The India Cable: Jagan Contumacious, Amit Shah Fears Bihar Contagion 

Plus: Why India should care about US election, Shekhar Kapur returns, and not with another Bandit Queen, Khudai Khidmatgar leader arrested, and China prepares for the long haul in Ladakh

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
November 3, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

India, the United States, Japan and Australia have commenced the first phase of the Quadrilateral Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

(Malabar 2019, photo courtesy Indian Navy)

Amidst talk of an economic recovery comes the latest CMIE data, which shows that the unemployment rate rose to 6.98% in October, from 6.67% in September. Haryana boasts of the highest unemployment rate of 27.3%, followed by Rajasthan at 24.1% and Jammu and Kashmir at 16.1%. Rural unemployment in this period is worrisome, since it’s the kharif harvest season. Comedian Kunal Kamra suggests that the ruling party isn’t doing the right thing by the economy: “AgarMLA purchase pe BJPGSTbharti toh aaj bharat sone ki chidiya hota.”

Last year, Nepal attracted so many mountain climbers that a human traffic jam of hundreds of mountaineers in puffy jackets snarled a trail to the top of Mount Everest. This year, courtesy the pandemic, fewer than 150 climbers have arrived, unleashing economic wreckage on the Himalayan country. 

In his new book The Battle of Belonging, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor says that Narendra Modi does soft-signalling like a cricket umpire, when he wants to signal “his bigotry” without being overt about his views on minorities. It could be through silence on violence targeting minorities, or statements designed with specific intent.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan jumps on the ‘Love Jihad’ bandwagon, which exploits anxieties about Hindu women choosing Muslim men. Through the Special Marriage Act, 1954, the law allows Indians of any identity to enter into matrimony with anyone of the opposite sex. 

Dearest onion… 

Rajasthan became the second state after Punjab to negate the three controversial farm bills passed very controversially by Parliament. The central laws were rendered null and void after a nine-hour debate and a voice vote in the Rajasthan state assembly. The Opposition BJP walked out, protesting that states could not do this. However, agriculture is a state subject. States are bringing amendments and asserting their rights, but there are important differences in how this is being done. Meanwhile, the tear-jerking onion is dearest in the country at Rs 100/kg in Bengaluru, with the average all-India daily price of onion as high as Rs 70/kg.

“Stubbornly or wilfully disobedient to authority”

India’s top law officer Attorney General KK Venugopal on Monday refused to grant consent to initiate contempt proceedings against Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy for casting aspersions on the judiciary. Reddy had written a letter levelling serious charges of impropriety against NV Ramana, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court who is in line to be the next Chief Justice of India. Venugopal said that the letter was addressed to the current Chief Justice, who “is seized of the case and it would not be appropriate for [the AG] to deal with it.” He did say that the Andhra CM’s letter, levelling serious allegations and releasing the content of the letter to the media, was “prima facie contumacious”. Curiously, the legal scholar Upendra Baxi used the same rare word to describe Reddy’s letter in an op-ed article on November 2. Somewhere, Shashi Tharoor is lovin’ this. 

Rom Dot Com

Shekhar Kapur is to return to directing feature films after a hiatus of over a decade with What’s love got to do with it? The rom-com, whose title misleadingly suggests a Tina Turner biopic, will be produced by Jemima Goldsmith (whose former husband is about to upgrade Gilgit-Baltistan), and will feature Lily James, Shazad Latif and Emma Thompson, reports But it’s a “cross-cultural rom-com … set between London and South Asia.” What, another? It better be good. And if there’s any ‘Love Jihad’, the law may intervene.

Graphene clothing, five virtual summits and five Manhattans lost in Ladakh

Chinese troops now prevent Indian patrols from entering an area at least five times the size of Manhattan near the disputed Ladakh border, reports Bloomberg. It says that “the current conflict escalated more than a year ago, just weeks after Modi’s Hindu-dominant government scrapped the constitutional guarantees of autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir ― India’s only Muslim-majority state. In September 2019, Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed on the banks of the Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at about 14,000 feet.” 

Another signal of the aggressive Chinese stance is information released by Beijing ― the PLA’s Tibet Command has shortlisted nearly two dozen private companies to supply advanced unmanned weaponry and graphene clothing to regiments deployed along the high-altitude border areas with India. The wish list includes “smart warm clothing made of graphene”, a revolutionary form of carbon, whose discovery won Andra Geim and Konstantine Novoselov the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Beijing is not heeding foreign minister S Jaishankar’s warning that any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo along the Line of Actual Control would be unacceptable.

Moreover, there is no chance that the five multilateral summits this month which Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Narendra Modi will attend will lead to any breakthrough. Simply because there can’t be any substantive bilateral engagements in these virtual summits ― there is no scope to step aside for a chat on the sidelines. The five summits are: Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on November 10, East Asia Summit on November 11, Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) on November 17, the G20 on November 21-22, and the SCO council of heads of government meeting on November 30. Gruelling occupation, this virtual conversation!

Arrested for namaz in temple, despite green-light from locals

Faisal Khan, national convener of the Khudai Khidmatgar in India, has been arrested by the UP Police for offering namaz at a temple, on the charge of fomenting communal unrest. The organisation, which was founded by ‘Frontier Gandhi’ Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, was resurrected some years ago to work for harmony, without directly engaging in politics. Faisal visited the temple as part of a project of furthering inter-religious understanding. There is a video of his amiable interaction with the priest in which the latter asks him to stay longer and eat there. The video stops there but the Khudai Khidmatgar said in a statement that the people there asked him to pray in the compound too – “by saying that you are already in the home of God so why you need to go anywhere else” – which he did. But now Faisal has been arrested after local Hindutva activists heard about what happened. And it is the same priest who was prevailed upon to file a police complaint.

The state was much kinder a week ago to Gaurav Thakur, youth wing president of the Hindu Jagran Manch, who smuggled Gangajal and a saffron flag into the Taj Mahal premises and prayed on the lawns, with the flag held over him by a colleague. They were let off after questioning. 

There have been periodic claims on the Taj, including a court case, all based on a spurious theory promoted by PN Oak in his 1989 book Taj Mahal: The True Story. Oak had claimed that the Vatican, the Kaaba, Westminster Abbey and the Taj Mahal were built on Shiva temples, that the Papacy was originally a Hindu priesthood, and that ‘Taj Mahal’ is a corruption of ‘Tejo Mahalaya’. It’s a really, really long shot. 

The Long Cable

Biden or Trump, it will make a difference to India

Paul Staniland is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago and nonresident scholar, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. Tanweer Alam of The India Cable speaks to them about the US elections and what it means for India and the region.

Tanweer: How is the Indian American community looking at the US election? What are their expectations?

Paul: The US election can affect foreign policy towards India on trade, defence cooperation and technology coordination, among others, as well as shaping immigration, work, and study opportunities for Indians. Radical shifts toward India as a result of the election are not likely, but a Biden administration would likely have areas of emphasis, ways of operating, and interests different from a second Trump administration.

From the highest-quality survey data we have so far (by Badrinathan, Kapur and Vaishnav), it seems that the Indian-American community is primarily supporting Biden. Their key survey finding is that Indian-Americans are, for the most part, turned off by the attitudes of the Republican party and Trump toward race, religion, and diversity. A vocal minority support Trump, often on the basis of his praise for Modi and India, but the best evidence we have is that they are not representative of the community in general ― as with many things, Twitter discourse is not the same as real life. The Republican Party has made efforts to attract Indian-Americans, but with fairly limited success.

Rahul: The US is India’s most important foreign partner. This is due to a combination of factors ― its superpower status (being the largest economy, having the most powerful armed forces and military capabilities, and exerting global presence and influence); the nature of bilateral relations, especially in trade/investment and defence/security partnerships; and multilateral prowess, including on global governance and growing convergence and consensus on the security of the Indo-Pacific. This makes the US India’s top strategic partner, with no competition from any European or East Asian state. Hence, the shape and form of the next US administration matters a huge deal to India; at the minimum, to ensure its bilateral relations are not harmed; pragmatically, to bolster India’s military and economic capabilities in relation to China (and Pakistan); and at a maximum, to seek a larger role and profile for itself in world affairs.

The Indian American community is divided between its traditional support to the Democrats and its focus towards the Republicans. It appears that for this US election, the genuine support for Prime Minister Modi by voting overseas Indians ― both Democrats and Republicans ― may not benefit President Donald Trump as much as he would have hoped, due to his mishandling of the pandemic.

Tanweer: Implications for India if Bidens wins? Will it do something for the India-China relationship?

Paul: It’s hard to say exactly what a Biden administration means for foreign policy ― in general, there would be more emphasis on allies, multilateralism, and consistency. Some degree of strategic competition with China will likely continue, though probably with a somewhat different tenor. On India, it seems plausible that defense cooperation will continue to move forward and trade negotiations will remain challenging. People-to-people ties could endure and perhaps be revitalized (easier student visas, some rationalization of work visas and immmigration). A Biden administration could put a greater emphasis on human rights and democracy than Trump’s (a low bar, admittedly!).

Rahul: A Biden administration would differ primarily in relation to domestic politics, but also in relation to its immediate neighbourhood and Europe. The key for India will be Biden’s policy towards China, as this fundamental relationship has bolstered the India-US defence and security partnership in recent times and led to an attempt to counter Chinese assertiveness on India’s land borders, expansion of influence in the Indian Ocean and aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

India’s foreign policy leadership has astutely managed relations with both Republican and Democrat administrations. However, the nature and extent of US outreach to India would not have taken place were US relations with China not tense (alongside India’s violent clashes with China since this summer). Indeed, if a Biden administration were to seek to change the pace if not the direction of policy towards China, it would impact India, and the planned deepening of the bilateral strategic relationship. Alongside, India should be prepared to counter irritants from a Biden administration about Kashmir, human rights and its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. The joint statement of the recent US-India 2+2 meeting of foreign and defence ministers in Delhi was substantive, but its impact can only be gauged after the first visit of the top leadership of a Biden administration to India.

Tanweer: If Trump is re-elected, will it have an impact on India-US trade relations?

Paul: I would expect a continuation of the current approach ― an open rhetorical embrace of the Modi government, deepening defense cooperation and regional arrangements aimed at China, and some degree of surprise and inconsistency on other issues.

Rahul: One could expect the bilateral defence and security relationship to prosper, along with growing consensus on the Indo-Pacific region. But US pressure on trade relations with India would likely grow, amidst an unprecedented downturn in India’s economic relations due to the Coronavirus pandemic.


Amit Shah healthy, but fears Bihar contagion

Home Minister Amit Shah, who is now healthy and fit, has not campaigned in Bihar, even after announcing in a Zee News interview that he would be going to the state after October 25. As BJP President, Shah had led an aggressive campaign in 2015 in the state and lost badly to the Mahagathbandhan. Reasons for his absence from Bihar now can only be speculated upon: either he has been advised more rest after his recovery from Covid-19 (don’t ask how he is travelling to campaign in Bengal, then) or he has sensed an NDA loss to Tejashwi Yadav and wants no part of it. But it is unlikely that the man hailed as a modern-day Chanakya across a section of the media would not be wanted by his party in Bihar, Chanakya’s karmabhoomi.

There’s Covid in the air

Nineteen Indians tested positive for Covid-19 in a Vande Bharat Mission flight, which landed in the central Chinese city of Wuhan ― the city credited with the origin of Covid-19 in December ― ex New Delhi on Friday. Among the 277 passengers, at least 39 were also suspected to be “potentially asymptomatic” Covid-19 patients as they had antibodies. The large number of positive cases in the Air India VBM flight could lead to the postponement of another flight to Wuhan later this month, and jeopardise the fate of nearly 23,000 Indian students marooned in China.

China’s civil aviation administration hasn’t permitted Air India’s VBM flights to land in Beijing as a precaution against “imported cases” of Covid-19. Authorities in Ningbo in eastern China’s Zhejiang province had declined permission for a second VBM flight after a couple of passengers tested positive on the first flight on September 11. Something is clearly not right with India’s handling of the virus.

What went wrong? It’s hard to pinpoint but unlike countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea, India has no experience with pandemics like SARS (the only exception was Kerala, which had the Nipah epidemic). The test-trace-isolate mantra wasn’t grasped fast enough. Also, Indian hospitals never had reason to use their RT-PCR machines, the gold standard of testing, and hadn’t been trained to use them. In fact, 250 machines are in medical research institutions. India’s systemic expertise, gained in eradicating older viral diseases like smallpox and polio, could not make up for this deficit.

A study by Duke University on steps taken by various countries to reserve an anti-Covid vaccine finds that rich and medium-income countries have booked a massive number of doses, unlike poorer ones. Canada has booked upto five times its population, and India for 30% of its people. In all, 8.8 billion vials have been booked before any candidate has hit the market. Delhi and Mizoram are the two Indian states still showing a rise in the number of Covid cases over the past 14 days. Rajasthan is the first state to pass a law making the wearing of masks in public compulsory. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said that it is the only vaccine there is, at the moment. He’s a reasonable man. 

Missing children speak to one Mr Bisht of Lucknow

Prime Number: 76.5%
The government spending figures for the month of August and September are far less than what they were last year. In September, the central government spent just 76.5% of what it did in 2019. Very odd. IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath, in a piece in the Financial Times has emphasised that recovery, if any, would be possible only through fiscal expansion ― an increase in government spending.

Good job!

In Kerala, the Kudumbashree neighbourhood self-help scheme, which provides resources for generating employment in non-farm sectors, had set itself the immodest target of finding 15,000 jobs for women in 100 days during the pandemic. It passed the figure in 60 days, at a time when wages were down and jobs were being lost. Precisely 19,136 job opportunities were created in the non-farming sector via the Kerala government initiative to eradicate poverty, by this neighbourhood self-help group. 

Deep stuff

China syndrome

Ashley Tellis has a chapter on the Indian military in the second edition of A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key US Allies and Partners, from the Strategic Studies Institute and the US Army War College Press. In ‘India: Capable but Constrained’, Tellis concludes that “India’s current proficiencies, however, will be increasingly taxed as the Chinese military completes its modernization. Transforming the Indian military for this new era of warfare will require dramatic changes in capability, doctrine and training, not to mention significant qualitative improvements in the human capital base of the force. This transformation cannot happen without additional resources. Though the current state of India’s hard power is satisfactory, it does not match the country’s larger strategic ambitions or the challenge it will face from China in the future.”

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Charlie Hebdo was the trigger, not the cartridge, writes the thinking reader’s cartoonist EP Unny, as he seeks a new manifesto for his calling in an era of confused alarums and excursions. And the political cartoonist cannot expect World War III to come along and clarify the picture into comforting black and white. That would be too absurd, even for cartoonists. 

  • Three members of the MS Swaminathan Foundation write on the perils of school midday meals being stopped due to the lockdown and pandemic. They conclude that this could mean upto 116 million school children in India are going hungry.

  • Irrespective of who wins the US Presidential elections, Indian-Americans will be winners, says Frank Islam. November 3 will mark their arrival as major players, contributors and indeed, as citizens, in the political arena of the world’s second-largest democracy.

  • “If a couple wants to get married, it is the State’s duty to enable them to exercise their right. Instead, the political regime appears to be enabling a climate of fear, distrust and violence and reinforcing the paranoia around interfaith marriages” reads The Hindustan Times editorial today titled, Stop Attacking Inter-Faith Marriages.

  • Making a persuasive case for the voluntary sector and for a rethink over restrictive foreign funding rules brought in by the Centre under an amended FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act), Poonam Muttreja writes on the need to “let a million flowers bloom”.

Listen up

On the day that the US votes for its next president, there is perhaps no better listen for those elsewhere than the Talking Politics podcast. It asks if it is at all possible to give a balanced picture of Trump’s presidency. Have the last four years followed a pattern, or has it just been chaos? What is the likely legacy of Trump’s extraordinary global fame? David Runciman and Helen Thompson investigate troubling questions. 

Watch Out

…for  Zohran Kwame Mamdani. Today, he’ll make history as one of the first South Asians to be elected to the New York State Assembly, since he is running unopposed. The son of renowned Indian-American film-maker Mira Nair and reputed Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, he speaks of ‘Roti and Roses’, his version of the socialist slogan of ‘Bread and Roses’. He says he was warned against going too ‘desi’ by well-meaning ‘Uncles’. Take a look at Zohran’s last video as ‘Mr Cardamom’, where he tips a hat to hip-hop and Madhur Jaffrey, the recipe sensation who cooked up so many broths.

Goodbye to all that, says PV Sindhu

Among the more confusing retirement notes in the history of sport ― a drop shot or is this about shuttling between retiring and not? Badminton champion PV Sindhu had left for England in a huff a few weeks ago for nutrition and training, apparently, but now we know it was about more ― rebellion and rackets, too.

Stuff and nonsense

Indians are being encouraged to eat more sugar. They eat around 19kg per person every year, well below the global average. They certainly shouldn’t eat more, for reasons of health. The urgency is about dealing with the glut caused by high production. Even if India has become the diabetes leader of the world.

And as always, Indian astrology is at hand to help you make sense of elections. Here are the horoscopes of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and a prediction that Trump will lead by 4-7 lakh votes in the polls.

Astrology is not astronomy. It is not even comparable to the infuriatingly unreliable weather forecast. It isn’t scientific or logical. But we all read horoscopes, just for the lulz. As you perhaps do, too. That’s it from us 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.