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Balance domestic politics and global diplomacy

When domestic fault lines are being exploited by external actors, the safeguarding of a country’s foreign policy needs cooperation of domestic players.

PARAS RATNA

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi

It is no secret that foreign policy interests are impacted by domestic discourses. As is evident from the recent happenings in the Middle East, India’s domestic politics is playing an important role in shaping the international perception of the country. Recently, social media posts criticising/rebuking the Tablighi-Jamaat members for not adhering to Covid-19 guidelines strained ties with Gulf countries.

These were perceived as anti-Islamic or hate speech by some of the Gulf’s ruling elites. To add to it, a five-year-old tweet by a BJP parliamentarian was widely circulated and condemned for being disrespectful to Arab women. Although the criticism was valid, the timing and the concerted effort was aimed at discrediting the current regime in the Arab world.

Concerns over diplomatic fallout prompted the Prime Minister and the Ambassadors of respective gulf countries to issue statements highlighting India’s vibrant culture of tolerance and pluralism. The Middle East is critical for India’s economy and energy security. With the Trump Administration signalling a re-thinking of America’s Middle East strategy; the Indo-Gulf ties have come to assume even greater strategic significance in the recent past.

Reportedly, Saudi Arabia has turned down Pakistan’s request to discuss Kashmir at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meet this February. Besides, Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) have also decided to invest $44 billion in Ratnagiri petrochemical refinery complex. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are India’s third and fourthlargest trading partners. PM Narendra Modi received the “Order of Zayed”, the highest civilian award in the UAE.

Navies of both countries also participated in the joint maritime exercise. Further, India has got access to the port of Duqm in Oman as a part of an MoU on military cooperation. In addition to economic and strategic interest, the Gulf is home to some 8.5 million Indians and is, hence, a major source of remittance.

Due to the looming Covid-19 threat, the Government of India is planning a massive evacuation of its citizens stranded there. Further, India is assisting Gulf countries, like Bahrain, Iran, etc, in tackling Covid-19 pandemic by supplying pharmaceutical products, PPEs, medical professionals, etc. Thus, the derailing of diplomatic momentum between India and Gulf countries can adversely affect the rescue operations, creating serious ramification for Indian citizens that could mutate into a humanitarian disaster.

Therefore, given the seriousness of the situation, it is not surprising that the fake social media profiles of members of Gulf royalties are being used to create a wedge between India and the Gulf. Reportedly, Omani princess Mona Bint Fahad’s fake Twitter handle was operated by the Pakistan handlers. According to a former Afghan intelligence official, the strategy to use fake social media profiles by Pakistani handlers to harm foreign policy interest and foment domestic tension is not new.

Earlier this year, India’s decision to amend the Citizenship Act generated widespread protests in the country. Heated arguments on both sides accompanied by rumour-mongering that Muslims would lose citizenship leading to sharp polarisation, which, eventually, culminated into riots in Delhi, coinciding with US President Donald Trump’s visit to India. As a result, the localised Delhi riots made global headlines.

Although the Gulf States broadly maintained silence, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted criticising the Indian government over the Delhi riots. It is important to note that India has invested substantially at the Chabahar port in Iran, making such tweeted observations worrisome. Closer home, the CAA soured India’s relationship with Bangladesh, an important country with respect to India’s Act-East policy.

It is wise to mention here that this Act does not make any Indian citizen stateless. Rather, it extends the umbrella of citizenship to include persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, the narrative propagating otherwise have given a severe jolt to India’s diplomatic standing. The above-mentioned incidents point to a broader trend being witnessed across democratic states.

There seems to be a shrinking in the middle ground in their domestic political spheres. Like university campuses, democratic societies, on the whole, are increasingly being polarised into rival camps. The availability of smartphones and cheaper Internet have led to an outpouring of opinions on a myriad range of issues. Although an Internet-enabled smartphone ensures participation of the masses, it has also led to the percolation of political polarisation into everyday interaction. In fact, for many in India, political/ideological leanings are increasingly becoming an important determinant of interpersonal relationships.

On the flip side, the opposition to the incumbent government policies points to the vibrancy of democracy and assurance of civil liberties. Although democratic states like India are far from being perfect, their political systems are not opaque and fundamentally dishonest. Therefore, deployment of phrases such as ‘fascism’, ‘pogrom’, ‘dictatorial’, ‘coloniser’, etc, to describe the state of affairs in the context of Indian democratic socio-political setup warrants caution.

A pertinent question to ask here is: if the sanctity of democratic institutions such as Parliament to formulate/ pass any law is rejected, then what is the alternative? In a digitally-connected world where domestic fault lines are being exploited by external actors, the safeguarding of a country’s foreign policy is not possible without the cooperation among the domestic actors i.e. government, opposition and civil society. Critics in democratic setups need to carefully distinguish between being a watchdog and pawn in a wider geopolitical chessboard.

On the other hand, incumbent governments should prioritise consensus and co-optation, exercise prudence and avoid adventurism in their modus operandi. Democracies like India need to generate consensus on foreign policy interests. Effective diplomacy abroad is contingent on the fine balance within the domestic political space.

The writer is a Research Associate at the Vision India Foundation, New Delhi.

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Opinion

GOVERNMENT FINDS A MIDDLE WAY; WILL THIS END THE STALEMATE?

Priya Sahgal

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The government seems to have found a middle way to address the farmers’ concerns—put the reform laws on hold for a year-and-a-half. This is the latest suggestion offered to the protesting farmers during the 11th round of talks between the farmers and the government representatives. This comes after the Supreme Court intervention which had suggested a committee to look into the farm laws. But since the court-appointed committee’s brief was merely to relook the current laws and not repeal them, the farmers opted out of the committee. What didn’t help was that the committee was seen as being filled with pro-reformist members and also given a mandate of two months to submit its findings. This was seen by the farmers’ lobby as merely an instance of delaying the implementation of the laws by two months and also ensuring that the agitation loses its steam. For, as one farmers’ leader after the other said on TV: Once we disband, we cannot get the same momentum again, so we are not leaving till our demands are met. And their demand is simple: Roll back the laws.

Now this latest offer is not the rollback that they were hoping for, but it does give them a longer breather than the two months’ mandate of the court committee. Will the farmers take the bait? The mood is divided, the main concern being a lack of trust that this too is not a tactic to delay the inevitable. It is interesting that RSS general secretary Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi too recently asked the government to show “sensitivity” in handling the farmers’ agitation. In an interview to The Indian Express he had stated: “It is not good for the health of society for any agitation to run for too long.” He asked the government to find a “middle way”. Apparently, this is the sentiment that was echoed at the RSS meet in Ahmedabad recently as well. 

However, the latest approach seems to have hit some sort of a chord with the farmers who did not reject it outright as they did the earlier overtures. In fact, the farmer leaders were heard complaining that the ministers came late to meetings, issued ultimatums and left. For their part, government sources too claim that the farmers came to the meetings with their minds made up, so there was little one could do. 

Well, at least some steps are being taken in the right direction. One can only hope that solutions are found sooner than later. The government may be working with a limited deadline of the 26 January parade, but for the farmers it’s much more than that.

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Opinion

Subhas Bose: The loneliness of long-distance time travel

As India gears up to finally recognise Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose during his 125th birth anniversary celebrations, we have once again an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the true liberator of India.

Bhuvan Lall

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For over two decades, I had walked into dark endless libraries, searched dimly lit underground archives, browsed through numerous dusty bookshops, meandered into war cemeteries, listened to fragments of recorded memories, heard speeches on old scratchy tapes, played back worn-out military marching tunes, sat through monotonous speeches at book launches, attended tedious academic lectures, mined the Internet to its depth, read tattered timeworn newspaper cuttings, examined faded photographs, viewed hours of archival documentary footage, photographed derelict statues, communicated with dozens of elderly folks about historical events, filmed interviews with old soldiers, talked to erudite professors and driven to far off memorials, museums and monuments in Asia, Europe, and North America through snowy blizzards, pouring rain and the summer heat researching Indian history’s most exciting period—the life, the times and the radical thinking of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The mission to write his biography had completely consumed me.

 Inspired by my late father who had lived through those long-forgotten times, I set out ambitiously to investigate this enigmatic revolutionary. A star of the Indian independence movement Netaji was an extraordinary man. In India’s most testing time of colonisation, Netaji became the hope of a nation. An indispensable figure of our history he walked with destiny. At the moment of supreme crisis, with the entire Congress leadership jailed after the Quit India movement during the WW2, millions of Indians turned to him for leadership. It was as if his entire life was a preparation for leading India to freedom. He had the power of words to communicate his resolve with clarity, force and inspiration. For the men, women and children who heard Netaji speak on the Azad Hind Radio from Germany, Japan and South East Asia, his words transformed them forever. Recordings of his speeches still provoke goose bumps. His Majesty’s Government and Prime Minister Winston Churchill banned him from their media, terrified that his penchant for militarism would spur a revolt in India. Later British historians summarily dismissed him as a misguided patriot, fascist and even a quisling. In deeper examination it is crystal clear that Netaji was a revolutionary and his views of gender equality, non-sectarianism and economic justice were contemporary. He was also the master of the art of the possible entering into Faustian pacts with the Axis powers. And without a doubt, Indian National Army’s motto ‘unity, faith and sacrifice’ created by Netaji’s inspired a generation of Indians who sought to emulate him. Today Netaji’s overriding achievement as the foremost anti-imperialist during India’s freedom movement can be summed up in a single sentence: he was the true liberator of India.

As I set out on the trail of that Prince of Patriots, I was aware that plenty of books had already been written about Netaji. However, in my exploration, I went beyond compiling chronologies, presenting dry facts or imposing a single thesis across a lifespan. I searched for numerous facts that had been buried away for over half a century as well as unearthed deceptions that had been spread around for petty personal gains. In this enterprise I surveyed the entire period of European colonisation from Vasco da Gama’s first sighting of the coast of India in May 1498 to the liberation of Goa in December 1961 by the Indian armed forces and from Plassey to Partition in between. In the retelling of the dramatic story of Netaji’s life I sought answers to what really transpired between him and the Congress leadership at the famous Tripuri session in 1939 and meticulously scrutinized the minutes of his meetings with leaders of the Axis Powers. Even though the specifics were very sketchy, I studied Netaji’s fantastic escape from Kolkata in January 1941 and his three-month long two-stage submarine journey in 1943 that had never been attempted before by anyone. I carefully traced the stories of the Indian National Army from the victory at Moirang near Kohima right to the end of INA trial at Red Fort in Delhi where three Indian patriots Gurbaksh Singh Dhillion. Shah Nawaz Khan and Prem Sehgal emerged victorious against the mighty British Empire. I also connected the dots between the Ghadr of 1857, the Ghadr Party revolutionaries throughout WW1 and the heroic Indian National Army during WW2. More importantly despite the elusiveness of some important facts I tried to inhabit Netaji’s world—to understand what motivated him, how did he align his intentions with actions, what was his spiritual impulse and how did he accomplish the unthinkable?

However, life stories don’t just write themselves. Biographies have themes. They have chapters, a beginning, middle and end. There are established standards of narrative craft and execution in this genre. Writing biographies require discipline, focus, and a vast reservoir of perseverance plus neutrality of Swiss proportions to see them through. In addition, I faced the challenge that every biographer of Netaji faces: How to balance a life filled with moments of triumph and disappointment and adulation and tragedies. While eavesdropping for years on another century there were long and lonely stretches when I wondered where this never-ending journey would lead. At times some professional colleagues, close friends and relatives respectfully inquired, “What do you do for a living?”. But all that did not distract me from my mission. The harder part however was sitting down face to face with the blank iMac screen staring at me and filling it gently with words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Perhaps this is the story of a typical day in the life of someone who lives by the pen. Yet at that stage, it did look like it would take an entire lifetime for me to write this biography. The amount of dedicated time and hard work the effort entailed forced me to postpone the idea of publishing it multiple times. Then there were a series of events that forced my hand.

Some years ago, my brother and I were fortuitously placed across a fine-looking German gentleman at a formal high-powered dinner in Cannes during the film festival. As we began to break bread and make polite conversation even though we had not yet exchanged business cards, I inquired if he had ever been to India? He revealed that his father had lived in India.

I probed, “Ah when was that?”

He replied, “1940-44”

On hearing this I immediately sat up. I knew from my research that all German nationals in India during WW2 had been interned and delicately asked him if his father had stayed at the Pant Nagar Camp near Dehradun?

A bit surprised he softly answered, “Yes he had – but how do you know?”

Then intuitively I probed further, “Was your father the man who escaped?”

Bewildered he confirmed, “Yes, he did escape—but how do you know all this?”

Before I could react, he questioned me in halting English, “Do you know about Subhas… Chandra… Bose?”

That stunning May evening at an Italian restaurant facing the marina in the South of France, I was sitting in front of one of the three sons of Heins von Have, a German businessman who along with his friend Rolf Magener had a breathtaking escape from British India’s prison camp near the Himalayas to distant Burma in the middle of WW2. On the afternoon of 29 April 1944, Have and Magener disguised themselves as British military officers complete with swagger sticks and marched right through the main gate of the prison camp past the eleven feet high perimeter wire with the Indian guards saluting them. Heinrich Harrer, the famous mountaineer masked as an Indian worker, was one of the men escorted out by them in that daring escape. He rushed off into Tibet, where he became adviser to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and author of Seven Years in Tibet. Meanwhile Have and Magener caught a train to Calcutta (Kolkata now), more than 1,000 miles away. They took the names of Harry E. Lloyd and John Edward Hardin and their play-acting surprisingly succeeded even though they had a few narrow escapes. In Calcutta swarming with military officers, they pretended to be Swiss businessmen and travelled on by train and a river steamer to Chittagong. Once close to the Burmese front, they walked through the jungle and guided by the sound of heavy artillery fire crossed the front line near Maungdaw. Thirty-one days out across the jungle, in the dark they accidentally encountered a Japanese patrol that was shocked to find the two Germans in Burma in the middle of a war. The incredulous Japanese corporal confused them for British spies and the Japanese Intelligence interrogated them. Finally, they met Netaji who spoke to them in German and rescued them. After living in Tokyo for a while Heinz von Have eventually made it to Germany at the end of WW2. An autographed picture of Netaji has graced the living room of the home of von Haves in Hamburg for over seven decades. I knew about the astonishing escape of Heinz von Have and had detailed it in my book.

Subsequently a very respected Indian hotelier and a fan of Netaji on his ninetieth birthday in Mumbai put my commitment to test. Having suffered a stroke and knowing that his time was running out he tightly clasped both my hands and whispered, “You must finish what you started…” and then with watery eyes expressively added, “Promise me you will tell the world the story of our Netaji…”. Unable to give a firm date for the launch of my book I remember I had simply said, “Jai Hind Sir”. And soon thereafter that amazing man passed away but before departing he had encouraged me enough to continue writing. These two meetings finally convinced me that I had no reason to defer publishing my book.

Ultimately, on the evening of Monday, 23 January 2017, the train of my thoughts and ideas finally reached its destination. On the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, I stood before my family, relatives, teachers, classmates, friends, colleagues, and many well-wishers, as I unveiled my investment of twenty years and launched The Man India Missed The Most, the biography of Subhas Chandra Bose. There it was a story of our nation’s legendary hero and his role in our war of independence told in about 160,000 words. The Oxford Cambridge Society supported the book launch and its highlight was the presence of the living legend of Indian cinema, Subhash Ghai who consented to be the Chief Guest. The response of the audience at the prestigious India International Centre in New Delhi was staggering and I was unexpectedly mobbed for autographs for the first time in my life. A day after the book launch a short email arrived in my inbox, Dr. Anita Pfaff Bose wrote to me from Augsburg in Germany—congratulating me for writing a book about her father.

And from that day onwards the course of my life changed drastically. I experienced a profound transformation—I became an author. Readers of the biography wrote back from all over the world, convincing me that Netaji continues to live in the hearts and minds of millions across this planet. And now as India gears up to finally recognise Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose during his 125th birth anniversary celebrations, we have once again an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the liberator of India.

Bhuvan Lall is the author of ‘The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose’ and ‘The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal’. He is currently writing ‘The Path of Gautam Buddha’ and can be reached at writerlall@gmail.com. The views expressed are personal.

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PRESIDENT BIDEN SET TO ADOPT A HARD LINE ON CHINA

Joyeeta Basu

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On Tuesday, 19 January, less than 48 hours of Joe Biden assuming office as the 46th President of the United States, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement on China’s record of persecuting Uyghur Muslims in the harshest possible terms. He referred to Nazi Germany and equated the treatment of Uyghurs by the Communist Party and Xi Jinping as “genocide”. The statement ended with the assertion, “We will not remain silent. If the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future.” Significantly, Antony Blinken, who is Biden’s choice for Secretary of State, echoed Pompeo, when at his Senate confirmation hearing on the same day, he was asked if using the term genocide was correct. “That would be my judgement as well,” he replied. “Forcing men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide,” he added. Blinken also said that “…President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China… I disagree very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.” Blinken went on to talk about Hong Kong, where “democracy is being trampled”, and how the US under Donald Trump should have acted sooner on the matter.

In fact, China was the dominant theme in other confirmation hearings as well on Tuesday. Avril Haines, who is Biden’s choice for director of national intelligence, said that countering the threat from China would be her top priority; while Biden’s choice for Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen was equally categorical. “We need to take on China’s abusive, unfair and illegal practices…we’re prepared to use the full array of tools” for this purpose, Yellen said. She also flagged China’s “horrendous human rights abuses”, apart from accusing China of “undercutting American companies” by providing illegal subsidies, by dumping products and by stealing intellectual property. In other words, the tone has been set for President Joe Biden’s China policy. It is going to be as hard line as Donald Trump’s, minus the “spectacle”, the drama, the confusion and the incessant flow of tweets that had become synonymous with the Trump presidency. There will be continuity in foreign policy.

These statements coming from Biden’s Cabinet picks will be music to the ears of those who were apprehensive that the Biden administration would revert to Barack Obama’s—and in general Democratic—policy of humouring China in the hope that it would be integrated into the rules-based political and economic global mainstream and become open and democratic. Blinded by this belief, Obama did not lift a finger when China illegally grabbed the Scarborough shoal in 2012. He thus left all US allies in the South China Sea disillusioned and helped China entrench itself in that region. The worry was that Biden, being an Atlanticist, would stay focused solely on Russia, when it is China that is the clear and present danger, with Moscow at best an appendage of Beijing. India, in particular, can expect that there will be continuity in US’ Indo-Pacific strategy as well under President Biden, for the centre of gravity of geopolitics has shifted to the Indo-Pacific and the primary goal of the free world should be to ensure that China is unable to remake the international order with Chinese characteristics.

The sound-bites coming from Washington will not be music to China’s ears, considering Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has been vocalizing Beijing’s hope for “a smooth transition in China-US relations” post Trump. But then perhaps Mr Yi has forgotten the tiny detail about the Wuhan virus that his government has unleashed on the world—the virus that infected around 2.4 million people and counting, in US alone, apart from killing nearly 400,000 people in that country. The world will find it difficult to forgive Xi Jinping for this genocide and US is no exception.

In this context, mention must be made of the strange role that the European Union is playing in all this—scurrying to cut business deals with China. It’s as if the virus did not happen; as if there is no need to seek accountability from China for crippling the world economy and for killing over 2 million people; it is as if democracy has not been killed in Hong Kong or Uyghurs have not been sent to concentration camps; it is as if China is not a malevolent power. It is as if security/sovereignty and trade can exist in silos. Driven by domestic economic compulsions, EU seems to have calculated that the US is a spent force and China’s time has come. Hence, President Biden has his job cut out: to reclaim the global primacy that the US is perceived to have lost to China. For that, he first needs to convince his EU allies—a part of the “free world” with which he hopes to counter China—that a world with Chinese characteristics will not be a pretty one.

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Opinion

PM Modi’s formula for winning the Covid war

Prime Minister Narendra Modi utilised the pandemic as an opportunity to reach out to and heal millions, both in India and outside, showcasing the country’s true spirit of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, which means that ‘the world is one family’.

Sanju Verma

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The Modi government has decided to export Covid vaccines free of cost to its neighbours as a ‘goodwill gesture’. Covaxin will be sent to seven countries, including Mongolia, Oman, Myanmar, the Philippines, Bahrain, Maldives and Mauritius, while Covishield is being sent to Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Seychelles. The government will procure the vaccines for export through the government-run pharmaceutical company, HLL Lifecare Limited. The country had exported hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) last year through the same company to many other countries. India plans to offer 20 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to its neighbours, once again showcasing how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s war against the Wuhan virus has been guided by the abiding principles of “India First” and “Neighbourhood First”.

The cumulative number of healthcare workers vaccinated against the coronavirus touched 6.31 lakhs in the first four days itself, through 11,660 sessions. Of the total people vaccinated against Covid-19 so far, 0.18 percent experienced adverse events following immunisation, while 0.002 percent had to be hospitalised, which is fairly low. Hence, concerns about adverse effects and serious problems post-immunisation as of now are unfounded and negligible, with both the “Made in India” vaccines being completely safe. 

On 16 January 2021, India, the world’s largest democracy, with a population of 1.38 billion people, kickstarted the world›s largest Covid vaccination drive, with 2.07 lakh people vaccinated in a single day across 3,351 sessions and with the help of 16,755 vaccinators. What makes India›s vaccination drive against Covid unique is the sheer size, scale and meticulous planning of this mammoth exercise, guided by the humanitarian concept of “Jan Bhagidari” or people’s participation. The plan is to inoculate 300 million or 30 crore “priority population” in the first two phases by July-August 2021, including 3 crore healthcare and frontline Covid workers in the next three months in the first phase itself. Inoculating 300 million people within six to seven months is akin to vaccinating almost the whole of America or vaccinating the combined populations of Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France, in record time!

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while laying the foundation stone of a new battalion campus of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) near Bhadravathi in Shivamogga district, recently summed up the crux of India›s gigantic pushback against Covid when he said, “India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fought the most successful battle against coronavirus in the world, and with the beginning of the vaccination drive, the country has taken the fight against the pandemic to a final stage”.

“The whole world has been fighting against the coronavirus for about a year, many people have lost lives. This was probably one of the toughest fights that humanity has fought, using knowledge, innovations and mutual cooperation,” Shah further added. 

India has reported less than 20,000 daily cases over the past 10 days and less than 300 daily deaths for the last 23 days, pushing the national recovery rate to a solid 96.58 percent and the case fatality rate (CFR) to just 1.4 percent, the lowest globally. The active caseload now is less than 1.98 percent and the daily positivity rate is also pretty low, at barely 1.8 percent. India›s cumulative positivity rate is hardly 5.6 percent, which is commendable given that many states in America like Florida and Connecticut are still reporting daily positivity rates as high as 8.55 percent. It is indeed noteworthy that despite having a density of population of 455 per sq km, amongst the highest in the world, India has tested over 170 million people and done an extraordinary job of reining in the total number of cases at 10.6 million. In sharp contrast, the USA, with a population density of just 36 per sq km, has reported a staggering 24.3 million coronavirus cases and 163 percent higher deaths than in India.

The Modi government has built a war kitty of 2,360 master trainers, 61,000 programme managers, 2 lakh vaccinators and 3.7 lakh vaccination team members so far. The Serum Institute of India’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech›s Covaxin, which it has developed with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), are homegrown vaccines that vindicate PM Modi›s clarion call of “Vocal for Local” and are reflective of the country›s immense innovative and scientific temper. Both the vaccines have been approved by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI).

The Modi government has procured 11 million doses of Covishield at a cost of Rs 200 per dose, exclusive of taxes. Of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, the number is 5.5 million doses, of which 1.65 million doses are being procured free of cost, and the remaining 3.85 million doses are being purchased at a cost of Rs 295 per dose. In effect, India›s vaccine roll-out is not only the largest in the world, but also the most affordable, with no compromises whatsoever on any standard operating procedures (SOPs). The PM-Cares fund will bear the entire cost of the first phase, which will inoculate 3 crore frontline Covid workers. Earlier, in June 2020, over Rs 2000 crore had been allocated from the PM-Cares fund for the supply of 50,000 ‘Made-in-India’ ventilators to government-run Covid hospitals in all states and UTs. Out of the 50,000 ventilators, 30,000 ventilators were manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited, again showcasing India›s indigenous manufacturing prowess. While a jaded, directionless and clueless Rahul Gandhi keeps taking needless jibes at the Modi government, the fact of the matter is that for over six decades, India just had 47,000 ventilators, whereas in one go, in June 2020, the Modi government made available 50,000 ventilators to ensure that no life is lost for want of life-saving equipment.

PM Modi›s food security scheme for the needy, called the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKAY), provided free ration to 81 crore people every single month, for nine months in a row, during the pandemic. Effectively speaking, this means that a population 2.5 times the size of America was fed every month, showcasing the Modi government’s generous, welfarist and people-centric approach.

Contrast the policy of obfuscation and apathy followed by China with the probity and transparency shown by India in taking Covid head-on. Be it building over 116 million toilets under the «Clean India›› or «Swachh Bharat» mission, making India›s 5.5 lakh villages open defecation-free (ODF), giving free health insurance to 50 crore Indians under the «Ayushman Bharat» scheme, producing over 60 million PPE kits and 150 million N95 masks in 2020, bringing home over 3.9 million stranded Indians from different parts of the globe via the “Vande Bharat Mission”, or extending medical and humanitarian assistance to over 150 countries in the fight against the pandemic, the Modi government›s fight against the Wuhan virus was made easier by the fact that a huge amount of effort has gone into ramping up India›s health infrastructure and making cleanliness a way of life in the last 6.5 years.

What is worth mentioning here is that, during the initial days of the Covid outbreak, there was only one lab in the country that could undertake testing for the infection. But today there are over 2000 testing laboratories. Punjab’s case fatality remains at 3.20, amongst the highest in the country. Meanwhile, Maharashtra, which has recorded the highest number of Covid deaths in India, has the second highest CFR of 2.56. Had it not been for the high Covid fatality rates from these two states, India›s CFR of 1.4 percent would have been even lower. Maharashtra, which is currently a non-BJP-ruled state and is led by a Congress-centric alliance, is, in fact, one of the worst performing states, having reported close to 50,000 deaths already. Despite having just 8 percent of India›s population, Maharashtra accounts for almost 33 percent of India›s Covid-related fatalities, showcasing how a poor and lethargic leadership can be a bane during a global health crisis. In sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh, a BJP-ruled state, which has a massive population of over 200 million people and is almost the same size as Brazil, has reported less that 8,600 deaths. Brazil, in the meanwhile, has reported over 2.1 lakh mortalities.

The Modi government›s massive vaccine roll-out plan has put in place an end-to-end traceability mechanism with RFID and barcoding to secure and monitor the supply chain, transportation and distribution, right from the manufacturing facility to the time the patient is inoculated. Automated data loggers that monitor storage temperature and transfer messages every three seconds to a central unit under tight surveillance 24/7 have been deployed. The mega immunisation drive may see high-speed vehicles transporting the vaccines, secured by rifle-wielding escorts on the outside and highly secure Internet of things (IoT)-enabled locking system from the inside, to prevent theft and counterfeiting.

More importantly, there is the Modi government›s CoWIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network), with 80 lakh beneficiaries from the first priority list already registered on the app. The CoWIN platform is owned by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and was earlier the platform used for conducting Pulse Polio and other crucial and highly successful immunisation programmes across the country. The same platform has been expanded for doling out Covid-19 vaccines and the Ministry of Electronics and IT along with the National Informatics Centre are handling the backend and the tech infrastructure for it. CoWIN is again an example of how the Modi government has seamlessly embraced technology to ensure last mile delivery. When it does become open to everyone, it will have four modules—user administrator, beneficiary registration, vaccination and beneficiary acknowledgement, and status updation. The CoWIN app is likely to be made accessible to the general public for registration by the end of March-April 2021. The idea behind the CoWIN app is to create a digital health behemoth. The CoWIN app has two parts: one that will be used by the beneficiary and the other that will be a back-end module to be used by vaccinators. 

To cut to the chase, if 2020 was a year that tested the human will to survive, 2021 is slated to be the year that will heal the world and restore faith in the ability of leaders who are both courageous and compassionate. «Good governance is not firefighting or crisis management. Instead of opting for ad-hoc solutions, the need of the hour is to tackle the root cause of the problems››, as a famous quote by PM Modi goes. Better words have not been said. Undoubtedly, India›s outstanding and successful war against Covid will go down in history as a textbook case of what a sensitive and nimble footed leadership can accomplish. 

It would be apt to conclude with a quote by John F. Kennedy, who said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‹crisis› is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Undoubtedly, while a reckless China foisted the Wuhan virus on an unsuspecting mankind, a visionary leader like PM Modi utilised this unprecedented global crisis as an opportunity to reach out to and heal millions, both in India and outside, showcasing India›s true spirit of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which means that “the world is one family”.

The writer is an economist, national spokesperson for the BJP and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

OLD-STYLE POLITICS TAKES OVER THE ASSEMBLY POLLS 2021

Priya Sahgal

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This year is going to see a series of Assembly polls, the most crucial being the ones in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam. Barring Assam and Kerala, the Congress really has little role except that of a supporting partner, leaving the Trinamool Congress and the DMK to take on the BJP juggernaut.

The most interesting and high-voltage battle of course is going to be West Bengal, the groundwork for which began much earlier with Mamata Banerjee taking on the BJP at every step. Given the way Amit Shah operates, he had begun working for these Assembly elections the very minute the last round of polls got over. Bengal has been very much on both his itinerary and radar ever since. In fact, after the Northeast, J&K and Uttar Pradesh, this is going to be the BJP’s next turn-around project. After this the focus will shift south. Work has already begun in Telangana and Tamil Nadu will be next.

It is this kind of grassroots planning and strategy that the Congress lacks. Given that the Congress is much more of a pan-India party than the BJP even today, it would have a much easier task, building on its cadre and strength. But of course, first it has to build on its leadership.

As things stand today, the fight in West Bengal is definitely between the TMC and the BJP, with the Congress-Left alliance reduced to the role of spoilers. The reason why Mamata will not go in for an alliance with them is that she does not want to unite the anti-TMC vote. That, and the fact that the genesis of her politics has been stridently anti-Left and also that she sees no future in doing business with a Rahul Gandhi-led Congress.

Assam is the one state where the Congress can lead the fight against the BJP. The CAA backlash would help its cause but Tarun Gogoi’s recent demise has left it bereft of a charismatic leader. Especially when the other side has Himanta Biswa Sarma leading the charge. However, this is the only poll-going state where it can play a meaningful role but so far there seems to be little move in that direction.

Will the Covid-19 pandemic, the long lockdown and the economy have a role in any of the coming state elections? We saw some change in the rhetoric in Bihar when jobs and unemployment took precedence over all other talk. Will the same be repeated in the next set of state elections? One is not sure, as it is early days yet. But looking at the highly polarised campaign being run in West Bengal, one is doubtful.

The year will begin with a focus on vaccines and the economy (with the Budget session round the corner) but mid-course, once the state polls begin, it’s going to be back to the politics of old.

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Opinion

Non-compete clauses: Can they protect businesses and employees?

Non-compete clauses are designed specifically to safeguard businesses against unfair competition and the losses it can cause. However, given how they can effectively prevent the flow of employees and knowledge, and consequently, economic growth, it is imperative to find a fine balance between protecting the interests of both employers and employees.

Brijesh Singh and Khushbu Jain

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Non-compete clauses are designed to prohibit employees from accepting employment or at least performing services for competitors. This may be for a specified duration and/or in a defined geographic region. Non-compete clauses can also be part of a sale or business transaction, intending to forestall the seller of a business from competing with the purchaser for a period of time, typically after the closing of the sale. Non-compete provisions can be used to protect trade secrets, intellectual property, proprietary information and even business goodwill.

The first known legal case in old English contract law dealing with restrictions on the practice of a craft is the Dyer’s Case (Dyer’s case (1414) 2 Hen. V, fol. 5, pl. 26) where a dyer defaulted on his obligation to not compete with the man to whom he sold his business. The court invalidated the agreement on the grounds that the master had promised nothing in return. In this 15th century case, the court’s primary concern was protecting the apprentice’s right to earn a living.

However, the situation was almost reversed in a case involving two London bakers which set a new standard in 1711. Here, a baker Reynolds opened a bakery within a specific distance from the bakery he had leased to one Mitchel. This was held by the courts to be in violation of the terms of their non-compete agreement as the court felt that Reynolds had received the financial benefit of rent, and the restrictions were limited and specific, and there was no injury to the public. This case went on to establish a basic principle of reasonableness for non-compete agreements, which is still applied today.

JUSTIFICATION: UNFAIR COMPETITION, BUSINESS SECRETS

Reasonable safeguards should be in place to protect businesses, business owners, and their employees from losses that result from unfair competition. There is a thin line that separates fair competition from unfair competition which is when a former employee absconds with trade secrets, client lists, key employees, or confidential information. Therefore, in order to mitigate those losses, restrictive covenants such as non-compete, non-disclosure, and non-solicit agreements have been used.

In an endeavour to prevent unfair competition, non-compete agreements/clause have traditionally been used to inoculate legitimate business interests such as:

1. Trade secrets or confidential information;

2. Purchase of a business owned by the employee;

3. Habitué relationships;

4. Investment in the employee’s reputation in the market.

As global economies have evolved, so has employers’ determination for using non-compete agreements. Apart from preventing unfair competition, non-compete agreements are now used to:

1. Reduce the costs of employee turnover,

2. Increase the cost of competition,

3. Control free markets, and

4. Depress wage growth.

 Non-Compete versus Non-Disclosure Agreements versus Non-Solicitation

Non-solicitation agreements restrict an employee from soliciting the employees or customers of a business, while a non-disclosure agreement between an employer and an employee prohibits the employee from disclosing any of the employer’s proprietary information, business processes, intellectual property, or knowledge assets. These are different from a non-compete agreement in which one party agrees not to compete against the other party, especially in an employer-employee context, where the employee is the recipient of the prohibition on competition. All the three above are usually separate contracts or clauses in a large contract. The only similarity between them is that they are attempts by a business to protect its competitive edge.

ENFORCEABILITY AND JURISDICTIONS

The increasing and widespread use of non-competes has sparked controversy over these agreements. The enforceability of these agreements are being reconsidered by several states. The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in catena of judgements has consistently taken the view that: (1) negative covenants can only be enforceable to the extent that they are reasonable; and (2) the purpose of the covenant is to protect the legitimate business interests of the buyer. Even in the aforementioned circumstances, the restraint cannot be greater than necessary to protect the interest concerned. The approach adopted by Indian courts with respect to employees is that such restrictions during the period of employment are valid and considered legitimate for the protection of the business interests of the company and hence, do not violate section 27. It is merely a tool towards the fulfilment of the employment contract and not a restraint of trade because it only requires the employee to serve the employer exclusively.  

SECTION 27 OF THE INDIAN CONTRACT ACT, 1872 AND SAVING

As stipulated in section 27 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872, an agreement by which anyone is restrained from exercising a lawful profession or trade or business of any kind is to that extent void, unless they fall within the narrow exception carved out by the statute. The underlying principle behind this provision is that an individual is entitled to exercise its lawful trade or calling as and when it wills, and that the law guards against interference with trade, even if it means interfering with the freedom of contract.

 The observations of Sir Richard Couch, C.J., in Madhub Chunder v. Rajcoomar Doss, supra, which have become the locus classicus are: “The words ‹restraint from exercising a lawful profession, trade or business› do not mean an absolute restriction, and are intended to apply to a partial restriction, a restriction limited to some particular place, otherwise the first exception would have been unnecessary.» Moreover, «in the following Section i.e., Section 28 of Indian Contract Act, the legislative authority when it intends to speak of absolute restraint and not a partial one, has introduced the word ‹absolutely›… The use of this word in Section 28 supports the view that in Section 27 it was intended to prevent not merely a total restraint from carrying on trade or business but a partial one. While an employer is not entitled to protect himself against competition per se on the part of an employee after the employment has ceased, he is entitled to protection of his proprietary interest viz. his trade secrets, if any, and a business connection.”

PROS AND CONS

On one hand, the use of non-compete can seriously undermine employee freedom to move and pursue economic benefits and wage growth. In the era of a knowledge economy, they also argue, high employee mobility is conducive to innovations, but non-compete agreements that block the free flow of employees and knowledge will end up stifling creativity and, eventually, economic growth.

On the other hand, the use of non-compete is necessary to keep legitimate business interests like confidential information or trade secrets. One of the major positives or necessities for non-compete is that it allows businesses/employers to invest in R&D with more guarantee. Without them, they cannot prevent their employees involved in new projects from leaving the firm and joining competitors.

CONCLUSION

Non-competes are designed specifically to protect against unfair competition, and these contracts safeguard a company’s trade secrets, can help reduce employee turnover and can incentivize an employer to provide costly training. On the other hand, these agreements can reduce a worker’s bargaining power, and may cause a worker to leave a field entirely, taking their expertise with them, effectively preventing top talent from using their skills and experience.

One serious challenge with non-competition, non-disclosure and non-solicitation agreements is their actual enforcement. Once the trade secret has been disclosed, or an employee has been solicited to leave, or a former employee’s competition has harmed a business, the legal process to recover damages is lengthy and uncertain.

In the US, different states have different approaches toward enforcement of non-competes and cognate arrangements. The burgeoning of IT and media companies has seen frequent and rather unwarrantable use of these covenants in recent times. It is, however, imperative to find a fine balance between the promotion of trade of the employer while ensuring that the rights of employees are protected. Courts in India have been shy of strictly enforcing non-compete restrictions in favour of employers, and have rather been ensuring that principles of justice, morality and fairness are duly applied, as per the facts and circumstances of the instant case under consideration.

Brijesh Singh is an author and IG Maharashtra. Khushbu Jain is an advocate practising before the Supreme Court and a founding partner of law firm Ark Legal. The views expressed are personal.

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