The India Cable: SC Flags Electoral Bonds Risks, Finally; Delhi Government Decommissioned

Plus: Fuel prices cut as polls near, BJP candidate calls beef ‘national dish’, Bengal singers take on hate, BJP accused of using Aadhaar data for campaign, women in army to get permanent commission

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 25, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India is losing hope of a speedy recovery from the pandemic as the daily Covid-19 tally crosses the 50,000 mark, the highest in over five months, and the death toll exceeds 200 for two consecutive days. Bears stalk Dalal Street as markets plunge the most in a month, on domestic apprehensions and disheartening news from overseas, especially lockdowns in Europe. The Sensex lost 1.74% and the Nifty, 1.8%. The Centre has asked states to curb public festivities, and the Uttarakhand High Court has made Covid-negative certificates mandatory for the Haridwar Kumbh. Chief Minister TS Rawat had lifted restrictions, before falling victim to Covid-19 himself.   

The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is now effectively the government itself, through the bill passed by Parliament last night which expands the powers of the office and diminishes the Chief Minister’s drastically. Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh Narayan Singh declared the bill passed by a voice vote after a walkout by the Opposition. Before the walkout, the motion to consider the bill was passed with 83 ‘ayes’ and 45 ‘noes’, and no abstentions. Essentially, an unelected official is now the government of Delhi, the legislature has been overridden and the capital’s voters are disenfranchised. The slow process towards statehood for Delhi, which began in the Nineties, stands reversed.   

The Election Commission has filed an FIR against Assam BJP candidate Banendra Kumar Mushahary for referring to beef as the “national dish of India”. Expanding on the theme, he also said that it is an international dish and cannot be banned anywhere: “The beef that we eat, how can it be banned?” Mushahary spoke in a minority area, and his remarks incensed local Hindu groups. On the other hand, in West Bengal, the Election Commission has rapped Jitendra Tiwari, BJP candidate for Pandabeswar, Paschim Bardhaman, for promising to take elderly constituents on an expenses-paid tour of Ayodhya if they propel him to victory. He has apologised to the EC for his ‘ignorance’. Despite the ongoing farmers’ protests, in West Bengal, the BJP is using the slogan ‘Ebar Krishok, Ebar BJP’ ― ‘the farmer this time, BJP this time’. 

The Supreme Court today held that the evaluation criteria adopted by the Indian Army to consider the grant of permanent commission for women officers are “arbitrary and irrational”. It directed the Centre to allow permanent commission to women officers who were excluded on grounds of fitness, and termed the criteria a part of “structures of our society, created by males, for males”.

In a hearing presided over by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, the Supreme Court asked the government to direct its attention to the possibility of misuse of money raised through anonymous electoral bonds. The bench wished to know if the government has any idea how the funds are used, since they could be opaquely diverted from legitimate political expenses to fomenting violence or terrorism. The case has been filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms, represented by Prashant Bhushan. The plaintiff has pointed out that anonymity permits the bonds to be used as kickbacks or gratifications. The judgment was reserved yesterday. There are fears that a window for fresh electoral bonds may be opened on April 1. 

Abhinav Delkar, the 30-year-old son of Dadra & Nagar Haveli MP Mohan Delkar, who died by suicide, is now spearheading the ‘Justice for Late MP Mohan Delkar’ movement in the Union Territory. He says the recent chaos in the Mumbai Police has made him worried about the force’s ability to do justice and conduct a fair investigation into his father’s death by suicide: “The suicide note clearly states his apprehension. He knew if the BJP gets involved in any way, he would not get justice. And that is exactly what seems to be happening now in Maharashtra,” Abhinav said.

Former BJP MP MJ Akbar has moved the Delhi High Court against journalist Priya Ramani’s acquittal in a criminal defamation case he had initiated against her, for allegedly defamatory communications. The lower court’s order had proved to be a scathing commentary against Akbar. Justice Mukta Gupta is likely to hear his plea today.

The Surat Police and civic officials fanned out into areas where migrant workers live to dispel rumours of an impending lockdown. Workers had been found urgently trying to board buses back to their home states, usually Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Surat has seen a spike and has made quarantine mandatory for travellers entering the city. Work hours in industrial units have also been curtailed. Recently, there was a scare in West Bengal, too, when a TV news channel falsely reported a lockdown until April. 

In a separate and enigmatic development in Surat, a person accused of theft escaped from police custody and leapt off a bridge to his death ― after being found to be Covid-positive in the mandatory test. He was being taken to a hospital. 

Swiggy will foot the vaccination bill of over two lakh of its delivery partners. About 5,500 riders aged 45 and above will be eligible for the scheme next week. 

With text and images, Indian Express cartoonist EP Unny explores the Triple V phenomenon ― ‘Visual Vijayan Vote’ ― which the Left is counting upon in Kerala. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had become a visible presence in every home in the state with his daily 6 pm broadcast during the pandemic, which was businesslike, informative, caring and very unlike the Prime Minister’s weekend rambles. Now, it gives him an edge as he seeks a second term, which is unusual in Kerala’s alternating politics. 

BJP misusing Aadhar data?

Taking a serious view of a plea alleging that the Puducherry BJP unit has accessed the personal records of citizens such as WhatsApp numbers and is sending campaign messages, the Madras High Court on Wednesday directed the Election Commission to file a detailed report within two days. Anand, president of the Puducherry unit of the Democratic Youth Foundation of India (DYFI), alleged in his petition that local BJP candidates had obtained the cell phone numbers from the Unique Identification Authority of India and were creating booth-level WhatsApp groups in their respective constituencies for targeted campaigning.

The Election Commission of India said that the complaint received from the DYFI in this connection has been forwarded to the Cyber Crime Cell for inquiry. However, the court observed, “When it comes to the ruling party, the ECI cannot pass the buck to the cybercrime cell, when it asserts primacy in all other matters.”

Virus surges, mutants appear

A new double mutant variant of the coronavirus is among 771 detected in samples collected from 18 states across India. Of the 10,787 samples, 736 were positive for the UK variant, 34 for the South African variant and one for the Brazilian variant. The report comes amid a recent surge in Covid cases in India. But the government said there was no link between the spike in cases and these variants. Nine of the top 10 Covid-19 districts in terms of active cases are in Maharashtra. The tenth is Bengaluru Urban. The Financial Times writes that “India’s second Covid wave has undermined the herd immunity theory” (which was dodgy to begin with). It cites easing of lockdown restrictions, new variants and reinfections as potential driving factors for the rise.

As questions arise about the speed of the vaccines rollout, “test, test, test”, “mask, mask, mask”, and “vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate” are Indian Council of Medical Research Director General Balram Bhargava’s three messages on coronavirus. Exactly a year ago, he had trashed WHO’s “test, test test” with his own “isolate, isolate, isolate”. At the time, tests could not be freely accessed in India. 

Dr K Srinath Reddy, Head of the Public Health Foundation of India has said; “The level of vaccination alone does not matter. Public health measures also need to be improved along with vaccination.”

Freeze on vaccine export

India has put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India (SII) to meet the demand at home as infections rise. The move will also affect supplies to the Gavi/WHO-backed Covax vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 countries are expected to get doses. 

Covax has so far received 17.7 million AstraZeneca doses from SII, of the 60.5 million doses India has shipped in total, and many countries are relying on the programme to immunise their citizens. There has been no vaccine export from India since Thursday, the Foreign Ministry’s website shows. As the license issued by AstraZeneca to manufacturers was conditional, it is not clear where this leaves SII, which must honour its commitments.

India-Pakistan cricket to resume?

Bilateral cricket ties between arch-rivals India and Pakistan might soon resume, following the recent thaw in relations. Reports suggest that Pakistan Cricket Board has been told to be prepared for an India versus Pakistan cricket series.

The Long Cable

Jagan v. Justice Ramana: Shabby end to shadowy fight

Siddharth Varadarajan

Readers of The India Cable are hopefully familiar with the extraordinary complaint Andhra Pradesh (AP) chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy registered with Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde last October against the judge who was due to be the next CJI, Justice N.V. Ramana. Reddy’s letter, which he promptly leaked to the press, accused Justice Ramana of colluding with judges of the AP high court and of being linked, through his daughters, to questionable land dealings in Amravati, the state’s new capital where many ‘speculators’ had acquired farm land at throwaway prices only to see their new ‘urban’ properties escalate sharply in value.

Jagan had sent his letter soon after a meeting in Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and it is an open secret that the PM was aware of its explosive allegations. While the Supreme Court maintained radio silence on Jagan’s letter, the registry sent quiet word that its contents could only be acted upon if the chief minister submitted a formal affidavit. An affidavit was duly filed, after which the CM apparently heard nothing.

Finally, on March 24, 2021, the day it was confirmed that CJI Bobde had recommended Justice Ramana’s name as the next head of the Supreme Court, the registry issued a terse statement noting that Reddy’s complaint had been dismissed and that all matters dealt with under the Supreme Court’s in-house procedure were confidential and “not liable to be made public”.

The statement is astonishing for the sheer lack of transparency in the court’s handling of Reddy’s complaint.

It is now more or less well established – by precedent if not propriety – that the deliberations of the ‘in house procedure’ are not made public. We saw this most recently when the court refused to even show a copy of the report of the in-house committee set up to probe the sexual harassment allegations against then CJI Ranjan Gogoi to the young woman who had complained against him.

The functioning of that in-house committee – which comprised Justices S.A. Bobde, Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee – was marred by its refusal to follow transparent noms, leading eventually to the complainant recusing herself from the proceedings. But this time, in the Justice Ramana matter, the Supreme Court has taken a further step towards opacity by not even disclosing the composition of the in-house committee or giving the complainant, Jagan Reddy, a chance to be heard. Simply put, the public at large has no information about when this in-house procedure was set in motion, who was part of it or what material or evidence it regarded in order to decide that the charge be “dismissed”.

The in-house procedure finding may well be fair but its handling falls far, far short of the transparency one has a right to expect from the highest court of the land. Anyone remember the adage, ‘Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done’?

If the court cannot escape scrutiny for its conduct, Jagan Reddy’s own motives also deserve a closer look. Was he really interested in justice being done? Or was he interested only in wounding a judge who was likely to be CJI by giving the Modi government ammunition that it could use in its own management of relations between the executive and the higher judiciary? Or did he naively play into the Centre’s hands? These are valid questions to ask given that three of the past four CJIs sustained serious ‘wounds’ of one kind or another while in office; in each case, the Modi government steadfastly stood by them. Their record – both as judges and as masters of the roster – is all in the public domain and nothing further need be said.


BJP goes native in Tamil country

The BJP in Tamil Nadu has been mocked for the issues the party has raised in its manifesto, which was released on Monday. After having taken a vocal stand against the freebie culture of DMK, the saffron party promised free tablets to school and college-going students. The party has also promised free CFL bulbs to ration card-holders. Until now, the BJP had dismissed freebies as contemptible. 

Social media users criticised the BJP for promising to implement total prohibition in the state, for it has not taken any such measure in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Haryana or Assam, where it is in the government. Many others slammed the party for promising to expedite the Cauvery-Gundaru river linking project. “The same party’s ministers in Karnataka have moved the SC to prevent the project,” they said.

Prime Number: 84
That is the number of persons apprehended in the last six months for smuggling petrol and diesel in Bihar from Nepal, the Modi government told Parliament. Of course, it neglected to mention that this was made possible by the world’s highest rate of taxation on fuel imposed by the Modi government. 

Meanwhile, state oil companies made two back-to-back fuel price cuts effective Wednesday and Thursday, even though global benchmark crude prices soared by over 5%. The companies, which have held prices for the past 24 days after relentlessly raising prices 25 times since January 1, gave no reason for the sudden price cut, which comes just three days before five states, including Bengal, go to the polls.

55% of Asians say they can be more authentic selves at work, higher than world average or past years

Microsoft’s research shows that “digital exhaustion” is having consequences and 41% of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year. This number is even higher for Gen Z (54%). At the same time, 46% are planning to make a major pivot or career transition. These numbers are notably higher than before. “Now more than ever, people are expecting their employers and leaders to empathise with their unique challenges,” the report says, “but business leaders may be out of touch with what their employees need.” The index, which surveyed more than 30,000 people in 31 countries, including India, has analysed trillions of labour signals across Microsoft 365 and career social networking site LinkedIn, also found stark disparities behind the disconnect between management and workers. No separate observation about India are made, but it finds that 55% of remote workers in Asia say they are more likely to be their authentic selves at work compared to last year (higher than the 44% global average).

Deep Dive

Ferment on campuses

The protest in Ashoka University is the latest in a series of student-led protests in the country, signs of a ferment in campuses over the past decade. Fareeha Iftikhar compiles the key moments in universities in the past decade, where students have expressed their disenchantment either due to issues specific to their university or on larger national issues, leading to a tussle with the administration, and in some cases, with the government.

WhatsApp contravened competition law

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) has directed its investigation arm to conduct a probe into WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy and terms of service on prima facie finding that the firm has contravened competition law provisions through its “exploitative and exclusionary conduct” in the garb of a policy update. It has asked for a report within 60 days. The order against WhatsApp LLC and parent Facebook Inc came after the commission took suo motu cognisance of the matter, on considering media reports and the potential impact of the policy on WhatsApp users and the market. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Sasikanth Senthil is one of two civil servants from the Karnataka cadre to quit and join politics. He says he does not want to be asked what bureaucrats were asked in the Nuremberg trials ― what were you doing?

  • A gurdwara opens its doors for namaz. A temple hands over a vacant plot for a mosque. Communities join hands to rebuild a damaged mosque. A place of worship can be about love and inclusiveness, writes Priya Ramani.

  • Arunabh Saikia writes that the BJP has pursued a systematic strategy of undercutting Assamese nationalism by co-opting the leaders of smaller ethnic groups, not only for immediate electoral benefit but for shoring up long-term support for its ideological agenda

  • With a positive growth rate even during the pandemic, Bangladesh can teach India something about increasing women’s participation in the workforce, liberalising internal and external trade and making micro lending accessible, write Manjeet Kripalani, Rajiv Bhatia and Sagnik Chakraborty.

  • Prabhat Patnaik writes that even purely as a fiscal strategy, the privatisation of public assets for financing government expenditure is utterly inexcusable. It betrays either poor economics or a determination to increase wealth inequality.

  • The Modi government has engaged with its international critics not on facts but on values, and must now make its position clear if it wants to counter the charge of a ‘diminishing democracy,’ writes Atul Mishra.

Listen Up

All at sea

Abandoned by his ship’s owners for two years, Vikash Mishra suffered an extraordinary ordeal. He lived on a leaky cargo ship after its owners ran out of money. After three years, Vikash was brought to Dubai and the bizarre situation finally ended. 

Watch Out

“When the crop of lies and hatred grows, of course we must speak.” Directed by Riddhi Sen and Rwitobroto Mukherjee, filmed by a professional crew and with a mix of fine young singers and veterans from the Bengali stage, screen, popular music and culture, a campaign song directly aimed at the BJP is moving hearts and minds in West Bengal, though it is actually about all of India. The images are from all over the country ― beef vigilantism, hysteria about anti-nationals, Pakistan-mania, the works. Anirban Bhattacharya’s lyrics are extremely direct, and would be refreshing for readers in parts of the country which have learned to be circumspect: “I looked into Goebbels’ mirror, and saw your face there.”

Viewers are urged to stand by their convictions: “If anyone seeks to divide citizen from citizen, as Bengalis, as Indians, we stand against them.” And to forcefully reject the politics of anger: “We shall look hatred in the eye and say: ‘This land is not your land. This is the land of love. This is Bharatvarsha.’” Perhaps much would be lost in translation, but nevertheless, this song is crying out to be translated into the other Indian languages. 

Over and Out

The contentious Umpire’s Call, which has been lambasted as confusing by India captain Virat Kohli, will be discussed by the Anil Kumble-led ICC Cricket Committee during several meetings in cricket’s world governing body starting later this week. The all powerful board meet is scheduled for March 30. Virat Kohli’s ‘attitude’ is again up for discussion internationally. Cricket geeks and Umpire’s Call obsessives should also see this.

And in Mathura, it’s Holi. Even in a pandemic. 

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.