The India Cable: India is Now an ‘Electoral Autocracy’; Vijay Tendulkar Banned Posthumously

Plus: Bharat bandh ahead, government won’t share caste census, Mamata injured, sees conspiracy, governor rules in Puducherry, women fight NDA in court, and Tanzania president in India for Covid care?

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
March 11, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

While bans by the culture police have become a standard occupational hazard for active practitioners of the arts, the dead are not immune, either. Vijay Tendulkar faces an unofficial posthumous ban in Madhya Pradesh, where a performance of his satirical play Jati Hi Puchho Sadhu Ki was to inaugurate the annual IPTA theatre festival, following threats by the Bajrang Dal, which understands it to be “anti-Hindu and anti-Indian culture”. Hindi satirist Prem Janmejay’s Asatymev Jayate was also declared to be problematic. Tendulkar’s play has nothing to do with sadhus. It lampoons caste and the ambivalent response of elites to the problem.   

Beat this: “Monday’s price of Rs. 97.6/litre in Mumbai ($5 per gallon) was 65% higher than in New York. Between 2012 and 2014, when crude oil was hovering near the $100 level, the average price gap between the two cities was 30%”. So a Mumbai-wallah is paying 30% more than a New Yorker for fuel! There has been a shortfall in revenues of the Railways in the last three years, the ministry informed Parliament.

The Financial Times reports that Indians are going to weddings, parties, religious events, protests and political rallies. But India’s 247 million school children have not returned to normal life, with most still out of school.

After filing her nomination papers in Nandigram ― and pointedly participating in a religious event ― West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee suffered an injury and alleged a conspiracy. The BJP has pooh-poohed the charge, but they should remember that victimhood about injuries ― real, exaggerated or imaginary ― were highlighted by Banerjee when she was the giant-killer who ended the rule of the Left Front.     

British MPs have hit back after India issued a démarche to the UK envoy following a debate in the UK parliament about the farmers’ protest in India. However, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs should know that the meet was called by legislators in response to petitions from their British-Indian constituents. This is a normal process in the functioning of the UK parliament. And besides, legislators are not answerable to diplomats, so issuing a démarche is nothing more than optics.

The detention of Jesuit priest Stan Swamy (83) under dubious charges drew the attention of US lawmakers yesterday. Secretary of State Anthony Bilken was addressed by Representative Juan Vargas on the matter. 

Third-party iPhone maker Wistron’s Kolar plant, which was ransacked in December last year over wage issues, has resumed production after three months. In a virtual admission that employees were ill-treated earlier, Wistron said all employees have been fully paid and it has implemented new hiring and payroll systems to ensure that everyone is paid correctly and provided the correct documentation.

There is no data on internet shutdowns in India and the government also does not maintain national data on attacks on specific communities and religious institutions, the Ministry of Home Affairs said. 


No longer a democracy: V-Dem Institute

India is termed an ‘Electoral Autocracy’, the most damning downgrade in decades, in an analytical research project by Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute. Last year, India was classified as highly uncertain. But according to the research organisation, with more and better data this year, India is now classified with a higher degree of certainty as having been an “electoral autocracy” from 2019. It said that after Narendra Modi became prime minister, censorship efforts have become routine and are no longer related only to government matters. The report pointed out that the Indian government rarely used censorship before Modi. “In general, the Modi-led government in India has used laws on sedition, defamation and counterterrorism to silence critics. For example, over 7,000 people have been charged with sedition after the BJP assumed power and most of the accused are critics of the ruling party,” it said.

Last week, India’s status on Freedom House’s report on political rights and civil liberties was lowered to “partly free” in the United States government-funded non-governmental organisation’s annual ‘Freedom in the World’ rankings. In 2020, the organisation’s report had ranked India as “free”.


Have caste data, won’t make it public

The Modi government has no plans to release the report of the caste census carried out in 2011, it informed the Rajya Sabha. Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai said the SECC 2011 data, excluding the caste data, had been finalised and published by the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. “The raw caste data has been provided to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE) for classification and categorisation. As informed by MoSJE, there is no proposal to release the caste data at this stage,” he said in a written reply to a question.


Bharat Bandh on March 26

Farmer unions have called for a Bharat bandh on March 26, when their protest at Delhi’s borders against the Modi government’s three new farm laws will complete four months. Farmer leader Buta Singh Burjgill said farmers and trade unions will protest the hike in fuel prices and privatisation of railways on March 15. On March 19, the farmers will observe “Mandi Bachao Kheti Bachao (“save wholesale markets, save agriculture”)” day, he said. The farmer unions have also decided to celebrate the ‘Shaheedi Divas’ or Martyrdom Day of freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Farmers’ leaders also said that copies of the new farm laws will be burnt during ‘Holika Dahan’ on March 28.


Austin in India

US Secretary of Defence Llyod Austin will be in India on Saturday next week, the last stop on a trip which included Hawaii, Seoul and Tokyo. US Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken will also be in Asia next week, but his itinerary doesn’t include India. PM Modi and President Biden will be part of the Quad leaders’ summit this Friday. But top diplomats of the US and China are meeting in Alaska on March 18, pointing to a direct engagement between the two powers. That would make India’s caution on the Quad understandable.


Out of Africa

Questions are being raised about the health of Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who has not been seen in public for 11 days. A science denier, he had promoted prayers and mumbo-jumbo as cures for Covid-19, and then tested positive himself. Opposition leader Tundu Lissu had said that according to his sources, the president was being treated for coronavirus in a hospital in Kenya. Now, he says that he has been shifted to India for treatment, and it’s causing a stir in his home country. Lissu says that Kenyans don’t want the worst to happen on their soil ― it would be an embarrassment. 


Khattar survives trust vote

The Manohar Lal Khattar government in Haryana defeated the no-confidence motion moved by the Congress in the Haryana Assembly yesterday. The ruling BJP-JJP alliance got 55 votes while the Opposition could manage only 32 votes. Congress leader BS Hooda however considers it as his victory: “The government may have survived in the House, but it has definitely fallen in the eyes of the people of Haryana.”


The Long Cable

Being an ‘Electoral Autocracy’ has implications for the Modi government, internally and externally

Seema Chishti

The Sweden-based V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2021 has bad news for the state of democracy in the world. The title says it all: ‘Autocratisation Turns Viral.’

But the news about India is especially grim: “India’s level of liberal democracy registered at 0.34 by the end of 2020 after a steep decline since its high at 0.57 in 2013. That represents a 23% point drop on the 0 to 1 LDI scale, making it one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years.”

For a central government obsessed with controlling every bit and byte of information that finds its way to public platforms, and going to the extent of criminalising the amplification of legitimate protests abroad, the direct connection the report makes with the ascendency of the Modi government must compound its worries. “Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in India’s 2014 elections and most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory and their promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda.”

In June 2020, bang in the middle of a global pandemic, when millions of migrants were walking home in despair, the government had found the time to form a Group of Ministers for fixing narratives. Impressing international media is the government’s sworn objective. If it cannot be impressed, then it must be controlled. ADeccan Herald editorial points out its priorities: “spin doctors’’ who can “present the same fact with different narratives’’ should be identified and utilised. An elaborate carrot-and-stick policy for outreach to foreign media is laid out. Union minister Anurag Thakur spoke of “common ground” with “other right wing parties” elsewhere. We can see that common ground now, as the V-Dem report puts India “alongside autocratizing countries like Brazil, Hungary, and Turkey. The latter two became (electoral) autocracies in 2018 and 2014 respectively, and India now joins their ranks.”

For the government, reports like these have real and serious implications. In May, when the World Press Freedom Index showed that India had fallen several ranks to end at 142 of 180 countries, below Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, a central ‘index-monitoring cell’ was set up by the Centre. Indices and ranks matter to all governments, but especially to those which prioritise optics. Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Information and Broadcasting, immediately said: “We will expose, sooner rather than later, those surveys that tend to portray bad picture about ‘Freedom of Press’ in India.”

The fall in economic indices, whether the controversial Ease of Doing Business, GDP growth rates (India is near the bottom in terms of prospects) and unemployment data were bad enough. Now, in a post-Trump world, political classifications like “partly free” and “Elected Autocracy”, put a spanner in the works of the Modi government’s plans to project itself to the world as a leading power. With neighbourhood and border issues forcing India to rush to make peace even with Pakistan, the muscle-flexing that was part of Modi’s Vishwaguru package, and the new ‘personalised’ diplomacy that he was crafting, have taken a big knock. 

In his first year in office, US President Joe Biden has committed to convene a global Summit of Democracy to rally the nations of the free world, signalling anend to the era of authoritarians like his predecessor Donald Trump. The UK is planning a conference of D-10, or a group of 10 democracies. But with Chatham House classifying India as part of the ‘Difficult Four’ alongside Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey, India’s entire game of positioning itself for higher stakes in a reordered democratic world, to put China in its place, is set to be seriously derailed.

Internally, the slide, followed by eviction from the ranks of democracies, would hit even harder. When Modi won the Philip Kotler Award ― not awarded to anyone else, before or since – the jubilation among BJP supporters demonstrated how important winning respect abroad was for keeping Modi above the fray. At the same time, the thesis that India’s prestige is enhanced by Modi has been central to the BJP’s electoral campaign. This is why every critical piece in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Economist or the Financial Times matters so much; criticism is seen to erode the Modi brand.

As commentators noted a few years ago, the BJP-led government always swore publicly by democratic values. It never stopped speaking of Gandhi internationally, even if Godse’s supporters were on the rise internally. The regime got away with it for some years and didn’t think the world would spot the difference. But with time, growing protests and the government itself drawing attention by bringing in draconian rules to shut down critical voices, as well as using existing rules to label legitimate opposition as anti-Indian, the institutional collapse has been hard to ignore for evaluators of freedoms. It might be time for the government to attend to what is rotten in the kingdom of Denmark, rather than rage about why it is being called out.


Reportedly

There are a thousand ways of tilting the electoral field and the BJP has mastered them all. Consider Puducherry. The sudden ouster of former Lt Governor Kiran Bedi and the controversial installation of Tamil-speaking Tamilisai Soundararajan, governor of Telangana and formerly head of the state BJP in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, must concern everyone. Behaving like a chief minister would in the Union Territory, with Chief Minister V Narayanswamy now edged out of the way, she has been unlocking monies that Narayanswamy had been fighting unsuccessfully for with Bedi. After elections were declared, it looks like central largesse now, delivered by the BJP ― teachers’ salaries, road projects worth Rs 80.40 crore, VAT cuts on petrol and diesel and renewed distribution of milk under the Rajiv Gandhi Breakfast Scheme as well as school midday meal schemes. Tamilisai has also revoked the licences of all but 15 liquor shops and distilleries that faced suspension during the pandemic, and has met defectors to the BJP. Intriguingly, the NDA is quiet about its chief ministerial candidate! Should not the governor of Tamil Nadu have automatically been handed additional charge, instead of the Telangana governor? Of course not.  Banwarilal Purohit would not have helped BJP tamper with the pitch.


Women seek to join NDA, allege discrimination

The Supreme Court has sought a response from the Centre and the National Defence Academy (NDA) on a public interest litigation challenging the exclusion of women candidates from applying or entering the prestigious NDA and Naval Academy. A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde issued notice on a petition filed by advocate Kush Kalra, which questioned the categorical exclusion of eligible women candidates from entering the NDA and Naval Academy via the examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission.


Prime Number: 952
The number of cases of communal or religious rioting registered across the country in a period of two years, with Bihar topping charts both in 2018 and 2019, the Modi government told Parliament. Bihar had 167 such cases in 2018 and 135 in 2019.

Only half of urban slum homes use LPG

“Only half of the urban slum households in six Indian states use LPG exclusively. This is in spite of 86% of urban slum households in these states having an LPG connection,” according to a survey conducted by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). The six states ―  Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan ― account for nearly a quarter of India’s urban slum population. A significant share of this population can no longer afford to use LPG for all their cooking, especially due to rising fuel prices and the economic impact of the pandemic.


Court gives protection to lesbian 

The Delhi High Court has directed the Delhi Police to provide protection to a woman, who identifies herself as lesbian and was forced to live a married life, and was threatened with a “cure” for her sexual orientation. Justice Mukta Gupta said the woman is at liberty to shift to a different location if she wishes to, and asked the police to take all necessary steps to provide her protection there.

The 23-year-old woman, who was forcibly married to a man in October 2019, despite her parents being aware of her sexual orientation, said in the plea that she tried multiple times to put an end to the relationship. She said she had informed her husband immediately after the marriage about her sexual orientation. The woman said the marriage was never consummated and she had also expressed her wish for a divorce, as continuance of the marriage was adversely affecting her mental health and physical wellbeing. She said her husband kept delaying breaking the news to his family.


Deep Dive

A Sino-India pathway

Former foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale has authored a new paper on the road ahead for India-China relations. It posits that the reason for the deepening mistrust between the two countries lies in their perceptions and expectations of each other, in the larger context of global relations. It argues that the relationship can go down one of four paths: a downward spiral toward armed confrontation, armed coexistence, coexistence with cooperation and rivalry, and partnership. 


In Assam, video virus

If you thought the electoral process is fair, the story of the doctored and patently fake video of AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal’s speech should open your eyes to reality. The fake showed him making communal statements, while his real speech was anything but. The video was aired on numerous BJP-friendly TV channels and other media in Assam, and was widely shared before it was called out. Ajmal will sue the NGO which doctored the video.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The recent UK Supreme Court verdict that Uber drivers are workers and not self-employed individuals has significant labour market repercussions for India, too. Kingshuk Sarkar writes that it acknowledges that behind the veil of technology, the employer-employee relation persists in gig and platform formats. 

  • Vaccine grabs, the refusal to relax patents to enable mass production and vaccine diplomacy create the danger that poorer nations may not be protected against Covid-19 quickly enough. This would prolong the pandemic, even for the richer nations, writes Jayati Ghosh.

  • State elections are around the corner and another tranche of electoral bonds are due to be sold to allow political parties to raise money from anonymous corporate donors but the Supreme Court is still not willing to prioritise hearings on challenges to the scheme that have been pending for the past two years, Prashant Bhushan reminds us.

  • The evolution of protests in Delhi, their sites, the means they used to create platforms for people to rally together, offer urban designers an opportunity to think about how best to create urban spaces for the people, of the people and by the people, write Himadri Das, Benjamin Mathews John and Renjin Cherian.

  • Jean Dreze proposes a radical move to help women get work. He writes in Ideas for India, that as long as women workers are available, they should get all the work in a programme similar to the MNREGA.


Listen Up

India’s DNA Bill

On February 3, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology submitted its report on the DNA Technology Regulation Bill in the Rajya Sabha. If passed, the Bill will set up a national DNA database for the country. It would indefinitely store the DNA of offenders, suspects, undertrials, missing persons and unknown deceased persons. Hear about why we should all pay attention.


Watch Out

Past and future of Indian foreign policy

TCA Raghavan traces the roots and evolution of India’s foreign policy through the tumultuous and idealistic years of newly-independent India, its contentious relations with Pakistan and China, and shows us a glimpse of foreign policy as future history— from securing the Indian Ocean to responding to climate change.


In a research paper published recently in the prestigious international journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, Prof Sisir Roy of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, Arindam Mal from the Indian Space Research Organisation, Ahmedabad, and Sarbani Palit and Ujjwal Bhattacharya from the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, have revealed findings contrary to the continuous and uniform nature of the red shift — challenging the Big Bang theory.

And why the Mizos have erupted in protest against the repression and military coup in Myanmar, compared with the tepid, almost no-response by the Government of India.


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.