The India Cable: Opposition Counters ‘Positivity Unlimited’; Achhe Din Model is Data-Mukt

Plus: Central Vista photography ban, SC backs jail decongestion via house arrest, BJP RS strength to fall, havans to stem third wave, gobar imports won't save humans from Covid and may sicken US cows

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 13, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Congress-run National Students Union of India has filed a missing person report with the Delhi Police over the disappearance of Union Home Minister Amit Shah at the height of the pandemic. 

An RSS worker, small entrepreneur and self-proclaimed bhakt in Agra, Amit Jaiswal, whom Prime Minister Modi followed on Twitter, died of Covid-19 in a Mathura hospital. Despite his family tagging Modi and Adityanath in pleas for help on Twitter, they were unresponsive. The anguished and angry family has torn Modi’s poster from their car and are sharply critical of the silent and apathetic PM. The New York Times had in a report on February 4, 2020, said that Jaiswal wanted the Adityanath government to add a chapter in school books on Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi.

A government panel has recommended increasing the gap between two doses of Covishield Covid-19 vaccine to 12-16 weeks. That’s four weeks longer than what the WHO and the UK government recommend, though Spain also suggests waiting for up to 16 week. No change has been suggested for the dosage interval of Covaxin by the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI). Currently, the recommended interval between two doses of Covishield is four to eight weeks. “Is this because there are not enough stocks of the vaccines for all who are eligible, or because professional scientific advice says so?” asked Jairam Ramesh. 

A day after 71 bodies of suspected Covid-­19 victims were retrieved from the Ganga at Chausa in Buxar district, Bihar, the authorities yesterday spread a big net in the river to fish out bodies floating in from UP. The second wave of the pandemic has spared no one, not even the elite administrative services which run the nation. More than 100 senior officers of the IAS, IPS, IRS and other services have lost their lives to Covid. 

Twelve major Opposition parties have written to the PM with nine specific demands to deal with the catastrophe. They have reiterated their demands for centrally procured free and mass vaccines, scrapping of the Central Vista project and reallocation of its funds for Covid-19 relief, scrapping of the farm laws and the release of money from PMCares. The letter is a counter to the BJP and RSS’s ‘Positivity Unlimited’ campaign ― narrative management, rather than disaster management. 

In an indirect response to Union Urban Development minister Hardeep Puri’s defence of the Central Vista work – that Congress governments are also continuing with their pet building plans – Chhattisgarh says it has now stopped construction of major projects due to COVID-19 situation and canceled tenders for new state assembly building.

The PM continues to intervene in oxygen management. “It was discussed that the supply of oxygen is now more than three times the supply during the peak of the first wave,” said an official press release. That is factually correct and completely useless information, because it tells us nothing about the current shortfall, which is still causing deaths all over the country, including 47 at the Goa Medical College hospital in a 48 hour period.

Sweeping changes made by the Modi government to India’s decades-old law governing foreign donations is choking off foreign aid just when the country needs it desperately, reports the New York Times. The present government’s attitude toward NGOs contrasts with that of its predecessors in emergencies — after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, local donors received 100% tax exemption and FCRA clearance was automatically granted to overseas contributors of relief funds. If India wishes to recruit NGOs to the disaster management effort, it must revoke the amendments made over the past year to laws meant to regulate them.

The government has woken up to the whipping it is getting across global media and sections in India. In response, it has plastered the Central Vista with boards banning photography. Naturally, they are defied with impunity. The Hindustan Timessought details of the legal provisions under which these restrictions were being imposed. The CPWD said: “CPWD will not comment on the matter.” The Shapoorji Pallonji Group, which is constructing the section, said: “No comment.” The Vista has gone from essential service to secret service. 

Meanwhile, 65 civil society groups and environmental organisations have appealed to the Modi government to halt the Central Vista project and divert all resources towards handling the pandemic. A group of 76 public intellectuals and scholars from India and abroad, including historian Romila Thapar, critic and scholar Gayatri Spivak, artist Anish Kapoor, writer Orhan Pamuk and Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, have called for a halt and reconsideration of the Modi government’s Central Vista project.

Dr Balram Bhargava, head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, has said that districts reporting a high number of infections should remain locked down for another six to eight weeks. The Delhi Police has been visiting good samaritans and members of political parties who are helping the Covid-affected when the government and BJP MPs are MIA. Someone asked satirically if the police had visited the Youth Congress chief’s home because they needed a cylinder. Or a hospital bed, perhaps?

The Bombay High Court has said that if the Union government had started a door-to-door vaccination programme for senior citizens a few months ago, the lives of many, including prominent citizens, could have been saved. It asked the Union government why it did not proactively start this programme for senior citizens who cannot visit vaccination centres. 

Yesterday, the Supreme Court supported moving to a system of house arrest to decongest jails during the pandemic, as in many other countries. At the same time, it shot down the bail plea of Gautam Navlakha in the Elgar Parishad case, refusing to consider the 34 days he spent under house arrest as part of judicial custody ― not because the activist is in error, but because the courts and the authorities had made a procedural error.  

The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) has demanded that the draft rules of the Industrial Relations Code, one of the four labour codes passed by Parliament last year, be immediately withdrawn, as invitations for objections and suggestions to the notified Draft Rules of the IR Code constituted a “sham exercise”. Affected workers and trade unions would be unable to respond.

BJP leader and Madhya Pradesh Culture Minister Usha Thakur has said that the yagna is an ancient method of purifying the environment, followed down the ages to get rid of pandemics. She appealed to people to perform havan (a fire ritual) and give two aahutis to prevent the third wave of the pandemic from hitting India.

Much more usefully, the IIT Kharagpur teacher who was caught on video abusing lower caste students has been suspended. The process took two weeks, though over 800 alumni had sought her immediate termination. The appointment of Sally Buzbee as executive editor of the Washington Post makes her the first woman in the top job in the paper’s “144-year history”.

Religious and political gatherings led to second wave, says WHO

The World Health Organisation has said a recent risk assessment of the situation in India found that “resurgence and acceleration” of Covid-19 transmission had several potential contributing factors, including “several religious and political mass gathering events which increased social mixing”. Its Covid-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update, published yesterday, said that viruses in the B.1.617 lineage were first reported in India in October 2020.

In the US, Anthony Fauci told senators that India is in dire straits because its government assumed that the pandemic was over and relaxed norms. The reality was worse ― the government had declared victory and celebrated the self-proclaimed victor.  

Variant of concern in UK

India’s mishandling of Covid-19 is becoming an example of how not to do things. A leading coronavirus adviser in the UK has warned their government that it needs to “act hard and act fast” if it turns out that the variant, first identified in India, can evade vaccines.

Prof Stephen Reicher, who advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that if this is the case, Boris Johnson must not “dither and delay as in the past… unless we want to turn into another India.” 

The Financial Times says it is B.1.167.2 we should be looking at, as in India, it now accounts for roughly 64% of cases, and B.1.617.1 accounts for 12 per cent. The prevailing scientific opinion is that the B.1.617.2 variant is more transmissible than B.1.617.1. At least one new strain of virus is partially vaccine-resistant. 

In March, Parliamentary committee sought more vaccines

The parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment, forests and climate change, chaired by Jairam Ramesh of the Congress, had in March suggested to the Centre the ramping up of production capacity of the two Covid vaccines manufactured in India. It had been informed that there could be a “shortage” if vaccination was opened up beyond the priority groups. The recommendation was made by the 31-member committee in its report on Demand for Grants for the Department of Biotechnology, tabled in Parliament on March 8. The panel has 14 members from the ruling BJP.

Charting oxygen deaths in hospitals

The Wire is putting together a list of the deaths that have officially been attributed to oxygen shortages. These are culled from media reports and a Twitter thread created by Aditi Priya of Krea University. The number is 223 now, and growing every day. 

Modi’s India has misinformation baked in

The barrage of misinformation in today’s India makes it easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way. Misinformation first started circulating widely in the run-up to the 2014 general election. Sonia Faleiro writes on the work of two intrepid fact-checkers atAltNews, and describes the specific misinformation problem in India ― it’s “baked into the ruling party’s communications.”

The Long Cable

No data models please, we have the Achhe Din Model

Seema Chishti

The experience of more than a year has made it clear that the best way for governments to calm populations hit hard by the coronavirus is three-fold. The first two strategies are a spending plan to boost the worst hit, and to vaccinate everyone. The third component is clear and steady communication, to convey the state’s assessment of the weeks/months to come, so that people can condition their behaviour and also come to expect renewal in a realistic frame, and imagine a future even at such a disturbing time. Instead, we have the usually verbose and aggressive top leadership just missing in action.

At the heart of the problem of the sick crowding unprepared facilities with overwhelmed medics and inadequate oxygen supply, lies a government that refused to anticipate these things despite clear warning signs and the experience of other countries. Instead of preparing for the worst, the government hit accelerators that gave the virus free rein – a full-scale Mahakumbh Mela brought forward by a year, an unusually long election campaign with thousands rallying, a gleeful PM praising everyone for overcrowding, and maskless leaders setting low standards at a dangerous time.

The Indian government has pushed mathematical models, but they are nothing like those that other countries have relied upon. The first infamous graph, unveiled on April 24, 2020, by the Niti Aayog’s Dr VK Paul, predicted that there would be no new active daily cases on May 16, 2020. Then there was the India National Supermodel Committee, constituted by the Department of Science and Technology and comprising doctors, mathematicians and computer scientists which announced last year that India was over the Covid-19 peak in September and caseloads would fall to a minimal level by February. The third and the most recent, which could be called the Achhe Din Model, was when PM Modi spoke at a virtual Davos meeting on January 28. He mocked predictions about the Covid-19 second wave and declared victory in the teeth of warnings. “I remember what many reputed experts and top institutions in the world said in February-March-April last year. It was predicted that India would be the most affected country from corona all over the world. It was said that there would be a tsunami of corona infections in India, somebody said 700-800 million Indians would get infected while others said 2 million Indians would die.” He condescendingly boasted about Indian capabilities: “In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world’s population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

It is clear that Indian models have gone awry, and not due to the inability of our scientists. Models are only as good as the data you punch in and the assumptions you make. Projections and forecasts must accept facts and data as they are, but the ruling party’s politics does not want to reckon with reality. The politics of the strongman and of “Sultanism” does not allow for this reckoning with reality. As Gujarat and UP, damaged by a double-engine double whammy effect, tumble into a black hole, there are no excuses left. 

With this government’s goal of perpetuating political power, no model will help. To urge citizens to look forward and imagine a collective future, the government would have to arm them with facts, but that would cause it to be judged by performance, and not just fandom. In turn, that would demand the jettisoning of the larger project of looking at Indians through the lense of identity, which is at the heart of the exclusionary, outdated 1920s-era politics which is in full play now.

Real and useful models are based on facts. But facts scare this government, and they have never been allowed to get in the way. The deep damage to India’s economic fundamentals, the barefaced denial of incursion in Ladakh (“Na koi hamari seema mein ghusa hua hai, na hi hamari koi post kisi doosre ke kabze mein hai”), the failure to prepare the health system can only be acknowledged if we accept that the Acche Din Model was never real. That would lay bare the truth about this government, and dangerously throw it open to scrutiny and expectations. That cannot be risked.


A costly election

Twenty-three people ― 13 teachers, four BJP leaders, three Congress leaders, a politician’s wife, a policeman and a journalist ― who were engaged in the Damoh byelection in Madhya Pradesh held on 17 April, have all succumbed to Covid-19. The Damoh assembly seat fell vacant after sitting Congress MLA Rahul Lodhi joined the BJP in October 2020, and the bypoll saw a 59.6% voter turnout, 15% lower than in the Assembly polls in 2018, since people were scared of stepping out to vote. Lodhi lost the seat to Congress candidate Ajay Tandon by 18,000 votes.

Chandrachud tests positive, Covid hearing deferred

Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud has tested positive for Covid-19. A member of his staff had tested positive earlier. The judge, who heads the bench hearing the suo motu case concerning Covid-19 issues, is recovering well. He heard the case via video conference on Monday, though it was eventually deferred to Thursday due to technical glitches. In April, four judges of the Supreme Court had tested positive for Covid-19, and one required hospital support.

Prime Number: 30%
That’s the percentage of their health budgets that India’s most socio-economically backward states may have to spend to procure Covid-19 vaccines for their populations. The cost of getting vaccinated in private facilities is beyond the reach of most Indians.

BJP’s Rajya Sabha numbers to fall

The BJP’s failure to win West Bengal, its lack of success in significantly improving its numbers in the other states that went to the polls in April, and its string of poor shows in most Assembly polls since December 2018 mean that its numbers in the Rajya Sabha could start declining by July 2022. The exit of old allies like the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena in the last two years has chipped away at the numbers of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which the BJP leads. The AIADMK’s loss in Tamil Nadu will further decrease the NDA’s numbers. Comprehensively winning the UP Assembly polls, barely nine months away, is important for the BJP not only in the context of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, but also to keep its numbers in the upper house robust.

Deep Dive

Chintan Patel and Vivek Kaul urge India to wade out of the vaccine mess as they assess the logistical feasibility of a mass vaccination plan, examining the capabilities and capacities required at each step of the process. They examine current and future vaccine supplies and discuss key issues in administering the shots.

Attempt to stifle corona discussion online rolled back

An order issued by the Collector of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, under Section 144(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 under paragraph 7 prohibited “comments made on Social Media platforms related to breaking of Corona transmission chain in an unrestrained manner” and threatened prosecution for non-compliance. But The Internet Freedom Foundation was able to file an application and get the portion prohibiting online expression of issues relating to Covid-19 removed. A small victory, but important. The Supreme Court had held it would be contempt of court to criminalise those discussing Covid-19 matters, or asking for help online.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Christophe Jaffrelot assesses the political impact of the second wave of the pandemic in India, and says the recent state elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam suggest that the crisis may be a turning point, to the disadvantage of identity politics.

  • In the British Medical Journal, K Srinath Reddy writes that as India struggles to quell the virus and the world rallies to help, the pandemic has turned teacher to sternly remind us that strong health systems are vital for sustainable, stable, and secure development.  

  • The Centre’s largest phase of mass vaccination is dangerous and defies the spirit of federalism, writes Charmy Harikrishnan.

  • Abhinav Verma and Radhika Roy argue that India needs to set up a truth commission to help it really heal from the pandemic, because the mismanagement by the government during the second wave is nothing less than “a crime against humanity”.

  • Krishna Kumar says the novel coronavirus crisis has fully revealed the price to be paid for the neglect of education and health.

  • For The Conversation, Dilip Mavalankar writes that vaccines would be the most helpful gift to India from its global friends. Many countries have booked in excess, and can offer extra doses to India, as it will need millions of doses of imported vaccine to cover its population rapidly.

Listen Up

What’s happening on the China boundary?

It is one year this month since the India-China border dispute in Ladakh, on the Line of Actual Control, got hot and it has been on edge since. Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) discusses the implications of the stand-off which, despite multiple rounds of talks and the sobering effect of the pandemic, shows no signs of winding down.

Map visualizing China's military presence in Aksai Chin through the early months of 2021, no major changes barring the disengagement around Pangong Tso, consolidation of PLA forces in support areas remains, construction activity continues undeterred. Photo: Twitter/@detresfa_

Watch Out

Do foundational defence agreements tie India’s hands? Do the Freedom of Navigation Operations and Covid vaccine issues reveal the US to be an unreliable partner? Will the vaccine fracas cause lasting damage to India-US relations? Former NSA Shivshankar Menon answers these questions and more in a conversation with Arzan Tarapore about the kind of partnership that India seeks with the US.

Over and Out

Lancet vs freelance nationalism. Laughter remains the best medicine.

Read the Ruskin Bond interview: The author on love, loss, contentment and the time he was asked to summon a ghost. In the backdrop of his recently released memoir, the celebrated author walks down memory lane with GQ and talks about the need to stay hopeful, despite everything.

India aspires beyond Hercules and Old Monk. Rum, long regarded as a cheap and piratical spirit, no match for Scotches and wines, seeks premium status. 

The US Customs has warned travellers from India against bringing cow dung in their baggage. Apparently those bringing Indian cow dung  to the US think it will help against Covid. It won't. But the fear is that it might bring foot and mouth disease to the US and affect the livestock industry, which, as we all know, is a holy cow there.

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.