The India Cable: RSS Jumps Gun on China, NSA Waxes Spiritual, Needless Aadhaar Link to Vaccine

Plus: UP BJP declares war, 40 million sink into poverty, Seychelles vote and the end of Assumption, Green Cards downgraded, Facebook and fake news in India

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 26, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Perhaps tired of the PM’s retiring modesty, the RSS has jumped the gun, with its head, Mohan Bhagwat saying that China has encroached on Indian territory, but is surprised at the Indian response. UP’s BJP chief knows that the prime minister has set the date for an attack on China. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh doesn’t know that the clock is ticking. 

Defence Minister in Darjeeling. Photo: Twitter (@rajnathsingh)

The prime minister exhorts people to light diyas for the soldiers on the border. However, Punjab and Haryana farmer organisations mark Dussehra by burning Ravana effigies of PM Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders, as part of their protests against the farm laws.

Bihar votes for its state assembly in the first phase the day after, and the J-word is being bandied about as campaigning hits a crescendo. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav declared that his father would be out of jail on November 9, the day before the incumbent government must “bid farewell” (results are due November 10). Meanwhile, on Sunday in Buxar, the late Central minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s son, MP Chirag Paswan threatened Nitish Kumar with jail for corruption if he came to power. He is supporting the BJP, but is also campaigning to root out the chief minister, a BJP ally. In the US campaign, Joe Biden hit out at Trump for his “it’s filthy” comment on India, saying that it is neither friendly nor tactically prudent.

A one-judge arbitration panel in Singapore has put the Rs 24,713 crore sale of Future Group’s retail business to Reliance Industries Ltd on hold, passing a favourable interim award on a complaint by Amazon. And Air India One, a sinfully exclusive B-777 reserved for the use of the president, vice-president and prime minister, has been delivered in Delhi. But there’s no place to fly to.

Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das on October 25 tested positive for Covid-19 and will continue to work in isolation. And Soumitra Chatterjee – Apu to many, Feluda to many more – is critically ill in Belle Vue Clinic, Kolkata, following post-Covid complications. 


NSA: National Spiritual Advisor

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval waxes both martial and spiritual. “We fight where we feel the threat is coming. We will surely fight, on our soil as well as on foreign soil, but not for our personal interests ― but in the interests of Parmarth (the ultimate truth),” he said at an ashram in Rishikesh. Before the mandarins of the Chinese Communist party could react, unnamed Indian government officials hastened to clarify that Doval’s speech was neither about China nor the ongoing conflict in eastern Ladakh. He was speaking purely in a civilisational and spiritual context. By jingo, he was!

As the NSA waxed spiritual, the head of the RSS, a self-proclaimed “cultural organisation”, acknowledged that “China encroached and is still encroaching on our borders”. Possibly to reduce the embarrassment to Narendra Modi, who has avoided naming China since April and claimed that no one had entered our borders, he added that “India’s response has made China nervous.” The RSS soon backtracked, changing the text of its chief’s speech from “hamari seemaon ka jo atikraman kiya (intruded across our borders)” to “atikraman ka prayas kiya (attempted to intrude)” but Rahul Gandhi pounced on the opportunity (offered by a tweet, since deleted, by the government’s favourite news agency ANI): “Deep inside, Mr Bhagwat knows the truth. He is just scared to face it. The truth is that China has taken our land and GOI & RSS have allowed it,” the Congress leader retorted.

BJP’s UP chief Swatantra Dev Singh has cleared the air on the question of going to war with China. It is not a question of if, but when. “Like the decisions on Ram Mandir and Article 370, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided when there would be war with Pakistan and China,” he is heard saying in a video clip. “Sambandhit tithi tai hai (the date has been decided).” Clearly, he knows more than Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who said in Sikkim that India wants an end to the border tension with China in eastern Ladakh, but Indian soldiers will never allow even an inch of the country to be taken away by anyone.


It’s election eve in the US but India is all set for 2+2 

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary Mark T Esper arrived in Delhi on Monday for the third edition of the two-plus-two ministerial dialogue. The formal meeting with their Indian counterparts, S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh, is on Tuesday morning. The pandemic and bilateral defence cooperation are likely to be on the agenda, just a week ahead of the American presidential election and in the midst of India’s festering border row with China. Even as the Indian and Pakistani diaspora are rallying together politically in the US, India is in the crossfire of the campaign as Trump’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden said, “President Trump called India ‘filthy’. It’s not how you talk about friends — and it’s not how you solve global challenges like climate change. Kamala Harris and I deeply value our partnership — and will put respect back at the center of our foreign policy.”


Seychelles, Bihar and no Assumption

In a political earthquake in the Indian Ocean’s Eden, Seychelles has elected an Anglican priest, Indian-origin Wavel Ramkalawan, as its next president with 54.9% of the vote. Ramkalawan’s grandfather had arrived as indentured labour from Gopalganj in Bihar. The United Seychelles Party has lost power for the first time since the archipelago became independent in 1976, and their loss will have implications for India. India’s attempts to lease Assumption Island may not bear fruit as the new president, who was underground when Modi visited the strategically important islands and signed the agreement in 2015, is opposed to the idea.


Green card applicants strategically downgrade themselves

The Economic Times reports that young Indians applying for green cards to the US are downgrading themselves to graduates in their applications, even if they are postgrads or have other advanced degrees. The reason is that the US government recently prioritised applications from graduates (EB-3 or third preference category) ahead of those from postgraduates (EB-2 or second preference category). 

Though a higher qualification stands a better chance, many Indians are seeking to apply as graduates because applications upto 2015 are being considered in this category. In the postgraduate (EB-2) category, only applications made upto 2011 are being examined. There is a 7-10 year waiting list. EB-2 is about 4 years behind EB-3 in time preference. Over the last four years, the Trump administration has created quite a procedural nightmare for Indians applying for green cards or H-1B work visas. 


Budget overruns: too much, too late

If you thought the Modi government’s expenditure on high-end VVIP aircraft and the reconstruction of Delhi’s central vista during an economic crisis was wasteful, it gets worse. The Ministry of Statistics reports that 441 infrastructure projects show cost overruns of Rs 4.35 lakh crore, or 20.81% of their original cost. In addition, 539 projects (out of 1,661 projects worth Rs 150 crore or more) have been delayed with an average time overrun of 43.18 months.


The Long Cable

Shooting for data

Seema Chishti

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of Bengaluru-based Biocon, raised hopes when she said on the weekend that a vaccine might be available in India by June 2021. “I expect that by January, some of the other vaccines could be approved, like AstraZeneca’s or one of our own Indian vaccines, like the one from Bharat Biotech. If we finish the clinical trials in the next 2-3 months, even those may be approved by January-February. So I would expect that in Q1FY22, we should have vaccines available in India and other parts of the world.” Of course, the project is complicated by cold chain requirements and the possibility that the shot may have to be administered twice – and a month apart – by intramuscular injection, requiring trained hands. 

But eyebrows were raised when Mazumdar-Shaw brought Aadhaar into the picture in another interview. She declared that this was no time for privacy concerns: “Aadhaar must be leveraged for scale and speed ― no need to reinvent a new electronic data platform.” True, the prime minister’s proposed health card is redundant, but so is Aadhaar. The spectre of that theoretically voluntary but practically compulsory ID has been raised at least twice by Nandan Nilekani, for whom Aadhaar looks like a hammer and everything else looks like a nail. As early as August, he claimed that it was “supercritical” to use its “best digital infrastructure” to vaccinate the population. He invoked the “common digital backbone” again last week, on a three-stage Aadhaar-based plan for the vax.

Reetika Khera, development economist and editor of Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data meets Big Brother, told The India Cable that linking Aadhaar to the vaccine programme “makes no sense. First, once a person is vaccinated, she isn’t going to line up again, so there’s no danger of duplication. Second, we have already witnessed the disastrous effects ― from corruption and exclusion to death ― of linking Aadhaar to welfare. Third, it is worth pointing out that the call for linking Aadhaar to the vaccine is coming not from the health community, but from business interests. That, as Adam Smith said, is something to be very suspicious of.”

These intentions are already under suspicion because of the government’s brazen attempts at data hoovering during a public health emergency through the Aarogya Setu app and the framing of  new Aadhaar rules for ‘good governance’, in contravention of a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, and a load of evidence of how a mandatory Aadhaar has cost poor citizens.

Meanwhile, it is unclear which vaccine will ultimately make the cut. It is also unclear exactly when that would happen. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of WHO, cautioned last week that the “young and healthy” should expect a vaccine only in 2022. It is sobering to remember that there is no vaccine so far for HIV or malaria. Targets had to be switched away from eradication to prevention.

For perspective on delivery, let’s not forget that India has run one of the biggest public health exercises in the world, the immunisation of infants (in its expanded form) since 1978. In light of the history of vaccinations in India, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of a Covid jab as an election sop for the Bihar polls rang completely hollow. Immunisation has always been a centrally driven programme and has been very successful, without the benefit of Aadhaar. At the time of Independence, India was reporting the highest incidence of smallpox, but the National Smallpox Eradication Programme, launched in 1962, wiped it out in 1977. The cost to citizens? Always free. And whether it was the eradication of smallpox or the containment of HIV, success was secured by powerful public health communications, not by tracking patients digitally.  


Kochi Biennale postponed by 11 months

The fifth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, India’s biggest art show which runs for three months, was scheduled to commence on December 12 this year, has been postponed to November 1, 2021. This edition is to be curated by Singapore artist Shubigi Rao. The organisers do not believe that they can get permission for a show attended by about 6 lakh people, and the logistics of bringing in installations would be daunting. 


Prime number: 40 million
The number of Indians pushed into extreme poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva. The extreme poverty estimate in India, prior to the pandemic, stood at 80 million. It has surged to 120 million after the pandemic.

Facebook cops out again, and taxpayers fund hate TV

Facebook refrains from fact-checking political speech which it considers “most scrutinised” by the media. It relies on independent third-party fact-checkers worldwide ― there are eight in India ― to “reduce the spread of false news and other types of viral misinformation, like memes or manipulated photos and videos”. But content posted by politicians is not eligible for review by third-party fact-checkers, under Facebook’s policy.

AltNews has analysed the reports published by Facebook’s Indian fact-checking partners in the past year. It observes that between August 2019 to August 2020, barring two outlets - Boomlive and The Quint ― none highlighted individuals or organisations that are arguably the most frequent sources of misinformation.

And if you wonder who pays for the hate speech unleashed by the likes of Sudarshan News, it is the Indian taxpayer, paying through BJP governments. This scuppers the argument that hatred is good business, and that the viewer is not paying Hindutva hatemongers by watching these news channels. 


High turnout in Ladakh, results today

The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council poll, the first election in the Union Territory since the trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir ― and the first using electronic voting machines ― saw voter turnout at an astonishing 79% per cent in some areas, and 66% in Leh. The BJP, Congress, AAP and 23 independent candidates contested. The results: https://leh.nic.in/election-trends-results/


The deep stuff

Women lag in post-lockdown employment

Prof Ashwini Deshpande of Ashoka University presents her new paper on ‘The Covid-19 Pandemic and Gendered Division of Paid and Unpaid Work: Evidence from India’. She concludes that accounting for lagged employment, the likelihood of women being employed in August 2020 is 9.5 percentage points lower than that for men, compared to the pre-pandemic period.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

The new layer of ‘elected’ bodies in J&K is part of the Sangh Parivar’s plan to create a new pro-India political structure in Kashmir that does not do politics at all, or even much rhetoric, writes Muzamil Jaleel.

Gautam Bhatia welcomes the recent Supreme Court judgement on the Domestic Violence Act. It is progressive, and expressly frames entitlements in the language of rights, instead of treating them as paternalistic gifts to protect the “weaker” party.

Pegged on the recent Mumbai police action against Republic TV reporters, The Indian Express points out in an editorial that criminalising journalists for a story is just one step short of criminalising journalism itself.

Gurbachan Jagat says that the farmers who turned Punjab into the granary of this country and brought India out of food dependence cannot be allowed to be reduced to carrying a begging bowl.

All demagogues (including Donald Trump and Boris Johnson) are bad for democracy, but some demagogues are worse than others, says Ramachandra Guha. In his view, the “destruction that Narendra Modi has already wreaked on Indian democracy” is of another order.

Indian officials have used cautious rhetoric in the hope of easing tensions with China and keeping up Delhi’s foreign policy balancing act between East and West, but public outrage over Indian soldiers dying in Ladakh is complicating Delhi’s diplomacy, argues Mohamed Zeeshan.

Ajaz Ashraf writes that both Prof Shawn Rosenberg’s thesis that democracy devours itself, and the very state of Indian democracy, will be on test in the forthcoming Bihar assembly elections. 


Listen up

Kristin Plys, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, speaks to Sneha Annavarapu about her book, Brewing Resistance: Indian Coffee House and the Emergency in Postcolonial India (Cambridge, 2020). In her book, which Plys discusses in the podcast, she recounts the story of the movement against the Emergency as seen through New Delhi’s Indian Coffee House, which was a popular meeting place. It is based on newly uncovered evidence and oral histories about the men and women who led the movement against the Emergency.


Watch Out

“We would not be under a fascist regime if it was not for the mainstream media. They are spineless pets on a saffron leash, drawing massive corporate salaries and destroying the lives of people,” says Arundhati Roy in a powerful statement at the Press Club Of India, New Delhi.


Tailpiece

For years, the @MagicRealismBot has been drawing on a database of genre elements to publish a 140-character story every four hours. Sometimes, it’s pleasant nonsense, and sometimes it’s indistinguishable from Borges or Günter Grass. This weekend, a mini-story was set in Mumbai. Maybe the database threw up Salman Rushdie. 

Remember Sushant Singh Rajput? The untimely death by suicide of a young actor in Bombay was potentially an election issue in Bihar. But reports say even a cousin of Sushant, Neeraj Kumar Singh Bablu, a sitting BJP legislator, contesting from Chhatarpur seat in Supaul district too has not brought it up  ― not once during his campaign. 

And the Bihar visit of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has given @ShakyLines, one of India’s best black humorists, a splitting headache.  


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.