes, they are now belatedly trying to build incomes from digital. At a meeting last week, the Indian Newspaper Society again asked the Finance Minister for “help” on newsprint prices in the budget.


Labour on display

Kerala is home to India’s first labour museum.


Fewer birds, reveals count

Six days ago, when birders fanned out from Kochi to 10 wetlands as part of the Asian Waterbird Census 2021, they found a steep decline in the number of birds. The total count was 4,763, a drop from 2019, when they had counted 6,445 birds. They found no instances of bird flu, but attribute the drop in count to plastic waste pollution. The Lesser Whistling Duck was the most counted species.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The government has accused the farmers of bringing shame to the nation by bringing their protests to a planned crescendo on Republic Day. If anything, this may be the most fitting celebration of India’s republic, writes Mukulika Banerjee.

  • With America’s geopolitical clout in doubt, India will now face a less restrained China, one which wants to remake the world to suit its own interests, argues Shyam Saran. There may be a greater risk of war as China moves to forcibly unify with Taiwan and perhaps increase military pressures on its borders with India. 

  • The role of family aspirations play a major role in women leaving the labour force. Ravinder Kaur writes that efforts at ensuring that children do well are a big reason why educated married women stay home.


Listen up

As the Indian cricket team battles Australia in one of the finest shows of test cricket in recent times, hear Ramachandra Guha speak on his book, The Commonwealth of Cricket


Watch Out

Badaun-born Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan of the Rampur Gharana died on Sunday. Watch him deliver a beautiful Hindustani classical vocal performance in 2013, with his sons Murtuza Mustafa, Qadir Mustafa, Rabbani Mustafa, Hasan Mustafa and grandson Faiz Mustafa. AR Rehman is on the keyboards. 


Tailpiece

India ageist, Sibal forgetful

Rajini Chandy, a 69-year-old housewife-turned-actress, who’s generally seen in saris on the screen, posted pictures of herself in a jumpsuit, in long dresses, a pair of distressed jeans, and a short denim dress. In some, she wears a crown of fresh white flowers picked from her garden. Trolls asked why she was posing as “too sexy”, and satirically asked if she “is not dead yet”. It’s a crash-course in sexism and ageism in India.

And not for the first time, Kapil Sibal is not entirely sure who he is appearing for. 

To be fair, it doesn’t matter, since WhatsApp is a Facebook property. 


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.