The India Cable: NDA Leads in Bihar, News of Covid Vaccine Leads Markets

Plus: Judge Loya may haunt BJP again, two-wheeler sales don’t indicate recovery, Goswami to be questioned three hours a day, TMC steals BJP’s election lunch

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 10, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The results of the Bihar assembly election are yet awaited, but the trends favour the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Indices zoomed and Zoom crashed as Pfizer-BioNTech found their vaccine candidate to be 90% effective, which is at least 20% better than expected. Across the world’s markets, pandemic stock like Amazon fell, while pandemic-struck industries like civil aviation took wing. Indian markets also soared on Trump’s exit and news of the vaccine. Market sentiment has always been like a hair-trigger on a short fuse, but this reversal was blindingly quick, indicating how desperate the human race is to return to business as usual. 

It may never be business as usual for the Central Bureau of Investigation again, as Punjab goes with the flow and becomes the ninth Opposition-ruled state to withdraw the general consent given to the investigative body. The parrot will remain caged in its territory, and let out only on a case by case basis. At this rate, the natural habitat of the species may be restricted to BJP-ruled states.

Demonetisation may have slowed the steady improvement in child mortality rates seen in India over the last 15 years. Bengaluru stares at a stinking crisis as heavily enforced waste segregation rules cause more wet waste to be delivered, while three treatment plants are shut down.  Mehbooba Mufti trashes her erstwhile ally, the BJP, saying that it “will meet the same fate as the outgoing US president Donald Trump.” In Kerala, like in West Bengal, cloth masks with party symbols and electoral messages are visible as the campaign for three-phase local body polls hots up. And in the neighbouring state, Tamil pride in the victory of Kamala Harris rises to the top, with DMK chief MK Stalin writing to her in the “mother tongue of her mother”. 

While several states and union territories had already banned fireworks during Diwali, the National Green Tribunal has banned the sale and use of firecrackers in all cities with poor air quality. The same day Tanishq, the whipping boy of the Hindu right, had to take down yet another advertisement following a prickly response online. Its exhortation to celebrate Diwali without fireworks was rejected as interference in religious rights. Advertising with a social message is now intolerable, it seems. 

Mumbai will meet Delhi in the IPL final tonight. Meanwhile, captain Virat Kohli will travel to Australia but be back after the first test as he needs to be on paternity leave then. Rohit Sharma (controversially excluded earlier as he was cited as ‘injured’) has been included in the test squad. 

The Editors Guild has written to UP Chief Minister Adityanath on media freedoms: “We are writing to urge you to address vital issues with respect to protecting press freedom and the rights and safety of working journalists, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In the recent past, several incidents have come to the fore, which raise deep concerns on the space for free, fearless and independent journalism in Uttar Pradesh. While you were right to promptly uphold the freedom of the press when an editor of a TV channel was arrested in Mumbai, there are far more compelling cases of intimidation, harassment by authorities of working journalists in UP, who were prevented from doing their job. Many of them have been unjustifiably arrested on spurious charges.” The Guild has listed Siddique Kappan and Supriya Sharma amongst various others whom the law in UP is harassing. 

And in Mumbai, after his interim bail plea was rejected, Arnab Goswami will have to face questioning for three hours every day, and it won’t be prime time infotainment. The nation really wants to know. 

Market mania

The market reversal triggered by news of a successful vaccine candidate suggests that nations and industries hit hardest by Covid-19 are praying the hardest for a miracle. France, which is looking at another lockdown with an economic cost of 15%, led the rally globally with the CAC 40 rising 7%. Among airlines, EasyJet is the top gainer with its stock gaining 26%. Zoom, the backbone of the Work from Home economy, leads the slide of pandemic stocks, collapsing by 20%. However, the reversal is premature, since it is not known if the vaccine prevents deaths or asymptomatic transmission.

Two-wheelers parked in showrooms, not on the road

Retail sales of two-wheelers fell by a whopping 27% in October even though most manufacturers reported a record rise in factory dispatches earlier this month. According to the latest data issued by the Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations, vehicle registrations in October 2020 came down to 10,41,682 units from 14,23,394 units in October 2019. Hero MotorCorp had alone moved 7,91,137 wholesale units last month, a data point which was used to show economic revival, but it did not translate into retail sales. The difference between genuine registrations at the retail level and company dispatches means that inventories are piling up. The Indian auto sector makes up about half of the manufacturing sector.

Covid-19 at Sabarimala

Despite stringent Covid-19 protocols in place, at least 10 people including temple employees and police personnel on duty at Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala for the week-long monthly puja last month have tested coronavirus positive. This has prompted the state government to enhance the Covid-19 protocol for the two-month pilgrimage beginning November 15. The fresh norm requires a Covid-19 negative test result 24 hours before reaching the Nilakkal base camp. The norm was 48 hours last month, forcing most devotees from other states to conduct tests after reaching Kerala.

Judge Loya may haunt BJP again

The ghost of the late judge B.H. Loya, who died in controversial circumstances in 2014, may rise again. A minister in the coalition government in Maharashtra has suggested a new inquiry into his death, which was deemed to be natural by the Supreme Court, putting to rest all speculation. Though Justice Loya died of a cardiac arrest, his family had alleged that there were bloodstains on his shirt collar, and they were dissatisfied with the official version.

Loya was presiding over a hearing of the Sohrabuddin encounter case, in which the Gujarat police were alleged to have killed a criminal in cold blood in 2005 along with his wife, Kauserbi. Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat at the time and Amit Shah, who was his home minister, was facing trial for the conspiracy. Soon after the judge died, Shah was discharged from the case; and four years later, all 22 policemen accused in the killing were acquitted, to widespread criticism.

The Maharashtra government is engaged in a political battle with the Narendra Modi government and the announcement of a possible enquiry is seen as a warning, though no official confirmation has yet come.

Dubious Facebook

Facebook has been hit hard by stories in leading global media on its unwillingness to call out hate-speech which helps the party in power in India. Under duress, they took down hate posts by a BJP leader in Telangana. They were called before the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology. The controversial Ankhi Das, head of public policy at Facebook India, quit recently, suggesting that she may have been nudged to avoid the rotten press the platform in India was getting internationally. Now again, Facebook is under a cloud for pulling back a ‘misinformation’ tag it had put on a dubious post by BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma on a news clip in Assam. The Opposition party shown in the clip has sworn that it is doctored.

The Long Cable

Bihar: Early trends and implications

Sushant Singh

Bihar leads and trends at 1600 on November 10, 2020. (Via The Election Commission of India)

Initial trends from Bihar have proven the exit polls wrong, once again. The ruling NDA alliance seems to have an edge, and unless there is a Biden moment late in the day, it is Nitish Kumar as chief minister again. But it will be a shrunken, emaciated Nitish, with his party’s tally nearly half that of the BJP. However, these elections were fought during the pandemic which has meant more rounds of polling and a slow pace of counting, and the leads on almost 80 seats were less than 2,000 votes at the time The India Cable closed for the day. The final results will only be known by late evening, India time.

The performance of the BJP has been surprisingly good – it is leading in 77 of the 110 seats is contested – and seems to have significantly bettered its performance from the 2015 elections, when it won 53 seats. In contrast, going strictly by the numbers, the Congress party has not been able to pull its weight in the RJD-led alliance, though it may be argued that it was given some of the toughest urban seats. This has implications for other forthcoming assembly elections, in Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where its lead or potential alliance partners will bargain hard before allocating seats to the Congress.

The Left parties have done well, with a two-thirds strike rate in the trends so far. Poorly resourced and with no digital campaign worth an electron, the cadres and grassroots work of these parties seem to have pulled their candidates through. This will boost the morale of the Left in the forthcoming state assembly elections in Kerala and West Bengal. More significantly, it could also lead to a shift in Opposition emphasis towards progressive issues espoused by the Left.

Despite the havoc wreaked by the pandemic and the consequent economic distress, along with the anti-incumbency payload of 15 years, PM Narendra Modi seems to have ridden it out. A dozen public meetings by him on core national issues of the BJP, without any promise for development on offer, has surprisingly connected with the voters. The NDA’s performance in Bihar has broken the jinx of the BJP-led alliance not being able to hold its own in any assembly election after Gujarat in 2017. It will give the BJP hope and momentum going into neighbouring West Bengal, which votes in May.

At the national level, these trends will come as a huge relief to the ruling BJP, which has nothing to show on its report card after its re-election in 2019: the economy has tanked, it is baffled by a border crisis, the pandemic rampages on, and social strife remains an increasing challenge in BJP-ruled states. Institutions have failed to check an authoritarian executive. 

Bihar has always been believed to be politically mature and savvy, and it was expected that the public response to Tejashwi Yadav’s campaign would be reflected in the polling booths. But the people appear to have thought otherwise, and gone along with the BJP’s election pitch, ignoring bread-and-butter issues. At a time when more people have been pushed below the poverty line in India, this doesn’t augur well for India, particularly its poor. Unless the NDA changes course, those images of migrants walking back to their villages may come back to haunt the voters of Bihar very soon.  

PS: As there was so much interest yesterday in Nevada to Nawada as a metaphor for the long journey from the US to the Bihar polls, in Nawada, Vibha Devi of RJD was leading at the time The India Cable was fired off.

Style sheet

Kerala’s Minister for Health and Social Justice KK Shailaja is on the cover of Vogue magazine as the woman of the year, for her competent handling of the pandemic. In June, Shailaja was honoured by the UN for Kerala’s effective management of the pandemic, and even today, she is counted among a handful of women leaders (like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen) who responded strategically to the crisis, says the magazine. The WHO has also commended Kerala’s health ministry for its work in prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. 

Infant mortality decline slowed by demonetisation

India’s infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world, but it saw an admirable decrease from 2005 to 2016. Demonetisation crashed the party and hurt India’s battle to secure this vital parameter of progress, finds a paper by economists Jean Drèze, Aashish Gupta, Sai Ankit Parashar and Kanika Sharma. They have found evidence of “slowdown, pauses, and reversals in infant mortality decline in large parts of India in 2017 and 2018”. 

Where migrants belong

Migrant workers had gone unseen and unheard until the sudden lockdown brought their images to our screens and homes, embedding them in the public consciousness. But which state has been the most successful in integrating migrant workers from other states? Kerala, finds the 2019 Interstate Migrant Policy Index (IMPEX), which measures the integration of interstate migrants. Kerala (57), Goa (51) and Rajasthan (51) are the only three states to score over 50 in the index. Kerala additionally leads the states on three of the eight indicators considered ― child rights, education, and health and sanitation. Despite being the national capital and a prominent destination for interstate migrants, Delhi scores only 34 on the IMPEX because access for migrants is tightly tied to domicile requirements. This is true for other states which attract a lot of migrants, such as Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, which also exclude migrant workers. 

A monument to RTI

It’s been 15 years since the Right to Information Act was passed in 2005, but Beawar in Ajmer district of Rajasthan is still the only city to have a monument to the RTI movement. Not the depiction of an individual, not a bust, but a marker of the people’s right to know.

Absolutely peerless 

A member of the House of Lords has been forced to apologise after referring to US vice president-elect Kamala Harris as “the Indian” in a tweet. John Kilcooney had mused: “What happens if Biden moves on and the Indian becomes President. Who then becomes Vice President?” He retracted his statement last night, with criticism mounting, especially after the Speaker called it out. Kilclooney said he had called her “the Indian” because he didn’t know her name. He later cited having Indian tenants as proof of his non-racist credentials: “I’m a member of the British India all-party group, I have two Indians (tenants) in my flats here in London and there’s nothing racist in it whatsoever.”

Speaking of Indian origins, UK minister Priti Patel is always anxious to buttress her hawkish credentials. She gleefully announced the passing of the Immigration Bill, which will end free movement on December 31. Meanwhile, firebrand US attorney and former law officer Preet Bharara productively wasted three and a half hours watching Amar Akbar Anthony.

Deep Dive

On the wild side

In pursuit of the ease of doing business, the government has made it easier for industry to secure Environmental Impact Assessment clearances. But the real impact on the environment and wildlife remains cause for great concern. Here’s what Parliament was assured of, versus what the real status of wildlife protection is.

Prime Number: 22,000,00,00,000
Amid protests by farmers over the three central farm laws, Punjab Industries and Commerce Minister Sunder Sham Arora on Monday said that industries in the state have suffered a financial loss of Rs 22,000 crore because of the suspension of goods trains. The Railways had, in a widely criticised move, declined to resume goods trains in Punjab due to the farmers’ agitation. It had to be both passengers and goods, or neither. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “whooping it up” with Trump in Texas at a rally labelled ‘Howdy Modi’. The two leaders’ “populist politics are highly compatible”, writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times,reminding us that populist leaders the world over have lost their maximum leader with Trump’s ouster.

  • The question of US-India ties dominates opinion pages. Chinmay Gharekhan wants us to watch out for what the new administration in the US will do with China and Iran. Radha Kumar writes that in a deeply polarised society under an autocratic administration, appeals to decency, hope, unity and compassion can work. But can they work in India? C Uday Bhaskar remains hopeful about Biden and his effect on the world, and strategic ties with India.

  • The Centre had announced an ostensibly large fund to tackle air pollution in 102 cities in February, but Jacob Koshy peels off the spin and finds that “only half the money was finally allotted to 15 States (and 42 cities in them) in November. The rest will be given in January, based on how cities achieve certain ‘performance parameters’ that are still being worked out by the Centre.”

  • “In these extraordinary economic circumstances, it is incumbent upon the central government to increase its own spending, as well as to provide state governments (responsible for most of welfare spending) with greater fiscal space,” is the view of Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, R Mohan and Lekha Chakraborty’s in EPW on the Fifteenth Finance Commission award.

  • Niraja Gopal Jayal remembers teacher, colleague and friend CP Bhambri, the fiercely independent Marxist intellectual unencumbered by party and apparat, whom Delhi will miss. 

Listen up

Tanishq has buckled again, after its inter-faith marriage ad was taken back in an act of sheer cowardice, an ad on a firecracker-free Diwali is a casualty of online rage. Why do they even try, and is rising intolerance really hurting business in India? Here’s the state of play, seen with the benefit of distance.

Watch Out

Perceived correspondences between caste, class and colour make India a deeply racist country, and there are numerous instances of darker-skinned people, especially those of African origin, being victimised here. The documentary Unfair, on the colour of discrimination, has won the best film award in the human rights category at the Africa Film for Change Festival 2020

Statue quo

Electoral warfare has begun in West Bengal, which goes to the polls next year, and the BJP is losing the initial skirmishes. Over the weekend, a controversy developed when Amit Shah paid his respects to what the party had assumed to be a statue of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. At the last moment, someone realised that it was just a random hunter, and a picture of the hero was quickly installed at its feet and showered with petals. Tribal bodies read it as an insult, though, and the sentiment was amplified by the TMC.  

State BJP chief Dilip Ghosh made it worse by insisting that even if it hadn’t been Birsa Munda’s status before the event, it is now Birsa Munda’s since the home minister had saluted it, and all must capitulate to this new reality. In retaliation, in Haldia, TMC workers “gobbled up” a feast prepared for BJP leaders on the campaign trail, translating the Bangla headline literally.  

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.