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The Big Story: Foreign hand

The Bharatiya Janata Party in the time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah have been remarkable at ensuring that the Indian media, primarily on television, does not just toe their line but actually uses primetime to interrogate the Opposition.

But in the last few weeks, Modi’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has expressed annoyance at the fact that the press abroad does not do the same thing. Responding to a question about the difficulty of explaining his government’s decision to crush civil liberties and unilaterally change the status of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Union, Jaishankar said:

“I think it was a more difficult challenge with the media, especially the English-speaking liberal media [in the West]. Partly because they were ideological about [Jammu and Kashmir], and they had strong preset views about it. My view was that they didn’t present a fair picture or absorb it.” 

He made similar comments at Carnegie during his big outreach trip to the US.

Despite Jaishankar’s tremendous experience in the US, his efforts to win Americans over to the BJP way of thinking did not go too far, as a hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee demonstrated. (Read Seema Sirohi’s piece arguing that India has a problem on Capitol Hill.)

So last week India tried to fix this bad image with a harebrained scheme to send two dozen Members of the European Parliament on a trip to India to meet Modi and visit Kashmir.

What’s wrong with sending MEPs to Kashmir?

Well, for starters Indian Opposition MPs are not free to visit the Valley. Kashmiri politicians remain under arrest by the government. The paradox was obvious. Then it turned out that the European Parliamentarians – primarily far-right politicians – were not on an official trip but ostensibly on a “private” visit.

But not all played along. When one of the few non-far right MEPs (Chris Davies of the UK’s Liberal Democrats) found out that he was expected to stick to a script, he dropped out and revealed who was involved in organising the jaunt.

In the process, what appears to be several fronts of Indian intelligence seem to have been burnt, as the media discovered Madi Sharma, an “international business broker” who set up the visit, and the Srivastava Group, which paid for it through an organisation called the Indian Institute for Non-Aligned Studies.

For all this effort, what did India get out of the trip – which was supposed to neutralise the negative coverage abroad? A press conference addressed by just four of the MEPs, and another one telling the media that if foreign politicians are being allowed into Kashmir, Opposition politicians from India should be too.

Delhi was abuzz with figuring out whose idea this was (the Ministries of External Affairs and Home Affairs both washed their hands of it), with theories being either National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar or directly the Prime Minister’s Office. (HuffPo pinned it on Doval.)

The bigger question though, other than how an “international business broker” can guarantee an audience with the Indian prime minister, is: who thought this would be a good idea? How did they not see the criticism coming? (See my list of questions in the aftermath of this brouhaha here).

Modi may have just won a huge mandate from the Indian people, but he is going to face a massive diplomatic challenge in his second term. With the Article 370 decision to revoke special status under the Constitution for Jammu and Kashmir, and coverage of the National Register of Citizens, global media is getting more comfortable slotting Modi with the crop of populist, often bigoted, chest-thumping politicians that have won elections the world over.

But the one thing that causes governments to ignore questions of human rights is in danger: the Indian economy, which is currently on a steep downward slide. In Jaishankar, Modi has an excellent former diplomat who knows the field. But even he has found it difficult explaining the Article 370 decision.

(As Dean of Global Business at the Fletcher School Bhaskar Chakravorti put it, “Yes, yes, I know he has sold his soul trying to justify the Article 370 abrogation, but putting lipstick on a pig is his day job.”)

Modi definitely made a smart decision to bring Jaishankar on board, and the government is lucky to have him. But the recognition of bureaucratic talent through political appointments has a downside: will the bureaucrat-turned-minister continue simply doing the job given to him by the Prime Minister’s Office, or will he have the wherewithal to actually influence policy and importantly tell Modi when he thinks things are going wrong?

What do you think was going on with the MEPs visit to India? Write to rohan@scroll.in

Poll toon


Keep an eye out for: The judgment in the Babri Masjid demolition case. Likely to be one of the most important Supreme Court verdicts in the history of independent India, and the buzz suggests it will come this week – though the week after is also a possibility. Here is a reading list to prepare you for the big day. A few other big verdicts are also expected, as they have to come before the current Chief Justice retires on November 17.

Meanwhile, his successor Chief Justice-designate SA Bobde has (unusually) been giving interviews to the press before he takes over after a tumultuous few years for India’s Supreme Court.

Civil liberties continue to be restricted in Kashmir, but that hasn’t improved the security situation. Six labourers from outside the Valley were killed in a terror attack, only the latest in a number of incidents targeting non-Kashmiris. Safwat Zargar reported on the mood among migrant workers after the most recent attack.

Meanwhile, the downgrade and partition of Jammu & Kashmir into two Union territories came into effect, with no clear roadmap for the reorganisation, notes Ipsita Chakravarty.

The global WhatsApp spyware scandal broke out in India as well. Citizen Lab, which worked with WhatsApp to tell the most vulnerable that they might have been targeted by the surveillance tool, ended up informing more than 22 people who work in human rights, law, journalism and academics. The actual number may be much higher, and more political targets are now emerging.

Delhi began offering free bus rides to women. The move, labeled a pre-election gimmick by other parties, is one of the Aam Aadmi Party’s big urban policy efforts prior to polls in the capital next year. Here’s why I think other cities should follow suit.

Two more horrible economic indicators from last week: The core sector, which includes things like coal, steel and electricity, saw output decline by 5.2%, the worst decline in 14 years for September. Meanwhile, a new academic paper confirmed that employment in India actually declined between 2011-’12 and 2017-’18.

On Scroll.in this week

This is the Political Fix after all, which is why you have to click on the next two links. Gilles Verniers, Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, breaks down the results of elections in Maharashtra and Haryana through more than 30 charts in each.

In Haryana, Verniers points out that one voter out of five opted for a party other than the two big alliances, suggesting there is still plenty of space for local issues.

In Maharashtra, Verniers finds that the Nationalist Congress Party is actually closer to the BJP, at least in success in seats contested, than the results would have you believe (Congress remains relatively woeful).

Reports and op-eds

Computers at a nuclear plant in India were hit by a cyber attack. Authorities insist that nothing major was compromised, but we don’t really know how bad the attack was, as this Medianama explainer by Aditi Agarwal points out.

Even if India does have something of a middle class, it is shrinking. So says Rahul Jacob in Mint, drawing out one of those little understood features of the Indian population. (Or as we pointed out years ago: Everyone in India thinks they’re middle class, and almost no one is).

India might stick to the line that its economy is roaring, despite evidence. Why are the IMF and World Bank doing so too? Justin Sandefur and Julian Duggan point out that the estimates from international institutions are uncritically dependent on official numbers and so may be extremely flawed.

Despite the Nobel prize, India needs to be careful about relying on randomized controlled trials. So say two pieces, one by Indira Rajaraman in Mint and another by Ankur Sarin on the India Forum.

The failure of the Opposition to take on the BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Bill is scary. Yamini Aiyar in the Hindustan Times laments an Opposition without “the courage, conviction or legitimacy to challenge the bill, thus pushing secularism to the margins of our polity.” (And if you need a reminder, my piece: Make no mistake, Amit Shah’s NRC plan is both bigoted and unconstitutional).

Can’t make this up

North India is facing nothing less than a public health emergency thanks to horrific pollution. Indicators for pollutants crossed all-time highs in Delhi and other North Indian cities, which were blanketed in a thick layer of smoke. These pictures might give you a sense of how bad it looks. (Read Shoaib Daniyal’s piece asking why politicians don’t seem to care.)

So what did India’s cricket board – and the Delhi civic authorities – do? Host an international cricket match in Delhi, despite the air being so full of smog that schools have been ordered shut and flights were having difficulty taking off. Way to lean into that post-apocalyptic look, Delhi.