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17 Feb 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis

1) Perverse Zeal


  • CONTEXT:
  1. The detention of Dr. Kafeel Khan under the National Security Act (NSA), within days of his being granted bail, betrays the perverse zeal with which the Uttar Pradesh government is hounding the suspended government doctor. 
  2. His arrest, at Mumbai airport, was in connection with an allegedly inflammatory speech he had made on the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Aligarh Muslim University in December 2019. 
  • CHARGES BEHIND ARREST:
  1. The Special Task Force of the U.P. police accused him of promoting enmity through his speech. 
  • FLAWED APPROACH:
  1. It was obvious that the flawed approach that treats criticism of government policy as though it is some anti-national activity was at work. 
  2. Although he was granted bail, he was not immediately released. 
  3. A few days later, the NSA was invoked against him, ostensibly to prevent him from acting in a manner prejudicial to public order. 
  • PAST CONNECTION:
  1. The paediatrician was sought to be blamed when oxygen shortage in the BRD Medical College Hospital led to nearly 60 children dying in 2017. 
  2. After he had spent months in jail, an internal inquiry absolved him of the charges of negligence and corruption. 
  3. However, the State government said he had not been given a clean chit. 
  4. A fresh departmental inquiry was ordered against him for “spreading misinformation” about the probe report, and some alleged “anti-government” remarks during his suspension.
  • MISUSE OF LAWS:
  1. Authorities invoked a stringent preventive detention law meant only for booking those whose activities constitute an imminent threat of violence shows that they are not content with prosecuting him. 
  2. If they were under a bona fide belief that his speech was provocative, they could have filed a charge sheet and let the court decide if it attracted Section 153A of the IPC. 
  3. The resort to preventive detention as soon as a person is granted bail, with the perverse purpose of continuing his imprisonment, is not uncommon in the country, but the practice is condemnable. 
  4. It normally indicates mala fide targeting by the administration concerned. 
  •  CONCLUSION:
  1. The latest instance of the resort to the NSA is aimed at inflicting disproportionate punishment on him for expressing political dissent on a supposedly forbidden subject. 
  2. It is regrettable that the police and the bureaucracy appear to act in wanton disregard for basic rights. 
  3. The relentless hounding of Dr. Khan is a blot on the country’s democratic credentials. 
  • D.Y. CHANDRACHUD, FORMER SC JUDGE:
  1. Protest and criticism directed at government policy do not amount to being anti-national, officials should pause before they are seen as enablers of the excesses of an authoritarian dispensation. 
  2. To invoke the NSA in cases where sections of the IPC would suffice is to undermine its efficacy as a tool to protect national security.

 

2) Hype Trumps Hope


  • CONTEXT:
  1. United States President Donald Trump arrives in India just about a month ahead of the 20th anniversary of the first India visit of a US President in the post-Cold War era. 
  • BACKGROUND:
  1. Arriving in March 2000, President Bill Clinton inaugurated a new phase in state-to-state bilateral relations between the US and India by implicitly recognising India’s nuclear power status.
  2. He opined that the line of control between India and Pakistan should be viewed as the international border so as to bury the “Kashmir issue” forever.
  3.  And increasing entry visas for Indians that has since contributed to the emergence of a sizeable community of Indian Americans.
  4. The Clinton visit occurred against the backdrop of a new assessment within the American strategic community of India’s potential role in the post-Cold War era and against the backdrop of the rise of China. 
  5. Condoleezza Rice reflected this new thinking in an important essay in the influential journal Foreign Affairs  in which she suggested that the rise of democratic India would be in the interests of the US and so the latter ought to be supportive of the former.
  • GEOPOLITICAL CONTEXT FOR US:
  1. The rise of China and of radical Islam and jihadi terrorism provided the geopolitical context, the growth of an increasingly open Indian economy provided the economic context. 
  2. Influenced by this new thinking, President George Bush took the next steps in strategic partnership and led the initiative to promote cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy that also explicitly recognised India as a nuclear weapons power. 
  3. As heads of state, Clinton and Bush altered US-India bilateral relations in a fundamental way.
  • OBAMA'S TENURE:
  1. President Barack Obama was the only US President to visit India twice during his tenure but his first visit only helped to make up for his earlier missteps — of not voting in favour of the US-India civil nuclear power agreement in the US Congress and then naming Richard Holbrooke as an emissary to sort out the “Kashmir issue”. 
  2. His second visit was more a recognition of the growing importance of people-to-people relations and aimed at promoting defence sales to India in the hope that the new “muscular” Indian leader, PM Modi, would spend more money on defence purchases. 
  3. During the nuclear deal negotiations, US Congresspersons would often suggest that it was a “123 for 126” deal — that is, they would vote in favour of the 123 agreement in Congress in the hope that India would buy 126 fighter jets from the US. 
  4. That hope remains as yet unfulfilled, with the French getting the Rafale deal and no decision taken on the purchase of US fighter jets.
  • PAUSE/DISRUPTION:
  1. While Obama finally came around to sticking to the Bush template, the credit for laying the foundation for a new and supportive post-Cold War relationship between the US and India goes singularly to President Bush. 
  2. The mutually beneficial framework that Bush helped create to promote the bilateral relationship has been rudely disrupted by the arrival of Donald Trump in Washington DC and the turn towards aggressive Hindu majoritarianism in India.
  • TRUMP'S ERA:
  1. Trump’s “America First” policy offers no space for offering India “special and differential” treatment on any front, least of all trade. 
  2. With per capita annual national income of US $60,000, Trump’s America has no qualms declaring India, with a per capita annual average national income of US $2,000 a “developed economy” not deserving of any leniency in trade policy. 
  3. To club China, a $15-trillion economy, with a $3-trillion India on the trade front is not just stupid but an affront to Indian sensibilities. 
  4. On the other hand, such backhanded compliments are a consequence of the premature celebration of India’s rise by a self-congratulatory elite.
  • DISAPPROVAL OF BUSH-RICE PARADIGM:
  1. It has to be recognised that neither Democratic liberals nor Republican conservatives are any longer willing to be supportive of the Bush-Rice paradigm that views India’s rise in benign and mutually beneficial terms. 
  2. The bipartisan consensus in the US on relations with India cuts both ways. It covers both the positives and the negatives in the relationship. 
  3. Today the relationship seems caught in the pincers between the inward-orientation of rightwing nationalists in both nations. 
  4. There is no reason as yet to believe that this unfortunate state of affairs will be altered by the Trump visit next week.
  • TRUMP'S NEW APPROACH:
  1. Trump has also moved away from the Clinton-Bush framework on India-Pakistan relations and moved closer to Obama’s initial approach of wanting to insert the US into the equation on Kashmir. 
  2. Trump’s motives are no different from those that initially drove Obama — namely, to appease Pakistan in the hope of securing a peaceful exit from Afghanistan. 
  3. Expect differences to persist. At best, India can hope to limit the damage Trump may do to strategic stability in the region.
  • US INVESTMENTS:
  1. There will be much talk about US investments in India and increased visas for Indians going to the US. Both are driven largely by US corporate interests. 
  2. Given the direction of the Modi government’s trade policy, one cannot expect any dramatic concessions being made. 
  3. The best India can do for the US is to buy more defence equipment and ease up on some trade restrictions. 
  4. Defence sales to India are an essentially commercial activity and much of it can go on even in the absence of strategic convergence and shared geopolitical perspectives. 
  5. The US has often armed both sides in a conflict, interested only in selling arms, not resolving disputes.
  • BRAIN DRAIN:
  1. Much is made of Indian Americans heading US multinationals and the Great Indian Diaspora in the US, and many of them get paraded around by politicians on such occasions but the fact is that they constitute a “brain drain” out of India, perhaps as big as the “drain of wealth” out of colonial India and into imperial Britain that Dadabhai Naoroji wrote about in the 19th century. 
  2. The continued neglect of education in India is increasing the outmigration of talent, offering the US a reservoir of talent. While the Indian elite celebrate this out-migration, the fact is that it is a drain on national resources.
  • CONCLUSION:
  1. In sum, therefore, with the supportive Bush-Rice doctrine defining the post-Cold War US-India partnership virtually abandoned, and the new Trump doctrine treating India as a “developed” economy, demanding parity on trade, bilateral relations have become uncertain and testy. 
  2. To hide the lack of substance in the relationship the Trump visit will focus on hype and Prime Minister Modi has perfected the art of diplomacy as mass entertainment.

 

3) China, the media and truth-telling in a crisis


  • CONTEXT:
  1. On February 3, Caixin, a Chinese magazine known forits independent reporting — at least as independent as a mediaoutlet can get in China — published the first of a four­part investigation.
  2. The article, headlined “How Wuhan lost the battle”, laid bare how a monthlong coverup allowed the novel coronavirus outbreak to spread,  while the Chinese public remained completely unaware. 
  3. That very same day, the lead story on the front page of the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, reported breathlessly on how a visit by China’s President Xi Jinping to a village in Qinghai province hadtransformed its fortunes. 
  4. That visit, incidentally, was in August 2016.

  • A WINDOW TO COVERAGE:
  1. The two contrasting stories fromtwo contrasting media outlets present a snapshot of how the mediain China is covering the novel coronavirus outbreak, which as of February 16 has infected more than 68,500 people and claimed 1,665 lives on the mainland.
  2. In India, there is a widespread assumption that the media in China is one,single, heaving, Communist Partycontrolled beast, where every article has to be signed off by the Politburo.
  3. Those perceptions, to be fair, have only deepened in the eight years since Mr. Xi took over the reins of the Party, a period that has seen a relentless tightening of controls over the media.
  4. The Wuhan outbreak has served a reminder that below the surface, the media landscape in China remains a contested terrain, and that when given the space to work, Chinese journalists can play a much­needed watchdog role.
  5. Unfortunately, as the crisis and cover­up has reminded us, finding this space has become all too rare.
  6. We now know, thanks to the reporting of Caixin, Caijing, the Beijing News and a few other outlets, that the crisis was unfolding in Wuhan’s hospitals throughout December, even as the city and provincial leadership hid the scale of the outbreak.
  7. As a doctor at the Wuhan Union Hospital told Caixin, clinics were being flooded since late December with as many as 900 patients a day showing pneumonia like symptoms.
  8. On December 30, eight doctors sent warnings on chat groups about the outbreak.
  9. Among the whistleblower doctors was Li Wenliang,an ophthalmologist.
  10. The eightwere hauled up by police forspreading rumours” and forced to sign statements withdrawing their claims.
  11. Moreover, a number of doctors and medical workers began falling ill, although hospitals barred doctors from disclosing this.
  12. The provincial government would maintain until January 20 that this viralpneumonia was under control andthere was no clear evidence of human­to­human transmissions — a premature and ill­considered statement that helped magnify the crisis. 
  13. Indeed, on January 19, thelocal government even held an annual community dinner for 40,000 families. 
  14. It was only the following day, when respected Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan revealed the scale of the crisis did Wuhan realise it was in the middle of an unprecedented outbreak.
  15. Dr. Zhong rose to fameduring the SARS or the SevereAcute Respiratory Syndrome fight,in 2002-03. 
  16. And just three days later, with little warning, the entire province of Hubei would be put inquarantine — from buffet dinner to complete lockdown in 96 hours.
  • STRUCTURE OF CONTROL:
  • We know these facts only thanks to the brave Chinese journalists who have been reporting relentlessly from Wuhan’s ground zero. 
  • What explains the return of Chinese investigative journalism?
  • Maria Repnikova, author of MediaPolitics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism, suggested in a recent article that the central government in Beijing has often deliberately granted limited space in times of crisis.
  • Doing soserves at least two purposes: releasing a pressure valve that helps assuage public anger and assess public sentiment, and helping the central government better identify the source of the problem when under­fire provincial officials would be more concerned about saving their careers.
  • The structure of control of Chinese media, to some extent, also enables such reporting. While the Hubei Party Committee would have direct control over media in their province, they have no such say over a magazine from Beijing or Shanghai.
  • This explains why media from other provinces have led the coverage. Of course, even this is only possible because Beijing temporarily sees it as in its interest to project what Ms. Repnikova calls “an image of managed transparency”.
  • Unfortunately, the space for such reporting is usually fleeting, as was the case after the Sichuanearthquake in 2008 and the highspeed railway accident in Wenzhou in 2011, that claimed 40 lives.
  • Indeed, there are already signs that the clampdown will resume. “The window now seems to be closing,” the China Media Project reported on February 5, citing aninternal government directive stating “reports concerning the epidemic must take [information from] authoritative departments as the standard”.
  • The death of the whistle­blower doctor Li Wenliang on February 7, after he had contracted the coronavirus, unleashed public rage on Chinese social media that was unprecedented on many levels.
  • Perhaps the only close parallel wasthe public response to the Wenzhou train accident.
  • But this time around, the scale was much larger, underlining the public anxiety andthe sense of immediacy of this crisis — anyone could be affected. 
  • OnWeChat, everyone, from businessmen and academics to taxidrivers and primary schoolteachers posted tributes to Li. 
  • The lyrics of “Do you hear the people sing” from Les Misérables went viral, and thephrase “freedom of speech” trended briefly on the Twitter­like social media website, Weibo, before censors stepped in.

  • POLITICAL IMPACT:
  • The current crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Party in the Xi era. 
  • The Party taking the unprecedented steps of showing, for the first time, videos of leadersspeaking at usually secretive Politburo Standing Committee meetings, and subsequently releasing on February 15 an internal speechby Xi, suggest it is more than a little concerned about how the public is looking at its response. 
  • In the speech, Mr. Xi said he had asearly as January 7 issued orders to deal with the crisis, a rare instance of him taking the step of actually explaining the Party’s actions to the public. 
  • He called for lessons tobe learnt, and for ensuring “societal control and security”. 
  • While aprolonged crisis could certainlyhurt the Party’s legitimacy, an early victory in the fight against coronavirus — which the world will be hoping for — could still end up as a rallying call for Mr. Xi ahead of the Party’s 100­year­anniversary in 2021. 
  • While the Party may well see more control as the answer, in the view of some Chinese, however, it is a systemic culture of secrecy that prides security above all else — one that only incentivises local officials to cover up, control their media, and maintain “stability” at all costs until a crisis has spiralled beyond control — that explains the Hubei provincial government’s actions. 
  • How else would they respond if “stability maintenance” is a leading criterion for a promotion?
  • In their view, transparency isthe solution, although one needonly look closer to home to conclude it is perhaps a necessary but not sufficient condition to dealwith such outbreaks, which require a robust and prepared health­care system too.

 

  • WINDS OF CHANGE?
  • Moreover, they see the stifling of independent Chinese voices as hurting the government’s own mission of trying to convince the world of its response.
  • When much of the media is state controlled and there are few independent outlets mediating China’s rapidly expanding engagement with the world, skepticism will likely abound overseas, even if Chinaironically has, at least since January 20, been far more transparent in handling the outbreak than it was during SARS 17­18 years ago.
  • To that end, a petition put forwardby academics from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, Mr. Xi’s alma mater, has now called to make February 7, the day of Dr. Li’s passing, a national day for freedom of speech.
  • It is perhapstoo early to tell where such callswill go, and whether the currentsense of anger will end up as fleeting as this revival of Chinese journalism.