The India Cable: Vaccine Reaches 6.3 Lakh, India Watches Biden Administration

Plus: Sena joins renaming game, MPs finally reach Kashmir, vaccine diplomacy begins, S-400 training to begin, Mirzapur served FIR for dissing Mirzapur, and Gujarat renames dragon fruit to ‘kamalam’

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 20, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The first phase of the vaccine rollout has reached 6.31 lakh people, but hesitancy among recipients is acting as a brake. The government insists that hesitancy must end before the pandemic can be ended, especially among the health professionals targeted in the first phase. But the problem springs from the government’s own haste to display ‘vaccine nationalism’, which caused both domestic and international unease. Health professionals know better than the rest of us that the rush to roll out Covaxin would have been read as criminal negligence in normal times. Vaccine diplomacy begins today, as 1.5 lakh doses of Covishield are flown to the Maldives and 1 lakh to Bhutan. The drive is a “grant or gift” to the neighbourhood. And the Union Territory of  Lakshadweep has reported its first Covid-19 case. 

The price of petrol breached the Rs 85 per litre mark on Tuesday in the national capital and diesel neared a record high after rates were raised for the second day running. In Mumbai, petrol is close to Rs 92 per litre. When fuel prices had last touched a high on October 4, 2018, the government had cut excise duty by Rs 1.50 per litre to ease inflationary pressure and boost consumer confidence. State-owned retailers cut prices by another Re 1 a litre, which they recouped later. Now, there are no indications of a duty cut.

Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray will be part of a protest in Azad Maidan, Mumbai, in support of the farmers’ agitation on the borders of Delhi. An interview with RSS General Secretary Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi shows precisely why the farm issue is at an impasse ― he says that both sides must see reason, but he means that the farmers must see reason, because long-running agitations are bad for public discipline. The tenth round of talks between farmers and central ministers begins today. 

People’s Conference chairperson Sajad Lone has announced his party’s exit from the seven-party conglomerate People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), saying some constituents of the grouping had fielded proxy candidates in the district development council (DDC) elections. Former chief minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti has said that the Balakot strike was a well-orchestrated drama to benefit the BJP in the general elections. The former BJP ally says that her former partner plays the nationalism card in elections but has compromised national security by leaking secrets to Republic TV anchor and editor-in-chief, Arnab Goswami. Meanwhile, an arrest warrant has been issued by a court in Kutch against veteran business journalist Paranjoy Guha Thajurta in a defamation suit filed by the Adani Group for a story published in 2017. The company has dropped proceedings against his co-authors and the publication concerned, but not him. 

With the Biden administration assuming office today, three Muslim women of Indian origin are in the team ― that is, there are three more in Washington than there are at the Centre in India. New Delhi is hoping for a relaxed immigration regime for Indian workers, a concession it could never wrangle from Trump despite his close personal ties with Prime Minister Modi. 

During his confirmation hearing, incoming US Defence Secretary Llyod Austin gave his views on increasing defence cooperation with India (Page 47-48 here). But it is his views on Pakistan (Page 30) that would concern India, although that can be explained by Austin’s former role as Commander of the US Central Military Command overseeing Afghanistan and Pakistan. Delhi would however be satisfied with his focus on the Indo-Pacific (page 43-46), as India looks for some external rebalancing against China. Also worth noting is what incoming Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on China, during her confirmation hearing, and what incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken had to say on ties with India

If you thought the Chinese had dug in and were not building infrastructure in Ladakh during the winter, it’s just not true, finds Planet Labs:

And Vijay Rupani’s government in Gujarat is renaming the dragon fruit ‘kamalam’, on account of a dubious resemblance to the BJP’s trademark flower. We would have understood if they were righting historical wrongs and restoring the Mesoamerican name ‘pitahaya’, which probably dates back to the Taíno culture, before the Spanish conquest. But this is just the fear of being left behind. As Adityanath and the Shiv Sena rename entire geographies to erase histories, Rupani must at least anoint an exotic fruit.  


“Objective, impartial”, but mind made up

Reacting to criticism that the minds of all the committee members on the farm laws appointed by the Supreme Court were already made up, the Chief Justice of India said: “Just because a person has expressed a view on the matter, that is not a disqualification to be a member of a committee. That was on Tuesday, while hearing another matter. The CJI said that members of a committee are not judges, and they may very well change their opinions, and therefore can be appointed to a committee for resolving that very issue. Perhaps, but the committee is of one mind on the issue, and no member differs. 

The committee met yesterday for the first time. The three members (one has stepped down, citing conflict of interest) said that their personal views on the three laws notwithstanding, they would execute their assignment with complete objectivity and impartiality. But when Anil Ghanwat, key committee member and president of the Maharashtra-based Shetkari Sanghatana, said that the farm sector reforms are much needed and no political party would attempt them again in the next 50 years if these laws are repealed, it inspired no confidence about either “objectivity” or “impartiality”.

Farmers are angry about police action against protesters. Three Punjab farmers who had come to Shimla from the Singhu border near Delhi to explain to the locals the motive of their agitation and the ramifications of the central farm laws were detained. 

Vice President Venkaiah Naidu has called for measures “to prevent agro brain drain and attract educated youth to take up farming as a profession.” Repealing the three laws could be a good start.


Vaccine drive wanes a bit

As India entered the fourth day of Covid-19 vaccination on Tuesday, uptake remained low across states. Until yesterday evening, 3,81,305 beneficiaries had been vaccinated and 580 adverse events following immunisation were reported, the Health Ministry said. But more problems beset the government’s app Co-WIN, which cannot handle data reliably.

It is highly deplorable to overreact, raise fears and spread misinformation without doing any due diligence on the Covid-19 vaccine, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Tuesday after Bharat Biotech released a factsheet specifying contraindications. He was responding on social media, when asked why the government did not release data on the vaccine, beforeclearing it. Mysteriously, NITI Aayog member (Health) VK Paul has said, “We are not fulfilling our societal responsibility if a vaccine assigned to you is not taken”. No data on efficacy was offered and no Phase III trials conducted, but assurances were offered. He went on to say that a new vaccine candidate had been identified for trials and that the nasal vaccine candidate could be a “game-changer”. 


Amazon.out

India is considering revising its foreign investment rules for e-commerce, three sources and a government spokesman told Reuters, a move that could compel players including Amazon.in to restructure ties with major sellers. Coincidentally, Amazon has been finding itself on the wrong side of the government ever since Mukesh Ambani entered online retail. It is reported to have met government officials earlier this month after being slapped with penalties over ‘country of origin’ rules.


Moscow to drill air defence personnel 

A group of around 100 Indian military personnel is leaving for Russia for training in key operational aspects of the S-400 air defence system. Moscow will supply the first batch of the missile system to India later this year. India had signed a $5 billion deal with Russia in October 2018 to buy five units, despite a warning from the Trump administration about inviting US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Recently, the US sanctioned Turkey for purchasing the same system, and the sword of Damocles still hangs over India


Hard land-ing for Andhra CM

In a setback to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Reddy, the High Court quashed FIRs alleging irregularities (insider trading) in the purchase of land in Amaravati, which was the centrepiece of the Chief Minister’s campaign against the state High Court and Justice NV Ramana of the Supreme Court: “As the right to acquire and own property is a constitutional right, legal right and human right, none can find fault with the said buyers in purchasing the lands…” The kin of Justice Ramana were alleged to have benefitted from the deal.

Reddy had earlier written a letter to the Chief Justice of India levelling serious allegations against the High Court and Justice Ramana. A fortnight ago, he filed an affidavit before Chief Justice SA Bobde in which he reiterated his allegations against the Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court and Justice Ramana. 


The Long Cable

Name, Place, Politics

Sidharth Bhatia

Yogi Adityanath is not the only one with an obsession about changing the names of places, especially those with ‘Muslim’ origins. The Shiv Sena is not far behind ― in fact, it began plotting years ago.

The Sena, the leading partner of the three-party government in Maharashtra, has reheated its long-term proposal to rename Aurangabad as Sambhaji Nagar. The city is named after Emperor Aurangzeb, who spent 25 years here for his campaign against the Deccan kings and sultans, and is also buried here.

Nor is Aurangabad alone — the Sena wants to also rename Osmanabad and Ahmednagar.

Bibi ka Maqbara, Aurangabad. Photo: Wikiedia

All these towns have Muslim majority populations which will not be pleased with the change. And nor will the Congress, the third partner in the coalition, which has made its opposition clear. The Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party is for the moment noncommittal, but will not be in favour.

Under Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena had raised this demand once before, but during a five year stint in government with the BJP, it did nothing to push the agenda ahead. Clearly, it was aware of the hostility that such a step would raise in Aurangabad, where it already has a poor reputation. In 1978, the Sena had forcefully objected to a demand by Dalits – who too are present in large numbers in the town – to rename the local Marathwada University after Dr BR Ambedkar.

Violence followed and Sena activists were said to be the perpetrators. Many were killed, hundreds of homes were destroyed and at least 25,000 people fled into the jungles for safety. Many observers called it caste-based violence, directed especially against the Mahars. Eventually, in 1984, the Sena acquiesced and the university was renamed.

All that has not been forgotten, but the proposal to rename the city itself has been lying dormant for years. So the question arises: why is the Sena raising it now?

The reasons are obviously political. It sees the potential to polarise the local population, especially since the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, an avowedly Muslim party, is becoming powerful in the town and the region. In 2019, an AIMIM candidate won the Lok Sabha elections from Aurangabad for the first time. Party president Asaduddin Owaisi is drawing crowds in the state. This, the Sena may calculate, could worry Hindus and they might seek alternatives.

Besides, after some scares, when the BJP tried to shake up and perhaps break the coalition, the Sena is now feeling much more relaxed, having effectively pushed back against threats to its position. The Maharashtra BJP is feeling demoralised, with no effective leadership or direction, and has come to terms with a long stint in the Opposition. The Sena hopes to garner the Hindu vote more effectively.

The objections of the Congress don’t really matter. The party has nowhere to go and this is its only chance to be in power. But it still has 44 MLAs and without its support the coalition would fall apart. Uddhav Thackeray knows that he can only push the party so far.

For any proposal to go through, the Central government’s assent is the critical last step. The BJP in Delhi is not likely to help out the Sena anytime soon. But for now, the pot is on the burner and will keep simmering till one day, the Shiv Sena decides to let it cool off


Reportedly

Food in Parliament canteens will be costlier as a subsidy given for it has been stopped, according to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. Though Birla did not specify the financial implications of the move, the Lok Sabha Secretariat could save more than Rs 8 crore annually. Parliament canteens will now be run by ITDC instead of Northern Railways.


Prime Number: 26.4 million
That’s the number of downloads of privacy-focused messaging app Signal from India between January 4 and January 17, according to Sensor Tower. Telegram had recorded 9.1 million downloads in January 4-17, a 160% jump. Signal and competitor Telegram have been topping the charts in Apple and Google’s app stores ever since WhatsApp changed its terms of service (ToS) on January 6. Strangely, WhatsApp too got 5 million new downloads from India this period.

WhatsAppening?

The Centre has suddenly invoked the Supreme Court Privacy judgement of 2017, and asked WhatsApp nine questions about its proposed new data privacy regulations. WhatsApp’s formal declaration that they would collect data from business accounts has started an exodus of users, who are flocking to Signal and Telegram. The Indian government, keen to control data itself and routinely violating the privacy judgement with Aadhaar, smells an opportunity. India is yet to pass a national personal data protection law.


MPs finally get to Kashmir

A delegation of 31 MPs will start its Kashmir visit today and hold meetings from tomorrow, to take stock of various “developmental projects”, tourism revival and road connectivity. No meeting is planned with political parties as the delegation is administrative in nature. The Centre had controversially not allowed elected Indian representatives to visit J&K so far, but talked up a delegation of mostly far-right European MPs in a move that back-fired last year.


Deep Dive

Inflation targeting off the mark

In March 2021, India will complete five years since the adoption of the inflation targeting framework by the government and the Reserve Bank. In Ideas for India, Pulapre Balakrishnan and M Parameswaran explain why it is not the best model for the purpose.


Dipping fortunes of the salaried

Around 20 million organised sector employees dipped into their retirement corpus and withdrew more than Rs 73,000 crore from the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) in the nine months ending December 31, reflecting the hardship the salaried class faced due to stringent government measures during the Covid-19 crisis in 2020.


Harvard phishing scam

Delhi Police’s cybercrime cell will investigate a complaint received from TV journalist Nidhi Razdan who has said that she was a victim of a phishing scam in which she was given a fraudulent offer of a position at Harvard University. Razdan filed the complaint on Monday, alleging the commission of cognisable offences including forgery, cheating, identity fraud and impersonation by unknown accused. Earlier, she had filed a similar complaint with the Jammu and Kashmir Police on January 16, when she was in Srinagar.


Tandav: Not the last move

The makers of web-series political thriller Tandav have said they would make changes in the content “to address concerns”, a little over 24 hours after a police complaint was filed for “hurting religious sentiments”. Tuesday’s statement comes after the Tandav cast and crew offered an “unconditional apology” following police complaints in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh that alleged some scenes “insulted Hindu gods and goddesses”. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting lost no time in summoning the filmmakers and troll armies were unleashed. The objection is to some parts of a college play depicted. More than Tandav itself, the real-world drama concerning this work of fiction is instructive about the state of affairs. The world has taken note

More mob censorship: an FIR has been filed against another series, Mirzapur, for depicting the district in UP in a “bad light”.  The complainant has also alleged that the show hurts religious sentiments, promotes social enmity, showcases abusive content and presents illicit relationships on the screen.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Indian batsman Cheteshwar Pujara reminds Gideon Haigh of that line of Harold Pinter’s about Sir Leonard Hutton’s forward defensive shot being “a complete statement”. If Pujara is India’s centre of gravity, Rishabh Pant is its centre of levity, he writes.

  • Sharda Ugra puts the ship of Theseus out to sea. The team did what it did through their cricketing skills, minus tantrums or bad blood. They went on to deliver high-quality performances that transcended nationality, lasted longer than momentary “viral” sensations and represented something timeless.

  • Labour turns to agriculture and construction as manufacturing fails to create jobs, writes Mahesh Vyas. Manufacturing accounted for 40 million jobs in 2019-20. In the first quarter this dropped to 24.6 million, reflecting a loss of over 15 million manufacturing jobs.


Listen up

Former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao speaks to musicians TM Krishna and Ali Sethi about how a South Asian identity can be expressed through music


Watch Out

“I am not scared, I am angry”, actor Naseeruddin Shah tells Jameel Gulrays. Shah is candid, clear, and yes, angry.


Underground wonderland

Belum guhalu (caves) in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh offer a surreal experience. The second largest cave system in India contains beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations, underground fountains and more. Find a detailed account here. 

And here’s the map of India this week: 


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.