The India Cable: Only Luck Prevented Balakot Escalation; 50 Women’s Groups Ask CJI Bobde to Quit

Plus: Priyanka picks tea, Rahul speaks on Emergency, Modi’s pic in Co-WIN app causes poll code violation, Ambani, Adani enriched as economy sank, China attacked power grid, agencies still without CCTV

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 3, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

With state assembly elections around the corner, Priyanka Gandhi has picked two leaves and a bud in a tea garden in Assam’s Biswanath district, helped to brew tea in a worker’s home, noted that the family can no longer afford LPG, kissed a baby and promised a wage hike, before moving on to Sonitpur. She’s cooked up a bitter brew for Narendra Modi, whose origin myth is steeped in tea.  

In an online interaction with the economist Kaushik Basu, Rahul Gandhi said the imposition of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi was wrong, but it is not comparable with the present situation (which many describe as an ‘undeclared Emergency’). She had not tried to capture the “constitutional framework”, while the RSS has focused on overrunning institutions. 

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday said unemployment is high in the country and its informal sector is in a shambles following the “ill-considered demonetisation decision” taken by the Modi government in 2016. India’s exports declined 0.25% to $27.67 billion in February while imports grew 6.98% to $40.55 billion during the month, according to provisional data released by the Commerce Ministry.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), which is spearheading the anti-farm law protests in Delhi, will send its leaders to poll-bound states to appeal to farmers there to defeat the BJP in the assembly elections. The protesting farmers will also block the KMP (Western Peripheral) Expressway on the outskirts of Delhi on March 6 as the anti-farm law protest at the city’s borders completes 100 days.

The Trinamool Congress has complained to the Election Commission about a poll code violation in the Co-WIN app, which is being used to coordinate the anti-Covid vaccination drive. The certificate it issues from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is branded with the Prime Minister’s image. This is misuse of the state machinery for political gain, and also insults the contribution of vaccine developers, the TMC has argued. 

In an election speech in Malda, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, whose rule has witnessed a boom in crimes against women, has threatened to work for women’s safety in West Bengal and rid the state of ‘love jihad’. Inconveniently for him, the body of a 12-year old girl was found buried in a field in Bulandshahr. The TMC has also highlighted the slaying in Hathras of the father of a rape survivor who had filed an FIR, and advised Adityanath to fix UP before digging up problems elsewhere.  

“From a hundred rabbits you can’t make a horse, a hundred suspicions don’t make a proof.” A quotation from Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment made an appearance in court. Delhi additional sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat used it as the Delhi Police failed to make a case about a shooting during the ‘riots’ in the capital a year ago. The judge discharged two men from the charge of attempt to murder. The prosecution had no clue about who was harmed by the two people, but wanted them to be punished.

Perhaps inspired by the success of the audio equipment company boAT, which was born and flourishes online, FMCG companies like Nestle and Reckitt Benckiser are investing in online-only brands, reports The Economic Times. This is the latest development in a trend seen from last autumn, as the pandemic forced consumer goods to move online. Meanwhile, Nasscom is working towards a framework for the gig economy and hybrid models of working, which can plug into the current framework of workplace laws. It’s still tentative, but an early report about the issue is available. 


Ambani, Adani grew richer in 2020 as Indian economy foundered

Mukesh Ambani remained the wealthiest Indian in 2020 with a net worth of $83 billion with a 24% jump in fortunes, and climbed up one spot to become the eighth richest globally. He now competes with Elon Musk in future transport, having acquired a majority stake in the US company skyTran with a $25.76 million investment. The project is much like Musk’s Hyperloop, which has three projects planned in India. Gautam Adani from Gujarat, whose fortunes have risen spectacularly in the last few years, allegedly with a little help from his friends, saw his wealth almost doubling to $32 billion in 2020 and climbed 20 places to become the 48th richest person globally and the second wealthiest Indian. His brother Vinod’s wealth grew 128% to $9.8 billion. 

This is as per the Hurun Global Rich List, which also says that 40 Indians entered the billionaires’ club, taking their number to 177 in 2020, the year when the Indian economy is expected to have shrunk by 8%.


No power to states, notice to Chaoba withdrawn

As reported in yesterday’s India Cable, Manipur journalist Paojel Chaoba received a notification from the state government under the newly framed Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 about an online discussion that was conducted and uploaded on the Facebook page of his organisation, The Frontier Manipur. It had threatened immediate action if he did not demonstrate compliance with the new rules for digital media. On Tuesday evening, another notice informed him that the notice against him under those rules stood “withdrawn with immediate effect”. Not due to a change of heart, but on legal grounds, as powers under the new rules have not been delegated by the Centre to the state governments, district magistrates or police commissioners. Nor has the Centre issued the form that digital news publications have to fill out as part of the compliance process.


Amazon apologises, again

Lest anyone be deluded by the withdrawal of the notice to Chaoba, the chilling effects of the new rules were visible in a craven apology from Amazon concerning its web series Tandav. Two FIRs were filed against the makers and cast of the show in Uttar Pradesh last year, alleging that some of the scenes insulted Hindu gods. Not surprisingly, Amazon also said it would continue to develop entertaining content with partners while “complying with the laws of India and respecting the diversity of culture and beliefs of our audiences.” We know what that means.

In a separate development, today, income tax searches began at the premises of film producer Madhu Mantena, director Anurag Kashyap and actress Tapsee Pannu. The raids cover 22 locations associated with Phantom Films (Queen, Udta Punjab, etc) and Kwan, Mantena’s talent management agency. In September, Mantena was also summoned by the Narcotics Control Bureau in connection with the Bollywood drugs probe, which has outlived its political usefulness. 


CJI under fire from women’s groups

A strongly worded open letter backed by 50 women’s groups, among other organisations, has asked Chief Justice of India SA Bobde to step down from his post for asking a rapist if he was willing to marry his victim.

CPI(M) politburo member Brinda Karat has also written to CJI Bobde urging him to withdraw his remarks, made during the hearing of the case, since courts should not give the impression of supporting such “retrograde” approaches. 


India trashes Pakistan in Geneva

Is the India-Pakistan bonhomie, following the reiteration of the ceasefire on the Line of Control, for real? It doesn’t seem to be the case, going by the official Indian reply to Pakistan at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sample this: “Pakistan, a country in a dire economic situation, will be well advised to stop wasting time of the Council and its mechanisms, stop state-sponsored cross-border terrorism and end institutionalized violation of human rights of its minority and other communities”. 


The Long Cable

Risks were real during Balakot, escalation prevented by luck, not skill

Sushant Singh

The second anniversary of Operation Bandar (the Indian airstrikes in Balakot) and Operation Swift Retort (Pakistan’s retaliatory airstrikes) in end-February passed in a low-profile manner because a couple of days earlier, Indian and Pakistani directors general of military operations issued a joint statement pledging adherence to the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. Though many of the details have been reported earlier, a fresh news report by Hindustan Times has highlighted the risks of conflict escalation between two nuclear-armed neighbours during the crisis, when an Indian fighter pilot was in Pakistani captivity.

The report claims that on the orders of PM Narendra Modi, the then R&AW chief Anil Dhasmana personally called ISI chief Lt General Syed Asim Munir Ahmed Shah over a secure line and threatened Pakistan with massive military punishment unless the pilot was released immediately. “To demonstrate that India meant business, the armed forces were ordered to ready mobile Prithvi ballistic missile batteries in the Rajasthan sector,” the report states. This has attracted the attention of some top scholars globally.

MIT professor Vipin Narang noted on Twitter, “Remember that vague Indian surface-to-surface missile threat during the Balakot crisis? Well, if this was true, it was very serious and involved a threat from Modi and dual-use, which means nuclear-capable, Prithvi missiles.” His point is that Prithvi is officially a dual-capable missile and managed by the Strategic Forces Command, and would have led to a “discrimination problem” – it would not have been possible for external observers, be it Pakistan or the US, to be certain that they were carrying only conventional warheads.

As INS Arihant, India’s only nuclear-armed submarine, was out on a patrol at that time, Narang contends that the message being sent by the Modi government about the use of warheads was deliberately ambiguous. He then posits that it raises questions, under the Modi regime, about the sanctity of India’s official ‘No First Use’ policy for the use of nuclear weapons. His argument is that the ambiguity introduced by dual-use delivery systems could lead to disastrous errors of judgement, which are entirely possible in the fog of war. After all, in the same period, the Indian Air Force accidentally shot down its own helicopter near Srinagar.

To put it simply, the Modi government used risk instrumentally during the Balakot crisis which, it contends, was effective in defusing the situation in the end. The problem is that these risks can often be misjudged by decision-makers and things can get out of hand. While the Hindustan Times report states that Western officials were alarmed by the Indian threat and mobilisation of missiles, a Reuters report in 2019 had claimed that it was the Pakistani promise of a more powerful retaliation – three Pakistani missiles on Indian cities for every Indian missile launched – that rang alarm bells in Western capitals and led to their strong intervention. Eventually, it resulted in the release of the captured fighter pilot and the resolution of the crisis.

The details of the case available now make it amply clear that there was a very high level of accidental escalation risk during the Balakot crisis. It is incorrect and dangerous to claim, as some Indian commentators have done, that either there was no risk during the crisis or that everything was under control. Narang is right when he says that the lesson reiterated in the Balakot episode was that “we often walk away from crises due to luck, not skill”. The fear is that we may not be as lucky the next time around.

It is thus important that the recent announcement of a ceasefire on the LoC between India and Pakistan moves on to other areas of peaceful engagement and establishes trust between the two sides. The two countries neither deserve nor need ― to use Modi’s phrase ―  a “qatal ki raat” (night of murder). We would rather have the bombs stored away for Diwali than be used in a military exchange between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.


Reportedly

Haryana now has a law providing 75% reservation in the private sector to people domiciled in the state, a key poll promise made by the ruling alliance partner Jannayak Janta Party. The BJP-led state government has been in an existential crisis for months because of the pressure on the JJP from the ongoing farmers’ movement. This is seen as a move to placate the JJP and divert attention from the main issue. In any case, the corporate houses and white collar workers in Gurgaon need not worry as this law provides a quota for local people in private sector jobs that offer a salary of less than Rs 50,000 a month.


Human error or cyberattack?

A day after Maharashtra Energy Minister Nitin Raut claimed that the massive power outage in Mumbai last October was caused by a “cyberattack” and was an act of “sabotage”, Union Power Minister RK Singh said that it was a result of “human error”. While a cyberattack was attempted on power installations, it had nothing to do with the October 2020 electricity blackout in Mumbai, said the minister.

Singh further said that the cyber attacks affected the northern and southern region’s load dispatch centres but malware did not affect the operating system. On the allegation of Beijing’s connection with the malware, the minister said, “We don’t have evidence to say that the cyberattacks were carried out by China or Pakistan. Some people say that the group behind the attacks is Chinese. but we don’t have evidence. China will definitely deny it.”

Yesterday, Telangana electricity officials reported that 40 substations in the state were attacked by Chinese-origin malware, but a possible cyberattack was averted following an alert from the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, CERT-In. 


No private investment, says RBI

“All engines of aggregate demand are starting to fire; only private investment is missing in action. The time is apposite for private investment to come alive,” said an article in the February number of the RBI Bulletin, prepared by the central bank’s Deputy Governor Michael Debabrata Patra and other officials. It speaks of the need to rekindle animal spirits to spur investment. In a recent article, the RBI observed that while a consumption-led recovery is underway, “the jury leans towards such recoveries being shallow and short-lived.” 


Prime number: 4,627
The number of mobile users in India who fell prey to stalking through software available to anyone on the internet, according to ‘The State of Stalkerware in 2020’, released by antivirus major Kaspersky. India ranked fourth in the top 10 list of countries most affected by stalkerware, following Russia, Brazil and the USA.

Where’s your CCTV, asks the SC

The Supreme Court has expressed displeasure about the Modi government seeking more time to install CCTV cameras in the offices of investigating agencies, including the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and the National Investigation Agency. A bench headed by Justice RF Nariman, which observed that this issue concerns the rights of citizens, said it is not accepting the excuses given in the letter filed by the Centre, seeking an adjournment. The apex court granted three weeks’ time to the Centre to file an affidavit on the issue, stating allocations and timelines.


Deep Dive

The Bengali history of Hindutva

Embedded in the 19th century Bengal Renaissance was a conservative anti-Western pushback and a harking back to Hinduism, forming the core of a parallel, exclusionary nationalism. This group, also of the Bengali elite, came to encourage and interpret Hinduism that later emerged as ‘Hindutva’ with the writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay seen as its intellectual patron. Snigdhendu Bhattacharya tells the story.


Disinformation on fuel and LPG prices busted

If you think retail fuel prices are lower in BJP-ruled states than in non-BJP ruled states, as claimed on social media, you’re wrong. AltNews tells you the real numbers. The fact-checking website also busts the claim that LPG cylinders cost more under the UPA government than under the Modi government. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss


Listen Up

Assam election scenario

Is the BJP going to come back to power in Assam? Is the Congress gaining ground? What consequence will the Bodo People’s Front’s walkout from the BJP alliance have? Listen to this podcast with Gaurav Chaudhary, Kangkan Acharya and Amrita Madhukalya at Earshot.


Watch Out

Canvases of despair

Exodus 2020, a solo show by Jatin Das, is a series of ink paintings done by the artist during the lockdown in the wake of the mass migration of labourers across Indian cities. Das looks at the fragility of human existence in these challenging times. Captured in ink on paper in his signature style, the artist sensitively looks at the struggle, the poverty and the experience of migrant workers in urban India. 


Tom, Dick and Harry petition Your Honours

Nalin Yadav, who spent 56 days in prison for being Munawar Faruqui’s co-accused, was finally released on 27 February. The first thing he did after stepping out of Indore Central Jail? Met his family and then went straight to an open mic and performed a set. 

Migrating flamingos turn Mumbai lakes into a “sea of pink”. Thousands of flamingos migrate to lakes and wetlands of western India in search of food and nesting grounds. Watch the spectacle here. It was the most-watched video on BBC News.

Just days ago, the Chief Justice of India had petulantly adjourned a case filed by a law student for being addressed inaccurately ― the American ‘Your Honour’ was used. Now, the Delhi High Court has declined to entertain a petition (rashly drafted by the petitioner himself) concerning the National Company Law Tribunal, which contained the phrase “Tom, Dick and Harry”, which the court read as “slang”. Since it’s Delhi, the phrase ‘Sharma, Verma and Singh’ may have passed muster. 

And Shashi Tharoor finds an inverse correlation between economic growth and hair growth:


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.