The India Cable: State Polls from March 27, Results on May 2; New IT Rules Break Social Media Privacy, Target Media

Plus: Nirav Modi extradition cleared, Biden reverses Trump’s immigration order, Nodeep Kaur get bail, Sebi chair fears systemic instability and most unusually, peace is reaffirmed on both fronts

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
February 26, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Cabinet Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan blames runaway fuel prices on international rates, which should ease as winter recedes. In reality, international rates are low, spring is in the air and summer is almost upon us. And anyway, crude prices have nothing to do with the weather. 

The Election Commission today announced poll dates for five states beginning from March 27. The poll-bound states are West Bengal, Assam, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and all votes will be counted on May 2.

At an event in Ahmedabad, the Finance Minister declined to comment on when fuel prices would be brought down, and said speaking of it would be a “dharma sankat” (jeopardising duty). The jeopardy is clearly weighing on her mind, because she had used the same phrase earlier in Chennai, with reference to exorbitant fuel prices. She has also said that socialism does not fit well in the Indian ethos.

In a London high court, Judge Samuel Goozee has cleared the extradition of fugitive diamond trader Nirav Modi to India. Modi retains the option of appealing against the extradition order. The government got a lot of flak when the Gujarat-based diamantaire was seen in group photographs with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Davos in Switzerland in 2018 ― after he had absconded. Modi the PM found it hard to live down those shots. Modi the fugitive just loved it.  

An abandoned SUV with 20 gelatin sticks was found outside billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s residence Antilia in Mumbai. The abandoned vehicle was spotted by the Ambanis’ security detail on Thursday evening, and local police were informed.

US President Joe Biden has reversed Donald Trump’s executive orders, issued on the pretext of the pandemic, restricting green card applications and some visa types. In his perception, the curbs hurt US interests. India’s trade policy remained largely unchanged since the last review in 2015 as the country continues to rely on instruments such as tariffs, export taxes, minimum import prices and licensing, according to the minutes of the meeting of India’s seventh trade policy review of the World Trade Organisation, held January 6-8.

Securities and Exchange Board of India Chairman Ajay Tyagi said that the current disconnect between financial markets and the real economy had no precedent and concurred with other regulators that it poses a risk to systemic stability. 

A survey of 28 countries by WEF-Ipsos finds that in India, unemployment and loss of income are the biggest worries, affecting more than two-thirds of those canvassed. Unemployment figures in India had been shooting up well before the pandemic struck.

The medical examination of trade union leader Shiv Kumar has revealed injuries consistent with his claim of custodial torture ― fractures in his hand and foot and broken nail beds in his toes caused by a blunt instrument. His injuries ― many more are listed ― date to the time of his arrest. He was picked up about the same time as fellow trade unionist Nodeep Kaur, who has also alleged police torture. This morning, Kaur was granted bail by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, in the third case pending against her. Both arrests were linked to the farmers’ protests in progress around Delhi, and the unionists were held in BJP-ruled Haryana. 


India, China review pullback

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Thursday. They discussed the implementation of their ‘Moscow Agreement’ on the border standoff in eastern Ladakh and reviewed the status of disengagement. The Chinese statement started with an odd opening paragraph, blaming India’s China policy. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated that “India has not conceded any territory as a result of this agreement. On the contrary, it has enforced observance and respect for LAC and it has prevented any unilateral change in the status quo.”


India-Pakistan reaffirm ceasefire

The sudden announcement of a deal with Pakistan, starting with a reaffirmation of the ceasefire on the Line of Control, led to stories about the man behind the move, Ajit Doval. One of the usual suspects claimed in his news report that Doval had held secret backchannel talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Moeed Yusuf. Yusuf denied any such engagement and termed these reports baseless. The Indian government, in contrast, has not issued a denial. 

The Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “…as we have said earlier, India desires normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan. We have always maintained we are committed to addressing issues, if any, in a peaceful and bilateral manner.” 

From war on two fronts to peace on both, on the same day


Intermediary rules draw the line across the board 

The new draft IT Intermediary Rules, applicable to OTT platforms like Netflix, social media companies and force-fit onto digital news portals too give plenty of control to the government. The most thought-provoking innovation is the requirement for companies to break the encryption of communications if the government wants it broken. This means that WhatsApp can be banned if it does not comply with a government order to break encryption, which would  compromise the privacy of all parties to a conversation. 

None of these rules were developed in consultation with stakeholders, and in 2018, when news about this first broke, the government had denied that it had any such plans. In contrast to EU norms, which have been the most progressive and put privacy at the centre of policy, in India, security concerns are at the centre. How serious the government is about choking social media is clear from this primer. Here is a look at a few forthcoming web series that may be affected by ‘self-regulation’.

WhatsApp is the top social app, and has 53 crore or 530 million users in India, followed by YouTube with 44.8 crore (448 million) users. Facebook has 41 crore (410 million), Instagram has 21 crore (210 million) and Twitter has 1.75 crore (17.5 million) users, according to government data.


Tandav in the courtroom

The Allahabad High Court on Thursday rejected the anticipatory bail application of Amazon Prime Video’s commercial head Aparna Purohit in the ongoing investigation against the web series Tandav. In an extraordinary ruling, the court observed: “Such people make the revered figures of religion of majority community source of earning money.” Another gem from the prosecution: “The post of Prime Minister has been depicted in a manner which will adversely affect the democratic system of the country.”


The Long Cable

Government applies hammerlock on independent media

Sidharth Bhatia

While the government actively promotes Digital India, the latest regulatory rules announced by it seem to indicate an attempt to control, if not curb, all kinds of online platforms. What’s more, these rules have lumped together social media – Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc – with OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, and digital news sites that have emerged in the last few years.

Many of the provisions in these new rules seem vague and even impractical – like tracing the ‘first originator’ of messages that spread fake content, which would make a mockery of encryption – but most worrying are conditions imposed on news platforms. Here, the intent seems to be not just to curb fake news, but also to clamp down on sites that practice fair, investigative journalism. And it is plainly discriminatory, separating big print publications which put their content on the Internet from smaller digital startups.

The ‘three-tier’ regulatory mechanism uses the word “self-regulatory”, but brings in the government by way of a committee that includes bureaucrats from several ministries. This way, the executive will have oversight of news, which is unprecedented in India. Neither print nor broadcast television have any such provision, and for the most part, news sites are run by experienced, professional journalists. Why are they being singled out?

In the last few years, many of these sites have done landmark stories that have been ignored by the old media. Most television channels are in thrall to the government and its leader Narendra Modi, and anchors routinely rubbish the Opposition parties and broadcast the government’s version of events without questioning it. The digital sites have shown an independent spirit and their reporting has embarrassed, even angered the establishment.

Not surprisingly, more and more discerning readers, especially younger ones, are turning towards such sites. Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar’s statement, that “media freedom is absolute but with responsible and reasonable restrictions,” is a chilling reminder of the government’s thinking. There are enough existing laws that impose reasonable restrictions on newspapers, television and even digital sites.

From now on, anybody who complains about a story on a digital site will get a hearing from the regulatory body and in the end, the matter could be decided by government mandarins, including civil servants from the Ministry of Defence. The implications are worrying.

The government had earlier suggested that any such rules would be introduced as legislation, which would have involved discussion in Parliament. Now, true to form, the rules have been announced as an Executive Order, a fiat which bypasses any public airing or consultation with the digital sites, which would be the most deeply affected.

Essentially, this is a blow against the freedom of the press and will, in the present form, curb independent journalism. At a time when freedom of expression is being stifled in many ways, it is also a reminder that this government, for all its platitudes about media freedom, does not like criticism of any kind.


Reportedly

In the autobiography of veteran BJP leader Shanta Kumar, passages about the party using horse trading to grab power will deeply embarrass his party, which is earning criticism for its readiness to topple democratically elected governments. Kumar, twice Himachal Pradesh chief minister, is now part of the sidelined ‘marg darshak mandal’ of the saffron party. He has claimed that he lost his seat in the Union Cabinet in 2003 after he unearthed a Rs 300 crore scam when he was Union minister for Rural Development. 

Shanta Kumar states that he brought the facts to the notice of prime minister AB Vajpayee. He claimed that instead of initiating action against the culprits, he was forced to step down, a heavy price for his honesty. Earlier, there were presumptions that Shanta Kumar was removed from the Vajpayee cabinet for his remarks on the Gujarat riots. In the second part of his book, the veteran leader has gone to the extent of saying that he is “ashamed” to see his party getting involved in the “sale and purchase” of legislators.


Gas prices rise again

The price of domestic cooking gas LPG was hiked by Rs 25 per cylinder across all categories on Thursday, including subsidised fuel and the Ujjwala scheme. LPG prices were increased this month first by Rs 25 per cylinder on February 4 and by Rs 50 on February 15. Prices have been on the rise since December, and rates have cumulatively gone up by Rs 150 per cylinder.

LPG is available at a uniform rate across the country. The government, however, gives a small subsidy to select customers in remote areas to make up for higher freight charges. Subsidy has been eliminated in the metros and major cities through successive price increases over the past couple of years. In places like Delhi, no subsidy is paid to customers and all LPG users pay a market price of Rs 794 per cylinder.


Prime Number: 1 lakh
The Congress in Assam has collected more than one lakh gamosas (ceremonial scarves) with messages against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in a week-long drive. The party had sought the protest gamosas from the people to put on display at a memorial for “martyrs” of the anti­-CAA movement, which claimed five lives in December 2019. It intends to construct the memorial after coming to power and designs have been sought from architects in the state. 

Deep Dive

Debating disinvestment

Privatising PSUs is once again the flavour of the season. But data reveals that the Modi government is ignoring some hard truths. There are only a handful of sectors where a disproportionate market share and the nature of business allows government firms to command a premium.


Strictly for the birders

At least 244 bird species were recorded from Delhi-NCR on the Big Bird Day, held every spring, with the fourth-ever sighting of the grey-headed fishing eagle in the NCR. The number of species sighted shows is a slight decrease, perhaps because fewer birders are out on account of the pandemic. But during the lockdown, following the retreat of humans, bird populations in the capital had visibly increased.  


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Greater gender equality in STEM is crucially important, and in the larger interest of scientific progress and society, writes Barbara Wickham. Currently, India is looking at a paradoxical situation where women are studying STEM subjects but there are too few women in STEM careers.


Listen Up

Directed by Ribhu Dasgupta, The Girl on the Train stars Parineeti Chopra, Aditi Rao Hydari, Avinash Tiwary and Kirti Kulhari. They chat with Anupama Chopra about adapting the 2016 Hollywood film starring Emily Blunt in Hindi, changes they would like to see in the film industry and why the term ‘women-oriented film’ is actually derogatory.


Watch Out

To be Muslim in India

In a 39-minute interview with Karan Thapar, Ghazala Wahab says Indian Muslims are caught “in a pincer grip”. One prong of the pincer is “the socio-political discrimination they face at the hands of both law-making and law-enforcing authorities,” and often amounts to physical and mental violence. It denies them equal opportunity, even justice. “This forces Muslims to seek security in their own numbers, and they withdraw into ghettos on the periphery of the mainstream, thereby limiting their choices in terms of accommodation, education and profession.” 


Jobs off the rails, trams still on track

#Modi_job_do and #Modi_rojgar_do caught the imagination of the internet yesterday, trending widely and for long periods. Youngsters unabashedly posed, reposted and insisted the government make sure that they get jobs, that government vacancies are filled, and examinations are held and marked on time.

Cities ditch trams in favour of polluting buses, and then they get all nostalgic. Mumbai will unveil a tram reconstructed on a chassis brought on permanent lease from Kolkata by former BEST general manager Manmohan Singh. It has been restored by referring to old photographs and the specifications of the long-defunct Bombay Tramway Company. Sadly, it is not a working model ― no tracks exist in the city any more.

In Kolkata, where trams still run, a tram with a classic wooden body has been refitted into a travelling art gallery. The idea is to take art to the people in their neighbourhoods, instead of expecting them to visit galleries. The city also has a mobile library on a tramcar, which travels through College Street, the centre of education and publishing from colonial times. Among other well-known brands, the publishing house Rupa was born there. And a tram which stands at the centre of the city has been converted into a museum of tramway memorabilia


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.