Last Week in India: 02-08 August 2021
Retrospective tax, retrograde social values
India swooned to the swoosh and thump of a javelin that hit its golden mark at the Tokyo Olympics, moved to withdraw a ‘retrospective’ tax provision and saw the Supreme Court uphold the sanctity of arbitration as a dispute settlement mechanism, favouring Amazon in a dispute that saw the American e-commerce giant lock horns with Indian conglomerate Reliance, albeit indirectly. Stock market indices joined the space race, climbing ever higher into the stratosphere, the number of active Covid cases came down over the week, the number of vaccines aggregated 508 million and tension eased on the India-China front, even as the situation grew worse in Afghanistan.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was able to host leaders of 15 Opposition parties and present a joint front to the government, backing their demand for a debate in Parliament on and an inquiry into the Pegasus snooping scandal. The Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy Committee decided, in its bimonthly meeting, to hold interest rates unchanged. A Dalit girl, all of nine, was raped, killed and cremated before any forensic medical investigation could take place, right in the national capital. And India joined the elite club of nations that have the capacity to design and build an aircraft carrier, when indigenously built INS Vikrant began its sea trials off the coast of Kochi, in the Arabian Sea.
India won an individual track and field gold medal for the first time since Independence, when Neeraj Chopra threw his javelin farther than anyone else at the Tokyo Olympics. Other individual golds have been scarce as well. India has won a shooting gold in the past: Abhinav Bindra in 2008, at the Beijing games.
While Milkha Singh and PT Usha are popular Indian athletes, they never won an Olympic medal and their impressive running feats were not sufficient to inspire an ever larger talent pool into ceaseless striving for excellence. The vast majority of Indians cannot afford to follow their passion, unless that passion also offers a decent livelihood. Cricket, especially after the arrival of the Indian Premier League, has allowed a thousand flowers of cricketing talent to blossom across India, to throw up raw talent that has converted India into a cricketing powerhouse. No other sport holds out the promise of translating commercial success for the sport into financial security for the players and athletes who make up the sport.
Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal has been greeted with multi-million rupee awards by state governments and private bodies. Brand ambassadorships and endorsement deals are guaranteed to follow. This would make athletics a new endeavour of rich pickings. Parents want their children to become a doctor, engineer, civil servant or lawyer, and would not let a child take time off from the rigours of study to just jump, run and play. They are now likely to see things differently. Sponsorship of track and field events is likely to become more expansive and more generous. Viewership of such events on TV is relatively high in a state like Kerala, and in few other places. Neeraj Chopra’s success could change all this. India will see more talent pour onto the track and augur a golden future. The men’s hockey team won a Bronze, the first medal it has won since 1980.
Success, as they say, has many parents. But failure has to be pinned on to some unfortunate scapegoat. When India’s women’s hockey team made it to the semifinals in Tokyo, the nation cheered, especially for the star forward Vandana Kataria, who scored a rare hat-trick. But when the team lost in subsequent matches, some people burst firecrackers in front of Kataria’s home in her native state of Uttarakhand and blamed the presence of Dalits like her on the team for India’s loss.
It would be wrong to diagnose, from the actions of a handful of caste supremacists, continuing generalised oppression of Dalits 70 years after the coming into force of a Constitution that promises non-discrimination, except for affirmative action to provide the means of equality to those who have traditionally been unequal. But the intolerance of Dalit achievement forcefully expressed in that Utttarakhand village is no solitary aberration. In the last one week, a Dalit man from interior Haryana, who had gone to Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi to make a better life than was possible back in the village, was beaten to death by miscreants, and a Dalit girl, all of nine, was raped, killed and hastily cremated in the national Capital, reportedly by a priest and his three associates.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has got some flak for meeting the dead girl’s mother — for politicising a tragic crime and for indiscretion over the identity of the victim. These charges are, of course, silly. That crime was aided and abetted by the structural disempowerment of the girl’s Dalit community, and, therefore, it behoves a politician committed to democracy to lend the force of his political party to make up for the girl’s family’s disempowerment vis-à-vis the priest, to make it possible for the police to make a proper investigation. Investigations are on.
It was a good week for Rahul Gandhi. Leaders of 15 Opposition parties accepted his invitation to put up a common front against the government’s stonewalling of the demand for a proper inquiry into the snooping scandal, the Pegasus Project, and to demand a discussion in Parliament on the subject. The Supreme Court took up a petition seeking an inquiry into the snooping on assorted functionaries, including a judge of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court staff members and Opposition leaders, using Pegasus, a spy software implanted on phones. But it has deferred a hearing to the coming week.
Three more Supreme Court actions made news last week. The police and investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation do not pay heed to judges’ complaints about threats to their lives, said the Court. Last week a judicial magistrate had been killed in a hit and run operation in Jharkhand. The Noida authority is wholly corrupt, said the Court, of the government-appointed agency that administers Noida, a sprawling Uttar Pradesh suburb of Delhi.
But the Court ruling that made the biggest splash related to a tussle between Amazon and Reliance, over the latter’s attempt to purchase Future Group, which owns and operates a multi-brand retail chain under the brand name Big Bazar. Amazon had entered into an agreement with Future Retail, Future Coupons, a company that owned shares in Future Retail and the shareholders of these two companies, assorted members of the Biyani family that set up the Future Group. The plan was to invest money in Future Coupon that would filter down into Future Retail, in return for which the Biyanis and their companies would agree to give Amazon a right to rule against sale of Future Retail to anyone without its permission. Specifically, the agreement barred sale to Reliance promoter Mukesh Ambani and his associates. Any dispute was to go into arbitration.
The Biyanis entered into negotiations with Reliance to sell Future Group to Reliance’s retail business, Amazon cried foul and started an arbitration process, which found in favour of Amazon and said the sale could not proceed. The Biyanis got a ruling from a division bench of the Delhi high court overturning the finding of a Single Bench that the arbitral award was legitimate. Amazon challenged the Delhi high court division bench’s ruling in the Supreme Court, and the Court ruled in its favour, holding that arbitration as agreed upon by willing parties is valid and cannot be brushed aside ‘as a nullity’, as the Biyanis had.
This, of course, does not mean that Amazon has stopped Reliance from buying up Future Retail. The arbitration award says it is for statutory authorities to say whether the sale could go ahead or if Amazon could buy Future Retail along with Indian associates. This will play out in government corridors, rather than just in the Courts.
In another development, India and China wound down further their military confrontation in eastern Ladakh that had started last May. Army commanders agreed to disengage at Patrol Point 7A near Gogra; but Chinese presence continues in three places, Hot Springs, Depsang and Demchok.
China and Pakistan scored a minor diplomatic point against India by keeping India out and Pakistan included in a Russian-led consultation on Afghanistan. India snubbed Pakistan in the UN Security Council, pointedly referring to countries that offer shelter to terrorists.
The continuing advance of the Taliban in several parts of Afghanistan, in the wake of the irresponsibly abrupt and ill-prepared departure of the armed forces of the US and its Nato allies from that country continues to worry New Delhi.
But the biggest news event of the week was, of course, the government’s move to introduce legislation to amend the 2012 amendment to the tax law that clarified that Indian tax authorities could tax transactions that effected indirect transfers of assets in India. This has been spelt out in detail in an earlier post Keep Vodafone Pragmatism Pragmatic - by T K Arun - The Sanjaya Report (substack.com)