The India Cable: Republic Revolts Bobde, Democracy Dips, What Bihar Vote Means for India

Plus: BECA signed, Pawar unforgiving, Lokur sidestepped, BJP slips in Ladakh, Stephen Alter wins Canadian prize and Arun Shourie thinks about preparing for death

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
October 27, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

A military geo-spatial data sharing agreement between India and the US, accelerated by recent developments on the LAC, has been signed at the two-plus-two  meet in Delhi.  

Defence minister Rajnath Singh and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper. Photo:

It has snowed in Ladakh, where more than 100,000 Indian and Chinese soldiers are deployed in the high altitude area. Here’s a satellite view of the harsh weather

Even the chief justice of India cannot bear Republic TV. “Frankly speaking, I cannot stand it. This has never been the level of our public discourse,” Republic TV was told off by India’s apex court, as CJI S.A. Bobde spoke of the importance of “peace and harmony” and “responsible reporting”. Quite a blast from the past. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tom-tommed “cooperative federalism”, but his government didn’t want to pay the GST share to the states, and now wants to slash the states’ share of the pool of taxes by nearly a quarter, from 42% to 32%. This could open up one of the oldest fault lines in India’s constitutional democracy, going back to 1967, at least.

The famous Mysore Dasara has been abridged by the pandemic. The elephant procession and tableaux, which usually travels 5 km, traversed just 270 metres, and the show was over in about 30 minutes. In Tamil Nadu, the E.K. Palaniswami government plans to reach out to the Tamil diaspora in 38 countries with a three-day virtual global conclave starting Thursday. The state had reached out to Tamil groups and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley last year, and startup funding has been pouring in. Interestingly, most of the response comes from Tier-2 towns like San Jose.   

The News Minute has accessed the CBI chargesheet on the custodial torture and murder of  father and son Jayaraj and Bennix in Thoothukudi three months ago. It makes gory reading, rarely seen except at times of serious social upheaval, like Salwa Judum or the Naxalite movement in West Bengal in the Sixties. 

The Economic Times reports that overseas direct investments will face enhanced scrutiny by an RBI panel with representation from regulators and the Finance Ministry, to prevent round-tripping. Currently, they can be cleared by a chief general manager of the RBI. Market investors are concerned that genuine transactions could face roadblocks.   

The video of a BJP leader in Kashmir cleaning his shoe with the national flag went viral on the day the party held a Tiranga Yatra (Tricolour March) in Srinagar. It has been protesting against former ally Mehbooba Mufti, who has said that she would not touch the national flag until the scrapped state flag is reinstated. The party said that the clip was old, from before the Pulwama BJP president joined the party. In which case, what’s the problem? 

Speaking of footwear, not only is incumbent Bihar CM and BJP ally Nitish Kumar missing from BJP posters and being heckled in rallies, he received the George Bush treatment at Muzaffarpur when a slipper was flung at him as he walked towards his helicopter.

BECA mapped out

The last of the India-US foundational defence agreements has been signed during the two-plus-two meeting in Delhi. The first two agreements on logistics sharing and communications exchange took more than a decade to negotiate, but changing geopolitical contours have hastened the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). Allowing geo-spatial mapping of the land mass, BECA will facilitate sharing of real-time geo-spatial intelligence, map information and satellite images between the two militaries, for defence purposes.

Democracy Deep Dive

A new report mapping democracy worldwide has arrived at some dark conclusions. About 54% of the world’s population no longer lives in democracies as 92 countries, the highest count since 2001, slide into autocracy. It has found India slipping perilously close to not being considered a democracy at all, “due to the severe shrinking of space for the media, civil society and the opposition under Prime Minister Modi’s government.” The report speaks of a “third wave” of autocratization. “Autocratization is affecting Brazil, India, the US and Turkey, which are major economies with sizeable populations, exercising substantial global military, economic, and political influence.” 

(Source: Democracy Report 2020)

India is mentioned 23 times in the report and its democracy is stated to be in a state of “steep decline”. India is marked out for concern because by population alone, it looms large in the list of ‘autocratizing’ nations. The Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) takes into account various “measures of the quality of elections, suffrage, freedom of expression and the media, freedom of association and civil society, checks on the executive, and the rule of law” as well as regional measures from 1972 to 2019. India, it says, is in a “substantial decline” of 0.19 in ten years and is being classified as just an ‘electoral democracy’ now (as opposed to a liberal democracy). The countries that have autocratized the most over the past decade are Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Serbia, Brazil and India. Governments in these countries “first restricted the scope for media and civil society. Once they had gained sufficient control over the ‘watchdogs’… they dared to begin eroding the quality of elections.”

The Democracy Report 2020 is authored by V-Dem Institute, an independent research organisation at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. V-Dem, or Varieties of Democracy, claims to produce “the largest global dataset on democracy with some 28 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2019.”

Sunlight, camera, action!

The Gujarat High Court experimented with live streaming court proceedings and won hosannas from transparency activists. This is a huge leap from the days when sketch artists rendered courtrooms and recording even a wee bit of audio could land you in jail. The Supreme Court had observed in September 2018 that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, raising hopes that the judgment would pave the way for live streaming of court proceedings. But two years down the line, Chief Justice SA Bobde on Monday said that live streaming “would be misused” and he has already fielded several complaints over virtual hearings via videoconferencing. 

Is the virtual court more open and accessible, or less so? Such questions have plagued Milords since courts went online this spring. The CJI wanted a dedicated fibre optic network nationwide for virtual courts, and remaining true to his brief, senior advocate Harish Salve recommended Reliance Jio to the apex Court. 

The Long Cable

Bihar decides: Implications for Indian politics and federalism

Siddharth Varadarajan

Bihar goes to the polls tomorrow in the first of a three-phase election whose results will be known on November 10. Apart from deciding who rules the state, the results will give us clues  about the course of national politics in the next couple of years and the future direction of federalism in India.

There are, broadly speaking, three fronts in contention in Bihar, two of them involving Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The ruling front, which is called the National Democratic Alliance, is nominally headed by the embattled chief minister, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United). But it is the BJP which is expected to carry greater clout within, when the votes are counted. The second front, which we can call NDA-2, is what may emerge if the JD(U) is decimated but BJP does well enough to form a government by roping in the Lok Janshakti Party of Chirag Paswan. He is allied to the BJP at the Centre but is fighting the election on his own on a stridently anti-Nitish platform.

The BJP, in other words, has two alliances it can count on and where it expects to be firmly in the driver’s seat.

Ranged against the BJP is the grand coalition, or Mahagathbandhan, headed by Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. This alliance includes the Congress and the Communist parties (all three of them), besides other regional players.

While I will leave the crystal-ball gazing to those who follow Bihar more closely, the BJP is in the enviable position of expecting handsome gains even if it does not end up forming the government. This is because it will have established itself for the first time as a pre-eminent pole in Bihar’s politics, with its regional allies reduced to junior status.

Why is this significant? Because it would represent the success of BJP’s alliance strategy – which is based on working with a strong regional partner and biding its time till that partner can be turned into an appendage or an irrelevance. 

The strategy worked well in Assam and Jammu and Kashmir, where the AGP and PDP tied themselves in ideological knots only to see the BJP seize the high ground using fair and unfair means. The strategy may have succeeded in Maharashtra, but for the agility of the NCP and Congress in propping Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena as a consensus chief minister. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has used the Centre’s investigative agencies to get the AIADMK to yield space to it in the state. And the party would like to use the same formula in Andhra Pradesh – to turn Jagan Reddy into another pliant partner. With Akali Dal ministers resigning from Modi’s government at the Centre, the ‘NDA’ has only one non-BJP minister left, Ram Das Athawale of the small Republican Party of India.

This ‘BJPification of the NDA’ is mirrored by the growing inroads the central government is making on state prerogatives. Apart from the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission, which have been characterised as an attack on fiscal federalism, and its refusal to honour its GST receipts commitments, the BJP has encroached on the rights of states to take decisions on agriculture, law and order (by misusing the Central Bureau of Investigation and National Investigation Agency) and disaster management.

If the BJP retains Bihar, its control of this major state will help it push the centralisation of policy-making even further. And if it loses, it will still have enough clout at the Centre to make life for an Opposition-led alliance in Patna difficult.

Next year, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry go to the polls. In the two eastern states, the BJP believes it can come to power by itself. Kerala remains a bridge too far but in Tamil Nadu the party hopes the political strategy of what Prof Ajit Kanna calls ‘de-Dravidisation’ will help it establish more than the token toe-hold it currently has.

What happens if the opposition coalition wins in Bihar? For one, this will invariably sharpen the contest in West Bengal by boosting the morale of the Trinamool Congress. In Assam, a Bihar win would put the Congress in a stronger position to challenge the BJP-led state government. There will also be spillover effects in Uttar Pradesh, where the Adityanath government will go to the polls in 2022. Finally, in national political terms, if an untested Tejashwi can pull it off, Rahul Gandhi may also find some of the arguments usually made against his leadership claims slightly easier to fend off.

It is too early to predict how any of these possible opposition gains will alter the political terrain by 2024, when Narendra Modi will seek his third term as prime minister. But conversely, a comfortable win for the BJP in Bihar will boost its chances in West Bengal. And if Mamata Banerjee is defeated, it is hard to see the opposition mounting a unified challenge to Modi. That said, the issue of employment which has surfaced in a big way in Bihar suggests the road for the BJP will be bumpy even if the opposition is weak. In Bihar, the BJP could deflect the blame on to Nitish. But nationally, if joblessness mounts, Modi will not find it easy to sidestep his own failure.


Pawar shuts door on prodigals

While the NCP has welcomed former BJP leader Eknath Khadse into the party with open arms, Sharad Pawar has slammed the door on defectors who had left NCP for the BJP before the 2019 parliamentary and assembly polls. A couple of such leaders, including a sitting BJP MLA who was earlier with the NCP, wanted to return to Pawar’s fold but the Maratha leader refused to entertain their requests. There is no such barrier for BJP leaders but betrayals, it seems, won’t be quickly forgiven and forgotten by Pawar. Except of course nephew Ajit Pawar, who broke ranks and sided with the BJP soon after the October 2019 election, only to be allowed back and made deputy chief minister.

Clearing the air

What is a bigger problem, air pollution or a retired judge who has been a trenchant critic of the government’s misuse of sedition law? Clearly the latter, as Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court that the Centre would, within three or four days, issue an ordinance creating a permanent body to deal with stubble burning. All this to keep out Justice Madan B Lokur, who was asked by the apex court, in its October 16 order, to head a one-man panel to monitor measures taken by the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to prevent farmers from burning stubble. Not surprisingly, the bench headed by CJI Bobde virtually stayed its own order on the government’s request, even as India’s capital grapples with high pollution and fears that it would heighten the impact of the pandemic.

Court beefs about cow slaughter law

A tragicomic courtroom drama is playing out in Allahabad, where the High Court finds that UP’s Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955, is being misused to put away the innocent, while not doing very much for cattle. “Whenever any meat is recovered, it is normally shown as cow meat without getting it examined or analysed by the Forensic Laboratory,” the order says. The accused languish in custody for a crime that was never committed, and “one does not know where cows go after recovery” by the police of the Yogi Adityanath government, since no documentation is done. In short, the law has become a tool of serious harassment, benefiting neither human nor beast. 

This has been a feature of cow vigilantism from the pioneering days. Mohammad Akhlaq, 52, was beaten to death in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2015. In December, forensic analysis revealed that the meat found in his refrigerator was mutton, not beef. 

Fuel prices taking a hike

“If it moves, tax it” has a new, sinister meaning under the Modi government, which is likely to increase the excise duty on petrol and diesel by up to Rs 5 per litre. This government has hiked duties on petrol and diesel 10 times since assuming power in 2014, and the proposed increase will bring the excise duty to Rs 37.98 per litre on petrol and Rs 36.98 per litre on diesel. Excise on petrol and diesel were Rs 9.48 and Rs 3.56 per litre in 2014, when the Narendra Modi government took office. India buys crude oil at less than Rs 30 per litre but the heavy taxation by the Centre, which is not shared with the states, makes it nearly three times more expensive for consumers. Meanwhile, at the India Energy Forum inaugural, the prime minister batted for “responsible” fuel pricing, saying that international oil prices had been on a “roller coaster” for too long. In India, they have just been taking a long hike, and no coaster.

Prime number: 59%
That’s the shortfall of doctors in Bihar. The poll-bound state, after nearly 13 years of BJP-JD(U) rule, has a shortage of 8,068 doctors against a sanctioned strength of 13,500 and of 13,800 nurses against 20,000. The situation is no better in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, which has a 33% shortage of doctors and 45% of nurses. There is a 39% vacancy of doctors in Uttarakhand as well, where 1,072 of the 2,735 sanctioned positions for doctors are lying vacant. And India has the world’s second-highest caseload and the third-highest death toll from Covid-19!

In Ladakh, BJP staved off disaster by delaying land law?

The BJP’s chief executive councillor has lost in Ladakh’s first elections after the bifurcation and downgrading of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. The BJP managed to retain control of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, but with three seats less than earlier. The Congress grew its tally from five to nine of the 26 seats. The BJP’s performance would likely have been much worse if the Centre had notified its new land laws for Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh earlier. The notification was kept in abeyance till after the results, when the Centre promptly announced that henceforth any Indian (with means, of course) can now buy up land in the two Union territories.

For your reference

Discrimination and migrants

The plight of urban migrants was the lowest point of the pandemic. But how severe and systematic is the discrimination that India’s internal migrants face? Which classes of migrants find themselves marginalized? What spurs the unequal treatment of migrants? And what policy tools can be enlisted to improve the situation? These are some of the questions looked at in Investigating Discrimination Against Migrants in Urban India: The Electoral Connection by CASI-UPenn’s Nikhar Gaikwad and Gareth Nellis. 


Stephen Alter has won the Mountain Environment and Natural History Award at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, for his book Wild Himalaya (Aleph Book Company). The Special Jury Mention went to Ed Douglas’s Himalaya: A Human History (Bodley Head). Alter’s book begins with the history of his home, Oakville, in Landour. It was rented by the family of Major General Henry Havelock, the hero of the siege of Lucknow in 1857, and a tragedy by fire followed. The narrative then turns to geology ― the local lime that was used to build the house, and which is found all over the central Himalaya, is composed of the remains of marine life in an ancient seabed, which was reared up by the mountains. It is a wonderful guidebook to the many lives of the mountain range through the millennia. 

Arun Shourie’s Preparing for Death (Penguin Viking) is out today. It begins with the joke that the greying share at memorial meets in Delhi: “We now know more persons on that side of the LOC than on this.” As he steps up to the crease, the former disinvestment minister finds the signature of past generations in the image in the mirror. From these intimations of mortality, Shourie moves on to see how we prepare for the end, which is the purpose of all the mystical traditions and the lives of the saints. The tradition extends into modern times ― the last pages of this book quote Iqbal and Carl Gustav Jung, the most mystical of psychoanalysts. 

Shourie closes with the joke that Fali Nariman had shared at the launch of his last book, about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi: In the Kremlin, Khrushchev throws a party to honour two cosmonauts who have returned to earth. He takes them aside and asks, “When you were up there, did you see an old man, with a long white beard, looking down on earth and directing what should happen?”  “Yes, sir, we did see him,” they said sheepishly. “That is what I was afraid of,” Khrushchev said. “But don’t tell anyone. Let this be a secret between the three of us.” Much later, the cosmonauts were at a reception in Rome when the Pope took them aside and asked the same question about seeing an old man in space. The cosmonauts recalled Khrushchev’s instruction and said, “No, sir, we did not see anyone like that.” “That is what I was afraid of,” the Pope said. “But don’t tell anyone. Let this be a secret between the three of us.” 

Like the question of God’s existence, the question of death is best left open, or dealt with lightly, as an elaborate joke. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Nonviolent protest is the most powerful resistance against autocracy, writes Amartya Sen, as he includes India in the “unfortunate basket” of countries displaying rising authoritarianism. 

  • Praveen Sawhney says that with the new defence agreement – BECA – India has “potentially mortgaged the digitised military capability of its three services – army, air force and navy – to the United States”

  • By squeezing margins which are already tiny, and imposing a compliance burden, Tax Collected at Source could put the smallest bullion dealers out of business, drive part of the trade underground, and defeat the very purpose of TCS, writes Mukesh Kumar of the World Gold Council.

  • That Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies are drawing not just the Muslims and Yadavs, but young Bihari citizens across the board, must be seen as a warning signal to the ruling NDA, argues Badri Raina.

  • WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan refers to her JRD Tata Oration, hosted by the Population Foundation of India on its 50th anniversary, and says that the most important lesson from the pandemic is the significance of investing in public health and primary healthcare. Countries that invested in primary healthcare over the past decade or two are reaping the benefits now. 

Watch Out

The sudden lockdown, with just a five-hour notice in March, saw thousands fleeing India’s metros for their villages, in the shadow of a massive health crisis, with no support from the government. Such scenes of despair were not seen anywhere else in the world. See this three-part documentary by Asiaville on how migrants felt as they abandoned the cities they had helped to build. 

Listen up

Khatija Rehman’s Farishton was unveiled over the weekend by the music composer/director AR Rehman, who is also the singer’s father.

Slow down, you’re surfing too fast

India is currently ranked at 131 in the world on mobile internet speed, behind countries like Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, with an upload speed of 4.31 Mbps. You can’t believe that, given the speed at which lies and hate spread? But check for yourself here:

Supreme Court judges were visibly shocked to see an advocate appear shirtless in a videoconference hearing, representing the ‘Op-India’ website in the Sudarshan TV case. Recently, the Gujarat High Court had imposed costs on an advocate who was found smoking a hookah during a hearing. A few months ago, the Rajasthan High Court had reprimanded a lawyer for wearing only a vest in a video hearing. Your honour! 

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.