The India Cable: Jaishankar Lowers Government's Global Standing; Highest Covid Spike in 2021 

Plus: Swapan Dasgupta quits Rajya Sabha, Michel issue heats up, Krugman foresees more inequality in India, China denounces Quad’s ‘Cold War mentality’ and really, you don’t have broadband

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 16, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India recorded its highest single-day spike this year yesterday, with 26,291 new coronavirus cases reported in 24 hours. India’s caseload began to dip at the start of 2021, but poor adherence to Covid safety norms seems to be driving a fresh surge in several states. India has so far recorded more than 11 million Covid-19 cases and 158,000 deaths.

The remaining three T-20 international cricket matches between India and England will be played without spectators in Ahmedabad, on account of the worrying rise in infections.

A day after the BJP’s central leadership announced the list of candidates contesting the upcoming Kerala Assembly polls, the candidate named for Mananthavady, a constituency reserved for Scheduled Tribe in Wayanad district, has declined the seat. Manikandan C, who hails from the Paniya tribal community, said that he was declared a candidate even though he had informed the party that he is not ready to contest as he does not want to ‘betray his people’.

Exactly one week after the House of Commons held a controversial debate on the safety of protesting farmers and press freedoms in India, the House of Lords decided to debate the stifling clampdown on universities, NGOs and civil society in India. Eight peers took part in the debate in the main chamber on Monday, regarding restrictions imposed on NGOs and academics. The detention of Dalit activists, imprisonment of journalists, forced closure of Amnesty International, persecution of non-Hindus and the “damaging effect of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act” on mainstream aid agencies were discussed.

UK minister Tariq Ahmad is expected to raise the issue of Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal, during his ongoing visit to India. His visit comes days after a panel of UN experts called on India to immediately release Michel as his detention was arbitrary and violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A British official was granted consular access to Michel, who is a UK citizen, at Delhi’s Tihar Jail on March 10 after a gap of almost a year. A working group of the UN had come down on India and the UAE, from where he was brought to India, for restricting his freedoms in an arbitrary manner.  

Arms imports by India decreased by 33% between 2011–15 and 2016–20, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). With a 53% fall, Russia was the most affected supplier, although India’s imports of arms from the US also fell by 46%. This was mainly due to a procurement process of byzantine complexity, but India still remains the world’s second biggest importer of weapons.  

Wholesale Price Index-based inflation stood at 4.17% in February 2021— the highest since November 2018 — against 2.03% in January. Parliament was informed that education loan non-performing assets (NPAs) have surged to 9.55% as jobs and income dry up. Out of the total education loans outstanding, 366,260 accounts worth Rs 8,587 crore have turned bad.

The three farms laws are not going anywhere, at least in Haryana. A laughable resolution passed by the state assembly yesterday against the social boycott of political leaders demonstrates how much the farmer protests are hurting the BJP and its ally, Dushyant Chautala’s JJP, which are often debarred from entering villages freely. “If any organisation or section of society talks about boycotting leaders of any political party, this House proposes to condemn it,” the resolution states. Good luck with that. 

Individuals flew the flag for philanthropy in FY20, escalating their contribution significantly in comparison with corporate and foreign fund donations, according to the Dasra/Bain & Co India Philanthropy Report of 2021. Funding by individual philanthropists went up by 42% from Rs 21,000 crore in FY19 to Rs 30,000 crore in FY20. The bulk of the increase came from family philanthropists who provided donations of over Rs 5 crore and whose corpus nearly tripled, hitting Rs 12,000 crore in FY20 over the previous year.

And in poll-bound Kolkata, BJP supporters in saffron vests shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in the Coffee House on College Street. It is a novelty since the institution, which is part of the city’s intellectual scene, is historically associated with the Left. 

But the saffron lot got a lively reply referencing the young revolutionary Khudiram Bose: “On Khudiram’s soil, no fear of Nathuram!”

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Hooghly, BJP workers ransacked their own office, mad about Trinamool Congress journalists joining their party and bagging election tickets instantly. 

Vaccines exported because India can’t administer them

In its affidavit in the Supreme Court, the Modi government has clarified that only vaccines which cannot be administered for logistical reasons are for export. This undermines the foreign minister’s argument that since this government is exporting vaccines, its moral credentials are established and it cannot be questioned about its human rights violations. It also raises questions about the slow pace of vaccination so far, a fact noticed by the parliamentary standing committee on defence.

De-demon? Rs 2,000 notes fading out

Once hailed as the magic bullet for all ills from terrorism to black money, the Rs 2,000 currency notes have not been printed since April 2019, and the quantum of India’s highest denomination currency note has come down. The Rs 2,000 notes were introduced in November 2016, soon after PM Modi withdrew Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes as part of his sudden midnight announcement of demonetisation, which was hailed as a masterstroke at the time.

The government told Parliament that 3,362 million currency notes of Rs 2,000 denomination were in circulation on March 30, 2018, constituting 3.27% and 37.26% of currency in terms of volume and trade, respectively. As of February 26, 2021, 2,499 million Rs 2,000 notes were in circulation, constituting 2.01 per cent and 17.78% of banknotes in terms of volume and value.

T-shirt-clad MLA thrown out of Gujarat house

Gujarat Congress MLA Vimal Chudasama was on Monday evicted from the Legislative Assembly on the orders of Speaker Rajendra Trivedi for coming to the House in a T-shirt. While the Speaker insisted that MLAs refrain from wearing T-shirts in the House, the Opposition Congress opposed Trivedi’s decision, claiming that there was no rule prohibiting members from wearing specific clothes while attending House proceedings.

About a week ago, Trivedi had asked first-time MLA Chudasama not to come to the House in a T-shirt and urged him to be cautious. The Speaker was of the opinion that MLAs should wear a shirt or kurta to maintain their dignity and the decorum of the House. Upset with the Speaker’s order, Chudasama argued there was nothing wrong with T-shirts ― he had campaigned in the same outfit and won the Assembly poll.

Pro-BJP Muslim cleric wants Quran verses deleted, angers Muslims

A Supreme Court petition by Wasim Rizvi, former chief of the Shia Waqf Board, has angered millions of Muslims from both Shia and Sunni sects by seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Quran. Prominent clerics called upon Muslims to gather at the Jama Masjid in Delhi on March 19 for a protest against Rizvi. Besides holding a massive protest in Lucknow, many prominent Shia and Sunni clerics have demanded Rizvi’s immediate arrest.

Rizvi, who had moved the Supreme Court on Saturday, had alleged in his petition that 26 verses in the Holy Quran promoted terrorism and jihad among Muslim youth, pushing them to the path of insurgency across the world. This evoked a strong reaction from Muslim clerics. He has earlier earned notoriety for pro-Hindutva statements (‘all mosques built on temple sites should be turned into temples’). The National Commission for Minorities has asked him to withdraw his statement and apologise, failing which the body will seek his prosecution for incitement of religious hatred.

The Long Cable

Jaishankar’s truculence will only lower India’s standing in the eyes of the world

Siddharth Varadarajan

With a PhD in international relations from India’s finest university, JNU, and a long career as diplomat which culminated in his stewardship of the  Ministry of External Affairs as foreign secretary, S Jaishankar was expected to bring a degree of civility and reason to the Narendra Modi government’s public messaging when he was sworn in as minister for external affairs in 2019.

Sadly, the osmotic effects are all flowing the other way. Jaishankar has been quick to absorb the government’s – and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s – rough and ready rhetoric, mannerisms and outlook, including its xenophobia. Unlike Brajesh Mishra, the former diplomat who resigned from the BJP when he became India’s National Security Adviser under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jaishankar has emerged as a happy convert to the Hindutva cult, with its unconstitutional equation of India and Hinduism. Exhibit A: His gratuitous and sycophantic tweet right after Narendra Modi  laid the foundation stone for the BJP’s Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

Last week, Jaishankar earned the applause of the party faithful for his response to a question about India’s poor performance in global democracy rankings produced by the US-based Freedom House and Stockholm-based V-DEM Institute.

“This is hypocrisy… You have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want ... to be played, said Jaishankar. “So they invent their rules, their parameters, pass their judgments and then make out that is some sort of global exercise”. 

Jaishankar’s response is wrong at many levels. For one, he is clearly ignorant of the fact that these two reports not only faulted the performance of the Modi government on the democracy and rights front but also made scathing observations about the United States and some other ‘self-appointed custodians of the world’.

Second, he ignores the fact that democratic states in an interdependent world take pride in their values and achievements and constantly look for the approval of those with whom they have overlapping interests. The Modi government, for example, is constantly trying to convince the World Bank that the ease of doing business in India has improved since it came to power. At a personal level too, the Prime Minister has a fatal weakness for seeking foreign approval, sometimes taking this to a ridiculous level.

The Indo-US nuclear deal which Jaishankar takes pride in having negotiated was premised on not just India’s exemplary credentials as a nuclear power and a responsible nuclear weapons state but also on it in taking the additional steps needed to secure the approval of the White House and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Taking those steps was not a sign of weakness or capitulation on India’s part but a recognition of the fact that it was in India’s own interest to fulfil some of those expectations. There were other demands too, which India resisted – such as placing the country’s fast-breeder reactors under international safeguards – and the negotiating record shows Jaishankar stood firmly on the side of those who wanted to concede ground. Fortunately, the Department of Atomic Energy stood its ground, but that’s a topic for another day.

Third, the parameters Freedom House and V-Dem Institute used are not arbitrary or designed to unfairly target India. Rather, the metrics are those which any democratic country would have no difficulty in embracing, since they all reflect domestic constitutional obligations. The problem lies in India’s failure to live by its Constitution. And this is an assessment which flows directly from the government’s actions in the past two years. 

Realising it was best not to try and defend the mass detention of political leaders in Kashmir, the rampant misuse of sedition and terrorism laws, the mounting cases against journalists and the failure of the courts to react urgently to something so basic as habeas corpus petitions, Jaishankar switched gears and spoke of India “giving vaccines to 70 countries” despite its government being labeled ‘Hindu nationalist’. If we subtract the 17 countries which have received Indian Covid-19 vaccines through the WHO’s Covax programme and the 34 countries that have paid for the vaccines they took from India, that leaves the number of countries to whom India has “given” vaccines at around 20. For sure, that is still a very good number – greater than what any of the ‘self-appointed custodians of the world’ have managed. But what does it have to do with the state of Indian democracy or the reports produced by two non-government think-tanks?

A few weeks earlier, the minister’s paranoia was evident when he described the Greta Thunberg-Disha Ravi ‘toolkit’ on peaceful solidarity actions in support of India’s farmers as some sort of global “conspiracy”.

Jaishankar’s xenophobia was also writ large in a directive his ministry issued in November 2020, compelling publicly-funded universities to seek government approval for international seminars on topics dealing with India’s internal affairs. The move triggered protests from Indian and foreign scholars and was finally rescinded.

The purpose of this brief piece is not to analyse Jaishankar’s foreign policy initiatives but to assess the tone and tenor of his conduct. Instead of self-confidence and conviction, his recent actions and pronouncements have brought prickliness and truculence to the conduct of public diplomacy. You don’t need a PhD from JNU to realise that will only further lower the standing of the Modi government in the eyes of the world.

As Swapan Dasgupta resigns from Rajya Sabha, Trinamool gets to say ‘Gotcha’

Trinamool Congress MP Mohua Mitra raised an important point which spelt trouble for Swapan Dasgupta, who is contesting the West Bengal polls as a BJP candidate from Tarakeswar, which he believes to be a cultural centre (it is actually religious). She tweeted on Monday that according to rules in the Tenth Schedule, nominated members of the Rajya Sabha who declare a party allegiance six month after their nomination can be disqualified. The Rajya Sabha website listed Dasgupta as still a nominated member there who had not joined the BJP. After several hours of silence and dithering, Dasgupta resigned from the House today. His resignation is yet to be accepted by the chairman of the House.  

Prime Number: $12.62 bn
That's India’s trade deficit in February 2021, compared to $10.16 billion in the same month a year ago. Exports grew marginally by 0.67% to $27.93 billion in February while imports rose by 6.96% to $40.54 billion, according to official data. 

Deep Dive

Saving India’s elections

A sharp look into what citizens need to watch out for, and the country heads into five Assembly elections. The Citizens’ Commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Justice Madan Lokur, holds up a mirror to the Election Commission and India’s democracy in a detailed report

China finds ‘Cold War mentality’ in Quad 

“Relevant countries should abandon the Cold War mentality and ideological bias, do not form exclusive cliques and act in a way conducive to solidarity, unity, regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing in Beijing about the Quad leaders’ summit held on Friday, which was attended by Narendra Modi. “For some time, some countries have been exaggerating the so-called ‘China threat’. China challenges to drive a wedge among regional countries to sow discord between their relations with China,” Zhao said.

Aamir Khan turns anti-social 

Bollywood superstar-producer Aamir Khan on Monday announced that he has decided to quit social media, adding that updates about his future projects will be available on his production banner’s official account. Khan, who turned 56 on Sunday, also thanked his well-wishers for their love and warmth on his birthday. 

“Thank you so much for all the love and warmth on my birthday. My heart is full,” the actor said in a statement shared on his social media pages. “In other news, this is going to be my last post on social media. Considering that I am so active anyway, I have decided to drop the pretence. We will continue to communicate as we did before,” he added.

Pakistani Singer Meesha Shafi #MeToo

There are reports in Pakistani papers about shoddy (mis)reporting in India concerning singer Meesha Shafi’s charges of sexual harassment against Ali Afzal. At least two Indian newspapers said Shafi had been sentenced to three years in jail on charges of defamation. In fact, there is no such order on the case.  

Krugman foresees more inequality in India 

In a discussion with Arvind Subramanian, professor of economics at Ashoka University and former chief economic adviser, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman has said that he is worried about India: “One thing that does worry me about India’s economic profile is its path. There's this precocious development of skill-intensive industries, skill-intensive services in particular, which may mean more GDP and exports but increases inequality and yields very few jobs. He said, “China is graduating from making mass products to more sophisticated ones, a key trend in global trade that could open up fresh opportunities for countries like India.”

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

Listen up

Urdu in the public sphere

What is the relationship between print culture, religious identity and formations of social consciousness in the modern period? Author of a new book on the subject, Megan Robb explores this question through a vigorous and exciting micro-history of the major 20th-century Urdu newspaper Madinah, which was at the centre of critical political, theological, and sociological currents in Muslim South Asia. Listen to her conversation with Sher Ali Tareen.

Watch Out

Why British MPs are speaking out on India

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP in the British House of Commons, has been tweeting and making strong statements about the farmers’ protests in and out of parliament. Dhesi’s statements have angered the Indian government and inspired the recent debate in the British parliament on the protests and human rights in India. He spoke to Siddharth Bhatia, a contributor to The India Cable.


Spanish flu veteran vaccinated, and really, you don’t have broadband

Kewal Krishan, who was just five years old during the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918, and later became part of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly of India, received his first vaccine shot in Delhi yesterday. Krishan, now 107, stepped out of his home in South Delhi “for the first time since the coronavirus-induced lockdown was imposed late March in 2020” to get his Covishield jab.

Arvind Adiga’s book, The White Tiger was turned into a feature film. Now, Ramin Bahrani’s screenplay has been nominated for the Oscars in the category of best adapted screenplay. The announcement of nominations was hosted online on the Oscars page by Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas.

And if you think you have broadband, you’re being had. Revisiting a debate that’s at least a decade old:

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.