The India Cable: Modi Slams Door on OCIs; CAG Leaves India Unaudited

Plus: On mandi closure, Bihar showed the way, ministers dying to see their jab snaps in press, overseas FDI falls by a third, Indian onboard Air France yells Modi’s name, makes nuisance of himself

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 8, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The streets of West Bengal’s cities are plastered with posters proclaiming that ‘Bengal wants Bengal’s daughter’, but the show put up by the BJP is winning attention for scale. JP Nadda and Amit Shah have become “daily passengers” (the popular term for people who commute to Kolkata by local trains), the Prime Minister held a rally this weekend and people await the arrival of the rest of the cabinet. Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has said that since the entire government is expected to relocate to Kolkata, he will take the farmer’s agitation there, too. 

Narendra Modi’s speech was heralded by a social media blitz so intense that it should have triggered spam detectors.

And the fact-checkers at AltNews find that a picture shared by BJP leaders of Narendra Modi’s first rally at Brigade Parade Ground ― where the British Indian army once showed off its manoeuvres and now political parties show their strength ― is an old image of a Left Front rally.   

Authentic media images of the rally reveal that the crowd was more scattered than at the Left-Congress event on the same ground at the end of February. But the BJP counted coup again, recruiting actor Mithun Chakraborty, who has now transited the entire political spectrum, from the far left via the Trinamool Congress to the Hindu right. But one does wish the PM would stop speaking of “asol poriborton (real transformation)”. Uttered in an awful accent, it means something disgusting. 

Mamata Banerjee faces serious anti-incumbency due to corruption attributed to a Trinamool ‘syndicate’. She has responded to the BJP’s jibes about it: “India knows only one syndicate and that is Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. There is no other syndicate.” It is generally abbreviated to ‘MoSha’ which in Bangla means ‘mosquito’, and suggests an insignificant irritant. The forthcoming elections will reveal if it remains so. 

Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde moved to clarify the top court’s much-condemned observations last week to a rape accused on plans of marrying the victim. He said: “This court has always given the largest respect to women. Even in that hearing, we never gave a suggestion that you should marry, we had asked ― are you going to marry!” The CJI said the matter had been “completely misreported”.

Worryingly, India reports the highest coronavirus fresh caseload in two months. A growing number of urban Indian consumers have reduced spending, according to a global survey by market researcher Nielsen. In urban India, 63% of consumers fall in the “newly constrained” category, facing a decline in household incomes, or a worsening of financial situation, which has prompted them to watch their expenses. In India, the percentage of ‘newly constrained’ is significantly higher than the global average of 46%.

The military-grade barricades deployed to keep farmers out of Delhi have become as redundant as the Maginot Line, as the movement spreads elsewhere in India. The first Mahapanchayat in Madhya Pradesh is in progress in Sheopur today. And this afternoon (10 pm India time), the farmers’ protests and press freedoms will be discussed in Westminster Hall in Britain’s parliament complex. 

(Kisan Mahapanchayat in Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh; courtesy Varun/Trolley Times)

China will operate its indigenously developed Fuxing bullet trains between Lhasa and the mainland from June, passing close to the Arunachal Pradesh border. This class of trains now runs at 160-350 kmph, and the network will connect 98% of China’s big cities. Also near the border, China has okayed dams on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known in China, in its 2021-2025 five-year plan. The decision is expected to be ratified as a matter of course on March 11. “Lower reaches” refers to stretches of the river before it flows into India. 

India Inc’s overseas foreign direct investment (OFDI) fell by 31% to $1.85 billion in February, the Reserve Bank of India revealed. There is good news for consumers planning to junk their old vehicles and buy a new one under the Vehicle Scrapping Policy ― automakers will give about a 5% rebate

Information and Broadcasting Secretary Amit Khare has pooh-poohed fears about the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021: “Some sceptics have described these rules as curbing freedom of expression and have even termed them as dictatorial. They seem to be looking for a black cat in a dark room where none exists.” However, the critics exist, and include the Editors’ Guild.  

An Air France flight from Ghana to Delhi via Paris made an emergency landing in Sofia to deplane a “disruptive” Indian passenger who quarrelled with fellow passengers, assaulted cabin crew and pummelled the cockpit door. Apparently, he swung into action immediately after takeoff. “There is no reasonable explanation for his behaviour,” the Bulgarian National Investigation Agency has said. It may be perplexing for Bulgarians, but not for us ― the man abused Punjab in Modi’s name, and is like a living representation of the irrational anger that animates contemporary India (Warning: Passenger video below features profanity). 


Fareed Zakaria finds Indian democracy eroded

Fareed Zakaria has devoted the ‘What in the World’ segment on CNN to Indian democracy under Narendra Modi. He takes its pulse and finds it weak and thready.  


CAG leaves India unaudited

The number of reports brought out by the country’s top audit body, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, has come down sharply in the past five years, raising concerns that the Modi government’s financial accountability is not coming under the CAG’s gaze very closely. The total number of CAG reports relating to central government ministries and departments came down from 55 in 2015 to just 14 in 2020, a fall of nearly 75%, according to a reply to an RTI application filed by the New Indian Express.

The RTI reply revealed that defence audit reports prepared and tabled in Parliament have also come down during the last few years. While eight audit reports were tabled in Parliament in 2017, it was zero last year. The story is repeated in railway audit reports. In 2017, five reports were prepared but there were only three in 2020. 


Budget session to be trimmed

In view of assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory, the Budget Session of Parliament may be curtailed. The duration of the cut has not been decided yet, but there are suggestions to curtail it by almost two weeks. The second half of the Budget Session was scheduled to be held from March 8 to April 8. Elections are being held in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry from March 27 to April 29. 


On mandi closure, Bihar showed the way  

In 2006, Bihar abolished state-run mandis. What followed is a forewarning about the Modi government’s new farm laws, as the system is rigged in favour of the traders who cheat on every possible parameter — from weight to moisture content. This is why very few farmers come to Bihar’s mandis to sell produce. 

Despite the well-documented shortcomings of the system, existing state APMCs provide a framework and physical infrastructure which can be made to work for farmers. Once the reform laws take root, and as trade moves out of regulated APMC markets to save on taxes and fees, transactions will take place under a cloak of invisibility. Like in Bihar, farmers elsewhere might end up losing out on price information and bargaining power. And well-functioning mandis in Madhya Pradesh and Punjab might struggle to generate enough revenue to pay for the upkeep of existing infrastructure.


China says border dispute ‘not the whole story’

China and India should stop “undercutting” each other, shed mutual “suspicion” and create “enabling conditions” by expanding bilateral cooperation to resolve the border issue, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said. Stressing that there was more to the China-India relationship  than the boundary dispute, Wang said that both countries are friends and partners but they should shed their suspicion of each other.

Answering a question at his annual press conference on the current state of India-China relations following the tense standoff in eastern Ladakh since May last year, and how Beijing views the relationship going forward, he said it is important that both countries manage their disputes properly and expand bilateral cooperation. “The boundary dispute, an issue left from history, is not the whole story of the China-India relationship.  It is important that the two sides manage disputes properly and at the same time expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the issue,” Wang said.


The Long Cable

Modi slams door on OCIs, once his citizen ambassadors

Sidharth Bhatia

Goodbye Overseas Citizen of India ― from now on, you are merely ‘overseas’. Modi may have repeatedly said that he looks not at the colour of anyone’s passport but their “blood” and continues to see OCIs as force multipliers for the country’s image abroad but as far as his government is concerned, they are and will remain ‘foreigners’ for all practical purposes.

The guidelines of what will not be allowed for OCI card holders any more have come into immediate force. They prohibit OCIs from engaging in “Tablighi activities, mountaineering, journalism,” among other things. If this sounds oddly specific, and designed to include a relatively small number of the over 3 million card-holders, there is more. Among other privileges taken away is the ability to repatriate foreign exchange abroad like any other Indian. In effect, OCIs too could send $250,000 abroad each financial year, like Indians. From now on, they will be just like any other foreigners, who are subject to other rules and regulations.

This will hurt the tens of thousands of OCI card-holders who came to India to work as professionals – architects, doctors, engineers, even chief executives – and could send back money to their home countries. It also makes a mockery of the government’s avowed intention of inviting the best to come and work in India.

The devil however lies in the details – the government has chosen to go after Tablighis (not, say, Hindu preachers like the Hare Krishnas), and journalists. There are dozens of OCI journalists working in India and all of a sudden, they will be out of a job and may even have to pack up and leave, unless they apply to “the competent authority” and get special permission. OCIs who want to do research in India also need permission. No prizes for guessing what the response would be in many cases.

The move reveals the government’s fears about those who may not be inclined to follow the diktats of the establishment. In the eyes of the BJP, Indian journalists are easier to tame, even intimidate; an OCI journalist may not be so amenable. Journalists ask questions, or at least are expected to, and this move shows that the government is afraid of just that. The Indians who do their work fearlessly will be dealt with later, with the appropriate kind of pressure. (Note that new rules against digital news media came out just days before this set of guidelines.) But what better than to ban OCIs from undertaking ‘journalistic activities’.

And what does the ban on ‘journalistic activity’ mean in this context? If these rules had been framed a few years ago, would Akshay Kumar have been allowed to interview Prime Minister Modi and ask about his favourite mangoes, and whether he sucks the kernel? Will OCIs be allowed to tweet and write Facebook posts on topics that might be regarded as news and current affairs? Are they allowed to write op-eds in the media or offer an expert comment on TV? Or do they run the risk of being accused of violating their OCI status?

Ironically, this government has done everything in its power to reach out to OCIs. No visit abroad of Narendra Modi is complete without an interaction with the Indian diaspora. The Howdy Modi event in Houston, Texas was a jamboree designed to showcase his popularity with OCIs and also plug his friend Donald Trump as the best candidate for president. Unfortunately for Trump, the Indian American vote did not come to him in sufficient numbers, but Modi got an image and ego boost.

There were rumours that the government would find a way to get NRIs to vote; after that, who knows, maybe they would include OCIs, too. The OCIs were feeling wanted, needed by Mother India and in turn, they gave their love generously to Modi.

But now their hopes have been dashed. They are back to being just Pravasis, not Bharatiyas. Of late, the government has been feeling pressured by other large sections of OCIs, such as the Sikhs, who are supporting the farmers’ protests. The Tablighis were portrayed as super spreaders of Covid-19 during the lockdown and some were even arrested, but that propaganda has failed. And journalists are always a pesky problem.

The Vajpayee government had opened the doors for Indians who had left and become citizens elsewhere. The annual Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas conferences began, many were given awards, and by and by, the rules were relaxed. Now, the doors are being shut. More curbs could be in the offing ― on visa-free travel rights, for example. We don’t want you, the government seems to be telling OCIs, especially if you belong to the wrong religion. Or insist on telling the truth.


Reportedly

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the coronavirus vaccine in the second phase of the immunisation drive, his ministers and BJP MPs have made a beeline for hospitals to get their shot. But that’s not the end of the story. This has been followed by a full-throated campaign to publicise each minister’s participation in the vaccination drive. Newspaper editors have been inundated with appeals from the publicity managers of these ministers and MPs with repeated requests that they publish the photographs of their bosses taking the shot. They are particularly keen that the photos appear in the Delhi newspapers, even if a minister has taken the shot elsewhere. Those importuning the press included the Ministry of External Affairs, which was keen to have minister S Jaishankar’s photo published in the Delhi papers.


Deep Dive

The impressive growth of digital news media in India is detailed in a Hindu Businessline report. No wonder the government feels impelled to ‘regulate’ and flatten the curve of credible news, reported from the ground. 


Prime Number: 29%
That’s the percentage of women in India who have faced molestation or sexual advances in public places at least once, according to a survey conducted by LocalCircles. Asked about the public places where most incidents occur, 23% said train or railway stations, 20% said public gathering, 17% said local trains or metros and their stations, 17% said the streets, 10% said markets and 7% religious places. Only 23% of those who faced molestation or sexual advances filed a police complaint.

Delhi Muslim riot victims must choose between survival and justice

In a bid to reach a settlement with the Muslim community, some local Hindu leaders in Khajuri Khas, Delhi, have proposed the mutual retraction of all FIRs. In an atmosphere of communal hostility and alleged police intimidation, such a sttlement for the Muslim survivors in the area is a proposition worth considering only because it holds the slim hope of putting an end to the hatred to which they are subjected every day. Understandably, their lawyers have advised against such an action. This poses a choice before the Muslim residents of Khajuri Khas today – one between survival and justice.


VHP collects Rs 2,500 crore for temple

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has reportedly collected Rs 2,500 crore for the Ram Temple from its campaign that ran until March 4. The data is important because many fraudulent collections in the name of the Ram Temple have been reported, and questions about the collections made since the early 1990s, for the same purpose, have been raised.


IPL 2021 to begin, end at Narendra Modi Stadium

BCCI secretary Jay Shah announced the schedule for IPL 2021, which is to begin on April 9 and end on May 30 with matches across six venues ― Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata. Each team will play at four venues during the league stage and no team will get to play at home. Out of the 56 league matches, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru will host 10 matches each while Ahmedabad and Delhi will host eight matches each. Not surprisingly, the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad will host the playoffs as well as the final on May 30. There will be no spectators on the ground.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Avay Shukla has words of praise for those in the lower judiciary, who are saying what is expected of the higher judiciary. 

  • The Centre’s plan to pay off food subsidy dues of previous years is likely to distort our GDP readings for multiple years, writes Pranjul Bhandari, leading to GDP growth being overstated by one percentage point in 2021-22 and half a percentage point in 2022-23. 

  • Enforced citizenship compounded by the lack of accountability turns citizens into detainees in Kashmir, with women’s lives revealing the worst forms of active and passive exclusion resembling the risks and invisibility of a trafficked life, writes Tarushikha Sarvesh.

  • AS Panneerselvan writes that silence is not an option at this juncture, and to defend our hard-won rights and freedoms, we need to collectively raise our voice.


Listen Up

In its series on music conferences from the past, Scroll marks International Women’s Day with a compilation by performers who featured in an extraordinary all-women concert in 1954, the culmination of the centenary celebrations of Ma Sarada, the spiritual consort of the mystic Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836-1886). No recordings are available, but a collection of published material from the concert, and other recordings of the performers which have survived, offer a vivid if partial recreation.


Watch Out

In an interview with Prannoy Roy, the economist and philosopher Prof Amartya Sen talks about what’s happening in India, his hopes for its future, and how he does things only if they are “both fun and honest.” Here is the transcript.


Bhaskar Menon bows out, MLA wars with momos 

Thiruvananthapuram-born Bhaskar Menon (86), a legend of the music business, died in Beverly Hills, California on Saturday. He was with EMI for 34 years but it was as president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Capitol Records that Menon engineered his biggest achievement: a huge campaign to promote Pink Floyd’s seminal 1973 studio album, The Dark Side of the Moon. Here is his interview from 2013. His father KRK Menon’s signature as Finance Secretary of independent India is on India’s first one rupee note.

What’s wrong with Bengal becoming Kashmir, if Kashmir has become a paradise after August 2019, asks Omar Abdullah. 

And in Jammu, a BJP legislator has declared war on momos, believing them to be “as dangerous as drugs”. Besides, he says, they are made by “foreigners including Bangladeshi and Burmese”, which is highly suspicious. In fact, they are made and eaten from here to Outer Mongolia. 


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 clicking here.