The India Cable: ‘Supermodel’ Fails as Covid Surges Again, and the Media in Modi's Raj

Plus: Chinese phones zoom, Sahara must pay $8.2 billion, economy will flag even after pandemic passes, Twitter grilled and refried, India a ‘banana republic’, says BBC

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
November 20, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The ‘news’ Thursday evening of another surgical strike on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir took most people by surprise, including the Army, which was quick to respond and deny any such development. A fact-check by Alt News gives a glimpse into the ‘Chinese whispers’ school of news writing and how several news outlets turned PTI’s initial report of ‘pin-point strikes’ into ‘surgical strikes’ and ran with the story. The Modi government may be known for its bold moves, but opening up a second front when the border dispute with China is still live would have bordered on insanity. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry spokesperson said that the objective of India’s talks with China was to ensure “complete disengagement” of troops from the face-off points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). But China has been upgrading its military infrastructure all along the LAC, including the middle, Sikkim and eastern sectors, and has not limited itself to the Ladakh border.

The Ladakh border crisis will be 200 days old on Saturday, and we have seen more than 20 rounds of talks at military, diplomatic and political levels. But in Atmanirbhar Bharat, home of Make in India, imports of computer hardware from China are likely to record a five-year high at $5 billion in FY21, as the US is set to impose retaliatory tariffs on India for deciding to tax local revenue of Internet companies like Facebook. China is adopting the exact opposite course to India’s nationalist protectionism. President Xi Jinping told APEC on Thursday: “In today’s world where economic globalisation has become an irreversible trend, no country can develop itself by keeping its doors closed.” And IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath has reiterated that fiscal policy plays an essential role in economic recovery.

In Pakistan, Mumbai terror attack mastermind and Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed has been sentenced to 10 years in jail by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan in two more terror cases. Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, once regarded by the vast majority of Indian voters as “racist” and anti-immigration, is “ready for an Indian as PM”, according to a new book by Michael Ashcroft, a Tory peer who is former treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. 

The Delhi High Court has asked the Centre to respond to a PIL seeking a declaration recognising same sex marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriage Act. The Editors Guild of India has written to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal expressing concern over growing incidents of violence against journalists in the state.

Artists in Guwahati were forced by the police to paint over their mural of Akhil Gogoi. Photo: Special Arrangemment

Four artists were booked in the state capital by the police for drawing graffiti of jailed activist Akhil Gogoi, and were later forced to whitewash the wall. And a 70-year-old woman sustained injuries when some people tortured her after branding her a ‘witch’ at a tea garden in the state’s Golaghat district. 

The Economist writes on the BJP’s determination to interfere in the decision of lovers from different faiths to get married, to stop a non-existent ‘love jihad’. It elaborates that “India’s ruling party invents a Muslim plot against Hindu women.” Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot shows rare clarity for a senior Indian politician by accurately describing ‘love jihad’ in a series of tweets as “s word manufactured by BJP to divide the nation and disturb communal harmony.” 

An early humiliation for the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government in Bihar at the hands of the opposition ― three days after being sworn in as Bihar’s Education Minister, Mewalal Choudhary had to resign on Thursday. The Opposition had been attacking the JD(U) MLA from Tarapur in Munger, who was facing corruption cases for irregular appointments of assistant professors and junior scientists when he was earlier vice chancellor of an agricultural university.

With very few passengers travelling due to the pandemic, a superfast special train on one of the most jam-packed rail routes, from Bengaluru to Chennai, has been shelved. The Supreme Court on Thursday deferred for two weeks the hearing of a petition against the ‘Bindas Bol’ show of Sudarshan TV news channel. Edible oil prices are up by 30% this year. Food inflation is serious and rising. Farmers protesting against three new farm laws will reach Delhi on November 26 through five highways connecting the national capital, culminating their ‘Delhi Chalo’ march. 

The Ethiopian government, via its army chief, has accused the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, of procuring weapons for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting central troops. No evidence has been furnished. But it’s a fitting testament to the madness of 2020, when the WHO chief has to issue a statement in denial.

Scottish-American author Douglas Stewart, 44, has won the Booker prize for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, which was rejected by 30 editors before it was finally published. Though our world seems to be utterly changed, persistence remains a virtue.


Covid-19 at large, and getting larger

Covid-19 continues to surge throughout India. 

An entire village in Lahaul valley in Himachal Pradesh barring one 52-year old has tested Covid positive. 

The total number of cases in India has crossed 9 million and the country remains second only to the US on the world charts. Though the pandemic has undoubtedly slowed down, there is a danger that the growing use of the less accurate Rapid Antigen Test may have lulled policymakers and the public at large into a false sense of complacency. 

WHO Southeast Asia Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh had tempered enthusiasm on Wednesday, saying that a vaccine is unlikely to reach everyone before mid-2021. But Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute, the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, has said that it may be available over the next three or four months and that the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine “will be priced at Rs 500-600”. He also said that children could be the last to receive a shot.

With 45,576 more coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours on Thursday, India witnessed a jump of over 50% in reported cases on Tuesday. The central health minister has announced that children of dead Covid warriors will have five seats reserved in MBBS and Bachelor of Dental Studies courses from the next academic session.

Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilisers DV Sadananda Gowda has tested positive for Covid-19. The Centre has deputed teams to Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Manipur to strengthen Covid-19 containment, surveillance, testing and infection reduction. Due to high Covid-19 figures, Ahmedabad has imposed night curfew again to deter gatherings. The curfew will be from 9 pm till 6 am from Friday until further notice. The spectre of a second Covid-19 surge looms over Indore in Madhya Pradesh, where 31 staffers of a jewellery showroom tested positive, while Bihar is grappling with rising cases of post-Covid complications.

The Delhi government was slammed by the High Court over its bad management of the pandemic. It severely criticised the state government for its flip-flop on the cap on the number of wedding attendees allowed, in the wake of a fresh wave of the pandemic sweeping the city. “You (Delhi government) saw from November 1 which way the wind was blowing. But you turn turtle now because we asked you some questions. The bell should have rung loud and clear when the numbers were spiralling. Why did you not wake up when you saw the situation was deteriorating?” Delhi has raised the fine on being caught unmasked to Rs 2,000. 

The Centre has asked the UP and Haryana governments to check the Covid-19 bed status in Noida and Gurugram because of rising cases in Delhi. Private hospitals in the national capital have been asked to reserve 80% of ICU beds for Covid patients.

On October 18, just before the festive season began, a government committee of seven had declared, based on a so-called ‘Covid-19 India National Supermodel’, that the pandemic had peaked in India. The wild projection had led to a lot of scepticism about modelling techniques that were illogical, and did not consider the costs of the lifting of restrictions and the festive season. 

A vaccine made by a Chinese state-owned pharma company has already been administered to one million people. UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who is also Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy’s son-in-law, has refused to disclose whether he will profit from a surge in the share price of the Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer Moderna, one of the biggest investments held by the hedge fund he co-founded before entering parliament.


Grilled social media, served on a bed of headlines

A Joint Parliamentary Committee formed to study the Data Protection Bill seems to be more keen on making headlines by releasing information of its “grilling” of social media companies over issues seemingly unconnected to its mandate, as pointed out by Shashi Tharoor, who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology. A day after Twitter apologised to the parliamentary panel for wrongly geo-tagging Ladakh in China, the panel led by BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi “grilled” the social media giant over ‘obscene’ tweets by Kunal Kamra targeting the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of India. The panel has sought a reply from Twitter within seven days. If the panel continues to chase newsy issues, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s promise of finalising a data protection law soon will remain hollow, as it has been for the past few years.


Prime Number: 12%
India’s economic output will be 12% below pre-virus levels until 2025, according to Oxford Economics, placing it among the major economies which will remain worst affected even after the pandemic wanes. It projects potential growth for India at 4.5% over the next five years, lower than 6.5% before the virus.

The Long Cable

The past week has told us a lot about Modi and the media 

Siddharth Varadarajan

Since he came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has implemented a very simple media policy: clamp down on the flow of information and make it difficult for journalists to do their job using every legal and extra-legal measure possible. Since law and order is a state subject, the task of stymying the media has been implemented by BJP state administrations – to a lesser or greater extent depending on the thinness of each chief minister’s skin – with the Centre’s role limited to implementing the programme code which every broadcast television channel licensee must comply wth. Newspapers can be called to heel by using the lever of government advertising on which many publications depend but when it comes to the country’s scrappy digital news space, the Modi government has had very few levers at its control to ensure compliance with its agenda.

Four developments in the past 10 days tell us that the regulatory terrain is likely to get decidedly more hostile for those media platforms not playing ball with the ruling BJP.

First, audiovisual digital content and ‘online news and current affairs’ have been added to the Information and Broadcasting ministry’s official remit and this is likely to be followed by some form of regulatory intervention. 

Second, digital media platforms which until last year had the freedom to draw in as much foreign investment at they like, have now been formally told to scale down to 26% by next year. No digital media platform can henceforth access foreign investment even up to 26% without the Centre’s permission.

Third, the Centre made it clear by its handling of the Sudarshan TV channel episode that even “offensive” content which promotes majoritarian communalism will not be considered a violation of the programming code. Given that in the recent past, two channels which reported on majoritarian violence against minorities got blackout notices, this official attitude is strange and disturbing – though not entirely surprising.

Fourth, the government’s affidavit in the Supreme Court citing the work of responsible, professional media as justification for its refusal to act against those channels that vilified Muslims and Islam during their coverage of the Covid pandemic in March and April further confirms the political intention behind its talk of media regulation,

Net-net, the goal of ‘regulation’ is to make life as difficult as possible for digital and independent media – to tie them down with programme codes and rules and starve them of investment opportunities – while leaving the door open for the government’s allies in the media to have a free run.

The uncertain element in the mix is the attitude of the Supreme Court, which has expressed unhappiness with the Centre for not being more diligent in applying its rules during the TV coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat issue. Normally, one would see this judicial scolding as a good development. But with the Chief Justice of India himself betraying a flawed understanding of media freedom, not to speak of other constitutional guarantees, the media needs to watch this front carefully. 


Reportedly

Peace and development in Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 last August tops the list of the Modi government’s claimed achievements, but the salubrious climes of the erstwhile state have failed to attract even enough IAS and IPS officers, let alone private entrepreneurs and their investments. For a stipulated cadre strength of 137 IAS officers, only 58 are serving, and for a cadre strength of 147 IPS officers, only 66 are currently serving. The situation is so desperate that Amit Shah’s Home Ministry has been forced to write to all cadre-controlling authorities to prepare a list of IAS, IPS and other officers who can be immediately sent on deputation to J&K and Ladakh. The response: only two officers have shown a willingness to serve in J&K on deputation. Both are Kashmir-born, one an IAS officer from the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and the other an IRS officer. 


China rings in the festive season 

India’s festival season has proved to be auspicious for smartphone companies from China, which recently faced a rough phase marred by supply bottlenecks and calls to boycott Chinese products. Xiaomi, Vivo, Mi and Realme were all up by 20% and more compared to last year. According to an end-October report by technology market research firm techARC, Chinese brands OnePlus and Realme were rated higher than Apple and Samsung in the smartphone brand quality index due to their “higher engagement with buyers, and high-quality products.”


Payback time 

In a petition filed in the Supreme Court, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has asked Sahara chief Subroto Roy and his two companies to cough up $8.2 billion so that his investors can be paid back. The regulator says Roy did not comply with two court orders in 2012 and 2015 to return the money with 15% annual interest. The Sahara chief has been under a cloud for many years now and has also spent time in jail. He has been out on parole for more than two years, having secured a reprieve citing the death of his mother. Last month, Sahara moved court against Netflix for using his name in its popular series ‘Bad Boy Billionaire’, terming the references “ill-researched and baseless”


Audio gaga

A ‘leaked’ audio phone clip of Swapna Suresh, accused in the gold smuggling case in Kerala, seems to suggest that the Enforcement Directorate is coercing her to name or implicate Kerala Chief Minister P Vijayan and turn approver. The unauthenticated clip has generated a storm, and the case has become a key battleground between the Centre and its agencies and the Left Front government in Kerala. In a statement yesterday, the CPI(M) came down hard on the use of central agencies as “political arms” of the BJP-led government. 


Jellyfish attacks in Goa

Shortness of breath, chest pain and general discomfort? No, it is not Covid-19 but the price of wading into the sea in Goa. Over 90 people have been stung by jellyfish in the last 48 hours, with most of the cases reported along the state’s most popular beach stretch from Sinquerim to Baga in North Goa. The mass jellyfish attack comes at a time when Goa’s tourism prospects are witnessing a revival of sorts after the crippling pandemic and lockdown, with tourists slowly trickling into the state. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • As we seem to sink ever deeper into bubbles inhabited exclusively by those who think, act and react like us — a process accelerated by the ongoing pandemic — it is perhaps even more vital to remember people like the academic Ataullah Siddiqui, who passed away 12 days ago, writes Samantak Das.

  • Supriya Nair on two new books, Rituparna Chatterjee’s The Water Phoenix and It’s All In Your Head, M, by Manjiri Indurkar, both of which feel like offers to help.


Listen up

Professor and head of the Department of Urdu in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, Dr Shahzad Anjum talks about Urdu and its status in contemporary India.


Watch Out

A panel discussion on how to rescue India’s economy with Jayati Ghosh and Raghuram Rajan, chaired by Govindraj Ethiraj.


Mapped in a thread

This fascinating Twitter thread of a 30-day map challenge brings you an interesting map about India every day. From the elevation profile of the Nilgiri Railways and blue-coloured roofs in Mumbai, to the location of all the lighthouses in India and the changing course of the Kosi river in Bihar over the years. 


Is India a banana republic?

Yes, says the BBC, sort of. Owing to its perennial abundance and affordability, the banana is India’s go-to fruit for nearly every occasion, and is deeply woven into the country’s cultural fabric.


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.