Scratchpad: April 12 edition

  • Round one of voting, covering 91 Lok Sabha seats, is over. Last evening, TV channels struggled, on prime time, to make sense of the voting percentages and what those numbers were telling us. So, as PSA, here is my favourite data journalist, Rukmini S, explaining how to read between the cliches. And while on Rukmini and data analysis, read her piece on how the “news media” is going out of its way to help Narendra Modi. In passing, one trend seen in the first phase of voting is not a happy sign: In AP, hundreds of EVMs did not work, needing hundreds of engineers to be summoned to fix them. Begs the question, somewhat: Aren’t EVMs tested before they are deployed? Why not? It is not as if the EC did not have sufficient time to prep.
  • Every time you think the BJP has sunk as low as it is possible to get, one of the party’s bigwigs reaches for a spade. And none so adept at digging down to previously unplumbed depths as Modi himself. While campaigning in Maharashtra, he asked first time voters to dedicate their votes to the ‘Balakot strike’ and to the victims of the Pulwama terrorist attacks. In how many ways is this egregious? Modi and his government are yet to address the question of the security lapses that led to Pulwama. Modi and his party continue to ignore the EC directive that the armed forces cannot be used for propaganda — the same directive Adityanath flouted the other day, and drew a “please be careful” caution from the EC. As an aside, 150 former serving officers (including four former chiefs of the Navy, three former Army chiefs and one former Air Force Chief) wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind asking that he direct “all political parties” to refrain from using the Indian Armed Forces for political propaganda. File this under #FWIW — there is nothing Kovind can do, and there is no reason why Modi, in the midst of a tough election where the party via its manifesto has clearly indicated that “national security” is the only appeal it has to peg its hopes on, would five a flying fish for any direction the President might give, assuming he gives it.
  • But why this desperation, that makes the BJP propel the conversation into the realm of bigotry, of hatred? Because what else is there? The BJP knows that unemployment is a burning issue. Every so often, one or the other minister claims that a very large number of jobs have been created. (Modi told a friendly media house that the problem was not lack of jobs, merely lack of data; earlier posts had looked at how various datasets produced by official agencies have been systematically suppressed because the news is not good.) So the latest in this lineup is Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who claimed that 100 million jobs have been created. He was lying.
  • Speaking of lying, there is this beautiful Rohini Mohan profile of Smriti Irani which, among other things, dwells on the controversy over her educational qualifications. Was reminded of that because Irani’s affidavit went up yesterday, and — it was as if everyone was waiting for this — political twitter pounced on the fact that there was no mention of any degree she had earned. (How underconfident, unsure of yourself, do you have to be to lie blatantly about something that is so easily verifiable?)
  • Five years ago we got “good governance” and the “Gujarat Model” that will create previously unimagined economic prosperity. After five years of that, what are we left with? A ruling party whose president promises that the National Register of Citizens will be implemented all over the country. And “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country. And all the Hindu and Buddhist refugees…we will find each of them, give them Indian citizenship and make them residents here.” Read those words carefully. Adityanath, meanwhile, reverts to his line from the UP assembly elections, framing this as a battle between believers of Ali versus believers in Bajrang Bali; he says the Congress is infected with a “green virus“… It is pointless to even invoke the EC here. But in this connection I was reading this Gurcharan Das column in Foreign Affairs. Das was among the earliest of the “liberals” to toot the Modi-for-PM horn back in 2013-’14; he said then and says now that he was aware of Modi’s complicity — which is the most benign words you can find for his actions — in the 2002 Gujarat riots, but… “There was no denying that Modi was a sectarian and authoritarian figure,” says Das. But I knew that India’s democratic institutions were strong enough to prevail over those tendencies.” That is exactly what the wooly-headed section of the liberals keep repeating — we know he is a bigot, we know he is a thug, but… But what? India’s institutions will rise to the challenge? As must be abundantly clear by now, our institutions were not engineered to protect us from naked, open bigotry; for flagrant contempt of our courts; for wilful misuse of the law enforcement agencies, for the host of other sins that Modi and his minions have committed over the past five years. Which is why we need to think carefully, during this election cycle — not about Modi, or about the alternatives, but about ourselves, our sense of values. What do we stand for? Where do we draw our individual red lines? What does our moral North Star point to, and how far from true North are we prepared to veer and still live with ourselves? I’ll leave these questions with you; answer them as you will, and see if you are willing to live with your answers.
  • Still staying with Modi, a scandal — minor, compared with some other recent ones (more on this later) — during this election cycle relates to his inauguration spree — 157 projects inaugurated in 30 days — in the weeks before the election schedule was announced. Some of them were downright bizarre; all of them were excuses to conduct political propaganda under the guise of official business. Now this: Responding to an RTI query, the PMO says it does not maintain a record of the PM’s internal trips and the money spent on these. Make of this what you will.
  • It was a news channel. Then it was an advertising channel. Both claims were made, about NaMo TV, by the government and its affiliates. In either case, it was publicised by Modi, Shah and various government ministers. Why the ambiguity? Because it was a clear end run around rules and regulations government broadcast content. (It never even applied for a broadcast license; TataSky called it a “special service” for which no license is required, which raises the pertinent question: Can I then book a channel, call it a “special service” and air whatever I like, without going through the licensing and regulatory procedures?) The questions kept proliferating to the point where the BJP finally admitted that the channel was run by the party’s IT Cell — and that has opened up a whole new can of worms with legal consequences, quite apart from the EC’s directive that all content going up on the channel has to be vetted and approved. The larger question in my mind is this: You are the government. You know the rules. You have an entire ministry devoted to regulating and enforcing these rules. So how did you imagine you could get away with flouting every single regulation? The only answer that comes back is: Because you have. Many times, in many ways. With impunity. And that in turn has bred a collective sense that the rules don’t apply to this one party.
  • While on the EC putting its foot down on the Modi channel (and also ordering that the Modi biopic cannot be released till after the elections — which almost guarantees that the movie will top the list of box office duds, by the way), it’s in the midst of a little showdown with the Department of Revenue, which comes under Arun Jaitley’s bailiwick. The last couple of weeks has seen a proliferation of IT raids, all of them targeting the BJP’s political opposition. (Noticeably, despite instances of BJP leaders being caught with cash, no raids appear to ever target them; a case in point is Hyderabad, where the police seized Rs 8 crore in cash, withdrawn in the name of the state president of the BJP). Anyway, the EC asked the Revenue Department to refrain from using raids to intimidate politicians, and said it should be kept informed before any raids are carried out. The department — which is basically Jaitley’s stick — blew a raspberry, and now the EC is distinctly unamused. And again, the question is: But what can the EC actually do? If it is the body mandated to ensure free and fair elections, should it not have the teeth to enforce its edicts? Think of this and of the many other instances of the government machinery being blatantly used by the government for partisan ends. Then, this: Do you remember a case where a person’s election was set aside for, among other things, carrying out campaign activities while being on the payroll of the government? Here it is. Might make you nostalgic for a time when rules could actually be enforced.
  • In the growing list of stories about economic distress, here is one more about the sugarcane farmers of UP, Maharashtra, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka — just picture that for a moment, by the way, and try to wrap your head around how wide this swathe of misery is — and of the sugar mills that collectively owe these farmers $4.38 billion in arrears. Farming in India is a hand to mouth existence at the best of times — you farm, you hope nature doesn’t mess up the cycle, you harvest, sell, and what you get is what you feed your family with besides buying all you need for the next harvest cycle. Think of the number of farmers involved here; the numbers of families living in misery, getting deeper into debt with each passing season… and then think of what the media tells you are the “real issues” of this election.
  • The other day in Gurugram, a bunch of thugs walked the streets in broad daylight, armed with sticks and swords, and forced shopkeepers to shut down meat shops because, Hindu festival. Then we were told they were part of a “fringe” Hindu group. While on which, just how much of the Hindutva brigade is “fringe”? Here is a short post you might find interesting. To get back to Gurugram, it turns out that the man who led this particular has an interesting history: “Assistant commissioner of police (ACP), Udyog Vihar, Birem Singh told the national daily that Rakesh is a history-sheeter with several criminal cases against him. A member of the Hindu Sena, Rakesh has 19 cases against him, including murder and attempt to murder. The ACP also added that Rakesh has been convicted in some cases and is out on bail in others.” One question: How does a history-sheeter who has been convicted on charges of murder and attempt to murder get to wander the streets on bail? (Then again, I keep forgetting that the country is governed by a party whose president is out on bail on charges of murder.)
  • A few pieces you might like to read, beginning with this one by Mihir Sharma on India’s “developed nation” fantasy.
  • A Forbes investigation into India’s most gerrymandered constituencies.
  • A story on the six election officials who traveled for two days to set up a polling booth just so one person could vote.
  • Rape charges have been filed against Franco Mulackal. And the court has ordered police protection for the main witness, Sister Lissy. Independent Kerala MLA PC George was among the “leading lights” who had accused the nun of being a prostitute. The news is, he has now joined the BJP. Make what you will of a party that seems to have space, in its tent, for every kind of thief, rapist, scamster, murderer, misogynist and other undesirable it can find and lure away.
  • Is Modi turning India into a superpower? Um, not so much.

And finally Rafale, the “gift” that goes on giving. For those who came in late, here is a roundup of the events leading to the Supreme Court judgment of December 14, which the government touted as a “clean chit”. That judgment was based on documents submitted by the government in a sealed envelope. It then turned out that the documents — unsigned — contained many misrepresentations. This led to a review petition being filed, and heard in the Supreme Court — in course of which, the petitioners produced various documents that gave the lie to the government’s assertions. AG KK Venugopal said the documents could not be considered because they had been “stolen” from the defence ministry. The government realised only ipso facto that “stolen” was not a good claim to make, since it called into question the security of the key Indian ministry, so KKV went back to court and said the documents had merely been “photocopied”, not stolen — though how that makes anything better is best left to KKV’s imagination.

The question the SC had to answer, before it could get to the Rafale deal itself, was whether these “leaked” documents could be accepted as evidence. Yes they can, said the SC, which deserves three rousing cheers. Indira Jaising explains why this is a landmark judgment (Hint: Freedom of the press).

Arun Jaitley said the decision is no big deal — “a matter of procedure”, he called it. But it is, really — quite a big deal. Because now that the bar on the documents is lifted, the SC will begin hearing the original case, which is: Were there procedural lapses in the way the Modi government negotiated the Rafale deal? And this time, no sealed covers, no unsigned notes, no obfuscation, because the original documents are part of the case. Be interesting to see how that plays out, now that the government has run out of fig leafs.

For those interested, the best resource to follow the Rafale developments, and examine the documents in question, is via the Hindu’s comprehensive coverage, here.

And finally: This is long, but it is worth reading: The Carnegie Endowment’s deep dive, edited by Milan Vaishnav, into the BJP government and religious nationalism is now out in full.

More tomorrow.