The India Cable: Maharashtra Writes. Elsewhere, Numbers Speak

Plus: Mehbooba freed, hate news analysed, why Sitharaman won’t borrow, India-China joint statement perplexes and an elephant declines to support yoga. 

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
October 14, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

After two years of hearings in MJ Akbar’s defamation case against Priya Ramani – a significant outcome of the #MeToo movement – a Delhi court has suddenly discovered it does not have jurisdiction. It referred to an order passed before Akbar’s case was admitted in 2018. This is how the Indian legal system grinds people down. 

Former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is finally released after 14 months in custody under the Public Safety Act (PSA), and is determined “to take back what Delhi snatched”. The governor of Maharashtra mocks chief minister Uddhav Thackeray for turning “secular”, which is breath-taking on two counts. After the seventh round of corps commander-level talks at the LAC remained inconclusive, a joint statement declared they had “enhanced understanding”. As if the objective of the exercise were academic research, and not urgently defusing a flashpoint between nuclear-armed nations. 

In its World Economic Output report, the IMF predicts that India’s economy will contract by 10.3% this year, but also expects a rebound of 8.8% growth in the financial year 2021-22. Nice guys, aren’t they? We always misunderstood them, the belt-tighteners. The Tatas, who are trailing Reliance and Amazon in retail, are in talks with the $1.3 billion Big Basket to catch up. 

The CBI’s public prosecutor has alleged that a DIG punched him in the face for dilly-dallying and fooling around, and the agency will now investigate itself. Nagaland is burdened by a glut of teachers, who outnumber students in some schools ― the obverse of the national problem in education. Expenditure secretary TV Somanathan says that India can fund Covid-19 expenditures because it is not a banana republic, setting public speculation at rest. 

Baba Ramdev falls off an elephant which clearly does not support yoga. And The Economic Times suggests that claims of skulduggery in the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput made it India’s QAnon moment. But no one’s going around wearing secret society badges yet. 

Mehbooba Mufti freed

Mehbooba Mufti, who was the first woman chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (the BJP was a partner in government), has been released. She was detained before Article 370 was read down last year, held for 14 months, and is the last prominent mainstream Kashmiri politician to be released. In an audio message after being freed, she called the scrapping of Article 370, which conferred special status on J&K, a “black decision taken on a black day”.

File photo of Mehbooba Mufti. Credit: BMN Network/CC-By-2.0

The Supreme Court was to hear the matter of her release on Thursday and had asked the government, two weeks ago, how long it proposed to detain her under the PSA.It is now free of the burden of having to take a decision. As soon as she was free, Mufti announced that she would “take back what Delhi had snatched.”

The Maharashtra epistles

BJP-appointed governors in the northeastern states, with their abominable and often unprintable comments, were bad enough. Now, Maharashtra Governor BS Koshiyari has spoken ― prominent RSS worker, ex-CM Of Uttarakhand, and the man who had hurriedly sworn in Devendra Fadnavis early in the morning in an attempt to wrest the prized state for the BJP. In a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray over a decision against opening places of worship to the public, he has taunted him by asking if he has turned “secular”. 

He was rebuffed by Maharashtra’s tallest leader and chief minister several times over, the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, who wrote to Prime Minister Modi criticising the governor’s “intemperate language”. The letter stated that in the “Preamble of our Constitution the word ‘Secular’ is added that equates and shields all religions and hence the Chair of the Chief Minister must uphold such tenets of the Constitution.” Thackeray too wrote back angrily to the governor to say that he did not need a Hindutva certificate from him. They have been at loggerheads for some time. Koshiyari had not acted for an inordinately long time on a list sent by the state coalition partners for the election of members to the Upper House in Maharashtra, which had included Thackeray’s own name. Then, in the recent hyped-up controversy in which actress Kangana Ranaut was hitting out at the Sena, Koshiyari swiftly gave an appointment to her. Pawar has said that the letter “invokes the connotation [that it was] written to the leader of a political party”, and not  the chief minister of an important state. 

Hate news: the numbers speak

A detailed analysis of 32 days’ worth of news content, 55 hours of programming and 76 debates conducted by Arnab Goswami of Republic TV and 24 days’ worth of news content, 20 hours of programming and 32 debates conducted by Navika Kumar of Times Now shows that 65% of the debates conducted by Goswami from July 31 to September 15, and 69% of the debates conducted by Kumar from June 16 to October 6, were on a single topic: the Sushant Singh Rajput case. It should come as no surprise that Kumar gave 71% of speaking time to those alleging that Rhea Chakraborty had drugged Rajput and only 2% to those who disagreed. Goswami made his trademark interruptions, and disagreeing panelists were shut up by 62% of these interventions.

This was brought out in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by Kota Neelima in the Sudarshan TV case, which said that not only was an overwhelming and inordinate amount of time devoted to a single topic but also, the manner, tone, tenor and content of the news coverage and debates was highly toxic, polarised and filled with innuendo, salacious gossip, wild allegations and character assassinations.  

Hathras crime order

The Allahabad High Court order on the Hathras rape and murder case of a Dalit woman, uploaded a day after the October 12 hearing, has admonished the UP administration in extraordinary terms. It called the circumstances of her hurried midnight cremation, in the absence of her family, an “infringement of her human rights”. The court has directed the UP government to ensure the safety and security of the family members of the victim, and to keep all investigations confidential. The Hathras police told the court that the kerosene canisters spotted in a video of the cremation had contained Ganga jal (Creepily, it recalls Operation Gangajal, the code name for the Bhagalpur blindings of 1980). Cuttingly, the court asked the senior UP Police officer who had claimed the woman had not been raped if he was aware of the important changes made in the rape law in 2013, when the presence of semen was declared to be not essential to establish the offence. 

Meanwhile, the CBI team probing the case visited the crime scene in Boolgarhi village on Tuesday and took the elder brother of the victim away, possibly for recording his statement at the camp office in Hathras. And three Dalit sisters, all minor, were attacked with acid in their sleep in Gonda district of the state. 

The Long Cable

Why Nirmala Sitharaman just won’t borrow

MK Venu

The constitutional compact governing Centre-state finances has virtually broken down at the GST Council, which ended its third and final meeting yesterday with no collective decision on how states are to be paid their compensation of Rs 2.35 lakh crore as mandated by law. 

There was no consensus on the demand by 10 Opposition-ruled states that the Centre must primarily borrow from the market to pay outstanding dues to states. They asked how the Centre could ask them to borrow from the market, what is legally owed to them. It came to such a pass that the Union finance minister abruptly left the meeting without responding to key proposals made on behalf of the Opposition-ruled states to resolve differences with the Centre. “At least Arun Jaitley would respond to our ideas when he chaired GST Council meetings in the past. Now there is no response at all,” said a disappointed state finance minister. Cooperative federalism, which Narendra Modi had talked up when he was chief minister of Gujarat, is no longer the flavour of the season.

West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra said that the amended Constitution allows even a single state to demand a dispute resolution mechanism in the event of a disagreement. This provision ensures that the majority cannot ride roughshod over a smaller number of states. Invoking Article 279A of the Constitution,West Bengal, supported by some other states, asked for a dispute resolution mechanism to be set up. However, the Union finance minister chose not to discuss the proposal. It appears that some states are planning to move the Supreme Court on this issue. 

Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Badal had suggested that a small Group of Ministers from within the GST Council should meet separately and find a solution to the impasse. This, too, did not find favour with the Chair. The last option of seeking a vote within the Council on how to borrow funds was also not discussed. Opposition-ruled states say that the Union finance minister simply ended the meeting without discussing any of these proposals. Later, she claimed in a press conference that 20-odd states were willing to explore solutions put forth by the Centre, and they need not be hindered by what 10 other states want.

So far, the Centre has imposed its will on the Opposition-ruled states, using the consent of the BJP-ruled states as a fig-leaf. However, many BJP-ruled states are not in a position to borrow efficiently on their own from the market. There is no doubt that the Union finance minister will find it very difficult to explain why she disregarded the spirit of constitutional federalism by refusing to discuss concrete proposals that were put on the table by Opposition-ruled states. As chair of the GST Council, she was duty-bound to initiate discussions on the proposals brought by the Opposition-ruled states. 

One is not sure how minutes of the proceedings have been recorded. The finance minister of BJP-ruled Assam apparently told CNBC-TV18 that the minutes don’t really matter at the GST Council! It would be an understatement to suggest that the inherent majoritarian centralism of the current regime has infected the GST Council proceedings. The disputes may soon reach the Supreme Court as states challenge multiple violations of the constitutional framework governing the GST law. At present, there is complete lack of trust between the Centre and Opposition-ruled states. It is myopic of the Centre to use the BJP-ruled states as instruments to deliberately avoid building a consensus on critical issues. Such pettiness will weaken the GST Council as an institution. 

Finally, it is still unclear why the Centre is refusing to borrow from the market to pay the states their rightful dues. The Union finance minister has reportedly argued that if the Centre borrowed the entire amount, it could increase the secondary market yields of 10-year government bonds, and thereby signal a tightening of interest rates. In turn, this could delay growth recovery. This is a flawed argument because there is a flood of global liquidity, and the RBI has managed liquidity very well to ensure softer yields. Last week, the RBI Governor gave a public assurance that the central bank would manage all government borrowings efficiently without causing volatility in the financial system or money markets. The Centre’s fears are clearly exaggerated, and it is advised against compromising fiscal federalism over such unfounded fears.

No nutrition for the poor 

In rural India, 63.3% of people could not afford the Cost of a Recommended Diet (CoRD), a paper published in the Food Policy journal by Kalyani Raghunathan and others has concluded. This share increases to 76.2% if one assumes that a third of spending would go to non-food items. CoRD is almost 1.6 times the commonly used World Bank poverty line of $1.9 a day in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. Given the fact that the economy was in a prolonged slowdown even before the pandemic and rural wage growth has been weak, the situation would have only worsened.

Unemployed? Seek political office

Hundreds of “educated unemployed youths” in Gujarat have started to file nomination papers for contesting the November 3 bypolls in at least four of the eight seats. Their aim is to “defeat BJP” or at least embarrass Vijay Rupani’s government for not giving jobs to thousands of youths who have passing the recruitment examinations. In another embarrassment, the BJP state government’s efforts to drop charges against a former Congress MLA failed, as a local court sentenced the now MLA, now with the BJP, to six months’ imprisonment.

Disturbing Act

We often forget that the Disurbed Areas Act – which empowers  the state government to prevent desegregation of housing in the name of maintaining the ‘demographic equilibrium’ of neighbourhoods –  is still applicable in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Himmatnagar, Godhra, Kapadvanj and Bharuch. New amendments to the Act approved by the President confer on the Collector more powers to ascertain if there is a likelihood of “polarisation” or “improper clustering” of persons belonging to a particular community. 

FCRA relief, but not much 

When changes were brought to the rules of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act to hamstring nonprofits, the most galling for NGOs was the requirement to open FCRA accounts only in the New Delhi branch of the State Bank of India. In a notification issued on Tuesday, the Centre has given time till March 31 to comply. At present, 22,434 NGOs and associations are covered under the FCRA.  

Janus-faced dragon

A perfunctory joint statement was issued by the Indian and Chinese governments a day after the seventh round of corps commander-level talks on Monday. It included a proposal from the Chinese side, whose contents are yet to be made public. It will be studied by the high-powered core group comprising senior ministers, the National Security Advisor, the Chief of Defence Staff and others. Apart from that, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson again reacted sharply to the inauguration of 44 bridges by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Monday, reiterating Beijing’s line that it doesn’t recognise the state of Arunachal Pradesh, or Ladakh as a Union Territory.

Lt Gen PGK Menon takes over command of ‘Fire & Fury Corps’ in Ladakh from Lt Gen Harinder Singh. Photo: Indian Army

Prime number: -10.3%
The International Monetary Fund has forecast that India’s GDP growth will plummet in the current financial year by a whopping 10.3%. With a 8.8% growth rate projected for FY 2021, India’s economy will still be smaller in size at the end of 2021 than it was at the end of 2019.

God’s Own Country opens up

Destinations in Kerala will start welcoming tourists under strict COVID-19 norms from Monday, bringing much-needed relief to the cash-strapped economy of the state. Hill, adventure, backwater and Ayurveda destinations will be reopened for domestic tourists from Monday, but beach destinations will remain closed until November 1.

And in Kerala, the experimental film Vasanthi, directed by the Rahman brothers, beat the big budget productions to be named the best film in the 50th Kerala State Film Awards. Suraj Venjaramoodu and Kani Kusruti were chosen for the top awards in acting. Lijo Jose Pellissery secured the best director award for Jallikattu.  

Opeds you mustn’t miss

Political leaders in power have often used the state machinery to fix their adversaries but the current dispensation has turned on ordinary citizens who are not in the game of electoral politics. It doesn’t bode well for democracy, argues Jawhar Sircar.

Varghese K George writes that caste rivalries are causing fissures in BJP’s Hindu unity plank in Uttar Pradesh, opening a window of opportunity for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party.

Former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian and Shoumitro Chatterjee of Penn State argue that India’s growth model has been export-led and this orientation should not be abandoned, as export opportunities in some sectors could be significant in a post-COVID world.

Prabhat Patnaik explores the dangerous consequences of the new food laws, arguing that food security necessarily means growing one’s own food to the maximum possible extent. Since land is scarce, and domestic food production essential, land use must be socially controlled.

India’s economic crisis affects hundreds of millions of people across the country. The government may ignore it, but it won’t vanish, argues Aakar Patel as he gauges the magnitude of the challenge.

The worst blow to the Right to Information regime has come in the form of a persistent attack on transparency watchdogs, write Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri on the 15th anniversary of the Right to Information Law.

Listen up

“China is the most important external player in the geopolitics of South Asia today,” former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon tells C Raja Mohan in the South Asia Chat podcast (30 minutes) for the National University of Singapore. How do South Asian nations navigate the space between China, which has risen to be a great power, and India, that is at the heart of the subcontinent?

Watch Out

“We have got a message (from India) for a desire for conversation.” Moeed Yusuf, advisor on national security and strategic policy planning to Prime Minister Imran Khan told Karan Thapar in this 75-minutes long interview for The Wire.


The commanding heights

Yoga proselytiser and herb-powered entrepreneur Baba Ramdev fell off an elephant in Mathura while striking a yogic pose on its back. The video was viewed widely, and features much mirth. It does not appear to be a canned laugh-track. Authentic humans on the scene are laughing at a serious accident. 

Cartoon: Devika

The Baba is now in a non-herbal hospital and his motive for boarding the elephant remains mysterious. Perhaps it was just a quest for the commanding heights, which is exactly what has brought double-decker buses back to the streets of Kolkata. Not the old red workhorses like the ones in London, which were knackered in both cities some years ago. These are spiffy open-top tourist buses ― again, exactly like the ones which ply in London now.  The view from the upper deck is much nicer. 

Speaking of Kolkata, in a desperate call for reason and caution against the pandemic, the Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, along with two physicians and an astrophysicist, have written an oped pleading with Bengalis to curb their enthusiasm for Durga Puja and suppress the urge to gather in vast numbers. It’s in Bangla, but Google Translate is your friend. 

That’s it for today. We’ll be with you again 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.