Editorials - 26-02-2021

Reasonable regulation is democratic, but the moral panic around big tech is muddying the waters

Australia’s new News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code will force platforms like Facebook and Google to pay local media outlets and publishers to link their content in news feeds or search results. The Australian law is being seen as one of the early shots fired in the coming battle by countries to regulate tech giants to take back some of the control they have on global communications. But is it an ideal regulatory model? Won’t regulating the platforms affect free speech? Is regulating platforms the way to save the news media business that is in the doldrums? Jeff Jarvis and Dwayne Winseck tackle these questions in a discussion moderated byP.J. George. Edited excerpts:

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had this to say about the tech companies: “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they should run it.” However, there has also been criticism that the driving force behind the new code is media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Is the code a legitimate attempt to regulate tech platforms vis-à-vis news, or is it just a way of diverting some cash to media companies?

Jeff Jarvis:The Australian law is Rupert Murdoch’s blackmail of technology. This is a link tax — that those who link must pay a fee. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, has testified to Australian legislators that this breaks the web. But Mr. Murdoch wins either way here. He owns 70% of the print news market in Australia. Who gets hurt most is anybody who wants to bubble up from the land of start-ups and create competition.

There are ways to have a discussion about regulation against certain outcomes. But in this case, even if you have decided that you should tax the platforms more, why should that money go to entitled publishers? Why not to education or healthcare or Internet access for the poor? There are a lot of other places I can see it going than Mr. Murdoch in Australia or the hedge funds that control the largest media company in Canada and also in the U.S.

Dwayne Winseck:There’s absolutely no doubt that the digital platform inquiries that led to this news bargaining code came out of an unholy alliance between the current government and the major media groups in 2017, with Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp and Sky at the front. To get Mr. Murdoch’s and [Chairman of Seven Network] Kerry Stokes’s blessing for a new law on media ownership, the government then made two commitments: to hold a public inquiry into the platforms, and another into public service broadcasters like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The backing of the major media moguls badly tarnishes the effort and shows the extent to which the local media companies have been able to set the policy agenda in the country.

However, we can also see that the Australian process is one of many taking place around the world in the last three to five years, including in India. What this tells us is that the days of voluntary self-regulatory efforts from the large platforms are over. Instead, countries want mandated regulatory requirements.

The Australian case tries to deal with two realities. The first is that they have a highly concentrated Internet with Google, for example, accounting for 95% of search queries. Google and Facebook together take 61% of the country’s online advertising. The proposed code would require Facebook and Google to open up their algorithmic black boxes, and their datasets that underpin the advertising market, to regulatory scrutiny. It would also enable the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to compel Google and Facebook to carry certain news services for a yet-to-be specified fee.

JJ:Requiring that the platforms not only have to pay for media content but also have to compulsorily carry such content bothers me, since compelled speech is not free speech.

DW:You cannot call must-carry laws as compelled speech. Making platforms common carriers is not a good idea but we need to move towards something like fair carriage — like what the Australians are doing by saying certain public interest-oriented journalism must be carried. These ideas are not antithetical to democratic societies. The public sphere requires that a certain range of voices, issues, and values be present. The way to set the terms around what is to be present is through political debate within the context of a democracy and the rule of law, as opposed to abdicating those decisions to the platform’s voluntary efforts and philanthropy.

JJ:If you have that kind of regime, then Donald Trump would have had the authority to require Twitter and Facebook to carry him and his incitement. In the U.S., at least, the First Amendment will protect us from that because Twitter and Facebook have free speech rights. If the platforms are required by such a precedent to carry official speech, they can also carry hatred, incitement and all kinds of bad things that Facebook gets accused of having carried in Myanmar.

DW:We have to make a distinction between good democratic governments and bad authoritarian incline.

JJ:That’s hard to do.

DW:I’m quite happy with the kind of European-Canadian international human rights standards for freedom of expression and opinion which is basically that we all have these rights, subject to limits established through the rule of law and which are compatible with a democratic society and overseen by an independent judiciary. The rest of the world need not be held hostage to the American constitutional set-up for freedom of expression.

Mr. Morrison has already spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and these countries, along with the European Union, are being seen as next in line to come up with regulation for tech. What’s the long game here?

JJ:My fear is that we are seeing in media and politics a moral panic in which old institutions are trying to find a Boogeyman on whom to blame all of society’s problems. That moral panic then gives them licence to do things that in an otherwise sane world wouldn’t occur.

We’re going to hurt ourselves in how we treat the Internet and speech on it. It’s important to point out that it’s only because of social media that we have #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo; that the voices too long not heard in the mainstream media run by people who look like me, old white men, are now finally being heard. Part of the problem is that the old voices resent the presence of those voices at the table. So, when we have governments joining together to fight the Internet — when it’s Mr. Morrison talking to Mr. Modi and Mr. Trudeau, when it’s [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [French President Emmanuel] Macron complaining about the fact that Twitter took Mr. Trump down — we see old institutions, old governments that are challenged by the Internet taking advantage of the moral panic and trying to stop a wind that I don’t think can be stopped.

DW:It doesn’t help to talk generically about the Internet. It’s about this idea that the Internet itself has been hijacked by a small group of companies that are rewiring it. They control audience data, which is the currency upon which this walled-garden version of the Internet works. They also control advertising, which is the money underpinning the so-called free Internet. This rewiring of the Internet was one to bring about the online advertising system with hyper-targeted ads. But it’s been hijacked for disinformation operations, and to fan the flames of political polarisation, hate speech, misogynistic abuse, terrorist propaganda — all the stuff that give rise to the moral panic. I, too, am very uneasy about private corporate actors having the power to de-platform the most powerful politician, the U.S. President. But Mr. Trump is an index of a bigger problem, that something is fundamentally wrong with a conception of freedom of speech that does not draw boundaries around assaults on democracy. There must be a means — an institutional arrangement — by which those assaults can be brought to heel. Critically, the mechanism cannot be left at the mercy of a handful of private corporations.

Regarding what needs to be learnt from the Australian law, it does get at the problem of who controls the data upon which online advertising system is based. But instead of trying to rein in this kind of surveillance capital model of data harvesting, it basically gives it the government’s blessing and tries to bring in the Australian media companies into a better spot at the table and give them a bigger share of the pie. So, when Canada, the U.S., and India look at Australia, my hope is they can cherry-pick the good bits.

One of the most downloaded apps in Australia now is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s news app. This is being touted as an example of how newspapers exploit the opportunity to end their dependence on news aggregators and social media. However, not all news outlets may have the resources to do this. Where do the smaller media players, and journalism itself, stand in this tussle?

JJ:What my fear about this kind of legislation is that it delays the inevitability of media companies learning what they have to learn about this world. It’s great that the ABC is getting an audience. But that also relies on the old model of media: that media were the destinations; that you had to come to us. We’ve got to learn the lesson that social media taught us: we’ve got to go elsewhere.

What needs to happen here is that we’ve got to reinvent our fundamental model. What happened in the early days of the Internet is that the platforms took mass media’s own attention-based advertising business model and did a better job of it. However, advertising as an attention-based model is inefficient and insulting and bothersome and ridiculous. Media properties have to understand that they are not in the business of making a product called content and then selling our audience to advertisers. That’s what we did for a century and that’s what the platforms are doing now. Journalism is a service. It has to fundamentally rethink its role in the public conversation. I work under a new definition of journalism and a new mission, which is to convene communities into respectful, informed and productive conversation. We all have to imagine a different future to support a quality public conversation.

DW:We have to realise that journalism has always been a public good in an economic sense. Historically, the general public has never, ever paid the full freight of a general journalistic or news service. It has always had to be subsidised, either by wealthy patrons, or by governments in democratic societies through the public service media system — like the CBC here in Canada, the BBC in the U.K. — or by advertising. Now that the advertising subsidy is falling away from journalism, we have to recognise that advertising was never a virtuous means of subsidising the general availability of news. Can we come up with some form of public subsidies? This is difficult, but it’s been done for half a century in some European countries. I would recommend that we do that.

My fear is that we are seeing in media and politics a moral panic in which old institutions are trying to find a Boogeyman on whom to blame all of society’s problems

Jeff Jarvis

Those who believe in progressive politics must ensure that winning polls through any means can never be an objective

Weeks hence, the nation is set to witness a series of elections to several State Assemblies. State elections normally do not attract too much attention, but as the nation moves inexorably towards single party dominance, the outcome of each and every Assembly Election becomes critical to the end objective. India, more accustomed to glacial changes in political behaviour and attitudes, is today confronting a new phenomenon,viz., that the winner seeks to take all at any cost, irrespective of a raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Shadows over elections

If anyone were to peruse the numerous newspapers, and listen to the different television channels in the country, one would get an impression that India is approaching a new ‘gilded’ era. Unfortunately, electoral politics in the country appears to be out of sync with this portrayal. Threats to the conduct of orderly elections are increasing, more so in some States than perhaps in others, and must not be underestimated. Pressing the stop button is not a viable option as of now, as it is a reflection of the pervasive decline in political attitudes and behaviour in the nation. Violence, money power, and communal attitudes tend to exercise a disproportionately greater influence on the outcome of elections as of now.

A great deal of this is attributable to the prevailing belief that winning elections is thesine qua nonof democratic politics, and theraison d’etrefor any political party to exist. India’s leading political party, which currently holds power at the Centre and a majority of States, has converted this into a fine art, and makes no secret of its determination to pursue this path. Other parties are attempting to emulate this, but with far less success. Across India, meanwhile, we are witnessing a near daily ritual of individuals belonging to one political party or the other shifting their allegiance and, while doing so, indulging in a diatribe against the party they exited. Electoral majorities as a result, and the character of some State governments, have, hence, tended to change. The shifting patterns of party alignments are, in turn, converting democratic politics into a kind of charade which could damage the fabric of both electoral and democratic politics.

Questions do arise as to what kind of polity will emerge as a consequence of all this. Of serious concern is that elections could hereafter become an instrument to traduce democracy. With all political debate becoming highly polarised, elections could well degenerate into a ritualistic exercise, without truly reflecting the democratic will of the people. Attributing motives is no panacea for what could well lead to the demise of electoral democracy.

Power though proxy

Coming to the State-level elections scheduled to be held in the near future, which are confined to the eastern and southern regions of the country — Bengal and Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry, it is only to be anticipated that these elections will witness the finessing of a strategy employed successfully previously, including that of encouraging defections of key Opposition members, an incitement to violence, specially of the communal and sectarian kind, selective use of state agencies to build an atmosphere of fear, to gain an unfair advantage, etc. Such tactics have, no doubt, been employed in the past, but seldom on the scale anticipated in the prevailing scenario.

In the southern States that will be going to the elections, there could be one significant variant,viz., the objective of achieving power would be through proxy means. In Tamil Nadu, the present State government has earned a not-so-healthy reputation for ‘kowtowing’ to the party in control of the Central government. This is already an issue of unstated and unspoken concern, but the greater fear is that in return for electoral support this time, many more demands would be made, resulting in an acceptance of subalternity,vis-à-vis, Delhi — effectively demolishing all pretence of regional exclusiveness and autonomy. Much the same concern applies to the Union Territory of Puducherry, where the ruling party at the Centre has less than a toehold in terms of influence. In both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the shadow of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would eclipse everything else in its wake.

From Kerala to the Northeast

The election scene in Kerala is markedly different. The principal objective of the ruling party at the Centre would be to reduce the Congress into insignificance while seeking to simultaneously reduce the influence exercised by the Left, even as the BJP can hardly hope to capture power here just yet. A Herculean effort is being made to use the electoral gambit to rope in prominent intellectuals into party ranks, for a future eventuality. Kerala has, however, not seen any communal violence as elections approach, and has also eschewed the ‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’ syndrome, common to many other States.

In the Northeast, Assam is already a BJP bailiwick, and the attempt here would be to strengthen Central authority in contrast to regional autonomy. This is particularly significant in the backdrop of controversial policies such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, which created quite a stir and dented the image and influence of the BJP to some extent. The full panoply of divisive politics would be on display here to achieve this objective.

Battleground West Bengal

Given the current stakes overall, it is West Bengal, however, that will be the main battleground in the coming elections. Almost all the tactics mentioned would be, or are already on display in the State. This is likely to intensify further as elections approach. Elections are certain to be a no-holds barred exercise, with the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) battling it out for control of the State, reducing erstwhile ruling parties, such as the CPM and the Congress to irrelevance. Already, in a State where caste identity has seldom if ever been a factor in elections or otherwise, a manifest attempt is being made to whip up caste frenzy, and rallying slogans ‘Vande Mataram and Jai Sri Ram’ by rival groups are being projected as the battle cry of the Forward versus the Subaltern classes.

Meantime, in a State where communal tensions are manifestly evident, the State has been witnessing severe communal violence over many months, some of it as serious, as that seen during Partition. The BJP and the TMC are equally to be blamed for the aggravated communal violence, but the real ‘fall-guy’ has been democracy. With erstwhile dominant political parties having been reduced to bit players, both the BJP and the TMC are picking up more and more of the ‘lumpen elements’ that previously owed allegiance to the Left and the Congress. These are hardly committed supporters, yet exercise a disproportionate ability to vitiate polls.

Again, in the case of West Bengal, the current elections are proving to be highly divisive, with battle cries being raised to vote for the ‘Daughter of Bengal’ against ‘Outsider Elements’, leading to the creation of fresh divisions between the Bengali and non-Bengali segments of the population. Rival groups have had no hesitation to use Durga, the deity, as a pawn — portraying her as the epitome of Bengali identity — with the other side rooting for lord Ram as symbolising national identity. Seldom have elections anywhere deteriorated to such depths. All this is giving fresh grist to communal elements, encouraging the creation of new communal parties such as the Indian Secular Front, muddying waters further.

The danger to democracy

What is of utmost concern, however, given the extant circumstances, is that pent-up anger against a distortion of electoral verdicts or confronted with unpredictable results should result in something more serious and dangerous as an open rebellion against participative democracy. Electorates are singularly ill-prepared for such eventualities. History is replete with instances of this kind. There is only a thin line which protects democracy from the ravages of its opponents. The 19th and 20th centuries provide enough examples of how wittingly, or unwittingly, democracy could become imperilled, leading to unforeseen situations. Ensuring that the currentstatus quois not challenged beyond a significant threshold is critically important for the future of democracy. It behoves all those who believe in progressive politics to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand, and that winning elections through any means can never be an objective.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

It has reduced legislators to being accountable primarily to the party and failed to preserve the stability of governments

The events in Puducherry highlight, yet again, the absurdity of the anti-defection law. In what has now become the standard operating procedure, several MLAs from the treasury benches resigned, lowering the numbers required for a no-confidence motion to succeed. This formula has been seen recently in other States such as Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

The anti-defection law was included in the Constitution as the Tenth Schedule in 1985 to combat the “evil of political defections”. The main purpose was to preserve the stability of governments and insulate them from defections of legislators from the treasury benches. The law stated that any Member of Parliament (MP) or that of a State legislature (MLA) would be disqualified from their office if they voted on any motion contrary to the directions issued by their party.

Range of the provision

The provision was not limited to confidence motions or money bills (which are quasi-confidence motions). It applies to all votes in the House, on every Bill and every other issue. It even applies to the Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils, which have no say in the stability of the government. Therefore, an MP (or MLA) has absolutely no freedom to vote their judgement on any issue. They have to blindly follow the direction of the party. This provision goes against the concept of representative democracy.

There are two broadly accepted roles of a representative such as an MP in a democracy. One is that they are agents of the voters and are expected to vote according to the wishes and for the benefits of their constituents. The other is that their duty to their constituents is to exercise their judgement on various issues towards the broader public interest. In this, they deliberate with other MPs and find a reasonable way through complex issues. The anti-defection law turns the concept of a representative on its head. It makes the MP neither a delegate of the constituency nor a national legislator but converts them to be just an agent of the party.

A broken chain in India

Look at the contrast with other democracies. For example, in the recent vote on the impeachment of former U.S. President Donald Trump, seven members from his party in the U.S. Senate, the Republicans, voted to convict him. Such a decision does not have any legal repercussion. Of course, the party may take action (it did not). Also, voters may decide to reject the legislator for re-election — and that is the core design element of representative democracy. The legislator is accountable to voters, and the government is accountable to legislators.

In India, this chain of accountability has been broken by making legislators accountable primarily to the party. This means that anyone from the party having a majority in the legislature — which is, by definition, the party forming the government — is unable to hold the government to account. Further, all legislators have a ready explanation for their voting behaviour: they had to follow the party’s direction. This negates the concept of them having to justify their positions on various issues to the people who elected them to the post.

Eroding legislatures

An important consequence of the anti-defection law is the hollowing out of our legislatures. If an MP has no freedom to take decisions on policy and legislative proposals, what would be the incentive to put in the effort to understand the different policy choices and their outcomes? The core role of an MP to examine and decide on policy, Bills and budgets is side-lined. Instead, the MP becomes just another number to be tallied by the party on any vote that it supports or opposes.

The framers of our Constitution did not intend this outcome. While introducing the draft Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar outlined the differences between the presidential and parliamentary forms of government. He said that the presidential form (such as in the United States) had higher stability but lower accountability as the President is elected for four years, and cannot be removed except for proven misdemeanour. In the parliamentary form, the government is accountable on a daily basis through questions and motions, and can be removed any time it loses the support of the majority of members of the Lok Sabha. The drafting committee believed that India needed a government that was accountable, even at the cost of stability. The anti-defection bill weakens the accountability mechanism.

Inducing instability

What is more, it does not even provide stability. The political system has found ways to topple governments. This includes the methods used in Puducherry this week — of reducing the total membership through resignations. The Constitution was amended to ensure that any person disqualified for defecting cannot get a ministerial position unless they are re-elected; the way around this has been to resign rather than vote against the party. In other instances, the Speaker — usually from the ruling party — has delayed taking a decision on the disqualification. This has led to strange situations such as members who continue to be part of the main Opposition party becoming Ministers (Andhra Pradesh in the term of the last Assembly). The Supreme Court has tried to plug this by ruling that the Speaker has to take the decision in three months, but it is not clear what would happen if a Speaker does not do so. The premise that the anti-defection law is needed to punish legislators who betray the mandate given by the voters also seems to be flawed. If voters believe that they have been betrayed by the defectors, they can vote them out in the next election. However, we have seen many of the defectors in States such as Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh being re-elected in the by-polls, which were held due to their disqualification.

Onus is on parties

The problem arises from the attempt to find a legal solution to what is essentially a political problem. If stability of government is an issue due to people defecting from their parties, the answer is for parties to strengthen their internal systems. If they attract members on the basis of ideology, and they have systems for people to rise within the party hierarchy on their capabilities (rather than inheritance), there would be a greater exit barrier. These characteristics seem absent in many of the political parties, and we have seen a large number of defections despite the anti-defection law.

To sum up, the anti-defection law has been detrimental to the functioning of our legislatures as deliberative bodies which hold the executive to account on behalf of citizens. It has turned them into fora to endorse the decision of the government on Bills and budgets. And it has not even done the job of preserving the stability of governments. The Tenth Schedule to the Constitution must be repealed.

M.R. Madhavan is President of PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi

Courts shouldn’t pre-empt Assembly inquiries based on limits of legislative competence

When the Delhi Assembly summoned Facebook honcho Ajit Mohan to depose before its Peace and Harmony Committee, it unwittingly provoked a litigation that may have far-reaching implications on federalism, the separation of powers and fundamental rights in India.

Parliamentary privileges

Parliamentary privileges are a set of rights and immunities that are essential for the functioning of Parliament. The right to free speech in the House, guaranteed to the Commons since 1689, and the right to call for evidence and witnesses, are central to the role of the legislature. In our Constitution, both Parliament and State Assemblies were conferred with the same privileges as the Commons. Apart from discussions about judges, no other speech is barred for legislators in the text of the Constitution.

On the face of it, federalism imposes an insuperable challenge to the traditional broad reading of parliamentary privilege. The argument goes: Unlike the House of Commons, the powers of State Assemblies are more limited. If the State Assembly cannot pass a law on a subject, how can it claim a right to discuss it or call witnesses for it?

However, this framing is misleading. First, legislation is not the only goal of discussions. Legislatures also have a separate non-judicial power of inquiry which has been judicially regarded as being inherent to the legislature, flowing perhaps from what Walter Bagehot would call the expressive and informative function of the House. Politically, the Assembly is the voice of the people of a State and their discussions are an expression of popular will. Atomic energy is the exclusive preserve of the Union. Does that mean a State Assembly cannot inquire into the possible ecological implications of a nuclear waste site within the State? Cannot State legislatures hear testimony from soldiers and pass resolutions to honour the armed forces? At least four states have passed resolutions against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act as affecting their people.

Second, the legislative lists frequently overlap and courts resolve any conflict by adopting a test of pith and substance of the law in question. But how would this apply pre-emptively at the inquiry stage when the discussions may or may not lead to legislation?

Third, we live in the era of co-operative federalism. How can the Union and the States cooperate if they are barred from even discussing or taking evidence on issues beyond their limited legislative competence?

Fourth, there is the delicate issue of whether the courts can or ought to sit in judgment on the proceedings of State Assemblies determining what can or cannot be discussed based on the courts’ view of the topic. No theory of judicial review would justify such a deep dive into the “political thicket” to examine the proceedings of the House, something our Constitution expressly bars.

The experiences of Canada and Australia, both common law federal jurisdictions, are also instructive. The Canadian chronicler Maingot hints about restrictions based on legislative competence but is careful to add that they are self-imposed, not court mandated. In Australia, the Privy Council in appeal from the High Court held that “it is hardly possible for a Court to pronounce in advance as to what may and what may not turn out to be relevant to other subjects of inquiry on which the Commonwealth Parliament is undoubtedly entitled to make laws”.

In 1399, the Commons recognised free speech in the House as a tradition by reversing the judgment of treason on Sir Thomas Haxey. It is this ancient privilege that found its way into our Constitution. It is a landmark of liberty as it allows elected representatives to challenge the most powerful people of the land on behalf of commoners. This ancient tradition would be effaced if the court were to appoint itself an arbiter of legislative discussions. It is difficult to craft any discernible principle upon which such unprecedented power could be judiciously exercised without inhibiting free speech that is the hallmark of our legislative tradition.

Rahul Narayan is an Advocate-on-Record in the Supreme Court and works on issues of Constitutional Law, Technology Law, Digital Rights, and Privacy

The government can consider vaccinatingall those over 45 years of age

The decision to open up about 20,000 private hospitals across India from March 1 — in addition to about 10,000 government sites — to vaccinate people older than 60 years and those above 45 years with comorbidities will at once increase the number of vaccination sites. Roping in the private sector to support the government programme of vaccinating about 270 million people belonging to the two high-risk priority groups can surely speed up vaccination coverage. At 13 million at the end of six weeks since the vaccination programme began, only a little over a third of health-care and frontline workers have been covered. With the average uptake per session only about 35%, beginning the second phase of the programme could increase this percentage. Even if CoWIN platform glitches and a decline in daily cases are partly responsible for low uptake, the hesitancy to available vaccines among health-care workers, who are one of the most informed and also at greater risk of infection, cannot be overlooked. Whether the elderly and those above 45 with comorbidities will behave strikingly different or take a cue from health-care workers and prefer to wait before queuing up for a vaccine remains to be seen.

Crucial to increasing vaccine uptake in private hospitals will be the cost of vaccination, especially when it is available for free at government sites. At a time when vaccine uptake has been low even when offered for free, the only way to increase coverage is by making it easy for people desiring to get vaccinated to have one. While the intent to quickly protect people with comorbidities above 45 years who are at greater risk of progressing to a severe form of the disease or even death is commendable, the insistence on documentary evidence for vaccination should be reviewed if the uptake remains below the desired level. One in three adults in India has hypertension but only about half are even aware of it. It is one in 10 in the case of diabetes; awareness is about 50%. The trend is the same for a few other diseases that make a person eligible for a vaccine. With just over 21% of the population above 45 as per the 2011 Census data, the government can consider vaccinating anyone above that age who comes to a site. Similarly, insisting on prior registration on the CoWIN platform will further worsen inequities; vaccinating people who walk in without registration must be allowed. That less than 10% of people have opted for Covaxin nationally is proof that vaccine uptake is directly related to availability of trial data. The government can still win back trust and improve vaccine coverage by quickly making all vaccine trial data public. Also, timely resolution by the national committee, of serious adverse events and deaths following vaccination and sharing the details will surely inspire public confidence in the vaccines.

PM Oli stands exposed after Supreme Court reversed his decision to dissolve Parliament

A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of Nepal quite rightly overturned Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s decision to unilaterally dissolve Parliament in December 2020 and which was later approved by President Bidya Devi Bhandari. The ostensible reason for Mr. Oli’s decision, clearly without any merit, was inner party intrigue within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). The Court correctly observed that there was the possibility of the formation of a new government in case Mr. Oli did not enjoy the confidence of Parliament, and therefore ruled his decision unconstitutional. The NCP has since then fractured politically into two factions, one led by Mr. Oli and the other by Pushpa Kumar Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal, both former Prime Ministers who belonged to the erstwhile Nepali Maoists and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), respectively. These parties had merged into the NCP in 2018. But this fracture is not yet formalised even though the Dahal-Nepal faction has “expelled” Mr. Oli from the party. In defence of his decision, Mr. Oli had argued that he required the support of a two-thirds majority to govern the nation and had sought re-elections, but the Supreme Court’s decision has now rendered that moot by restoring thestatus quo anteas of December 2020. The Court also went on to scrap all appointments made by the government after the dissolution of Parliament on December 20, 2020.

Having received such a stinging rebuke by the Supreme Court, the right course of action for Mr. Oli should be to resign on moral grounds, but knowing the combative politician, that is not going to happen. The NCP’s vertical split into two near-equal factions in Parliament should allow the formation of a new government if the Dahal-Nepal faction chooses to support an alternative — it has already pledged support to Nepali Congress (NC) leader Sher Bahadur Deuba if the NC stakes claim to form a new coalition government. The repeated changes in government should not surprise anyone as Nepal has a history of unstable regimes and frequent changes in Singha Durbar’s occupants since the end of absolute monarchy in 1990. But the NCP missed a historic opportunity after it came to power with a two-thirds majority in the bicameral Federal parliament and in six of the seven provinces. Mr. Oli could have used the mandate in 2018 to ensure a stable regime, and governance and development in a country battered by the 2015 earthquake, political instability, and now the COVID-19 threat. His government singularly failed on most counts, and he and other NCP leaders could not work as a cohesive unit. The electorate’s expectations of a stable regime, the first elected one since the promulgation of its Constitution, have been belied yet again due to the failure of the political leadership.

Remembering the stench of fear and sweat following the violence in Delhi in 2020

How do you observe the anniversary of a riot that drove a deep wedge into the capital of India? Do you recall the number of bodies, the schools targeted, the homes vandalised, or the mosques burnt? While one part of Delhi was decked up and cheery to receive U.S. President Donald Trump that February day in 2020, another was on high alert. Delhi had already started seething with the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which held the prospect of a large community of people becoming disenfranchised. All it needed was a spark to inflame passions. With some politicians doing their bit, the stage had been set.

A friend and I went four days after the riots erupted in north-east Delhi, which is home to a large population of urban labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to the affected areas to see the scale of damage and speak to the people. North-east Delhi is a place which has largely been ignored by administrators.

We began our journey from the Metro station at Maujpur where people had targeted each other after, some say, a speech made by a Bharatiya Janata Party politician. The shutters were down in the busy marketplace. Inside a lane, there were burnt auto rickshaws and a small minibus. Small shops selling hosiery and shoes, and a teashop, had been vandalised and set on fire. The main street, charred and lifeless, looked like it had witnessed a hundred little bonfires. The police kept peace that day. People didn’t talk to each other and when they did, they would only whisper, eyes darting here and there.

A few kilometers away, schools had been laid to waste. In Chand Bagh, two schools, each overlooking neighbourhoods in which lived different communities, had been set on fire. In one of the many by-lanes, a baker had not lost his graciousness — he offered us tea and biscuits. In his little home above his tiny boulangerie was a room full of women who had fled the day their houses had been targeted. They were wearing the same clothes four days after the violence. The stench of fear and sweat filled the room. Some had lost their identity papers. A community kitchen kept hunger at bay. The queues were getting longer there with each passing day.

Shiv Vihar looked like a burnt neighbourhood. Neighbours had turned into strangers overnight and had barricaded themselves. Benches, chairs, wooden beds, and poles had been stacked to block entry to outsiders. Words like ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Pakistan’ were traded easily. People crawled out at night from shelters to reach their burnt homes in search of papers, anything they could lay their hands on. Small hole-in-the-wall enterprises had been charred in vengeance. People showed us their wounds.

But amid this cruelty and despair, in the midst of the ravaged land, we saw random acts of kindness. A shopkeeper offered to help the affected women by giving away clothes, including lingerie, which he had stocked. This gentleman later called us during the nationwide lockdown to say that the little money he had earned had kept his kitchen going. Another shoe seller offered huge stocks of chappals. Others helped too, though some were clear that they would only help their own.

This is an anniversary I don’t wish to remember. Yet, it is important to recall the day the flames of hatred burnt Delhi.

The A.B. Patrika writes: The Reform duck is laying golden eggs. The indigenous Governor of Bihar who has just earned the distinction of being the avowed inaugurator of repression against non-co-operation is one such egg. The ministers represent another. In Bengal they are just now busy in organising a party against Non-Co-operation. Before the advent of the duck, the Government used to maintain outwardly at least an attitude of neutrality to the several political parties. The Government is now identifying itself with one party namely, that of the Moderates. The other day Sir Surender Nath and Mr. P.C. Mitter, the Bengal Ministers, went out with their “liveries” to organise a party against Non-co-operation in the hall of the Dalhousie Institute, a stone’s throw from the Writers’ Buildings where the Ministers have got their “portfolios”.

India today gave what diplomatic observers believe to be “the last and final” warning to Britain that if its decision to sell arms to South Africa was final and irrevocable, it would be “an exercise in futility for the (eight-nation) study group to meet.” The final warning has come from the Minister of External Affairs, Mr. Swaran Singh, who said in a statement that the British decision created a new situation in which it was incumbent on the members of the study group to reconsider the utility of the group meeting at all. Expressing India’s regret over the British decision even before the study group had met, Mr. Swaran Singh, however, said if Britain was willing not to make any supply of arms to South Africa till the report of the study group had been considered by the Commonwealth Governments “we would be willing to reconsider our attitude.” Diplomatic observers see in the latest warning India’s desire not to take any precipitate action. India wants every aspect of the issue, particularly the interest of African countries, to be considered. These observers, however, feel that if Britain does not show any flexibility in its attitude, the study group would not only become futile, but certain other consequences would follow. India had on Monday warned Britain that any British supply of arms to South Africa before the study group completed its work could have serious implications for the very existence of the Commonwealth.