The India Cable: In New Hands, Supreme Court Wants Covid Answers; Menon on Managing the India-China Crisis

Plus: India is beyond heartbreaking: WHO chief, US denies slowing Indian vaccination, casteist abuse at IIT, Nadda speaks for EC against judge, in meltdown, India claims it saved hundreds of millions

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 27, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Public service announcement: The latest episode of Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ show aired a video of a doctor falsely claiming that a nebuliser can be used as an oxygen substitute. The video was debunked by leading doctors a day before it aired on ‘Mann ki Baat’. AltNews’s fact check has the details. This is worse than Modi’s earlier ‘gutter gas’ claims. That was merely funny, while this is life-threatening. Please ignore unscientific and medically harmful propaganda, even if it’s the government spreading it.

Pictures of a desperate Agra resident using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to try to revive her dying husband, a few steps from a hospital’s emergency ward, have gone viral. Now, The Telegraph reports another desperate journey from the realm of Adityanath, who has claimed that there is no oxygen shortage in UP. A middle-aged couple from Ayodhya had to travel 850 km to the former Dutch colony of Chinsurah in West Bengal in search of a hospital with oxygen. They had been turned away by six hospitals in their home state because of the oxygen shortage in UP.

“The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said yesterday. There were 3,23,144 new infections recorded (on lower testing) and 2771 deaths in the last 24 hours due to Covid-19, as per the Health Ministry. Active cases in the ongoing second wave in India may peak at 38-48 lakh between May 14-18 and daily new infections could hit a high of 4.4 lakh from May 4-8, according to a mathematical model by IIT scientists who have revised their projections upwards.

Holding Prime Minister Modi responsible for spreading the second wave of Covid-19, national vice-president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) Dr Navjot Dahiya today called him a ‘super spreader’ and blamed him for irresponsibly organising big political rallies in poll-bound states and even allowing Kumbh mela during such a serious situation.

A year after putting out a graph showing that India would have zero cases in May 2020, VK Paul, the central government’s lead on Covid-19 management, has now said Indians should mask up at home too. But the other man conducting the briefing alongside him, joint secretary in the Health Ministry Lav Aggarwal, was setting an example befitting the Modi government’s strategy of “preach, don’t practice”. Earlier, Paul had recommended Chyawanprash as a bulwark against Covid-19. 

In the same press conference, the additional secretary in the Home Ministry said, “We have enough stock of oxygen. The issue is transportation, which we are trying to resolve by active involvement of all stakeholders.” He also asked people not to panic. Indeed, why must oxygen-starved people panic? Very thoughtless of them. 

A humanitarian disaster mystery which remains unresolved: why is the BJP government in Gujarat forcing hospitals to only accept Covid-19 patients coming through ‘108’ ambulances? The neighbouring state of Maharashtra is far more evolved and in the clear-headed triaging process being followed via a control  room, it has not been left to random good Samaritans to find oxygen, cylinders, concentrators and beds. Obviously, planning cases in stages reduces pressure on health infrastructure.

Tomorrow is the last day of polling in a needlessly stretched-out campaign schedule in West Bengal, which the Election Commission refused to compress. Epidemiologists note that cases in the state are already galloping. The last shahi snan at the Mahakumbh, the other superspreader event, took place today.

The Editors Guild of India has issued a statement on the continuing incarceration and inhuman treatment of the journalist Siddique Kappan by the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. WhatsApp group admins cannot be held liable for content posted by group members, the Bombay High Court has ruled. Group admins do not have the power or wherewithal to regulate, moderate or censor content before it is posted. 

Work on the Central Vista, a 3.2 km stretch in Delhi being redeveloped at a cost of Rs 20,000 cr is continuing amidst the death and devastation that the capital is seeing. It will include a new Parliament building, government offices and a new house for the PM. The government has its priorities straight. 


Supreme Court on Covid plan: We will not supplant high courts

While hearing the suo motu case taken up by it in relation to the supply of oxygen, medicines and vaccines to fight Covid-19, the Supreme Court on Tuesday clarified that the purpose of it assuming jurisdiction under Article 32 of the constitution is not to supplant or substitute the process of hearings undertaken by various High Courts to deal with issues related to the pandemic. 

The bench – headed by Justice DY Chandrachud now that the former chief justice, S.A. Bobde has retired – has called for a report from the Central government on issues related to the supply of Covid essentials as well as vaccine pricing  by Friday, after the Solicitor General said that several officials dealing with the matter were down with Covid. The matter will be considered next on April 30. At least 11 High Courts in the country are dealing with issues related to Covid management and the bench appreciated their role.

The bench also agreed that the controversial Vedanta plant in Tuticorin could reopen with 45 workers but only to produce oxygen and nothing else. When counsel for Vedanta, the senior lawyer Harish Salve, called some of the residents of Tuticorin – on whose intervention the polluting Vedanta plant was closed in the first place – ‘anti-nationals’, Justice Chandrachud quickly intervened to say (in Marathi) ‘let it be’.


Community transmission and capital privilege

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, has issued an order discontinuing risk assessment and contact tracing of doctors and other healthcare workers who have been exposed to people with Covid-19. The order requires only those healthcare workers who test positive to isolate themselves. Doctors and the Indian Medical Association are outraged by the order which, they say, could expose other patients, especially those who are immune-compromised, to unnecessary Covid-19 risks. The step implies the acceptance that community transmission is in progress. The government is yet to acknowledge this officially. 

In a testimony to the worsening state of the out-of-control pandemic, the Delhi High Court made a request to the Delhi government to take 100 rooms of Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi to set up a Covid health facility for the use of judges, other judicial officers of the Delhi High Court and their families. The Delhi government has agreed to the request, showing how deeply ingrained VIP culture and the privilege of the powerful is in the ‘system’. 


Govt backtracks on vaccine prices, disastrous import policy remains

Under pressure from Opposition parties, state governments and the general public, the Modi government has started backtracking on its discriminatory, dangerous and exorbitant vaccine pricing policy, a day after his health minister defended it. Yesterday, it asked the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech to lower the prices of their Covid-19 vaccines. The issue of vaccine pricing was discussed at a meeting chaired by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, after it became evident that the two companies were following Modi’s dictum of “aapda mein avsar” to shamelessly profiteer from the misery of the people. The two companies are now expected to come up with revised pricing. As reported by The India Cable yesterday, vaccine prices were fixed after discussion: “In a meeting presided over by the Prime Minister on April 20, vaccine manufacturers had shared details on the cost of production and markup.” 

Meanwhile, the Modi government’s decision to not import vaccines centrally but to leave it to the states is likely to result in another catastrophic mess. This will further slow acquisition of vaccines as the second wave of the pandemic rips through the country. Epidemiologist and health economist Eric Feigl-Ding said that this was a “recipe for disaster”. The dumb decision of the Modi government not to order vaccines in bulk will go down in history like Boris Johnson’s comment to “let the bodies pile high”, he added.


Casteist abuse at IIT-KGP exposed

An associate professor at the Indian Institute of India (IIT), Kharagpur, Dr Seema Singh, has been caught on camera calling a student a “bloody basta*d”. Singh was taking a preparatory English class meant for SC, ST and OBC students, as well as students with physical disabilities. In a video doing the rounds online, she can be seen shouting and making offensive remarks. The Bahujan community and students across various colleges have objected strongly. The incident has also created a stir on social media, with #End_Casteism_In_IIT trending on Twitter, and has drawn attention to casteist bullying at premier institutions.


US clarifies on vaccine ban

Tim Manning, the White House Covid-19 supply coordinator, has rebutted the spin that Indian vaccine production was being affected by the US Defense Production Act. He said that DPA “doesn’t create the shortages – there is just more global manufacturing happening everywhere than the suppliers can support,” and added that on Sunday, “we diverted our pending orders of vaccine filters to India’s vaccine manufacturing effort. This will help India make more vaccines. And it’s only one effort among many to help with their Covid-19 response (e.g. therapeutics, PPE, and oxygen).” There goes another attempt to shield the Modi government from its monumental failures by blaming the Biden administration. Yesterday evening, Biden and Modi spoke on the phone. Incidentally, India did not ask for ready to use vaccines, which would speed the programme. 

When a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about the orders of the Modi government to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to block social media posts on its handling of the pandemic, she was unambiguous in her disapproval: “That certainly wouldn’t be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world.”


Book Extract

Can India and China manage their bilateral relations successfully after the crisis of 2020?

Shivshankar Menon

Could India and China evolve a new framework for their relations? Theoretically, it would include respect for each other’s core interests; new areas of cooperation like counterterrorism and maritime security and crisis management; a clearer understanding of each other’s sensitivities; settling or at least managing differences; and, a strategic dialogue about actions on the international stage. New security issues like maritime security, which is increasingly important to both India and China, can be positive sum issues, if not looked at territorially. Both have an interest in keeping the sea lanes open and secure for their trade and energy flows and should be discussing them and cooperating. The hardest part will be coming to a common understanding of each other’s core interests which, for India, would include its security in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. 

India too will need to adjust to new economic realities. For example, the rise of China and its economic strength make the extent of India’s engagement in RCEP a matter of debate in India, at a time when trade in goods accounts for almost half of India’s GDP. Equally, India now has an interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, since US$66 billion worth of its exports and about 33% of its trade passes through that waterway; the nature and manner of safeguarding that interest are still an issue in India. If India stays away from the RCEP, it is much less likely to achieve its own economic goals.

Today, China-US contention — which I think is structural and therefore likely to continue for some time — opens up opportunities and space for other powers. Initially, both China and the United States looked to put other conflicts and tensions on the back burner while they dealt with their primary concern, each other. We saw this effect in the April 2018 Wuhan informal meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi and the apparent truce and dialing back of rhetoric by both India and China, even though this did not extend to a new strategic framework or understanding, or to a settlement of outstanding issues. Their second informal summit in December 2019 at Mahabalipuram suggested that the truce would continue. These hopes have been belied in 2020. 

Therefore, the Chinese attempts in the spring of 2020 to change the situation on the border by occupying areas on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control and prevent Indian troops from patrolling where they had before, marked a significant change in China’s behavior. It came when India and the world were preoccupied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crash it produced. India’s reaction has naturally been to resist the changes and to increase the deployment of forces on the border. Today, both sides are in a tense military standoff involving several divisions. While both sides seek disengagement, several rounds of talks have so far not resulted in any relaxation. The India-China border is alive again, after many years. Risks are heightened by the fact that both sides are claiming victory in the military confrontation. 

More significantly, the political relationship, after several years of sliding towards increasing confrontation, is being reset in a more adversarial frame. Public opinion in India is overwhelmingly critical of China. Though calls to boycott Chinese goods in India have so far not led to economic decoupling, the Indian government has announced a turn to self-reliance, is working to lessen dependencies on China, and is building more secure and resilient supply chains along with Japan and Australia. India is now far more willing to be seen to be working closely with the United States in the region. The shift from pure balancing between China and the United States to a more aligned posture will not, according to the External Affairs minister, extend to an alliance. Neither the United States nor India wishes to enter into the mutual defense commitments that are at the heart of an alliance. Short of an alliance, a further strengthening of India-US defence, security and intelligence links is now a certainty, thanks to recent Chinese actions.

The international situation and correlation of forces also give India a chance to strengthen its own capacity, to build coalitions of the willing to shape China’s behavior, and to work with other Asians to achieve desired outcomes in India’s issues. These become even more important as a new modus vivendi with China will be even harder to achieve if the power gap between India and China continues to grow. 

Will reason prevail in India-China relations and can the two countries manage their bilateral relations successfully after the crisis of 2020? In the midst of the crisis, it is hard to see India and China finding a way forward that is better than their recent past. That requires a degree of pragmatism and a strategy of simultaneously balancing and actively engaging with China that enables India to get on with what is really important, creating outcomes that transform India and improve the wellbeing of its people. It was done once before between 1986 and 1988. But then, there was a balance of economic, political, and military power between India and China. That is no longer true. Whether or not India and China are successful will affect not just India’s future prospects, but also the course of Asian geopolitics in years to come.

(Extracted with permission from India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present by Shivshankar Menon, Penguin/Allen Lane, 416 pages hardback, Rs 580.) 


Reportedly

After the Madras High Court said that the Election Commission was “singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19”, and that its “officers should be booked on murder charges probably,” BJP president JP Nadda, who is not really the official spokesperson of the commission ― not yet ― stated that, “Holding elections is a constitutional obligation which Election Commission has to fulfil. Be it an institution or someone sitting in an institution, one should be mindful of modesty in his words.” Ironically, just yesterday, Nadda held a virtual rally in Bengal. It means that Nadda had protected himself by speaking from Delhi, while the crowd gathered in West Bengal to listen to him was testing their luck with the dreaded virus. 

The West Bengal BJP is calling for the matter to be probed, since the court has said the exact same thing as the Trinamool Congress, and that is apparently suspicious. The TMC had sensibly requested the Election Commission to club the remaining phases of polling to reduce the spread of infection. 


Delhi Police again lambasted in riot cases

A Delhi court yesterday dismissed a review petition filed by the Delhi Police, which reports directly to Amit Shah’s Union Home Ministry, challenging a Metropolitan Magistrate’s order about registering an FIR in the northeast Delhi riots case, saying that in “several cases” it has noticed a “complete lack of supervision of the investigation(s) by the senior police officers of the district”. 


Prime Number: “hundreds of millions”
In an angry rejoinder to an article, 'Modi leads India into viral apocalypse' in The Australian filed by the Indian High Commission in Canberra, the Narendra Modi government says it has saved “hundreds of millions of lives” in India, and many more “hundreds of millions” of lives around the world, too. 

Deep Dive

Vihang Jumle, Maitreyee Kishor and Christophe Jaffrelot have scrutinised the situation in India’s healthcare last year, and in their series explored regional disparities within the public sector, and the inaccessibility of the private sector. 


India splurges on defence

India was the third largest military spender in the world in 2020, behind only the US and China. According to the latest military expenditure database published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, at $778 bn, the US accounted for 39% of the money spent on the military globally, at $252 bn, China accounted for 13%, and at $72.9 bn, India accounted for 3.7% of the global share.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • In the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman writes on Modi and the perils of hubris. Having centralised power for many years, he now seems to be shifting the burden of responsibility for dealing with Covid-19 to state governments.

  • The Modi government’s policy of allowing Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers to fix prices without negotiation is “completely ridiculous,” says K Sujatha Rao.

  • India is opening up vaccines to all adults. But by putting a price on shots, the government risks unjust, lopsided distribution. The only correct consumer price is zero, writes Andy Mukherjee.

  • V Venkateshwara Rao on concerns about electoral bonds, where information about the identity of the donors is kept away from citizens, while it is accessible to the government.

  • Fifty tweets on a platform that has just 1.75 crore users in India may not seem significant, but it matters. Prateek Waghre outlines why.


Listen Up

Cyrus Broacha talks to author Ira Mukhoty, about her forthcoming book, Song of Draupadi. Here, she talks about the powerful women of the Mahabharata.


Watch Out

Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show: “India is facing a ‘tsunami’ of Covid infections and Modi’s response is to stop the spread… of mean tweets.”


Over and Out

Derek Julien of Pune (70), one of India’s finest guitarists, died after contracting Covid-19. Julien’s musical journey began in 1967 and encompassed genres from rock, jazz and blues to fusion and pop. 

In India, more than one biryani is ordered every second. “But why would Hindu nationalists feel so threatened by a tasty rice dish?” Perhaps because there’s no better metaphor for Indian pluralism than biryani. The Economist’s 1843 has this cooking.


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.