The first phase of the West Bengal Assembly elections is only a few weeks away. While the BJP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) are locked in an intense battle, the Left-Congress alliance is attempting to win back voters. In a conversation moderated byVarghese K. George, Prasenjit Bose and Snigdhendu Bhattacharya discuss the issues dominating this election. Edited excerpts:
What issues do you think will be determining this West Bengal election? Prasenjit?
Prasenjit Bose:We should look at the BJP’s surprise performance in the 2019 election in which, for the first time, it crossed the 40% vote share threshold and won 18 seats. Although one could see it coming up in a big way, the extent of its surge was not expected. You should start from there. Has the BJP gained further momentum since then? Or has the TMC been able to retrieve some ground, which it appeared to have lost in 2019? Or has anti-incumbency just continued to grow?
So, you have anti-incumbency, you have the BJP’s attempt to create a hyper-nationalistic national narrative on questions like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and West Bengal has a history of class politics. Which of these issues could dominate this poll?
PB:I think anti-incumbency would be number one, because ultimately, it’s an Assembly election. There are enough reasons for people to be extremely dissatisfied with the TMC government. But there have been some government initiatives which have helped the TMC retrieve some of those groups. Again, I think, borrowing a term coined by a political analyst, it was ‘subaltern Hindutva’ which enabled the BJP to cross the 40% vote share. Identity issues will have a very important role to play.
Snigdhendu, we have a larger frame of incumbency factors, and we have identity politics at play. There is a very strong pitch for religious consolidation under the BJP. How would you characterise and explain the strength of each of these factors?
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya:The influence of caste politics died down long ago. In its last leg, the Left regime was no longer taking up caste issues as such. In 1977, the Left came to power and implemented Operation Barga, perhaps the largest government-backed land redistribution programme ensuring the hegemony of the farmers. In 2011, Mamata Banerjee came to power by hijacking the Left agenda…
You are saying caste is not a factor. Is Hindutva a factor?
SB:Identity is a factor, but anti-incumbency is the main factor. With Hindutva, the BJP could have, at most, surpassed the 25% mark, but could not have touched the 40% mark [in 2019]. This anti-incumbency is essentially due to two reasons: one, corruption at the grassroots level and the arrogance of TMC leaders; and two, political violence. The turning point was the 2018 panchayat elections, which the TMC captured by violence. People just took revenge on the TMC in 2019.
Who will be the beneficiary of that anti-incumbency sentiment? There are two claimants: the BJP and the Congress-Left alliance.
PB:I think the BJP is going to benefit much more. As pointed out, the TMC won the 2018 panchayat elections in a visibly high-handed and violent manner. That created a tremendous amount of backlash, especially in the rural areas. The BJP has emerged as the strongest opposition, as it could face that onslaught in a more effective manner. It has been very aggressive in opposing the TMC government — in educating the public, street politics, etc. — much more than the Left and Congress have. The BJP is in the Central government; it occupies media space; the Governor appointed by the Centre has been running a parallel government... The BJP has already occupied the mind space of the people as the key opposition. Though the Congress-Left alliance will try to leverage the organisational strength of both parties, it is perhaps too late for it to outrun the BJP.
Besides being the main beneficiary of the anti-incumbency sentiment, the BJP is also trying to rope in Dalits, tribal communities and backward classes under the Hindutva fold...
PB:The BJP is doing that with remarkable success. The 2019 results speak for themselves: the tribal-dominated areas of the State voted for the BJP. Within the Scheduled Caste (SC) communities, the two largest communities are the Rajvanshis and the Namasudras. And many of them are post-Partition refugees. Through the citizenship tripod of the CAA, National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register, the BJP said it was trying to champion the cause of these sections. The Left and Congress had absolutely no clue that this was happening until 2019. I would say that the TMC this time appears to have done some damage control.
Is there a sense among the subaltern sections that the non-BJP parties are controlled by urban elites?
SB:I don’t think so. Because if you look at the construct of the Left parties, it might be true that the top brass in the Central Committee or within the State Committee consists mostly of Brahmins. But they have leaders from the SC, Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) at all other levels. So, that wasn’t the issue. I think the major reason behind this switch of SC, ST and OBC votes is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been consistently working on these communities. Throughout India there are RSS-backed organisations working tirelessly and quite silently among the tribal communities. The second point is about the corruption, high-handedness and malpractices of the TMC. These backward communities are the most affected by these, so, possibly, the anger was greater among them.
Some early intellectual arguments of Hindu nationalism began in Bengal. The State also went through communal partition more than once. How fertile is the West Bengal of today for Hindu nationalism?
SB:It is a very fertile ground for many kinds of identity politics, one of which is Hindutva. They (proponents of Hindutva) have two-three main issues. One is demographic change. They say there has been an increase in the Muslim population over the last seven decades and they want to ‘save’ West Bengal from turning into Bangladesh. Then they speak about Ms. Banerjee’s so-called ‘Muslim appeasement’. Her policies have created a certain kind of Hindu backlash.
The ground was always fertile in Bengal. There was a kind of communal mindset among sections of Bengalis in the pre-Independence era. Two factors had kept them suppressed. One was the impact of the Renaissance, which had triumphed over Hindu nationalism until the 1930s when communal politics surged across India. Bengal was one of the most volatile States during the communal clashes. From the 1940s rose the communists.
What is usually not a part of political discussions and consciousness is the fact that Bengal was divided on communal lines. How deep is the memory of Partition in West Bengal in the State’s political consciousness? How is that being resurrected?
PB:Well, one way of directly not only reviving those memories but kind of utilising the dynamics of Partition politics and creating fresh polarisation is the promise of giving citizenship to post-Partition refugees. There was an influx of refugees between 1948 and, say, the early 1950s immediately after Partition. Then there was a huge refugee influx in 1971 when the war took place. Then we had several phases of influx… These are dominantly Hindus. What the BJP has been saying is that we will expel the Muslim Bangladeshis and give citizenship to Hindus. But the experience of the Assam NRC shows us that the vast number of those excluded were Hindus. In West Bengal, the proportion of excluded Hindus could be even higher. So, there is a fear of the NRC. And more the fear, the more the BJP could suffer electorally. I think that is why, after a point, the BJP put the NRC on the back burner. Whereas last year, before the pandemic, it almost seemed like that was its main game plan.
Do you foresee all the anti-incumbency votes congregating towards the BJP? What will the BJP do to enable that? And how will the Congress-Left alliance try to remain in play?
SB:The Left-Congress alliance is looking to at least do a better performance than in 2019 when the Left and Congress contested separately and managed to get only 12% of the votes. If they can increase their vote share by even a few percentage points, that would essentially take away from the BJP and weaken its prospects. But the fact that Abbas Siddiqui (the Peerzada of Furfura Sharif) has allied with the Left-Congress alliance has started a new debate on the secular character of these parties. There is a possibility that this might help the Hindutva polarisation plan. So, in this case, Hindutva polarisation may help the anti-incumbency polarisation in favour of the BJP.
A bipolar contest rather than a triangular contest is increasingly the possibility. Do you agree, Prasenjit?
PB:West Bengal elections have been bipolar contests for a long time. I think the people had made up their mind about the BJP in 2019. I don’t see any reason why they should change their mind this year. If the BJP fails to dislodge the TMC government, subsequent developments will take place where other options will be tried out. But in this election, I don’t see those wanting to dislodge the TMC being very confused about who the principal opposition is. Whatever the Left and Congress are trying to do now is too close to the election. Abbas Siddiqui could turn out to be counterproductive, especially for the Left. He is a new player, so whatever he gets, he will gain, because he was not there earlier.
It is going to be a bipolar contest. There will be a few constituencies where the alliance will be in the contest. In the large bulk of the seats, it will be the BJP versus the TMC and the BJP will finish much closer to its 2019 vote share. At the margin, what will become decisive is social engineering or the subaltern Hindu experiment. Some of it might just unravel and that may become decisive. At the last moment, as we head towards the elections, I see the BJP losing some steam.
We haven’t discussed in detail many other factors such as the defection question. What would be the overall impact of the large-scale defection from the TMC leadership? Also, the subaltern Hindutva point: if the BJP had been so confident, why is it that it is still — so late and so close to the election — hankering for recognition by the Bengali Hindu elite? I think there is something happening on the ground where things may not be panning out in the BJP’s favour in the way it has drawn the script.
Anti-incumbency is essentially due to two reasons: one, corruption at the grassroots level and the arrogance of TMC leaders; and two, political violence.
A pair of recent rulings gave us a glimmer of hope that the judiciary might yet serve as a tribune of people’s rights. The first was the acquittal of the journalist, Priya Ramani, on charges of criminal defamation. A Delhi court, in discharging her of the accusations, recognised that a woman’s right to dignity superseded any claims over reputation. The court also held that a survivor of sexual harassment had the freedom to place her grievance at any point of time after the occurrence of the event and on any platform of her choice.
The second was the grant of bail to Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested in Bengaluru and taken to New Delhi on charges of sedition. Her alleged crime: helping edit, and sharing, a “toolkit” that was meant to lend support to protests against the Union government’s new farm laws. In the order granting bail, the court of the additional sessions judge noted that the prosecution had failed to produce even an iota of evidence linking Ms. Ravi to an act of violence. It found the toolkit to be innocuous and the actions of the Delhi police, in restraining her liberty, to be based on “propitious anticipations”. The judge was also constrained to state the obvious: that, in a democracy, the right to dissent is fundamental.
Now for another ruling
In a free republic, verdicts such as these will be seen as unexceptionable. If anything, they are attempts at undoing, at least in part, injustices wrought by the processes of the criminal justice system. Ms. Ramani spent months on end participating in a trial, not for being a perpetrator of any crime but for speaking out about sexual harassment at the workplace. Ms. Ravi spent 10 days in custody on the basis of evidence that the court found, at best, “scanty and sketchy”. But these rulings are now far from routine. Indeed, on February 25, the Allahabad High Court, inAparna Purohit v. State of U.P., gave us a scantling of the disdain with which the higher judiciary views issues of personal liberty.
In denying anticipatory bail to Ms. Purohit, who is the head of Amazon Prime Video’s India Originals, which ran the web seriesTandav, the High Court was effectively telling the applicant that she deserved to be interrogated in custody for running a show that was “bound to hurt the sentiments of the majority community”. Not thatTandavnecessarily does this, but it mattered little to the court that deriding a person’s belief is not an offence, not even under India’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Unconstitutional, but upheld
Free speech, we all recognise, is a condition of legitimate government. We also recognise that there are limits to this right. The Constitution permits reasonable restrictions on speech on a variety of stated grounds. Determining what is reasonable and what falls within the bounds of those permitted limitations can sometimes be an exercise fraught with difficulty. But India’s Parliament has never grappled, with genuine seriousness, over these questions. It has either chosen to allow colonial-era laws to do the government’s bidding or it has legislated new rules that do not merely err on the side of restraint as much as they treat the restriction as their chief goal and purpose. The cases concerning Ms. Ramani, Ms. Ravi and Ms. Purohit each emanate out a law that is categorically unconstitutional, but that has nonetheless been upheld by the Supreme Court.
Tools of defamation, sedition
Consider first criminal defamation. It ought to be self-evident that the punishment, even the very idea of prosecution, for libellous speech is disproportionate to the offence. Criminal law does not exist to make prosecutable acts that are essentially private in nature. By making ostensibly slanderous talk a punishable offence, the state imposes a chilling effect on all manners of legitimate speech. It is for this reason that almost every democratic nation of the world has revoked laws criminalising defamation. But in India. it remains a tool for the powerful and is routinely invoked not just by individuals and governments in positions of authority but also by corporations looking to protect their commercial interests.
In the case of sedition, its colonial remnants are, again, plainly apparent. Although it was not a part of Macaulay’s original draft, it was incorporated by the British government into the Indian Penal Code with the explicit aim of repressing all forms of dissent against the regime.
The offence — which carries with it the prospect of life imprisonment — is defined as any act which “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India”. The clause also contains an ominous explanation: the word “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
In saving the provision from the Constitution’s demands, the Supreme Court, in 1962, read down the offence and held that it was only seditious action that had the “tendency to disrupt public order” that was prosecutable. Since then, in other cases, the Court has held that speech can be criminalised only when it bears a proximate connection to disorder. But despite the imposition of these confines, the offence of sedition continues to be weaponised to restrict even the most inoffensive forms of dissent.
India’s blasphemy laws, Section 153A, which deals with speech that seeks to promote enmity between different communities, and Section 295A, which criminalises speech that outrages religious feelings, are also vestiges of colonialism. Rather than aiding in dealing with genuine cases of hate speech, the laws permit governments to target acts that so much as offend a person’s belief, dislodging, in the process, the very foundation of free expression.
Signals from the judiciary
That the Supreme Court has allowed these provisions to remain on India’s books ought to tell us that its record in protecting personal liberty is acclaimed without reason. Every now and then, the Court does bewail the state of affairs. InArnab Manoranjan Goswami vs State of Maharashtra, decided in November last year, the Court warned against the use of the criminal law as “a ruse for targeted harassment”. The judgment noted: “Our courts must ensure that they continue to remain the first line of defence against the deprivation of the liberty of citizens. Deprivation of liberty even for a single day is one day too many.” But any hope that the verdict would augur well for the many thousands who continue to languish in jail without trial was quickly quelled.
When those involved with the making ofTandavfirst approached the Supreme Court, weeks after the verdict inArnab Manoranjan Goswami, the Court not only refused to quash the criminal charges against them but also offered them no interim protection against arrest.
What is more, when one of the show’s actors pleaded that he had simply been contracted to play a part, he was told, “You cannot play the role of a character which hurts the religious sentiments of others.”
To be sure, as the lawyer Abhinav Sekhri has repeatedly highlighted, India’s bail jurisprudence suffers from a systemic malaise, where the manner in which offences are classified and the manner in which judicial discretion is vested invariably leads to arbitrary outcomes. But when this uncertainty is coupled with the prevailing distrust — which flows from the Supreme Court — in the values of personal liberty, of free thought and expression, what we get is a complete erasure of the rule of law.
Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court
The new administration in the United States, of Joseph R. Biden, and the 117th U.S. Congress, two separate branches in the American system of governance, hit the road running with a sense of purpose to ‘heal’ the country and restore its leadership role in the world.
Now, with the Congress settling down to find its rhythm, it would turn attention to issues the Members are committed to and their constituents push for. While pursuing their agenda on The Hill, members tend to work together building support among colleagues as they move towards legislative action.
Early conversations between the leaderships in both countries offer an insight into the priorities of the Biden administration in furtherance of strategic bilateral ties amid early signs that the mood on Capitol Hill could be less favourable.
Message by the India Caucus
India does enjoy bipartisan support in the Congress but the first signal of a possible direction can be interpreted from the recent formal interaction that members of the India Caucus in the House of Representatives had with the Indian envoy in Washington DC. Founded in the early 1990s, it is the largest country-specific caucus on The Hill.
Caucus co-chair Brad Sherman (Democrat) and Steve Chabot (Republican), along with Vice Chair Rohit ‘Ro’ Khanna (Democrat), organised a meet with the Indian Ambassador to the United States, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, with particular reference to the farmers’ protest in India. Irrespective of who took the initiative for the meeting, the message delivered by the Caucus underscored its priority.
A formal statement by Mr. Sherman said the group urged the Government of India to make sure that the norms of democracy are maintained and that protesters are allowed to protest in a peaceful manner with access to the Internet and journalists. “All friends of India hope that the parties can reach an agreement,” was the message as a few other Congressmen took to social media on the farmers’ issue separately.
Rohit ‘Ro’ Khanna is one of the youngest among the four Indian-Americans in the current House of Representatives, the others being Dr. Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, and Raja Krishnamoorthi. He identifies with the progressives group that has more members in the current Democratic Party set-up and is a powerful voice. Mr. Khanna was associated with the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders considered Left and keeping him company in the group is Ms. Jayapal (Democrat). It was her possible presence in a meeting with members in the Congress, that led to India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar cancelling the engagement in December 2019 when he was in the U.S. This made then Senator Kamala Harris join issue.
Indian community is a force
While interaction between government officials is a regular exercise, there is another significant dimension to the growth of bilateral relations. It is the immense contribution of the Indian-Americans, the second largest immigrant community with a strength of four million plus people.
The massive effort by this highly educated and economically strong community makes it count as one of the most influential groups in the U.S. From the time when India came under sanctions following the Pokhran explosions, to the time the U.S. Congress voted on the civil nuclear deal, Indian-Americans have played a key role in transforming the relations.
Yet, over the past few years, there has been a divergence in the preferences of the community. A recent survey on attitudes of Indian Americans by Carnegie, Johns Hopkins and University of Pennsylvania (https://bit.ly/3kLfMhh) offers an understanding into many facets.
The community today may be less willing to engage with lawmakers and their aides with the same sense of purpose it did earlier on account of differing perceptions of events in India. In addition, over the past decade-and a-half, a number of Indian-Americans have found their way into various branches of the administration and the Congress.
Assessments and response
These second-generation members of Indian-Americans have their own individual assessment of developments in India, making it tougher for New Delhi to put forward a convincing argument from its perspective to counter perceptions. In America’s way of working, the standpoint of aides go in as valuable inputs for hard-nosed policy drafters while preparing documents for the administration and the Congress.
The farmers’ protests in India attracted attention across the world and found resonance in the U.S. too. The sharp reaction in India to comments on social media by Rihanna and Meena Harris came around the time when racial justice and the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement remains strong in the current American political discourse.
India, of course, has stepped up its outreach on the Hill and New Delhi enjoys an advantage to the extent that both Mr. Jaishankar and the current Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, served as Indian envoys in Washington DC. Both are well-versed with the way the city functions inside the Beltway.
Adding sinews to this effort is the pace of engagement by Indian missions. A leading Indian think-tank too opened its U.S. arm to supplement efforts in a city where the hiring of a professional lobby firm in Washington DC is well-accepted practice.
A direction pointer
A challenge in the current scenario would also be to translate the intent expressed at the last India-U.S. 2+2 meeting, in October 2019, of establishing an India-U.S.-Parliamentary Exchange for formal and reciprocal visits by parliamentarians (https://bit.ly/3ecqFHB). This is because opinion articulated by lawmakers has an amplifier effect and at times determines the path for the administration.
The accumulated reservoir of goodwill by Indians should help in defining the future course of bilateral ties; but it would require imaginative engagement to deal with the Democrat-controlled House, making it easier for the new administration to work on its India-centric plans. A test case waits in the form of CAATSA, or Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, as India moves ahead to procure the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
K.V. Prasad was a Fulbright-American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow
One of the first key foreign policy decisions that President Joe Biden took after assuming office was to end the U.S.’s support for Saudi Arabia’s six-year-long war on Yemen. He halted weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, appointed a Special Envoy for Yemen, and removed the Shia Houthi rebels, who control the northwestern parts of the Arab country, from the list of foreign terrorist organisations. Both former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump looked away from Yemen even as the country, amidst a multipolar civil war and Saudi bombing, descended into chaos and witnessed a humanitarian catastrophe. Can Mr. Biden be different?
The war in Yemen
The crisis in Yemen is not only about the Saudi-Houthi conflict. It has many more dimensions: humanitarian, civil, geopolitical and sectarian. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies went to Yemen in March 2015, they had a clearly defined objective: drive the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, out of the capital Sana’a and stabilise the country under the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi that they support. The Saudi-led coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen, which they hoped would eventually weaken the Houthis, and started a bombing campaign aimed at wrecking the rebels militarily. This campaign was a failure as the Houthis entrenched themselves in the north-west despite the military and economic challenges.
The only success the Saudis can claim from a tactical point of view is that the Houthis were limited to the north-west. But the Saudi-backed government failed to consolidate its position even in the south. A separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), has established its rule in southern Yemen. The UAE, which backs the STC, has pulled out of the Saudi-led coalition. All this is happening while the humanitarian situation in Yemen is worsening by the day. The war has killed over 10,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of a famine. According to the UN, 50,000 Yemenis are starving to death and 16 million will go hungry this year. They are depending on food assistance to survive, but the war is making it difficult for aid groups to operate in the country. Many more are dying due to preventable diseases as Yemen lacks proper health infrastructure and essential medicines.
Blockade and bombing
Finding a solution to such a vexed, multipolar conflict will not be easy. But that shouldn’t prevent the international community from taking steps. Their immediate focus should be on tackling the humanitarian situation in Yemen. This week, the UN held a conference to raise up to $2.41 billion for aid works in Yemen, but got pledges only for $1.35 billion, which means the aid operations would be impacted further. Even the limited humanitarian work cannot be sustained if there is no reprieve in the fighting. The last six years of war prove that the Saudi strategy of blockade and bombing was a failure. The Houthis continued to amass weapons, even technologically advanced drones which they use to attack Saudi targets across the border, despite the blockade, while the Yemeni people continue to suffer.
The Saudis should ask themselves whether they should continue with a failed strategy while the situation in Yemen keeps worsening. Also, the continued Houthi rocket and drone attacks have left a hole in Saudi Arabia’s national security umbrella. The Houthis are also under pressure. If they want international legitimacy, they should stop fighting and start talking with other stakeholders. A ceasefire is in everybody’s interest but the question is who will blink first. The Biden administration should use its leverage to pressure Riyadh to lift the blockade, a key Houthi demand, as a confidence-building measure and push for talks for a lasting ceasefire. Once a ceasefire between the two main rival blocs is achieved, the U.S. and its regional allies could call for a multilateral conference involving all stakeholders to discuss Yemen’s future. Yemen can find a way out of the current crisis provided the war is brought to an immediate end and the country is given diplomatic assistance.
India’s latest auction of telecommunications spectrum is a qualified success from the Centre’s perspective, mainly because the winning bids cumulatively exceeded the government’s own low expectations for receipts from the sale of airwaves. A total of 855.6 megahertz was successfully bid for — out of the 2,308.8 MHz that was on offer — as the three largest telecom services providers sought to optimise their purchases of radio spectrum by seeking to acquire only what they deemed essential airwaves, either as renewal or for strengthening their network, while entirely avoiding costlier bandwidth offerings. The newest entrant to the industry, Reliance Jio, was also the most acquisitive, accounting for close to 60% of the spectrum bought at 488.35 MHz and contributed almost three-fourths of the Rs. 77,815 crore that the Department of Telecommunications garnered from the sale. That Jio’s Rs. 57,123 crore by itself surpassed the government’s estimate of Rs. 45,000-Rs. 50,000 crore for takings from the auction where the reserve price for the entire spectrum on offer across seven bands amounted to about Rs. 3.92-lakh crore, tells its own tale. Clearly cognisant of the prevailing overall economic circumstances amid the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the high level of indebtedness in the industry, the government appears to have tempered its expectations to a more realistic level. Still, the Centre can hardly be sanguine about an outcome where a mere 37% of the airwaves on offer found takers.
In a repeat of the 2016 auction’s outcome, the significantly more efficient 700 MHz was yet again shunned by all bidders given its prohibitive reserve price. It is a little hard to fathom the government’s approach to pricing this nationally valuable resource, especially given its avowed intention of accelerating the digitisation of the economy including the broadening and deepening of the digital delivery of the multitude of public services to India’s farthest reaches. The relatively low frequency 700 MHz, for instance, is considered as ideal for enhancing network availability and reach in the highly urbanised settings of large, densely built-up cities where the issue of poor signal penetration inside buildings is a perpetual bugbear for users and providers alike. For all the brave talk on the auction’s outcome providing assurance, the nation’s telecom authorities need to take a hard look at the entire policy framework that has contributed a fair share to the current precarity in the industry. From auction formats that may no longer be relevant given the sharply reduced number of players, to grossly unrealistic pricing of spectrum, and regulatory norms and tax practices that threaten to tip the sector into a fractious duopoly, the government has its task cut out. It must now act quickly to ensure it does not end up hurting the very sector that has become a key multiplier of economic empowerment and progress.
Vaccine efficacy of 80.6% for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin at the first interim analysis of phase-3 trials in India is indeed promising, though it took two months for the data to become available after the vaccine was approved for ‘restricted emergency use’ by the Indian drug regulator. The vaccine efficacy was measured based on symptomatic COVID-19 disease — mild, moderate or severe — two weeks after the second dose. The interim analysis undertaken at the first endpoint of 43 COVID-19 cases in the phase-3 trial carried out across 26 sites in India found 36 cases in the placebo group while only seven COVID-19 cases in the arm that received two doses of the vaccine given 28 days apart. The phase-3 trial that began last November recruited 25,800 participants, with one half receiving the vaccine and the other, a placebo. While the phase-3 trial will continue till 130 participants in both groups put together develop COVID-19 disease, another interim analysis will be carried out when there are 87 cases. Covaxin’s efficacy of 80.6% at first interim analysis is higher than AstraZeneca/Covishield vaccine efficacy of 55.1% when the second dose is administered less than six weeks after the first; in India, the second dose of Covishield is approved for four-six weeks after the first. Also, the phase-3 trial recruited 2,433 participants over the age of 60 and included 4,500 people with comorbidities. However, those with severe and/or uncontrolled comorbidities were not recruited.
As per the phase-1 data published inThe Lancet Infectious Diseasesand a preprint of the phase-2 trial, Covaxin appears to be safe and highly immunogenic, and has also been found to be effective against the B.1.1.7 variant first found in Britain. While Covaxin accounts for less than 10% of all COVID-19 vaccinations in India, the absolute number of vaccinations as on March 3 stands at over 1.6 crore. No deaths associated with this vaccine have been reported so far. Though the first interim analysis is based on 43 cases, which is smaller when compared with other vaccines that have been approved by other regulators, the vaccine appears safe and efficacious in phase-3 and early stages of human trials and animal studies. The Indian regulator should therefore revise the restricted emergency use approval such that Covaxin is treated on a par with Covishield and should no longer seek additional precautions in the form of signed consent before vaccination and also remove the label “clinical trial mode” from the approval; their continuation would send a wrong signal about its safety and efficacy. With a narrow window of opportunity available to vaccinate people before a second wave probably sets in or dangerous variants get established, India can ill afford to have roadblocks in the uptake of either vaccine.
In February, when the government revived its ritual, the universal immunisation programme, news of two infants dying in Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, 24 hours after vaccination, did not create as much noise as it would have, otherwise. This is possibly because people were distracted, even obsessed, with the COVID-19 vaccines.
In a sense, the revenge of science is complete. Discussions about viruses and vaccines had been largely confined to closed-door deliberations in scientific institutions, hospital boardrooms, and among the health bureaucracy. Now, all of it has been been dragged into drawing rooms, television debates, social media chatter, on to the roads, and on the lips of children too.
It is not as if one could get away from talking about the COVID-19 pandemic; wherever you go, there it is. With India launching the COVID-19 vaccine programme, which is probably the largest logistical exercise of its kind in the world, it is no wonder that vaccine talk is buzzing — people are exchanging side effects stories, comparing vaccination passports, and rolling up a sleeve showing off their deltoid muscle, where they got the shot.
It has not always been like this. Health journalists have had to be at it though, even when vaccines were not attention grabbers. There has been enough vaccine news in this country to fuel several newspaper columns; and immunisation has been a key component of every State’s public health programme. The oral polio vaccination drive, with the involvement of the Rotary Club, was among the flagship immunisation programmes in India. It was a resounding success, but not without blimps and moments of anxiety, questions of efficacy, and vaccine hesitancy.
Public health advocacy has always put the media at the centre of any vaccine hesitancy debate. Panic reporting has often led to greater vaccine hesitancy in public immunisation programmes, studies show. But reporting on adverse effects following immunisation is like having to walk a high wire, with journalists trespassing into areas where independent verification of the causes of adverse incidents or even access to the key elements in the case is not possible. Pockets in the country have traditionally been suspicious of vaccines and the media has played a role in the massive awareness drives that were conducted across the country, to pull up coverage and achieve immunisation and pathogen eradication targets.
Vaccine-related severe adverse events and deaths have been reported from time to time diligently by the media — sometimes, not very responsibly. But children’s immunisation has dominated the coverage; adult immunisation, though significant, has received very marginal coverage. COVID-19 highlighted true vaccine hesitancy as never before in the country.
With people consuming everything (including what comes unverified on WhatsApp), the task of health journalists has become more intense. They have seldom been busier, trying to catch up with the multiple and myriad aspects of vaccination and in this case, given the extraordinary circumstances of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, highlighting clinical phases, following the entire life cycle from lab to the field, and then on to patients, all in a pace that approximates breathlessness.
In a sense, all of 2020 has been the treadmill test version of coaching in science reporting. What it has taught health journalists about vaccines and one virus are precious lessons for a career.
Mr. T.V. Seshagiri Aiyer B.A. B.L. Retired Judge and Member of the Legislative Assembly writes:- Sir - There is a general feeling among thoughtful men that portions of Hindu Law as administered by our Courts are not in keeping with the spirit of the times we live in. Excepting a few ultra conservative thinkers, every one recognises that it is no disrespect to the memory of the promulgators of the great system of law we have inherited that we should attempt to reform some parts of it. The Hindu Law which we follow is not wholly as Manu enjoined, nor as the later Smriti writers have reproduced it. For the most part, what we follow to-day is what has been evolved out of the Smriti by great commentators who with a view to engraft new ideas in accordance with the custom they had grown up in their times have attributed to the language of Smriti meanings which, in some cases at least, neither logic nor grammar warrants.
An old woman of Thanipad in Thandarampattu Assembly constituency in North Arcot district to-day [March 4] refused to vote saying “no money, no vote.” It seems that she was not offered money for casting her vote in favour of any candidate.
At the Arattavadi polling centre in Chengam constituency many Lambadi women were seen eager to exercise their franchise. A large number of tribals also came to Chengam for casting their votes.
At Singarampalayam in Kinathukadavu Assembly constituency (of Coimbatore district), Karuppan, a 110-year-old blind peasant, refused to take his great grandson’s help in casting his vote to-day. The great grandson carried the old man upto his polling booth. From there on, he flatly rejected the youth’s assistance. Instead, he asked the official on duty to explain the order of the symbols on the ballot paper and then, walking into the booth, marked his preference carefully before dropping the paper into the box. Karuppan explained later that the ballot was secret and that he, as an old man, had to set an example to younger people in maintaining this secrecy.
K. Thangavelu, stated to be a polling agent, was found snoring under the influence of liquor in a police station in Pollachi constituency.