The India Cable: Modi’s Approval Ratings Plummet; Why 'Congress Toolkit' Outed by BJP is a Forgery

Plus: Modi sees threat to children in new variant, long-term LAC deployment confirmed, UP says 3 teachers died on poll duty, unions claim 1,621, black fungus epidemic on, vaccine vacations in Russia

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

Snapshot of the day
May 20, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

“Stench of death pervades rural India as Ganges swells with Covid victims,” is how The Guardiantells the story of the bodies that have begun washing up in India’s holiest river and have become haunting representations of the uncounted Covid dead. A video from Prayagraj on Aaj Tak harrowingly exposes the misery, death and devastation unleashed by the mishandled pandemic in Uttar Pradesh ― and the lies issued to cover it up. Varanasi declared 227 Covid deaths in April 1-7 May, but undertakers at the city’s ghats say they’ve been cremating up to 400 people a day, or 2,800 per week. 

UP teachers’ unions are seeking compensation for the death of 1,621 school teachers on election duty, but the Yogi Adityanath government concedes only three deaths. It relies on absurd guidelines which require teachers to drop dead during duty hours to qualify for compensation. Teachers argue that they picked up Covid-19 during training in crowded locations, and while interacting with the public on election days, and deaths could have resulted weeks later. Earlier this month, the Allahabad High Court had opined that compensation should be at least Rs 1 crore for the “deliberate act on the part of the State and the State Election Commission to force them to perform duties in the absence of RTPCR support.” The state government had committed Rs 30 lakh. The primary teachers’ union has alleged that teachers who could not attend work on polling day faced pay cuts and the threat of suspension. 

About one-third of villages in Uttar Pradesh are in the grip of Covid-19, a state government survey has revealed. Conducted in a little over 79,000 of the 97,000 revenue villages in the state, it found that the infection had spread to 28,742 villages. Careful with the numbers, though ― if there are discrepancies in the cities, imagine the situation in villages. In Meerut, a man found dead in a hospital bathroom was cremated as an unidentified person on April 22, but his family was assured that he was alive until May 2. Reporters have found a perfect storm devastating the poor, southwestern interiors of the country’s most-populous state. 

Bharat Samachar, a UP-based Hindi news channel, has sent 55 reporters to 1,714 villages in the state. They found that medical teams have not reached 90% of them and there is death and despair all over rural Uttar Pradesh. Omkar Goswami writes in Business Standard that UP has been consistently “grossly under-reporting Covid positive cases”, and asks “in this horrific pandemic, when a state fudges such critical data, how can one believe anything it says?”  

The long-serving Indian staffer of the New Zealand high commission for whom BV Srinivas of the Youth Congress had delivered oxygen, has died. The Minister for External Affairs had then embarrassingly said that embassies and missions “must not hoard oxygen”. After a diplomatic furore, the New Zealand foreign ministry apologised for not seeking help through “proper channels”.

Rajasthan has declared black fungus or mucormycosis an epidemic, after recording 100 cases across the state (400 according to unofficial reports). Yesterday, Covid-19 claimed the life of JK Dutt, former director general of the National Security Guards, who headed the commando force during the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Iconic athlete Milkha Singh is positive, with a fever. The government has again changed its Covid vaccine policy, allowing jabs for lactating women and deferring inoculations for all lab-confirmed Covid positive persons for three months after recovery. Also, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has claimed India can vaccinate at least all of its adult population by the end of 2021. How? Perhaps he also has the answer to this actor’s query on vaccination post facto.

“A raging Covid-19 outbreak in India has not hampered the promotion of some questionable science by the government, drawing the ire of some of the country’s scientists,” says an article in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemistry World. Perhaps stung by accusations that India’s Covid response is unscientific, the principal scientific adviser has released an advisory to the general public. It consists of what everyone knew already, from the 2020 wave, and urges precautions (like bleaching surfaces) even though international scientific opinion on the risk of getting Covid from surfaces has moved on. Prime Minister Modi is now warning that children might be vulnerable to the new strain of coronavirus. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the same thing the day before but blamed Singapore, leading the city stage to threaten him with prosecution under its draconian fake news law.

Health authorities in Malawi have burnt 19,610 expired doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, to reassure the public that any vaccines they do get are safe. Malawi received 102,000 doses from the African Union on March 26 and used almost 80% of them. But the expiry date was April 13 and there wasn’t enough time to use them all. It has also received 300,000 doses under the Covax vaccine-sharing facility, and 50,000 sourced directly from India.

The US has refused to comment on its promised global allocation of 80 million vaccine doses, though it says that India is a priority. It said that the distribution of vaccines will depend on coverage and the situation in countries at the time, and would be done in collaboration with WHO’s Covax facility.

Mudassir Gul, a young artist from Srinagar, was arrested on Friday for drawing graffiti which said “We are Palestine”. He was released by the J&K police three days later and has spoken about making the graffiti, saying the lives of Kashmiris and Palestinians are shaped by violence. The destruction of a mosque in Barabanki, ignoring a stay from the Allahabad High Court, was planned for months, and was preceded by a wave of FIRs, including charges of attempted murder, against 180 locals to cow down protests. Former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has said the demolition is an attempt by the Adityanath government to whip up communal tensions ahead of Assembly elections, due in nine months. 

One crore jobs were lost in India between January and April this year, as per CMIE data. This year is even worse than 2020 for two-wheeler dealers. Panicked owners of outlets are pleading for help. Amid growing criticism from Opposition parties over a fertiliser price hike, the Centre yesterday backtracked and decided to increase the subsidy for DAP fertiliser from Rs 500 per bag to Rs 1,200 per bag so that it continues to sell at the old price.

The Centre has extended the validity of registration certificates of NGOs which receive foreign funds till September 30, 2021. This covers those voluntary organisations whose FCRA registration is set to end between September 29, 2020 and September 30, 2021. Last year, through amendments to the Act, the government had gone for their jugular.

At its weather station in Safdarjung, Delhi, buffeted by rain, recorded a maximum temperature of 23.8 degrees celsius yesterday. This is the lowest maximum temperature since 1951. Sattar saal mein pehli baar, as the BJP rhetoric goes. 


The new normal, all along the LAC

It is officially confirmed for the first time that there is a continued enhanced deployment of Indian troops all along the disputed Sino-India border, which began last year during the Ladakh crisis. In an interview to CNN-News18, Army Chief General MM Naravane said that “disengagement has happened, not de-escalation, so the troop strength at the northern front… and when I say northern front, it is not just the area of Eastern Ladakh, the whole front, right from Ladakh down to Arunachal. So, the whole front will see this enhanced presence till such time we keep talking and de-escalation happens. We have to be ready to be deployed for the long run as well.” The obvious follow-up question: how long can the Army sustain such a deployment along an extended front in “the long run”?


The Long Cable

Analysis shows purported Congress ‘Covid Toolkit’ forged

Detailed analysis by AltNews, India’s leading fact-checking website, has revealed that the ‘Covid toolkit’ attributed by BJP leaders and ministers to the Congress was created on a forged letterhead. The analysis shows that the AICC Research Department letterhead has been tampered with in the ‘toolkit’ document, undermining its authenticity. So far, no one from the BJP has shown a willingness to share what they claim is the original document so that it could be examined for digital footprints.

The BJP put out an eight-page document comprising two parts of four pages each. It claimed one was a Congress social media toolkit on how to corner the Modi government on its handling of Covid-19. The other was titled ‘Central Vista Vanity Project AICC’. The Congress says the Central Vista pages are an extract from a genuine party document but that the 4-page Covid-19 toolkit is a fabrication. On Tuesday, the head of the AICC research department, Rajeev Gowda, filed a criminal complaint of forgery against top BJP leaders, including party president JP Nadda and minister Smriti Irani.

Seeking to rebut the charge of forgery, BJP leader Sambit Patra shared the metadata of Central Vista document – a document the Congress has not contested the authenticity of – but scored a self-goal by drawing attention to the fact that it is unable or unwilling to provide a similar digital footprint for the Covid-19 ‘toolkit’ which the Congress says is forged.

The BJP has only shared screenshots of the alleged ‘toolkit’ and has failed to produce the original – either a PDF or a Word document. Without the original document, the BJP’s claims seem inauthentic, especially because the ‘toolkit’ is made on a poor copy of the original letterhead used by the AICC’s research wing. 

AltNews also notes that the contents of the ‘toolkit’ , meant to strategise future action, refer to events that are already past. And that none of its supposed instructions to Congress activists and leaders appear to have been followed by them on social media.

Going beyond these discrepancies, the toolkit’s contents are also suspect, as The India Cable has already noted: “Parts of it read as a parody of just the kind of document the doctor might have ordered to tar as ‘a conspiracy’ the bad press the government has been getting for its mishandling of the pandemic.”

And as The Wire reported yesterday, “The alleged toolkit contains directives that are … conspicuous because much of [it] contains easy pickings for the BJP. For instance, the document says that it is important to keep the term “superspreader Kumbh” to blame Hindus for the pandemic. It also says that Congress workers should remain silent on Eid gatherings but amplify the Kumbh congregation… For any lay observer, the alleged toolkit appears to be a document of more value for the BJP than the Congress itself, allegedly the party which prepared it.”


Consumer sentiment down, economy in rough patch

The rise in key economic indicators in April is misleading. There’s rough weather ahead as consumer sentiment is battered by the second wave of the pandemic, according to ratings agency ICRA. Besides, localised lockdowns have a cumulative effect, slowing down growth in sales. High fuel prices and anxieties about healthcare bills are also curbing discretionary spending. Besides, calculating on the shrunken base of the 2020 lockdown shows misleading growth. ICRA has used April 2019 as the base. 


Vaccination rates continue to drop

Indians must be most concerned about the slowdown and often stoppage of the vaccine drive. See this graph from Bhramar Mukherjee. Also, no dose was administered in 92 of 754 districts via the CoWIN site yesterday. Vaccination rates are less than 20 lakhs for the sixth day in a row. 

Three leading public health experts reiterate that the Centre must not ignore or shake off its responsibility to vaccinate India. “In a civilised society, when a life-saving resource is in short supply, the government must take it upon itself to both enhance the supply and formulate a policy to allocate the resource,” they say. 


Russia offers vaccine vacations to Indians

Indians suffering from a shortage of vaccines due to the Modi government’s mismanagement are turning to travel agents who offer a two-in-one vaccination and vacation trip to Russia. The Russian authorities have made it possible for tourists to visit their country and take the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. A Delhi-based travel agency’s tour package has gone viral on WhatsApp. Priced at Rs 2.2-2.4 lakh per person for a 24-day stay at 3-star hotels in Moscow (20 days) and St Petersburg (4 days), it includes sightseeing and guided tours.

The report comes a week after Reuters reported that the tiny Republic of San Marino had launched vaccine tourism with Sputnik V as the flavour on offer. Indians can travel to Russia after getting an RT-PCR test done. The travel agents claim the first shot would be administered on the day of arrival in Moscow. The first batch of 30 people left on May 15 and have received their shot already, they say. Russia is one of the few countries that now allow travellers to enter directly from India. 


Reportedly

As deaths due to the mishandled pandemic hit a new high, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval ratings have fallen to a new low, according to two surveys. US data intelligence company Morning Consult’s tracker of a dozen global leaders shows that Modi’s overall ratings this week stand at 63%, his lowest since the firm began tracking his popularity in August 2019. The big decline happened in April when his net approval dropped 22 points. Another survey by Indian polling agency CVOTER found that the number of respondents “very much satisfied” with Modi’s performance had dropped to 37% from around 65% a year ago. For the first time in seven years, respondents expressing dissatisfaction with the Modi government’s performance outnumbered those satisfied with it. 

In adversity, the argument that Modi remains more popular than any other political leader is being trotted out, in spite of the humiliation suffered by even more powerful and popular PMs like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in 1977 and 1989, when no Opposition leader could match their reach and popular appeal. 


Prime Number: 2%
While the Centre had announced a Rs 21 lakh crore Covid-19 relief package, comprising 10% of GDP, the actual financial support was only about 2% of GDP. The rest was credit-driven, according to a report by Motilal Oswal Financial Services. 

NRIs can sell agricultural land from abroad in Telangana

Telangana will now allow Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to sell their agricultural land in the state from remote locations, using the state’s Dharani portal. Any transaction concerning ownership, like sale, gift, General Power of Attorney (GPA), etc., will be allowed from foreign lands. However, to buy land they would have to be physically present in the state. 


Deep Dive

At the current rate of vaccinations, India has a long road ahead. Rough calculations show that in order to vaccinate 945 million adult citizens, India would require 1.89 billion doses. At the current vaccination rate, it may take up to three years to vaccinate this population. This explainer from Carnegie India has the details about the vaccination programme.


Testing capacity to be raised

The Modi government has said that the country’s Covid testing capacity is being raised to 45 lakh per day from the current 25 lakh, but neglected to set a deadline. Of the 25 lakh testing capacity in the country at present, only 13 lakh tests are RT-PCR tests, and the rest are rapid antigen tests. But the actual daily tests to detect fresh coronavirus cases has not even touched the 20 lakh mark. The projected capacity is 18 lakh daily RT-PCR tests and 27 lakh rapid antigen tests. But the ICMR has finally cleared the use of at-home testing kits.


26 dead, 49 missing from sunk barge

Twenty-six bodies have been found in the Arabian Sea and are possibly of people who were on board the ill-fated barge ‘P305’ that sank on the night of May 17. Two more survivors were found yesterday, taking the number of those rescued from the barge to 186. Still, 49 people are missing at sea and hopes of finding survivors are dwindling. 

The sunken barge was working at the Heera oil rig in Bombay High, 70 km southwest of Mumbai. It was one of six vessels adrift at sea since Monday, after Cyclone Tauktae struck. All were connected with oil-drilling work or new projects at Bombay High. The question being raised is why so many people were still at sea despite the forecast of Cyclone Tauktae.


Op Eds you don’t want to miss

  • As we approach this government’s seventh anniversary, Modi’s speeches are turning into vacuous drivel as Indians struggle to find hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and life-saving drugs. While the rest of the world has unmasked him, they are waiting for the Indian media and voters to call his bluff, writes Mauktik Kulkarni.

  • In an editorial, EPW writes that India must jettison orthodox economics amidst the pandemic to protect employment and sustain a recovery.

  • On the “positivity unlimited” campaigns, BBC’s Soutik Biswas says that “at the root of this positivity overdrive is the Modi government’s single-minded obsession with controlling the narrative to quell criticism.”

  • A political culture of communalism and vengeance led to opaque governance and misplaced policy priorities. Many Indians voted for false communal pride, but when the pandemic hit, they found that they needed oxygen more, opines Zeeshan Mohammed in Freedom Gazette.

  • The Maratha reservation case shows that divesting states of the power to determine backwardness damages federalism, writes Suhrith Parthasarathy.

  • Shoaib Daniyal writes that with the Centre missing in action, Indian federalism has become a free-for-all in the second Covid-19 wave. The Union government has abdicated its own responsibilities, and simultaneously moved to usurp state powers.

  • Thomas Isaac and Rajeev Sadanandan write on the importance of the public health system, social capital and the active involvement of the people through local governments, which play a significant role in Kerala’s success.

  • The pandemic has exposed the underlying weakness in our health system but despite the huge cost, it has offered a chance to reinvent the way Indians receive health care, writes Poonam Muttreja for ‘Think Global Health’.

  • An editorial in The Hindu warns the Left that it “must guard against the concentration of power in the hands of CM Pinarayi Vijayan.”

  • “If the lockdown last year came down as a hammer, this year, it feels like a thousand cuts,” writes Supriya Sharma. “Obscured by the dramatic and distressing images of death in the second wave of the pandemic, a slow drip of distress is going unnoticed, not just by the government, but even by other citizens, leaving the urban poor to fend for themselves.” 


Listen Up

Why did Goa become a Covid-19 hotspot? In this podcast, Dr Lenny Da Costa, a resident geriatrics physician, Sujay Gupta, a senior journalist and Shruti Chaturvedi, an entrepreneur, examine the government failure behind oxygen deaths, and the fact that along with Delhi, it has the highest number of deaths per lakh of ppopulation. 


Watch Out

Justice Govind Mathur recently retired as Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court, a post he held for nearly three years. He says, “The State of UP doesn’t accept the directions given by courts.”


Over and Out

As the second season of the OTT series The Family Man kicks off, Manoj Bajpayee and Samantha Akkineni discuss what assuming their roles means. 

When it rains it really pours ― that seems to be the point that actor Deepika Singh was making when she posed with an uprooted tree. But she’s been criticised for dancing in the rain while thousands suffered as Cyclone Tauktae hit Mumbai. 

Kodak Krishnan went to London in 1953 to train in processing Eastman Color Negative, and was tasked with carrying a box of stock back to India. He would spend four decades with Kodak, which earned him his nickname, and make invaluable contributions to some Indian cinema classics.


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.