The India Cable: Govt ‘Fact-Checks’ Vax Truth; Diplomats Amplify Bogus Pro-Govt News Site

Plus: RBI warns of stock market bubble, Twitter internationalises IT rules war, BJP MLA calls doctors ‘demons’ and how India’s catastrophic failure to question its leaders is costing lives

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
May 28, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

“Beyond the mounting numbers of dead, images of panic and despair have become emblematic of the pandemic,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “Corpses found on the banks of the Ganges river, some wrapped in plastic coverings and others not, swollen and rotting, as crematoriums ran out of space and families ran out of money. Doctors making tearful televised pleas for oxygen, warning of 30 minutes of supply left at hospitals, or an hour or two, before patients would begin to die. A torrent of social-media posts from families hunting for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medicines, forced to turn to citizen saviors and an extortionate black market to hold off death.”

On April 1, India wasn’t far behind other big countries in vaccinations. Since then, the pace has dropped sharply while its peers have ramped up their programmes. In the 56-day period between April 1 and May 26, India’s per 100 coverage has increased to 14. In the same period, China’s coverage shot up to 38 and Brazil’s to 30. The world’s biggest vaccine maker in India is stalling on export commitments. That’s a problem for the planet’s most vulnerable, reports CNN. In Assam, Covid-19 deaths are four times higher than in the first wave ― the positivity rate is down, but deaths have spiked. The Rajasthan High Court has asked the Centre to explain why Pakistani Hindu migrants are being denied vaccines for want of Aadhaar cards

Yesterday, the government added to its impressive collection of bizarre statements on Covid-19 when it said that significant adverse effects are unlikely if the second dose of the vaccine administered is different from the first. To be on the safe side, it added that this “will need more scrutiny and understanding”, and that both doses should ideally be of the same vaccine. It was reacting to news from Uttar Pradesh’s Siddharthnagar, where 20 villagers were first administered Covishield, and then Covaxin. Perturbed by the spread of ‘black fungus’ in Covid patients, the Delhi government has issued new regulations to gag doctors from speaking about the problem: “No person/institution or organisation will spread any information or material for management of mucormycosis without prior permission,” the new rules say.

While Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where Opposition parties are in government, have already contested the Centre’s charge of profligate wastage of Covid vaccine doses, now Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP is in office, also disagrees with the Centre’s wastage figures.

The Calcutta High Court has granted interim bail to TMC leaders who are under house arrest in the Narada case. Meanwhile, Justice Arindam Sinha of the same court has written to his brother judges about the gross violation of rules by the acting chief justice in dealing with the case. 

In its annual report, the Reserve Bank of India has cautioned about the meteoric rise of stock prices while GDP contracts. India’s benchmark indices have more than doubled from the post-pandemic lows of March 2020. Several scrips have seen many-fold jumps, while the economy has headed south. “This order of asset price inflation in the context of the estimated 8% contraction in GDP in 2020-21 poses the risk of a bubble.” India’s apparel exporters are at risk of losing out to competitors in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, because many are unable to send samples to global brands amid Covid-19 lockdowns. 

A local high court has blocked diamantaire Mehul Choksi’s repatriation from Dominica to Antigua. The Economic Times reports that “at least half a dozen visa and immigration service providers told ET they have seen a 20% surge in queries in the past two months and the number is expected to go up in the coming months as people recover from Covid.”

Ahead of Assembly polls due by March 2022, the BJP government in UP could be trying to deflect attention from governance failures. Muslims are fearful of being targeted after a fresh spike in attacks in the state.

Solidarity pours in for actor Prithviraj, who was slandered by right wing Malayalam news channel Janam TV for a Facebook post against contentious regulations proposed in the Lakshadweep Islands. Prithviraj had on May 24 written a Facebook post in support of the people of Lakshadweep, asking for the rollback of the regulations proposed by the islands’ administrator Praful Patel. The slanderous post shared by Janam TV was later withdrawn.

The American think tank Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has discovered a website based in Canada which does bogus ‘fact checks’ on alleged disinformation campaigns against the Indian government. It also runs a pro-government news site and social media handles, which are extensively followed, shared and disseminated by social media handles of Indian diplomats in various capitals. The ‘disinformation’ being busted is actually the news of the day


Government ‘fact-checks’ the truth 

The Centre was in overdrive all of yesterday, riding the ‘fact check’ released by the Niti Aayog on vaccines and flogging the poor thing mercilessly for mileage. The PM also tweeted its ‘facts’, which were issued to bust ‘myths’. The document is self-congratulatory and shifts blame to the states for the stalled vaccination drive. But the exercise is a self-goal, drawing attention yet again to the Centre’s failings. Why did it not expand and support vaccine production within India in 2020-2021? Why was there an inordinate delay in providing more licenses to other producers of Covaxin? Even now, why have only three manufacturers been given licenses? The scientist R Ramakumar delivers a clear and crisp takedown of the government’s claims. 


Twitter, MeitY, cops fire off statements of intent

Silicon Valley is in a high-stakes standoff with India, says CNN. The day before yesterday, WhatsApp sued the Centre over the new IT rules. Now, Twitter is elevating the fracas over the rules into an international debate about fundamental principles and rights: “We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation.” Twitter’s opinions on freedom of speech in India led to a verbose meltdown at Ravi Shankar Prasad’s Ministry of Electronics and IT. Twitter also referred to the sense of threat its employees feel, after the Delhi Police visited, ostensible to raid it. And so the Delhi Police too issued a statement, saying that Twitter was trying to impede the inquiry into the ‘toolkit’ case. This can’t be making the task of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar easier, as he meets the Biden administration to try and get vaccines and other help that the Modi government desperately needs. 


World media not buying India’s Covid-19 death data

The Modi government may have claimed that the New York Times report (run by Dainik Bhaskar in Hindi) on the Covid-19 toll in India is “completely baseless and false”, and is “not backed by any evide nce and based on distorted estimates”, but the world isn’t listening. Now, the French newspaper Le Monde has reported in an investigation: “Since coming to power in 2014, the Hindu nationalist leader (Modi) has despised science and defied intellectuals. The country’s current impotence in the face of the ravages of the Covid-19 epidemic owes much to this obscurantism. Officially, India has more than 300,000 deaths. The actual balance sheet is probably much higher.”


Sputnik Light first single-shot vaccine for India

The Modi government is pushing for the speedy launch of the single-dose Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik Light in India and all stakeholders, including the Russian manufacturer and its Indian partners, have been directed to fast-track application and regulatory approval procedures. Likely to seek approval within two weeks, it could become the first single-dose vaccine in India. Indian manufacturers are not keen on producing the second dose, which includes a recombinant Adenovirus Type-5 (rAd-5) component. 


The Long Cable

Leadership matters, which means no questions, please

Seema Chishti

Czech Health Minister Petr Arenberger resigned four days ago, the fourth resignation since the pandemic began, for mismanaging the response. Igor Matovic, the Slovak PM, resigned for a scandal related to vaccine purchases in March. An enquiry is on in Brazil, with the Senate investigating the role of President Jair Bolsonaro for steps that exacerbated misery and killed many people. To quote Vanessa Barbara in theNew York Times, “It seems ever more clear that herd immunity, through obstruction, disinformation and negligence, was always the aim. The bitter irony is that it may be impossible to attain. In Manaus, where 76% of the population had been infected by October, the result was not herd immunity: it was a new variant.” In the UK, a seven hour joint session of the House of Commons Health and Science and Technology committees was held and Dominic Cummings, former aide of PM Johnson, held forth on the timings of the lockdown, the fact that “tens of thousands of people” died needlessly and that the government failed the people. 

In the US, the stark difference between former President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his successor, Joe Biden’s, may have saved thousands of lives. It’s a textbook case, demonstrating in real time why political leadership matters, as does respect for science, open communication and the strategic infusion of resources from the top, down to those trying to save lives locally. Experts are convinced that if leaderships are not held to account and their actions reviewed, a replay of the disaster cannot be preempted in the future, with even worse consequences.

In India, all we have had so far are attempts to ensure no parliamentary committees meet online, and gaslight surveys examining a red herring question: “How popular is Modi?” The government has issued a defiant ‘fact-check’, written up by Niti Aayog, which mystifyingly functions as the fount of wisdom in press briefings, with the National Centre for Disease Control, headquartered in Delhi, completely absent from the conversation. 

Ah, yes,The Conversation held a random online poll to elect the worst handler of the pandemic amongst five heads of government. India’s PM won hands down with 90% of the 75,450 votes polled. The contestants, picked by experts for the website, were Mexico’s Amlo (Andrés Manuel López Obrador), Donald Trump from the US, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Belarus’s Lukashenko and India’s Modi. India hasn’t come even close to framing the right questions ― why it suffered the second wave, the birth of the variant, what it did, what it didn’t and who is responsible for the innumerable deaths. On the contrary, in April, the Indian PM congratulated himself with impunity and announced,  “We defeated Covid without vaccines”!

As the Centre and its supporters dismiss the call for account as petty politics, a very important point is being missed, and this will hobble any attempt by India to face its next big crisis efficiently and competently. Not being available for answers, not being transparent, not releasing credible data, not listening to experts, not accepting that there is a problem with the way we are counting the dead and instead dismissing analyses as “baseless” ― all this poses a grave challenge to the existence of all of us who are still alive.

The strength of a democracy cannot be measured by election campaigns, slogans, speeches, rallies and the outlay on choppers to hover over rural India. It is mostly about what happens between two elections. Leadership matters, and it includes being held to account. There is only one difference between the Tsar of Russia handling famines, the British presiding over them in Bengal, Lukashenko commandeering a plane to grab a journalist, and a functioning democracy ― its leaders know that they will be questioned, and will be held answerable. A careful reader of The India Cable, Rohan Nagpal pointed out yesterday that we seem to refer to Opposition-ruled states and not Opposition-governed states. We admit the error. Between the ruled and the governed is the big difference, and it matters, every waking day.


Reportedly

Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa has spoken of his own party leaders’ attempts to destabilise him, while he is supposedly focused on containing Covid-19. Revenue Minister R Ashoka had earlier confirmed that attempts were on within the BJP to have Yediyurappa removed, and the ageing Lingayat strongman has counterattacked by deploying his loyalists. “I know that (dissidents’) meetings are going on. Some ministers seem to be a part of this as well. All these talks... it’s 100% true that attempts are going on (to replace Yediyurappa) and some are involved indirectly,” Ashoka told reporters, in the first public admission by someone in the government. 

Tourism Minister CP Yogeeshwara and BJP’s Hubballi-Dharwad (West) legislator Arvind Bellad were in New Delhi reportedly to meet the party’s top brass, leading to speculation. Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai, Deputy Chief Minister CN Ashwath Narayan, Housing Minister V Somanna and Mines and Geology Minister Murugesh Nirani refuted talk of a change in leadership. The cracks within the ruling BJP stand exposed. MLAs loyal to Yediyurappa, who has weathered all storms, have hit out against those “plotting” his removal, accusing them of being disgruntled because they were not made ministers.


Now, BJP MLA calls doctors ‘demons’

While backing yoga guru Ramdev’s controversial remarks against allopathic medicine and doctors, a ruling BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district has accused some allopathic doctors of turning ‘rakshas’ (demons) by even earning money by showing dead patients as alive. BJP MLA Surendra Singh, defended Ramdev’s recent statements. “I support Ramdev Baba’s arguments. He is furthering not his medical system, but instead promoting the ancient ayurvedic medical system, so his arguments need to be supported.” 

“Relying on the ayurvedic medical system will turn our country into Swasth Bharat Samarth Bharat (Healthy India, Capable India). After retiring from politics, the lone mission of my life will be to promote yoga and ayurveda to make India healthy and capable,” Singh said. Weeks ago, he had appealed to people to drink gau mutra (cow urine) to defeat Covid-19 and even put up a video of himself showing how it’s done.


Prime Number: 1,003
The number of days spent in prison by 33-year-old Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan. He was arrested on August 27, 2018, after a night raid at his house by a joint team of police and paramilitary forces, and initially detained for ‘harnessing known militants’, a claim his family denies. Aasif now faces charges under Section 302 of the IPC for murder, Section 120(b) for conspiracy against the state and Section 326 for causing dislocation or injury. He is also charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He was featured in TIME magazine’s May 2019 edition, as one of the world’s 10 most serious victims of infringements on press freedoms.

Bank deposits uninsured

RBI’s annual report notes that total insured deposits in banks stood at Rs 76,21,258 crore at the end of March 2021. This is only 50.9% of assessable deposits of Rs 1,49,67,776 crore. This means that 49.1% of bank deposits do not enjoy insurance cover.


Deep Dive

The controversial GST, derided by Rahul Gandhi as the “Gabbar Singh Tax”, was introduced as a grand step towards one tax and cooperative federalism, but is neither. While operational problems were noted earlier, it is now seen as conceptually flawed. The GST Council’s much-postponed meeting is on today. Here’s a vanilla primer, an account of why it ran into serious problems when the economy started tanking, and more generally, what the problems are.


Thundering typhoons!

As many as 117 cyclones hit India in 50 years from 1970-2019 and claimed over 40,000 lives, finds a study on extreme weather events. The report states that the mortality rate due to tropical cyclones has come down significantly over the past 10 years. In all, 7,063 extreme weather events killed 1,41,308 people during the period, which included 40,358 (or 28%) due to cyclones and 65,130 (a little over 46%) due to floods, the study says.

The research paper, published earlier this year, has been authored by M Rajeevan, Secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences, along with scientists Kamaljit Ray, SS Ray, RK Giri and AP Dimri.


Spooks to enjoy longer life

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam will take over as the new Commerce Secretary, the government announced, while also granting a one-year extension to the heads of premier intelligence agencies R&AW and Intelligence Bureau. Subrahmanyam had taken charge as Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir in June 2018, and during his tenure, J&K’s special status was scrapped in 2019.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • In a review of the Stan Swamy case, the custodial torture of an MP and the CBI’s peculiar handling of the Narada probe in Bengal, Justice Madan Lokur (retd) writes that expeditious justice an compassion and access to justice must not be forgotten, but more importantly, a culture of impunity must not set in, otherwise the state will be emboldened to ride roughshod over the rights of citizens.

  • Many in India have spotted green shoots of recovery, but any celebration does an injustice to the idea of India and the spirit that our citizens have shown, after leaders all but abandoned them to their fate, writes Amol Kulkarni.

  • How can India believe that Mohan Bhagwat and the organisation that he heads have no role in bringing the nation to its present crisis? They must own up to their role in this devastation, writes Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.

  • Ignoring the worsening hunger situation is not an option, writes Patralekha Chatterjee. Hunger must make headlines, and not only when Doritos are being doled out by the BJP as food relief.


Listen Up

Axios Re:Cap discusses the difficult and deadly situation in India, the political tensions that continue to escalate, and the role of social media during the crisis with New York Times reporter Karan Deep Singh, who is based in New Delhi.


Watch Out

In a conversation with Karan Thapar, health economist Prof Rijo M John raises serious questions about testing and the perils of still not having the full picture, deep into the second wave. UP and Bihar manipulate tests while the central government’s claim to have increased testing 2.6 times is not correct, according to him.


Over and Out

Pakistani television actors Mahira Khan and Sanam Saeed were household names for a while in India, before Pakistani TV shows were banned. Watch them discuss loss.

US Congressman David Valadao has honoured Indian-American electrical engineer Ravinder Singh Shergill, who held several patents related to disk storage and helped create the USB specifications. Shergill died on April 22, aged 64.


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.