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Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts

Monday, August 9, 2021

Changing track (The Telegraph)

A second could be an eternity in sports. But on that sultry August evening in 1984 in Los Angeles, one-hundredth of a second was enough to stand between glory and despair for more than a billion Indians.

It was truly a run into history. A tall and lanky 20-year-old, with a tongue-twister name, Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha, missed her tryst with destiny to become India’s first woman Olympic medallist by the narrowest of margins in the country’s sport history. After crossing the finishing line together, a determined lunge at the photo finish helped Romania’s Cristieana Cojocaru beat Usha by 0.01 seconds to win the bronze in the 400 metres hurdles. Years later, Usha rued how she had run out of energy in the last 35 metres. The villain was her non-nutritional diet at the Olympic camp consisting of just kanji and kadumanga (rice porridge and her home-made mango pickle) for more than a week. She was forced to depend on this as no Indian food was available at the camp and she couldn’t stand the American baked potatoes and boiled chicken. She had no clue about nutrition issues and there was none to advise her either. Compare this with India’s Tokyo Olympic medallist weightlifter, Mirabai Chanu, who received such support for five years as the services of a famed conditioning coach and physio in the United States of America for which she was flown out a day before that country imposed restrictions on Indians. A daily fruit-and-fish diet comprising salmon, tuna and pork belly — all imported from Norway — was also ensured for her.

The LA Olympics turned out to be the moment of her greatest disappointment; but it also made Usha India’s greatest woman athlete.

For no Indian woman athlete has come nearer to her record in a track-and-field event even today although the weightlifter, Karnam Malleswari, became the country’s first woman Olympic medallist at Sydney 16 years later. India’s sprint queen reigned on Asian tracks for two decades, harvesting records and medals aplenty. The ‘Payyoli Express’s’ was much more than a personal achievement. She set a trend. Hundreds of Kerala girls from similar humble backgrounds were inspired to flock to sports to not only compete but also fight their own wretched living conditions. Consequently, India’s athletic world came to be dominated by Malayali girls from then. From Usha making Malayali women’s Olympic debut at Moscow in 1980 to that of her protégé, Jisna Mathew, at Rio 2016, as many as 19 Kerala women have worn India colours in the past 11 Games. Usha participated in three Olympics; her famous contemporary, Shiny Wilson, made it to four. Their successors, K.M. Beenamol, made it to three while the long-jumper, Anju Bobby George (the only Indian gold medallist at the IAAF World Athletics), the middle-distance runner, Chitra Soman, and Usha’s trainee, Tintu Luka, attended two each.

Tokyo Olympics 2020 would go down in history for various reasons, including its being held in 2021 due to Covid-19. But for Kerala, it would be historic as the first Olympics in four decades without a single woman competitor from the state. That too when the 127-member Indian squad boasted of a record 56 women. The 18-member athletic team included nine women. In a reversal of tradition, the Indian squad this time had a record nine men, including seven athletes from Kerala, where sports has long been dominated by women with 14 of them figuring in the state’s total of 16 Arjuna award winners.

Three Kerala women who were expected to make it to Tokyo failed in the trials held in Patiala, mainly on account of their injuries and the lack of sufficient preparations. While Jisna Mathew (4 x 400 m gold, Asian Athletics, 2017) finished fourth in the trials for mixed relay, V.K. Vismaya (4 x 400 m gold in the 2018 Asian Games) ended up last in the trials and the middle-distance runner, P.U. Chitra (1500 m gold winner at Asian Athletics, Doha, 2019), narrowly missed out. The Rio Olympics had four Malayali women: O.P. Jaisha (marathon), Anilda Thomas (4 x 400 m relay), Tintu Luka and Jisna Mathew. Usha’s trainees and national-record holders, Mayookha Johny (triple jump) and Tintu Luka (800 m), had also attended the London Olympics in 2012.


Most athletes, coaches and officials in Kerala blame it on the pandemic and the lockdown that deprived them of sufficient training, workout, competitions and travel. Tournaments were cancelled and there were restrictions on mobility. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year was welcomed by the sporting community as it was expected to provide it with more time for preparations. But the persistence of the pandemic perpetuated the restrictions. Since there were no competitions, Usha conducted meets at her school of athletics in Kozhikode from last September for her 20-odd wards. With her school and its synthetic track securely surrounded by hills, Usha’s trainees were India’s first athletes to resume training after the lockdown. Yet, it did not go as expected as the unrelenting virus caused further lockdowns. Usha says that the pandemic completely truncated her wards’ practice schedules as social distancing and the wearing of masks killed training protocols.

This, however, begs a question. Why then the record rise in the number of men who made it? Surely in Kerala too, every hurdle happens to be far more challenging for women than men on account of entrenched inequities. In spite of the better performance on the conventional indicators of health and education, the high incidence of domestic violence, a high suicide rate among women, low employment rate et al expose Kerala’s patriarchal underbelly. According to a research paper on the relationship between patriarchy and sports in Kerala, “gendered practice of sports marginalizes women in multiple ways.”

Besides the pandemic, many detect a falling interest among Kerala’s girls to join sports compared to the past. With economic prosperity and lower number of children in families, parents’ priority is studies over sports.

The primary reason for the waning interest appears to be the rise in Kerala’s general economic status since the 1990s. For long, sports was one of the attractive professions for Kerala’s youngsters dogged by poverty and high unemployment. It offered a passport to jobs and livelihood for Kerala’s youth, much like it did for the young footballers of South America. Most of Kerala’s famed sportspersons have come from poor families who live in hilly regions; they are thus physically stronger, making them suitable for endurance sports. The routine run to and from school through rough terrain makes them potential athletes. Kerala women’s advancement in sports also has to do with the generally better indicators like sex ratio, female literacy, life expectancy, higher age of marriage and lower infant and maternal mortality rates, notwithstanding the state’s patriarchal trappings.

Most women athletes happen to come from lower middle-class Christian farming families settled in the high ranges. Socially progressive than others, Christian families and churches have always encouraged girls to acquire education, take up sports or jobs like nursing to which Hindus and Muslims were indifferent due to caste and religious prejudices. Kerala’s women — mostly Christians — have traditionally excelled across the country and abroad as nurses. Kerala’s Christian community has provided the country with the largest number of nuns. Since the 1970s, with the state setting up a string of sports schools and organizing more competitions, they began to look at sports as a livelihood option.

But with rising economic prosperity, physically demanding and less-paying professions are becoming unattractive in Kerala in spite of high unemployment. This and Kerala’s high wages have led to a huge inflow of migrant labourers from other states to take up manual jobs. According to a report, there has been a 40 per cent drop in the number of nuns and priests from Kerala. Ditto with the number of nurses getting registered or migrating abroad, according to a study by the World Health Organization. Once among India’s poorest states, Kerala has gone up economically since the 1990s and is now one of the five most prosperous states, thanks to the flow of remittances from the Malayali diaspora in the Gulf. Kerala’s per capita income in 2019 was 1.5 times higher than that of the national average with annual remittances crossing Rs 1 lakh crore that formed 30 per cent of the state’s GDP. Girls being encouraged to take up sports would be the least priority for most middle-class families.

Pursuing sports for survival must have been affected by other factors, such as the fall in population (Kerala had the lowest decadal growth rate in the 2011 census) and the rise of the nuclear family. There is another new trend: the declining sex ratio at birth in contrast to the state’s overall picture of females outnumbering males. Kerala saw the sharpest fall among major states in the last five years, according to the latest National Family Health Survey report. It fell to 951 in 2019-20 from 1,047 in 2015-16, while Kerala had the highest overall sex ratio — 1,121 — among the major states, up from 1,049 during NFHS-4.

The author, a senior journalist based in Trivandrum, has worked with various print and electronic media organizations

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Shadows lengthen, A European fascism? (The Telegraph)

How safe are Europe’s democracies from the majoritarianism that nudged Myanmar into violent ethnic cleansing and China into the systematic dissolution of the Muslim Uighur? Europe is an interesting case in the contemporary history of majoritarianism. Europe is generally seen as the home of resilient democracies and Enlightenment values, so it’s useful to examine how resistant its nations are to the anti-minority politics in the ascendant in so many parts of Asia. In recent times in Myanmar and China, State discrimination and civil society bigotry have combined to create arguably fascist forms of oppression.

Two member states of the European Union, Poland and Hungary, have become notorious for State-sponsored bigotry. The EU has considered sanctioning these states for their anti-Semitism, their encouragement of homophobia and their trumpeted hostility to immigration in general and Muslims in particular. Their majoritarianism is similar to Myanmar’s: the religious identity of the majority has been weaponized to distinguish ‘real’ citizens from false ones. In Myanmar, Buddhism and its sangha were mobilized in the service of majoritarian identity; in Poland, we have Catholicism and the Church.

Important though they are to the politics of Europe, Hungary and Poland won’t determine its political direction. They are doubly marginal: they are part of the EU’s post-communist ‘eastern’ rim and they are latecomers; they joined the EU’s core countries twelve years after the Maastricht Treaty in 2004. The EU was the brainchild of France and Germany, the two countries central to the project of European unification, and it is the fate of France that will shape the nature of the European project.

On the face of it, France is historically vaccinated against the virus of majoritarianism. The Revolution’s root-and-branch hostility towards the Catholic Church and the determined religion-blindness of laïcité, France’s take on secularism, ought to guard against State and civil society backsliding into bigotry. This assumption makes the mistake of assuming that religious majoritarianism is about religion when it is a project of ethnic consolidation against a nominated minority.

The revolution in France led to the emancipation of the Jews from formal discrimination. But amongst the majority, including France’s intellectuals, emancipation was seen as a prelude to complete, unconditional assimilation. Casual anti-Semitism was common in Enlightenment France. Diderot was anti-Semitic, as was Voltaire. To note this is not to ask that we cancel our intellectual forbears for failing to be perfectly consistent or progressive. It is to observe that the intellectual pioneers of liberty, equality and fraternity were willing to caveat their principles, both explicitly and in practice, and these caveats had historical consequences.

Post-revolutionary France, having deleted the Church from the public realm, imagined that it had created secularism. In fact, all it had done was to elevate the average Frenchman complete with his cultural preferences and prejudices, and minus Christianity, into the archetype of the secular citizen. His habits, his fashions, his rules about facial hair or head coverings, his definitions of overt religiosity, would now define France’s good citoyen. Laïcité became an inquisitorial rule, a way of obsessively policing (and suppressing) public difference.  

Government officials specifying how much skin women have to show before they can swim on a public beach doesn’t strike the French as grotesque. This is the Gaullist version of ‘we shall fight on the beaches’. In 1905, when laïcité was formally enshrined in law, the burkini wouldn’t have been an offence against French secularism because every woman who visited a beach at the turn of the century was similarly covered up. A century ago, the French woman at the beach wore a wool dress up to her knees, with bloomers underneath and the skin below her knees was covered by stockings and bathing slippers. The French don’t see the absurdity of defining secularism in terms of rising hemlines and changing fashions. A thought experiment is a useful way of appreciating the monstrousness of laïcité: if France was a nudist colony, circumcision would be disallowed as a public avowal of religious identity.

Laïcité makes the historical experience and practice of a relatively homogenous Christian population in the 19th and early 20th centuries a template for regulating the behaviour of a much more diverse modern society. The French simply assume that laïcité is culturally, historically and religiously neutral, untouched by France’s imperial history, uncoloured by its experience of Christianity or its encounter with racism and anti-Semitism. Laïcité is dangerous because it makes a virtue of intolerance. Nineteenth-century French intellectuals who should have known better saw no contradiction between republican virtue and anti-Semitism: having parked their Christianity in its proper place, they were keen to purge Jews of their Jewishness so they could vanish into the Republic.

But we know that assimilation didn’t help. There are poignant stories about patriotic French Jews so ideologically assimilated that they couldn’t bring themselves to reproach the republic for interning them in Vichy France. Germany’s Jews, let’s not forget, were the most thoroughly assimilated minority in Europe.

This April, a thousand French soldiers, including twenty generals, some retired, others on the reserve list, signed an open letter in a right-wing magazine, warning Macron that deadly dangers threatened France. They warned that a civil war was brewing and denounced “Islamism and the hordes of the banlieu”, the mainly Muslim migrant suburbs that surround Paris. The defence minister denounced the letter and threatened sanctions, but no concrete action was taken against the signatories. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National and Macron’s most formidable rival for the presidency, endorsed the letter. There are around five million Muslims in France.

If Marine Le Pen were to win the French presidency, the danger isn’t that France will change beyond recognition; the danger is that the Republic will accommodate the Front National’s neo-fascist majoritarianism without having to change. French liberals and socialists might object but it is the majoritarianism written into laïcité that allows Le Pen to segue from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia within the rhetoric of ‘secularism’. It’s the reason why Marianne, France’s goddess of Liberty, can look like Marine le Pen or sound like Brigitte Bardot.

Europe’s anti-clerical Enlightenment thinkers admired Imperial China for a seemingly ‘secular’ State, anchored in Confucianism, a humanist ethical system, rather than in organized religion. In Xinjiang, China repaid the compliment by taking laïcité to its logical conclusion: shaving faces, razing mosques, nationalizing Islam and educating Muslims out of their beliefs. No one in France — or Europe —should say that they weren’t warned.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Counting on cynicism (The Telegraph)

Samantak Das 

The personal, we are told, is political, yet the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the second wave of which is wreaking havoc across India at this moment, seems to have driven a perceptible wedge between the two. Since this column last appeared in the pages of this newspaper a month ago, roughly three dozen people I know quite well have contracted the coronavirus disease, and some half-a-dozen have succumbed to it. Among those who have died of Covid-19 are former teachers and colleagues, neighbours, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. Every death has come as a shock, every new case has brought in its wake a dreadful foreboding of what might follow. Even as I type this out, several of the students in my department are battling the disease, a childhood friend is hospitalized with it, and a close friend and colleague is (thankfully, fingers crossed) on his way to gradual recovery. Add to this the tension about where near and dear ones might receive their second dose of the vaccine; the frantic search for oxygen for an aged relative a fortnight ago; the constant worry and despair about those we know and love; and the apprehension that each day will bring yet another piece of ill news. In every single instance the horror and dread have been at a deeply-felt, personal level. Every email one sends or receives either begins or ends with an expression of hope that the recipient is staying safe and keeping well, and every telephone conversation begins with an enquiry about each other’s health and that of their loved ones. My experience is by no means exceptional or unusual — I suspect anyone reading this has felt the same emotion any number of times, especially during these last few months.

Yet, if one is able to pull back, as it were, and look at the larger picture, things appear different. The leaders of the party in power in New Delhi are seemingly more concerned with building the hideously expensive new Central Vista, fudging the numbers of those infected, dead or dying, and denying either that there is a shortage of oxygen in our hospitals and health centres or that unacceptable numbers are dying of the virus (even as corpses float down the Ganges). With the official figure of those who have contracted the disease having crossed 25 million (widely believed by experts to be a gross underestimate), and deaths exceeding 2,80,000 and counting, how is this possible? The usual answer finds the root cause of this disaster in a combination of misplaced confidence, distrust of expert opinion, lack of planning, inept governance, and plain callousness. But could it be that there is a method in this seeming madness? A calculation based on a cost-benefit analysis that has concluded that the misery and mortality wrought by the virus are worth it? That the long-term gains in terms of power and influence are considerably greater than the short-term losses in terms of lives and livelihoods?

India has a little less than 1.4 billion inhabitants, and if we accept the official figure of roughly 25.5 million coronavirus cases as of date, that works out to less than two per cent of the population. Even if the count is multiplied 10 times, or even more, as some experts think it ought to be, the number of cases comes to about 20 to 30 per cent of the total population. Deaths are being undercounted too, but probably by not much more than a factor of two or three. Where mortalities are concerned, the official toll is barely over one per cent of all coronavirus cases, and if we take the higher figure for both infections and deaths (10 times the number of infections, three times the number of deaths), the number falls to one-third of one per cent, or 0.33 per cent. Now, one-third of one per cent of 1.4 billion is 4.66 million. The United States of America has had over 6,00,000 deaths so far in a population of 333 million, or a mortality rate of roughly 0.18 per cent, if one considers the population as a whole. If the same mortality rate were to be seen in India, the number of deaths would be 2.52 million, but, in actual fact, it will probably be smaller, not least because a virus tends to mutate to the point where it can thrive without killing off its host organism. This is likely to happen with the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well, so that eventually we will become accustomed to living with it, as it makes the shift from pandemic to endemic. Whichever way one looks at it, even if the absolute figures are horrifying, the percentage of the population which may eventually succumb to the coronavirus is actually quite small. This ongoing pandemic will infect tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Indians, and leave hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of us dead.

It doesn’t matter what our individual fears and personal tragedies might be, when seen from a distance, as a collective, the percentage of Indians who will actually succumb to the virus is negligible. Or, in other words, once the dust settles, and the dead are disposed of, the number of people who will still be around to vote in the next general elections will not be very much less than those who voted in the last one. This, essentially, is the algorithm of cynicism, a barely-disguised contempt for the people, which seems to be driving those at the helm of power in our country. The fact that no other nation is asking its people to pay for the Covid-19 vaccine, or asking states to foot the bill for vaccine purchase (instead of doing so Centrally), or encouraging differential pricing by private vaccine manufacturers is just one instance of this calculated, number-based cynicism. Bodies will be burned, or buried, or thrown into rivers and streams, but the edifice of the now-under-construction Central Vista in our grandly-imagined capital city will remain. In the years to come, we, the atmanirbhar  people of India, will learn to live with the memory of the pandemic (which will fade, as memories do), a government that is indifferent, and often hostile, to our woes (which we will get used to, as humans do), a shining new multi-billion dollar capital city, and towering statues of noble Indians dotted across the landscape, in villages and towns (which we will grow to love and admire, as we do so much of the grand panoply of state). The original cynics of ancient Greece abjured all worldly possessions and sought to live on as little as possible; the present-day cynics who rule our destinies feast on delusions of eternal grandeur.

Samantak Das is professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and has been working as a volunteer for a rural development NGO for the last 30 years.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, May 7, 2021

A steep price (The Telegraph)

Prabhat Patnaik   

The Narendra Modi government’s ineptitude (or call it complicity with monopolists’ extortions) knows no limits. In the midst of a terrible pandemic when there is a shortage of vaccines, there are three obvious things any government must do: first, distribute the vaccine free among the people, which is but a recognition of everyone’s right to life; second, introduce monopoly purchase of the vaccine by the government, no matter what the criteria and through which channels it chooses to ration it out among the people; third, fix the purchase price at a fair mark-up over unit prime cost.

The vaccination regime in India began with these features (although private hospitals distributing government-procured vaccines charged Rs 250 per dose, which was questionable but not large enough to cause disquiet). Most inexplicably, however, the government ‘liberalized’ vaccine sale from May 1. The Central government would now buy only half the vaccine output and provide it free to those above 45. State governments and private hospitals would buy the other half and distribute it to those aged between 18 and 45.

The prices paid by the three sets of buyers are different. For Covishield, prices would be Rs 150 for the Central government (even though this is not yet settled), Rs 300 for state governments (originally Rs 400 but lowered later) and Rs 600 for private hospitals. Covaxin prices would be Rs 150, Rs 400 (reduced from Rs 600 originally) and Rs 1,200, respectively. Many state governments have announced that they would provide the vaccines for free but given the parlous state of their finances, they may not be able to do so. Several people would be forced to access private hospitals and pay hefty amounts to get vaccinated. India would be an exception among countries, almost all of which are now providing free vaccines to their people.

Even if the state governments find the resources to provide free vaccines, this would entail a wholly unwarranted transfer from state exchequers to a duopoly of vaccine-producing firms for the prices they are charging are scandalous. At the current exchange rate, what the Serum Institute of India, manufacturing Covishield, is charging state governments (Rs 300) translates to $4.00 per dose; its price to private hospitals (Rs 600) comes to $8 per dose. But AstraZeneca, whose product is Covishield, is charging $2.18 per dose to the European Union and $4 to the United States of America; the Indian prices are thus higher than the prices for the EU and the US.

It may be thought that since the Central government pays less, the higher prices to state governments and private hospitals are meant to cross-subsidize sales to the Centre. But the SII also wants to charge Rs 300 per dose to the Central government (Rs 150 is what it was charging earlier and the Centre has unilaterally stated that the same price will continue); so, cross-subsidization cannot explain the higher prices for state governments and private hospitals. Besides, the weighted average price, even assuming that the Central government buys at Rs 150 per dose, with the sale proportions being 1/2:1/4:1/4, respectively, to the Centre, the states and private hospitals, comes to Rs 300 or $4.00; this still exceeds the price charged to the EU, and equals the US price (despite manufacturing costs being much lower in India).

The higher price in India is not required to earn surpluses for expanding the firm’s capacity. For such expansion, the Central government has separately given SII Rs 3,000 crore. Besides, the SII can raise resources through the usual channels. The higher price for Covishield, therefore, is totally unjustified.

Over-charging is even greater for Covaxin manufactured by Bharat Biotech. BB is charging the Central government Rs 150, state governments Rs 400 (Rs 600 originally but later reduced) and private hospitals Rs 1,200. Its excuses for charging even more than the SII are ridiculously feeble.

It claims to have spent Rs 350 crore on clinical trials, which it wishes to recoup. But significant amounts of public funds have gone into the development of Covaxin (R. Ramakumar,, April 26). Besides, even if BB’s claim is accepted, the additional charge compared to Covishield, which it is levying on state governments and private hospitals, Rs 100 and Rs 600, respectively, assuming the same ratio of sales as above, and total sales of three crore doses per month from May onwards that it envisages (in fact sales are supposed to increase), would recoup this amount in just 20 days, after which higher prices on this score cannot be justified even by BB’s own logic.

Likewise, BB argues that Covaxin prices have to be higher than Covishield as the latter got a grant of $300 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But the weighted average price for Covaxin, again assuming the same ratio of sales, is Rs 475 per dose, which is Rs 175 more than for Covishield. On a sale of three crore per month, even ignoring increases in sales that must occur, this amount can be recouped in just over four months; what is the justification for higher prices after that?

The argument that resources are needed for expanding capacity is, once again, untenable, since the Central government has just given Rs 1,500 crore for BB’s growth. It is obvious, therefore, that the two firms are blatantly engaged in profiteering during a pandemic. This is ironically confirmed by the very reductions in prices they have announced.

Such profiteering is unacceptable. It is especially odious when public money goes to finance their growth, and has gone into developing the product of one of them. But profiteering has become possible because the Central government has ‘liberalized’ vaccine sale. ‘Liberalization’, amazingly, has not entailed any consultation among the manufacturers and state governments and private hospitals, or any scrutiny of their costs of production, or any agreement on the pricing formula based on such costs. For agricultural products, there is a Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices that fixes the minimum support prices and the procurement prices by looking at costs of production; but for a critical commodity like the Covid vaccine, even this minimal procedure has not been followed. The companies have simply told state governments and private hospitals, ‘This is our price, take it or leave it’, knowing perfectly well that their clients cannot afford to ‘leave it’. And, strangely, the Central government, concerned about the price it has to pay, has left state governments and private hospitals completely at the mercy of these firms.

The motive for ‘liberalization’ is mysterious. In almost all other countries at present, vaccine producers do not sell to private hospitals, which was the case in India before ‘liberalization’. The earlier policy, of the Central government bulk-buying from the two firms at a pre-fixed price and then distributing the vaccines, should have continued. Why it was discontinued defies reason when this measure has encouraged profiteering.

Short of taking over the firms, either permanently or for the duration of the pandemic (as Spain did to private hospitals earlier), a Central government that cares for the people has two options which it must follow simultaneously: one, use ‘compulsory licensing’ to start new production facilities that break the stranglehold of the duopoly and expand capacity more rapidly; two, compulsorily buy the entire output at Rs 150 per dose and then distribute through various channels as before. And in all cases, it must arrange that vaccination is free for the people. But does the Modi government care?

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Different response (The Telegraph)

Luv Puri  

India is reeling under one of the most serious public health challenges in the post-Independence era. The immediate crisis has a strong internal dimension and this fact cannot be overemphasized. One need not be a public health expert to realize that allowing mass religious gatherings, the lack of the leadership’s deference to science and expertise, poor public communication strategy regarding public health, the lack of preparation and a multi-stage electoral cycle are some of the visible factors that proved to be fatal. However, going beyond the immediate crisis, the ability of India and the rest of the world to prevent further losses and limp back to normality is also inextricably related to the prevailing international realities and structures that govern distribution of limited public health resources, particularly the vaccines.

During the first half of 2020, the pandemic demonstrated that even normative guidance and resolve on the question of meeting the challenge of Covid-19 were a matter of contention among global powers. In the midst of the rising death toll globally owing to Covid-19 last year, the United Nations security council impasse over a draft resolution on the pandemic was indicative of a wider institutional breakdown of the most important global body, which is becoming hostage to the rivalry between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. For several months, the US and China bickered over a draft resolution on the pandemic.

In the absence of an international regime that could facilitate equitable access to public health resources globally, as had been repeatedly pointed out by public health researchers, vaccine nationalism is slowing down the efforts to return to normality. In fact, it could further exacerbate the human condition, as is borne out by the recent Indian experience, with possibly more virulent mutants. Oxfam had warned in September 2020 that “just 13 percent of the world’s population have already cornered more than half (51 percent) of the promised doses of leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates”. The Global Health Innovation Center in the North Carolina-based Duke University has noted in its updated data that “[h]igh-income countries currently hold a confirmed 4.6 billion doses, while low-middle income nations hold 670 million”.

In April 2020, the World Trade Organization, made up of 164 member states, had warned that a lack of transparency about restrictions and failure to cooperate internationally could undermine efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19. Last year, the US, reeling under the pandemic, made a request to China to revise new export quality control rules for protective equipment after complaints were made that their rules were holding up supplies. Eighty countries had reportedly banned or limited the export of face masks, protective gear, gloves and other goods to mitigate shortages.  

With a population scale and financial muscle, the reality is that even the US faced a severe shortage of masks or personal protective equipment kits in March-April 2020, which led to an increase in the Covid-19 caseload among the medical staff. The rest of the richer cohorts are relatively smaller in size and more vulnerable. Covid-19 demonstrated that mere access to financial resources does not ensure availability of required medical equipment during a surge. It is unlikely that one country could start manufacturing all kinds of medical goods, such as masks, or anything a bit advanced, such as ventilators. Also, at times, it becomes difficult to anticipate which medical goods’ demand will outstrip supply on a given occasion. A case in point is that during April 2020 and February 2021, India had exported 12 metric tonnes of medical oxygen.

In the context of the fight against Covid-19, the old debate on intellectual property between the richer nations and developing countries is back. The developing countries are demanding temporary relaxations on intellectual property, patents and other such provisions laid out under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, also known as the TRIPS Agreement of the WTO, which came into effect on January 1, 1995. As expected, there is an opposition to the proposal from the European Union, the US, Japan and Canada on the grounds that innovation depends on respect for intellectual property. Patent-protected medicines are expensive as pharmaceutical companies price their products by factoring in research and development costs. A generic product drives down the price dramatically as had been seen with the much-cited example of antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS. Brazilian and Indian companies started producing cheap drugs for HIV/AIDS and thus also supported the efforts of several AIDS-hit populations of African countries along the way. In the same way, India’s present crisis has put in jeopardy the vaccination programmes in low-income countries. India, the largest vaccine manufacturing hub, has exported 66.3 million vaccine doses to 95 countries under three categories — grant, commercial and Covax, a global initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines. Now it has stopped the exports.

There may be a need for alternative institutional arrangements. Richard N. Haass and Charles A. Kupchan, in an article, “The New Concert of Powers”, in Foreign Affairs on March 23, argued for a new concert comprising China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia and the US, as the existing multilateral institutions are too formalistic and bureaucratic to respond to the urgent challenges. Though the purpose of this suggested concert, whose “members would collectively represent roughly 70 percent of both global GDP and global military spending”, is broader in scope, the authors argue that “the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the WHO’s inadequacies, and the concert would be the right place to fashion a consensus on reform”.

An early end to the fight against Covid-19 is predicated on ensuring greater global equity in terms of expeditious access to public health resources. The present international arrangements to forge consensus and advance solutions are proving to be inadequate to respond to the foremost existential challenge of this century.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Wonder woman, India’s political chemistry is changing (The Telegraph)

Saba Naqvi  

The passion and conviction were all too visible in Mamata Banerjee’s first words to the media after the magnificent win registered by her party in West Bengal. She would be going to a Constitution bench, she said, because “we have faced the horrors of Election Commission and if we tolerate whatever they have done in Bengal, then in India there will be no democracy.” She invited other political parties to join her petition to the Supreme Court and said that Bengal has saved India today.

So are we getting ahead of ourselves by asking if Mamata Banerjee can save India tomorrow in a national coalition against the Bharatiya Janata Party? She does, after all, have the temperament for a protracted fight and has just triumphed in the most epic of battles, with not just politics but also institutions ranged against her. Other regional leaders won too, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, as much a regional satrap as a Left worker. But none had the entire might of the BJP and Central agencies ranged against them. It is, therefore, the Bengal mandate that has really shattered the illusion of invincibility around the Narendra Modi regime two years into his second term as prime minister.

The Bengal victory is all the more substantive as it was not just against an irrational burst of BJP energy in the last two months of campaigning. The national party was playing the long game in Bengal and had framed policies with the state elections in mind. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which was passed by Parliament in December 2019, was always targeted at Bengal that is believed to have the largest population of Hindus tracing their roots to Bangladesh (the Act fast-tracks their citizenship while blocking that of Muslims). The CAA would lead to nationwide trauma: protests and, eventually, riots in Delhi in February 2020. The Matua community, the largest group of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, have indeed supported the national party in these polls although ironically, after creating so much bad blood, the Centre is yet to frame the rules of the CAA that are required to make it operational — a display of the cynicism with which Hindutva agendas are given a dry run.

 The West Bengal chief minister has often asked the Opposition to unite, but the question remains whether she would be willing to step out of her turf and wage a national battle. The last chief minister to do so was Narendra Modi, who had also won three terms in Gujarat. The difference was that he had a national party as a vehicle for his ambitions. Mamata Banerjee does not and were this idea to ever have wings, she would have to work with both the Congress and the regional forces. The apparent reluctance of the Gandhis to hold office could be a factor that does not make this an impossible idea.

There has already been editorial commentary about the power of regional satraps and the question has been asked if disparate forces could take on an entrenched national player. It can happen, but only if the Congress is on board because in spite of the defeats in these polls, the party still has bases across the country. Because of its failure to win Kerala and Assam, there is likely to be some implosions in the Congress but if the past is an indicator of the future, then after the hurly-burly is done, the Gandhis will still be at the helm of affairs.

The good news is that although Rahul Gandhi has shown none of the street-fighting grit that makes Mamata Banerjee so exceptional at this moment in contemporary history, he has taken wise and far-sighted positions on the coronavirus epidemic that currently rages through the land. At a time of acute oxygen shortages in the national capital, Priyanka Gandhi has been personally overseeing a youth Congress team delivering oxygen cylinders to homes, hospitals and even embassy compounds, small gestures that do show that the heart is in the right place.

But hardheaded political acumen would require the Congress to recast state strategies and not contest against traditional regional players as it did in Bengal, eventually getting out for duck. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, also oversaw its Bengal strategy and often speaks of Mamata Banerjee with disrespectful phraseology. Should the Congress be serious in its intent to take on Narendra Modi in 2024, it would have to dispense with certain fixtures in its state units and look at the larger picture. The next round of state polls will take place in early 2022, first in Punjab, where the BJP no longer remains a serious contender after the split with the Shiromani Akali Dal over the farm laws, and then in Uttar Pradesh, hit by Covid-19 spreading into the hinterland but also missing a strong Opposition.

Mamata Banerjee has been part of two coalitions in the past, the National Democratic Alliance of Atal Bihari Vajpayee when she was not in power in Bengal and the United Progressive Alliance, eventually leaving UPA II led by Manmohan Singh in 2012 over foreign direct investment in the retail sector. Unlike the Bahujan Samaj Party chief, Mayawati, or the late J. Jayalalithaa, both former women chief ministers, the Bengal leader is not unapproachable. She has excellent relations with Sonia Gandhi and with state leaders across the country. Of importance would also be her equation with Sharad Pawar, the Nationalist Congress Party supremo, who is considered a smart practitioner of statecraft and is credited with being behind the design of the regime that now rules Maharashtra. Both Mamata Banerjee and Pawar are former Congress members who would go on to create significant regional parties. The UPA is currently almost defunct as a forum and Sonia Gandhi is the chairman; the game would indeed be afoot again were the national party and regional players to reach out and make the Bengal chief minister chairperson of the UPA.  

Mamata Banerjee takes risks. There is something beautifully human about her defeat in Nandigram. She left a safe seat for a tougher one when she was, in fact, the TMC face for every seat in Bengal. She was injured both physically and metaphorically in Nandigram, but as does happen in protracted battles, the hero gets wounded, copes with the pain and keeps charging till the enemy is vanquished. The eventual defeat from Nandigram only makes her human and, therefore, more relatable in the age of carefully manufactured leadership.

At a time when many state leaders even from opposing parties are careful about what they say about Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, it’s a breath of fresh air to see Mamata Banerjee speak her mind fearlessly and honestly from her point of view. Under the homely exterior of a spontaneous leader in a simple cotton sari is an individual with nerves of steel. That’s what is needed to fight the cult of the Indian prime minister, propped up by big money, manpower and a pliable national media. There is some distance between 2021 and 2024, when the next general election takes place; can the Opposition start devising a strategy? There are chinks in the BJP’s armour and the national chemistry is changing. Mamata Banerjee has shown India that no victory is impossible.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Modi’s Waterloo (The Telegraph)

Suman Ballav

Sudheendra Kulkarni

Any phrase when overused becomes stale and loses its meaning. ‘A historic victory’ is one of them. If every election victory is described as ‘historic’, as is often done in congratulatory messages, history begins to look ordinary, robbing us of our ability to discern events that can effect extraordinary changes. As a matter of fact, history records and remembers very few events in its annals and consigns the rest to oblivion.

Mamata Banerjee handing a humiliating defeat to the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the Union home minister, Amit Shah, in the just-concluded West Bengal assembly elections will be recalled as historic for many reasons. For starters, Modi and Shah, who have created an aura of invincibility around themselves with the help of a section of the media that have allowed themselves to be enslaved, now look beatable in 2024. West Bengal has opened up real possibilities for making Modi a two-term prime minister. Events in the coming two-three years may hasten his departure even earlier. This is because his government will surely be crippled by its gross mismanagement of the second wave of the Covid crisis, which has inflicted deaths and distress on an unprecedented scale. The resultant economic crisis, whose heat is already being felt by common Indians in the form of steep price rise and widespread joblessness, will begin to take its toll on Modi’s popularity and, hence, on his vaunted capacity to win elections for his party. And once a leader begins to lose that principal touchstone of leadership in a democracy — the promise of keeping his party in power — the party itself, along with the rest of the sangh parivar, will start to look for alternatives. At the very least, the Bharatiya Janata Party will begin to look fragile. To know that this process has already started, one only has to look at Subramanian Swamy’s leadership-questioning tweets. His is not a lone voice. He is an influential figure in the Hindutva establishment.

There is a second way Banerjee’s victory will be seen as historic. Her national profile and popularity have risen overnight because of the sheer scale of her party’s third successive win — 213 seats in an assembly of 294, improving upon its own tally of 209 in 2016. So stupendous is this achievement that even her own unexpected loss by a slender margin to Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram will hardly dent her stature either in West Bengal or in the rest of the country. She is being rightly hailed as the ‘Bengal tigress’ who has single-handedly vanquished the mighty army of Modi and Shah allegedly supported by the pliant institutions of the Indian State — the Election Commission, Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation and the Income Tax department. The fact that an injured and wheelchair-bound woman, facing repeated taunts from her rivals, could achieve this feat will further add to her charisma beyond Bengal’s borders. Therefore, the non-BJP Opposition parties in India, divided and depressed until now and also suffering from the lack of a commonly acceptable leader around whom to coalesce, are likely to view Banerjee with a lot of hope. In 1996, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s “historic blunder” had prevented a tall Bengali leader, Jyoti Basu, from becoming India’s prime minister. Twenty-five years later, the first hints of a new possibility have emerged. Could Banerjee become the first Bengali to lead the nation from New Delhi? Suddenly, this question no longer looks far-fetched.

The historic import of her party’s victory lies also in the rude jolt it has delivered to the BJP’s toxic politics of communal polarization. As a non-Bengali who spent nearly two months witnessing the election scene in the state, I met many non-party Bengali intellectuals and activists who dreaded the prospect of the BJP coming to power and tearing apart the secular fabric of Bengali society with its Hindu supremacist ideology. I was wonderstruck by their spirited ‘No Vote To BJP’ campaign, which brought out the best of Bengal’s unifying socio-cultural traditions. Every morning, I read with disbelief the gritty coverage of the election scene in this newspaper because there is, sadly, no other media organization in India that punctures the hubris of Modi and Shah quite the way it is done in these pages. I have no doubt that at the root of this journalistic courage is a deep concern that Bengal’s distinctive heritage, which has been enriched by giants like Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Swami Vivekananda and Netaji Subhas Bose, to name only a few, must not be allowed to be destroyed by the BJP’s alien Hindutva invasion.

In this lies the wider national significance of Banerjee’s victory. By defeating the BJP decisively, the voters of this state have not only saved Bengal but they have also raised the hope of saving India. For it is obvious that with no great success to show on the development and governance fronts, Modi, Shah and the third Hindutva mascot, Yogi Adityanath, will increasingly resort to the hate-filled politics of Hindu-Muslim division to win elections. India has already paid a heavy price by allowing such politics to gain ascendancy. The consequences of it gaining more electoral successes in the future will be calamitous for our society, our Constitution and the Indian Republic. After all, the BJP and the sangh parivar have not hidden their ultimate goal of transforming India into a Hindu rashtra. Bengal has shown what the rest of India should do to foil this plan.

A politician’s true character is often revealed in how he/she conducts an election campaign. Both Modi and Shah failed this test miserably. The prime minister’s ‘Didi o Didi’ and ‘scooty’ jibes at Banerjee were cringe-worthy. Shah lampooned himself by boasting that the BJP would win 200+ seats and that the afternoon of May 2 would witness the chief minister going to Raj Bhavan to tender her resignation. The BJP’s tally could not even touch three digits, even though it had made the election a Modi versus Mamata battle. The arrogance and insensitivity of the top BJP leaders were further amplified by the party’s state functionaries. When four poor Muslim voters fell to the bullets of the Central security forces at Sitalkuchi, one former BJP chief in West Bengal said more should have been killed and the incumbent party president warned ‘naughty boys’ of ‘many Sitalkuchis’. Neither of them was publicly reprimanded by the prime minister or other top leaders of the BJP and the sangh parivar.

The callousness of Modi and Shah was also on display in their flagrant violation of their own government’s Covid-related safety guidelines. Indications of a second wave of the pandemic were available in February itself. Yet, the Election Commission was persuaded to hold eight phases of polling in the state. Furthermore, they came to address numerous rallies across Bengal, disregarding the fact that such events could become ‘superspreaders’ of the coronavirus. Banerjee also conducted an extensive campaign. But it must be said in her defence that she had strongly urged the Election Commission to conduct a shorter election. Modi also violated another canon of ethical electioneering. He became the first Indian prime minister to (indirectly) campaign for his party from foreign soil. He did so when, during his official visit to Bangladesh in March, he visited the shrine of Guru Harichand Thakur in Orakandi, with the aim of influencing the votes of the Matua community in West Bengal.

Modi’s image has taken a severe beating because of two convergent failures: his failure to handle the Covid crisis and his humbling defeat to bring his party to power in West Bengal. Never have the global media pilloried him as much in the past seven years as they have done in the past seven weeks. This is certainly debilitating for someone who wants to be seen as a great global leader. This is also deeply demotivating for his bhakts, who see in him a prime minister who could, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, remain in command for a long time to come and lead India’s transition to a constitutionally proclaimed ‘Hindu Nation’. Besides the deadly virus, one brave and simple woman with the common touch has frustrated this game plan. May India conquer the virus. May Bengal conquer the throne in Delhi.

The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Monday, May 3, 2021

Bengal’s daughter, Mamata Banerjee has stopped the BJP’s ashwamedha in Bengal (The Telegraph)

Sankarshan Thakur 

Who dares wins. Beyond all the analysis and interpretation that will come to attend the quite astounding, and sobering, verdict of the people of Bengal, this is Mamata Banerjee’s finest hour. She has become today the consequence of who she has relentlessly been in the process of becoming since she had her skull split in a skirmish with the Left three decades ago: a fighter who won’t give up the fight.

She had the most formidable and dubiously loaded war chest thrown at her, volley upon volley, dare upon bellowing dare; she took the blows with grit and with pugnacity and exhausted them. In the process of such mostly one-legged gallantry, she has scored a stellar breach in a raging myth of our politics — that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah form an invincibility we’d better reconcile to, that there is an inevitability to the hegemony of their ‘chakravarti’ project, that where they venture they will establish their suzerainty. Mamata has halted the ashwamedha in Bengal; she remains firmly in the saddle of her realm, battle-scarred and bleeding in Nandigram herself, but unshaken. It isn’t often a two-term incumbent is able to fight off such a robust charge on the fortress. The travesty remains it isn’t often the challenge is borne the way Mamata did in Bengal. Or, let it be said, the way freshman Tejashwi did in Bihar not so long ago. The way he hounded the combined might and resources of Modi-Shah and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, the way he nearly came to pip them, should have already proved to those ready to pay heed that the Modi-Shah mission plays — very often successfully — on the counterfeit currency of impregnability.

This is not to remotely suggest at this stage that their term as big daddies of the field is anywhere near expiry; that would be infantile indulgence at the moment. They remain in active rampage; Narendra Modi, for all his garrulous fumbling and messing about, mindful and mindless, remains, in offence of good sense and to some stupefaction, the lead national act. What Mamata has demonstrated is that with enough intent and purpose, with cuffing the right buttons, the rampaging can be called out and shown its place.

This is a moment not unlike the Mahagathbandhan’s 2015 victory in Bihar, later nullified by Nitish Kumar’s notorious pole-vault into Modi’s lap. The thwarting of the BJP’s power-grab on Bihar was widely seen at the time as a swivel event that would enable a credible rallying of the Opposition. The only swivel that resulted was Nitish Kumar’s treachery on the mandate. The counterblast from Bengal comes in the throes of a spiralled authoritarianism; it is marauding and it is untrammelled. Institutions have been beaten and twisted out of shape. The economy has been run aground. The citizenry’s recourse to correction has been throttled. A cold, tyrant heart presides over our proceedings, such that it is no longer possible to believe that there may even be something human that constitutes the government we re-elected to power in 2019. Drop a litmus into the swirl of statements that have emerged from our minders as we suffer our harshest crisis and see for yourself what you come up with. There aren’t enough hospital beds, not nearly enough oxygen, we are celebrating a ‘tika utsav’ but there is neither tika nor utsav anywhere the gaze goes. The fatigued fraternity of doctors and health workers has been stretched beyond measure. It requires urgent aid. We have made one man’s vanity called the Central Vista an essential service; not a paisa allotted to this monumental callousness must be moved elsewhere, the earthmovers must roll, the heart of Delhi must be ripped and rolled to fashion the master’s flawed fantasy at a time when Delhi is queuing up to see off its dead.

Such is the moment we are in, such are the suffocations from which Mamata’s victory has allowed us a momentary lease of breathing. She has run a fine race, but the race isn’t done yet. More than once in our recent past the baton of challenge has been picked, more than once has it been dropped. Most tellingly by the Congress, which, again to some stupefaction, remains the chief national Opposition. It is time it moults out of calcified derelictions, begins to act its part, begins to re-learn lessons from Bengal and, equally, from its defeats in Kerala and Assam. That lesson, bluntly put, is this: forsake your entitlements and your excuses, shun your reckless abandoning of the field, descend into the trench, fight the fight. Ahead of that, give yourselves a leader who would replace the non-functioning dyarchy at the top of the party.

Midway through the campaign for Bengal, Mamata had sent out a letter, a desperate plea really, to major non-BJP formations to close ranks and save the nation from being contorted crudely out of shape. She recognized, and rightly so, the immense power the Bharatiya Janata Party, especially the Modi-Shah duo, has come to wield, how destructive that could be to the nation, and why there was need to close ranks and stop the slide. The appeal received scant notice; some merely thought it an indication from Mamata that she was losing the battle, clutching at straws as she sensed a drowning mid-stream. There are lessons for Mamata to learn, for sure, and corrections to effect. The smart politician that she is, it is not possible she is unaware of widespread disaffection with actors of the Trinamul Congress in Bengal. It cannot be that she is unaware that credible reason exists, even among her votaries, for grouse and grievance: corruption at the grass roots, the culture of syndicates and commission/extortion that has become pervasive, the charge of nepotism and of appeasement. Those cannot be brushed aside or buried, not even under the overwhelming downpour of celebratory confetti. Those will need attending.

But looking beyond Bengal, now that the battle is done and summarily dusted, it is perhaps time to revisit the letter and examine its contents for what they really were — a cry from the flanks to prevent the edifice from collapsing. Mamata has held that flank, wholesomely and indomitably; it is time the rest came up with the wares. The dare of winning a bout so often and lackadaisically given up as lost is on the table; it requires picking up.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Saturday, May 1, 2021

Lost vistas (The Telegraph)

Bhaswati Chakravorty   

On a day almost lost now in the mists of time, I started going to college. One of the memories of that first, disorienting day is my startled amusement at a two-syllable word meaning, approximately, ‘useless’, written on the back of a marble bust of a former principal. The bust was placed with its unfortunate back visible when one turned on the first-floor landing; its position left me wondering for the rest of my life about the acrobat with the perfect lettering. (I prefer that to the simpler explanation of the bust having been brought there from somewhere else.) I did not associate it with the years of violence, statue-breaking and tragedy that preceded our entry into college — maybe I should have — but it gave me a sense of history happening in spite of the cold whiteness of marble.

That sense was somewhat more developed when, years later, I peeked over the walls of the garden in Flagstaff House in Barrackpore, where statues of colonial heroes had been removed from Calcutta at the time to make place in the city for the icons and leaders of independent India. Aesthetics and history are two different things of course, and monuments in which they resonate together, as in the statue of the Unknown Soldier in Calcutta, are still rare. They are likely to grow rarer. The greatest achievement in this sphere recently has been the building of the tallest statue in the world, the Statue of Unity, meant to outdo the Statue of Liberty in height and metaphorical power. But unity is represented by a historical person, Vallabhbhai Patel, chosen by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime to overcome in people’s minds, by the force of sheer size, the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. Patel, the first deputy prime minister and home minister of independent India, had ensured the integration of 562 princely states with the Union. The statue, close to the Sardar Sarovar Dam, is invested with a political agenda and the desire to make an indelible impression on history. Even Ozymandias did not manage that; archaeologists were still discovering gigantic parts of his head and ear sunk in the groundwater in a Cairo slum in 2017. Predictably, the Statue of Unity lacks the symbolic resonance of the Statue of Liberty, or even of the wistful Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, an unmoving yet vibrant witness to a present remembering the past.

The unprecedented tragedy in human lives for which the Narendra Modi-led government cannot escape much of the responsibility seems just the right time to recall the monuments and edifices being built to ensure the regime’s immortal presence, its ideological victories — and votes. The estimated cost of the statue is Rs 2,989 crore, an initial amount of which was raised by the Gujarat government, with a later allocation in the Union budget and contributions from public sector enterprises under corporate social responsibility. This particular dream of the former Gujarat chief minister and present prime minister came to fruition in 2018, without adequate environmental checks and amid adivasi protests regarding land rights, water supply and livelihood. It may be a passing irony that the 553 bronze panels covering its surface were cast in a foundry in China — obviously, the prime minister’s patriotic projects are exempt from ‘Make in India’ demands — but there is more. Patel banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder. But his permission was not needed for the symbolic appropriation of his iconic status. The BJP is strong enough to unravel history through its impressive structures.

That is more crudely evident in the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. There is nothing illegal about it. Is it a twist of history that the Ayodhya land title case was resolved before the case against the destroyers of Babri Masjid could be? A legal right grew out of organized vandalism although the accused were all subsequently acquitted. And now, ignoring the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 that forbids changing the status quo of any shrine after August 15, 1947 with the sole exception of the Babri Masjid, the sites of the Gyanvapi mosque adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah mosque next to the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura are being demanded by majoritarian groups. Edifices not of faith but of force are expected to change the course of history and culture together.

That is why the display of political force finds priority over all else. The prime minister may be blind to the hellish sight of overflowing crematoriums and deaf to the agony of the people who elected him because all he can see is the blueprint of his beloved Central Vista and all he can hear is the music of construction in progress. Work on the new Parliament complex, the estimated cost of which is Rs 20,000 crore, cannot be stopped just because thousands are dying daily from a highly contagious viral infection. Hospitals are running out of beds, oxygen is frighteningly scarce, drugs like remdesivir seem to have vanished, and the Centre is yet to complete its project of 162 new oxygen plants at Rs 201 crore. Building the Central Vista is an ‘essential service’. So, 180 passes under this head have been issued to ferry workers to and fro from the spot, although the lockdown guidelines in Delhi stipulate that there can be no construction unless the workers live on-site.

Some workers, employed by sub-contractors, are frightened but cannot leave because they claim they have not received their wages. Anxiety for families at home, fear for themselves should they fall sick and insecure finances do not matter to a government that must fulfil its dream. Prisons can be without bars. The unforgettable fable-maker who would have turned 100 tomorrow captured this in the scene of the diamond mine in his 1980 film, Hirak Rajar Deshe. The suffering, fear and grief the country is going through at the moment is not the way we would have ever wanted to celebrate his centenary. Yet we celebrate him, willy-nilly, because words and scenes and songs force themselves upon our memory.

At the point when Udayan, the teacher in the pathshala of Hirak Rajar Deshe, is explaining to his pupils why a king who is his subjects’ enemy is the most dangerous of creatures, the education minister comes with his retinue to shut down the class for good. Hirak Raja hates learning: it makes people disobedient and questioning. All that the children must know, Udayan is forced to make his pupils repeat, is that the king is god. But the school will open again, he promises them.

Fulfilling that promise requires the magic, delightful antics and, ultimately, the courage and canniness of Goopy and Bagha. So when Udayan and his pupils are captured and pushed into the brain-washing room, the king’s most treasured weapon of compliance, the magaj-dholai mantra has been quietly disabled. Goopy appears, singing the king and his courtiers into paralysed submission, telling the king how he has gone beyond all bounds in his misuse of power, starved the poor and brought great calamity to the land. Only then does Udayan come out, leading the young to the king’s gigantic new statue in the middle of a field, where the people join them to pull it down.

The king does too. Looking at the tragedy around us, such magic seems rather far away.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, April 30, 2021

Shared suffering (The Telegraph)

Mehmal Sarfraz 

Every Indian that I follow on Twitter has been tweeting about the Covid-19 crisis in recent weeks. All we can see on our timelines are tweets asking for oxygen supply, for information regarding hospital beds, retweeted messages for friends and strangers alike and much more — all related to the pandemic. We saw the chilling report by BBC’s Yogita Limaye from Delhi in which we could feel the helplessness of coronavirus patients as well as of their families. Those visuals of people breathing their last breath or family members pleading to get hospital beds were extremely distressing. Another report showed how a Muslim cemetery in Delhi is running out of space; it is receiving 35-40 bodies every day as opposed to 8-10 bodies before the second wave hit India. Reports also show how crematoriums are facing the same situation as they, too, have been overwhelmed. News from across the border is horrendous. One cannot help but feel as if this is one of the greatest global catastrophes to have hit the world.

As the situation in India kept getting bleaker and bleaker, Pakistanis expressed solidarity with their Indian brethren. From trending hashtags like #IndiaNeedsOxygen and #PakistanStandsWithIndia, Pakistanis have sent their prayers across the border. Last Saturday, Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted his support for India in its fight against the coronavirus. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, tweeted that Pakistan has officially offered relief and support to India. It shows that even if the ties between the two countries may not be ideal, when it comes to humanity, everything else is set aside as it should be.

We saw some heartwarming stories as well during the current crisis. Ashish K. Singh, an Indian journalist, recently tweeted whether any of his friends in Pakistan could “pay an obeisance at Data Darbaar” for him, his wife and his friends suffering from coronavirus. Data Darbaar, located in Lahore, is the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia. The same day, some journalists in Pakistan got it done. One of the Pakistani journalists, Ghulam Abbas Shah, arranged prayers for Ashish and his family not just at Lahore’s Data Darbaar but also at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi and Baba Farid Ganjshakar’s shrine in Pakpattan. Such gestures show that despite the tensions and animosity between the two neighbours, the people of these countries will always rise to the occasion, helping each other out when the time comes. It gives one hope that we can rise above politics when it matters. The solidarity between the people of India and Pakistan at this moment of grave crisis is quite amazing.

At a time when India is facing a deadly second wave of the coronavirus, Pakistan is facing its third Covid-19 wave. This wave is turning out to be quite lethal. Things in Pakistan are not as bad as they are in India but if we don’t control the situation now, matters will get to a point where we will also run out of hospital beds and oxygen. The government has warned of this on several occasions. It is unfortunate that many people still refuse to follow SOPs like wearing a mask. We may need stricter lockdowns or complete lockdowns in cities with high positivity rates.

On Wednesday, Pakistan reported 201 deaths, the highest since the pandemic broke in the country last year. The positivity rate was above 10 per cent. Army troops have been deployed in 16 cities where the positivity rate has reached dangerous levels to ensure the enforcement of coronavirus SOPs. The situation in Pakistan is getting worse. Examinations, too, have been cancelled given the rise in the cases.

The vaccination drive in the country is slow. Only about one per cent of the country’s population has been vaccinated so far. According to a report by Afshan Subohi in the newspaper, Dawn, if Pakistan continues its vaccination drive at this rate, “it will take more than three years to cover 20 [per cent] of the country’s population”. While the government’s vaccination drive is slow due to procurement issues, even the private sector has not been able to purchase enough vaccines. I am one of the lucky ones who were able to get the vaccine earlier this month. I got my second jab just this week. While some of us have been fully vaccinated, it will take a couple of years before 60-70 per cent of the country’s adult population is vaccinated. Two years is a long time. We have already spent a year battling the pandemic and things are not looking good even now. Our economy has already suffered a lot, many people have lost their jobs, the healthcare system will collapse if cases keep increasing at this rate. This pandemic has taken the lives of our loved ones or of people we know. If we don’t speed up our vaccination process, the country will suffer even more.

What is happening in India makes it even more pertinent for us to realize that this virus can lead to unimaginable consequences. One of the key reasons why the former US president, Donald Trump, lost the elections last year was because of his government’s mishandling of the coronavirus. In India, too, the Narendra Modi government has gravely mishandled the pandemic. At a time when coronavirus cases were increasing with each passing hour in India, the visuals of Amit Shah and others campaigning in West Bengal made one wonder whether politics is so ruthless a business that it does not care about saving human lives. People must hold their public representatives accountable for such shameless disregard for human life. After all, they were elected to protect the lives of their peoples.

On another note, reports indicate a thaw is expected soon between India and Pakistan. Fahd Husain in Dawn recently wrote an interesting report on India-Pakistan relations. As per Husain’s information from Pakistan’s official quarters, “India approached Pakistan in December 2020 with an offer to reduce tension and offered backchannel talks on all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistan reciprocated favourably”. So it seems that a backchannel dialogue between the two nuclear neighbours has indeed started, which is what led to the ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control back in February. Rumours of cricket diplomacy are also doing the rounds — only time and circumstances will tell whether anything would materialize or not but this is a good beginning. War should never be an option for either side. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught us, that is the world needs to invest more heavily in the healthcare sector. We need to understand that hostilities between India and Pakistan will only lead to more bloodshed. Peace should not remain elusive. In fact, it should be sought. We hope and pray that India comes out of this health emergency soon. And we hope and pray that Pakistan does not have to witness anything similar.

The author is a journalist based in Lahore;

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Breaking the thermometer (The Telegraph)

Ruchir Joshi  

It’s best to state this simply: Narendra Modi needs to go. Amit Shah needs to go. Ajay Mohan Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath needs to go. The bunch of integrity-free incompetents Mr Modi has gathered around him as his ministers all need to go. In order for the country to launch the mammoth operation of recovery and repair needed for our survival, the departure of these people from positions of power needs to happen immediately — tomorrow is too late, yesterday would have been better.

When Mr Modi took oath as prime minister in May 2014, he did so adorned with the many different capes and scarves of hope draped on him by various worshippers and admirers. Waving away the sceptics and objectors who had old-fashioned attachments to secularism, human rights and economic justice, the believers revelled in the proud strutting of their messiah. Remember the proclamations of the core followers and the newly converted, many coming from the man himself. Modi doesn’t eat or let anyone eat (he’s not corrupt and doesn’t allow anyone else to be corrupt). He may drive over some pesky minorities but he’ll steer us to genuine progress. Human rights and ecological protections are barriers to ease of doing business and turning India into an economic powerhouse; real human rights will be experienced by the millions he raises out of poverty.

In the first days of Modi-rule, you constantly heard gushing praise: he may not be educated but he’s got a phenomenal ability to grasp things; whatever you say, boss, but Gujarati efficiency is something else; his stamina is just amazing; he hardly sleeps and that’s put a fire under the seats of the bureaucrats — the babus are now punctual, the files are moving so fast; here is a man with a vision and focus; look how warmly and directly he connects with world figures; he can deal with Pakistan and China from a position of strength; they recognize they can’t mess with him like they could with the weaklings previously in charge.

Over seven years, even as Mr Modi has preened in name-embroidered suits and plumed headgear, the virtually projected garments have fallen off him, one by one. Even as his ‘brand expansion’ has grown to mind-boggling levels, his promises have crashed and burned. Under this regime, corruption has been rocketed into another dimension, so much so that the word itself becomes inadequate to describe the massive network of interlocking institutional lying and criminal law-bending. Over seven years, lunatic servility to oligarchic interests along with other monumental cock-ups has played havoc with our economy. Under Mr Modi’s leadership, we have been made a laughing stock by Pakistan with the famed Balakot bombing raid on a clump of trees and the capture of our pilot; and we have been repeatedly humiliated by China. And, now, finally, despite having had a year to shore up the basic defences against the biggest natural calamity faced by independent India, we are on our knees, physically and mentally. The full roster of this regime’s intentional and unintentional misgovernance will become horrific lore in the annals of history.

In any democracy worth the name, just one of these two botch-ups — the demonetization fiasco and the floundering response to Chinese aggression and the ensuing cover-up — would have led to the fall of a government. That this did not happen is due to a much greater malfeasance. If Mr Modi and Mr Shah have had efficiency, stamina and detailed focus towards anything, it is in the deliberate and relentless hollowing out of democracy itself. It is now beyond doubt that the messiah and his chief acolyte came to power in 2014 with one aim and one aim only: to turn India into an autocratic Hindu rashtra, bolstering and, in turn, bolstered by few big business houses. For the imperatives of international optics and internal misdirection, this was to be executed while maintaining the fake image of a functioning democracy.

In a stadium owned by a dictator you may have the ritual of a game between two teams, but in reality only the dictator’s team can win. Mr Modi and Mr Shah have worked towards a hostile takeover of the stadium of Indian Democracy from the day they assumed power in 2014. To aid in this project, you had the obsessive attention to image-management via the co-opting of large sections of the media, then you had robbery in broad daylight in the shape of the electoral bonds, and then you had the unprecedented, brazen weaponization of the investigative agencies in the open service of the ruling party. All this was crowned by the mysteriously consistent reluctance of the Supreme Court in checking various actions of the Union Government or its agencies.

The deliberate spreading of distrust and hatred among people of different religions, the banana republic hijacking and the lockdown of Kashmir, the grotesque NRC/CAA ‘laws’, the Ayodhya Ram Mandir ‘judgment’, the Bhima-Koregaon arrests, which many convincingly argue are mala fide, were all dependent on this creeping, toxic fungus-like encompassing of the institutions of the State.

What the fungus was not expecting was a deadly attack from a virus. I read somewhere that the recent blocking of critical Twitter accounts by the government means that it realizes it has failed to discharge its duties. To which one could say that this government never intended to discharge what millions of us regard as its duties. It simply took the pandemic as an extremely useful tool gifted to it by the gods, a tool it could use to further its agenda — to stifle dissent, to topple Opposition state governments, to ‘win’ elections. Now, when things are spiralling tragically out of control, the government’s main concern — yet again — seems to be about managing perceptions. The French have a saying, ‘Breaking the thermometer to bring down the fever.’ We are where we are today because of this trail of broken thermometers. And because of this, if nothing else, Mr Modi and Mr Shah need to go.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


The convalescent (The Telegraph)

Uddalak Mukherjee  

There’s been no escaping pishi and bhaipo ever since the election war drums began to roll in Bengal. To her countless admirers, pishi — not so much bhaipo — remains one of the few surviving sentinels guarding the citadel of a pluralist Bengal. Those at Bengal’s doors — pishi’s detractors — think otherwise: the pair, they allege, represents nepotism and corruption that they would get rid of with a few lusty blows of their (majoritarian) broom.

The depravity of politics — Bengal’s politics is not an exception — is such that it often forces viewers to turn their gaze elsewhere: towards, say, a far more luminous pishi-bhaipo pairing. Leela Majumdar, a cousin of Sukumar Ray, was Satyajit Ray’s pishi. Among the many accomplishments of this illustrious aunt-nephew was the resuscitation of Sandesh, the children’s magazine that has continued to enchant readers across generations. Yet, April is a rather cruel month to reminisce about this peerless pishi and her inimitable bhaipo. Ray died this month in 1992; Majumdar, too, passed away in April, fifteen years after her nephew’s death.

The sombre timber of our times — a time of disease and death — perhaps makes it imperative for us to turn the pages of two short stories written by Majumdar and Ray, respectively, that offer insights into themes that remain strikingly contemporary. “Pilkhana” — one of the short stories that make up Majumdar’s magical Shob Bhuture — features an eleven-year-old child who, much like Covid-afflicted Indians, has been shut out from her loved ones on account of a contagious illness. Confined to a dingy room in an ancient, crumbling mansion, even as Durga Puja is being celebrated outside, the child discovers companionship, fortitude and, ultimately, liberation in Haider — a spectral mahout — and his herd of ghostly pachyderms. Sadananda, the protagonist of Ray’s short story, “Sadanander Khude Jagat”, is lonely and unwell too. He is bullied by his friends for the joy he takes in phenomena that others find unremarkable — such as the slow, teasing flight of the seed of shimul, or the lives and antics of ants. He also suffers periodic bouts of fever as well as visitations from a grim physician bearing bitter medicine.

Yet, Sadananda and that nameless child in “Pilkhana” manage to endure their sickly, joyless lives. And that is because these gifted children — in other words, their creators — turn their illnesses into an emancipatory experience that helps them to reflect on, from an early age, the vagaries, cruelties, injustices but also kindness that make the world simultaneously revolting and alluring. Sadananda, for instance, learns that his mother has blood on her hands: she swatted one of his ant friends to death without thinking much about her deed. The child prisoner of Majumdar’s story is taught about the importance of empathy by those gentle ghosts with trunks.

Literature, of course, has its share of ailing and infirm children. In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Story of a Mother”, Death sneaks up to snatch a child away from a mother who, sleepless for days after caring for the infant, closes her eyes for a wee second; Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens’s last finished novel, captures poignantly the searing vignettes of life in a hospital full of sick and dying children. Interestingly, in spite of the improvements in paediatric care and the falling infant mortality rates around the world, illness continues to be a dominant literary theme: at least one-third of submissions by young writers for the Branford Boase Award, which recognizes precocious literary talent, had, in one particular year, an ill child as a protagonist.

Even though ailing children have been central to literary plots, they have seldom been armed, as is the case with Sadananda, with agency. This element of agency — an ability to ponder their own lives and those of others — is what makes the fictive children of Ray and Majumdar speak to us in this dark hour.

In his book, The Courage to Exist: A Philosophy of Life and Death in the Age of Coronavirus, the philosopher, Ramin Jahanbegloo, has underscored the importance of listening to and contemplating what these voices — old and young, real and imagined, within and without — have to say to the human collective.

And they offer a lot to think about.

For the list of sordid spectacles that embellish New India is long and as inscrutable as the mounting evidence of the body politic of the nation writhing in an excruciating agony that it shares with the corporeal bodies of its citizens. There is an elected government which, having sleepwalked through the first wave of a pandemic, now finds itself drowning in the second on account of criminal lapses. There are the government’s defenders, impeccable but graceless men, women and institutions, unmoved by the sight of innumerable funeral pyres, their light, ironically, the harbinger of the gathering darkness. There is ceaseless tragic news: of the burden of disease and death getting heavier with each passing day; of a country heaving and gasping together, as if in a feeble nod to an eerie orchestra, for oxygen; of a newspaper in Rajkot devoting nearly seven pages of its twenty-page edition to obituaries, respecting those who breathe no longer.

Can there be Forgiveness after such Knowledge?

Did Ray and Majumdar answer this question? Perhaps. The ants that make up Sadananda’s tiny world raise the banner of disaffection, inflicting a blow — a bite — that makes their young patron’s oppressor beat a hasty retreat. Majumdar makes the phantom elephants shed their gentility too; with a bit of a push, they tear down the walls of that dreadful penitentiary, freeing the child.

Do Bengal and India care enough about these clues of deliverance?

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Something’s rotten (The Telegraph)

Sukanta Chaudhuri  

I had not planned to write this article. In fact, I was due to write another on the havoc wreaked by the pandemic on our already fragile education system. That problem will not go away. I have, therefore, shelved it for something more immediate.

What changed my mind was Bengal’s interminable election, especially the events at Sitalkuchi. I will not discuss the actual killings or the roles of the security forces and the Election Commission. One should not comment lightly on such matters amidst a fog of cross-charges and disinformation. But some related issues concern all citizens.

One assumes that whatever their deeper calculations, all political parties would express formal grief at deaths by police firing. Astonishingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party set up a virtual chorus of exultation, not only justifying the deaths but guaranteeing more such incidents and even complaining why so few people were killed. This accords with the aggressive macho tenor of the party’s campaign against India’s only woman chief minister, backed by a promise to cleanse Bengal of crime if they come to power. Their state president hopes to accomplish this feat in a week.

No one can dispute that Bengal is bedevilled by political violence (not so much of other kinds). To rectify this in seven days would demand an excess of police action at which the imagination recoils: mass arrests, overflowing prisons, almost certainly deaths, perhaps staged police ‘encounters’. Even at that dire level of State-sponsored violence, seven months would not suffice — as it has not in BJP-ruled states held up as models. Years after their initial spate of suppression, of encounter killings and unsparing vigilantism, the world wakes up virtually every week to new reports of horrific violence and misrule in those parts.

The reason is not far to seek. Such rapid-fire cleansing is not possible within the ambit of the law. It requires law-keepers to operate massively outside the law, aided if not supplanted by vigilante groups bound by no law at all. The earlier lawlessness gives way to a more pervasive anarchy, now underwritten by the government. The law itself is weaponized to this end, and new laws passed defying natural justice and our democratic Constitution. Bengal’s last-phase voters must ask themselves if this is indeed what they want.

There is more. BJP members consistently suggest that the paramilitary action in Sitalkuchi and various decisions of the Election Commission bear out their own agenda, as though they had planned it themselves. It would be misguided to indict the Commission on the basis of such loose talk. What concerns us is that the BJP should be at such pains to persuade us of their complicity.

There is also the matter of the chief minister’s intercepted phone call. As the mischief she was allegedly planning did not occur, she can at most be charged with a thought-crime. But we may well ask how the BJP obtained the recording. The party’s fondness for invading citizens’ privacy is amply testified, including dormant projects like the Social Media Surveillance Hub. We may wish to know how their current escapade accords with the law. 

We are contemplating a regime that erases the line between law and lawlessness. So what’s new about that, we may ask. For four decades and more, governance in Bengal has straddled that porous border. Countless citizens negotiate it daily under the current regime. Does it matter if, dropping the denial mode, we openly legitimize or even legalize wrongdoing under cover of the public good?

One might argue that it matters immensely, for it robs us of both moral and legal protection against such iniquity. The malfeasance that seeks some cover or subterfuge shows a nagging insecurity, a lurking sense of wrongdoing. To enthrone it openly celebrates it as a model or an ideal. To work our way back to a humane and democratic order becomes that much the harder. You can reclaim a derelict house occupied by squatters. If you pull down the house, there is nothing left to reclaim.

Contrary to belief, authoritarian and even totalitarian rule seldom arrives through military coup or armed revolution. It commonly proceeds by gradual, unsuspected steps from a familiar structure of misrule: we cannot tell when we cross the watershed. Bengal today may be at that decisive moment.

We may be crossing another watershed too. Elections in Bengal have been increasingly fragmented: seven instalments in 2019, eight this year. This is supposedly to control political violence, but may be counter-productive. To hold public interest, each phase must outbid the last in rhetoric and, alarmingly, in disorder: the contenders grow ever more strident and reckless. Has a state election ever attained such nationwide hype? The ‘All-India’ Trinamul Congress hardly exists outside Bengal: one understands their stake in the turf battle. But why should the party commanding the Union and several states be so desperate to add this one to the tally? We have lost count of the prime minister’s campaign trips. The Union home minister is virtually camping in the state. Why are two of India’s astutest and busiest men engaged in this apparently grotesque overkill? What are they planning for our state? On seven years’ evidence, it cannot be unmixed concern for the well-being of Bengal.

The immediate outcome is rather the opposite. Political violence has arguably exceeded the appalling level of the 2018 panchayat elections, the adversaries being now more evenly matched. The threats and profanities are by no means one-sided: a TMC stalwart has bested their own record by offering to chop off the hands of Opposition voters. This menace will not abate after the elections. And more frightening by far, a new poison of communalism is corroding the state in accord with electoral algorithms.

There is a story of a little girl watching Hamlet. Half-way through, she remarked: “I don’t know how it’ll end, but it can’t end well.” That child’s comment has a sombre relevance to Bengal’s current predicament. I am overcome with fear: for myself, my state, and my country.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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