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India falters on Covid after a good start

We, as a nation, should realise that the pandemic is not going to end any time soon. If anything, it is only accelerating. Do we need to go back to a phase 1-like lockdown again?

Maneesh Pandeya

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Coronavirus took nearly three months to affect 400,000 humans worldwide, but in just one week the world reported more than 400,000 cases. In India too, the situation was well under control till six weeks back, thanks to strict lockdown measures initiated by the Central and state governments. Today, it is sadly getting “out of hand” with over 9.36 lakh cases reported in India as on Wednesday and counting, and we’re standing third in the list of Covid-19 positive cases after the United States and Brazil.

It compels me to question if “we have given up on corona to battle other pressing challenges like China on the LAC and got busy again playing the political game of thrones”. Perhaps, it’s the result of a little complacency and leaving the task half done before the “most elusive” vaccine comes as a saviour for mankind. It’s time to shun the ad-hoc approach and go back to the strict mode of restriction compliance; all states must be on-board by treating it a national calamity and threat to all citizens.

The emergency situation from the East is again showing signs of the second round of Covid threatening more lives even though many are still contesting if it is “resurgence”. Australian states on Tuesday tightened restrictions on movement as authorities struggle to contain a fresh outbreak of Covid-19 in the country’s southeast that has pushed the national tally of cases beyond 10,000. Australia has enforced a six-week lockdown. China-ruled Hong Kong, which was in news for the draconian National security Law imposed by the Beijing administration, has seen fresh spike in Covid cases and it has affected the business, including the entertainment and leisure sector, so much so that Disney Amusement Park in Hong Kong has been shut down. Even Singapore is battling with fresh cases and on Tuesday the local administration confirmed 347 new coronavirus cases, taking its total to 46,630. There is more from that region as a city of some 250,000 in metropolitan Manila is set to go back under lockdown this week, just six weeks after emerging from a three-month lockdown. In fact, many more are returning to lockdown again.

 Tokyo, for example, has recently reported hundreds of fresh cases and saw the highest number of cases reported in a single day. Many new cases are linked to the entertainment district, including 12 women who work as hostesses in ‘maid cafes’.

India, meanwhile, is moving into what we have been avoiding so far — den of danger — as nearly 28,500 cases were reported in a single day on Tuesday and healthcare experts are anticipating this to go further up before what many are predicting a slump finally. The latter is just a forecast with not many authentic observations and theories made to support it. Even in many Indian states, it’s back to lockdown with state capitals of Bihar and Kerala in strict lockdown while Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have fixed days for lockdown restrictions to arrest the pandemic spread.

There are many lessons, which we failed to learn and virtually ignored as politics prevailed over prevention, which was PM Narendra Modi’s mantra in the first phase of lockdown. All was well till then. But in a country like India, where prevention was the only way out to delay and balance the virus outbreak and its effect on population respectively, sadly the political class indulged in unwarranted debates surrounding the issues of livelihood, migrants and “freedom of movement” in a democracy. What have we achieved in abruptly ending lockdown restrictions at least a fortnight before it was to end? The chaos and super-spreader events like the Bandra Station (Mumbai) chaos, Anand Vihar border mess and the Markaz mayhem have failed to answer if those were genuine in nature or staged to upset the political stability and India’s global recognition in fighting the pandemic?

 The Modi administration was in a driver’s seat then and was already getting worldwide recognition for what it did to contain the virus against all odds, including a creaking health infrastructure.

As the habit of political leadership goes, we played politics with our own people without having anything in hand and in this, both the Centre and states departed from their cooperative federalism, which was the main “medicine” to contain the virus till then. As the Centre and many states differed on lockdown and started citing the United States and many European countries on lifting of restrictions there, the Modi administration too slowed down a bit and went in the ease mode to avoid public ire. Perhaps, the trigger was the widespread reportage of migrants’ mess and their stories becoming a drawing-room discussion. The government took a step back and what followed for a while led to what state of health crisis we are facing today. That was unfortunate and uncalled for.

 Strict adherence to official guidelines and execution of restrictions can only help the country contain the virus and not let enter the stage as predicted by a study of MIT Sloan School of Management, which says: “India may record the highest number of fresh cases in the world by the end of next year, with 287,000 infections a day.” That may not become the case, many argue with optimism. But it is also not certain that the prediction may not come true. We never thought that India would go into this stage, standing next to the US and Brazil and is fast moving to take the second spot. Still, the good news for India is that the mortality rate due to Covid-19 is the lowest in the world, at 15 deaths per million people. More than 22,000 people have died, with the recovery rate improving from 47.4% on 31 May to 62.78% on Thursday.

But that should not be the reason for the slack approach as India is also the country not being generous and open on testing. The BJP state office in Patna reported 75 positive cases; in Mumbai Raj Bhavan nearly 18 positive cases were reported after tests were done and in the Bihar Governor’s house nearly 20 were found to be corona-positive. More cases will give you an idea of how reluctant we are to admit the danger of the virus on our health as we are not ready to compromise on our “freedom of movement”. In one marriage in Bihar, nearly 300 people got corona-infected and it claimed the groom’s life. That is touted as the super-spreader in Bihar, which is suddenly the new Covid hotspot with total cases touching nearly 20,000.

 Little do we know that in our quest to enjoy our “freedom of movement”, we actually threaten dozens of other lives, who become risk carriers of hundreds more, and so on. The world has started to take corona as a reality and many developed nations are gearing up to live a life with the virus, but with the utmost care, prevention and restrictions, if a certified vaccine is manufactured.

India too should realise that the pandemic is not going to end any time soon. If anything, it is accelerating. We cannot deny the threat outside our doors, on streets, in markets, and at offices. Unfortunately, we started taking life as usual and business as normal. In fact, we failed to invoke “social responsibility” in real sense. Perhaps our “irresponsible behaviour” is responsible for taking the world to the stage we are today — nearly 13 million cases, with more than 550,000 lives lost. India is blamed for adding a big share in this worldwide health disaster, which was not the case about a month ago.

 A vaccine may end the pandemic and the plight of millions worldwide. But that is not coming so soon. Second, it has to be effective and made in large quantities to be made available worldwide in a real equitable manner and distributed to arrest the virus globally. We then also have to battle the pertinent question: Will it require one dose or multiple doses and how much immunity will it confer and for how long?

At a time when there are 17 vaccines doing the buzz, in truth, a vaccine is not guaranteed by the end of this year or by this time next year. Can we afford to be complacent against the virus till then? Prevention and strong selfimposed restrictions of social distancing will stand to be the SOS to keep the virus and its effect in check till then. If needed, a phase 1-like lockdown can be the answer.

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Opinion

BIDEN’S SUMMIT FOR DEMOCRACY RILES CHINA

Joyeeta Basu

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President Joe Biden’s two-day “Summit for Democracy” on 9-10 December 2021 has riled China to no end, maybe because an invitation never went to it in spite of it having the world’s best form of democracy, which it calls the “whole process democracy”. An angry Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week, during a conversation with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, “The US seeks to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries under the banner of democracy and abuse democratic values to create divides.” As reported by the Chinese media, Wang Yi asserted that socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics was whole-process people’s democracy, which had proved to be very popular among the Chinese people. He dismissed American democracy as beset with problems and said that it would be hypocrisy if the US claimed that it was a defender of democracy. Wang asked the international community to perform two tests, the first one being how many countries considered Washington the model of democracy. He said the results would be awkward for the US. And the second test would be to measure people’s satisfaction toward their governments, and a “certain country would be put on the spot” in this case too. China has flooded social media with posts singing paeans to Chinese-style “democracy”. Given the angst on display, it is obvious that China is extremely sensitive on this issue, making clear that “procedure”—obviously elections—does not make a country a democracy. This is in the realm of alternate, in fact spurious reality and in keeping with the Chinese habit of trying to rewrite history and now language. The shrillness of the tone is understandable, especially at a time when reports suggest that the Chinese economy is under pressure, the gap between the haves and have nots is increasing, Xi Jinping is asking his country to return to a past of austerity for the sake of “common prosperity” and is single-handedly wrecking the private sector. When there is a downslide, no wonder it’s time to repackage authoritarianism as Chinese-style democracy to a people who were given prosperity as a functioning alternative to people’s power. It also shows how badly China takes to a loss of face.

China’s reaction to Taiwan’s inclusion in the summit has been near apoplectic. The inclusion came on the heels of Xi Jinping issuing a threat to Joe Biden during their virtual meet that whoever tries “to use Taiwan to contain China” “will get burnt”. That interaction would have hardened President Biden’s resolve to invite Taiwan to the Summit and he should be commended for his action. However, in this context, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind inviting Pakistan to the Summit—a country that is ruled by the military. Also, terrorist state Pakistan is beholden to “iron brother” China, has one of the worst human rights records in the world, has led the US up the garden path in Afghanistan and has installed by force a Taliban government in Kabul. A crime should not have been rewarded by an invitation to the Summit. And then to have Pakistan reject the invitation!

Mention also must be made about India, the world’s most populous democracy, which will be present at the Biden summit and rightly so, notwithstanding the fake narrative being created by the Pak-Chinese axis about India becoming an “electoral autocracy”. However, when it comes to China, India’s silence on the way Beijing muzzled democracy in Hong Kong was baffling—for that matter even on Chinese threats to a dynamic democracy such as Taiwan. Whenever it comes to China, India’s caution can be unsettling—be it on human rights violations by China is Tibet and Xinjiang, or about China’s role in spreading the pandemic across the world. For that matter, it is surprising that India put its stamp on the statement issued by the RIC (Russia-India-China) meeting, promising participation in the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Even though India’s participation in Winter Olympics is negligible, a statement could have been made by at least announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Games, as both the US and Australia have done. Quietly turning a blind eye to China’s atrocities, or at the most make an oblique statement, does not behoove the world’s largest democracy. It’s time to stand up for India’s democratic values.

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Opinion

A lethal touch to the ‘Preamble’ of India’s Constitution

The politics of our country is on a test drive of majoritarianism being ferociously provoked as a cause for achieving national unity. In consequence and eventually, everyone starts feeling insecure and the state appropriates a role for wartime preparedness against the heightened environment of insecurity.

Amita Singh

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Can people in top public spaces be excused of their deadly contributions to aggravating turbulence in national governance? Most recently, such a disproportionate use of their right to ‘freedom of expression’ in firing illogical and perilous cannons against modern India’s security heritage, the Constitution is disturbing if not shocking. The Chief Justice of a High Court of the country’s most sensitive state and a seasoned bureaucrat turned politician lead the chorus against the ‘Preamble’. It is doubtless that the current government’s rise to power was on a radical Hindu card and for that reason lashing the snaky wand of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ to divert people from looking into many of its other ethical and legal lapses in the Parliament, appears to be part of a larger strategic design. The Chief Justice of Jammu & Kashmir High Court Justice Pankaj Mithal who wants Preamble to rewrite ‘Secular India’ as a “Spiritual Republic of India” followed by an experienced bureaucrat turned BJP politician K.J. Alphons, who introduced a private members’ Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2021 to substitute ‘socialism’ to ‘equitable’. 

In both cases, demands are made to confuse state authorities from more concrete and clearer tools of governance to a fuzzy and mystic garden of free atoms. An insight into an epistemological history of either ‘spiritualism’ or of ‘equity (equitable)’ suggests that despite massive intellectual debates, court battles and wars, these two words or metaphors have never reached any definitional agreement. Moreover, these suggested changes in the ‘Preamble’ is not an end of a benignly appearing demand but a grinding wheel of anarchy that this nation would be left to suffer as even on a minimal scale it would need massive and far-reaching changes in all other Chapters from Citizenship, Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles of State Policy, Fundamental Duties, Union and State relations, Parliament, Local Governance, Election and Representation laws, Chapter XII of Finance, Property, Contracts and Suits and Chapter XX of Amendment Procedure given in the Constitution. Are people ready to take this fatal dive into a surreptitious sea of self-destruction that our neighbours are entangled in and struggling with?

The Preamble is the life and blood of our Constitution and constitutes its basic structure as explained comprehensively in the 42nd Amendment Act. It is the opening statement of the Constitution but was the last to be brought together in the Constituent Assembly as a gist or a spirit of how the Republic would be governed. There are many instances when members of the Constituent Assembly rose up to express, what came in news as ‘poetic heights’ such as Pundit Thakur Das Bhargav’s unambiguous utterance in the Assembly that, ‘the Preamble is the most precious part of the Constitution. It is the soul of the Constitution….It is a key to the Constitution. It is a jewel set in the Constitution.’ Yet, despite mammoth support, Nehru and Ambedkar could not insert secularism in the Preamble. Three decades later it was left to Indira Gandhi to complete that task which had become indispensable for a nation that also carried with it religious brigades and personal laws which consistently challenged the state to resolve religious inconsistencies. It became important that the state remain distanced and separated from the sphere of religion.

Secularism keeps belief systems of the state separated from the belief systems of private and personal or of the faith practised by communities. The public school systems should not be driven by religion and should take to religious teaching in books and in classrooms, the coexistence of all faiths and belief systems. As Sardar Patel had expressed in one of his speeches on 5 June 1949 that “…a healthy secular outlook is the foundation of true democracy.” Nehru had, however, expressed to Andre Malaurx during the freedom struggle that his biggest challenge is to “.. to create a secular state in a religious society”. Everyone knows the circumstances in which the Union of India was created through the stupendous diplomacy of Sardar Patel and timely action by Indian forces. Many compromises were made to win freedom from the British and the biggest was to accept the idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan and accommodate 566 Princely states. Yet while this was being done Patel was also taking stringent action against the banned RSS outfit led by Golwalker to accept in writing his allegiance to the national flag and the Constitution of India which he was not ready to give. The most obvious expression to keep religious brigades at bay or out of the governance of the country was to accept ‘secularism’ as a basic feature of our country.

In contrast to this enduring ideal of ‘secularism’, the CJ Mithal suggests a precarious idea of its replacement by ‘spirituality’. Ironically, the judge seems to be ignorant about the vast cross-cultural analytical literature on the subject. There is no single, widely agreed-upon definition of spirituality. A wide-ranging field of definitions emerges from the oldest scripture Vedas to Mesopotamian, Judaism, Islamic and Catholic definitions of spirituality. The word is open-ended and becomes more obscure when attempts are made to define it within a particular faith but it rarely gets attention outside any faith. This word glows up every faithful and connects them to their universal ideal and raises the individual from gross worldly existence to ‘beyond body experiences’.An interesting historical review of ‘Spirituality’ by Walter Principe in his 1983 work, ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’ found the term portentously undefinable. As he expressed that even after accumulating more than 100 definitions one is probably further away from its true meaning. However, the suggested ‘Spiritual Republic’ by the Judge would have to choose a historical context, a religious ideal to connect to the Supreme in a realm of the spirit or the transcendent. This comes into play even though spirituality differs from religion because human spirituality is composed of relationships, values and life purposes that religious doctrines inscribe in human brains from birth. Spirituality is truly practised by saints who can renounce the world and look down on worldly pleasures while giving away whatever they possess. There are many saints in every religion and to say that spirituality can still become a unifying bond practised by the state will only bring back the pre-renaissance or pre-Bhakti Yuga period of persecution of innocent citizens at the altar of Churches, Mosques or Temples. God forbid if that’s the future some people are imagining for a progressively advancing free Indian nation.

Similarly, ‘equitable’ is again fraught with many undefinable questions. Interestingly, the language of the law is more meaningful than a legal document itself. ‘Equitable’ is a word within which is embedded a notion of goodness, fairness, justice, equality and a life of dignity but all these embedded notions are further defined in their own ways which make enforcement of ‘equitable’ impossible. Socialism promotes equitable distribution in the context of a society that has a definable database for distribution. Why are such unnecessary terminological conflicts being created without proper homework on legal semantics? In legal language, the semantic domain provides a most appropriate meaning to issues in law as these abstract words by their very nature are not static and can never be defined the way they are being suggested for the Preamble. Alphons missed the point! 

The Keshavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala 1973 unambiguously explains that the ‘Constitution is not a document for fastidious dialectics but the means of ordering the life of people’ and its core values are various facets of the spirit that pervades our Constitution in different scenarios. Justice Holmes in Abrams v United States (250 US 616) made an apt comment on such controversies, ‘A Constitution is an experiment as all life is an experiment.’ In Nakara v. Union of India, the Supreme Court settled the fact that the basic framework of Socialism is to provide a decent standard of life to the working people and especially provide security from cradle to grave. This primarily envisages economic equality and equitable distribution of income. So where is the perceived need for replacement of ‘socialism’ by ‘equitable’?

The politics of our country is on a test drive of majoritarianism being ferociously provoked as a cause for achieving national unity. In consequence and eventually, everyone starts feeling insecure and the state appropriates a role for wartime preparedness against the heightened environment of insecurity. Much can be read in the words of Felix Frankfurter in his tribute to Justice Holmes, “Whether the Constitution is treated primarily as a text for interpretation or as an instrument of Government may make all the difference in the word”. The private member’s Amendment Bill is explainable as a distracting design from more important matters which need our attention but CJ Mithal is merely playing a good host.

The writer is president of Network Asia Pacific Disaster Research Group (NDRG), Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.

Can people in top public spaces be excused of their deadly contributions to aggravating turbulence in national governance? Most recently, such a disproportionate use of their right to ‘freedom of expression’ in firing illogical and perilous cannons against modern India’s security heritage, the Constitution is disturbing if not shocking. The Chief Justice of a High Court of the country’s most sensitive state and a seasoned bureaucrat turned politician lead the chorus against the ‘Preamble’. It is doubtless that the current government’s rise to power was on a radical Hindu card and for that reason lashing the snaky wand of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ to divert people from looking into many of its other ethical and legal lapses in the Parliament, appears to be part of a larger strategic design. The Chief Justice of Jammu & Kashmir High Court Justice Pankaj Mithal who wants Preamble to rewrite ‘Secular India’ as a “Spiritual Republic of India” followed by an experienced bureaucrat turned BJP politician K.J. Alphons, who introduced a private members’ Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2021 to substitute ‘socialism’ to ‘equitable’. 

In both cases, demands are made to confuse state authorities from more concrete and clearer tools of governance to a fuzzy and mystic garden of free atoms. An insight into an epistemological history of either ‘spiritualism’ or of ‘equity (equitable)’ suggests that despite massive intellectual debates, court battles and wars, these two words or metaphors have never reached any definitional agreement. Moreover, these suggested changes in the ‘Preamble’ is not an end of a benignly appearing demand but a grinding wheel of anarchy that this nation would be left to suffer as even on a minimal scale it would need massive and far-reaching changes in all other Chapters from Citizenship, Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles of State Policy, Fundamental Duties, Union and State relations, Parliament, Local Governance, Election and Representation laws, Chapter XII of Finance, Property, Contracts and Suits and Chapter XX of Amendment Procedure given in the Constitution. Are people ready to take this fatal dive into a surreptitious sea of self-destruction that our neighbours are entangled in and struggling with?

The Preamble is the life and blood of our Constitution and constitutes its basic structure as explained comprehensively in the 42nd Amendment Act. It is the opening statement of the Constitution but was the last to be brought together in the Constituent Assembly as a gist or a spirit of how the Republic would be governed. There are many instances when members of the Constituent Assembly rose up to express, what came in news as ‘poetic heights’ such as Pundit Thakur Das Bhargav’s unambiguous utterance in the Assembly that, ‘the Preamble is the most precious part of the Constitution. It is the soul of the Constitution….It is a key to the Constitution. It is a jewel set in the Constitution.’ Yet, despite mammoth support, Nehru and Ambedkar could not insert secularism in the Preamble. Three decades later it was left to Indira Gandhi to complete that task which had become indispensable for a nation that also carried with it religious brigades and personal laws which consistently challenged the state to resolve religious inconsistencies. It became important that the state remain distanced and separated from the sphere of religion.

Secularism keeps belief systems of the state separated from the belief systems of private and personal or of the faith practised by communities. The public school systems should not be driven by religion and should take to religious teaching in books and in classrooms, the coexistence of all faiths and belief systems. As Sardar Patel had expressed in one of his speeches on 5 June 1949 that “…a healthy secular outlook is the foundation of true democracy.” Nehru had, however, expressed to Andre Malaurx during the freedom struggle that his biggest challenge is to “.. to create a secular state in a religious society”. Everyone knows the circumstances in which the Union of India was created through the stupendous diplomacy of Sardar Patel and timely action by Indian forces. Many compromises were made to win freedom from the British and the biggest was to accept the idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan and accommodate 566 Princely states. Yet while this was being done Patel was also taking stringent action against the banned RSS outfit led by Golwalker to accept in writing his allegiance to the national flag and the Constitution of India which he was not ready to give. The most obvious expression to keep religious brigades at bay or out of the governance of the country was to accept ‘secularism’ as a basic feature of our country.

In contrast to this enduring ideal of ‘secularism’, the CJ Mithal suggests a precarious idea of its replacement by ‘spirituality’. Ironically, the judge seems to be ignorant about the vast cross-cultural analytical literature on the subject. There is no single, widely agreed-upon definition of spirituality. A wide-ranging field of definitions emerges from the oldest scripture Vedas to Mesopotamian, Judaism, Islamic and Catholic definitions of spirituality. The word is open-ended and becomes more obscure when attempts are made to define it within a particular faith but it rarely gets attention outside any faith. This word glows up every faithful and connects them to their universal ideal and raises the individual from gross worldly existence to ‘beyond body experiences’.An interesting historical review of ‘Spirituality’ by Walter Principe in his 1983 work, ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’ found the term portentously undefinable. As he expressed that even after accumulating more than 100 definitions one is probably further away from its true meaning. However, the suggested ‘Spiritual Republic’ by the Judge would have to choose a historical context, a religious ideal to connect to the Supreme in a realm of the spirit or the transcendent. This comes into play even though spirituality differs from religion because human spirituality is composed of relationships, values and life purposes that religious doctrines inscribe in human brains from birth. Spirituality is truly practised by saints who can renounce the world and look down on worldly pleasures while giving away whatever they possess. There are many saints in every religion and to say that spirituality can still become a unifying bond practised by the state will only bring back the pre-renaissance or pre-Bhakti Yuga period of persecution of innocent citizens at the altar of Churches, Mosques or Temples. God forbid if that’s the future some people are imagining for a progressively advancing free Indian nation.

Similarly, ‘equitable’ is again fraught with many undefinable questions. Interestingly, the language of the law is more meaningful than a legal document itself. ‘Equitable’ is a word within which is embedded a notion of goodness, fairness, justice, equality and a life of dignity but all these embedded notions are further defined in their own ways which make enforcement of ‘equitable’ impossible. Socialism promotes equitable distribution in the context of a society that has a definable database for distribution. Why are such unnecessary terminological conflicts being created without proper homework on legal semantics? In legal language, the semantic domain provides a most appropriate meaning to issues in law as these abstract words by their very nature are not static and can never be defined the way they are being suggested for the Preamble. Alphons missed the point! 

The Keshavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala 1973 unambiguously explains that the ‘Constitution is not a document for fastidious dialectics but the means of ordering the life of people’ and its core values are various facets of the spirit that pervades our Constitution in different scenarios. Justice Holmes in Abrams v United States (250 US 616) made an apt comment on such controversies, ‘A Constitution is an experiment as all life is an experiment.’ In Nakara v. Union of India, the Supreme Court settled the fact that the basic framework of Socialism is to provide a decent standard of life to the working people and especially provide security from cradle to grave. This primarily envisages economic equality and equitable distribution of income. So where is the perceived need for replacement of ‘socialism’ by ‘equitable’?

The politics of our country is on a test drive of majoritarianism being ferociously provoked as a cause for achieving national unity. In consequence and eventually, everyone starts feeling insecure and the state appropriates a role for wartime preparedness against the heightened environment of insecurity. Much can be read in the words of Felix Frankfurter in his tribute to Justice Holmes, “Whether the Constitution is treated primarily as a text for interpretation or as an instrument of Government may make all the difference in the word”. The private member’s Amendment Bill is explainable as a distracting design from more important matters which need our attention but CJ Mithal is merely playing a good host.

The writer is president of Network Asia Pacific Disaster Research Group (NDRG), Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

MASKS, VACCINATIONS WILL TACKLE SPREAD OF THE NEW COVID-19 VARIANT

Priya Sahgal

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Even if the new variant of the Covid-19 virus is yet to spread in India at the scale it has spread in Europe and South Africa, all the trappings that accompany a new variant are there on the ground at Delhi’s T3— the fear, panic, and the chaos. With international flights ready to resume from December 15, the airport had groomed itself to resume activities and the focus was on flights taking off. But once Omicron was detected and global alert bells rang, India too put in its new norms which included testing of those passengers arriving from the list of ‘At-Risk’ countries. These include the United Kingdom, all 44 countries in Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel. The testing centers which were earlier there at the airport during the Delta variant had since reduced their staff. Now suddenly in the blink of an eye, they were told to begin screening the arrivals yet again. Almost overnight, they had to not just ramp up the testing but also set up the supporting infrastructure.

Those passengers who were landing from other countries were not at risk of getting caught up in the rush and simply added to the already crowded airport. The site of the tests is between the aerobridge and the immigration counters. But here is the catch: the said corridor is not designed to be a holding area but a transit one. Now suddenly with as many as three to four flights landing at the same time you had passengers crowding this confined space waiting for the test results that took anything from two to eight hours. If you signed online for the RT-PCR test before boarding the flight the fee is Rs 500 and you have to wait eight hours. Most passengers (at least those who could afford it) on landing opted for the Rapid PCR test that cost Rs 3900 and took two hours for the result. In the meanwhile, the only option for the passengers was to wait and have coffee from the vending machine that was installed as recently as December 2nd, the very next day after the new rules came into being.

Crossing immigration is another nightmare with long queues even at the counters earmarked for those needing special assistance or those with a diplomatic passport. This takes anything from two hours to beyond. And don’t think you are in the clear yet because the baggage belt brings its own chaos. Because so many passengers are still stranded at the testing sites, their luggage has been taken off the belt and is lying around. So, all the best for identifying your bag amidst all those that have been offloaded from the belt. The civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has been monitoring the situation and has held several high-level meetings to figure out a solution to ease this mess, so let’s watch this space.

So far India has recorded 21 cases of Omicron in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Delhi. The testing at the airport will only tell you if you have Covid or not. But to figure out which variant, one will have to send the results for genome sequencing, a process that takes anything from five to seven days. In the meantime, there has been enough exposure at the airport testing center to spread the virus if a passenger tests positive. And the one thing we know about Omicron is that it is highly contagious.

The other thing that we suspect— though it will take further two weeks to establish this as a certainty— is that the virus is not as lethal as the Delta variant. As we have learnt from the Delta variant, closing our borders does not stop the spread of the virus. What stops it is masks and vaccinations. While vaccine hesitancy still looms large in our villages, most of those who have taken the two doses are now ready for their third. Especially the health care workers and the elderly. The government is mulling a third dose but does it have the requisite funds for it? In the meantime, unused vaccinations are lying with private hospitals as most are opting for the government centers offering a free dose, especially now that the rush has eased. The government needs to find a solution to balance the two.

And in the end, if indeed the new variant isn’t as lethal as the Delta one (even if it’s more contagious) we may be moving towards the scenario where covid gets flu-like status. Which honestly is the best-case scenario that everyone is hoping for.

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Opinion

Reset of India-Russia relationship a necessity

The changed world order and their alliances with each other’s rivals have necessitated a reset of the Indo-Russia relationship.

Semu Bhatt

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Russian President Vladimir Putin was in India for the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit. This was the first in-person meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Putin since their meeting in November 2019 on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil. The visit was short but significant as this was only the second time that thae Russian President travelled abroad during the pandemic, after his trip to Geneva this summer for a meeting with US President Joe Biden. 

This year marks 50 years of the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation between India and the Soviet Union, a treaty that sent a strong signal both to Washington and Beijing back in 1971. The shifted sands of geopolitics have put India and Russia on different trajectories in the 21st Century that has brought them to a situation quite opposite to the one in 1971—the US has inched towards India, while Russia has taken to China and some extent to Pakistan. The Indo-US or the Sino-Russia ties are not time-tested like the Indo-Russian ties but have evolved due to convergence of interest between the partner nations against a common threat—China, in the case of India and the US, and the US in the case of Russia and China. The changed world order and their alliances with each other’s rivals have necessitated a reset of the Indo-Russia relationship. By choosing to visit India, that too at a time when India-China tensions are running high, Putin is giving a clear message that Kremlin’s foreign policy will not be dictated by Beijing, and that New Delhi remains an important partner of Moscow. India, on its part, is signalling its strategic autonomy by holding the inaugural “2+2” foreign and defence ministers’ dialogue with Russia, like the arrangement that India has with the Quad group countries—the US, Japan, and Australia. India has also gone ahead with the arms deal with Russia even when it comes with a risk of potential sanctions by the US.

Defence trade forms the bedrock of India-Russia relations. Although the arms procurement from Russia has witnessed a steady decline under the Narendra Modi government, Russia remains the biggest defence supplier to India amounting to 58% of India’s imports in the period of 2014-18. A large base of Russian equipment, weapons and platforms are currently in military use in India—missiles, aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine included. India is and will remain dependent on Russia for the maintenance and upgrades of the systems already in use and for the ones in the pipeline. India’s diversification of defence purchase, and its ambition to create a robust domestic defence manufacturing base, means the imports from Russia will continue to drop. However, Russia will remain a critical partner given its willingness to transfer sensitive defence technologies and joint developments.

India aims to expand its non-defence trade with Russia, especially in the energy sector, but the set target is far less than the current Russia-China trade. As of now, defence is the sector where New Delhi is more valuable to Moscow not only because it is the biggest buyer of the Russian military-industrial complex but also because, unlike China, India does not indulge in intellectual property thefts or reverse engineering and does not pose a threat to the Russian arms market with own exports. India is the second-largest defence importer in the world and Russia’s top defence trade partner. It can use its position to negotiate best deals with defence suppliers (Russia and others) as well as to ensure that Kremlin pays heed to Indian sensitivities regarding weapons deals and military alliances with China and Pakistan.

India needs a dependable P5 nation that would stand by India’s national interests, especially as the veto-wielding China turns increasingly hostile and as Pakistan turns into a Chinese colony. Russia may speak the harsh language at times or turn an occasional blind eye to Chinese attempts against India, but it has never voted against Indian interests at the UNSC. Irrespective of Russia’s uneasiness over the Quad grouping and the Russian foreign minister referring to Indo-Pacific as Asia-Pacific, Russia is supplying advanced systems like S-400 to India despite Chinese objections. Its ties with the “iron brothers” notwithstanding, Russia was the first P5 nation to formally state that abrogation of Article 370 is an internal matter for India. India and Russia also have no bilateral disputes or rivalries and have adopted silence over, if not supported, each other’s sensitive issues, be it Kashmir or Crimea.

Russia is a key player in Afghanistan with access to every other player, including the Taliban. Indian and Russian interests align over drug trafficking and Islamist terrorism that is certain to emanate from Taliban-led Afghanistan. Russia has snubbed India by excluding it from the extended Troika and has sided with China and Pakistan concerning the Taliban, but it also created a permanent consultation channel for talks on Afghanistan between President Putin and PM Modi. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, has been to New Delhi twice after the fall of Kabul. Russia is concerned that the Taliban, or for that matter Pakistan, cannot be trusted to stop the flow of terrorism or drugs into Central Asia. The situation in Afghanistan is very fluid and it is hard to predict what may happen, but a Russia-India, and possibly Iran, overt or covert cooperation to safeguard individual interests and influence cannot be ruled out.

While the risk to reward ratio works for Russia with respect to its ties with China, it is an asymmetric relationship between a former superpower and the next superpower. Russia is worried not just about being relegated as the junior partner of Beijing but also losing out in its historical sphere of influence in Central Asia. Russia has been doing its counterbalancing act vis-à-vis China and India, which, not surprisingly, is vital to that act—seeking investments from India (and Japan) in its Far East, the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor that passes through the South China Sea, supplying sensitive defence systems to India, an impetus to the negotiations on a free trade agreement between India and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), cooperation in the Arctic and the joint venture on BrahMos missiles that will be exported to third countries including to some Southeast Asian nations. India will not be able to pull Russia away from China or become the third side of the dream triangle as envisaged by Russia, but from Indian, as well as the Western perspective, it makes no sense to let Russia-China embrace get any tighter by leaving Moscow with no other option. 

A strong relationship with the superpower US based on mutual respect and benefit is a desirable prospect for India. However, a neighbourhood driven by hostility from/towards the US is India’s current reality, which makes continued close ties with Russia particularly important. The fact that Russia enjoys good relations with China and India, and India enjoys good relations with both Russia and the US, put the two old partners in a unique position to leverage the ties. If the communication channels are open, if the expectations are realistic, if the focus is on the convergence of interests rather than divergence, and if the red lines are marked clearly, the “special and privileged strategic partnership” shared by the two nations will not only withstand the pressures of geopolitics but will thrive and may even bring some stability to the region.

Defence trade forms the bedrock of India-Russia relations. Although the arms procurement from Russia has witnessed a steady decline under the Narendra Modi government, Russia remains the biggest defence supplier to India amounting to 58% of India’s imports in the period of 2014-18.

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DON’T LET RUSSIA IMPACT INDIA’S RISE

Joyeeta Basu

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The near-complete lack of media interest in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India should be indicative of the loss in importance of India’s Russia ties. Compared to a US President’s visit to India, or the Chinese President’s visit, there were hardly any ripples over Putin’s visit, except in diplomatic and related circles. As for the people of this country, it was just another routine visit by a foreign head of state. And all this in the 50th year of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. But then in a post Cold War world, it is but natural that a has-been power, a rump of the former Soviet Russia—which not only lost the Cold War but also faced the humiliation of dismemberment—would not evoke much interest. Whatever be the history of so-called people-to-people relations with Russia, the common Indian has always chosen the capitalist West over a socialist and now an oligarchic Russia—a brief study of migration trends will make this even more apparent. In spite of this, it is Russia that our policymakers have chosen over the West, while sending their own children to the United States and other such countries to build a life. Worse, many of these policymakers continue to be in “love” with Russia, more often than not impacting policy. The Russian lobby in New Delhi is among the most entrenched, but losing some sheen lately, courtesy the warming up of ties between India and US and India’s forays into the Indo-Pacific through the Quad.

India-Russia relations have always hinged on defence, where historically we have put nearly all our eggs in the Russian basket. One argument offered to justify this closeness is “transfer of technology”. That the West did not give us technology, which Russia did; that the West has always been suspicious of India that it will pass on technology to either Russia or China. There is logic in such an argument, but also a refusal to see the reality. Why would the West transfer technology to a country that for decades stayed firmly aligned with Soviet Russia—the West’s bugbear—in the name of nonalignment? In fact, in spite of the current bonhomie with the US, a degree of suspicion about India persists among a section of US policymakers, as became apparent in a piece written by John Bolton in the Hill last month on India’s purchase of the S-400 and the possibility of sanctioning India under CAATSA (India’s S-400 missile system problem, 10 November 2021). Bolton, President Donald Trump’s one-time NSA, complained of India “sending contradictory signals” and wondered if India was “playing” Washington. As this writer has been arguing for a long time, what may appear as “strategic autonomy” to India, may appear as “strategic confusion” or sitting on the fence to the rest of the world at best, and devious game-playing at its worst.

With the rise of a malign force such as China the whole geopolitical terrain has changed. While we agree that it’s now a multilateral world, but there is no denying, that multilateralism functions within the broader contours of a bilateral world, where it is US vs China. And Russia is firmly aligned with China because of its own compulsions, including because it is battered by sanctions imposed by the West. Will hanging on to Russia’s coattails for the sake of the past help India against China? A simple question in this context is: In case of an India-China kinetic conflict, which side will Russia support? If the answer is Russia will “stay neutral”, then of what value are “time-tested” India-Russia relations?

There is no place for emotions in geopolitics. What matters is a country’s self-interest. Any loyalty to the past, if it is not serving the present, is a misplaced sense of loyalty. Also, it is time to diversify our sourcing of materiel at a faster pace, either through purchases or through making them at home. Even now 60-70% of our materiel is Russian. This component must be brought down. While non-strategic purchases like assault rifles are fine, the problem arises with systems such as the S-400 that directly impact US interests and have also been sold to China. As analysts have been pointing out, even if India somehow manages to evade sanctions in the S-400 deal by arguing that it was signed before CAATSA came into existence, what happens if Vladimir Putin now tries to sell the S-500 to India? In fact, as one analyst told this writer that there is a strong possibility that the reason why Putin is here is not to sell a few rifles but to try and convince the Indian government to buy the next generation S-500. How will India evade US sanctions if it decides to go for that deal? India will be playing straight into China’s hands as that will throttle India’s economy and big power ambitions.

Also, what is the world’s largest democracy’s opinion about Putin flexing muscles on Ukraine’s borders, threatening to invade that country? Turning a blind eye is not good enough. Replace Ukraine with India and Russia with China, and you will know why.

In short, talk Afghanistan, terrorism, drug trafficking, organised crime, vaccines, investments, space technology, dance, music, films, literature, friendship, buy rifles, but lessen dependence on Russia in the military and tactical spheres; don’t try to bring Russia out of China’s clutches, for that is not in Russia’s interest; don’t try to make Russia understand the value of Quad, for that is not in the interest of either Russia or China. Most importantly, don’t let Russia impact India’s policies in a way that it impacts India’s rise.

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Opinion

Mamata Banerjee cannot beat PM Modi in a New India

The biggest challenge to any party or alliance today is to get the support of people. You can get leaders but not masses and unless you get people to back your efforts, these leaders would be paper tigers only.

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Mamata Banerjee’s desperate attempt to form an anti-Modi front is likely to be damp squib like many other efforts made before her by various other leaders. Her assertion that there is no UPA (United Progressive Alliance) is correct but to assume that this would mean a readymade ground for the formation of an alternative front reflects the fallacy of her political understanding.

Her meeting with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar in Mumbai is good optics in search of her political relevance at the national level after she has managed some good sound-bites in Goa and Meghalaya and also at the national level by making some eminent leaders join her party. But to make others accept her as a leader need many factors. A mere glue of anti-Modi-ism won’t work.

The Trinamul Congress (TMC) is trying to play a prominent role at the national level to increase Mamata Banerjee’s acceptability as a leader among various other political parties which are currently with the Congress namely the NCP and the Shiv Sena—this is true that the Congress does not have many allies. But for both the NCP and the Shiv Sena, the TMC does not add any might to their political existence. No one does charity in politics and what she would bring to the table would decide her fate.

There are two options left for her. One is to make every other splinter group of the Congress join the parent body and get the Gandhi family to order a democratic election and Mamata Banerjee wins the election to the party president. This is fraught with difficulties since the Gandhi family would not oblige so easily. They can trust a loyalist but not a rival.

The second option is to set up an all-India-based parallel organisation of her party- something that was done by the Janata Dal or other such parties. But this needs a lot of resources and a steely determination. And what would be the ideology guiding this party? Anti-Modi-ism won’t do. She is incapable to devise an ideology of her own.

The biggest challenge to any party or alliance today is to get the support of people. You can get leaders but not masses and unless you get people to back your efforts, these leaders would be paper tigers only. Many leaders in the BJP got intoxicated by public support and they decided to chart out a separate course. But they failed desperately and had to suffer the ignominy of rejoining the parent party and accepting a lesser status.

One caste-based party or issue-based regional parties have limitations. They cannot play a larger role at the national level. For that, the party’s ideology and its leaders will have to have a comprehensive vision for the country that would be acceptable to one and all. People must trust that you would be able to steer the country as per their expectations.

This is here where Prime Minister Narendra Modi fits the bill. He understands the aspirations of the country that has 65 per cent youths. This section of the population has often demonstrated the capabilities to rise above narrow considerations of caste and religion and to vote for development and faster development. The youths want transparency and accountability and a system that would guarantee them the dignity of being a citizen of this country.

Narendra Modi has earned this image through long and arduous struggle. When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, he worked hard to change the face of the State. Over a period of time, he became the choice of the country for the post of Prime Minister. It is not that the BJP wanted to project him. The party was forced to act as per the aspirations of the country to see Modi as the Prime Minister.

Without being jealous of Modi, Mamata Banerjee can work towards becoming a role model. Can she use the opportunity people have given to her to transform West Bengal on the developmental roadmap? Can she come out of minority appeasement politics and deliver justice to every section of society? Can she work to strengthen the nation’s security since West Bengal’s boundary has issues of illegal infiltration that are changing the population dynamics of the state? Once she had spoken so loudly in parliament on infiltration from Bangladesh.

The image of Mamata Banerjee is still of a rabble-rouser and a street fighter. She has failed to acquire the image of a matured leader who understands the issues the country is facing. Or, maybe she understands the issues but her politics does not allow her to publicly articulate these. When you are on the hot seat every move of yours is being watched.

If tomorrow, she begins a no-nonsense approach and implements good governance at every level of administration, she might acquire national prominence. It needs just flipping through pages of success stories of the Gujarat model which other States have tried to implement but in piecemeal. She would fit well into the development vision of Modi and would get faster development for her State.

Mamata Banerjee also must be acutely aware that nobody is permanent in politics and the position cannot be taken for granted. The BJP has emerged as a formidable force and is in main opposition in West Bengal and would do everything to unseat her from power next time. Her time is ticking. A magical formula has to be evolved or she would fade out like many others before her.

Mamata Banerjee and other leaders who dream to challenge Narendra Modi must understand that he has redefined the country’s politics. The issues of caste, religion, etc are there but these have been overpowered by the larger vision of a strong and developed country. Members of all social or religious groups need opportunities for better lifestyles and they find Modi to be their best bet.

The eyes of poor people glitter with hope at the mention of Modi. They get assurance their lives would change for the better. Opposition parties think that by taking away this hope they can defeat Modi, they are living in La-La land. It takes years of measured responses to be taken seriously as an opposition party. If a party decides to oppose whatever the Government is doing this would not go well with people.

Defence indigenisation has saved precious Dollars that used to be spent on buying crucial arms and ammunition. This has also put a check on corruption in defence deals. The purchase of crucial fighter aircrafts has secured the borders at a time when the country is facing a stand-off with China on the Eastern borders. How many of these opposition parties have lauded the efforts of the Prime Minister? They have on the contrary done everything to undermine the efforts of the government.

In such a situation who is going to support these parties? The youths of the country are today more empowered than ever before due to proliferation of the social media. Traditional media is forced to follow the agenda in social media unless they are not bothered about their image.

Across the globe, there has been an assertion of nationalist forces. What is good for the country and what is not is being openly debated on various platforms? The forces of radicalisation are facing stiff challenges everywhere. Leaders and parties are forced to take a stand on issues of terrorism and national security. No party leader in any country can dare to call its army chief “gali ka goonda” and still survive politically.

At a time when the country is bleeding and losing the lives of its army personnel and civilians from cross-border terrorism, no party would dare to be soft with Pakistan. If India gets beaten by Sri Lanka in cricket and there is clapping for a better display of skills, people would not mind. But if crackers are burnt on Pakistan’s victory over India in cricket by a section of the minority community, this would not be appreciated. Whatever rationalisation one may give reminding of the Tebbit test of the United Kingdom, the fact remains that the nationalist sentiment gets hurt at such naked celebration over defeat.

Mamata Banerjee has to decide which side of the fence she would like to stand. Whether she wants the support of some sections of society or all sections based on the interests she represents? The country needs many people aligned to the vision of bringing back the past glory of India – a country that preached love and brotherhood and had achieved prosperity few could imagine. Neither Islamic invaders nor the British came to India to do charity. They came to exploit the rich resources and those who settled here did so in search of better lives. India is rediscovering its energy to reclaim its glory and rightful place in the comity of nations.

The writer is the author of ‘Narendra Modi: the GameChanger’. A former journalist, he is a member of BJP’s media relations department and represents the party as spokesperson while participating in television debates. The views expressed are personal.

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