The India Cable: US Wants India as 'Alliance Partner' Against China, Signal Installs Shoot Up

Plus: Army faces unsolvable two-front problem, farmers spurn court committee, Nadda clutches at Bengal rice, Godse Gyanshala opens and shuts, British samosa shot into space lands in France

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
January 13, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Recipients of Covid-19 vaccines won’t be allowed to choose between Covishield and the indigenous Covaxin. No country allows citizens to choose, the Union health secretary said. What he did not say “was that in no other country have the authorities given conditional approval to a vaccine candidate in clinical trial mode”. The latter, developed by Bharat Biotech, has raised concerns at home and abroad because it is incompletely trialled, ‘volunteers’ were misled, and experts fear that its premature use could compromise the vaccine drive globally. Three days ago, Chhattisgarh refused to use Covaxin on its citizens and said it would return shipments sent by the Centre. The state health secretary said that the vaccination drive could extend for about two years, so an unholy rush was not called for. It would encourage other vaccine developers to seek premature clearance. 

WhatsApp rivals Signal and Telegram are soaring fit to break their servers, after the leading messaging app’s owner, Facebook, announced new data sharing norms which are spooking users. Despite soothing messages from Facebook, Signal and Telegram downloads increased from lakhs to millions. In India, Facebook’s biggest market numerically, where there is discomfort about the platform’s chumminess with a creepily inquisitive government, Signal downloads went from 12,000 to 2.7 million

Mubarak Hussain Syed, a Kashmir born neuroscientist in the US, has received the prestigious $1.8 million CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. The Jammu-Srinagar National Highway which was closed on Sunday due to the sudden collapse of the retaining wall of a bridge in Ramban remains impassable and may take 10 days to become motorable again.

A Muslim youth of Bijapur district in Karnataka was booked under the new anticonversion ordinance in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, after being accused of ‘luring’ a Hindu girl. A police team had left for Bijapur to trace the girl and arrest the Muslim youth. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, at least 12 people from three villages died and several others fell ill allegedly after drinking spurious alcohol in Morena district late Monday night.

Two days after it opened to general displeasure, the Hindu Mahasabha closed the Godse Gyanshala, a study centre and library in Gwalior named for Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, because the administration clamped Section 144 in the area. The Mahasabha said that the objective of the study centre had been achieved ― it had raised “awareness”. 

Weeks after Home Minister Amit Shah visited Guwahati, the Assam Police has formed a special committee to “take immediate and proactive steps to identify the intermediaries, facilitators, collaborators, facilitating the infiltration of illegal immigrants from across the international border.”

The West Bengal assembly elections are still months away, but BJP President JP Nadda is already a frequent flyer to the state. The gains from his visits are mixed. As state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee memorably said on his first visit, after his convoy was attacked by her cadres, “At times the Home Minister is here. At other times, it’s Chadda, Nadda, Fadda, Bhadda here.” This weekend, Nadda was back in Bardhaman and drew a sizable crowd. He visited the homes of five farmers (who are politically high value now, because of their agitation) and gathered fistfuls of rice from them (it’s symbolic ― earlier, he had called Banerjee’s party “chaal chor”, or rice thieves). Embarrassingly, all five turned up at the Trinamool Congress office the next day to show their allegiance. 

Earlier, Amit Shah had lunched at the home of a Baul singer in Birbhum. The host turned up at the Trinamool Congress office the next day, complaining that the BJP had only brought the sweets for afters, that he had bought everything else, and following the meal, they had washed their hands of him. 

LPG cooking gas has surpassed gasoline as India’s second most popular oil product following a boost from a government buying program, cold weather and stay-at-home orders due to Covid-19. The country’s LPG consumption in 2020 was at 27.41 million tons, 4.3% higher than 2019, as per govt data, while gasoline demand plunged 9.3% to 27.27 million tons.

What a declassified US document says about its India focus

In a classified document made public after just two years, the US said its Indo-Pacific strategy had a “particular focus” on India. The objective was to accelerate India’s rise by building stronger defence ties and also by offering diplomatic, military and intelligence support to help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China. In other words, the US had taken a strategic decision to build an alliance with India against China in 2018, when the 10-page document, which has been partly redacted, was prepared. This was a year after the India-China confrontation in Doklam and two years before the armies clashed violently in eastern Ladakh in mid-2020. 

As if on cue, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said that trust with China had been deeply impaired after last summer’s border clash which resulted in the first combat fatalities in 45 years. But ties with the US were converging and were likely to expand under the new administration in Washington. In his first address to the UN Security Council, he indirectly accused Pakistan and China of delaying the designation of terrorist individuals and entities. Army Chief General MM Naravane said Pakistan and China form a potent collusive threat, and their alliance is part of India’s strategic calculus and planning. And Joshua White has a new report on the India-US security cooperation, and how it can be advanced under the Biden administration (read more about it in Deep Dive below).

Farmers decline to be courted by committee

Stating that members of the Supreme Court-appointed committee are pro-government, the farmers’ unions have said that they will not appear before it. The Supreme Court can repeal the farm laws suo motu, they told a press conference. “We never asked the SC to form a committee, the government is behind all this,” said farmer leader Balbeer Singh Rajewal on the panel formed by the apex court. 

“Our protest will continue and it is for indefinite time,” farmers said, adding that the tractor march in Delhi on January 26 would be peaceful. They would meet with the Centre on January 15, but also celebrate Lohri by chucking the farm laws into the bonfire. Earlier, farmer leaders had welcomed the Supreme Court’s order to stay the implementation of the farm laws, but said they would not call off their protest until the legislations are repealed. This explainer on the Supreme Court order that protesting farmers have rejected is worth reading. Also, there’s the BBC on how Narendra Modi misread the mood of India’s angry farmers and the New York Times on how the farmers have been unappeased by the court ruling. 

An RTI query has revealed that the government did not consult stakeholders at all about these laws. Its own pre-legislative consultation policy requires draft laws to be put in the public domain for 30 days, for inviting comments. In the last year, absolutely no bills were sent to any Parliamentary committee. Seventeen have been sent in all by this Lok Sabha. 

Nepal foreign minister to visit as Oli talks of disputed areas

After months of calm in Lipulekh, Luimpiyadhura and Kalapani near the Indo-Nepal border in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, there is unease after Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on Sunday said the country would “take back” the three disputed areas from India. There are seven villages in the three areas with a total population of about 6,000. Five border crossing points between the two countries in Pithoragarh have been closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nepal’s foreign minister will be in Delhi tomorrow on a three-day visit, the first to come to India this year. 

The Long Cable

With strike corps reorientation, Army can’t complete the jigsaw puzzle 

Sushant Singh

The challenge posed by the border crisis in Ladakh has created a unique situation for the Indian Army, which has been forced to deploy two divisions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into the sector. They have not been able to reverse the loss of territory (1,000 sq km according to The Hindu, or denial of 350 sq km for patrolling according to Bloomberg) but have prevented further loss of territory. As an immediate breakthrough in the impasse looks unlikely, the Army could be forced ― as General MM Naravane conceded in his annual press conference on Tuesday ― to sustain this deployment in the coming months and years.

This has placed an operational burden ― one of the divisions was the Northern Command reserve and other the Army Headquarters reserve ― which needed to be remedied. For instance, Northern Command’s reserve division had a role on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan as well; and the Command, once denuded of that division, would be hampered in its offensive plans against Pakistan. Similarly, Army Headquarters has lost its operational flexibility by committing its reserve division ― even if it were to be de-inducted anytime soon, the point that it can be committed so quickly has been driven home to decision makers.

As a response to that challenge, Army Headquarters has issued instructions for a change in the operational role of one of its mechanised strike corps: 1 Corps will now function as a mountain strike corps in Northern Command, ostensibly against China. Besides the three mechanised strike corps ― 1 Corps (headquartered at Mathura), 2 Corps (headquartered at Ambala) and 21 Corps (headquartered at Bhopal) directed towards Pakistan ― there is the 17 Mountain Strike Corps which has been partially raised, since the process was stalled in 2018 for lack of funds.

On the face of it, this is a rational and sensible decision. The primary military challenge that India faces is from China, where it has limited offensive options against the PLA. It took until the end of August for the Army to respond (by occupying hitherto unoccupied peaks on its own side of the LAC) to the Chinese land grab in April and May. This additional strike corps will allow the Army to respond more promptly to Chinese ingress across the LAC and also act as a deterrent to any further Chinese misadventure.

But this raises questions which have not been answered so far. The foremost challenge is posed by the lack of infrastructure on the LAC in Ladakh. It has already been strained to the limit in supporting the existing level of forces and will hamper the application of a strike corps. It is a challenge which will also be faced by the truncated strike corps that may be applied in the eastern sector against China. Unless India is able to augment its infrastructure across the border substantially, this allocation of additional troops will only remain a plan. And no plan, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder told us, survives first contact with the enemy.

The second question is about the Army’s strategic aims versus Pakistan. The 3rd Mechanised Strike Corps provided India a distinctive military advantage over Pakistan, putting it in a bind with its two strike corps. Without the certainty of striking deep inside Pakistan, the Army would then be looking only at shallow offensives across the Pakistan border. Or even worse, at more hyped-up theatrical options such as ‘surgical strikes’, which are neither punitive nor an effective deterrent against Pakistani machinations. More than a military decision, this is a political call, for it ties the hands of the political leadership vis-à-vis Pakistan.

But the larger question is about the economic capacity and political will of Delhi to take on the challenge of a two-front collusive threat. The Army had earlier earmarked certain formations as dual-tasked, but that design has evidently been found inadequate after Ladakh. With the government not in a financial position to raise more formations, the Army has now been forced to complete a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing. If one part of the puzzle is completed after this knee jerk response, some other part is left vulnerable. Essentially, it is an unsolvable problem as of today. It calls for political will to reimagine the two-front challenge to find a more lasting solution.  

Focus Bangladesh

The marching contingent from Bangladesh which will participate in the Republic Day parade flew into Delhi yesterday, to mark 50 years of the extraordinary intervention which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh contingent leaving for India. Photo courtesy Indian High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami)

Bangladesh is also the focus country at the International Film Festival starting in Goa this weekend. Four films from Bangladesh, including Jibondhuli and Meghmallar, which are set against the backdrop of the 1971 Liberation War, will be screened. 

Prime Number: -1.9%
The contraction in industrial production in November, due to a poor showing by the manufacturing and mining sectors, as per official data. The IIP for the April-November period has contracted by 15.5%, according to the data. It had registered a flat growth of 0.3% during the same period last fiscal. 

Tesla registers Indian company

Billionaire Elon Musk-led Tesla has registered a subsidiary company in India, as the Cupertino-headquartered electric vehicle maker eyes a slice of the largely untapped Indian domestic sustainable automobile market. On December 28, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari had confirmed that the company will enter the Indian market in early 2021. Tesla had originally planned its India entry back in 2016. It will enter India with the Model 3 Sedan, expected to be priced at around Rs 60 lakh.

Green Tribunal ticks off Goa

The National Green Tribunal has rapped the Goa government over the delay in identification and demarcation of private forests in the coastal state, saying the state authorities were deliberately delaying the compliance of its orders. A bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice AK Goel directed the Goa government to complete the entire exercise within three months.

Deep Dive

Where India and the US can go from here

A new report by Joshua White presents a practical agenda for the next phase of the US-India defence and security relationship — one that builds incrementally on the progress that has been made, responds to the changing regional security environment, and accounts for both governments’ political and capacity constraints. It begins by arguing that the US can do more to articulate its key priorities in engaging India on security issues: first, supporting India’s rise as a constructive global leader and counterweight to Chinese influence; second, limiting China’s ability to coerce India and other states in South Asia; and third, mitigating the risks, and enabling de-escalation, of inevitable India-Pakistan and India-China crises. It also makes a case for charting reasonably ambitious defence and security goals and avoiding crude conditionalities that could be counterproductive.

White has a Twitter thread summarising his main arguments (warning: it’s 30 tweets long).

‘Man bites dog’ no longer shocks

A 40-year old man in Thane district of Maharashtra has been awarded six months in jail for sexually abusing a stray dog. The accused has also been fined Rs 1,050 for the offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

Acting in the public interest

The actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub speaks up on portraying a politician positively in Tandav, why he won’t work with colleagues whose politics he doesn’t agree with, and how OTT is creating its own star system. Ayyub has taken part in protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, and the ongoing farmer’s protests in Delhi. Such activism is rare for a working actor in Bollywood, especially one who has appeared in major films such as Raanjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Raees, Zero and Thugs of Hindostan.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Prem Shankar Jha writes that no matter what the Supreme Court decides, the Modi government has two weeks left to decide whether it will find a way of meeting the farmers’ demand, or run the risk of turning Delhi into a battle zone. January 26 is the date of the proposed Tractor Rally.

  • While Big Tech comes to South Asia for the elusive “next billion” users, tech guru Kunal Shah tells why his latest app caters to the 1%.

Listen up

In this episode of Naan Curry, Sadaf and Archit examine whether kebabs are a ‘foreign’ concept, or if they already existed in ancient India. They touch upon the celebrity chefs of Lucknow and tell you the stories and legends behind Kakori, Galawati, Bihari, Sikandari Raan and other top kebabs from India.

Watch Out

Locals are protesting against Adani’s Kattupalli Port expansion in Tamil Nadu which, they say, will severely destroy land, livelihoods and traditions of the region, with a profusion of artwork and creative imagery which is pleasing as well as informative. Watch some of it in this thread here, and older material at EJAtlas.

Earlier, Vedanta Group’s Sterlite was forced to shut a copper smelter over alleged environmental contamination in the port town of Thoothukudi in 2018, thanks to campaigning by 67-year-old professor turned activist Fatima Babu.

Samosa soars over Musk’s roadster

The Third Pole covers local community initiatives in Bihar which have helped to create a safe breeding ground for the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork. The birds, locally called Garuda, help the farmers back by killing pests.

And the red roadster that Elon Musk shot into orbit was briefly shouldered aside in the popular imagination by the national snack of contemporary Britain. A samosa was sent to the edge of space by Somerset takeaway Chai Walla (they have a sense of humour, so no relation to the one from Vadnagar), but it crash-landed in France.   

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.