The India Cable: Jaishankar's US Trip Fruitless; Government Gags Retired Officials

Plus: Dogs gnaw at corpses in Uttarkashi, NE demands vaccines, S-400s to come on time, '95% cases frivolous' says SC judge, Republic Bharat off-air in UK, top blank prose writer B Bhakt back on Amazon

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjila

Snapshot of the day
June 2, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The pseudonymous author, Berozgaar Bhakt, who recently published the briefly-lived Masterstroke: 420 secrets that helped PM in India’s employment growth! is back with Cow? But How? The 108 virtues of cow urine and dung are blank entries, but they are followed by pages on the history of modern medicine ― Sir Humphrey Davy’s discovery that laughing gas is an anaesthetic in 1800, Semmelweis’ intervention on puerperal fever, which established the importance of disinfection in 1847, Pasteur’s development of vaccination, which is now the only news that matters. The book concludes that laughter is the best medicine. Read it before it runs out, like your local vaccine supplies.

The Financial Times reports on an internal presentation for top Nestlé executives, in which the KitKat and Maggi giant admits that two-thirds of its products are unhealthy, and cannot be improved. In India, Google is seeking exemption from the new IT rules over which WhatsApp is deadlocked with the government. It argues that its search engine makes it an intermediary, but not a social media intermediary.

To gag adverse comment from retired security and intelligence officials, the government has notified new pension rules for good conduct. Before publishing in any medium on the “domain” of their prior service, retired officials must seek clearance, or risk losing their pension. One of the targets is clearly the Constitutional Conduct Group, whose statements critical of Modi’s various policies, carry substantial weight because of the presence of marquee names from the national security and intelligence community amongst the signatories.

Meanwhile, on sedition, “96% of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014, with 149 accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Modi, 144 against Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath.”

Growth data for 2020-21 shows India, whose GDP is shrinking by 7.3%, ranked 142 among 194 nations by growth rate. As former chief economic advisor Kaushik Basu observed, “For those who say this happened to all nations because of Covid, my advice is: re-read your school notes on the meaning of rank.” 

Class 12 Board examinations for this year are finally scrapped. Why did the government take so long over this? And the question remains: how will highly competitive college admissions be handled? Meanwhile, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal has been hospitalised for Covid-19 complications. A former Coronil warrior, he now relies upon AIIMS and it allopathy.   

The WHO yesterday listed Sinovac for emergency use, China’s second vaccine to be cleared. Where is Covaxin’s application? Trial data apart, the manufacturer Bharat Biotech has said even production will take time. Meanwhile, the government continues with its game of throwing up a new big number every other day, presented as a target, without regard for feasibility. The latest is the assertion that by July or early August, there will be enough vaccines to inoculate 1 crore people a day. That means 30 crore doses a month. India hopes to buy 12 crore doses this month. Here’s a calm and detailed takedown of the Achhe Din playbook.

Disturbing videos showing dogs gnawing half-burnt bodies on the banks of the Bhagirathi river in Uttarkashi have gone viral. With the waters rising, poorly cremated bodies have been swept down the river, and those still lying at the cremation ghat are at the mercy of stray dogs. The grisly videos have disturbed people in Uttarkashi, which is a religious zone including the major Himalayan temples of Gangotri and Yamunotri.

The Indian Medical Association has said that 594 doctors died during the second wave of Covid-19. The highest toll, 107, was in Delhi. One of them was the dentist Dr Gautam Adhikari, to whom his wife Shivani Rawat Adhikari, also a practitioner, is writing a series of letters. It is one way of dealing with loss.  


95% cases frivolous, says Justice Chandrachud

“We as an institution must not spend our time dealing with frivolous matters. This wastes the time of the court and suggests that we have a lot of time. Serious matters must be given time,” a bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud observed while hearing a consumer dispute. “Today, when we were going through listed cases, we found that 95 per cent are frivolous. Yesterday, I had to finalise the order in the suo motu matter on Covid management, a matter of national importance, but could not upload it because I had to go through the files listed for today,” Justice Chandrachud said, adding, “Judges should be able to spend time on matters of national importance.”


Non-BJP states unite to demand vaccines from Centre

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has written to all his peers, seeking a consensus on central procurement of vaccines, because no one is safe until all are vaccinated. His government’s letter yesterday pitching for central procurement came a day after Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan asked chief ministers of 11 non-NDA states to nudge the Centre to buy vaccines, and not abdicate its responsibility. Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga has urged PM Modi to provide free Covid vaccines to the 11 special category states, which have poor resources. 

Zoramthanga said that he had written to the PM on Monday, requesting central purchase and equitable distributions to all the special category states. “I also requested all the Chief Ministers of the northeastern states to take a similar line of action, so as to present a united front to the government of India,” wrote Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren on Monday, slamming the decision to leave vaccine procurement to states.


Tax collections increase ― from consumption, not corporates

In another sign of growing inequity, India’s tax base shifted from boardrooms to petrol pumps during the pandemic, allowing the Union government to increase its revenue collections despite a fall in GDP. It is a regressive turn in tax policy at a time when inequality and poverty have risen sharply, and so have corporate profits. Union excise duty is the only tax head where collections have surpassed the budget estimates, which means that through indirect taxes, the poor shoulder a bigger share of the tax burden. 


UN special rapporteurs question India on human rights

Raising concerns about violations of international treaty obligations, independent UN human rights experts have asked the Indian government to provide details about the continuing detention of a politician (the PDP’s Waheed Parra), the alleged custodial killing of a shopkeeper and the disappearance of a teenager in Kashmir two years ago. The communication from five experts, dated March 31, was recently published online. “These allegations are part of what appears to be an ongoing pattern of serious violations of human rights by police, army, security agencies and the judiciary in the Jammu and Kashmir region, [and it] warrants in our view the most serious attention on the part of the highest authorities,” said the letter to the Indian government. 

It was signed by Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment Nils Melzer, vice-chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) Elina Steinerte, chair-rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances Tae-Ung Baik, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard, and special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin.


The Long Cable

Jaishankar brings home neither bacon nor vaccine

Sushant Singh

Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s five-day trip to the US, the first by a top Indian minister since Joe Biden became US President, ended up raising more questions than it answered. It was most unusual for an Indian foreign minister to spend a significant part of his official trip to the US in New York – the UN has never been accorded so much importance by any Indian government and though is a rotating member of the Security Council the weighty deliberations on Palestine had already ended. Even the part of his trip to Washington DC, where he met top US officials, did not see a drop-in by the US President or a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Indian-American to occupy that post. Moreover, just as Jaishankar was about to start his trip, President Biden sent off his Secretary of State to the Middle East for four days.

If the optics weren’t brilliant, the outcomes were even less so. Jaishankar couldn’t get any public assurance from Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson for setting up vaccine manufacturing joint ventures in India. There was no concrete promise from the Biden administration about the 80 million excess vaccines being given to India. In fact, new USAID administrator Samantha Power told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week that “75% of the doses we share will likely be shared through COVAX. Twenty-five percent of whatever our excess supply is, that we are donating, will be reserved to be able to deploy bilaterally.” This is not the final figure, but is indicative of the thinking at the highest levels in the US establishment. India can, at best, hope to get 20 million doses, but that too looks unlikely as dozens of countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also petitioned the US for Covid-19 vaccines.

New Delhi could also get some vaccines from COVAX, whose allocations are based on national population. COVAX, led by the vaccine alliance Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the WHO, is a global initiative to procure and distribute vaccines to more than 92 low and lower middle-income countries, including India. Adar Poonawala’s Serum Institute of India, which makes Covishield, is the single biggest vaccine supplier to COVAX, having received advance payments and confirmed contracts. However, due to the Modi government’s unofficial export ban, imposed when the second wave overwhelmed India’s mishandled response, COVAX has a projected shortfall of 190 million doses by end-June.

The Biden administration also did not make any announcement about easing shortages in the supply of raw materials for vaccine manufacturing by Indian firms. There were no additional offers of medical aid to India, either. No major announcement on security or cooperation was made in DC. Instead, the tweet from the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, after his meeting with Jaishankar, merely said that the two discussed the “India-China border situation, and our support for Afghanistan”. That Blinken chose to mention the India-China border situation explicitly in his tweet, but not the Quad or the Indo-Pacific, should raise eyebrows.

Around the same time, Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane appeared to be on a massive public relations overdrive, giving numerous media interviews to emphasise that things were going well with China on the Ladakh border. But the truth is that the Chinese have refused to discuss, let alone vacate, their ingress from the remaining “friction points” in Ladakh. There has been no de-escalation or de-induction from the areas in Pangong and Kailash Range, where disengagement has taken place. And the two sides have not had any talks for nearly two months. No dates are on the horizon either. The optimism of the military brass is therefore a cause for worry and must set alarm bells ringing. It almost appears as if the leadership is preparing the mood in the country for a fait accompli ― a new status quo on the Ladakh border. 

Contrary to the General’s assertion, Blinken’s tweet tells us that there is an India-China border “situation” which merited a discussion with Jaishankar. But because mainstream Indian media completely ignored this development, we have little idea of the “situation” and its implications. But there was definitely a situation for the Modi government with American social media giants Twitter and WhatsApp, when Jaishankar was in the US. Although nothing has been heard on the subject officially from DC, it is unlikely that the matter didn’t find any mention during the various meetings held by the foreign minister. And last month, the State department flagged India as a country of concern in its 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, based on the USCIRF report’s recommendation.

The pandemic, the economy, the China border, democratic rights, freedom of speech, communal polarisation. Evidently, the Modi government is fighting too many fires, mostly lit by its patronage of obscurantist and communal politics. Jaishankar’s underwhelming visit to the US has done little to remedy the situation. Far from bringing home vaccines or enhanced international stature, it has only shown up and underscored how beleaguered the Modi government is.


Reportedly

Republic Bharat has apparently gone off the air in the UK amidst the mysterious absence of the TV channel’s founder Arnab Goswami. News of Republic Bharat going silent in the UK comes just weeks after British media regulator Ofcom imposed a fine of £20,000 (about Rs 20 lakh) for broadcasting hate speech. There’s no Republic Bharat in the latest programme guide of Sky, the biggest TV distribution network. Other Indian channels like Aaj Tak, Sony TV, Zee TV and Colors TV remain operational. Biz Asia Live of the UK reported on May 5 that the channel had “abruptly gone off-air on Sky in the UK. The popular Hindi news channel… currently is broadcasting at zero level. It is not yet clear if Republic Bharat will return.” Back home, the nation wants to know. 


Russia assures on-time delivery of S-400s

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has assured India that there was no change in the implementation of contracts for supplying the sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile system to the country. His comments came weeks after Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport’s CEO Alexander Mikheyev said that India would receive the first batch of S-400s in October-December this year. 

“I would like to mention the implementation of the contracts on supplying S-400 systems to India. We see no changes regarding that and the Indian authorities have confirmed their adherence to these agreements,” Lavrov said in response to a question during a press conference after the BRICS Foreign Ministers’ virtual meeting. In October 2018, India had signed a $5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 air defence missile systems, notwithstanding warnings from the then Trump administration about US sanctions under CAATSA. In 2019, India made the first tranche of payment of around $800 million to Russia for the missile systems.


Prime Number: 17.9%
The corporation tax collections in 2020-21 were around 17.9% lower than in 2019-20, even though the profit after tax of listed companies which have published their earnings for 2020-21 rose to 2.6% of gross domestic product. This is even before all companies have reported their earnings. The profits for listed corporates were at 1.1% of GDP in 2019-20. It was also for the first time in 12 years that income tax collections were higher than the corporation tax collected by the government.

Tamil and Malayalam Spaces

Politics, health, chilling and more ― Tamil Twitter Spaces are becoming popular. Tamil Space (@TamilSpaces) on Twitter is a handle that keeps track of the various Spaces sessions in Tamil happening on the platform. On an average, over 60 Spaces are held on a weekday in the Tamil Twitterverse, and over 130 on weekends. Malayalam is not far behind, with hilarious conversations on non-existent filmmakers and genres raging for hours in a spoof room on Clubhouse. The tradition of the tea shop lives on, online.


Deep Dive

A paper from V-Dem in the journal, Democratization, analyses the state of democracy in 2020; its finding from last year that India, formerly the world’s largest democracy, has been reduced to an electoral autocracy, triggered much official anger earlier. The paper confirms that the world is still more democratic than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but a trend of autocratization is ongoing and affecting 25 countries in 2020, home to 34% of the world’s population. At the same time, the number of democratizing countries has dwindled by nearly half, down to 16 countries, home to a mere 4% of the global population. Freedom of expression, deliberation, rule of law and elections show the most substantial net declines in the last decade.


T20 World Cup to move to UAE

The International Cricket Council is heavily leaning towards moving the 2021 men’s T20 World Cup from India to the UAE. Last year, the ICC appointed the Board of Control for Cricket in India to host the 16-country tournament in India between mid-October and November 14. The ICC Board has granted the BCCI time until June 28 after receiving a request from Indian board president Sourav Ganguly. But internally, the ICC Board has concluded that it would be safer to host the tournament in the UAE, while allowing the BCCI to retain the hosting rights.


Farm on

Far away from the media glare, rural Punjab keeps the farmers’ protest alive. Though the Covid-19 crisis now commands media and public attention, protesters are finding novel ways to keep up the momentum. Pawanjot Kaur finds that farmers and their leaders know that they need to carry on. They are encouraged by the panchayat polls in UP, which dealt a blow to the very well-entrenched BJP.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • We have seen the playbook used against Muslims, students, critics and activists. Now, doctors are the new enemy, writes Priya Ramani.

  • The 56 blank pages of Masterstroke, the tell-all book which briefly sold for Rs 56, wrote the tragedy of contemporary India in invisible ink, says Ajaz Ashraf.

  • Susan Visvanathan turns her personal experience with Covid into data for the  sociologist.


Listen Up

The Central Vista ‘revamp’ process has been completely undemocratic, the architect Gautam Bhatia tells Sidharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable).


Watch Out

The trauma of the unexpected second wave in India has affected people in different ways. 

BBC’s Nikita Mandhani shares her experience of finding hope in a global pandemic.


Over and Out

Ishwar Sharma, an 11-year-old Indian-origin boy in England who has led daily yoga classes for 40 children across 14 countries during the coronavirus lockdown, yesterday received UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s daily Points of Light award. Sharma, from Sevenoaks in Kent, took up yoga when he was three years old upon seeing his father practise every day, and is a three-time World Yoga Champion. His autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has propelled him to help children through yoga, particularly those with special needs like himself.

Indian skipper Virat Kohli on Sunday interacted with his followers on Instagram while in Mumbai, in a two-week strict quarantine before Team India’s departure for England. As always, he was asked about his diet ― specifically, breakfast. The 32-year-old said, “Lots of vegetables, some eggs, two cups of coffee, quinoa, lots of spinach, love dosas too. But all in controlled quantities.” An egg storm started raging in the Virat world, since in 2018, he had said that he was vegan. But no longer, Kohli said. He asked them to take a deep breath and eat their vegetables (if they wished to). It’s about eggs now. Sunny side up.


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.