T K Arun

Even as the Pegasus snooping scandal stalled Parliament, Covid numbers showed signs of emerging from an ominous lull, a border clash within the country killed six, and two visits to the national capital, one by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the other by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, engaged political leaders, the most significant development in India last week was the arrival of tap water fit to drink in the temple town of Puri, Orissa.

India’s active Covid infections remained about 4,10,000 throughout the week. Over Monday-Friday, the country delivered some 20 million vaccines, raising the proportion of the adult population of 950 million to have received at least the first of the two jabs they need to 38%. India’s adult population is only a little short of the entire population of the African continent.

Worryingly, however, the number of new infections edged up from below 40,000 a day at the beginning of the week to nearly 44,000 by the end, half the count contributed by one single state, Kerala. Kerala, however, has the most reliable reporting system and healthcare infrastructure and has the country’s lowest case fatality rate – the proportion of reported infection numbers to die of the disease – of 0.5%. For the country as a whole, that ratio is more than seven times as much.

India’s northeastern states, the so-called Seven Sisters plus Sikkim, do not figure much on the national radar unless some particularly egregious act of violence transpires. One such incident took place on Monday, 26 July, when Mizo police forces shot dead five of their counterparts from the Assam police at one of the several disputed points of the boundary that separates the two states. At the time of Independence, there was just one northeastern state, Assam, alongside Assam-administered North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA), while Tripura and Manipur were two independent princely states.

Subsequently, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya were carved out of Assam, and NEFA was converted into Arunachal Pradesh, as Union Territories that were later converted into states. Tripura and Manipur joined the Indian Union in 1949. The district borders drawn up after Independence, some of them hewing close to colonial demarcations that were themselves disputed at the time of their making, did not quite coincide with accepted notions of territory inherited from the past, which inhabit the historical imagination of the region’s numerous ethnicities and tribes.

Their historical imagination determines their respect, or the lack of it, for the new boundaries drawn up after Independence. Disputes over territory have simmered between Assam and all its three new offshoots and between Mizoram and Tripura as well. These are disputes among people who have reconciled to their status as Indian citizens, unlike the Naga, Manipuri, and Mizo rebels, who dream of free states outside the Indian Union and pursue their dreams with guns. All these years, boundary disputes have been allowed to fester.

It was expected that peace and quiet would descend on the Northeast, after the BJP came to office in all the seven states of the Northeast and the BJP’s Assamese find, Himanta Biswa Sarma, hailed as the rainmaker beyond the Chicken’s Neck, teamed up with the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah. The Chicken’s Neck has little to do with the common fowl, of course, except for a vague resemblance to the map of the narrow Siliguri Corridor, with Nepal and Bhutan to the North and Bangladesh to the South, that connects the rest of India with the Northeast.

India’s standoff with the Chinese at Dokalam in Bhutan was over the strategic command of the Chicken’s Neck that occupation of Doklam would give the Chinese army. The Mizo policemen who shot and killed Assam policemen have burst two bloated political images: those of Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Anthony Blinken’s visit to New Delhi was awaited with some trepidation among those who had taken the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights a tad too seriously. They had been worried that Blinken would publicly touch upon the slide India has taken of late on widely regarded indices of democracy and press freedom. Blinken, as it transpired, focused on Afghanistan and the interests that America shared with India and the other two members of the nascent geopolitical grouping, the Quad, Australia, and Japan.

These interests focus on keeping the Indo-Pacific open and rules-based, and on vaccinating people against Covid19, rather than explicitly on a petulant giant in the neighborhood, whose tantrums brook no rules in the Indo-Pacific. No pentatonic lullabies were actually sung by Blinken and his Indian counterpart Jayashankar, but their effort clearly was to soothe Chinese nerves over strengthening strategic ties between America and India.

On Afghanistan, Blinken defended the indefensible pullout of US troops before the Taliban or their backers in Islamabad had been degraded enough to allow a proto-democratic regime in Afghanistan to consolidate itself and a modern state in that ancient land. If no one in Jayashankar’s team brought up that old adage about sticks and stones breaking bones but not words, they might have been inhibited by the absurdity of the notion that softspoken Blinken’s dulcet reproaches were ever meant to deter the Taliban.

The second visit of note to the Indian capital was that of the conquering hero from the East, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. She makes a visit to Delhi every Parliament session. Her meeting with the Prime Minister was perfunctory.

If the normal yardstick of decency in interpersonal relations applied to politicians, Modi should have been embarrassed to meet Banerjee, after his personal attacks and mocking ululations of ‘Didi’, the term of endearment by which her voters call Banerjee, during the West Bengal election campaign that concluded in early May. Banerjee roundly defeated Modi-led BJP, despite the defections the BJP induced among her lieutenants, the money power it deployed, and the threat of criminal investigations it held out against its rivals.

Mamata Banerjee is now the foremost Opposition leader of the country, since the largest Opposition party’s leaders have led it only to electoral defeats, and her visit galvanized other Opposition leaders. Her former mentors and colleagues in the Congress — she had broken away from the Congress to form her own party in 1997, after being a Congress worker and leader in West Bengal for 26 years — called on her publicly.

Earlier, the only Congress leader, an interaction with whom received publicity, was Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi. This time around, two Congress leaders, both members of the 23-strong rebel group who are asking for inner-party elections and accountability of the party leadership, made public their interaction with Mamata Banerjee.

A coming together of all breakaway factions of the Congress to take on the BJP in the 2024 elections is a consummation devoutly to be wished, without the tragic connotation of the original phrase. There is only one person it would upset: Rahul Gandhi, the Congress’ effective leader, the power he wields stemming from Sonia Gandhi’s maternal indulgence rather than elected office within the party. This is what makes the Congress leaders’ tryst with Mamata Banerjee of special interest.

In the meantime, Parliament stayed stalled, as the Opposition insisted on letting no business proceed unless the government agreed to a discussion on the spying of hundreds of individuals using the Israeli, weapons-grade, snooping software Pegasus, which its manufacturer sells only to government agencies, and that, too, only after an export license is obtained from the Israeli government.

The government has tried to brazen it out, declaring there has been no unauthorized surveillance in India, without admitting or denying that Indian agencies have bought Pegasus. The newly sworn-in Minister of Information Technology, it turns out, was on the list of people of interest, whose phones were reportedly infected with Pegasus.

Unlike in the US, where all breaches of privacy by state agencies call for court orders, which are subsequently placed before a Congressional committee on intelligence, along with the information obtained and the action taken, there is no system in India to hold official snooping to account. This system must change. The Supreme Court is scheduled to take up a petition seeking an inquiry into the veracity of the Pegasus spying charge next week.

The Supreme Court is also looking into killing on the road in Jharkhand. A judge in Dhanbad, a hub of the mineral industry of the state, was knocked down and killed by a three-wheeler, while on his morning walk. Camera footage of the incident shows the scooter deliberately deviating to the walking judge on the left side of an empty road, knocking him down and riding off. Another judge in Uttar Pradesh, too, later claimed that a hit and run incident in which his car was involved was a planned attack.

On Thursday, the government extended reservations — 27% for other backward castes and 10% for economically weaker sections among those who are not eligible for reservation on the basis of social backwardness — in admissions to medical colleges to the so-called All India Quota of seats in state-government-run medical colleges. In these colleges, 85% of the seats are reserved for residents of the state. Now, of that 15% of seats meant for students from other states who clear the National Entrance cum Eligibility Test for medical college admissions, 60% of seats would be reserved in all — 22% was already reserved for students from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Puri, a temple town of coastal Orissa, inaugurated the supply of tap water fit to drink. This might not look like much to Americans or those in Western Europe. But to all Asians outside Japan and Singapore, this is an enviable achievement. Lee Kuan Yew, when he set about building Singapore up as a world-class place, set the quality of water from the tap as a yardstick of his meeting his goal.

Indeed, it is. Water and sewage pipelines must be leakproof, quality must constantly be monitored and arrangements made for swift repair and restoration of service, apart from for water purification at the source of the supply. Dong all this, and finding the money to finance the endeavor, call for a minimum level of governance. Puri has crossed that threshold. It will meter every drop of water supplied, bill, and collect the dues, using self-help groups of women.

If the same paradigm is transferred to other government services, such as education and healthcare, where current poor quality drives citizens to spend money on private alternatives, people’s disposable income would go up. Clean drinking water would reduce malnutrition by doing away with parasites that enter the body via contaminated water. It would also dispense with the need for millions of plastic bottles.

In other developments, signs of an economic recovery continued to pop up, however anaemic. The International Monetary Fund has revised down India’s growth forecast, expecting the Indian economy to be smaller at the end of 2021-22 than it was at the beginning of 2020-21. In its most recent quarter, the US economy regained its pre-pandemic size.

India could beat the IMF forecast, provided it is able to avert a Third Wave of Covid. The upward trend in the total number of new infections leaves no room for comfort.

First Published in Substack Last Week In India: Pegasus, Blinken and Drinking Water from the Tap on August 1, 2021

Read another piece on Politics and Twitter by T K Arun titled Stopping Fakes on Twitter! in IMPRI Insights

Read another piece on COVID-19 Vaccine by T K Arun titled Increasing Vaccine Production: India an Answer to Global Woes in IMPRI Insights

Read another piece on COVID-19 Vaccine by T K Arun titled Bold Vaccination Policy Needed in IMPRI Insights

Read another piece on Israel Palestine Conflict by T K Arun titled Netanyahu Culprit of History? The Politics of Israel- Palestine Conflict in IMPRI Insights

About the Author

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T K ArunConsulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.