T K Arun

Taliban Redux dominated the week’s headlines, the development was gleefully melded into the campaign already underway for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections early next year, the economy saw some tangible advance, even as the US Federal Open Market Committee’s discussion about tapering off asset purchases, revealed through the published minutes of its meeting towards the end of July, skimmed some froth off the stock market. Nineteen parties of the Opposition assembled on Zoom to declare joint action against the BJP, although the two parties most significant to the coming battle for Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, stayed away.

The active Covid caseload declined by 28,549 over the week, to 353,398 on Sunday, the lowest since March last year. Over the week, 35.6 million vaccines were administered, bringing the total doses delivered to 581.4 million. A novel, indigenously developed, DNA-based vaccine was given emergency use authorization for those above 12 years of age, in a 3-dose regimen.

The vaccine developed by Zydus-Cadila has a reported efficacy of about 70% and does not require ultra-cold storage. Now, this might not sound very impressive, in the face of the reported efficacy of the Pfizer-Biotech vaccine of 95%, but that number is irrelevant in the current phase of the pandemic dominated by the delta variant, against which the established vaccines are only about as effective as the Zydus-Cadila one.

India’s courts made some significant news, some uplifting, some muddled and some muddying the none-too-clear waters of Uttar Pradesh politics further. The Supreme Court Collegium which recommends names to fill vacancies on the Court, sent on nine names to the government, excluding a name that the government had, on an earlier occasion, refused to accept: Justice Akil Kureshi, now chief justice of the Tripura high court, had, during his tenure in Gujarat, ordered the arrest of the current Union home minister Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter killing case.

The Collegium made the recommendation days after the retirement of Justice Rohinton Nariman, who had been a member of the Collegium and taken a firm stand that no names would be sent to the government for elevation to the Supreme Court bench unless these included Justice Kureshi and Justice Abhay Oka of the Karnataka high court.

The Supreme Court has pressed the government to make its stand clear on the Israeli spyware, Pegasus, which has been used to snoop on hundreds of people, including Opposition leaders, an Election Commission member who took his statutory autonomy too literally for the politicians’ liking, other civil servants, ministers and members of the judiciary and their associates, besides, of course, journalists., according to the finding of a transnational investigation by journalists and Amnesty International.

The government tried to argue that if it said categorically whether it used Pegasus or not, it would allow potential surveillance targets to install blocking software on their phones, endangering national security. Instead of being persuaded by mere mention of national security to see logic where it does not exist, the Court has told the government to institute an inquiry.

In another case last week, a Supreme Court bench observed that bail should be the default option rather than jail for undertrials. As if to tell the Court where it got off with its pious exhortations, the Uttar Pradesh police have slapped the charge of sedition against a Samajwadi Party Member of Parliament who said the Taliban are fighting for their independence. It was only recently that the Supreme Court had said that sedition can be invoked only when there is a threat of proximate violent threat to the state, and not to suppress dissent, even of the obnoxious kind.

The Taliban have come in right handy for the BJP and its campaign centered on the Hindu-Muslim divide. A court in Varanasi has heard a petition of newfound piety by some women who want to worship idols inside the Gyanvapi mosque at Kashi and asked the government to respond. This could build up into another Ayodhya campaign, at least till the elections are over.

The Madras high court has asked the central government to make the Central Bureau of Investigation a statutory body like the Election Commission and then muddled that with the suggestion that the Bureau could report to a minister. Statutory bodies that have oversight over the executive cannot report to the executive, they must report to a committee of the legislature. The Court showed clearer thinking in another order, where it asked the central government to respond in English to representations made in that language. The present government at the Centre has a penchant for communicating in Hindi with people who do not understand Hindi.

The Gujarat High Court, on its part, stayed several provisions of a so-called love jihad law passed by the state assembly, seeking to criminalize inter-faith marriages. The court observed that according to the law as framed, any interfaith marriage could be interpreted to be the result of forced conversion and annulled.

The Supreme Court ordered the government to throw open admissions to the National Defence Academy to girls as well. All those who did not watch Wonder Woman or Black Widow in action while growing up are appalled at the Court’s violation of settled gender codes in the armed forces.

The economy has been witnessing some positive development. Hiring by tech companies has been brisk, salary hikes generous and bonuses, plentiful. The same developments that have led to a shortage of microchips, as the use of information technology scaled up across businesses during the pandemic period, have increased business for Indian IT companies, who need more people and are poaching them from other companies and trying to retain would-be deserters with higher salaries.

Sales and profits have improved across the board, and for a representative sample of 1,91 listed companies, the ratio of their profits before interest and tax to interest payments has gone up, showing an increase in financial health. Of course, in the unlisted small company universe, it is a different story.

Tech startups are diversifying and raising more capital. Ola, which started off as an imitation of Uber, has launched an electric scooter. Oyo has attracted investment from Microsoft, which seems to be putting in dibs and dabs of capital wherever they can, hoping to lock these investee companies into Microsoft’s cloud platforms and software suites.

More startups are gearing up for initial public offerings. The government has persuaded large saving pools such as the Employees’ Provident Fund and the Life Insurance Corporation of India to set aside slivers of their investment corpus for funding startups. This is a good move that will both make more capital available to new entrepreneurs and improve returns for savers.

China’s crackdown on its tech companies has improved venture capital flow to India in the short term. However, better regulation of data and competition in China’s tech industry, which is what the regulation seeks to achieve, is likely to make it a more dynamic sector in the years to come. India needs to closely watch this space.

In a salutary development, minority shareholders of Eicher Motors voted to oppose a 10% hike in compensation for Sidhartha Lal, its managing director. Unfortunately for him, the resolution came clubbed with another one to reappoint him as managing director. In order to block an unjustified salary hike after a bad pandemic year, the shareholders blocked the reappointment of a corporate leader who had turned the company’s fortunes around. Of course, Eicher will get round to seeking his reappointment in another special resolution. However, Lal’s embarrassment will teach companies to not take their minority shareholders for granted.

India’s politics is changing, with the Opposition taking inspiration from Mamata Banerjee’s victory in West Bengal. As many as 19 of them took part in a meeting chaired by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and decided to work together. However, the work, as announced, seems to be confined to some ritualized protests scheduled for 10 days from September 20th.

Perhaps, it is too much hard work to organize people on the ground on the problems that are making their pandemic-hit lives miserable, or to expose the hollowness of the BJP mobilizing the support of deprived castes on the basis of symbolic empowerment — a statue here for a community hero, a ministership there for a community member — while reinforcing the hierarchical ideology that underpins the Hindu order. Smart tweets by Rahul Gandhi and Pro-forma sloganeering groups in khadi kurtas at well-worn gates of district and state headquarters would seem to be what the Opposition has in mind.

After mismanaging the pandemic, the BJP has a single-minded focus in its strategy to win elections: bash the Muslim, polarise society. This is revealed in new population policies (subtext: Muslims are proliferating perfidiously to outnumber Hindus) and Love Jihad laws, and actions against Muslims in the states ruled by BJP based on these.

The population stabilizes with social development and women securing agency over their lives. The total fertility rate (TFR) is the term demographers use to measure how many children, on average, a woman will have over her lifetime. If it comes down to 2.1, the population would neither decrease nor increase (it is a little above 2 because all children do not live to adulthood). The TFR in the southern states is well below 2.1. It has been coming down in all states, for all social groups.

Already, TFR for India as a whole has reached 2.2, dropping from the level of 5.2 in 1971. It is above 2.1 for the country as a whole because Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan lag other states. But even in these laggard states, the trend is downward and even without any coercive measures, the TFR would come down below the replacement level in every state this decade. With some measures to improve social development and women’s agency, that trend would accelerate.

Love jihad laws have been adopted to create a weapon with which to ostracise and target Muslim men, and cases charged under the law are pursued with zeal, and vigilante groups use Love Jihad as a reason for attacking elderly Muslim men, accusing them of being relatives of Love Jihad perpetrators. A recent such incident in Kanpur did its job of polarising people on religious lines.

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has been particularly convenient, from this perspective. It helps strengthen the image of the Muslim as a medieval blot on civilization. Some Muslim leaders have abetted the BJP cause by praising the Taliban. Some ‘secular liberals’ help the BJP by refusing to call out fundamentalism and radicalism among Muslims, for fear of feeding the BJP propaganda. Incidentally, K Muneer, a prominent leader of the Muslim League in Kerala, has condemned the Taliban and its ideology in unequivocal terms, on his Facebook page.

Secularists are fond of flaunting their virtue, but many forget that the only shield against a majoritarian takeover of the country is democracy, and democracy alone. Those who subvert democracy in the name of religious tradition and sanctity harm themselves and others, whatever their religion. Liberals who tread on eggshells when it comes to radical tendencies among the minorities are pushing the majority into the hands of the BJP, apart from weakening the cause of democracy.

One Congress leader who landed in a spot where he could have reacted with traditional liberal squeamishness on radical tendencies among Muslims has been Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor. To Tharoor’s credit, he refused to back down on his tweet about the possibility of there being some Malayali Taliban in Afghanistan, which created a backlash among liberals, who choose to ignore the reality that radicalized zealots have succeeded in mobilizing a few Kerala youth to join Jihad in Afghanistan and Syria. It was a good week for Tharoor – the courts have acquitted him of having any hand in his late wife Sunanda Pushkar’s untimely death, a charge pursued by pro-BJP media outlets.

Will the return of the Taliban and America’s exit from Afghanistan help the Americans consolidate their forces where they matter the most, or will it signal American weakness to China, Russia, and Islamist groups around the world, besides to American allies?

Is there some such thing as a reformed Taliban, which would refrain from letting terror groups operate on their soil and let a modicum of democracy filter through the giant umbrella of Sharia they have unfurled over Afghanistan?

The answers to such questions are open to debate. What is certain is that the Taliban have joined the Uttar Pradesh election campaign with full-throated zeal.

First Published in Substack India Last Week: 16-22 August 2021 | The Taliban Return in Afghanistan, join the campaign for Uttar Pradesh on August 15, 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

Read another piece on Retrospective Tax by T K Arun titled Retrospective Tax, Retrograde Social Values: Last Week in India | W31 2021 in IMPRI Insights

About the Author

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