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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 37, New Delhi, August 29, 2020

Letter to the Readers – Mainstream, August 29 - Lockdown Edition No 23

Friday 28 August 2020

Letter to the Readers No 23 – August 29

Chief ministers from the states of Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Puducherry met in a virtual meeting at the initiative of Congress Party’s interim leader Sonia Gandhi and the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee on August 26 and have called for forging a common alliance against the Central Government. They have grievances on many common issues the non-payment of GST dues and central government going on a privatization overdrive with no consultation with the States etc. The Kerala Left Government was missing from this discussion. It seems the Interim President of the Congress party wanted to invite Kerala Chief minister Pinari Vijayan but there was opposition from the State’s Congress unit. This is very unfortunate. All State Governments run by non-BJP parties should be part of a coordinated Opposition.

The media groups friendly to the Government have been playing a murky role attacking all Opposition parties but most of all pouring scorn on the Congress party. They seem very concerned about democratisation when it comes to the leading Opposition party but they never ask for accountability and democracy within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

India needs a strong Opposition and the wide spectrum Left of Centre social-democratic conglomeration in the Congress party is central to that process. Recently, there have been signs of internal debate and stirring in the Congress party and we hope this will lead to much needed internal elections, resulting in new faces and a new strategy. Congressmen of all shapes should stand united to strengthen and regenerate that party and help forge a wider alliance across India.

In the past week, a nationwide citizens’ platform also met in the form of Janta parliament – a 7 day long people’s parliament to discuss a range of public issues, from Jobs, to food security to public health, privacy, to land rights etc. The many issues raised there should find an echo in the Parliament which has been shut for five months. It was good to see leaders of many Opposition parties also speak at the platform on its last day, where they agreed with demands raised and called for a shared common minimum programme. It would be very useful to take up practical issues and demands raised at the people’s Parliament with the state governments in Opposition-ruled states to implement some of the demands to demonstrate the working of alternative policies and this will also help contrast with the functioning of the ruling party.

The coming monsoon session of Parliament is expected to start by mid-September and will last only two weeks. The demand for deferment of JEE exams, the standoff with China, non-transparency of PM CARES Fund, migrant workers’ crisis, privatisation of Public sector firms, Facebook India’s controversial connection with the BJP are going to be among the issues the Opposition will try to raise in Parliament.

Growing misuse of the Police powers and the Judiciary playing second fiddle to the Government of the day:

A Delhi court on August 26 dismissed the application by CPI (M) leader Brinda Karat seeking registration of an FIR against BJP MPs Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma for allegedly making hate speeches. The Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate stated that prior sanction of the Central Government was required under section 196 CrPC and dismissed the application.

Amnesty International has just released a report that documents incidents of police brutality and complicity during the north Delhi riots of February 2020

We are alarmed to hear of the access given to the Delhi Police to the voter records of Delhi’s riot-hit areas by the Election Commission. The Election Commission is a constitutional body and the information it has in its databases on citizens should be out of bounds for all and its handing over photo ID information for police identification purposes sets a very bad precedent. This is also a case of police overreach and should be probed and banished.

We have repeatedly written in these pages about how the police, which comes under the direct control of the Union Home Ministry is being misused to go after critics of the government. Police misconduct needs to checked and there should be no impunity for wrongdoing.

Abuse of police powers and discrimination became big news and sparked large public protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody in the U.S — but this doesn’t happen in India, where there is hardly any outrage against police brutality. On the contrary a section of society stands on the side of the police when it comes to crime, even when there is evidence of custodial killings and so-called encounter deaths.
Earlier this year the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT), based in New Delhi, released its India: Annual report on Torture 2019 which says that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India recorded a total of 1,723 cases of death of persons in judicial custody and police custody across the country from January to December 2019.

The Peacock Raja and The Favoured Tycoons:

Crony capitalism is not new in India but we are scaling new heights now on this score. The Modi Government has been in power for over six years. Prior to his election in May 2014 for his first term in office as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party campaigned all guns blazing against the Congress-led UPA Government charging it with gross corruption and crony capitalism and assuring that it will put an end to corruption. (In fact there was a whole campaign of ‘India Against Corruption’ which was backed by the RSS – the mothership body of the present BJP Government.)

As he campaigned for his election we could already see that Modi had close links with certain business groups, notably the Ambanis, the Adanis from his 15 year stint as the Gujarat CM.

Soon after coming to power, a chosen few business groups got special treatment.... Adani was a regular during PM Modi’s trips to the United States, Australia, Brazil and Japan. In November 2015, Mr Adani was with PM Modi at events around the G-20 Summit in Australia. The State Bank of India signed a controversial $1 billion (Rs 6,200 crore) loan agreement with the Adani Group for its huge Australian mining project in Queensland, which is caught in controversy and now has been challenged in court by some rights groups.

Mr Modi and one of the Ambani brothers were at the centre of a major controversy with allegations by the Opposition Congress party. It was also reaffirmed later by former French President François Hollande that in 2018, the Indian Government facilitated Mr Ambani’s newly created defence firm to secure an offset deal in the contract for fighter jets with Dassault Aviation of France. This matter went to court in November 2018. A Bench headed by former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi gave a verdict in the Rafale case favourable to the government. Later a petition was filed by former Union Ministers Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie, lawyer Prashant Bhushan against the top court’s judgement. In November 2019 the Supreme Court dismissed review petitions on the Rafale jet deal. According to The Times of India, many months after the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) submitted its performance audit on defence offset contracts to the government, a source in the CAG has said that the report does not cover any offset deals related to Rafale aircraft purchased from French company Dassault Aviation. By the way, Mr. Modi’s former Secretary is now the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) of India.

The proximity between certain business conglomerates to the government means that certain rules are getting tweaked (e.g. the eligibility criteria for the bidders) or overlooked – contrary to stated policy. Contracts seem to be getting awarded to an influential firm with no prior experience in running airports. Mr Adani’s firm close to the government won contracts for a 50 year lease to operate six airports that were previously under the Airports Authority of India. Many of these airports had seen fairly recent major public investments for large scale re-development and did not seem to be on any list for privatisation till 2018. Restrictions on the number of airports a single entity could bid for were removed. So now the same firm that won bids to run six airports is now bidding for more airports. Normally all PPP (public-private partnership) contracts require public consultation and consultation with the State Governments. This should have been done but it has seemingly been set aside leading to protests by the Kerala Government which was kept in the dark.

We have already seen firms close to the government getting loans from public banks via help from politicians – this is leading to more and more concentration of economic power in the hands of a favourable few according to an article in NDTV

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The International Day Against Nuclear Tests will be observed on August 29. It was established on December 2, 2009 at the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly by resolution 64/35. We hope India remains committed to maintaining restraint on going for any nuclear test or an expansion of its hugely expensive nuclear programme. We are at a time in our history when we need more social and health spending and must put a cap on military spending.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has expanded massively in India after a failed lockdown and an unprepared government. Practically all of the month of August has seen the daily case numbers hover between 65000 to 70000. Beating all records on daily cases on August 26, the country had 75996 cases of coronavirus in a single day.

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The prominent Afghan actress and film director Saba Sahar was shot in Kabul on August 25, we hope for her safe recovery.

Tributes

Fr. Gaston Roberge, the Canadian Jesuit, film critic and a pioneer of the film appreciation movement in India, died in Calcutta on August 26, 2020. He had lived in India since 1960 and worked at St Xavier’s College. In 1970 he founded the Chitrabani Institute, a truly unique space for learning about film and photography. He will be fondly remembered in Calcutta and all over India.

Retired Major General Bir Uttam Chitta Ranjan Dutta from Bangladesh, who was also known as CR Dutta, passed away on August 25. He was the President of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council. During the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, Dutta served in the Mukti Bahini as a commander.

Diana Russell, the feminist scholar and activist, died on July 28 at the age of 81. She spent a lifetime writing and campaigning to end violence against women. She helped organise the first International Tribunal on Crimes against Women held in Brussels, Belgium, in 1976.

Gail Sheehy, the American journalist who wrote on lives of public figures and was famous for her very influential 1976 book “Passages” on the crises of adult life, passed away on August 25. We pay homage to all these people

August 29, The Editor

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