The India Cable: Modi Stadium with Adani, Reliance at Either End; Atmanirbharta with Chinese Characteristics

Plus: India trails global vaccination drive, Jaishankar tries to parry Bachelet, Nodeep Kaur alleges police beating, Akhilesh Yadav is MIA, and everyone loves a good ‘pawri’

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
February 24, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

  • “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments.”

  • “This 5,000-year-old civilisation of ours has never been averse to ideas from varied quarters.”

  • “Not even an iota of evidence brought to notice.”

Strong words beloved of editorialists, but used by a sessions judge in Delhi, who trashed the case against climate activist Disha Ravi while granting her bail. He raised the bar while higher courts have faltered in protecting the rights of citizens against an executive which arbitrarily deprives them of freedoms. Observations in the Disha Ravi case re-establish principles set long ago. That the charge of sedition is not attracted without incitement to violence was established before Independence. And the Binayak Sen case had established that association, whether in person or on a WhatsApp group, is not a crime. However, the government has been arresting at will, on scanty evidence ― or in the Bhima-Koregaon case, apparently forged evidence. 

The National Stock Exchange of India suspended trading at 11:40 am due to a telecommunications glitch. It uses two providers for redundancy, but unusually, both were affected. 

Rajasthan’s first paperless budget was presented by Ashok Gehlot, who wrote it up while working from home. Responding to the farm protests, it has announced that from next year, the state will have a separate agricultural budget. Hiving off a budget line is unusual, given that the Union budget has absorbed the rail budget, which had been presented separately from the founding of the republic. It signals that the state is willing to be responsive to farmers, which the Centre is not. From this year, candidates for competitive exams can travel free to venues, and farm  loans and an urban credit card have been announced. 

The Covid-19 vaccination programme will be extended beyond frontline workers to the cohort of people aged over 60 from March 1, Information and Broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar has said. In response to earlier representations from the private sector, the Union health secretary has stated that its resources would be used in future to speed up the programme. Travellers from five states, including the problematic states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab, will have to show negative Covid-19 test reports to enter Delhi. Orders will be issued later today and will remain in force until March 15. In the Northeast, the Assam Tribune reports no new cases in Arunachal Pradesh in five days, and three new cases in Mizoram. 

India is not considering any proposal to allow any Chinese company to invest in India, “people aware of the matter” said, rebutting widespread reports that New Delhi could soon clear 45 investment proposals from China

In Assam, 1,040 cadres of five militant organisations active in the Karbi Anglong hills laid down their arms before Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. The demobilising organisations are the People’s Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK), Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front, Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers, Kuki Liberation Front and United People’s Liberation Army. 

In poll-bound West Bengal, the police and agencies have become involved in the fray. The CBI is questioning relations of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee about an alleged coal scam in the state. And in the BJP, a developing drug scandal is playing out, which could be the product of infighting. Last weekend Pamela Goswami, state secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, was arrested for possession of 90-100 gms of cocaine. She had accused Rakesh Singh of framing her. Singh, who is close to state BJP in-charge Kailash Vijayvargiya, was arrested yesterday along with his sons, who had precipitated an hours-long standoff with the police. He was eventually picked up from a highway checkpoint 125 km from Kolkata while driving to Delhi, protected by central security forces. 

In a virtual chat with Telangana IT and Industries Minister KT Rama Rao at BioAsia 2021, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that technology companies must “take responsibility to ensure by design that we build for privacy, security, AI ethics and internet safety.” Of late, he has been seeking uniform ethics standards across borders, which the internet does not respect. 

Caught in the pincer movement of e-waybills and heart-stopping fuel taxes, the All India Transporters’ Welfare Association (AITWA) has called for a strike on Friday. Fuel prices are grinding down margins and the new e-way system does not countenance breakdowns and delays. 

Anjali Bhardwaj, who has been associated with the movement for transparency and the Right to Information in India for over two decades, is one of 12 anti-corruption activists honoured by the Joe Biden administration. 


Nodeep Kaur alleges police beating, no medical examination

In her bail plea before the Punjab and Haryana High Court, labour rights activist Nodeep Kaur has claimed that she was severely beaten up at a police station after her arrest by the Sonipat police last month. The 23-year-old activist from Punjab’s Muktsar district has also claimed that no medical examination was conducted, in violation of Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Kaur is currently lodged in Karnal jail in Haryana. The Punjab and Haryana High Court on Monday had adjourned the hearing on her bail plea and posted the matter for today, but it has been deferred to February 26.


Covid surge shows that protocols must remain

“There are 187 cases of the [Covid-19] variant found in the UK, six of the South African strain, and one case of the Brazilian variant have been recorded,” NITI Aayog member VK Paul said during a media briefing. But the central government insists that the surge in infections in states like Maharashtra and Kerala should not be seen as having been caused by variants. The centre reiterated that appropriate Covid-19 protocols must be followed in light of an upsurge in new infections.


Jaishankar vs Bachelet

At a high-level segment of the UN Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said that human rights issues are best pursued through dialogue, consultation and cooperation among states as well as technical assistance and capacity building. He also called for due respect to the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and national sovereignty, attempting to counter the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, who has been frequently critical of the lockdowns and Internet shutdowns in Kashmir, and the application of force against anti-CAA and farmer protests. A torture victim and former Chilean president, Bachelet’s comments have been dismissed by the Modi government as ill-informed. 


The Long Cable

Atmanirbharta relies on China

MK Venu

The Modi government spent much of 2020 building a high-pitch campaign against trade and investment ties with China, and talking up Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) after the unprecedented border row in Ladakh. Punishing China economically was officially declared policy. But the latest data on trade shows a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. China has emerged as India’s biggest trade partner with the two-way trade at $78 billion, displacing the United States, with which India recorded $75 billion in bilateral trade. China’s share in India’s exports and imports grew impressively in 2020, in spite of a general shrinkage in global trade. How did this happen?

Disaggregated data suggests that China’s share in India’s total exports increased because a lot of iron ore and intermediates like semi-finished steel were exported to China from April to October 2020, when Indian steel plants were shut but Chinese plants were open. A top SAIL official told me that what would ordinarily be value added in India actually went to China for finishing. This sentiment was echoed by other major steel companies like JSW Steel. So iron ore and semi-finished steel exports to China increased over 300% in 2020 alone.

Similarly, China’s share in India’s total imports also increased from 13% to about 17% because the import of necessary machinery, health care related products and essential electronic items, including mobile phone parts, showed impressive growth.

Ironically, the biggest success of Modi’s Atmanirbharta project claimed by IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is a tenfold increase in mobile manufacturing in India, from $2.9 billion in 2014-15 to $30 billion in 2019-20. This growth continued in 2020, largely fuelled by imported Chinese mobile components. Remember, over 85% of domestic production is accounted for by Chinese mobile companies like Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, OnePlus etc.

So what the IT minister claims as self-reliant domestic production is fuelled by Chinese imports. Full Atmanirbharta will happen only after India builds its own ecosystem for the manufacture of components, as it did over the last two decades in the case of auto components. This does not happen overnight. 

The interesting point is that China’s share in India’s exports and imports grew even as overall exports and imports shrank in 2020 due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This shows the inherent interdependence of the two economies, despite the political claims made.

Of course, India punished China by keeping over 150 of their foreign investment proposals on hold. India also banned prominent Chinese apps, starting with TikTok. However, the fact remains that China is the largest investor in Indian startups owned by Indian entrepreneurs. The government has allowed these unicorns to continue as before. PayTm, Zomato, Big Basket, Oyo, Policy Bazaar and the recently celebrated Koo (India’s own Twitter) have Chinese investments, but they are owned and controlled by Indians. China is deeply embedded in the global economic value chain, especially of technology products. Therefore, political rhetoric against China is not easily translated into successful pushback on the ground.

With the progress in disengagement on the Ladakh borders, there are reports that the Indian government will start clearing Chinese investment proposals. The government has denied any such move. This may or may not happen in the near future. But how long will the government deny foreign investment in manufacturing or infrastructure, which generates jobs? For instance, PM Modi has a big vision for India as a solar energy hub. Chinese solar components drive much of the industry. The reality is that China is the only economy which grew about 3% in 2020, and it contributed 100% of the incremental global GDP growth! China’s growing economy largely accounts for the current rise in global metal and oil prices. Beyond a point, Indian cannot ignore the world’s single biggest engine of growth. 


Reportedly

Where is UP’s Opposition leader, the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav? The farmers’ stir has energised politics once more in UP, where state polls are due next year. This has at least alleviated some of the tedium of the Adityanath era, as kisan leaders are holding big sabhas, the RLD with Jayant Chaudhary has jumped in defiantly, and even Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi is drawing big crowds in Muzaffarnagar. BSP’s Mayawati is not so oppositional currently, but why has Yadav not picked up a cycle and hit the road? His father Mulayam Singh Yadav connected with farmers all over the state and would certainly have shown more interest.


Inflation by tax

Warning that a 10% spike in oil prices can push up retail inflation by 23 basis points, badly hurting consumption at a time when the economy is just about recovering, a note by Wall Street brokerage Bank of America Securities has called for slashing oil taxes to nurture fledgling consumption growth. While a $10 per barrel increase in crude prices reduces consumption by 0.4% of GDP, oil tax cut to reduce prices by Rs 10 a litre impacts the fiscal deficit by only 0.6% of GDP, it added.


India a laggard in vaccination

India is at the bottom of the anti-Covid vaccination table globally, even though vaccine companies have been holding excess stockpiles for two months. Data on vaccination suggests that Israel is on top with over 80% of the population vaccinated, UK is at about 25% and the US at 19%. Much of Europe is at 5-10% of the population. Of the most populous countries, China is at 3% and India, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, at 0.8% of the population. Analysts believe that countries which scale up vaccination fast may also return to full economic activity quicker. It’s early days yet, and India may be able to catch up over the next three to six months if it opens up the commercial sale of vaccines soon. 


Bail for PDP’s Parra must wait for ‘passage of time’

A special court in Srinagar rejected the bail application of PDP leader Waheed Parra on Tuesday, saying that if a balance is to be struck between the personal liberty of a person accused of "heinous" crimes and the security of the state, it is the latter that prevails. The judge said the charges against him were “grave, serious and heinous in nature”, that a preliminary analysis of evidence collected so far shows that he was aiding militancy in Jammu and Kashmir in the garb of doing politics but that the matter was  “still being investigated and the facts would come out with the passage of time and conclusion of the investigation.” On its part, the PDP sees the targeting of its young leader as a vendetta by the Centre.


No relief for internal migrants back home

Trying to start a new life is proving to be difficult for migrants who returned during the lockdown, due to a collapse in demand in their native areas. This report from Bihar provides evidence.


Prime Number: 39%
India’s unemployment figures look low because a large number of Indians of working age have simply lost hope of finding work. If India’s labour force participation rate matched the global average, 64 crore people would be looking for work. Instead, only 45 crore are part of the greater labour force, and only 39 crore have work. That means our real unemployment rate is about 39%, five times the official number.

Deep Dive

Dissent as birth-right

“The right to dissent is firmly enshrined under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. In my considered opinion the freedom of speech and expression includes the right to seek a global audience. There are no geographical barriers on communication. A citizen has the fundamental right to use the best means of imparting and receiving communication, as long as the same is permissible under the four corners of law and as such have access to audience abroad.” The order of Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana of the Patiala House Court Complex in Delhi, granting bail to Disha Ravi trashes yet another pretext by which the government has been curbing the freedom of speech.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Disha Ravi may have got bail but there is no escaping the fact that reliance on “the policeman and his toolkit” is now hardwired into the system in New India, writes Harish Khare.

  • Seema Chishti, a contributor to The India Cable, writes that universal human rights are precisely that ― universal and for every human ― and everyone’s business, here and overseas. The government must realise that a democracy cannot be reduced to only demanding praise from the rest of the world.

  • China, which believed that India has gone over to the ‘dark (American) side’ in the Trump era, resets its view of India as the Biden administration forges its foreign policy. There’s an effort to get bilateral relations on track again, but it could be a long haul, writes Shyam Saran.


Listen Up

Zero-G

On February 5, Jammu & Kashmir government spokesperson Rohit Kansal tweeted that 4G mobile internet services had been restored throughout Jammu and Kashmir. In this episode of Suno India, YouTubers, employees, students, journalists and others from different areas of the Kashmir Valley reveal that high-speed internet has not been restored yet. They also recall how their daily life was affected during the world’s longest internet shutdowns.


Watch Out

Fisherwoman and Tuktuk

Suresh and Nilima Eriyat’s award-winning animation film is now publicly available. 


Cricket stadium renamed for Modi, with Adani and Ambani at either end

The cult of personality in India climbed another notch higher today with the Sardar Patel cricket stadium in Motera, Ahmedabad, renamed after Narendra Modi. Historians are consulting their books to see when a sitting prime minister last consented to using his own name for a building. Nehru was awarded the Bharat Ratna in his own lifetime, but that was a decision by President Rajendra Prasad, who acknowledged he had acted “unconstitutionally” since this was his “own initiative […] without any recommendation or advice from [the] Prime Minister”.

In one of those curious coincidences that Modi’s critics could only dream of, the ‘ends’ of the stadium that now bears his name are called the ‘Adani End’ and the ‘Reliance End’, a reminder of his proximity to India’s most powerful corporate houses. Sarkar, it seems, carries his suit-boot wherever he may be.


Everyone loves a good ‘pawri’ 

“Yeh hum hain, yeh hamara newsletter hai aur…” Everyone has a riff on the ‘pawri’ (party), a five second video which has brought social media users in India and Pakistan together in appreciation. The UP Police, Manipal Hospital, the State Bank of India and even Indian troops have responded to 19-year-old Lahore social media influencer Dananeer Mobeen, who is drawing millions of views with an improbably happy video for a gloomy time.


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.