Prem Shankar Jha

If there is anything to be learned  from Blinken’s visit, it is that the era of the cloistered nation state, which enshrined the absolute right of governments to deal with their people as they wished, has come to an end.

Anthony Blinken Conveyed a Warning to the Modi Government But Did the Prime Minister Hear It?
Indian external affairs minister Dr. S Jaishankar with US secretary of state Antony Blinken during their meeting in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

In the joint press conference that ended his one-day visit to India, United States secretary of state Anthony Blinken did not try to hide the US’s discomfiture over the turn that Indian democracy has taken in the past several years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Answering a question posed by the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent, he readily admitted that “shared democratic relations and high ideals were very much a part of our conversation”. Since busy world leaders do not waste time having conversations on things they completely agree on, Blinken was signalling, in diplomatese, that the two sides do not see eye on the fate that has befallen these high ideals.

“The relationship between our two countries,” he elaborated, “is strong and important because it is a relationship between democracies and at its core a relationship between its peoples. One of the elements Americans admire the most about India is its steadfast commitment to democracy, to pluralism, to human rights and fundamental freedoms. We see ourselves reflected in that. India’s democracy is powered by its free-thinking citizens.”

The language of diplomacy has its own conventions. One of these is to disguise admonition as praise. The former was abundantly visible in Blinken’s statements. The secretary of state lavished praise on India’s democracy, but its underlying message was that the Biden administration’s relationship with India would depend upon the  extent to which the Modi government respects the written and unwritten rules and conventions of democracy. He softened the message by admitting that American democracy too was a work in progress, but his message was clear: violations of human rights and freedoms occurred in the US too, but its federal and state governments did not shirk from taking corrective action. The Modi government had to stay the course too: backtracking was unacceptable.

Jaishankar is far too seasoned a diplomat not to have got Blinken’s message. Members of Biden’s administration had expressed their discomfiture over the Modi government’s disregard for civil rights and liberties more than once in the past six months. The Pegasus revelations have only served to heighten that concern. So Jaishankar’s response to Blinken was anything but spontaneous. His response was chilling.

“…it is the moral obligation of all polities,” he responded, “to really right wrongs, when they have been done, including historically and many of the decisions and policies you’ve seen in last few years, fall in that category. …freedoms are important,” he elaborated, “we all value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance. They are two completely different things.” (emphasis added)

After seven years of Modi rule, it is not difficult to read between the lines of his response: the Modi government will continue to pay lip service to democracy but, as a sovereign nation, it had the right to decide why, when and how it will curtail the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people by India’s constitution. Jaishankar did not stop there, but claimed further that this was not merely a constitutional, but a moral right, in short a right that transcended those inscribed in the constitution because it came directly from some higher authority.

Jaishankar then claimed that this “moral right” did not cover only present day wrongs but ‘historical’ ones as well. To describe this response as outrageous would be an understatement. Every government has not only the right but a duty to set perceived wrongs right. But it can only do so in the present, while the instruments for doing so still exist. As the last Ming emperor of China wrote before hanging himself, he had forfeited his right to live because he had not kept himself informed of his peoples’ plight, and therefore failed them in their hour of need.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US secretary of state Antony Blinken during their meeting in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

But how can a government correct a historical wrong, especially the ones the BJP the believes happened? For history is irrevocably a part of the past. It can be studied. We can learn lessons from it. But it cannot be changed. A wrong done in the present can be undone. But how does one undo a wrong done in the past?

The Sangh parivar’s answer has been staring us in the face for the past seven decades: it is to punish the descendants of the ‘wrongdoers’. These are the descendants of “the Muslims” who  conquered  north India. The ‘historical wrongs’ the parivar constantly harps upon is the pillage that accompanied the conquests, the destruction of temples, the driving out of the Brahmin priesthood and  the forcible conversion of a large section of Hindus to Islam.

As innumerable historians have pointed out, many of these assertions, especially of forcible conversions to Islam, are greatly exaggerated. But to the extent that they happened, they did so hundreds of years ago. The perpetrators have been dead for centuries. So the moral right that Jaishankar, perhaps unwittingly, claimed was not the right to seek justice but to inflict retribution.

How could a seasoned diplomat have made such a remark? The most plausible answer is that he was required to do so by his prime minister. Blinken had made no secret of the purpose of his visit to Delhi. Not only had he made it clear that the continuation of close relations with the US depended upon India remaining a democracy in letter and also spirit, but that the Biden administration would not allow India to drag it into a conflict with China. In a few terse sentences, therefore, he had destroyed every pillar of the ‘special relationship’ with the US, that Modi had made the talisman of his success in foreign policy.

For the prime minister, this was a double blow because it also punctured the larger-than-life image he had sought to create for himself as the heroic defender of India’s dominant position in South Asia and challenger to China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. He cannot therefore be blamed for concluding that the US has not only emboldened his political rivals within India, but within the Sangh parivar itself. That would account for the belligerent manner in which Jaishankar asserted his government’s right to redress the wrongs of history. It was, in effect, a warning to the US to mind its own business.

That is not going to happen. If there is anything to be learned  from Blinken’s visit, it is that the era of the cloistered nation state, which enshrined the absolute right of governments to deal with their people as they wished, has come to an end. The revolutions in transport and communication technology of the past half-century, and the mass migration of highly educated workers from the developing to the developed world, have made every government’s business a part of the business of its peers.

The era of insular nation states is over, but the Sangh parivar remains locked within the cage of its outmoded perceptions. This has prevented Modi from perceiving how far he has taken India down the road to becoming a state of questionable democratic credentials. That his own foreign minister should have been unable to prevent this, speaks volumes for the way in which he has centralised power within the government without understanding how to use it.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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Although popular perception views the Belt and Road Initiative as an offensive project, it is a defensive venture by China to safeguard its international trade, the source of its growing wealth.

What Lies Behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

This is the first article in a two-part series on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The second one deals with the politics surrounding the BRI. 

China’s prompt withdrawal of its troops and armour from the eastern part of the grey zone around Pangong lake between the Indian and Chinese defined Lines of Actual Control has confirmed the hypothesis advanced in several previous columns on this platform, that its purpose, from the start, was not to nibble Indian territory away in small slices but to force the Modi government to reconfirm India’s commitment to the agreements on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region arrived at in 1993 and 2005.

But, why should China be so intent upon re-establishing a durable peace with India, when this sentiment is clearly not reciprocated by either the Modi government or the Indian populace? The short answer is that China needs the backing of India’s ‘soft power’ to prevent the intensifying struggle for hegemony between it and the United States from spilling over into a war from which no one, least of all China itself, will emerge as a winner.

China also covets deeper economic engagement with India, because, after the end of its Fiscal Stimulus programme, it needs to find new avenues of investment to keep its factories busy and workers employed. India can provide both.

But most defence analysts in India discount these motives and have swallowed the Western view of China as a relentlessly expansionist power bent upon reshaping the international order and establishing its hegemony over the Asia-Pacific, if not the whole world.

However, two books published a year before its May incursion can help us to do get a better view of its motives. The focal point of both is the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), but one looks at China’s motives for establishing it from inside outwards, while the other does the opposite.

Understanding the motive

Bruno Macaes’ Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order suggests that these lie in China’s attempts to avoid the “middle income trap” that, many economists believe, develops when rapidly industrialising, export-led, economies move from the early, low-income phase of their industrialisation to its middle-income phase.

The BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and its ports in and around the Indian Ocean are not therefore offensive but defensive projects, designed to safeguard the international trade that is the source of its growing wealth.

By contrast, Bertil Lintner’s book, The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for the Indian Ocean, examines the tectonic shocks that China’s growing involvement with the littoral states of the Indian ocean under the banner of the BRI is giving to the settled structure of power in the region.

Both books throw much-needed light on China’s motives, but do so from polar opposite directions. 2013 is the pivotal year in both books because it is the year in which the concerns of the West about China’s growing hegemonistic ambitions began to take concrete shape.

Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order (L) by Bruno Macaes’ and The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for the Indian Ocean (R) by Bertil Lintner. Illustration: The Wire/Penguin Viking/Context.

Early in that year, Xi Jinping became the President of China. In the same year, he announced the creation of a Belt and Road, Maritime Silk Road that involved building a string of ports in the Indian Ocean. 2013 was also the year in which the first Chinese nuclear submarine entered the Indian ocean, and when China decided to lease a tract of land in Djibouti and build a naval base there, to support its anti-piracy task force in the Arabian Sea.

The base was built in a record period of two years and became operational in 2016. Since then a Chinese anti-piracy task force has been paying about 10 visits to the port every year but has kept a low profile. Chinese submarines have also made seven more such sorties till 2018, and visited Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan on two of those occasions.

Today there are seven such ports/container terminals being constructed, or on the drawing boards, in the immediate vicinity of India: two in Malaysia, one each in Myanmar and Bangladesh (Chittagong). Two in Sri Lanka (Hambantota and a container terminal at Colombo) and one in the Maldives on Gan island in the far south.

In addition, China has taken up four ports and container terminal construction projects in the Red Sea, and six more down the East coast of Africa in addition to Djibouti, through Kenya and Tanzania to Mozambique and Madagascar. In all, therefore China is now involved in 18 major port and railway construction projects around the Indian Ocean.

What brought about this sudden change in 2013? Lintner is content to give a one-sentence answer: It is China’s overweening desire to “bolster its geo-strategic influence” in the region. This is an uncritical acceptance of what Germany, France and the US (but not the UK) have categorically declared the BRI to be.  Xi Jinping’s lineage — his being the son of a Long March General — fits neatly into the formers’  construction of him as a new Mao Zedong.

The thesis of ‘middle-income trap’

Bruno Macaes’ answer is more fine-grained: the BRI, according to him, has been born out of China’s need to safeguard, and expand, the structure of trade relations that it has built since the 1990s, and upon which its internal stability and prosperity now rests. This need has become especially acute since China’s growth began to slacken in 2011. Macaes attributes this to its having, in per capita income terms,  entered the “middle income trap”.

The middle-income trap is the stage of growth in which rising labour costs start pushing export-led economies out of the most labour intensive sections of the global production chain and forcing them into entering the more technology-intensive middle sections where technology becomes a more and more important component of the final product.The BRI is an attempt to create the infrastructure that China will need in order to move progressively up this chain of production. His chapter on this issue gives the best insight into Chinese thought upon the evolution of its role in the 21st century world, that I have read.

In his analysis, Macaes implies China became fully aware of the middle-income trap only when wage rates rose by 12% a year from 2009 till 2013. This is what trigged the attempt to move up the production chain, which is at the base of the BRI.

His explanation resolves several of the anomalies that the hawks in the strategic analysis community are unable to explain above all its universality of focus: even the 24 projects in the Indian Ocean and the Red sea mentioned earlier, and the three giant railway networks it is building across Central Asia are only a part of the Chinese global outreach, for there are another 60 port and rail/road projects spread across Latin America, Europe and the Mediterranean, of which five are in the USA.

But Macaes’ analysis is incomplete because it does not explain the timing of Xi Jinping’s announcement of the One Belt One Road initiative, (as the BRI was originally called), and his hurry to make it only months after coming to power.

China did not descend into the middle-income trap suddenly, and it certainly was not taken by surprise. As far back as 2002, it had forged a Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Peoples Republic of China. Through 15 subsequent refinements, it had hammered out a free trade agreement whose purpose was to source components for their manufactured exports from the cheapest source.

How far this strategy broke the middle-income trap can be judged from the trade data for the first quarter of 2020. In this quarter, it was ASEAN, not the US or the European Union, which became China’s largest trading partner. What is more significant, while its trade with ASEAN as a whole grew by 6%, its trade with Vietnam and Indonesia within ASEAN grew by 24% and 13% respectively. China’s imports from ASEAN, therefore, include products that incorporate cheap labour and those that incorporate sophisticated technology.

The timing of Xi’s announcement was dictated by the fact that when he came to power, China was in the midst of a crisis such as few countries have had to face in recent times:  The Communist party had reached the nadir of its standing with the Chinese people. Coming on top of almost two decades to gradually rising public disenchantment, the Bo Xilai affair had severely damaged its image.

File Photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters.

As a result, the Party was about to lose its Mandate from Heaven. As if that was not enough, the economy was in a shambles. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s 4.3 trillion Yuan fiscal stimulus to counter the impact of the global recession of 2008 had gone completely out of control. In the 27 months of the stimulus from October 2008 till December 2010, the country invested not 4.3 trillion but 24.5 trillion yuan – more than 3 trillion dollars.

China’s production of steel soared to 683 million tonnes in 2011, 45% of the entire world’s output. Newly constructed steel plants had to be moth-balled because there was no demand. The producers resorted to dumping steel on the world market at throwaway prices, incurring the US’ wrath. Under severe US pressure, the Central government cut back 290 million tonnes of this capacity.

Much of the steel produced had gone into construction. As a result, by June 2014, there was 544 million square metres of unsold private housing space, almost half again as much as the space that had been sold till then, in earlier years.

A similar scramble had taken place in the power sector. In the five years from 2009 till 2013, China added 300,000 MW to its coal-based generating capacity, when there was no power shortage in the country. As a result, existing power plants had to reduce their capacity utilisation to below 50% to accommodate the new ones.

When the stimulus finally petered out China’s huge heavy-machine building sector, it found itself virtually without orders. As a consequence, the local governments that owned or partly financed them found themselves not only short of revenue but forced to lay off workers. In China, this is a far more serious issue than in market economies because it strikes at the roots of the legitimacy of the Communist party— at its Mandate from Heaven.

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, employment fell by 80 million after the end of the fiscal stimulus. But the number may be higher because a large proportion of its millions of migrant workers also did not get letters of re-employment. One of the  BRI’s main purposes has been therefore to provide th

For instance, 190 out of the 290 million tonnes of steel output that China had to cut back had not been authorised by the National Reforms and Development Commission. Xi Jinping was determined to make sure that this did not happen again. That was one of the reasons for his bringing all new projects abroad under the umbrella of the BRI. Only the projects sanctioned by the NRDC could avail of the financial and other assistance that the state was prepared to provide infrastructure projects that could keep these enterprises working and their workers employed.

Its second purpose has been to bring some discipline into China’s investment both at home and abroad. The fiscal stimulus had overshot its mark ruinously because two-thirds of this investment was made by the provincial and prefectural parastatals, with loans obtained from the second tier of banks that had come up after the banking liberalisation of 1998 to 2006, and over which the Central government had little control.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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Based on the current trend line of active cases, the growth may be slowing but India will hit its peak only when daily recoveries outpace new cases. There are signs this may be happening in Delhi, which is why other metros need to pay attention to its strategy.

How Long Will the Pandemic Last? Rate of Growth of Active Cases Holds Key.

A woman watches as healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) check the temperature of residents of a slum during a check-up camp for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India June 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Just over a  week ago, Prime Minister Modi asked his ministers to prepare “emergency plans” to deal with the spike in COVID cases in the five most severely affected states of the country. If one is looking for an admission from the government that its lockdown had failed, then this is it: instead of taking 21 days, Modi’s Mahabharata has lasted over 100 days. And the battle is only growing more intense by the day.

So how long will it last? How long before the case count reaches its peak and starts to decline? After how many deaths? If anyone in the government has an idea, she or he has kept it a deep secret. Mercifully, we have enough data now to make a reasonable estimate by ourselves. The news is not all that good, but the data on the rate of growth of active cases (i.e. total cases minus those who have recovered)  is sufficiently reassuring to make panic unnecessary. While across India, daily new cases are outpacing daily recoveries, the picture in Delhi is somewhat reassuring and could serve as a guide for what needs to be done if the duration of the pandemic is to be shortened.

The following table gives data, from  May 15 till July 6, for the total number of cases, the number of patients who have recovered, and the number of patients under active care.

May 15 has been chosen as the starting date because phase 3 of the lockdown had ended and normal life was just being resumed. It therefore gave the data a fairly uniform base, free of policy change-induced shocks. A comparison of the rates of change in these parameters makes it possible to discern the slowing down of the diseases and, barring, a surge in news cases, broadly map the trajectory of cases.

Of course, a caveat is needed. Two big confounding factors remain testing rates and the government’s denial of community transmission. Recovery rates do increase because that’s the natural course during a pandemic and we won’t discover more new cases unless we test more, which is why leading epidemiologists like Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil think most cases are going under the radar. For this exercise, however, we will take the government’s data at face value.

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Modi did not want only to prevent a second wave; he wanted all the credit for stopping COVID-19 in its tracks to go to him and him alone.

Modi's Gamble, and How Many Lives It Will Cost
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In her heart-rending description of her desperate search for oxygen to save her father’s life, the celebrated TV news anchor Barkha Dutt ascribed his death to three features of governance that have defined Modi’s India: complacency, callousness and incompetence. She could have added a fourth – an insatiable, almost suicidal appetite for risk born of a compulsion to keep reinforcing an already swollen image of himself.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displayed this penchant half a dozen times in the last seven years: his personal announcement of  demonetisation before the new currency notes had even been printed; his imposition of the Goods and Services Tax with immediate effect, denying India’s 71 million small manufacturers time to set up the required accounting systems; his sudden  confrontation of the Chinese at Doklam in Bhutan without consulting Thimpu, and his equally sudden removal of price and marketing protection from farmers without even a rudimentary examination of how it would affect them.

His appetite for risk surfaced yet again, within days of being told that the first wave of India’s COVID-19 epidemic had peaked in September last year. Of the 50 lakh Indians who had been infected until then, 81% had recovered. Some 10 lakh patients remained under medical care, most of them at home. A little over 84,000 people had died. The mortality rate of 1.68 % was about the lowest in the world and the envy of other nations (notwithstanding fatality undercounting and underreporting).

But everyone involved in the actual fight until then knew that it was too good to last. Scientists always knew of the danger that the ‘original’ virus could mutate into more dangerous forms. Second ‘waves’ of COVID-19 had already developed in the summer and autumn of 2020, spreading through parts of Belgium, Iran, South Korea, Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and the US.

When researchers in the UK reported the B.1.1.7 variant in December 2020, the country’s government immediately extended its existing lockdown. The variant was found to be more infectious but no more dangerous than the original. Within weeks, scientists reported two more ‘variants of concern’, from Brazil (P.1) and South Africa (B.1.351), in addition to numerous other strains and mutations. P.1 and B.1.351 have been found to be able to partially evade the human immune system, endangering prospects of vaccines being developed at the time.

Therefore, every government took the risk of a second outbreak seriously from the start. By early January 2021, the B.1.1.7 strain had been detected in samples in Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore. All of these countries took quick precautions, imposed lockdowns and/or stepped up their vaccination schedules.

There were only three exceptions – all in large democracies with insecure but ruthless leaders in power: Brazil, the US and India.

India’s scientific and medical establishment, and its health minister Harsh Vardhan in particular, were fully aware of the threat that later strains of the virus could pose. Vardhan had overseen the last phase of the polio eradication campaign during Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, so he had an experience of disease control that no one else in the government did.

But from the very first days of the pandemic, the Modi government developed two conflicting aims. While the administration wanted to chart a course of action that would minimise the risk of a second wave, the political establishment – headed by Modi himself – was concerned only with extracting every ounce of political advantage from the crisis.

The conflict emerged in the very first week of the March 2020 lockdown. In speech after televised speech, Modi reminded his audiences that just as the Pandava had won the battle of Kurukshetra in 18 days, he would win the battle against COVID-19 in 21 days. He thus turned the lockdown into a personal battle between him and the virus.

As the days passed, and the number of new cases increased instead of declining, Modi began to look for something, or someone, to blame. Conveniently for him, the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi gave him just the scapegoats he needed – foreign religious clerics belonging to a religion he detested and had targeted to attain power. The strictest possible lockdown was therefore imposed on the entire Nizamuddin area of New Delhi and criminal cases filed against the organisers – despite the fact that the conference had ended two days before the government imposed the first travel restrictions on foreigners, on March 14.

But new cases continued to mount long after the event’s conclusion, so Modi sought help from the occult. To invoke the gods to come to his aid, he asked  people to turn off their lights and beat thalis at preordained times and used the Air Force to shower flowers over Delhi.

While he was monopolising TV time, his administration was setting up 11 empowered groups under the National Disaster Management Act, to deal with the material aspects of the forthcoming challenge. One of them, within days of being set up, warned the government in unambiguous terms that a second wave was likely and provided detailed recommendations on how to prepare for it, should it happen.

Among its most important recommendations was that India immediately import 60,000 tonnes of oxygen and upgrade 150 district hospitals – mainly by supplying them with 162 pressure swing adsorption plants to isolate oxygen.

The 162 plants were expected to cost Rs 200 crore. At the time the empowered group made these recommendations, the PM Cares fund, which Modi had set up to fight the pandemic, had already received Rs 3,076 crore, mostly from public sector companies. So Modi had the money he needed, in abundance.

A COVID-19 patient on oxygen support waits to be admitted at Patna Medical College and Hospital, during the second wave of coronavirus in Patna, Friday, May 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

But Modi did not want only to prevent a second wave; he wanted all the credit for stopping COVID-19 in its tracks to go to him and him alone. So when the  first wave peaked in September 2020, his propagandists immediately  proclaimed that Modi’s harsh lockdown had defeated the outbreak and saved India. From then on, it was business as usual for Modi, and business as usual had  only one goal: to wrest West Bengal from Mamata Bannerjee and the Trinamool Congress, no matter the cost.

In Modi’s highly centralised, PMO-centred decision-making process, this shift of attention sowed the seeds of today’s disaster. The government’s first act was to wind up five of the 11 empowered groups and discontinued the meetings of the group tracking the virus’s spread. The programme to upgrade district hospitals went into limbo – as did the plan to create an oxygen reserve by  importing 50,000 tonnes of oxygen.

Genome sequencing, which is essential to determine which mutations are spreading in which population, took the back seat. It was not till December 25, 2020, after B.1.1.7 had already arrived in India, that the health ministry created the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) – a chain of 10 laboratories to sequence and analyse virus samples.

By March 24 INSACOG had tested 10,787 samples and found 771 instances involving three of the eight ‘variants of concern’ the US Centres of Disease Control had identified. Of them, 94% were of B.1.1.7.

This should have set the alarm bells ringing in every office in the PMO – but four state elections were imminent and Modi could think of nothing else but the stentorian speeches he was preparing to give in the 23 election rallies he intended to address in West Bengal and Assam.

In fact, the absence of any sense of urgency in the government after September was so complete that it took eight months, until November 2020, just to invite tenders for the oxygen plants. As a result, on April 18, 2021, only 11 of the 162 oxygen plants had been installed.

Also, none of these had been funded by the PM Cares fund. In fact, it was not till April 15 that the PMO coughed up a measly Rs 100 crores from its corpus to complete the construction of 59 more plants and bring the number up to 80 by the end of May.

There was a similar departure from responsibility  in the vaccination programme. From January 16, the government concentrated on vaccinating frontline and healthcare workers. Vaccination for those above 50 years began on March 1, but with that private interests and preferences came roaring back into play.

Pfizer was refused permission to sell their vaccines in India. The Centre also failed to strike advance purchase agreements with vaccine-makers and grossly underestimated Indian manufacturers to satisfy the domestic demand for doses.

The government also forced Covaxin, an ‘indigenously developed’ vaccine, on government hospitals before the latter had completed its crucial phase 3 trials. As a result, vast numbers of eligible persons refused to take the vaccine, slowing immunisation still further.

Despite this rampant irresponsibility,  Modi’s luck held for five months after September. Through these winter months, the number of active cases continued to ebb. When it reached a minimum in the week of February 11, 2021, there were fewer than 138,000 patients under treatment and a hundred or so deaths a day. The country heaved a sigh of relief. Markets, restaurants and malls began to function again and life was returning to a semblance of normal. But by then, the seeds of the second wave that is now ravaging the country had been sown.

The second wave

The first warning came, almost unnoticed, in late-February when the number of new cases daily began once again to exceed  recoveries, causing the number of active cases to start rising.  This was slow at the beginning: the first doubling of active cases, from 137,000 on February 14 to 273,000 cases on March 18, took   32 days. But after that, and within six days of INSACOG’s warning, the speed tripled and each doubling took only 11 days or so.

The number of active cases breached the 1 million mark on April 10 and the 2 million mark on April 21. Not until then did it register on Modi that there was something more important happening in the country than the West Bengal and Assam elections. But by then he had already addressed 10 million persons in  23 rallies, where neither he nor anyone in his audiences wore a mask.

Modi’s utter disregard for the consequences of his actions emboldened lesser leaders in his party to follow his lead. The chief minister of Uttarakhand not only refused to cancel the Kumbh Mela but put out advertisements to draw more devotees from around India.

When a special leave petition to the Supreme Court pointed out on April 16 that “there is no protocol in place to ensure that devotees who get infected do not go on to spread the virus when they return”, he retorted that “nobody will be stopped (from attending the mela). We are sure that faith in God will overcome fear of the virus”. As a result, an estimated 28 lakh persons attended the mela, took holy dips in the Ganga, jostled with each other in the crowded, polluted waters of the river, and then dispersed to all parts of India to spread the virus.

Devotees gather to offer prayers during the third Shahi Snan of the Kumbh Mela 2021, at Har ki Pauri Ghat in Haridwar, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

Therefore, to Modi’s surprise – and perhaps only his – there were three and a half million active cases on May 4. Hospitals were full to bursting, doctors couldn’t even reply to anxious calls from infected patients, helplines were overloaded and distress calls received no answer. An acute shortage of oxygen killed patients by the scores every hour.

Although the data has not been released, and may never be, I speculate from personal experience that more people have probably died because of the lack of oxygen than from any other single cause. In fact, the shortage of oxygen is therefore the one issue on which the world needs to hold the Modi government, and Modi in particular, criminally responsible. For there is not a shadow of an excuse for the shortage that has developed.

In a report a report submitted to the Lok Sabha in 2020, a committee headed by MP Ram Gopal Yadav pointed out that the country’s oxygen production capacity was 6,900 tonnes a day; that at the peak of the first wave the demand for medical oxygen had reached 3,000 tonnes a day, but as the wave subsided it had fallen to 1,000 tonnes a day. This allowed the remainder to be diverted for industrial use.

So in March, when INSACOG identified the B.1.1.7 strain as the main threat to the country’s population at the time, the government could have diverted at least 2,000 tonnes a day of oxygen back from industrial centres with a single stroke of the pen. But at the end of March, Modi’s fixation on winning the West Bengal and Assam elections was so complete that he ‘forgot’ to make that stroke of the pen. And by the time he ‘remembered’, it was April 19, and  people were dying in their cars and as their relatives took them desperately to one hospital after the next in search of oxygen.

So in March, when INSACOG identified the B.1.1.7 strain as the main threat to the country’s population at the time, the government could have diverted at least 2,000 tonnes a day of oxygen back from industrial centres with a single stroke of the pen. But at the end of March, Modi’s fixation on winning the West Bengal and Assam elections was so complete that he ‘forgot’ to make that stroke of the pen. And by the time he ‘remembered’, it was April 19, and  people were dying in their cars and as their relatives took them desperately to one hospital after the next in search of oxygen.



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The resignation of top academics from Ashoka University is reflective of the current atmosphere where centres of education that encourage us to question beliefs and prejudices pose a direct threat to the Hindutva state.

Hindutva's Dead Hand in Destroying India's Future: A Personal LamentIllustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The news of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University has filled me with an immeasurable sense of loss. I have known Pratap since he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard in the mid-1990s. His field was moral and political philosophy and, even before he had completed the book whose peer-reviewed acceptance for publication is virtually a pre-condition for even applying for, let alone securing tenure (i.e lifetime professorship) at Harvard, his colleagues had taken it for granted that he would be among the very few post-docs who would be granted it when his fellowship came up for review.

But Pratap did not wait for the tenure review and returned to India because his heart had been set upon it from the very beginning. What pulled him back was, simply put,  a burning desire to serve his country. Soon after he returned, he submitted his first article to the Indian Express. I remember that one very well because on reading it I realised straight away that he had brought an element into political commentary that had been lacking before. This was an ethical yardstick, based upon his understanding of the moral and political foundations upon which great nations have rested, and whose betrayal has led to their downfall. Needless to say readers of the Indian Express, and its editors, also saw this, and Pratap’s column in the Indian Express, which he has sustained till this day, was instantly born.

When the founders and trustees of Ashok university chose him to succeed its first vice-chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, they could not have made a better choice. For not only had they chosen a renowned scholar, but one who had already shown, as the director of the Centre for Policy Research, that he has the self-confidence to allow an already well-governed institution to continue governing itself and grow through collective endeavour, and confine his role to protecting that growth.

Ashoka University’s haloed place at risk 

Among the several private universities that were set up in the glory days of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the distinctive feature of Ashoka University was its decision not to open the gates of admission wide to ensure its financial viability but to enrol only students who meet admission standards comparable to those of the best universities in the world. As a result, the quality of its student body, its faculty, the seminars they hold, and the research the PhD students do has been attracting growing respect in centres of higher education across the world.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Photo: Youtube screengrab.

This had not come as a surprise to me because, having taught as visiting faculty at Harvard, the University of Virginia, Sciences-Po in Paris and The New School University in New York, I had realised from my very first interactions with the faculty and students at Ashoka, that the quality of education it was giving, and of the research being done there, was second to none.

I was convinced that it was only a matter of time – and not much time at that – before Ashoka came to be recognised as one of a couple of dozen best liberal arts universities, something no Indian university has managed to do so far. I had also all but persuaded my daughter that to ensure a world class university education for my grandchildren, it was no longer necessary to look outside the country. That hope too is now fading as I look at the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Tragically, in a country with an unparalleled record of missed economic opportunities, and failed moral and political development, it is this single-minded pursuit of excellence that has endangered Ashoka’s future, for it threatens the very base of the edifice of power that the RSS has created for the Sangh Parivar. For that base is fabricated from ignorance, dogma, prejudice, an utter misreading of Hinduism,  and a twisted, sometimes fictitious rendering of Indian history from the Mauryan ‘Golden Age’ to the present day, and the perpetuation of the communal hatred that was Britain’s parting present to India.

Hindutva brigade aversion to knowledge

It has been apparent from the Modi government’s first days in power that it considers knowledge, and sincere, dispassionate debate to be its enemy, because it knows that the promotion of “Hindutva” and his government’s very survival, depends upon the relentless fostering of the myth, passion, and prejudice. Freedom to debate, and the right to disagree, are its enemies because they allow us to question existing beliefs and discredit myth and prejudice. Centres of excellence in education that encourage both are therefore direct threats to the Hindutva state.

Modi’s advisers have made no secret of their belief that knowledge is an enemy of the state. So it is hardly surprising that they have targeted liberal arts universities like Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and now Ashoka, in particular. They destroyed Delhi’s academic integrity first over the Ramayana issue;  they have all but succeeded in taming JNU by appointing an unknown professor from a different institution who is a known member of the RSS as its vice-chancellor and permitting him to hound dissident students, bring the police onto the campus, and systematically emasculate its academic council.

But the government’s bete noire has been a section of the print media and the proliferating online journals to which many of the best and brightest in civil society have migrated. So it is hardly surprising that its baleful gaze has now fallen on the digital media.

Chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian. Credit: Reuters
Following Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit from Ashoka University, Arvind Subramanian too followed suit. Photo: Reuters

Its favourite mode of attack has been the choking off of funds, through layer after layer of draconian and intrusive laws whose cumulative effect has been to ban foreign funding, open domestic donors to ever heavier and more intrusive investigation, and declare any criticism of the government or its policies an ‘unlawful act’ that opens the alleged perpetrator to a minimum of six months in jail without a judicial hearing, at the will and command of the police and its masters.

Ashoka University has so far escaped this fate, but the pressure upon it to bow to the government’s will has been mounting for at least the past four years. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been the focus of this pressure because he is among the very few persons in the country who has the stature and credibility to defend the right of dissent in both academia and through his columns in the Indian Express. This has been far too much power for the government to stomach. Pratap Mehta has been at the head of this select list.

Pratap Mehta alleviated the pressure on the University for the first time in 2019 by resigning from the vice-chancellorship but staying on as a Professor. But the Modi government did not relent, so the government’s pressure on the university’s founders and donors continued.

Mehta has tried to save the university a second time by resigning from his professorship also. But this too will not suffice, because the government’s main purpose has not been to push him out of the university but stop his column in the newspapers. That is the request that the board and some of the trustees of Ashoka are believed to have made of him. Pratap has chosen the alternative of cutting all his remaining links with the university.

But instead of dousing the fire, this has added fuel to it. The resignation from its faculty of Arvind Subramaniam, Arun Jaitly’s former economic adviser, and the rebellion of the student body has seriously jeopardised Ashoka’s future. Other faculty members are presently awaiting the outcome of the struggle, but it is a safe bet that should the Trustees not rediscover the courage to stand up to the government, there will be more resignations and a fairly rapid departure of the best professors to  universities abroad.

Ashoka university may survive, but it will do so not as a liberal arts university comparable to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge but as a successful skill imparting university comparable to Jindal University next door.  Should this happen far more will have failed than just another foray into higher education.

For one has only to look at the place that is occupied by the above-mentioned universities in the US and UK, and of Sciences-Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in France, to understand the role that liberal arts universities that have played in creating  the thinkers and policymakers  – Plato’s Men of Gold – who have guided the destinies of their nations.

Oxford and Cambridge were training colleges for the clergy before Britain became the archetypal nation-state

“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” our courts have intoned, most eloquently in Romila Thapar versus the Union of India. But it is Pratap Mehta again, who has described the constructive power of dissent in the making of a nation.

In the annual lecture he delivered for Project 39A on December 10, last year, he said,  “Dissent is not a freestanding value because it is grounded in moral judgment. It has, as George Elliot said, to speak in the name of a higher rule; it has to speak in the name of a common good; it has to be reaching for something better. Otherwise, it simply is a disposition to subvert, where the means become the ends (emphasis added).”

Today the BJP is on its back feet. In the past year, it has succeeded in alienating just about every important group in the country – the entire working class, especially its migrant component, the farmers, and the small and medium enterprise owners and their employees.

These are vast economic strata that cut across every ideological and religious grouping in the country, so its standard appeals to religion and hate are failing. It has fallen into this trap, not because of the COVID pandemic, but because it has choked off public debate and dissent. Ashoka university was primarily, and could still be, its best vehicle for bringing the global debate into India. But all that this government seems intent upon is to destroy its future.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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Starting 1980s, a considerable number of Americans in relatively poor rural and suburban America have slid into poverty as globalisation and costly wars wreaked havoc on American society.

Joe Biden's Victory: It Is High Time the Concerns of 'Middle America' Are Addressed
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is joined on stage by her running-mate, U.S Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, after she accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination during an acceptance speech delivered for the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


Joseph Biden’s victory has been greeted with the expected exhilaration and apprehension, which every newcomer to the White House experienced before. This time the exhilaration is more striking because it marks the end of a presidency that had trivialised American democracy, and held it up to global ridicule. But the apprehension will surface soon when the hoorahs are over and the changeover in Washington has been completed. The new administration will face the same challenges that its predecessors have faced since the end of the Cold War, and failed to address them.

Three decades after winning the Cold War the American state is facing a crisis that no one could have foreseen when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Instead of bringing peace, these decades have brought incessant war; instead of creating a new global order these wars have created global anarchy and fostered terrorism.

Abandonment of Middle America

In place of prosperity that followed the Allied victories in World War I and World War II, these decades have seen the withering away of blue- and white-collar employment, the end of working class job security, status and affluence. It has also brought to fore an obscene widening of the income gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinkage of the state’s capacity, or even intention, to safeguard the health, lives and peace of mind of its poor.

black lives matter
A demonstrator holds up a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a protest over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, in Rochester, New York, US September 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Cruelest of all, it has created a world in which young people no longer control their future. Today more and more young Americans cannot plan to marry, cannot take out a mortgage on an apartment, cannot even think of having children, and can only buy a second-hand car, because they do not know when they will find a job, and how long it will last.

Calculated neglect over decades has caused the nation’s infrastructure to run down to a level below that of China, let alone Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. China, for instance, has constructed a high-speed rail network spanning 19,000 km of track in the past 15 years, on which it is running 2,300 bullet trains every day. America has built none.

But none of this compares with the abandonment of middle America to chronic stagnation, hopelessness and despair. This began as far back as the 1980s, and neither the Democrats nor Republicans have considered it necessary to check the region’s slide into poverty. A great deal has been written on economic, social and political consequences of this neglect, but much less on its cause, and how it can be ameliorated.

The roots of today’s Blue-Red schism lie buried in the de-industrialisation of America and northern Europe, which began with the onset of globalisation half a century ago. As manufacturing began to move from the high wage economies of Europe and North America to low-wage, skill-intensive industrialising countries in Asia and Latin America, the share of manufacturing in the US GDP fell, from 26% in 1968 to 12% in 2009. Its place, as the prime mover of economic growth, was taken by business and financial services whose share in the GDP rose from 19% to 35% during the same period.

But while the bulk of the de-industrialisation has occurred in middle America, where job losses have ranged from 8% to 75% of the workforce during the last 40 years, nearly all the increase of employment in business and financial services has been concentrated in the two coastal ‘blue’ fringes, and in the Florida-Texas sunbelt. Middle America has been left to fend for itself.

Tea Party movement

In 2009, after four decades of sustained neglect, middle America found a political sponsor in the Tea Party movement. Liberal America considered the Tea Party an embarrassment – an extremist movement that backed every reactionary cause and wanted to turn the clock back to a vanished past, because it could not connect with the future.  What it lost sight of was that the Tea Party was also a protest movement, born of desperation, among people who had been robbed of their future. The Tea Party needed understanding, not condemnation. It got none.

Donald TrumpU.S. President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a Make America Great Again rally in Johnson City, Tennessee, U.S. October 1, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.


Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 was its first major political success. Since then liberal America has done everything in its power to pretend that this was an accident and to trivialise its significance. It has taken this to the point of portraying it as the product of Russian intervention in the election campaign. But Biden’s relatively narrow win last week has shown that the new, hard-Right is here to stay, and that its rancour will continue to fester and grow so long as the neglect and injustice that gave rise to it remains unaddressed.

Enormous task lies ahead of Biden-Harris

This is the responsibility that American voters have asked Biden and Kamala Harris to shoulder. Judging from his speeches, Biden is fully aware of its weight: in his victory speech he repeated his commitment to be “a president who seeks not to divide but unify…who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States”.

But similar promises were made by his predecessors in their moments of triumph. So, what prevented them from fulfilling such promises when the hoorahs ended and the work began? One, amidst the plethora of explanations put forward over the years, stands out: it is ‘legislative gridlock’.

Intra-party discipline has never been the US Congress’ strong point, for the American system contains no penalties for cross-voting. This has allowed legislators in both houses to become representatives of special interests in their states, instead of representatives of the people of their states. To make matters worse, in only 10 of the 28 years after the Cold war, there has been a president whose party has enjoyed a majority in both houses of Congress. Thus, the American democratic system did not have the capacity for united action in domestic affairs that was needed to cushion the wrenching impact of globalisation and de-industrialisation upon those who stood to lose from it.

Costly wars and the detrimental effects on the American economy

The only area in which the gridlock has not paralysed policymaking is foreign policy. Achieving a consensus in this area has been made easier by the heady sense of entitlement imparted by victory in the Cold War. This has created a brand of liberal imperialism which is shared by both Democrats and Republicans, whose goal has been the creation of unipolar world order under the leadership of the US.

American soldiers. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

This was a democratic party goal long before President George W. Bush adopted it formally in the wake of 9/11. In February 1999, after bombing Iraq daily for 11 months till there was not even a milk plant left to destroy, and on the eve of doing the same in Kosovo, Clinton justified unilateral intervention in the following words:

“It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.”  

The significance of his declaration lay hidden in what he did not say. The right to intervene was already a part of the UN Charter.  But it had to be exercised collectively through the Security Council. Clinton’s declaration did away with the need for creating an international consensus, and therefore ruled out the creation of a multipolar, democratic, world order.

The wars that followed have bankrupted America. In December 2014, the Congressional Research Service of the US estimated that the wars the US had waged in the 13 years since 9/11 had cost the treasury 1.6 trillion dollars. ‘Continued funding’ to maintain military preparedness in the occupied added  $95.5 billion in 2014, and no doubt continue to add similar sums till today. Add Operation Desert Shield in Iraq (1998), and the war on Serbia (1999), and the figure probably exceeds $2.2 trillion.

But that is only the military part of the expenditure that the US has incurred. A 2016 study by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the total military and economic cost of America’s wars was well over 3 trillion dollars. Had this money been used to modernise the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and encourage the shift of service sector businesses to the middle of the country, the blow dealt by globalisation to middle America could have been softened, and the ‘Red-Blue rift’ might not have reached the crisis level that it is at today.

‘Leveraging’ climate change

Biden is fully aware that healing this rift is the obligation, beyond all others, that his victory has thrust upon him. And he has made it clear that he intends to meet it. Fortunately, he has a new ally in this venture, the threat of climate change.

A crowd of thousands march in a climate strike featuring climate change teen activist Greta Thunberg in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada October 25, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier/files.

Technologies that can harness the energy of sun, wind, and biomass have now matured to a point where they can supplant fossil-based energy at a competitive price. Unlike fossil fuels, these technologies need vast amounts of land, sunshine and wind. These are precisely what the states of the Midwest and the Great Plains have in abundance.  Harnessing these have already begun: In 2016, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas were meeting 20% to 35% of their electricity demand from wind. Other states like Texas and Minnesota were joining them.

The change that renewable energy is making to the lives of the people affected by it cannot be captured in aseptic data on energy generation, costs and returns. A recent, heart-warming article by Elizabeth Wiese in USA Today that describes the impact of wind farms on the farmers of Cloud County, Kansas, is worth quoting:

“In an increasingly precarious time for farmers and ranchers, some who live in the nation’s wind belt have a new commodity to sell – access to their wind. Wind turbine leases, generally 30 to 40 years long, provide the landowners with yearly income that, although small, helps make up for economic dips brought by drought, floods, tariffs and the ever-fluctuating price of the crops and livestock they produce. 

Each of the landowners whose fields either host turbines or who are near enough to receive a “good neighbor” payment, can earn $3,000 to $7,000 yearly for the small area – about the size of a two-car garage – each turbine takes up.  

The median income in Cloud County is about $44,000, according to the 2018 U.S. Census. For Tom Cunningham, who has been farming between Glasco and Concordia, Kansas for 40 years, the Meridian Way Wind Farm income has made an enormous difference. Cunningham’s lease payments allowed him to pay off his farm equipment and other loans. 

Before the wind turbines, things were rough, he recalled. Depending on the national and international economy, some years he broke even, some years he made money and, for more years than he cares to think about, he was on the edge. He had to take a job in town to make ends meet and for a time was what he calls “functionally bankrupt.”

“This isn’t money that other people would think is very much,” he said. “But it made an enormous difference to us.”

What wind is doing in the Great Plains states is what solar energy can do in arid and semi-arid states like Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, and parts of Texas and California. Straw and other crop residues in the wheat-growing states can be converted into the transport fuel of choice through the exciting, relatively new, technology of plasma-assisted gasification in far larger quantities than it can be converted into cellulosic ethanol through fermentation.

America’s way out of the increasingly poisonous partisan politics in which it has been trapped, therefore, lies in precisely the same technologies that it needs to harness, in order to fight climate change.

To many, it might come as an unsettling thought that the way out of the relentless militarism in which America is trapped may also lie in rejuvenating middle America by enlisting it in the battle against climate change. But it is a thought that is worth pursuing.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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Despite the caution expressed by Indian defence analysts, the de-escalation is likely to hold. But, the agreement to withdraw needs political endorsement from the prime minister.

India and China Are on the Verge of Lasting Peace, if Modi Wants It
File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

A policy blunder of the greatest magnitude, a humiliating defeat, and six decades of hiding the truth about what really caused the war between China and India in 1962, has so completely embedded a visceral distrust of China in the Indian mind that whenever there is a turn for the better in our relationship, our media, and the majority of our China-watchers, look for the hidden catch in it first before allowing themselves to believe that our relations might actually start improving.

The reaction of some of our best-known commentators to Beijing’s announcement that China and India would begin a synchronised disengagement on the north and south shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh with the intention of eventually returning to our April 2020 positions, is a case in point. While General H.S. Panag welcomed the development in a recent video interview, his scepticism about China’s intentions was writ large in his words and his body language.

Colonel Ajai Shukla was more forthright in voicing his distrust of the Chinese: “a 10-km stretch between Finger 3 and Finger 8. Indian Army has patrolled this area since the 1962 Sino-Indian war but now cannot enter the zone. ….  China has been granted right to patrol to finger 4. that means LAC effectively shifted from finger 8 to finger 4,” he tweeted (emphasis added.) Others, including some in the political opposition, echoed his scepticism.

Criticising Shukla for creating a ‘false perception’, another Twitter user, ‘Sunny Shikhar’, claimed that “China (whose version of the LAC runs through Finger 4, the fourth of eight ridges coming down to the north shore of Pangong lake) has had a road till F4 since 1999 and a naval Radar base on F6 since 2006. “We patrolled till F8,” he points out, “on the road made by China because they let us, not because we controlled it. Now (under the terms of the disengagement)” China cannot even patrol on its own road between F8-F4”.

I have no idea who ‘Sunny  Shikhar’ is, but if the facts he cites are correct, it means that China has forfeited as much of its claimed right to patrol as India has.

If that is indeed so, then Shikhar’s clarification substantiates Rajnath Singh’s statement in parliament, that both sides have agreed that neither will patrol the intervening area after the mutual withdrawals, till ‘an agreement is reached through future talks’.

China’s 1960 claim line in Ladakh is marked in yellow, the LAC at Pangong Tso is in pink. As can be seen, Thakung, the site of the latest standoff, is inside the LAC but within the 1960 Chinese claim line. Map: The Wire

A breakthrough has been achieved

To say that this has been a crucial breakthrough in the longstanding border dispute would be an understatement. For the agreement is not only an explicit acknowledgement that a ‘Grey Area’ or ‘No Man’s Land’ has existed between the two countries’ conflicting definitions of the LAC, but also marks a formal elevation of this area to the status of a ‘buffer zone’.

The difference between the two concepts is that whereas both Chinese and Indian patrols were entering “No Man’s Land” frequently, and waving placards stating that ‘This is Chinese/Indian Territory, please withdraw’ at each other when they met, now neither side will enter it till the misunderstandings and apprehensions that have arisen between the two countries are cleared through talks.

To a generation that has grown up in the era of the nation-state, this will look like an unsatisfactory resolution of the issue, for don’t all countries need hard, clearly defined, constantly patrolled borders? What our generation can only learn from the study of history is that hard boundaries replaced porous border regions, or belts, only in the era of the nation-state which first took shape after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and attained its full, malignant form with the widespread introduction of passports as recently as in the 1880s.

For reasons best known to itself, China has been studiously avoiding giving India its maps of the Ladakh-Aksai Chin area ever since the 1993 Agreement was signed. But it has been equally reticent about this in 15 out of the 24 border agreements it has signed. This has created unease in other countries as well, and has vindicated the belief among China watchers here and in the West, that Beijing is following a salami-slicing strategy to acquire more and more territory in Ladakh.

But we need to be as wary of preconceptions and prejudices imported from the West as we are of the inexplicable reticence of the Chinese. For the unalterable fact is that if the disengagement that has now begun at Pangong is completed without any hitches, a similar process is likely to take place all along the LAC, at least in the Western Sector. If that takes place, a de facto border belt, as distinct from a de jure border line, will come into being between the two countries in the Himalayas, in an area that China considers vital to its security, but for reasons totally unconnected with India. That has the potential to finally bring to our countries the lasting peace that both have been seeking ever since they signed the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in 1993.

Such historic breakthroughs are usually made at the highest political levels. What makes the present disengagement very different, perhaps unique, is that it has emerged almost entirely out of an intense, and continuous discussion between the two military commands, with no overt intervention by the political leadership.

Since June last year, there have been nine well-publicised conferences between the corps commander of the 14th corps stationed in Leh, and his Chinese counterpart from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command. But, behind these, there have been between 25 to 30 meetings, many of them online or telephonic, at every level from battalion to brigade to division commander, to answer questions, allay suspicions, and clear misunderstandings that could have led to flare-ups of the kind that so nearly happened on the South Bank of the Pangong Tso when our forces’ foiled the PLA’s attempt to establish its presence opposite Finger 4 in late August by pre-emptively occupying several commanding heights over the area.

That confrontation was the closest China and India came to war, but it showed to the Chinese that India was building up its forces around the lake in earnest, and that any more covert attempts to establish advantageous positions to use as bargaining chips in future negotiations would be met with military force. It, therefore, acquired for the Indian Army a respect that had previously been lacking in the PLA.

Two other factors reinforced this: the first was the Indian Army’s resolute reinforcement of its troop strength, including artillery and armour, throughout the killing winter months. The Chinese were, of course doing the same, albeit outside the Indian definition of the LAC, so they fully understood India’s determination not to give any more ground.

The second was the army’s preparation of launchpads at places where it had the advantage of terrain, from where it could capture ground inside China’s definition of the LAC if the PLA crossed a Lakshmana Rekha into our territory. These preparations sent a clear signal that, should the PLA be tempted to try any more salami slicing of territory in Ladakh, it would become an extremely expensive operation.

But as the tragic Galwan incident (triggered by a Chinese soldier from a newly inducted unit manhandling Colonel Babu) showed, muscle-flexing can be a dangerous strategy if it is not backed up by confidence-building measures that reassure both sides that the promises being made will indeed be kept.
Indian Army vehicles moving towards the Line of Actual Control (LAC) amid border tension with China, in Leh, Sunday, September 27, 2020. Photo: PTI

The crucial ingredient

This is the crucial ingredient in the negotiations that has brought China and India from the brink of war to the brink of peace. For, as of February 2020, the army commander of Northern Command has been Lieutenant General Y.K. Joshi, who has served four tenures at various levels in Ladakh, from brigade commander to army commander in Leh, to the chief of staff of the Northern Command, based in Jammu, and finally Army Commander in February 2020.

What may have been far more important from the point of view of confidence-building is that from 2005 till 2008, General Joshi served as India’s defence attaché in Beijing, and developed a good working knowledge of Mandarin when he was there.

Since the formal talks held so far have been at the corps commanders’ level, General Joshi had to work with the Leh Corps Commander Lt General Harinder Singh, who did a creditable job in the first six rounds of talks despite not having served previously in the Himalayan Theatre, his specialty having been in counter-intelligence.

But on October 15, when General Singh was replaced by General P.G.K. Menon, who had served as a  brigadier in the Leh-based XIV corps some years earlier, India finally had a negotiating team that had the necessary knowledge of the terrain and a far better understanding of its Chinese counterparts and was, in turn, understood better by them.

On the Chinese side, although one can at most hazard a guess, it would seem that President Xi Jinping also made a crucial change at the top of the Western Theatre Command that has helped to bring about the present agreement. On December 18, he replaced General Zhao Zongqi with General Zhang Xudong. Relatively little is known here about General Zhang, but General Zhao had headed the Western Theatre Command during the 2017 Doklam standoff. He could hardly not have been miffed at the way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed a victory of sorts – what the hyper-nationalist section of our media hailed as ‘a draw’ when the PLA withdrew itChinese and Indian Army troops. Photo: PTI/Filess bulldozers from the ridge where the confrontation took place. President Xi may therefore have been advised that after that searing experience, General Zhao would be the least suited person to take the risk that a negotiated withdrawal entailed.

Chinese and Indian Army troops. Credit: PTI/FilesChinese and Indian Army troops. Photo: PTI/Files

The full story of how the disengagement was achieved will only be available decades later, when official documents get de-classified, if at all they ever are, but what cannot be denied is the magnitude of the achievement. By agreeing to create a buffer zone around Pangong, the two commands have opened the way to the settlement of the seven decade-long border based upon a new, ‘post-national’, concept of an international border. They have therefore taken the first essential step towards a lasting peace between China and India.

But the peace is tenuous, and will not last if Modi and his policymakers do not give it an explicit and public endorsement. For, the Chinese have developed an almost neurotic, and well-founded, distrust of Modi’s sudden, radical and secretive changes of policy towards China and the US, since his government came to power.

This is because in all of the 25-30 less formal interactions that have taken place in the lead up to the agreement, the single, almost neurotic, refrain from the Chinese side has been “will your government live up to the commitments we have chalked out”. The anxiety arises from their lack of understanding of the adversarial way in which democracies function. They are therefore extremely sensitive to the statements of sundry government and opposition political leaders, and to the overt hostility to China they see displayed almost daily by TV anchors and the defence analysts they hear and read in the Indian media.

The nervousness of the Chinese has increased as the two sides have inched closer to an understanding. The Indian interlocutors have therefore had to spend as much as half of the time at each meeting convincing their Chinese counterparts to disregard this ‘democratic noise’ and concentrate on what the government is doing and not saying.

Generals Joshi and Menon have succeeded in conveying the needed reassurance, but if the current agreement is even to last, let alone become the foundation of a final resolution of the border issue, it absolutely needs political endorsement from Prime Minister Modi himself.

This is because it was Modi who, without any prior discussion with his foreign office, and possibly even his national security adviser Ajit Doval, made an unannounced, volte facefrom the long term strategic cooperation with China that had been the policy of all previous governments since 1993, and joined the US-led bid to ‘contain’ China in the Indian Ccean, but also the South China sea.

He did this only 11 days after hosting President Xi in a state visit to India that could have restored China-India relations to where they might have been, had the 1962 war not taken place.

Today, Modi has an opportunity not only to do this, but do it without loss of face. All he has to do is restore all the economic and digital ties with China that he broke so abruptly in May after the Chinese occupation of the grey zone at Pangong lake. The rest will follow.

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The fact that the RSS has intervened to ensure the government does not implement the farm Acts is significant.

Centre’s Offer to Defer Farm Acts Is a Victory for Democracy. Don’t Throw it Away.
Farmers take out a tractor march as part of the preparations for their planned tractor parade in the national capital on Republic Day, during a protest against the new farm laws, in Amritsar, Friday, January 22, 2021. Photo: PTI

The decision by protesting farmers to not accept the government’s offer to defer the farm Acts could be the first misstep in what has so far been the most meticulously planned, responsible and peaceful mass demonstration that India has seen in recent times.

More than the number of people mobilised at the Singhu and Tikri borders, it was their discipline and organisation that demonstrated the strength of the movement and the support it commanded. It is these, rather than the implied threat of violence, that has made the government pull back.

All of this immense accretion of credibility and respect is under threat today because, for the first time, the farmers were split on whether to accept the government’s offer of an 18-month stay or not. The longer the split lasts, the more the farmers’ movement will lose its moral ascendancy in the eyes of a public that has been almost solidly behind it so far. The more that happens, the more will the accusations of the Modi bhakts in the BJP and the media, that this is a movement fuelled by an irresponsible political opposition, backed by Khalistanis, begin to sound credible to the common, apolitical public.

An even greater threat from the failure to arrive at an agreement is it will increase the possibility of a violent confrontation between the Delhi police and the farmers on January 26. This is something that the farmers cannot afford, now that the government has put the farm Acts on hold, because it will cost them much of the public support they now enjoy.

But there is an even greater price that the country will have to pay if the farmers do not accept the government’s offer. This will be a substantial weakening of the RSS in relation to Modi and his extremist base of support in the Sangh parivar. This is because the government’s decision to stay the implementation of its farm Acts by 18 months did not emerge from second thoughts that Modi may have had on it, but from an unambiguous directive issued by the RSS.

The government’s  decision came within 24 hours of a categorical statement by RSS general secretary Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi, the second-in command in the organisation, that “a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.

Bhaiyyaji’s statement needs to be read in full to appreciate its significance:

“Democracy provides an opportunity to both sides. I consider both sides right (in) their place. Agitators must consider that whatever they can get through dialogue, they must accept. The government must think about what more it can give. …So it is important to find that point where the two sides can agree and the agitation can end. Any agitation running for long is not beneficial. No one should have a problem with an agitation taking place. But a middle ground must be found. An agitation does not just affect people associated with it, but also impacts society, directly or indirectly. It is not good for the health of society for any agitation to run for too long. So a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.

As significant as the contents of the statement is how and to whom Bhaiyyaji gave it – in an interview to the Indian Express, a newspaper not known for its support to this government or the ideology that propels it.

Joshi went on to advise moderation to the farmers:

“Whenever a discussion is held, there can’t be an argument that my position is non-negotiable…The government is repeatedly saying we are ready to discuss, but (the protesters) are saying any discussion will take place only after the laws are repealed. How will a discussion take place like that. ..I believe farmers must have a discussion with the government over issues they have with the laws… There should be a positive initiative from both sides. If agitators also take a positive approach it will be good.”

It is against this remarkably candid reproach of its own government that the farmers need to determine their future course today. That this was not just another appeal being made from behind a veil of seeming impartiality, to put the farmers in the wrong, became clear when the government postponed the implementation of the farm laws by not a few weeks or even months but a year and a half. This is as close as any democratic government can come to admitting that it had made a mistake. To ask it to do more is to ask for the moon.

The political significance of the RSS’s intervention goes beyond the farmers’ struggle. It is a reminder to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that even if he does not consider himself to be accountable to the public, he remains accountable to the organisation to which he owes his present position. And that organisation did not appreciate his haste in announcing new decisions, and rushing new laws through parliament, without going through the process of consultation, with the party, the parliament and the public, which is the essence of democracy.

One swallow does not a summer make, but the possibility that Bhaiyyaji’s admonition is only the tip of a larger iceberg of dissatisfaction with this government’s performance cannot be ruled out. For the RSS’s credo, which is drilled into every pracharak during its orientation programmes in Nagpur, is to work quietly behind the scenes, and avoid the limelight at almost any cost. This is a credo that Modi began rebelling against in various small ways soon after the RSS made him its pracharak for the Gujarat unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad more than two decades ago.

It was only his organisational capacity, his irreproachable financial integrity and, regrettably, his handling of the riots in 2002, that kept him in its good books. But since he became the prime minister, the drawbacks of his personality – his haste, impetuosity and constant thirst for acclamation – have become more of a liability than an asset.

After Modi became prime minister, the RSS almost certainly did not expect to be consulted on every action of the government, for that would have gone against its entire credo of being a social organisation whose purpose was the revival and glorification of Bharat Mata. But Modi’s relentless presentation of every major decision of the government  as his and his alone with neither consultation before nor credit shared afterwards, could not have failed to disturb the parent organisation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, India, August 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Despite the increasingly frequent blowback from Modi’s hasty decisions, the RSS stayed clear of intervening so long as these remained broadly within the parameters of Hindutva ideology, and of its stated political aims. Thus, Modi’s tacit support through silence of programmes like love jihad, gau raksha and ghar wapsi; his party and government’s determination to ensure that no one accused of a communal atrocity ever faced punishment; his determination to push “illegal” Muslim immigrants out of Assam and India no matter what the cost; his open invitation to RSS and BJP cadres to ‘help’ the police to break up the Shaheen Bagh satyagraha movement, which resulted in the North East Delhi massacres; and his abrogation of Article 370 after brutally crushing political and civil society activity in the state, drew no criticism from the parent organisation.

But RSS could scarcely have remained unaffected by his other blunders: his jump-the-gun demonetisation of 86% of the currency in November 2016 which forced most of 150 million migrant workers to stop work in the cities and go home when the facility for converting old currency notes for new ran out on December 31, and the new notes were not even ready for dispensation; his equally hasty and ill-planned introduction of the Goods and Services Tax and, finally his eagerness to be the first country to declare a lockdown against COVID-19 without his even realising that this would destroy hundreds of millions of livelihoods, and force ten million or more persons to start walking or cycling  home to villages from 60 to 2,000 km away in the heat of summer.

Finally, it would be surprising indeed if some, at least, in the RSS have not realised that Modi’s determination not to enter into discussions with the Chinese, and his systematic turning of economic screws on China’s trade and investment with India, are pushing the two countries ever closer to a war in the Himalayas that India can only lose.

If my analysis above is correct, then the RSS has broken its silence on the farmers’ struggle not only because this is the first mass movement that truly has no ideological, political or anti-nationalist moorings, that because it has been triggered by the first hasty action of Modi government that it cannot justify by invoking a policy espoused earlier by the Sangh parivar.

That is why it is imperative for the farmers’ movement to accept his government’s offer to stay the farm Acts and enter into a serious discussion of how they can be revised to get the best instead of the worst out of them. Needless to say, any meaningful discussion of this nature needs to be held within accepted parameters.

The first and most important of these is that the agreed reforms must be left to the state governments to implement. Agro-climatic conditions are simply too diverse in India to permit any-one-size-fits-all solutions. So every state will have to decide how to implement them within the constraints these impose.

Secondly, inter-state trade needs to be opened to the private sector, but once more, at a pace and in products that that is left to the states to decide.

Thirdly, farmers, particularly those who produce perishable crops, need to be empowered in various ways to increase their bargaining power against the traders. This requires the rapid creation of essential rural infrastructure – notably the provision of 24×7 power to facilitate the creation of village-level cold storages, and the creation of small bank branches in villages above a minimum size, for prompt dispersal of credit.

Lastly, the opening of export trade must be closely correlated with the establishment of buffer stocks of vegetables and dairy products in particular, that prevent the shocks caused by sudden natural disasters, such as drought or unseasonal rain, from falling  solely upon domestic supply and prices.

These are only the most essential first steps towards compensating farmers for the prolonged neglect they have suffered from our urban-centred planners and administrators. If the farmers’ struggle ends by bringing these to the forefront of policy and shifting the priorities of planned investment, it will have more than fulfilled its purpose.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture.

The Remedy to the Agricultural Crisis That No One Is Talking AboutFarmers during a protest against the new farm laws, at Ghazipur Border in New Delhi, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Five weeks after the Farmers agitation began, and a day after the Supreme Court urged the government to put the three farm bills passed in September on hold, Prime Minister Modi has finally agreed to hold talks with their leaders.

But what will he hold talks about when neither he, nor anyone else in his government, has shown any understanding of what has driven the entire community of farmers from North India to the edge of despair?

Their ignorance is writ large on his party propagandists’ attempts to ascribe political, even traitorous, motives to the farm leaders. That is the reaction of schoolyard bullies who, when they find themselves losing an argument, start hitting their opponents.

Now that Modi has decided to talk to the farmers himself, he would do well to understand the predicament that has driven them to desperation. In a nutshell, it is this: India is now a chronically food surplus economy. So while opening up the foodgrains trade to traders from all over the country will benefit rich farmers – who have the maximum bargaining power and can contact, or be contacted by, buyers in other states and countries most easily – the entire price shock of the foodgrains surplus will be felt by the small landholders who make up four-fifths of the farming community.

The government’s recent decision not to abolish the Minimum Sale Price system will cushion this shock, but no one knows to what extent it will do so if the thriving mandis of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and northern Rajasthan lose the bulk of their business to private buyers and start closing down.

Even if the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees that manage these mandis survive no one can foretell how far their straitened finances will permit them to provide the small farmers with the host of ancillary services, such as advances to buy seed and fertiliser in time to sow the next crop, that they are doing today. In sum, these ‘reforms’ will plunge the largest, most vulnerable, segment of the country’s population into a sea of uncertainty, in which they presently have no idea, of how they will stay afloat.

Liberal economists are treating this as the unavoidable price of economic development. The solution, they say, lies in product diversification. The cereals market will automatically come back into balance if farmers divert some of their land to horticulture, dairy and poultry farming. What they seem to be unaware of is that farmers have been doing this since the early 1990s. Those with small and marginal holdings were the first to attempt it.

But the world they entered was frighteningly different from the world they were leaving, for it was one in which near-complete market security was replaced by equally complete market insecurity. While cereals are not perishable and can easily be stored for six months or more (wheat) to several years ( lentils), fruit, vegetables (other than onions and potatoes),  milk and eggs perish in days. Horticulturalists have therefore found that, from the moment they harvest their crop, they are at the utter mercy of the trader.

Despite this more and more farmers have taken to growing vegetables, fruit and flowers because of the rapid and unexpected growth of exports. Since exporters offer contracted prices to ensure, and often pre-empt, supply, a degree of income stability has been given to horticulturists. As a result, the area under horticulture has more than doubled in the past twenty years to 25 million hectares, and exports have grown eightfold from Rs 8,000 crores in 2000-01 to Rs 63,700 crores in 2018-19.

Farmers protest against the farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, December 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

But only traders, exporters and well-to-do farmers have benefited from this windfall.  To manage the growing volume of horticultural produce giant cold storages that can store up to 40,000 tonnes of produce, have sprung up all over India in the last two decades. In March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold storages with a refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres, capable of storing  37 to 39 million tonnes of perishable produce.

But the small farmers, who have grown most of the fruits and vegetables, have been left out in the cold because, even today, almost three-quarters of a century after independence, there are no cold storages in the villages.

The following data from the agriculture ministry’s report, ‘Horticulture Statistics at a Glance 2018‘ shows how this single omission has chained the small farmers to poverty. In Punjab, one hectare under horticulture yields four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat, but close to 20 tonnes of vegetables.

But between 2013 and 2018, the wholesale price of onions, potatoes and tomatoes – the three principal horticulture crops – has averaged Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per tonne in March and April at the end of the growing season, when the farmers have no option but to sell their produce.  Since farm-gate prices average at most half of the wholesale price, the vegetable growers earn at best Rs 6,000 per tonne for their produce,  and a gross income, therefore, of Rs 120,000 in the year.

But the procurement price fixed by the central government for both paddy and wheat is over Rs 18,000 per tonne. So four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat a year fetch the farmer a gross income of Rs 162,000, one-third more than vegetables fetch the marginal farmers. Vegetable farming is therefore not only less secure, but also pays less than cereal farming. That is the second reason why the farmers are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills. If the present marketing structure is weakened or destroyed, all of them, from the largest landholders to the smallest, have no place to go but down.

The bitter experience of vegetable growers has shown the farmers who are surrounding Delhi today that the ‘market’ upon whose mercy Modi wants to cast them is exploitative and merciless. That is why they are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills as a prelude to negotiation.

If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture that India’s governments and intelligentsia had promised to farmers when the Congress party made land reform its first national policy initiative in 1948, but subsequently forgot.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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