The India Cable: India is Covid-19 Ground Zero; UP CM Shoots From Lip

Plus: CMs demand better vaccine policy, Rafale developing into another Bofors, Lavrov and Jaishankar meet, 6.1 million Indians in Facebook data breach, in one Assam booth 90 voters poll 171 votes

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 6, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The phase of polling being conducted today is the last for four of five assemblies, barring West Bengal, on which the BJP can now concentrate its attention. With Assam out of the way, it could begin to aggressively push citizenship issues to polarise the electorate in West Bengal.

Market indices slid 1.5% and more due to Covid-19 curbs in Maharashtra, anticipating a drop in the sales of consumer goods, apparel and automobiles. Today, World Bank President David Malpass sought greater transparency about local needs: “It hasn’t been clear, whether in the United States or in Europe, or in South Africa, or in India, what the requirements are of their local production to meet local demands. I’ve been encouraged by India’s ramping up of its domestic vaccination programme, and we’re working with them on that.” The Serum Institute of India (to which Malpass referred) and Bharat Biotech are reported to have sought government help to double vaccine production to 140 million doses per month. 

About India and Pakistan, the Financial Times reports that “back-channel negotiations hosted by UAE include a possible moratorium on fighting in Kashmir to pursue a Modi-Khan meeting”. Foreign Policy and Bloomberghave earlier reported that the UAE is the ‘back channel’.

Despite the company’s protestations, the evidence that MobiKwik was the victim of India’s largest data breach is overwhelming. All user data on the company’s backup server was stolen.

The Wall Street Journal says the world’s Covid-19 ground zero shifted to India this week. The Centre is under pressure for its questionable policies and planning as Covid surges and the death rate catches up with the rate of infection. The country reported 96,982 new cases and 446 deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Union Health Ministry. Several state governments, already squeezed fiscally and having to bear the brunt of expenses in the Covid year, are now demanding better vaccination policies. Rajasthan’s chief minister wants no age bar for the vaccine and more vaccines to be cleared for use, Maharashtra’s CM has called for vaccination for all over the age of 25 and Delhi’s CM wants one-third of the capital’s vaccination centres to function 24x7. The Indian Medical Association wants the jab for all above 18. The Prime Minister will confer with chief ministers on Thursday. 

Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh resigned “on moral grounds” after a preliminary CBI probe was ordered against him. He tendered his resignation hours after the Bombay High Court responded to a petition by former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh accusing Deshmukh of corruption, though he is set to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court.

The Delhi High Court lashed out at the Kejriwal government while hearing a case concerning the nonpayment of salaries and pensions to employees and pensioners of the Municipal Corporations of Delhi. The bench told the government counsel, “We don’t live in ivory towers. There are full-page ads everyday in newspapers with pictures of politicians. We have seen those and you would’ve as well ― spending money in these times on propaganda (while salaries are pending), is this not criminal?”

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will host his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in a meeting today and seek to allay Moscow’s concerns about India’s engagement with the US, Australia and Japan in the Quad – a coalition the four nations forged to counter China’s belligerence and hegemonic aspirations in the Indo-Pacific. Lavrov arrived in New Delhi late last night and will fly to Islamabad after the meeting. Moscow apparently sought to send a message to New Delhi by clubbing his visits to India and Pakistan. New Delhi has been conveying its concerns to Moscow over increasing Russia-Pakistan cooperation, particularly in the defence sector.

The Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath was seen and heard on live television using the ‘C’ word (more on its linguistic origins). When journalists and activists pointed this out on social media, the CM’s office threatened them with criminal cases. ANI has ‘retracted’ the video and won’t talk about it. Adityanath’s administration leads in applying the draconian National Security Act indiscriminately to put people behind bars, and 94 out of 120 such orders have been quashed in recent years by the Allahabad High Court, which has criticised the administration. On the instructions of the CM, a web series of 50 episodes on great personalities has been made by the state basic education department, which will be shown to students to motivate and inspire them. The CM can perhaps begin with himself, and learn from those great personalities how to mind his language. Scams and money-making “in crores” is also being alleged in PPE and mask procurement in UP.

Hansa Research, which measures the controversial and dubious television rating points (TRP) on behalf of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), will withdraw its services from July 30. Last year, some former Hansa Research employees were arrested by Mumbai Police in connection with the TRP scam.

On this day in 2010, the single biggest insurgent strike in India took place. Seventy-six policemen (75 from the CRPF) were killed in a pre-defined target zone. Tadmetla Tekri/Mukram is within shouting distance of the spot where 22 jawans were killed and one was taken hostage on Saturday.

With rising Covid-19 cases in Bangalore and Hyderabad, the Badminton Association of India has postponed all domestic tournaments. Interestingly, Assam BJP strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma is head of the Badminton Association. He was fanatically opposed to mask-wearing till Sunday. Wonder when the reality of the pandemic dawned on him. 

90 voters in the list, 171 votes polled

Yet another case reveals massive irregularities in the conduct of state Assembly elections. A total of 171 votes were cast in a polling booth in Assam’s Dima Hasao district, even though only 90 names were on the eligible voters’ list in that booth. The booth is in the Haflong constituency, which went to the polls in the second phase on April 1.

The official explanation is bizarre. “The head of that interior village refused to accept the voters’ list and brought a list of his own. Then, the people of the village voted according to that list,” an official said. It was not immediately known why the polling officials accepted the village head’s demand and whether security personnel were present at the polling station, and the role they played.

Farmers gherao FCI godowns

Yesterday, farmers in Punjab and Haryana held protests outside the Food Corporation of India (FCI) offices and raised various demands, including a legal guarantee for the minimum support price (MSP). The protesters expressed anguish over the central government’s decision to seek farmers’ land records for online payments to their accounts, and demanded its immediate rollback. They also demanded that the procurement process be completed in a minimum timeframe. Thousands of farmers have been camping at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur on the Delhi border, demanding complete repeal of the three farm laws and a legal guarantee for the MSP on their crops. There have been 11 rounds of talks between the protesting farmers and the government, but the government has not called the farmers for talks since January 22, when an impasse was reached.

Attacking the BJP-led central government over the farm laws and other issues, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh accused it of “jeopardising” the basic structure of democracy by “encroaching upon” the rights of states. He castigated the central government for its “one-sided decision” to impose the farm laws and Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) on the state’s farming community. Punjab’s farmers and arhtiyas (commission agents) have enjoyed age-old cordial ties, which the Centre is “hell-bent on damaging”, he alleged, terming the government’s “tough posturing and ill-conceived” decisions on farm laws as being against the basic spirit of federalism.

Rafale developing into another Bofors

The government was forced on the backfoot as French journalists kicked off a three-part series on the Rafale scam, expressly alleging that the matter had been buried in both countries. In India, in odd remarks, batting on behalf of a foreign arms company, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad denied any possibility of wrongdoing, and said the Supreme Court had rejected a demand for a probe into the purchase of the fighter aircraft and the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) had also found nothing wrong. The Congress upped the ante and called for independent investigations and a fresh probe.

Pandemic pandemonium 

With daily Covid-19 cases surpassing the 2020 peak and crossing the grim milestone of 1 lakh, several hospitals across the country are stretched beyond capacity. The current caseload is 6,91,597, and weekly deaths have increased 4.5 times over the last month. States such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Chennai, along with Punjab and Karnataka bearing the maximum load of the pandemic are already falling short of health infrastructure and equipment ranging from oxygen to ventilators.

The number of infections from the coronavirus is rising sharply but the Finance Ministry’s monthly economic report contends that “India is now well armed to combat any downside risk posed by the recent surge in Covid-19 cases”. Meanwhile, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund) and Panacea Biotec have announced that they would produce 100 million doses per year of the Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V. RDIF has already partnered with other Indian pharma firms such as Hetero, Gland Pharma and Stelis Biopharma to produce millions of Sputnik V doses in India. 

Gujarat model of another kind

Dalits and Adivasis dominate a list of 15 Gujaratis murdered or attacked for using India’s right to information law to ask questions of the government. The latest to be murdered was a Dalit under state protection, with 13 previous attempts on his life. An investigation by Article 14 unearths a pattern of impunity in the BJP-ruled state.

The Long Cable

Yogi shoots from the lip, but his abuse of power is no faux pas

Sidharth Bhatia

Public figures are supposed to maintain dignity at all times. They cannot be seen to be slipping to the level of the rest, even if they would like to. But public figures, especially politicians, are human too, and the pressure of the job can and does get to them. So the mask slips occasionally, as it did when Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, let fly an expletive while being interviewed by a reporter of the news channel ANI (aka the house PR machine of the establishment).

At the end of some bromides about congratulating the scientific community for something or the other, the good Yogi – who is supposed to be an ascetic and priest, above all material concerns – used a common, street-level gaali which was captured on video. Gaffes do happen and reporters often edit them out, but this time the feed was live so the channels running ANI could do nothing about it. 

Then a former civil servant uploaded it on social media and Twitter, as is its wont, went berserk. ANI ‘withdrew’ the clip and uploaded a  new clip which the UP authorities said was the ‘correct’ one. But of course the original had already gone viral.

What followed was even more bizarre. A spokesperson for the Yogi said that the video was morphed – the technologically upgraded version of “I was misquoted” – and the BJP’s trolls began abusing all those who shared it. Gone are the days when politicians used to apologise.

The UP government even threatened to take firm action against those sharing the embarrassing clip. Government-friendly television channels huffed and puffed and one anchor called for an enquiry into what he said was fakery. Until clips of the live feed carried by at least two channels surfaced and settled the debate.  

Now that social media has had its fun and one more facet of the cussing Yogi has emerged, this moment offers a good opportunity to look at him and his administration objectively.

The very day the video was released, news reports also said that the Allahabad High Court had called out the almost casual way in which state administrators had applied the National Security Act freely. In a two-year period, the government and its district magistrates had arrested 120 people under the NSA, and 94 of those cases were thrown out by the courts. The NSA is a draconian law that allows for preventive detention for up to 12 months without trial. The 40-year-old act was passed to protect India’s security, and not directed against citizens at random. It was applied with impunity and always against Muslims. This is a chilling manifestation of Yogi’s communalism ― in comparison, his bid to change the name of towns such as Allahabad to Prayagraj looks trivial.

In Yogiraaj, anyone ranging from whistleblower Kafeel Khan, who called attention to the lack of oxygen tanks in a hospital where many patients died, to Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala visiting Hathras where a young girl was gang raped and killed, can be arrested and thrown into jail, and no questions asked. He has made no secret of his strong antipathy towards Muslims.

Yet, Yogi Adityanath has been declared the best chief minister by the once prestigious magazine India Today for four years running. His government frequently issues full page colour ads in newspapers inviting investors to come to Uttar Pradesh. He has grand plans to build a film city which will draw stars and directors from Mumbai to settle in UP. Quite simply, the media gives him a free pass.

The use of a cuss word by him ultimately is a diversion, a minor if unseemly faux pas by a chief minister whose sinister ambition to cow down into submission the Muslims of his state is far more troubling. And while the chuckling over his use of the ‘C’ word on camera will pass, his government’s drive against the minorities and dissidents will continue.


Godman and friends

Images of the middleman Sushen Mohan Gupta, a US citizen ― whom French anti-corruption agency Agence Française Anticorruption (AFA) identified as the agent to whom €1 million was paid to swing the Rafale Deal ― posing with Jaggi Vasudev, the godman appreciated by PM Modi, have created further complications for the ruling party. The BJP was confident that serious allegations over the purchase of 36 jets from the French supplier had been buried after the 2019 polls, but the renewed reporting from France  could be bad news. The fact that amid unrest over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2019, Modi chose to put out a tweet containing a controversial week-old video by Jaggi Vasudev endorsing the government, is still fresh in the public mind. It suggested a relationship of extreme trust and confidence in the godman.

Tatas close to buying Air India

Tata Sons, the most plausible bidder for state-run Air India, and the government are close to sealing the terms of the purchase, having managed to narrow their differences on the three key sticking points of pension liabilities, real estate assets and debt. Final talks are underway, and a financial bid will be submitted by the Tata group within the month.

An unsavoury parampara

Allegations of sexual harassment against the Gundecha brothers have been reported in the past but the latest accusation has sent shockwaves through the classical music world, in which they enjoy fame and status. The allegations have also shone a spotlight on the ancient guru-shishya parampara ― an informal contract by which the student is expected to completely surrender to the will of the teacher. Allegations against the three brothers range from sharing flirtatious and sexually suggestive messages to exposing themselves during classes, and molestation and, in the case of Ramakant, who died in 2019, even rape. The BBC has the details.

Prime Number: 6.1 million
Personal details such as phone numbers of around 6.1 million Indians on Facebook have allegedly been leaked online and posted on hacking forums, according to a cybersecurity executive. Alon Gal, co-founder and chief technical officer of cybersecurity firm Hudson Rock, says that personal data of 533 million Facebook users globally ― including names, phone numbers and other details ― was allegedly leaked online and posted for free on hacking forums.

You can check if you have been ‘Zucked’

Deep Dive

How taxes are shared

While the central government collects the bulk of the taxes in the country, they come from the states. Over the years, the central government has been sharing less and less of the overall taxes that it collects, with the state governments. Under the Modi government’s self-professed “cooperative federalism”, just 1.7% of the total excise duty earned by the central government per litre of petrol will be shared with the state governments. Vivek Kaul has the details.

Index on censorship

In times of extraordinary crisis, governments often roll back personal freedoms and media freedom. The public’s right to know can be severely reduced, and the democratic process curbed. The Index on Censorship has tracked this history ― click on India in the map for a refresher on the backsliding that the democratic world is concerned about.

AI at the Supreme Court

As expected, the government has notified that Justice NV Ramana will be the next Chief Justice. The apex court had dismissed the Andhra Pradesh chief minister’s complaint against the Justice after a “confidential in-house inquiry”. Also, the Artificial Intelligence Committee, Supreme Court of India, is set to launch the Artificial Intelligence portal SUPACE (Supreme Court Portal for Assistance in Courts Efficiency) today at 5 pm virtually.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Decolonisation must allow us to share our own memories, identities, family and community histories without labelling or imposition. If we lose sight of this decolonisation, instead of being empowering, can become a tool of fresh cultural oppression, writes Sarayu Pani.

  • Jayadeva Ranade writes that the decisions by the plenum of China’s National People's Congress clearly reveal that Beijing intends to rapidly militarise Tibet which, within a few years, will become a centre of long-term pressure on India.

  • Sanjaya Baru writes that it could take a long time before the three Quad partners’ trade and investment links with India are large enough for the group to ignore China. Until then, India must expect that they will hedge their bets in dealing with China.

  • The Tamil Nadu Assembly elections should bring about a new dawn in state politics sans mass adulation for film personalities, who endeared themselves to the people and left them chanting encore, writes KV Prasad.

  • The Covid crisis in India has undone years of progress in combating poverty and also reversed several years of gains in drawing those in lower and lower middle income groups into the country’s middle class, writes Vivek Dehejia.

Listen Up

Why archives matter

In a LISA distinguished lecture, Ramachandra Guha recalls memorable experiences from a lifetime of working in libraries and archives in India and abroad. 

Watch Out

99 Songs, a musical romance, is global music legend AR Rahman’s debut as a producer and co-writer. This song dropped yesterday.

Over and Out

The Modi government’s proposal to set up a ‘memorial’ or a ‘statue’ commemorating the 400th birth anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur outside Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi, has triggered a huge controversy. The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) has lodged its protest with the Prime Minister’s Office, asking it to immediately drop the proposal of erecting a statue or any commemorative structure outside Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib or anywhere else in Delhi. The DSGMC and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) said the installation of the statue of the Guru would defy the Sikh rehat maryada, which prohibits creating idols of the Gurus.

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.