The India Cable: Modi Ministers See ‘Emergency’ After Arnab Arrested; Spirit of Federalism Giving up the Ghost 

Plus: Donald Trump Jr desecrates world map and beliefs of faithful Indians, Kamala Harris’s home village prays, Delhi reels under third Covid wave, Nitish under expensive rain of onions 

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 4, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

On the day that American retail called the election early by boarding up store frontages against rioters and vandals, peace and harmony reigned in Mathura, where four youths from Govardhan chanted the Hanuman chalisa in a mosque, but the cleric declined to press charges. Their action was in response to a Khudai Khidmatgar activist offering namaz at a temple in the same district, which was an equally amiable affair (see yesterday’s Cable). However, the police were uniformly unamused. Earlier this year, Bhopal BJP legislator and terror accused Pragya Thakur had told Indians to recite the Chalisa five times a day to beat back the coronavirus, and last year, it was the most requested number on Alexa, way ahead of Baby Shark.  

The cost of Nitish Kumar’s election rally in Madhubani skyrocketed when onions and some potatoes flung by the crowd rained down on the podium. Kumar was apparently speaking of jobs when the onion attack was launched. Challenger Tejashwi Yadav condemned the financial excess, terming the hurling of onions unnecessary and undemocratic.

The eighth round of Corps Commander talks between India and China on the Ladakh standoff is likely this Friday. It is not clear if a breakthrough can be anticipated, or it will be more of the same as China firms up a new status quo on the disputed border. In the US, the world according to Donald J Trump Jr was posted on social media. He has grabbed almost all of the world’s land mass for the Republicans, including all of Antarctica, though the penguins don’t have a vote yet. But India and China are deep blue and joined at the neck, precisely where armies face each other in Ladakh. So much for stadium diplomacy and the jamboree at Madison Square Garden!

India’s foreign minister has urged the Gulf countries to facilitate the return of Indian workers and professionals who are now eager to resume work following the easing of coronavirus-related restrictions. Delhi’s hospitals are running low on hospital beds as the pandemic enters its third wave in the capital, with 6,725 new cases detected in 24 hours of testing. The city’s air is much dirtier than in the same period last year, and pollution could worsen the impact of the disease. And opening a new front in the fight for public health, researchers at the University of Miami and Jamia Millia University have found high levels of fluoride and nitrate in Delhi’s groundwater.

Idol-makers of Tirupati have had to turn daily wagers for survival, while Sivakasi workers stare at a dark Diwali as state governments ban firecrackers on pollution concerns. And really rubbing it in, the Supreme Court has said what everyone already knew ― you can be overqualified for a job. Ask Donald Trump, who’s just addressed the faithful. Meanwhile, a Delhi judge has warned that he would have to personally visit the jail to see that undertrials in the Delhi riots case get warm clothing and other basic necessities, which they are now denied by the prison authorities. 

Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta has told the top court, while it heard a case on the building of a new Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista, that India does not have “participative democracy”, and he would show how. Why? Don’t we know already? But there’s good news, too: two authors of Indian origin, Tasha Suri and Roshana Choksi, feature on Time’s list of the 100 best fantasy books of all time. 

Federal relations head for divorce

Today, Kerala followed Maharashtra in revoking general consent given to the CBI to probe cases in its territory. Are we heading into a constitutional crisis due to the BJP-led Central government’s behaviour towards Opposition-ruled states, most prominently over GST compensation? Kerala, Punjab, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are yet to be paid a penny, though the Centre has released Rs 12,000 crore in two tranches to 16 states and three UTs. And a new dimension is visible as the Modi government targets Maharashtra, by putting a spanner in the shifting of the Mumbai Metro car shed from Aarey forest to Kanjurmarg

The land at Kanjurmarg is claimed by the Salt Commissioner, whose office comes under the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), which says that its selection by the Mumbai Collector and MMRDA has caused a loss to the Centre. The Mumbai Mayor protests that “an affidavit was filed in the Bombay High Court during the tenure of the previous BJP-led government, averring that the Kanjurmarg land belongs to the state government.”

Now, there’s another escalation as the President refuses to give an appointment to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who announced a relay dharna of MLAs at Delhi’s Rajghat to highlight the state’s crisis in power and essential supplies because of the Centre’s adamant refusal to allow movement of goods trains through its territory. Union rail and finance ministers refused to meet state MPs and ministers who wanted to discuss the suspension of goods trains and non-payment of GST dues. 

The Central government’s attitude towards Punjab portends a deep crisis, said Amarinder, as recent developments go against India’s constitutionally mandated federal character. The situation could snowball into a major catastrophe and harm the nation, whose foundations were built on the ethos of democratic federalism, he warned. 

The Long Cable

Arnab arrested, and it isn’t good news

Sidharth Bhatia

The arrest Tuesday morning of anchor Arnab Goswami from his home in Mumbai, on charges of precipitating the suicide of an architect in 2018, is being seen as one more round in the ongoing battle between the Centre and the Maharashtra state government. Goswami has been arrested by Raigad police officials in the abetment to suicide case of 53-year-old interior designer Anvay Naik and his mother in 2018. The FIR alleges that Goswami had not paid Rs 83 lakh due to the Naiks.

(Youtube screen grab of Arnab Goswami on Republic TV)

For the past few months, the Modi government at the Centre has been needling the coalition government in Maharashtra on a number of issues. The Central investigating agencies took away cases from the state police. Actress Kangana Ranaut and Goswami continuously hectored Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who is soft-spoken himself but heads the Shiv Sena, which is known for unleashing violence on anyone it does not like. In a sidelight, yesterday, Javed Akhtar filed an FIR against Ranaut for dragging his name into the controversy over the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput. 

Goswami is perceived as a rabble-rousing supporter of Modi and on his nightly shows, had harangued Thackeray and his police in his trademark manic style. He is being separately investigated in a television ratings scam. His arrest came within two days of the Central government’s move to stop the takeover of a large plot of land in eastern Mumbai where the state had wanted to set up a facility for the Mumbai Metro. The BJP had resisted that move for many years, preferring to locate it in a protected forest. Thackeray’s government saw it as a hostile move and retaliated by arresting Goswami. 

Home Minister Amit Shah and many of his cabinet colleagues tweeted against the arrest, speaking of a second Emergency, but the irony is palpable. The Modi government in Delhi has kept ageing poets, academics and rights activists in jail for years without bail, under draconian laws. Journalists in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, and Centrally-ruled Kashmir, have been arrested or booked on flimsy charges. Dissidence under the BJP’s governments has been met with police action, and the party is in no position to talk about democratic principles.

More worrying is the implication for journalists. Though Goswami has not been taken into custody for his professional work, the freedom of the press is obviously an issue. Arresting journalists for running campaigns against governments smacks of vendetta. And it normalises the current and future arrest of other journalists ― regular professionals doing their job.

The Shiv Sena has a record of going after not just journalists, but other critics of the party or its leadership. Before it was in government, its stormtroopers used to beat up journalists. Now, as the ruling party in Maharashtra, it is using state power like a bludgeon.

The journalists’ community is divided on its reaction, with the Editors Guild criticising the arrest and others pointing out that Goswami runs ad hominem campaigns, painting his targets as criminals and conducting kangaroo courts at will. Many wondered if he could be called a journalist, at all.

But this matter goes beyond the individual, however repugnant his style and diction may be. Night after night, Goswami’s channel hectors and attacks anyone who appears to be against the Modi government. Lately, Uddhav Thackeray has been in the crosshairs. Goswami’s arrest is bound to be perceived as retaliation, and that brings up the curtain on revenge tragedies still in the future.  

India and China painted liberal blue 

India was blue in the face after finding Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and the Northeast knocked off and red all over in an absurd map posted by Donald J Trump Jr, who has solved the famous four-colour problem by reducing the world to two colours. To find India headless and gifted to the Democrats, along with China and Mexico, must have mystified celebrants of Namaste Trump and Howdy Modi who pray for Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah probably had Trump Sr in mind, too, when he demanded that Junior’s colouring pencils should be snatched away. 

Assam cries murder by Mizoram 

Assam has sought an NIA probe into the death of a man aged 48 in Mizoram. Fearing retaliatory violence, Mizoram has written to Assam seeking safety and security of Mizo communities as the economic blockade of Mizoram continues after the boundary dispute flared up. 

After nearly three weeks, tensions between Assam and Mizoram have not subsided even after several rounds of talks between officials of the state governments and the Centre, though all are ruled by the broad-chested BJP. On Monday, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal wrote to Home Minister Amit Shah on the tension with Mizoram, alleging that a person from Cachar district died in custody in the neighbouring state. Mizoram Police claimed that he was a well-known drug peddler who was apprehended while crossing the border to deliver a consignment, and later died at a health facility. Meanwhile, Mizoram has decided to get LPG cylinders from Manipur, instead of depending on Assam.

Prime number: 46%
The percentage of Indians who have had to borrow to pay their bills during the ongoing pandemic, according to a survey across seven cities ― almost one in two. With job losses and pay cuts causing havoc across industries, the lower middle-class has been badly hit and the pandemic has “led to a shift in perspective towards loans and borrowing preferences”. The report is by Home Credit India, a local arm of the international consumer finance provider with operations across Europe and Asia.

Horticultural hot air

The government’s talk of green shoots is excessively optimistic, if one looks beyond sectoral production to the export and import data for October. India’s exports declined 5.4% and imports also fell 11.56% in October. Between April and October, exports declined by a whopping 19.05%.

MNREGA demand betrays more hot air

In October, nearly 24.3 million households demanded work under MGNREGA, a 88.37% rise over the demand in October last year. But only 16.3 million households actually got work this October, leaving an unmet demand of around 8.1 million households. Many have argued that migrant workers are returning to the cities, and that the kharif harvest is providing rural jobs, but the data shows that people are still demanding MGNREGA work in great numbers. This indicates a grave unemployment crisis in rural India.

Via internet, haazir ho!

The Supreme Court’s e-committee has set up a panel to work towards digitising courts and creating a reliable virtual interface to litigants through videoconferencing and live streaming, its chairman Justice DY Chandrachud said. This panel will recommend infrastructure and protocols, along with budgetary allocation for implementation and training, the first step towards taking the judicial system out of the age of fat case files and green vakalatnamas, inherited from colonial times. 

Deep Dive

Digital darkness

A report analyses the democratic world’s longest internet shutdown: Between Rights and Risks, Life and Liberty in an Internet dark Kashmir. According to an internet shutdown tracker, 439 shutdowns were recorded in India between January 2012 and September 22, 2020, out of which 231 (or over half) were in Jammu and Kashmir alone. Of the four longest shutdowns in the country, three were in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2018, India topped the list of countries around the globe ordering internet shutdowns. The report goes into the costs of the lockdown. In September, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry calculated the cost from last year ― a loss of Rs 17,000 crores due to the lockdown. 

The Right to No

Four charts show the decline of the Right to Information regime under the Modi government, which has featured high vacancies in posts, shorter tenure of officials and rising pendency of cases.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The Manusmriti holds a canonical place in the history of Brahmanic texts across two millennia, argues Tejas Harad, and when anti-caste activists criticise the ‘premier Dharmashastra’, they are essentially protesting against Brahminism as a whole, since the Manusmriti is the most systematic articulation of this ideology.

  • Upper castes still have decisive control of state power in Bihar via economic surplus and bureaucratic rule, argues Christophe Jaffrelot, while lower castes have benefited from the “mandalisation” of Bihar only in terms of political power and salaried jobs. In other domains, it has gained little. 

  • Shyam Saran says that India, like the rest of the world, will have to manage a much more complex geopolitical landscape in which China sees itself as the ‘axial power’. The Quad, in its present loosely structured incarnation, is unlikely to serve as a credible countervailing coalition. 

Listen up

What can media campaigns like India Shining in 2004 and Lead India in 2009, sponsored by the government and corporates, tell us about the resounding success of the post-2014 Acche Din (“good days”) campaign, which we are living with to this day? How do cultural nationalism and capitalist growth together produce images of a modern India which is nevertheless rooted in a decidedly Hindu antiquity? How does the figure of the aam aadmi or common man, associated with the 2011 anti-corruption campaign, become yet another locus from which entrepreneurship and free markets can once again be championed? 

Ravinder Kaur answers these questions and more, as she discusses her bookBrand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India with Aparna Gopalan. 

Watch Out

Special prayers for the Democratic Party’s VP nominee, Kamala Harris were organised at her ancestral village, Thulasendrapuran in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu yesterday.

Joe Biden has a Tamil Nadu connection too, it seems. Former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon spoke of it last month: “There are Bidens in Chennai, there were. Started in Chennai but there were Bidens from, I think, from the 19th century. And there was, there are still some Bidens in Mumbai. It is from the East India Company, all the way back.”

The Anarchy, on camera

William Dalrymple’s book on the East India Company’s rapacious rise in the subcontinent and its role in subjugating India to colonial rule, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Companyis being adapted into a series by an independent studio and Siddharth Roy Kapur Films. 

On Covid, India is data poor

Huge gaps in data about the pandemic on the dashboard maintained by the New Delhi-based National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) have hampered researchers. India was kept out of an international study covering 45 countries, underlining how Covid-19 mortality data can be combined with population surveys of exposure to the infection to assess trends in infection and fatality rates. In the Health Ministry’s official update on Covid-19, the two missing data points, among a plethora of numbers and percentages, are the total number of Indians infected and total fatalities due to the pandemic. They’d make absorbing reading. 

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.