The India Cable: States Didn’t Want To Buy Vaccines; ‘Corpses in Ganga’ Poet a ‘Literary Naxal’

Plus: Why ‘winless wonders’ help BJP, MSP hikes disappoint farmers, Covaxin remains on trial, Hindu Indian-Americans identify with caste, and Modi wants to morph young people into 'famous writers'

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

Snapshot of the day
June 10, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Financial Times reports that Conservative MPs are urging British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to stand up for British companies operating in India at this week’s G7 summit, and to warn Prime Minister Narendra Modi against making India “a halfway house between democracy and despotism” By which they mean a place where firms like Cairn are being subjected to what they say are unreasonable tax demands and not the despotism people are feeling all around. Because of the severity of the second wave in India, Modi will attend the G7 summit, starting on Friday, virtually. The leaders of Australia, South Korea and South Africa are also invited as guests. 

The downside of marketing yourself as a ‘chaiwallah’ is that actual tea vendors then feel free to offer you advice. One of the fraternity from Baramati, Maharashtra, has sent a money order of Rs 100 to Modi, to shave off the only thing that’s actually grown during his tenure― his beard. “If he should grow something, it must be employment opportunities for the people of this country,” wrote Anil More, who runs a small tea stall opposite a private hospital on Indapur Road. “Attempts must be made to accelerate vaccination and to increase medical facilities. The PM must make sure people are rid of the miseries caused by the last two lockdowns.”

Around the world, from Bangladesh and Nepal to Rwanda, vulnerable hotspots have been grappling with stalled Covid-19 vaccination programmes as they run out of doses. Bloomberg reports that many of the shortages can be traced back to one company: The Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker. 

No food, no money, no MGNREGA work ― the second wave is driving migrant workers to suicide in UP. When Covid-19 arrived in India, few places looked as vulnerable as Mumbai. But a year on, South Asia’s most crowded city has surprised many by tackling a vicious second wave with considerable success. Hearing a PIL seeking door-to-door vaccination for the elderly and immobile, the Bombay High Court yesterday pulled up the Centre, saying that it seemed to be tardy when a “surgical strike” on the virus is required: “Early decisions could have saved lives.”

The Washington Post reports that “a resurgence of the coronavirus is feared by many public health experts if nothing is done.” Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry continues with its voodoo science, claiming that a single dose of vaccine to 78% of the population is enough to secure herd immunity. 

Bihar revised its Covid-19 death toll yesterday to 9,375, an increase of 72.8% over the 5,424 deaths attributed to the infection so far. The change was carried out after a 20-day exercise to audit Covid deaths, on the directions of the Patna High Court, which spotted discrepancies in official figures.

At least 100 employees of defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited have lost their lives to Covid-19, affecting crucial defence projects like the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas and Light Combat Helicopter. Another 4,000 employees have been infected. 

Christian and other religious minorities in Gujarat are upset about a new state law which they say curtails their right to manage their educational institutions. Religious minorities jointly moved the state’s High Court on Monday, seeking to quash the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education (Amendment) Act, 2021, which came into effect on June 1. Also in Gujarat, remember that searing poem by noted Gujarati writer Parul Khakkar on how floating Covid corpses had turned the Ganga into a hearse? The Gujarat Sahitya Akademi has now denounced it as the expression of “pointless angst” by “literary Naxals”.

The Reporters’ Collective has an exposé on how the Niti Aayog is going after ‘judicial activism’, under the guise of assessing the economic impact of the Supreme Court’s efforts to protect the environment. A riveting read.


Gujarat Assembly says no to live telecast

The Gujarat Legislative Assembly has opposed a PIL seeking live telecast of its proceedings and sharing of official documents online, saying it would decide what’s fit to publish. During a hearing on Tuesday in the Gujarat High Court, the Assembly secretariat said that it has no legal obligation to comply with the RTI Act and disclose its proceedings, and other documents. 

The PIL has sought the court’s direction to the Assembly secretariat to disclose and regularly update in Gujarati and English, on its website, information on live and old telecasts and transcripts. It also sought the disclosure of details of papers to be laid before the House ―  private members’ resolutions, zero hour proceedings, lists of questions and answers, texts of debates, legislations, information on House committees, rules, regulations, instructions, and other documents.


Farmers dismiss MSP hikes as ‘jumla’

New minimum support prices announced by the Centre yesterday left farmers deeply disappointed. The MSP for common paddy was raised to Rs 1,940 a quintal for the coming kharif season, less than 4% higher than last year. There were slightly higher increases in the MSPs for pulses, oilseeds and coarse cereals. But farmers are angry and protesting, it was no surprise that the announcement was termed a “jumla” as it did not account for the full cost of production. Farmers groups under the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) said that some increases, especially for maize, do not even keep pace with inflation.


Hindu Indian-Americans endogamous, identify with caste

Roughly half of all Hindu Indian-Americans, who constitute the second-largest immigrant group in the US, identify with a caste group,  according to ‘Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results from the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey’. Foreign-born respondents are significantly more likely than US-born respondents to espouse a caste identity. The overwhelming majority of Hindus with a caste identity ― more than eight in 10 ― self-identify as belonging to the category of general or ‘upper’ caste. As per the report, Indian-Americans regularly encounter discrimination and polarisation: “One in two Indian Americans reports being discriminated against in the past one year, with discrimination based on skin colour identified as the most common form of bias.”

They also exhibit very high rates of marriage within their community. While eight out of 10 respondents have a spouse or partner of Indian-origin, US-born Indian-Americans are four times more likely to have a spouse or partner who is of Indian-origin but was born in the US. Nearly three-quarters of Indian-Americans state that religion plays an important role in their lives, but religious practice is less pronounced: 40% of respondents pray at least once a day and 27% attend religious services at least once a week.


Covaxin remains on trial

Bharat Biotech is in the news again, not for producing the most expensive vaccine in India, but on account of vaccine data. It said yesterday that “a recent comparative report … said more antibodies are produced by Covishield than Covaxin.” It added that it was “not a peer-reviewed publication, nor a statistically and scientifically designed study, the study design and conduct reflect an ad hoc analysis, rather than [a] predetermined hypothesis. Further, the study was not registered on [the] CTRI website, nor approved by CDSCO & SEC”. 

That’s a spirited response, but Bharat Biotech should release vaccine data itself. The company came under pressure again and now claims that Phase 3 data will be out by July. Scientists and public health experts are keeping the questions coming regarding this extraordinary delay, while millions are vaccinated with the product. It’s particularly outrageous because the vaccine has been developed with a government body, the Indian Council of Medical Research. The delay has already led to Brazil’s regulator, Anvisa, imposing strict conditions on Covaxin’s use.


The Long Cable

Why ‘winless wonders’ like Jitin Prasada benefit the BJP  

Sidharth Bhatia

So another princeling ditches the Congress and joins the BJP. Jitin Prasada has left the Congress building and smoothly crossed over to the other side, just in time for the forthcoming elections in his home state, Uttar Pradesh. Prasada, who had begun to talk about his Brahmin identity and tried to position himself as a leader of the community, is hoping that they will rally around him. The BJP has no dearth of upper castes in the party, and certainly not in UP.

Prasada’s defection follows that of Jyotiraditya Scindia in March 2020, when he had walked away with his followers, including a few MLAs, and triggered a political crisis in Madhya Pradesh that eventually brought down the government of Kamal Nath. Scindia, who has a political base of his own, got a lot out of the deal — he was made a member of the Rajya Sabha and a few of the MLAs with him got ministerial berths.

In July last year, Sachin Pilot announced that the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan was in a minority ― and was summarily sacked from the Congress. For days, he and a group of MLAs remained ensconced in a resort and speculation was rife that he was negotiating with the BJP, but nothing came of it and he went back to the Congress; there is a calm on the surface, but there is no saying when he could leave once again.

Like Scindia, Pilot has  real clout in his state and would be an asset to the BJP were he to ever jump ship; Prasada has none — he even lost two successive elections. Like him, there are other winless wonders grappling with a Hamletian dilemma and hoping that the BJP offers them a chance to be, though there is little that they can bring to the table.

All these young scions have something in common — they are dynasts whose fathers were heavyweights in the Congress. They were also in the charmed circle around Rahul Gandhi and enjoyed the influence and glamour that came with it. They got positions far beyond their seniority and could take a Lok Sabha ticket for granted. And as the Congress weakened, they all saw a bleak future ahead, especially since they found Rahul Gandhi gradually distancing himself from them. Rahul looked unpromising as a leader and they felt, as the party sank, that they would sink along with it. Why not desert while there was a chance? 

At least in the BJP, which looks unbeatable at this stage, there was some hope of getting into a position of power. So pretensions of being a loyal soldier of the Congress and true to its ideology were quickly jettisoned and a Hindu identity was discovered — Scindia’s grandmother and aunts were hardcore BJP types — and a bridge was established.

What does the BJP get out of it? The party likes to collect Congress leaders, especially if they have a winnability factor. Himanta Biswa Sarma, an MLA in Assam, joined the BJP in 2015, because he was unhappy with the then chief minister, Congressman Tarun Kumar Gogoi. Sarma had also complained that when he met Rahul Gandhi, he was distracted and playing with his dog.

Sarma is a heavyweight leader in the context of not only Assam but also the Northeast and he has shown his worth to the BJP — after the recent elections in the state, the party was almost compelled to make Sarma chief minister. Not doing so could have precipitated a crisis and prompted Sarma to walk away and start his own party. But the other Congress leaders who have joined or flirted with the BJP don’t wield the same kind of influence. So how does the BJP benefit by taking them in?

Pinching Congresspersons serves many other purposes — it embarrasses the Congress, it makes a further dent in the party and its prospects and most of all, it furthers the BJP’s stated aim of making India a Congress-mukt Bharat. The BJP would like nothing better than to crush the Congress into oblivion and become the only game in town. The Congress, debilitated though it is, still wins handsomely in states like Punjab and Chhattisgarh and is in power, singly or otherwise, in four other states: Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It has a respectable national vote and still attracts young members who are committed to its stated policy of secularism, frayed though it may be. Not everyone is enthralled by the BJP ― in fact, a large part of India does not subscribe to Hindutva — and would like to see it defeated. Not surprisingly, criticism from Rahul Gandhi still stings the BJP — it is aware that he may not be a big electoral victor, but his continued presence on the scene is potentially dangerous.

The doors of the BJP are therefore still open and there is a queue outside. Not everyone will be admitted, and even those who are won’t get good positions, but the hopefuls still wouldn’t mind taking a chance.  


Reportedly

Amid speculations about their separation, TMC MP and actor Nusrat Jahan said her relationship with her businessman husband Nikhil Jain was like a “live-in” one, since their marriage is not valid in India. In a statement on social media, she said she had married Jain in Turkey and the union was not registered under the Special Marriage Act in India. She also accused Jain of mishandling her money and their joint accounts without her approval, and said she’d taken this up with the appropriate banking authority. She also said that Jain had retained the jewellery she got from her family and friends, her clothes and even some of her accessories. It is not clear what happens to Jain’s privileges, facilities and benefits as the spouse of an MP. For all her protestations, Jain, a vocal BJP supporter, remains listed on the Lok Sabha website as Jahan’s husband.  Meanwhile, the Hindutva ecosystem on social media has used the controversy to allege Nusrat deliberately misled innocent Hindu voters.


After missing Cornwall, PM bound for DC

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may visit Washington, DC, later this year for his first in-person meeting with US President Joe Biden, if the Covid-19 pandemic does not worsen in India and the US again. Officials of the two countries are discussing the possibility of scheduling the PM’s visit and his meeting with the US president in September-November. It would be contingent upon the Covid-19 situation in both countries, to be appraised a few weeks on. Modi would have met Biden on the sidelines of the G7 summit hosted by Boris Johnson in Cornwall from Friday to Sunday, but could not travel to the UK due to the second Covid-19 wave, which has wreaked havoc across India.


Prime Number: 50%
That's the percentage of restaurants across segments of the industry that are expected to remain closed after restrictions ease, according to Pradeep Shetty, the joint honorary secretary of the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India. Earlier, the association had stated that 30% would remain closed after last year's lockdown.

Modi was wrong, states never asked for own vaccines

There is no evidence to support PM Modi’s claim that states asked for decentralised procurement of vaccines, finds AltNews. Out of 30 state Assemblies, 18 are controlled by the BJP either directly or through a coalition. Barring statements of two chief ministers, Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal and Uddhav Thackeray of Maharashtra, there are no reports of states wanting to purchase vaccines. Unless the Union government’s decisions are based on cherry-picked statements of a few Opposition leaders, while completely ignoring the ruling party’s state governments, the Prime Minister’s attempt to deflect blame to the states is unfounded.


Deep Dive

“The second wave of COVID-19 has hit India hard and laid bare the parlous consequences of decades of under-investment in its health system. India’s public health expenditure is stubbornly low in comparative terms – just 1 per cent of GDP per annum compared to 3 per cent in China, 4 per cent in Brazil or 4.5 per cent in South Africa,” write Louise Tillin of King’s College London and Sandhya Venkateswaran, Lancet Citizens Commission on Reimagining India’s Health System, in their paper, ‘A democratic health check: Why India shows the need for democracies to prioritise healthcare’. See page 26.


Wolfson History Prize for Louverture biography

British-Mauritian Oxford historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize for 2021. His new book Black Spartacus: the Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture is a biography of the Haitian revolution, and of the former slave who established the first independent black state.


Live-in entitled to pension benefits?

Is a woman in a live-in relationship with a man entitled to his retirement and pension benefits after his death and following the demise of his legally wedded wife, who is none other than her own sister? This question has been raised in the Madras High Court and a single judge, perhaps overwhelmed by its complexity, has referred the matter to a larger bench for adjudication. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Facebook must look beyond the Trump case and decide how to treat other irresponsible world leaders ― it must go after Modi, whose Facebook content has already had severe societal consequences, writes Bhaskar Chakravorti in Foreign Policy

  • Dinesh Abrol writes on India and the curious absence of clear policy on local vaccine production.

  • Locating the right to healthcare within the fundamental rights chapter of the Indian Constitution and explaining what it entails, Mahesh Hyati writes that other Indian states must follow the example of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, both of which have recently capped prices of Covid-19 essentials, in order to ensure that their residents’ right to healthcare is not violated.

  • When you go into politics, you don’t choose a party the way a graduate chooses the company that makes him the best placement offer. You choose a vehicle for your convictions, writes Shashi Tharoor.

  • In India, the birth rate is declining, particularly in the more educated and affluent families who can afford to give better education and quality of life to their children. As a result, an increasing fraction of the working-age population is becoming less educated, turning our ‘demographic dividend’ into a curse, writes Alok Ray.

  • The currency swap arrangement between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh seems to be the first time that any country other than India has provided macroeconomic support to another South Asian country, Sanjay Kathuria says.


Listen Up

In this podcast, engineer, ancient history buff and author Namit Arora talks about his latest book, Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization. He recalls visiting the ruins of the ancient Nalanda University, and wonders what a day in the life of students was like. And he reminds us that the Indus Valley Civilization pioneered one of the markers of modernity: indoor toilets.


Watch Out

Are the blues universal? Can the blues be found in India? In the first of three episodes of ‘Searching for the Blues’, Ankur and Ashutosh, founders of Amarrass Records, set out on a desert odyssey to film and record the dying culture of traditional Rajasthani music, and meet master musicians like Lakha Khan. The instruments they play are so old that their age is told in generations of musicians.


Over and Out

Bangladesh sells well in east India, and Tripura is one of the most important markets for Pran, our neighbour’s biggest food processor. Customers apparently pref Pran’s mango beverage and potato chips, which are competing with Real, Lay’s, Maaza and Haldiram on their own turf. 

A reminder from Oxford University’s Our World in Data of the number of trees per person: India is at a low of 28, against China’s  score of 100+ and Canada’s 10,000. 

More than 1,200 girls in Rajasthan started a movement against child marriage, which has seen a spike during the Covid pandemic, as families faced financial distress.

The PM plans to turn 75 youngsters into “famous writers” via a YUVA mentoring scheme. There is so much to be written, ghostwritten and rewritten. 


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.