The India Cable: Sedition Setback for Govt; The More Modi Loses Control, the Harder He Tries to Impose It

Plus: Why Supreme Court faulted govt's vaccine policy, from gold loans to auto sales, distress signs abound, surveys disadvantage Modi, Indian state more fragile, Joji world's 1st major pandemic film

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjila

Snapshot of the day
June 3, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The courts are giving the government a hard time. The Supreme Court wants to know about the vaccination strategy and the “thinking” behind it ― that’s both sarcasm and exasperation. And it has quashed a sedition case filed against TV anchor Vinod Dua, for a YouTube video critical of the PM’s handling of Covid-19. It said that all journalists are protected by the Kedar Nath Singh judgement, which had limited the ambit of India’s sedition law (Section 124A of the IPC) to only those actions that have a direct nexus to violence. The ruling could lead to quick relief for Mrinal Pande, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vinod Jose and other journalists charged with sedition in the wake of the farmers’ protest in Delhi on January 26, 2021. Or perhaps not, given the way the rule of law operates these days. Other journalists charged with the same offence include Siddique Kappen in Uttar Pradesh and Kishorechandra Wangkhem in Manipur.

The Delhi High Court said that officials who were not actualising possibilities to increase vaccine production “need to be charged with manslaughter.” Meanwhile, this morning in the Delhi High Court, the Drug Controller said BJP MP Gautam Gambhir and AAP MLA Praveen Kumar are guilty of hoarding Covid-19 drugs. The court asked it to take exemplary action.  

An analysis finds that for the Centre to meet the 2021 vaccine targets it has claimed in the Supreme Court, it needs to boost vaccinations six-fold. On the contrary, the pace of vaccination in May has dropped by 34% from April because of a supply crunch.

The economy is reeling. One of India’s largest gold loan companies, Manappuram Finance, auctioned gold worth about $55 million in the January-March quarter, compared with $1.1 million in the preceding three quarters combined, reports Reuters. This is gold held as collateral, mostly family heirlooms. Its sale indicates rising defaults on mortgages, a sign of long-term economic distress. 

Another warning sign is a rise in bounced cheques, indicating insufficient funds for loan repayments or settlement of credit card bills. In May, the cheque bounce rate for loan repayments doubled to 21% from a year ago, while for credit cards it rose to 18% from 10%, according to data from Creditas Solution. 

Sales of consumer durables like TVs and white goods plunged 65% in May, compared to April. Smartphone sales fell by over 30%. Passenger vehicle manufacturers shipped just one third of the numbers they did in April and are expected to slump by over 60% in May since automakers including Maruti Suzuki and Hero MotoCorp halted production for days amid rising infections. Dealerships remain closed. In May, factory activity fell to a 10-month low, slowing growth. After the 2020 lockdown, many manufacturing units were at 90% of pre-Covid production capacity by March 2021. But May manufacturing numbers show they may have slipped back to 45-50%. Sales of goods including groceries, footwear, apparel and beauty products fell 49% in April, according to the Retail Association of India, which anticipates a bigger decline in May. 

Astonishingly, 8,733 people were mowed down on railway tracks in 2020, even though passenger train services were severely curtailed due to the nationwide lockdown. They are not classified as “railway accidents”, but as “untoward incidents” or “trespassing”. Officials said many of the victims were migrant workers. Obscured by news of deaths and devastation, the migrant crisis continues in India as the second wave of Covid-19 has left migrant workers with no savings and few job opportunities

The Financial Times writes that the “bizarre claim of success — which only emphasised the vast numbers stricken by the virus — reflects New Delhi’s creative use of data to bolster its image. Rather than using numbers as a critical tool to inform policymaking, Modi and his ruling BJP treat data as an important input for a political narrative about Modi leading India to its rightful place in the pantheon of world powers.” This tallies with what Dainik Bhaskar reports today. In May, in Patna alone, the government says 446 died of Covid, but just three cremation grounds have recorded 1,648 cremations according to the Covid protocol.

India’s abstention from the latest resolution on the Palestinian issue suppresses human rights of “all people”, Palestine’s Foreign Minister Dr Riad Malki has said, in an unusually strong letter to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. ‘Ensuring respect for international human rights law and humanitarian law in Occupied Palestinian Territory including East Jerusalem and in Israel’ was the product of long years of multilateral negotiation. The resolution at the UN Human Rights Council was adopted with 24 votes, 9 nayes and 14 abstentions, including India’s.

The World Test Championship should be decided in a best-of-three series, the Indian team believes. India haven’t won an ICC title since 2013. Indian coach Ravi Shastri says: “I think this is the biggest. If not the biggest ever.” 

Actor Juhi Chawla’s case against the 5G network rollout took an unexpected turn in a virtual courtroom yesterday ― the online hearing was repeatedly gatecrashed by a fan singing songs from her movies. The die-hand fan was removed several times from the proceedings, but leapt right back in to regale the Delhi High Court with his songs. 


Two surveys find Modi on back foot

Two interesting mood-of-the-nation surveys popped up yesterday. The first, by Prashnam, of 14,881 people in 967 rural constituencies in six large Hindi-speaking states, found that one in six had lost someone to Covid. For their loss, 42% blame the Modi government, 39% blame the stars and only 19% blame the state government. The AI technology startup which analysed the data was founded by Rajesh Jain, once an ardent Modi supporter, who also founded Niti Central. 

The second survey, by ABP News-C-Voter, finds that Narendra Modi’s base could be dissatisfied with his performance, though they support big-ticket Hindutva moves like the Ram Temple, CAA and the vivisection of Kashmir. The new poll concludes that the decisions to campaign hard in the Bengal polls, to hold the Kumbh Mela and to stonewall farmers have alienated voters, who feel that big business benefits the most from this government. Asked if the Chinese encroachment in Ladakh was a failure of the Central government, 44.8% said it was, and 41.9% said the protesting farmers’ demand should have been accepted. An analysis.


SC slams Centre on vaccination

Saying that judicial review and safeguarding fundamental rights is its job, the Supreme Court has decided to closely examine the Centre’s Covid-19 vaccination policy for the age group of 18-44 years. “Our Constitution does not envisage courts to be silent spectators when constitutional rights of citizens are infringed by executive policies,” a bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud said. The Union government had told the court that there is little room for judicial interference in the management of Covid-19.

The central government’s purchase history of all Covid-19 vaccines (Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V) has been sought. How is the Rs 35,000 crore budget allocation being spent? Why can’t it be used to vaccinate those aged 18-44 years? The apex court also sought to know about the Centre’s “thinking” behind the vaccination policy, saying it was “prima facie arbitrary and irrational” ― shots were initially free and then paid for, in the 18-44 age group. It asked the Centre to reveal the percentage of the population vaccinated, with single dose and both doses, in rural and urban areas, along with documents including “file notings”, reflecting its thinking. The Centre has a fortnight to respond, and should bring on record an outline for vaccinating the remaining population. The order is here.


Vaccination numbers don’t add up

The Modi government’s extravagant claims about vaccination targets are perplexing. For the month of May, 7,94,05,200 vaccine doses were shown to be available through central supply and direct procurement by states and private hospitals, but only about 6.1 crore doses were administered. This has raised doubts about the government’s claim that 11.95 crore vaccine doses will be available in June.

Yesterday, the government reiterated that while 6.1 crore doses were administered in May, 1.62 crore unused doses were available with states. On the clarification about unused doses, the economist R Ramakumar pointed out that at the end of April, the Centre had shown around 1 crore doses as remaining, which may have been administered in May. He said that while India’s production capacity, submitted by the Centre in a Supreme Court affidavit last month, may have been 8.5 crore ― 6.5 crore for Covishield and 2 crore for Covaxin ― in May, it looks like India did not manufacture that many vaccines. 


Highway robbery ― Kerala BJP denies connection

A case of highway robbery in early April has snowballed into a political controversy in Kerala, especially within the state BJP. Rs 3.5 crore was supposedly looted in Thrissur, on a state highway. The ruling CPI(M) has alleged that the BJP was planning to use the money to “purchase votes” for the Kerala Assembly election. The BJP state leadership is distancing itself from the controversy.

The saga has thrown up uncomfortable questions for the BJP. Was the money being transported by BJP from Karnataka to Kerala? Was it looted by a few BJP leaders in Kerala, who were aware that it was being moved? The police had asked RSS leader and BJP state organisation secretary M Ganeshan and party office secretary Gireesh to appear for questioning.


The Long Cable

The More Modi Loses Control, the Harder He Tries to Impose It

Siddharth Varadarajan

The government, speaking through unidentified “sources”, has tried to put a misleading gloss on its draconian new gag order for retired intelligence and security officials. “Several reports are trying to create an erroneous and misleading narrative… the intention is to safeguard the national interest, always,” the Hindustan Times reported.

The sweeping new rule bars retired from officials from 18 security and intelligence organisations from “making any publication relating to” the “domain of the organisation, including any reference or information about any personnel and his designation, and expertise or knowledge gained by virtue of working in that organisation” without prior clearance.

The rationale for this, according to the unidentified source, is that "In the past, a few intelligence and government officials, who have worked in Intelligence or Security-related organisations, have publicly expressed themselves, by means of writing or speaking, revealing specific knowledge and sensitive information gained by virtue of having worked in that organisation."

What this explanation ignores is that any publication by a retired spook or securitywallah which “prejudicially affect(s) the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State” was already made a grounds for loss of pension back in 2008, when the Central pension rules were amended to make this explicit. And then there is also the catch all Official Secrets Act which can always be pressed into service too.

If at all the 2008 rule has been found inadequate and has failed to prevent retired officials from publishing material that has undermined the sovereignty of India or the interests of the state, the government should cite examples in order to make its case for a tighter gag order. But it has done no such thing. The personnel ministry has offered no explanation for the new rule. 

What the unidentified government source quoted by the Hindustan Times has done, however, is confirm that the aim of the new rule is not to guard sensitive secrets as such (which were already covered) but to compel retired officials to get official permission each time they wish to express their views: 

“The Centre on Wednesday clarified that the amendments to the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972 is not meant, in any way, to bar retired intelligence or security-related officials from expressing their views. ‘In fact, it makes it easier for them to do so, given that they can now contact the head of their former employer organisation and seek clarification on whether the proposed material is sensitive or non-sensitive,’ government sources said. (emphasis added)

Note the Orwellian logic. We are making it “easier” for retired officials to express their views by ensuring that they contact the government in advance to “seek clarification” on whether they are allowed to express the views they wish to. 

The reason for this brazen attempt to censor retired bureaucrats is simple: they have emerged as an emerging but determined source of opposition to government policies. A case in point, the Constitutional Conduct Group, which has a large number of retired officials from all services, including the former intelligence and security establishment, signing its open letters. 

While it is doubtful that the new rule can be made applicable to those officials who have already retired, what Narendra Modi – who heads the ministry which handles pensions – hopes to do is ensure the ranks of the outspoken retirees do not grow any further. 

In the absence of this kind of threat, many senior officials upset at the prevailing caprice and blatant politicisation of their services would invariably emerge as critics upon retirement. If they come from the fields of national security and intelligence – areas the BJP claims to be especially strong – their views could prove especially damaging to the government. Hence the new gag order.


Reportedly

Uttar Pradesh is usually touted as a showcase of the BJP’s governance model and Adityanath often campaigns in other states, though the results are meagre. But now, there is trouble in UP itself. BJP’s general secretary incharge of organisation, BL Santosh, was in the state capital for two days and took individual feedback from ministers, MLAs and leaders. For a party that boasts of being united and having done wonders in the state, an audit is unusual. But the BJP leadership had no choice after its ministers and MLAs went public about the state government’s mishandling of the pandemic, and lost the panchayat elections to the Samajwadi Party as well. A change of guard like in neighbouring Uttarakhand may help, but that would mean accepting failure. 


Reliance pays crores to former CVC, SBI chair

Former central vigilance commissioner KV Chowdary, who was inducted into the board of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance in October 2019, drew a salary of Rs 2 crore in 2020-21, according to RIL’s Annual report. This includes Rs 34 lakh as sitting fee and Rs 1.65 cr as commission. Former State Bank of India chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya, who is also on the RIL board as independent director, received a salary of Rs 1.85 crore.


Prime Number: 7
That's the number of months retired Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra over-stayed in his Lutyens Delhi accommodation. There were five deaths due to Covid in his extended family, ‘a source close to Arun Mishra’ (a well known reporter's euphemism for he man himself) told The Times of India, which kept him out of station. Then his wife contracted Covid. But now, he has been made chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, the first non-Chief Justice to make it. “Human rites”, as filmmaker Anubhav Sinha quipped. 

India rises in the ‘Fragile States Index’

On the ‘Fragile States Index 2021’, Yemen is at number 1 (most failed). Finland is at 179 (least failed). India has moved up (which is a fall) 15 places from 81 to 66 since 2014, inching towards Yemen. The indicators chosen are “factionalisation, group grievance, economic decline, brain drain, human rights, rule of law”. India falls between Jordan at 67 and Nicaragua at 65. 


Deep Dive

‘Culpable Carnage’ is the title of The Caravan cover story for June, where Chahat Rana details “how the Modi government’s failure to act led to India’s Covid-19 catastrophe.” The names of the dead are memorialised in a long ‘crawl’, apparently flowing from the doors of the proposed Parliament building.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • In an interaction in the US, S Jaishankar replied to Gen. McMaster without once using the word “Hindutva”, and without referring to any of the laws India is being criticised for around the world. He ran away from the debate because there was no defence, writes Aakar Patel.

  • The act of threatening a chief secretary of a rather annoying Opposition-run state is more than just an exercise in misplaced audacity. The fact that the PM wants to send a chief secretary to jail to punish his boss for annoying him indicates that he has embedded petulance into state policy, writes Jawhar Sircar.

  • Srinath K Reddy uses Naomi Osaka’s exit from the French Open to address vital issues of mental health. Parth Pandya also asks whether the relationship between media and sports stars (the trigger for her exit) needs re-examining in the digital age.

  • Kanwal Sibal and a number of other former Indian ambassadors have written an article criticising former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon (they don’t name him but they quote the comments he made recently) and others among their ranks for running down the Modi government. Not only is all well on the foreign policy front but India is doing great.


Listen Up

How efficacious are Covid-19 vaccines? Do some work better than others? How worried should we be about breakthrough infections? How did India, the world’s biggest vaccine supplier, run into a vaccine shortage? And when will enough vaccines be available? Gagandeep Kang answers these questions, and addresses concerns around the vaccine policy.


Watch Out

The Bangalore International Centre, in collaboration with the International Music and Arts Society, brings the late Vanraj Bhatia’s musical prowess and versatility to the attention of a wider audience. His last work, an opera for Broadway based on Girish Karnad’s play The Fire and the Rain, also features here.


Over and Out

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody doffs his hat to the Malayalam movie Joji, terming it “the first major film of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Joji is an adaptation of  ‘Macbeth’, and Brody writes that “the medical crisis reflects a world out of joint”.


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.