The India Cable: Top Virologist Quits Official Panel; Excess Dead are Duplicates, Gujarat Says

Plus: BJP’s narrative implodes, Bhagwat emits toxic positivity, Modi's cabinet has been busy, over 4,000 corpses buried in Allahabad riverbed, Pokhriyal wins International Invincible Gold Medal

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
May 17, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India reported 2,81,386 new Covid-19 cases and 4,106 deaths in the last 24 hours. The Guardian reports: “Everybody is angry” with Modi. Yesterday, it was exactly one year to the day when India’s dodgy mathematical model had predicted that India would have zero Covid cases ― early graphic evidence of the flattening of India’s mind. 

“One of the effects of the pandemic is, we don’t see the government presence for various reasons,” former governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan said, noting that there are “situations where government breaks down”, when you have to “reform not by stealth but in full openness”. Moody’s, S&P and Fitch now have India at their lowest investment rating with a negative outlook, and another nudge from headwinds would push it below investment grade. Structural reform and strong farm output can help, they say. 

The police have registered a case against a local BJP leader in Nashik for allegedly ramming his car into the entrance of a hospital and trying to attack staff. At Goa Medical College, shortage of oxygen led to deaths of patients for the fifth night in a row. Eight more people died yesterday. Twenty-six died on May 11, 21 on May 12, 15 on May 13, 13 on May 14 and eight on May 15. Total: 83 dead. Due to lack of oxygen. In hospital.

Congress MP Rajeev Satav, 46, has died of Covid-19. About 50 government officials across ministries and departments in the national capital have also succumbed in the past month, according to employees writing to the Centre. At least 30 were aged below 40. The Supreme Court Bar Association has lost over 50 members to Covid-19 this year. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under fire for hesitating before shutting down traffic from India, allowing the so-called ‘Indian variant’ to enter the UK. His eagerness to sidle up to Modi and further his Asia-centric post-Brexit policy has become extremely controversial as the spread of the variant may delay the UK’s reopening on June 21. 

Citing UK evidence, India has extended the gap between the two Covishield shots even as the UK has shortened it, as a precaution against the variant first spotted in India. Online appointments already booked for the second dose of Covishield will remain valid on the CoWIN platform. But new appointments can only be booked with a gap of 84 days.

A therapeutic drug developed by a Defence Research and Development Organisation lab to hasten recovery from Covid-19 will be released today. In line with the DCGI’s approval for favipiravir, itolizumab and Verafin, the approval for 2-DG is based on missing evidence.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat spoke on ‘Positivity Unlimited’, cheerfully quoting Winston Churchill, who was always controversial in India, and particularly so after evidence emerged that he precipitated the 1943 Bengal Famine. Bhagwat’s comment that those who have died of Covid-19 have attained “mukti” has been widely criticised. He said that the second wave was possible because the government and the people had become lax ― an attempt to deflect blame from the Supreme Leader and pass it on to the people. Toxic positivity unlimited.

Two South Asian men held in a detention van on Eid on “suspected immigration offences” walked free after a massive eight-hour protest by their neighbours in Glasgow, Scotland. 

A leading Gujarati poet, Parul Khakkar, hitherto considered ‘pro-establishment’, has written a searing indictment of Narendra Modi’s handling of Covid, and is being trolled by the party faithful as a result.


Cabinet toothless, PMO must take blame for pandemic

The Union Cabinet has met at least five times since the second wave of the pandemic began in late March or early April, but not a single decision was related to the ongoing surge, from information the government has made available. Since April 1, it has addressed insignificant issues. On April 20, when the second wave was about to peak and Covid patients were desperately seeking hospital beds, oxygen and critical drugs, all that the cabinet did was to clear the second phase of Bengaluru’s metro project and okay MoUs with New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh and Brazil. In the last meeting on May 12, it decided to transfer land from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to the Uttarakhand government for its Dehradun-Mussoorie ropeway project.

After the PM cancelled public rallies for the later phases of the West Bengal elections, he reached out to chief ministers about the pandemic. He held a video conference with 10 on April 23, and has been holding scores of virtual meetings with officials and experts on oxygen, medicines, vaccines and Covid hospitals. The buck stops with him.


Top virologist quits genome mapping group

Senior virologist Shahid Jameel has resigned as chair of the scientific advisory group of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), set up by the Centre in December to track variants of Covid-19 circulating in India. Jameel did not give reasons for his departure. He has been critical of Covid policies of the Modi government. India has done genome sequencing of less than 1% of total samples, against a target of 5% in all states. This has had global consequences, as a variant of note evolved without much scrutiny. And though INSACOG warned the government of it in early March, the Prime Minster continued with business as usual: the Kumbh Mela, massive election rallies.

Under the consortium, 10 national laboratories equipped to study virus variants were brought together under the aegis of the National Centre for Disease Control. But its work has been impeded by a severe fund crunch. The allocation of Rs 115 crore over six months was not actually made, and the Department of Biotechnology under the Union Ministry of Science and Technology was asked to fund the initiative from its own resources.

The health writer Priyanka Pulla sees “a pattern of a government that can't deal with competent and outspoken scientists”.

Last year, another top medical researcher, Gagandeep Kang, had summarily resigned as executive director of the Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute, which is also under the Department of Biotechnology, when the committee she headed on indigenous Covid-19 drugs and vaccines was disbanded. She, too, had not offered a reason, but it’s obvious to the scientific press overseas ― India’s policy response to the pandemic is not driven by science.  

Jameel had attributed the devastating extent of India’s second wave to complacency, and four days ago, his oped in the New York Times said that containment measures “have wide support among my fellow scientists in India. But they are facing stubborn resistance to evidence-based policymaking.”  


Covid-infected corpses in UP ghats and rivers

Sarvesh Dube of News18 has reported finding 4,000-5,000 bodies in shallow graves at the Shringverpur ghat in Prayagraj (Allahabad). They were buried in April and May, and though the cause of death has not been confirmed, the needle of suspicion points towards Covid-19.

Bodies of Covid-19 victims have been found dumped in some rivers, the UP state government said in a letter seen by Reuters, the first official acknowledgement of an alarming practice it said may stem from poverty and the fear of disease in villages. Images of corpses drifting down the holy Ganga have shocked the country. The Adityanath government has not publicly revealed the cause of death. Meanwhile, the Centre has directed states through which the Ganga flows to ensure the safe and dignified disposal of corpses. Downstream, there is public concern about contamination of the water supply and fish, but scientists say that it is unlikely, and person-to-person transmission remains the main threat.  


Gujarat government claims dead are duplicates

In Gujarat, the government is dazed by the numbers, but instead claims that families of the dead are so distraught that they are processing duplicate death registrations for each of their loved ones. Divya Bhaskar has totted up the government’s figures ― 1,23,871 death certificates issued in 71 days between March 1 and May 10, which is more than double the figure for the period last year. The majority must owe to Covid-19, but the government has attributed 80% to comorbidities ― only 4,218 certificates listed Covid-19 as the cause of death. Caught flat-footed, the government argues that families are perhaps confused and getting multiple death certificates issued. 

No one trusts the numbers any more. Venture capitalist and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, who is working to bring relief to Indians, has said: “Hear funeral places and hospitals are being forced to classify Covid deaths as ‘non-Covid’ (honest undercounting and politics). Happened to a close friend’s family so first hand experience. Hard to trust the numbers but I expect cases and deaths are underestimates by 100s of percentage.”


The Long Cable

The BJP’s ‘narrative’ has imploded

Sushant Singh

Let us begin with a simple fact. The Delhi Police – which is directly under the Union Home Ministry and former BJP President Amit Shah is Union Home Minister – has gone on an arresting spree and is removing posters (rather ineptly, as this video shows) which ask a very simple question: “Mr Modi, why did you send abroad the vaccines meant for our children?”

The question is by itself, a sharp one, as it is so basic, emotive and direct. Seventeen FIRs were filed and arrests are being made to deter others who may join in the poster protest.

The arrests have followed the ban on photography and videography of the “essential activity” of the reconstruction of the Central Vista, another project the Modi government is completely on the defensive about. Retired diplomat turned minister Hardeep Puri’s ham-handed attempt to put up a vigorous defence for the project on social media was as embarrassing as a club player returning Rafale Nadal’s first serve on a hard court, even if legacy Indian media reported it with the kind of earnest sincerity usually reserved for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Physics it may not be, but it reminds us of a characteristic of modern literature: narrative. For a few years, Indians have been told that Modi is the master of the narrative. That the man has held no press conferences, given no tough interviews, has not been scrutinised by fact checks, and has not been held accountable for his unkept promises by vast sections of the Indian media is conveniently ignored. But controlling the narrative was his strength. And he senses the loss of narrative now. It started with independent digital Indian media and social media, whose work was reported and amplified by international media, and has been followed by some good reportage by sections of the regional press. The news channels and legacy print media are unable to make headway with the government narrative – even they have to bow to the harsh reality faced by the vast multitude of Indians. 

A successful narrative is a story told in a manner which suggests that there is direction and purpose, and someone is at the helm. In a January 2010 New Yorker article ‘One Year: Storyteller-in-Chief’, novelist Junot Diaz asked the then US president Barack Obama “to tell the story of his presidency, of his administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story — one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric…”

Diaz charged Obama with telling no story at all, not even a bad story. Modi, however, can only be charged with the opposite: he has told too many stories, often unconnected and contradictory. He is still trying to sell a story but no one is buying the yarn any more. When his ministers claim that Modi had personally warned chief ministers about the second wave, people ask how he was also inviting people over to a super-spreader event like the Kumbh, or holding massive election rallies in West Bengal. They also remember his speech to Davos that India had defeated Covid-19, and the speech in which he told chief ministers that India had defeated the virus without vaccines. He can’t even claim that his government had worked hard to vaccinate everyone, because his foreign minister was at the forefront of a publicity drive to show vaccine export as the move of a great statesman. Concerning the shortage of oxygen, medicines or hospital beds, there is no positive story that Modi can tell, when every family’s personal experience is the opposite. No one trusts the data the government is putting out, and even this image-conscious government cannot challenge global assertions about the real estimates.  

Such is the loss of narrative and the consequent panic in the ranks that the Modi government sees no option but to ape the Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh. Send the police, and damn the consequences. How else do you explain the Crime Branch of Delhi Police attempting to interrogate BV Srinivas, the chief of the Youth Congress? The government has backtracked, but the damage is done. With self-goals like these, the BJP does not even need an “effective Opposition” to bring it down. As videos and images of bodies floating in rivers and buried in riverbeds reach every smartphone screen, the Modi government risks losing the brahmastra it has always held onto tightly: We could well be in the moment when its narrative finally imploded.


Reportedly

Union Minister Santosh Gangwar recently wrote to UP CM Adityanath pointing out the mismanagement of Covid-19 in Bareilly, and his office promptly leaked the letter to the media. A few days earlier, BJP MP Kaushal Kishore had declared on TV that he had written to the CM that he would sit on a dharna if oxygen requirements were not fulfilled immediately. And UP BJP MLA Rakesh Rathore says he fears being arrested for sedition for pointing out how badly the government is doing. UP Law Minister Brijesh Pathak wrote to senior health department officers that even he was not able to arrange for hospital beds, and leaked the letter himself. Many BJP MLAs have written similar letters to Adityanath and circulated them in the media. Udai Veer Singh, the Samajwadi Party leader, summed up this trend as the “creation of a shield” for future elections, but it also speaks of the massive public anger against the BJP in UP. 


Pro-Palestine mural in Kashmir leads to police action

On Saturday, police detained 21 youths in Srinagar and Shopian districts for making a mural, holding peaceful protests and delivering speeches in support of Palestine. A 32-year-old graffiti artist was released after more than 24 hours in custody. South Kashmir-based religious preacher Sarjan Barkati was also arrested for allegedly delivering an inflammatory speech on Eid, supporting the people of Palestine. Two sons of the late separatist leader Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai were detained under the Public Safety Act in connection with a case registered in Kupwara district on May 6, when pro-freedom slogans were allegedly raised at his funeral.

Over the weekend, Jairam Ramesh and Rahul Gandhi pasted or uploaded the very posters criticising the government about its vaccine policy, which had led to multiple arrests in Delhi. The Congress leaders dared the government to arrest them, too. 


Prime Numbers: 10% to 18%
The wealth of Indian billionaires, as a proportion of GDP, grew from a little less than 10% in 2020 to a whopping 18% in 2021, according to Ruchir Sharma, using the Forbes world’s billionaires list. Writing in the Financial Times, Sharma is trying to anticipate which nations “are most at risk of anti-wealth revolt”. 

Farmers tear-gassed by Haryana police

In Hisar town, there was a violent clash between farmers pelting stones and police using tear gas and force. Around 50 farmers and nearly 20 cops were reportedly injured in the conflict, which continued for nearly two hours. The farmers were proceeding towards Hisar town from the Ramayan toll plaza to show black flags to Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who inaugurated a new Covid hospital. 


Deep Dive

Shots in the dark

A Twitter thread by Sam Jawed on India’s vaccine fiasco traces the effects of vaccine diplomacy, marked by hubris and cheerleading, accompanied by absolutely no planning to vaccinate Indians. Also read this interview with Murali Neelakantan and Ashish Kulkarni, who have been looking closely at the vaccine policy. They ask if any other country in the world follows this approach. Other experts have squarely blamed the Centre for its abject failure to arrange adequate vaccine doses, which has damaged India’s reputation and credibility. 


Cairn identifies Indian assets to seize

UK’s Cairn Energy has identified $70 billion of Indian assets overseas for potential seizure to collect $1.72 billion due from the Modi government. If it is successful, the move will put India in the same league as Pakistan and Venezuela, which faced similar action for failing to pay arbitration awards. The assets identified range from Air India’s planes to vessels of the Shipping Corporation of India, the properties of state-owned banks and oil and gas cargoes of PSUs. On Saturday, Cairn moved a US court to seize the assets of Air India. This could put a spanner in the works of its disinvestment. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • A year after the Chinese incursion into Ladakh and with the mishandling of the pandemic, Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) writes that the situation is far from hunky-dory. It is not a threat that can be ignored.

  • Aruna Chandrashekhar on how the Indian state abandoned its people to Covid-19. India is in the grip of a horrific second wave, she says, and Narendra Modi has blood on his hands.

  • K Sujatha Rao says the government lost an opportunity to dampen the second wave but it should at least protect us from the third wave. For that, it needs to revise its misplaced ‘liberalised’ vaccine policy.

  • Like the Modi government, India’s colonial rulers knew that the sight of pyres could be contentious, writes Nandagopal R Menon, as cremations of nationalists became occasions for mass anti-colonial mobilisations and caused considerable discomfort to the authorities.

  • Soumya Swaminathan says investments in healthcare are crucial, because it is now clear that without sufficient physical and mental well-being, it would be impossible to take the path to recovery.

  • Rajiv Nayar writes on deaths unaccounted for, bodies mixed up in hospitals, mass cremations and burials, all leading to the loss of hope.

  • The attempt to rehabilitate Hindu nationalist leaders distorts history, writes Sharik Laliwala of Vinay Sitapati’s Jugalbandi.

  • Prabhu Chawla’s open letter to PM Narendra Modi. A worldly invocation to the Lord.


Listen Up

How diverse is the Indian Muslim community? To what extent is it influenced by the Middle East? How much did Partition shape it? And what fears and insecurities does the community experience today? Author Ghazala Wahab answers these questions, busts myths about Islam in India, and talk about her latest book, Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam In India.


Watch Out

At the turn of the millennium, Manmohan Singh told Karan Thapar why India must nurture itself, for greatness is no “divine destiny”, and how bad economic management and dividing society on the basis of religion could prove disastrous. Watch out for “karma” (04:41 - 05:50).


Over and Out

JK Rowling has donated £1 million from the proceeds of her lockdown book The Ickabog to two UK charities working on augmenting the supply of medical oxygen in India.

And All India Radio reports that Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ has been awarded the ‘International Invincible Gold Medal’ by Tony Nader, the successor of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, for “continuous support and commitment to the world peace program and propagating ancient Vedic values, wisdom and traditional knowledge in the most scientific manner.” Pokhriyal is India’s HRD minister. 


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.