Why Afghanistan Needs China and What This Means for India; BJP Violates Flag Code

PM assassination plot prosecutors turn coy, nationalism on evacuation flight irks Afghans, TN pays for successful population control, SC judge supports people’s scrutiny, more data-free vaccines ahead

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

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Snapshot of the day
August 23, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

A committee of experts constituted under the National Institute of Disaster Management has warned of an imminent third wave of Covid that could peak around October and sought better medical preparedness for children who might be as much at risk as adults. The government’s dawdling on a children’s vaccine has already harmed their education. 

The discrepancy between the official death toll and the real figure, mapped via ‘excess deaths’, keeps growing. In Bihar, the Hindustan Times estimates at least 251,000 excess deaths under the Civil Registration System from March 2020 to May 2021, which is 48.6 times the official death count of 5,163.

The Modi government denies there is a vaccine shortage and is continuously talking up ‘indigenous’ vaccines like Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Zydus Cadila’s DNA-based three-shot vaccine. These vaccines get to jump through the regulatory hoop without disclosing data. Ahmedabad-based Zydus-Cadila now says it would take “4-6 months” to release Phase III data. Bharat Biotech data is yet to be published in a journal. Also, the Union government had declared that 5 crore doses would be made available by August, but the company said that it can only start deliveries with 1 crore doses in October.

Ninety children were subjected to Covaxin trials in Karnataka. It will take 210 days to complete, but this report says the vaccine for children may be green-lighted before the data comes in.

BBC reports, “Pandemic aside, the [India Today] poll provides other clues as to why Mr Modi’s popularity might be dropping. Inflation and lack of jobs emerged as the two most worrying concerns ―  nearly a third of respondents said failure to rein in prices was his government's biggest failure.”

Justice Ravindra Bhat of the Supreme Court has said: “The rule of law through democracy is a continuing work in progress where people’s scrutiny is paramount and courts are part of the dialogue. There is a thin line that divides the rule of law from the rule by law – one is democracy and the rulers are the people, and the second one is the rule by a monarch, a dictator or tyrant. The courts are the last stop to ensure continuity of the rule of law when all else fails! … We gained our freedom at a great cost. Every Indian, therefore, has to use his liberties to constantly question the actions of those in power because democracy gives no tickets to free meals!” The judge was speaking on the ‘Role of Judiciary in Governance’

Draping the BJP flag on the late Kalyan Singh’s body, over the tricolour, has created a controversy. The Flag Code of India, 2002 is unambiguous. A storm was raised by the Centre when a flag other than the tricolour fluttered at the Red Fort on January 26 this year, when agitating farmers had managed to reach it.

Electricity rates in UP have surged by at least 13% in 2017-2019, bringing pain for farmers and the poor. As China cracks down on startups and hammers Jack Ma to clarify who’s in charge, the deflection of global capital which began during Trump’s trade war could accelerate. India should be a beneficiary.

In an embarrassment to the BJP, Kavinder Gupta, the former BJP deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir who had coined the term ‘land jihad’ to tar Muslims during a BJP campaign against encroachments, has been in illegal possession of government land himself. Gupta, who was in the BJP government in alliance with Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP in 2018, had, along with Subhash Sharma and Shiv Rattan Gupta, held nearly three acres of state land in Jammu under the Roshni Act, 2001, which has now been struck down. RTI responses reveal that this was between 2010 and 2016.

The new Income Tax portal remained unavailable for two days running. The Finance Ministry has “summoned” Infosys MD and CEO Salil Parekh today to explain glitches which persist over two months after launch to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The government is happy to take credit for all things digital but scapegoats must be sought when things go south. PTI reported late last night that it was a maintenance problem and Infosys said that the portal was now “live”.

Even as Indians fulminate over the Taliban’s moral policing, the News Minute reports that a state transport bus to Bengaluru was stopped on Thursday by the Hindu Jagrana Vedike, and a Muslim man and Hindu woman, suspected to be travelling together, were dragged to the police station. They did not even know each other, it was revealed, after their phones were checked. 

Malabar Rebellion leaders Variamkunnath Kunhamed Haji, Ali Musaliar and 387 other ‘Moplah martyrs’ will be removed from the Dic­tionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle. A three-member panel, which reviewed entries of the Indian Council of Historical Research publication, felt that the 1921 rebellion was never part of the Independence struggle, and was focused on re­ligious conversion ― a gross oversimplification, no doubt, but this has been the RSS’s position for years.Ram Madhav of the RSS dismissed it as the first instance of the “violent mindset of the Taliban” in India. To understand the nuance, read this interview with Manu S. Pillai or this 1987 journal article by Robert L. Hardgrave. 

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) proposes to charge the 15 arrested in the Elgar Parishad case on 16 counts, including waging war against the country, which attracts the death penalty. But the earlier charge levelled by Pune Police, of wanting to “assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi”, is now coyly referred to as organising the acquisition of weapons to “attempt or cause death of public functionary”.

Soumyarendra Barek rides with a food delivery ‘partner’, taking stock of the terrible conditions of the gig economy, “where algorithms dictate” life.


Jubilant nationalism on Indian evacuation flight irks Afghans

India yesterday airlifted 392 people from Kabul in an operation that covered Indian citizens as well as Afghan nationals including Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan. They were flown in three aircraft that included a C17 heavy transport. Air India and Indigo operated two flights via Tajikistan and Qatar. The evacuees include workers and engineers employed at various India-backed projects, and also an infant, Iknoor Singh. 

Two Afghan senators were amongst the 24 Sikhs who came in. One of them, Senator Narender Singh Khalsa, was in tears for all that had been lost. But Afghan officials like former deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan Ershad Ahmadi, reacted to a ‘jubilant’ tweet by the Indian foreign ministry by asking what there was to be happy about while an Afghan diplomat was even more caustic:

Union minister Hardeep Puri cited the Afghan situation to illustrate the need for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, which provides Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from three countries in the region. An odd argument, because the Act is valid only for entrants before December 31, 2014. India and its PM are yet to comment on the Taliban dispensation. 


Malabar Quad war games off Guam

The next edition of the Malabar naval exercise involving the Quad countries will be held August 26-29 off Guam. INS Shivalik and INS Kadmatt have reached the island in the western Pacific. With participation from the US Navy, the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force and the Royal Australian Navy, the exercises would involve intense wargaming by destroyers, frigates, corvettes, submarines, helicopters and long-range maritime patrol aircraft.

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The Malabar series began in 1992 as an India-US bilateral drill but grew to involve the Japanese and Australian navies, and turned into a strategic convergence of the countries aligning against China. The Royal Australian Navy joined last year, completing the Quad.


Crop insurance enriches insurers

Under the Modi government’s PM Fasal Bima Yojana, gross premiums received by insurance companies over the last five years are Rs 1.26 lakh crore, but farmers got just Rs 87,320 crore in claims. The difference is a cool Rs 40,000 crore. A farm welfare scheme should not deliver such margins to insurers.

This huge profit actually comes from public money, as under the PMFBY, a maximum premium of 2% of the sum insured is paid by farmers for kharif crops and 1.5% for rabi crops. The rest is borne by states and the Centre. The scheme was launched in April 2016. Over 29 crore farmers are enrolled and 2,354 lakh hectares insured. However, the total area insured has fallen from 567 lakh hectares in 2016-17 to 495 lakh hectare in 2019-20. 


TN penalised for population control

The Madras High Court has said that it is unreasonable and unfair that the political representation of Tamil Nadu in the Lok Sabha was reduced in 1967 after the state brought down its population through family planning measures. “Can successful implementation of family planning programmes of the central government be put against the people of the state by taking away political representation in Parliament?” the court asked. Tamil Nadu had 41 MPs in the Lok Sabha until 1962. After delimitation, two were lost, reflecting a reduction in population. In the regime in Delhi obsessed with the controversial two-child norm, this should be thought-provoking.


The Long Cable

Taliban’s behaviour guided by geo-economics, BRI, rare earths

MK Venu

Speculation is afoot about whether the economic sustenance of Afghan society and the geo-economic imperatives in the region might temper the Taliban leadership’s behavior this time. They must evolve a short-term strategy to sustain the Afghan economy, and a long-term development approach in which China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could play a critical role. China’s BRI-related annual investments have averaged over $50 billion over six years ― mostly in energy and transport infrastructure ― focused on Pakistan and Central Asia, Vietnam, Indonesia and a dozen countries in Africa.

To this portfolio, China might seamlessly add Afghanistan if the Taliban meet conditions outlined by the Chinese representative at the emergency UNSC meeting last week. China said it was willing to work with an “open and inclusive Islamic government” in Afghanistan committed to neutralising terror outfits. The Taliban will need China very badly in place of America’s generous funding of its economy and if former Senior Colonel Zhou Bo of the PLA’s recent op-ed in the New York Times is any indication, the Chinese authorities are keen to fill the breach.

For this to happen, of course, the Taliban would need to provide basic services like food, shelter and fuel to its restive population. Afghanistan had a trade deficit of $5.7 billion in 2020. It has imports of over $6.5 billion and exports (mainly fruits and nuts) of close to $800 million. The World Bank puts the Afghan trade deficit at a whopping 30% of GDP, which cannot be sustained without foreign aid. It is like living with a permanent balance of payments crisis. Fuel constitutes nearly 33% of imports, and foreign funding is required just to sustain the energy security of citizens. The US has frozen all financing and cash flows from IMF loans are also suspended. Central bank reserves of over $8 billion are frozen.  

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So the immediate challenge for the Taliban is to meet the basic needs of its people. The insurgent organisation had a reported annual earning of about $500 million from the opium trade, and it is now collecting additional toll taxes at border checkpoints. But this can’t bridge the gap.

About 80% of the Afghan budget was funded by the US and international donors. Who will fill this gap? This should be the Taliban’s biggest worry. Pakistan can’t help because its own economy is on crutches provided by the IMF and Saudi money. The Taliban would have to depend largely on China. This is the context in which it says it now wants an inclusive governing council and is talking to former president Hamid Karzai and others to participate. In the medium to longer term, they are bound to collaborate with China to receive the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. 

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, China launched 23 new manufacturing, IT and telecom projects in Pakistan and took a 40% stake in the Karachi Stock Exchange, reinforcing its enhanced commitment to BRI development in the region. For China, Afghanistan is pretty much a clean slate and it can shape development the way it wants. 

Afghanistan has over $1 trillion worth of rare earths used in electronics, telecommunications, defence, health care and space. This would be attractive for China, which already owns and processes 80% of the world’s rare earths. Afghanistan is also rich in traditional minerals like copper, gold, bauxite, chromium, lead and zinc. It could collaborate with China to monetise its immense mineral deposits.

This is the Taliban’s best bet, provided it adheres to the basic conditions of curbing terror and keeping the peace. China’s BRI project across the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is provided security by the Pakistan military, though not always successfully. If the Taliban provides effective assurances to China, future BRI projects could prosper under relatively stable conditions. This would be a major geopolitical win for Beijing. “A new route through Kabul would also make India’s resistance to joining the Belt-and-Road less consequential,” writes Colonel Zhou.

India will face its own dilemma if this happens. India’s parallel attempt, to create an alternative route to Central Asia via Iran and Afghanistan, the Chabahar project, would require cooperation with China. It is not clear how India will respond to the inevitable intersection with China’s potential BRI network in Afghanistan. David Loyn, former advisor to president Ashraf Ghani, says that India’s alternative connectivity to Central Asia via Afghanistan could be jeopardised unless India makes creative diplomatic moves. Because the Taliban’s behaviour in 2021 may be guided a lot more by geo-economics than we imagine.


Reportedly

Recently, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, were seen singing the popular Sholay number “Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge” at a function. This surprised many since Vijayvarigya, having lost West Bengal, has been eyeing the CM’s chair. The new alignment could be the result of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s entry into the BJP from the Congress. Scindia has been made Civil Aviation minister at the Centre but everyone knows that he, too, has his eye on the CM’s chair. Could Vijayvargiya be mending fences with Chouhan to counter Scindia?


Prime number: Rs 4.43 lakh crore
That’s the size of cost overruns at the public’s expense on 483 infrastructure projects worth Rs 150 crore or more. At least 504 projects have been delayed. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation monitors such infrastructure projects.

Facebook turns lender

Facebook will offer small business loans in India, the first country where the social media giant is rolling out the program. Partner Indifi will offer credit to firms that advertise on Facebook, the platform said on Friday, following an event featuring representatives of industry and the government. The loans of Rs 5-50 lakh at an interest of 17%-20% are potentially without collateral. 


Pakistan to open Kartarpur route

Pakistan will allow Sikh pilgrims to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur from next month, for the death anniversary of Guru Nanak on September 22. Due to the Delta variant, India was in Category C in Pakistan from May 22 till August 12, and special approval was required for travel. Now, fully vaccinated travellers with RT-PCR tests will be allowed entry. Rapid Antigen Tests will also be administered at airports and positive individuals will be turned away.


Deep Dive

Buzzfeed has a detailed article on the impact of the new digital intermediary rules on technology companies and social media platforms in India. 


Just 52 days of MNREGA work

The demand for work under MGNREGA, which Modi mocked in 2015 but which has been the mainstay of rural India in the slowdown, was the highest ever in 2020 after migrants returned to villages following the disastrous national lockdown. Yet, the government cut funds for 2021. Workers complain of payment delays and inadequate allocation ― just 52 days, not the minimum 100 as per law in UP and MP. 


Picture perfect

Photographer Sohrab Hura’s exhibition ‘Spill’ opens at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, on September 3. In FT, he writes about his work and India, where his mother migrated from Dhaka and his father from Lahore in 1947. He explains how secrecy and subterfuge after “a shift in the sociopolitical environment around me, with the rise of Hindu nationalism”, reflect in the images he captures. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Narendra Modi exploits nationalism to distract Indians from a failing economy, writes Ravinder Kaur in The Guardian.

  • Sharat Pradhan looks at what Kalyan Singh, who died on Saturday, did to the Babri Masjd as Uttar Pradesh chief minister in December 1992 to warrant Narendra Modi calling him a “great man”: The reasons for this praise are obvious, “even if they cannot openly be recounted by anyone who has taken an oath to uphold the constitution.”

  • When the state plans laws to punish parents who cross the two-child limit, it’s women, the poorest and most marginalised who pay the highest price, explains Namita Bhandare.

  • Anger over the Central Vista has had no effect on the government’s plans. But Naman Ahuja raises some pertinent points about context and India’s history in the context of architecture ― especially, the many meanings of uddhara.

  • Soon after rationalist social activist Narendra Dabholkar’s eighth death anniversary, Prashant Padmanabhan pens a tribute to his legacy, examining the scientific temper.

  • Sanjay Sipahimalani writes that the underlying message throughout Princeton Professor Jan-Werner Müller’s new book is that democracy thrives when there’s more: more discussion, participation, media, parties and arenas for disagreement. 


Listen Up

Public and private spaces, and what the rules therein tell us about intimacy, acceptance and modern Indian politics. Policing now stretches beyond public spaces to what tenants can do, cook and eat at home. Hear Paromita Vora and Raghu Karnad in Marine Lines.

Watch Out

At the Manthan forum in Hyderabad, academic John Keane and journalist Debashish Roy Chowdhury talk about their new book, To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism ― “not just in terms of shrinking civil rights and captured and broken governing institutions,” but in terms of the most unequal access to basic economic provisions, and to dignity.

They also mention how the Indian edition of their book is facing an inexplicable delay. Keane said it would be ironic if a book called ‘To Kill a Democracy’ is killed in a democracy.


Over and Out

Kerala celebrates the silver jubilee of the People’s Plan Campaign and the journey of PK Kalan from bonded labourer to block panchayat president is “inscribed in golden letters in its history”.

A percussion instrument made from cowhide, caste society associated the parai only with death. But through a persistent battle, the parai has become a symbol for social justice. For years now, a movement rejects the “impurity” attributed to it by caste society and instead celebrates it as an instrument of caste annihilation

Listen to the Banaras gharana exponent Siddheshwari Devi sing a thumri based on Raag Khamaj. A recording from the 1960s.

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.