Issue 23

A New Law Aims to Open Government Data to the Public. Can We Trust It to Deliver?

However unnerving the feeling of being surveilled is, collecting information about our interactions with the government has the potential to be immensely fruitful for journalists, researchers and the public. Whenever we fill out a government form or get our vaccinations done through public hospitals, the records we leave with them can be harnessed by those looking at it to trace back that interaction. Not only does this ensure transparency and accountability, but it can also be used to deduce important information about our economic and social reality.

Public institutions like government hospitals or the Statistical Ministry collect a massive bank of data from everyday operations and research. A new law, the Draft India Data Accessibility and Use Policy revealed on February 21 this year, has proposed to open this data to the public and controversially, put it up for sale in the private sector. Under this proposal, all data collected by every government body will be open by default unless specified otherwise and some other ‘special’ datasets will be out on the market. 

This move is in line with the international Open Government Data (OGD) movement which aims to liberate non-personal data collected by public entities and use it to formulate effective policy. According to the Working Group on Open Government Data at the Open Knowledge Foundation, OGD is essential for modern, democratic societies since it ensures readability, shareability, and transparency of government activities–citizens and civil society have the ability to peruse the state’s working together. 

While this sounds utopian for evidence-based policy-making, the historical records of governments generating, storing and releasing data in India have been muddy and many researchers have low levels of trust in the process. This is best illustrated by the Central Government’s ongoing fight with the WHO about the estimated pandemic deaths in the country. The WHO has estimated about four million excess covid deaths, which is in line with other scientific reports and shows staggering disparity when pitched against government data. The Center has disputed the report’s methodology and has itself come under fire for not providing coherent objections.

The story of India’s public data problem runs beyond the pandemic though, which has rightfully occupied our imagination for two years now. There are real issues with the way we collect data on the ground and they are not limited to emergencies like Covid. Long term policy goals like eradicating rabies by 2030 are getting stalled by the disaggregation of bodies responsible for collecting the relevant data and a lack of standardization. If two essential datasets generated by separate government offices do not use the same language or format, making them talk to each other and gain real insights becomes harder. 

Moreover, instead of obfuscating data to fend off criticisms, the government also has the option to simply not conduct the required surveys. The Household Consumer Spending Survey is one such important data collection drive which we have not heard of since 2011, until it was finally resumed this year. The National Statistical Office (NSO) is supposed to conduct the survey every five years but in 2017, the last time it was due, the NSO spoke of “data quality” issues that had prevented them from going forward with it. Many believe, however, that the survey was withheld due to an expected decline in consumer spending which would have reflected badly on the incumbent Modi government.

The overarching goal of OGD is instrumental–it is not only that government data should be open, but it also has to be actually useful. These foundational issues in how officials deal with data can make OGD platforms seem performative at best. The UN’s E-Governance survey conducted in 2020 which measured how robust a nation’s digital governance framework is relative to others placed India at the 100th rank amongst 193 countries included in the report. Without pooling resources to centralise, organise and secure the system that will eventually generate and carry the data, OGD might prove to be fruitless.

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Unsplash

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Issue 23

India’s Growth Prospects – Are They Really Deterred by Religious Majoritarianism and Polarisation?

In a recent statement, former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan warned that an “anti-minority” image could harm India’s growth prospects due to reduced demand for Indian products in the global market. Rajan’s comment came a day after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-controlled North Delhi Municipal Corporation abruptly demolished properties, most of them owned by Muslims, in Jahangirpuri on the pretext of illegal construction. It has, however, been widely perceived as ‘collective punishment’ against Muslims after communal clashes in the neighbourhood days ago. 

Over the past couple of years, several observers have noted increasing religious majoritarianism and polarisation in India, coinciding with the rise of the Hindu Nationalist BJP in 2014. In the last couple of weeks, the headlines have been occupied with the Hijab row and Halal row in Karnataka and communal violence across several states instigated by religious processions, bulldozing of properties owned by Muslims, and so on. It is well-documented that religious conflicts positively correlate with BJP’s electoral performance.

Several well-meaning people, like Dr Rajan, have argued that the rising religious majoritarianism will harm India’s growth prospects. There could be two kinds of motivations behind such reasoning. First, it could be the case that they firmly believe in the argument. Second, they are internally dubious about the intellectual robustness of their claim but see these arguments as doing their bit to mitigate the rising hatred. 

Assuming the case to be the former, there are no strong reasons to believe that there is any threat to overall economic growth. The current form of religious majoritarianism is insidious in that it is based on everyday humiliation and targeting of minorities, mainly Muslims, as opposed to widespread, large-scale violence. Hence, there is no significant risk for companies to operate from a safety and stability perspective as of yet. While some may engage in virtue signalling, they will continue to do business as long as it is profitable — irrespective of India’s “treatment of minorities” — just as they operate in countries like China and Saudi Arabia with the worst record on human rights. 

It was somewhat of a coincidence that the Modi government has proven incompetent in handling the economy, particularly during its first term. The consequentialist arguments about threats to growth failed to mobilise voters amid the worst economic decision-making, such as demonetisation and poorly executed Goods and Service Tax (GST). Such blunders are not necessarily a given. The government may be able to clean up its act on the economy and deliver reasonable growth; it seems to be on the right path. As economic growth picks up, these arguments become even weaker.

India recently signed a free trade deal with Australia and is eyeing one with Europe. The country almost doubled the number of unicorns in just ten months in 2021, from 37 to 71. The latest IMF projections also suggest a healthy growth of 8.2% for this fiscal year. In addition, the government has made bold progress on long-awaited issues such as the sale of Air India. Most importantly, it has not embarked on economically foolish misadventures like demonetisation.

India is also a key partner for the US to counter China. The cooperation between the two countries is set to continue becoming more robust, with positive economic prospects for India. This is also why comparisons with Western boycotts of Russian business are not reasonable. Besides, the Indian diaspora in the west — a large proportion of which are hardcore Modi supporters — will countervail such tendencies if it were to happen at all.

Is this the best India can do? Probably not. A cooperative and peaceful environment would most likely reap higher growth. That is, however, besides the point. Counterfactual thinking does not come to an average voter. So, as long as India can sustain some decent growth, voters are unlikely to make a connection between religious polarisation and lower-than-ideal economic performance. Instead, if anything, proper economic growth could further overshadow and mask the rising religious polarisation in the short-medium run.

This is precisely the flip side of the consequentialist arguments of religious tension being a threat to growth. What happens if and when the government can deliver decent economic growth? Does religious hatred become a non-issue then? 

There is no escaping the elephant in the room. The rising religious majoritarianism and polarisation need to be confronted. The opposition parties failed to mobilise voters under the government’s poor economic performance; it is unlikely they can touch on this challenging topic. Ultimately, these issues are better addressed locally through meaningful community and civil society bonds.

A group of Hindus and Muslims in Jahangirpuri took out a “tiranga yatra” to send a message of unity and peace following the violence. These are exactly the kinds of concrete bonds we need and provide a ray of hope amid grim developments. 

Fahad Hasin is an associate at IDinsight. He also writes on politics, policy and society. You can access his newsletter and writings in popular media here

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Issue 23

Uniting Hindus or Masking Brahminism –  Hindutva’s Narrowing Scope

Events in the country over the last month have really put to test the idea of India — from the violence erupting on the occasion of Ram Navami, to the hijab ban in certain schools and colleges, to the meat ban during Navaratri and the violence accompanying it. Even as activists and scholars ring alarm bells over the despairing condition of minorities in the country, the silence of the ruling party is deafening. While the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu ideology has never been a secret, there is something to be said about the scope and implications of this particular brand of communal violence. The ban on meat and meat shops, the roisterous ‘Jai Shree Ram’ chants, and the timing of these ‘clashes’ during certain Hindu festivals is telling of a very narrow conception of Hindu majoritarianism — Brahminical Hinduism, to be precise. 

This assessment, however, is directly in contradiction with a long list of political analysts whose line of argument in defense of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology is that it has managed to ‘unite’ Hindus across caste lines. The very definition of Hindutva is as an amorphous Hindu ‘culture’ and a way of life, as opposed to as a religion, according to one of its progenitors V.D. Savarkar – himself a Marathi Brahmin. The primary evidence for this argument of Hindutva unity comes from the BJP’s seemingly caste-blind electoral mobilization, propelled by support from its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Caste in Indian politics often crops up only as an electoral issue, and even then it is criticized for being used as a ‘vote-bank’ by political parties. The sweeping majorities garnered by the BJP and its vehemently Hindu majoritarian doctrine have led many scholars, such as Vinay Sitapati, to comment on the ‘new’ idea of Hinduism fostered by the party. According to Sitapati, the RSS was ‘radical’ in its construction of a ‘unified’ Hindu identity that rested on electoral politics – he calls it the ‘Hindu fevicol’ phenomenon. 

More colloquial arguments for Hindutva’s unifying factor are made by BJP leaders themselves during electoral rallies, who pat themselves on the back for moving India towards ‘casteless’ elections. Regardless of these spurious assertions and the tokenistic meals at Dalit households before elections that all politicians (including BJP) partake in, the truth of the matter is that the essence of Hindutva is Brahminical. It was conceptualized and pursued by a party whose leaders were predominantly Brahmins, such as Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, and Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Moreover, the Hindu ‘culture’ that the RSS and BJP emphasize is but a slightly masked version of Brahminical culture. 

The argument about BJP’s attempted unity across Hindus might hold true in terms of electoral mobilization — the BJP has made inroads into caste vote-banks and managed electoral wins but they are just that. They’re not indicative of a shift in Hindutva’s caste inclusivity, but a facade of nationalistic unity propped up by the BJP in the name of uniting against an ‘other’, in this case, a communal other i.e. Muslims. This farcical unity though has not brought about any changes within Hinduism’s own hierarchical structures, and the BJP should not be credited for that. The present spate of violence has shown what has always lied at the core of the Hindutva narrative, which is an exclusionary upper-caste notion of Hinduism and its principles of purity and pollution. 

Renowned academic Kancha Ilaiah’s book Why I Am Not A Hindu succinctly explains how the popularised ideas of Hinduism are largely upper-caste, and how Dalit conceptualizations of Hindu culture and practices are much more diverse and inclusive. He mentions (and statistics supplement) how vegetarianism is a restrictive practice only followed by a minority in the country, and especially only upper-castes in Hinduism. Even the worship of Lord Ram is not unanimously prevalent across the country’s social communities, and Ilaiah talks about his Dalit-Bahujan community and the various other gods they worship like Virappa and Pochamma. Even their rituals involved pouring alcohol and sacrificing animals, which aren’t seen as conventional Hindu practices according to Brahmins. 

The BJP and the RSS may try to peddle the idea of Hindutva as a ‘way of life’ to its voters, but the actions perpetrated by and in the name of Hindutva reinforce the upper-caste origins of the ideology. Even if we were to accept the RSS’s argument about Hindutva’s focus on Hindu culture rather than Hindu religion, logic would force us to reckon with the fact that the RSS’s idea of Hindu culture is limited, and derived from the religion itself. As for Hindu religion, historical experience and facts cannot deny that it is a deeply undemocratic religion. How then can we ever hope to run a democratic country on its basis? 

Akanksha Mishra is a third-year undergraduate student of political science and media studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 22

Sri Lanka’s State and Economy Are Crumbling. Could This Be the Watershed Moment for State Reform?

Despite being South Asia’s oldest democracy, having constituted a universal franchise as early as 1931, the island nation of Sri Lanka is far from donning the hat of a stable one and the path toward democratic prosperity remains murky.

The country has seen a bloody civil war between the minority separatist Tamil Hindu community and the ruling Sinhala Buddhist majority from 1983 to 2009. Post-war, its polity has been turning the page for the worse toward an authoritarian and hyper-militarized state under the stewardship of the Rajapaksa family, which has sowed its members in multiple important government positions.

The frontrunner of the family and Sri Lanka’s current President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has today found himself at the centre of boiling anger on the streets over his mismanagement of the economy, leading to the biggest economic crisis since the country’s independence in 1945. 

Ailing with a host of structural issues within the state machinery of Sri Lanka, ordinary citizens who had put their faith in the Rajapaksa government’s Sinhalese nationalist project are starting to turn against the dynasty rule. Change in this nation seems eminent, but what does change look like? To answer this question, we can begin by understanding how the post civil-war state was set up to create conditions for a failing state and the on-ground situation during the current economic crisis.

The Governance Crisis

While most media outlets have been focusing on the economic aspects of this crisis, Sri Lanka had been going through a much more deep-rooted crisis of governance that has set up the stage for its near collapse. Since 2009, when the ruling Sinhalese nationalist government decisively and unexpectedly defeated the separatist group Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Rajpaksas have been in power for most of the period. The current president’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president from 2005 to 2015 and is now the prime minister. In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency with 52% of the vote share and his party, the Sri Lanka People’s Front or SLPP enjoyed a supermajority in the parliament. 

This grip that the Rajapaksa family have had over the Sri Lankan state has resulted in policies that mainly benefit the ruling family and the Sinhalese majority. Violence against the Hindu Tamil minority and the even smaller Muslim and Catholic minority groups has been well documented. Since a major source of employment for the Sinhalese community is in the military, there has been widespread acceptance of increased military presence on the streets and further colonisation of the country’s Northern and Eastern provinces, where the minority population is concentrated. 

Infrastructure and other investments taken under this government have resulted in numerous dead or sinking assets for the state. Not only is this affair costly for the public, who pay for the Rajapaksa’s self-aggrandization (for example, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Cricket Stadium), it distracts from actual governance projects which have been given petty attention. Even civil society organizations have been silenced, journalists have ‘disappeared’ and political opponents have been humiliated. 

Civilians, even those who have previously supported the government’s agenda, have now come out to protest against Gotabaya. The slogan most prominent during protests is “Go Home Gota” after every other member than the president and his brother had resigned from the cabinet, including the finance minister who was sworn in just a day before. The public sentiment right now seems to be to oust the Rajapska family and move on. 

The Economic Crisis

The most jarring tell of the true severity of this crisis can be seen on the streets in the country’s capital Columbo. The city has been plunged into darkness with electricity cuts lasting for more than ten hours at a time. Essential supplies are sparse to find, including food and medicine – this has caused massive queues at shops and many hospitals have had to cancel routine services. 

For Sri Lanka’s poorest, the situation is unforgiving — most people have to make the choice between standing in long lines or going to work. Transport is also in peril because of fuel insufficiency, there simply is not enough energy to power public transport or for taxis and rickshaws to make even a marginal earning. Prices for every good on the market have soared due to inflation. The middle class, despite having its safety net of household savings, has not been spared from this wide-reaching conflict.

On the macroeconomic level, the country’s foreign reserves of the US Dollar have been depleted to three times its sovereign debt due to the tourism sector–the major source of dollar earnings for the nation — being hit hard during the pandemic. This has led to banks being unable to finance the import of the essential items that have disappeared from the market shelves. 

A shortage of the dollar also means that Sri Lanka will be unable to pay back the $51 billion debt it has taken from other countries and thus has led international agencies to downgrade the country’s credit rating. This has added to its woes by effectively cutting it off from international credit markets. 

What’s next?

Looking at this monumental crisis from a comprehensive state, society and economy angle we can deduce that this really does appear to be a tipping point for Sri Lanka. Though, if we have learnt any lessons from the Arab Spring, we know that authoritarian leaders who have embedded their power deep into the structure of the state can quash widespread protests. It is now up to Sri Lankans to consolidate their anger across ethnic and religious lines to have a successful watershed moment.

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Balkan Times

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 21

On Russia-Ukraine, India is Boxed in by History and Geopolitics

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February – the first military attack on any European country since the Second World War – might have sharpened the growing rift between Moscow and the West. But, for India, it has thrown up a delicate diplomatic moment. New Delhi today finds itself awkwardly lodged between two major camps, both of which are crucial for its evolving geopolitical, regional and national interests. The net outcome has been India taking a firmly neutral stance on the invasion – neither supporting nor condemning it.

At the same time, the civil society and intelligentsia in India remains fractured on how to interpret the crisis. Factions supporting and condemning Moscow’s actions have emerged across the political spectrum, even creating some unlikely congruences between camps that are otherwise sworn ideological foes. This divide shows the complexity of the current situation and how Russian actions will continue to be seen differently by different groups of people around the world.

Even before the invasion, India offered a middle-point view at the UN Security Council in its meetings on 31 January, 17 February and 21 February (following Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s blustering pre-invasion speech). It called for de-escalation through diplomatic dialogue, respect for the UN Charter, the safety of Indian students in Ukraine, and “legitimate security interests of all parties”. The last point, particularly, has been interpreted by many, especially Western commentators, as India taking Russia’s side in the conflict. The reality, however, is more complex.

India’s arguably ‘neutral’ stance hasn’t dropped from the sky. It flows from a fairly long foreign policy tradition going back to the Cold War period, which has actively professed the idea of not siding with any major power bloc. Yet, as history shows, this nonalignment tradition has, in reality, encouraged a tilt towards the Soviet (and later Russian) bloc. We see the vestiges of that peculiar legacy playing out once again today.

Historical path dependency

India and the then Soviet Union developed a uniquely intimate relationship right from the first half of the Cold War. Despite his avowedly nonaligned foreign policy, it was clear from the beginning that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru preferred the Soviet bloc over the US-led Western bloc. Moscow’s generous financial aid to India was pivotal to his government’s industrialisation and institution-building plans. Notably, Moscow also used its sway over the Communist Party of India to help tame the anti-government insurgency that had become a headache for Nehru.

New Delhi’s tilt towards the USSR was further aided by the strong socialist thinking in influential sections of the Nehru government, including the Prime Minister himself and his Defence Minister, Krishna Menon. The fact that the US had begun to move closer to Pakistan further pushed India towards the Kremlin. These factors played a decisive role in setting the foundations for an enduring India-Soviet (later Russia) relationship.

Then in the early 1960s, India started buying the optimally-priced MiG-21 fighter jets from the Soviets, thus upgrading its air combat fleet by multiple factors. That heralded what was to become an era-defining defence and technical partnership covering both conventional military and nuclear technology transfers.

Over the next few decades, India and the USSR continued to back each other diplomatically at the international stage with great consistency – either actively supporting each other’s actions or staying silent. From refusing to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to staying neutral on its invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, New Delhi took great care to keep Moscow in its good books. The USSR returned the favour by backing New Delhi on a range of sticky issues – from the first nuclear tests in 1974 to the annexation of Sikkim next year.

Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, New Delhi and Moscow inked the landmark ‘India-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation’ in 1971. The pact, designed to counter the growing partnership between the US, Pakistan and China, played a key role in moulding the geopolitics around the Bangladesh Liberation War. As some scholars argue, it gave Prime Minister Gandhi the conviction to intervene with military force in East Pakistan without the fear of an adverse response by the US-China-West Pakistan axis.

This “reciprocity of silence” – as Professor Ramesh Thakur, who currently teaches at the Australian National University, once described the relationship – didn’t change after the fall of the USSR. The Kremlin refused to condemn India’s second nuclear tests in 1998 (Pokhran-II) and also stayed neutral on the Kargil conflict next year.

More recently, India took a neutral position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, emphasising on “legitimate Russian and other interests” – which, interestingly, is similar to India’s insistence on “legitimate security interests of all parties” in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. India also backed Russian military involvement in Syria through the last decade. This was followed by a raft of Russian support or neutrality on India – such as Moscow refusing to back Beijing on the 2017 Doklam standoff, backing India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, and taking on a mediatory role in the 2020 Galwan clashes.

This closely woven bilateral history and the mutual path dependency that it spawned make it nearly impossible for either party to jettison the relationship over a single crisis.

 Strategic compulsions and geopolitical dilemmas

A critical part of the mutual path dependency is India’s reliance on Russia for military hardware. A significant chunk of India’s core military platforms across all the three services – from fighter jets and main battle tanks to submarines and frigates – are built on Soviet- and Russian-developed technology. In 2010, the two countries upgraded their relationship to a “special and privileged strategic partnership” and since then, according to SIPRI data, nearly 62% of India’s arms imports have been Russian. In the same period, India has emerged as the biggest customer for Russian arms in the world, accounting for nearly 32% of all of Moscow’s exports.

If India wants to maintain its current offensive, defensive, deterrence and power projection capabilities, it cannot junk this key defence partnership. Just four years back, India bought five S-400 air defence systems from Russia, which will upgrade its deterrence capability against a rapidly modernising Chinese army next door. Last December, during Putin’s visit to New Delhi, both countries signed a ten-year defence cooperation pact, as part of which India will indigenously manufacture more than 500,000 AK-203 assault rifles.

Russian military technology is also crucial for India’s own arms export plans, which it wants to double down on over the next few years. The recent US$375 million deal for the sale of three batteries of the BrahMos missile, which is manufactured under an Indo-Russian joint venture, to the Philippines and the “gifting” of a Soviet-made Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar in 2020 are only two recent examples. Other countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have also expressed interest in buying the BrahMos to boost their strategic deterrence capabilities.

While the import of Russian arms might have dipped over the last decade, that doesn’t mean India can suddenly cut itself loose from Russia and switch to other buyers. Yes, it certainly needs to find other sellers in the long term so as to decrease its overreliance on Russian hardware, but it simply doesn’t have the capability to undertake a system-wide shift in the short term. Further, Indian arms imports have generally fallen between 2011-15 and 2016-20; so, the fall in Russian imports doesn’t suggest any long-term trend yet.

However, India needs to be cognisant of the adverse impact of Western sanctions on Russian defence exports. Although Moscow has assured India that its supplies will continue, there is little doubt that the sanctions will hinder its capacity to deliver on time. Preliminary indications of this happening have already surfaced, even as India’s Department of Military Affairs (DMA) initiates an audit to assess the damage. The need for India to diversify its import strategy has become doubly imperative now.

Despite immediate hiccups, New Delhi needs Moscow’s rapport with Beijing to keep tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) manageable. The manner in which India reached out to Putin during the Galwan clashes in 2020 shows this. Interestingly, on 4 March, senior Indian Army officers hinted at the possibility of a Ukraine-like situation afflicting the LAC. This is not just a recognition of the lingering Chinese threat, but could also be seen as India’s tacit message of disapproval for Moscow’s cross-border aggression.

India also cannot ignore the ramifications of its neutrality on its relationship with the West, which has emerged as a crucial partner for New Delhi on domains such as the Indo-Pacific. On 3 March, amidst the crisis, all members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – India, Japan, Australia and the US – met virtually and briefly discussed its core agendas while noting that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states” have to be respected. This showed that the Quad and other Indo-Pacific collectives will sustain in the near term, despite the crisis. The West has its own autonomous objectives in the Indo-Pacific, and it needs India to achieve those.

In all, there is little doubt that Russia’s Ukraine invasion will trigger some significant, if not tectonic, shifts in geopolitical and geostrategic thinking amongst big, middle and small powers. India today lies somewhere between the first two, which is a very awkward place to be at the moment. If India fails to reconcile with the complex new realities that this crisis is bound to create, it will continue to find itself on thin ice every time a global crisis of this nature rears its head.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Picture Credits: DW

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Issue 21

Russia-India Oil Deal: A Question of National Interest or Morality?

On March 22nd, India’s top oil refiner Indian Oil Corporation hiked the prices of petrol and diesel after almost 140 days of stalling. This comes after a massive surge in global crude oil prices–the key factor in determining domestic fuel rates–driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent Western sanctions on Russian-sourced oil. 

Despite these sanctions, the Indian Oil Corporation recently purchased three million barrels of crude oil from Russia at discounted rates–something that has not sat well with Western leaders. Jen Psaki, US President Joe Biden’s spokesperson, said on Monday regarding the issue that while the US understands the economic reasoning, “the rest of the world, is watching where you’re going to stand as it relates to conflict, whether its support for Russia in any form“. 

Reactions like these, that highlight India’s need for oil yet urge the country to look beyond economic needs, have caused great uproar among some commentators and the Indian government alike. They claim that since India imports 85% of its oil needs, the decision to buy Russian oil was one of necessity and not one of active choice. Further, fingers have also been pointed at European nations that continue to buy Russian oil in large quantities.

The debate surrounding this controversial purchase has mostly been framed around the tension between a country’s ‘legitimate economic interests’ and morality. The implication is that by purchasing Russian Oil, India is inadvertently funding Putin’s war machine. So, what exactly are India’s ‘legitimate economic interests’ here?

India, as a developing country, has a large middle class that is very sensitive to income shocks, i.e. a steep fall in income due to events like rising crude oil prices. High prices for oil on the global market means that the cost for almost everything increases (inflation) since most industries depend on oil products. This leads to people ultimately having less money in their pockets because incomes remain constant while expenses increase dramatically. 

Understandably, a population with less money is prone to civil unrest. A harrowing example of this is Sri Lanka, which is battling its worst economic crisis since the nation’s inception and the subsequent public unrest. Among other factors, surging oil prices have left the country dry of petrol and diesel in its fuel stations. The government has now called in the army after two men were reported to have died while waiting for petrol.

This could explain why the Indian government has been firm in its aim to avoid oil insufficiency. A recent paper by Economist Pranjul Bhandari calculated the effects on the Indian economy if oil were to be priced at $100 per barrel for an extended period. The paper forecasted around a one per cent decrease in India’s GDP if that were the case. To put that yardstick into context, the current prices are above $115. These are India’s legitimate economic interests. But, does buying oil from Russia actually fund its military capacity?

Vladimir Putin has been the de facto head of state for Russia for more than 20 years now. In that time he has built around himself a helpful cadre of Billionaires and Oligarchs who fund his political and military endeavours. Many of these people are in the oil business and hence, when Indian companies buy oil from them, the money does go into Putin’s vault indirectly. 

Although, as pointed out in Rajya Sabha by Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri, India imported less than 1% of its annual requirement from Russia last year. So the impact of Indian purchases on Russia’s military capacity seems minuscule. This is especially low in comparison to the European Union, which relies on Russia for 27% of its crude oil. India is buying oil from Russia only because it is cheap oil and not because it is Russian oil. 

It must also be pointed out that the Western concern that this move signals India’s affinity towards Russia is not fiction. Over the years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin have developed close personal ties. This is arguably one of the reasons Joe Biden has gone on record to call India’s confrontation with Russia “shaky”. Taking into account India’s abstentions at the UN and the fact that the country is considering a direct Rupee-Rouble corridor to bypass US Dollar based sanctions, this fear does not seem beyond a reasonable doubt.

Moreover, Professor of Political Science Oleksandr Svitych has pointed out in an opinion article that even from a utilitarian perspective, showing overt solidarity with the tightly banded NATO countries also has economic benefits. Put plainly, siding with the ‘good’ side has long term benefits of cooperation and progress. In the meanwhile, India can source its oil from other oil-producing nations and bear the cost of ‘good’ behaviour for later returns.

This liberal internationalist perspective misses one crucial point though. None of the top ten oil-producing countries, barring Canada, have a great track record of human rights. The list includes Saudi Arabia, the largest exporter of oil to India, which has consistently conducted unlawful airstrikes in Yemen. This fact effectively makes it so that if India were to start buying more oil from countries like the UAE or Kuwait in lieu of Russian oil, we would still be funding unlawful killings, unjust wars and brutal autocrats. Since switching producers does not solve the problem of giving money to bad actors, we can just buy from the cheapest autocract around, the argument goes. In this case, the cheapest autocrat happens to be Vladimir Putin. 

Thus, it would be economically and politically imprudent for India to not buy oil from Russia at this moment. Though, India does need to come out with a stronger stance on Ukraine for us to be able to shelter the western anger over it in the long term. 

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Wikimedia Commons

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 21

Tax-Free Films: A “Larger” Message or the Government’s Message?

A palpable sense of desperation and anguish fills the hall. Then, the Indian flag slowly unfurls. The audience waits with bated breath. They wait for that moment — when the emotion on the screen mirrors the turmoil in their hearts. The music swells as 170,000 Indians are rescued from Kuwait and brought back home. Immersed in that moment with our eyes glossy and wide, leaned forward in our seats, and our hearts filled with joy, it is hard not to acknowledge the power of cinema.

Airlift (2016) is a film that follows Ranjit Katyal’s and Air India’s efforts to lead the evacuation of thousands of Indians from Kuwait (when Iraq invaded the country). It is patriotic, sentimental, and has a powerful message. With this message, the film ceases to be merely entertainment, and instead, it becomes part of a larger cause. The state then responds to this media in a way that clearly signifies its support: through subsidies. However, is it always a “larger” message that prompts this response? Is it on the whim of the government that a film reaps the benefits of being tax-free, or are there political, social, or sentimental undercurrents that influence this decision?

In India, the goal of making a movie tax-free is to lower the cost of the ticket so that more people can watch it. When a state declares a film tax-free, they are willing to let go of their share of the tax, whereas the Centre still receives their share. A tax-free stamp often increases the film’s publicity and reach. On March 19th, Savita Raj Hiremath, one of the producers of the film  Jhund (2022), questioned why her film was not made tax free. Jhund is based on the life of Vijay Barse, the founder of NGO Slum Soccer. The film is about caste and economic disparity, underprivileged children, opportunity, and it clearly points to a social message. Hiremath argued the same when she said that the film had a subject that is “crucial to our country’s growth”. The remarks were in response to the film The Kashmir Files (2022), which was released a week after Jhund and was made tax-free in multiple states. The crux of the matter here is not whether the former is a better film than the latter but whether there is a criterion that determines when one film gets benefits over the other. 

In 2020 (right before the pandemic hit the country), 22 feature films made it to the Uttar Pradesh government’s subsidy list, so that they could benefit from the government’s film policy. The list included six Bhojpuri films and movies such as Anaarkali of Aarah (2017), Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana (2017), Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018), and Behen Hogi Teri (2017). Critics state that Anaarkali of Aarah  is a feminist narrative that has a strong message and focuses on the big picture of sexual assault and consent. The other films on the list, such as Behen Hogi Teri and Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana, do not have any clear or powerful social message, but they have been shot in locations in Uttar Pradesh. Moreover, Anurag Kashyap’s Saand Ki Aankh (2019), which was declared tax-free the previous year by the UP government, did not make it into the list. Saand Ki Aankh promotes women’s sportsmanship as it is about two women in their sixties – from Uttar Pradesh – who learn the art of shooting and win various accolades. However, despite its social message, it was speculated that the BJP government did not include the film because Kashyap had then spoken against the new citizenship law.

In the past, various other films have received tax-free status in India. Dangal (2016) is a film about two sisters who are trained in wrestling by their father, after which they represent India and win at the Commonwealth Games. It was declared tax free in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Haryana. The Chief Minister of Haryana also announced that because the film promotes “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, the government decided to make it tax-free. Other subsidised films, such as Bajirao Mastani (2015), Sarbjit (2016), Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), and Tanhaji (2020), are nationalistic and patriotic. Mary Kom (2014) and Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2017) are biopics about inspirational sports icons. Mom (2017) and Nil Batey Sannata (2016) are feministic and support women. Padman (2018) and Toilet Ek Prem Katha (2017) support the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, a clean India mission launched by the government in 2014.  Some films have a message, while some are shot in a particular state, and some do not receive benefits due to ongoing political movements. Some are feministic, sports-themed, patriotic, or support government schemes. Yes, most of the subsidised films have a message. However, it also seems completely arbitrary, because there is no fixed criterion. 

With no set ground rules, the government supporting a film to be tax-free seems to be dependent on their choice, and the message they want the majority of the population to pay attention to. Cinema can often be polarising and evocative, and when a film gets the state’s support, their reach becomes much more powerful. In such a diverse country, where forms of art such as film shed light on innumerable points of views, it is important to note which voices are getting highlighted by the government and which are not. There is a fine line between supporting a film and pushing an agenda through the film, and it seems that subsidy is that fine line. The state has the power through subsidies, but so does cinema – through its narrative. Perhaps to balance this power, it is necessary that certain rules be drawn regarding which films get tax-free status. One can argue that it is the nature of the cinema to be enigmatic in its meaning, thus making it harder for one to put it in a box that categorises it as “tax-free”. However, that does not mean that it cannot be done.

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Shree Bhattacharyya

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 20

The Economic Cost of Putin’s March Towards Kyiv

Tense security reports had been trickling in for months that Russia’s autocrat President, Vladimir Putin, was growing alarmingly restless about Ukraine’s affinity to the West. As early as November 2021, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia of “costs” if long-standing peace on the European continent was disturbed.

The talk surrounding this conflict, which took its full form on February 24, has often hinged around economic terms like ‘costs’. That’s no surprise since the coming of war in any part of the world induces sudden and potentially deep bruises on economies. After a draining pandemic, world leaders and economic institutions have been flurrying to balance tough economic war efforts and save national economies from being hurt. 

Joseph Borrell, the foreign affairs chief of the European Union, heralded on the eve of Russia’s march towards Kyiv that the bloc would impose the strictest economic sanctions it ever has against Russia. It was clear, that economic sanctions–actions by countries to hurt the economic interests of belligerent countries–would be the prime bargaining token against Putin. Though, critics have always pointed out that sanctions also hurt the economies of countries imposing them–sometimes considerably more. In our hyperconnected and intricately interdependent world, the ‘hurt’ brought on by sanctions is felt across regions and borders. How has this Catch-22 impacted lives? 

First, let’s put Russia’s place in the world economy into perspective. The largest country on Earth also harbours the largest natural gas reserves in the world, second largest coal reserves and eighth-largest oil reserves. According to OECD data, trade counts for more than 25% of Russia’s nominal GDP and energy accounts for half of that trade. In short, the world is heavily dependent on Russian energy to fuel its economy.

This is why European leaders like German Economy Minister Robert Habeck have resisted sanctions on Russian energy. Other sanctions have already caused a “big impact” on all sectors of the German economy, he said. Despite the German caution, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s February 6 announcement that embargoes on Russian oil were being considered drove up oil prices to historic highs. 

Crude oil is crucial. We not only use its products in our private cars and homes, but almost all other goods need it as production fuel. Each good also needs transportation. This means that as oil prices skyrocket, prices for almost everything also rise. Indian Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman has expressed her concerns that such flaring oil prices could impact the provisions in the Union Budget presented last month. 

In the short term, consumers have largely been sheltered from rising prices. Domestic prices for oil have remained unchanged. Though, worries about the long-term effect of the conflict on India’s growth are abounding with some economists projecting a growth rate of less than 8% in FY23. Jayanth R Varma, Economist and member of India’s Monetary Policy Committee, has also called attention to inflation rates in light of the unpredictable conflict. 

Key industries in India also depend upon trading goods with Russia and Ukraine. In the last financial year, Bilateral imports and exports between India and Russia amounted to $9.4 Billion and with Ukraine, to $2.3 Billion. A slowdown in trade with the affected States due to sanctions has increased the domestic prices of automobile components, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, agricultural products, and telecom equipment since the outbreak of the war. The exclusion of Russia from SWIFT, a system used by most major international banks to coordinate cross-border transactions, has also led to insecurity for Indian exporters about the $400 million currently stuck in the system. The uncertainty of Putin’s next moves and the subsequent retaliation by Western powers has also spooked the financial markets with value of the Rupee plunging to historic lows

The bridle that economists and leaders have been trying to put on a frenzying economy after a devastating pandemic has been greatly disrupted by the unpredictability of the war. While Ukrainians face the military might and imperialist dreams of Vladimir Putin, officials at home now have the task to control inflation, secure alternative routes to trading while walking a diplomatic tightrope and hope for a soothed financial market. 

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Reuters

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Issue 20

Hindutva Beyond Politics: The Rise of an Alternate Pop-Culture in India

The rise of Hindutva, especially in the past seven years, has proved that it is not only a political or electoral phenomenon. The ideology of Hindutva, a blend of creating a purely Hindu nation-state while othering non-Hindus, has today penetrated all levels of our social systems and democratic setup. It has infused exclusionary values of religious nationalism in our bureaucratic institutions, bent large parts of the judicial system in its favour, has completely encapsulated the media ecosystem to propagate its ideology, and is working towards saffronising Indian academia. However, nothing represents Hindutva’s deep dive into shaking the foundations of an imagined liberal and secular India more than the evolution of popular culture in the past seven years. 

The vandalisation of the sets of Padmaavat, protests against the release of the film Sexy Durga and its eventual ban, protests against the film PK, are only a few examples of the intolerant and reactionary attitude of Hindutva organisations towards art and artists. However, the attempt to influence popular culture has gone beyond mere mob reactions. There is a concerted effort to demand a nationalistic and often Hindutva narrative from the cultural industries. 

For instance, the number of nationalistic movies that were released in the years 2018 and 2019 is insightful, especially given that was the election year and the BJP government was at the peak of its popularity. Aiyaary, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, Satyameva Jayate, Kesari, Uri – The Surgical Strike, Bharat, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi are the most notable ones. Each of these movies either portrays the Indian army’s valour or represent a version of India’s past that espoused religious nationalistic pride. 

Whether or not these films had any impact on the results of the 2019 General Elections, where BJP expanded its majority in the parliament, is debatable. But the fact that there was an overflow of superhit nationalistic movies in 2018 and 2019, reflects that Bollywood producers are seeing opportunity in the film market where there is commercial benefit in making nationalistic films. Furthermore, the rise of actors like Kangana Ranaut, who minces no words in expressing her love for Hindutva, has to be seen in the context of the expanding influence of Hindutva in the cultural industry. Both these phenomenons; a rise in the number of nationalistic movies, and the emergence of Hindutva superstars, indicate the extent to which the ideology has been infused in our cultural trends and media discourse. To top this all, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has declared that a film city will be created in Noida, possibly a sign that Hindutva is willing to challenge Bollywood’s hegemony over Indian culture.

Hindutva’s ascendance in popular culture is also visible in the most prominent cultural wars that have emerged in the past few years. Take for example the entire debate on nepotism and the alleged drug mafia in Bollywood. A debate that emerged in the backdrop of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, this debate soon transformed into a slugfest of targeting specific superstars who may have been perceived to be against Hindutva. Similarly, the arrest of Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan, can also be understood in the same context. It is not only its attempt to shape the narrative of popular culture, but Hindutva has also succeeded in creating a civil society in its favour that is willing to aid them in manufacturing cultural wars on the pretext of cultural issues, such as the nepotism debate. While it is indeed true that Bollywood as an industry remains extremely inaccessible to most of the country, and the art it produces continues to lack diversity, it is also important to note that Bollywood’s failure itself offers an opportunity for Hindutva to expand its cultural agenda.

Hindutva civil society is also moving towards the production of an alternate popular culture that is committed to its ideology. Consider the rising popularity of Hindutva pop music for instance. Laxmi Dubey is a singer from Madhya Pradesh whose songs have lyrics that espouse Hindu nationalist ideas. Some of her most popular songs are titled Fir Modi Ko Lana Hai, Har Ghar Bhagwa Chhayega, Yogi Aditya Nath Gatha. Each of these songs amassed at least 2 million views on YouTube. Another singer, Sanjay Faizabadi, is equally popular, with some of his most popular songs on YouTube being; Pakistan Hila Denge (16 million views), Har Hindustani Chahe Pure Pakistan Ko (10 million views), Lehrayenge Tiranga Lahore Mein (4.5 million views). The videos of their songs are filled with visual effects of saffron pride, the Indian army bombing its enemies, and often feature BJP leaders like Modi, Shah, and Adityanath. Apart from artists like Dubey and Faizabadi, there are numerous lesser-known artists and content creators who produce music, videos, and memes, in relatively low quality but follow a firm pattern of propagating Hindutva ideas. The scale of production of such xenophobic, bigoted, and chauvinistic music or art, and the popularity it has gained is unprecedented. 

That there is a concerted attempt by Hindu nationalist organisations to take over popular culture is amply clear. However, the disconcerting fact is the pace at which the production of an alternate popular culture is emerging. While an industry like Bollywood is relatively inaccessible for artists and production companies prioritise profit over any ideology, platforms such as YouTube and Spotify give artists like Dubey and Faizabadi an opportunity to share their music and gain a following, not to mention the inordinate amount of Hindutva content that is produced in Instagram and Facebook daily by other Hindu nationalists accounts. 

In India, however, cultural clout has a catch named diversity. The sheer diversity in our country, and internal diversity in each state, render an attempt to homogenise and dominate culture almost impossible. Cultural identities are so ingrained in every Indian community or social group, that it is hard to imagine Hindutva pop-culture dominating national culture on its own. Unlike Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Russia’s success in dominating culture through propaganda, similar projects in India may yet again be saved by the sheer strength of our cultural diversity. 

While Bollywood has largely surrendered itself to the pressures of a Hindu nationalist government, film and music industries of other languages across different states may provide suitable resistance to Hindutva. The solution to such an onslaught on popular culture is in diversifying the output in our popular culture. After all, culture persists only when it connects to people.

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes a keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media, art and culture. 

Picture Credits: YouTube

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Issue 20

What is Ukraine’s Best Bet?

In a brazen show of utter disregard for a democratic country’s sovereignty, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will go down as a dark moment in modern history, remembered for times to come. 

Over the last few months and amidst the current escalation, seasoned experts have incessantly been speculating regarding President Putin’s primary motivations behind launching this invasion. There is no clear answer. There is no dearth of historic and contemporary political explanations to contextualize these developments. To be fair, the reality could be congruent with any of these developments, or a combination. While it is surely important to understand the roots of this decision, pragmatically, the major concern right now is Ukraine defending itself against an indisputably mightier Russia. So, what exactly is Ukraine’s best bet? 

Realistically, the Russian defense forces are exponentially stronger and have a significantly larger endowment than Ukraine. Russia has 8,50,000 active personnel in the armed forces, as compared to Ukraine’s 2,00,000. Additionally, the Russian paramilitary size of 2,50,000 is five times that of Ukraine’s. Starkly in contrast to Russia’s military spending of $62 billion in 2020, Ukraine’s stood at a measly $6 billion in the same year. This certainly lends Russia the means to possess an edge through cyberwarfare, missiles, heavy weaponry, fighter planes, warships, and other kinds of ammunition. These factors comprehensively dwarf Ukraine’s ability to put up a resilient fight or so has been perceived. Expert opinions indicated that Putin thought this invasion was going to be relatively smooth, owing to Russia’s unquestionable dominance over its timid neighbors that failed to act decisively in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. 

However, the reality has unfolded rather harshly for Russia. With many more years of combat experience since 2014 and the continued supply of sophisticated arms and ammunition by the West, Ukraine was significantly more equipped for an unprecedented resistance. Leading by example, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rallied a large number of fervent men of the fighting age to sign up for the frontlines as well. 

Consequently, Russia’s endeavors to attack the country on three fronts; Kyiv in the North, Kharkiv in the northeast, and Kherson in the south, has intensified. Reportedly (and rather unexpectedly), hundreds (some reporting thousands) of Russian soldiers have been killed along with scores of the Ukrainian military and civilian casualties, the numbers of which are very hard to verify given the persisting violence. 

At face value, Russia still has an upper hand in this conflict with its mammoth military dominance. The most the west can do is supply aid and ammunition, which it has been providing relentlessly. Ultimately, the deciding factor boils down to the fight that Ukraine can put up with the resources at its disposal. This is exactly what Ukraine seems to be doing. 

Militarily, Ukraine has scant chances of victory. Thus, the only way forward is to fortify the resistance that would prolong this war, and inflict an endless number of economic repercussions on Russia. This strategy would be effective for a variety of reasons. 

Firstly, the sanctions announced by the west are expected to apply immense pressure on the Russian economy. As a punitive measure, the United Kingdom, United States, and European Union have cut off major Russian banks from financial markets in the west, thereby prohibiting dealings with the central bank, state-owned investment funds, and the finance ministry. These restrictions have sent the ruble crashing for Russia. The country’s vast foreign reserves of $630 billion, accrued from soaring oil and gas prices are also under threat, given that a lot of this money is stored in western currencies like the dollar, euro, and pound. 

Secondly, while the reserves are large enough for one to think that Russia would withstand the effect of sanctions, it is noteworthy that the Russian economy has already been hit by sanctions post-2014. Even though these sanctions did not have as much impact as was intended owing to Russia’s favorable domestic financial systems, they did shrink the economy to an extent. 

Third, Ukraine’s sternness is expected to cost Russia even more money than the previously estimated billions of dollars, which was already a hefty amount to expend on a war in pursuit of an unclear and vaguely defined end goal. Moreover, Russia has spent billions of dollars on wars in the middle east, wars that are far from concluding and constitute recurring expenditures. As a result of its deep involvement, Russia cannot abruptly withdraw from these wars. 

Russia’s military might does not overpower the economic pressures from all quarters. Although this cannot be asserted with surety, a long, resource-depleting war in Ukraine, in addition to the aforementioned factors could compel the country to change its course. Interestingly, these economic costs for Russia will not end if it can capture the whole country, topple the Ukrainian government, and establish a pro-Russia regime (in case this is what Russia wants). This scenario could give way to a long-drawn insurgency fighting that would entail more costs for Russia in the long term.  

While these recent happenings could technically be construed as a war between Russia and the West, the military exchanges will happen only between Russia and Ukraine. Unless Russia decides to attack any of the NATO powers, which would legally oblige the west to engage militarily, Ukraine, with only western help, has to fight a war that has always been way beyond its reach. Strategically, it has to devise ways to increasingly impose costs on Russia as a discouraging factor from wreaking further havoc. 

Saaransh Mishra is a Research Associate with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and writes on foreign policy matters.

Picture Credits: PA Media

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