Posted by: John Elliott | February 2, 2014

Moderate sales and lots of people keep the India Art Fair buoyant

IAFair 003-001Delhi’s annual India Art Fair, which closed tonight, is as important for the focus it brings to Indian art and for other events that happen at the same time across the city as it is for the show itself, which has settled into a predictable mould in its sixth year.

Indeed, the exhibitions away from the fair grounds that are featuring leading modern and contemporary artists are more exciting than the fair itself, which this year has lacked dramatic new contemporary displays. In a depressed market, galleries have been showing conventional works and there has been some criticism of a lack of consistent quality, especially with Indian galleries – “kitsch” was the unkind word used by one critic to describe some exhibits, responding to me saying it was all very “predictable”.

Maybe there is nothing wrong in that. Arguably, there is no reason why India should not produce its own version of art fairs in the same way that it challenges other foreign concepts of orderliness, quality and convention. That said, the fair does confound sceptics with its efficient organisation and presentation and, as I have written several times in earlier years, its importance is that it has successfully opened up interest in Indian modern and contemporary art both in India and abroad.

IAFair 007-001Thousands of visitors, including schoolchildren, who would never venture into formal art galleries, have been touring the stands, which provide them with access to culture that they would not otherwise experience. This is similar to the Jaipur Literature festival that I wrote about ten days ago, though there the audiences are building on their existing interest in books whereas the art fair is opening new vistas.

Established Indian collectors have been at the fair to see, and some to buy, instead of relying on internet images which, gallery owners tell me, astonishingly suffices for many buyers.

The fair also brings foreign visitors to Delhi – this year, for the first time, there is a group of gallery owners and collectors and artists from China, while Christie’s, one of the fair sponsors, has brought an international group. Neha Kirpal, the founder and director of he fair, says that last year 40% of the works sold went to first time buyers, some from what are known as second tier towns that do not have art events. Several gallery owners however are sceptical about that figure, echoing doubts about some of the claims of attendances in past years which Neha has comfortably and rounded off to a cumulative unchallengeable figure of 400,000 over the past five years.

IAFair 006The array of art on show has ranged from Picasso and Andy Warhol to India’s reliable body of progressives such as M.F. Husain, F.N.Souza and contemporary artists such as Atul Dodya and a spinning mud installation (left).

There were 91 exhibitors, the biggest of which is the Delhi Art Gallery with 330 works covering 400 sq metres. Nearly a third of the total exhibitors are from abroad, though some big international names, such as the Lisson Gallery from London and Hauser & Wirth from Zurich, have not returned after appearances four or five years ago.

This indicates some disappointment with a lack of sales to big buyers, and also frustration with shipping and other problems caused by India’s customs controls that make it impractical to bring many foreign works for sale.  “There is a risk of this not going much further if the organisers don’t develop a co-ordinated programme with collectors and corporate buyers,” says Carlos Cabral Nunes of Portugal’s Perve Galeria, reflecting the views of other foreign exhibitors.

A quick survey of stands this evening produced some unhappiness, like Nunes’ frustration about a lack of big sales, and most galleries that had done well sold works ranging from under Rs100,000 (£1,000, US$1,600) to four or five times that figure, though some went far higher. London’s Grosvenor Gallery did exceedingly well selling works by Olivia Fraser., a Delhi-based British painter with limited edition prints of new works that started at Rs50,000. Archer Art Galley of Ahmedabad did well with reproduction editiona of well-known artists starting at Rs15,000.

IAFair 015At the other end of the scale, Aicon Gallery of New York and London sold four works by established Indian masters, M.F.Husain and F.N.Souza, and a younger painter G.K.Irani, for between Rs400-500,000 to Rs1.5 crore (Rs15m).

Art Alive of Delhi sold a long Thota Vaikuntum (similar but smaller than the painting at the bottom of this article) that had been priced at Rs40 lakhs (Rs40m). Mark Hachim of Paris was also happy, selling lively works, all foreign,  and including digital prints in plastic boxes (right) from Euros 5,000 (Rs420,000). Sakshi Gallery of Mumbai’s sales included a tiffin (meal) container carried by Mumbai’s dabbawwallas who are pictured in the small buttons (above).

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Sadly, the crowds at the fair do not then go on to the more dramatic and important exhibitions away from the event. The government-controlled National Gallery of Modern Art is featuring a retrospective by Subodh Gupta, one of India’s most prominent contemporary artists, and a collection by Amrita Sher-Gill, one of the most important painters from the first half of the last century. The government-supported Lalit Kala Akadami has an intriguing collection of specially painted extra-long works by established “moderns” commissioned by a collector Tanuj Berry. Titled Ode to the Monumental, it includes paintings by Krishen Khanna (above) and Vaikuntum (bottom). These exhibitions  could have been linked more closely with the fair, especially since the Ode works are being offered for sale by Saffronart, India’s leading on-line auction house that should benefit from the buzz with an auction later this month.

cascadeSubodh Gupta is famous for his shiny stainless steel assemblies of household pots and pan, milk containers, scooters, motorbikes and airport luggage trollies that link his origins in Bihar, India’s poorest state, with modern living (left and below right). His works were a much-promoted and popular buy in the mid-2000s when, for example, a luggage trolley painting was sold in a Christie’s auction for a record $1.1m, but his prices crashed when collectors sold off Indian contemporary works in a falling market and a similar work fetched only £180,000 ($250,000) at Sotheby’s in 2010.

Now Gupta has bounced back with the normally staid NGMA devoting much of its public space to his Everything is Inside exhibition, together with the cachet of a foreign curator, Germano Celant from Italy. There is a new Penguin book on the show, and Gupta was also fortuitously one of the winners of a Forbes India art award this week as “contemporary artist of the year (mid career)”.

photo wc's 1-001Rather more hidden away at the National Gallery is, historically, a much more important showing of nearly 100 paintings by Amrita Sher-Gill who lived only to the age of 28, dying in 1941. In that short space of time, she produced an amazing range of mostly figurative works that rarely appear in auctions or galleries but are on display now with the title The Passionate Quest, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia.

Collectors will now be watching to see what effect these events have on the market. Christie’s had an amazingly good first auction in Mumbai in December that produced record prices but that has yet to have a visible impact.

On a broader front, experts have been saying that India should look eastwards to the buoyant Chinese and south-east Asian markets to develop links. That will now begin following the visit of collectors from China, led by Philip Dodd of Made in China. Among them was  Budi Tek, a prominent Chinese-Indonesian collector who is building a museum in Shanghai. He is considering buying a contemporary work from Delhi’s Espace Gallery. Earlier in the day, he said the Indian private sector needed to build museums and public awareness.

India always looks westwards to Europe and the US for foreign accolades and praise so it will, I guess, be some time before it recognises that looking east is where the future probably lies if Indian art is to appeal internationally to a wider audience than its present relatively small group of western collectors.

Vaikuntum long-001

Posted by: John Elliott | January 28, 2014

Rahul’s TV debut ideas are right but won’t win him votes

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After ten years refusing to face a big media interview, Rahul Gandhi spent an hour and a half on a leading television channel at prime time last night explaining how he wants to reform the way that India and his Congress Party are run.

His aim, he said, was to end rule by dynasties, introduce real democracy in Congress, “change the away we do politics”, empower women and youth, punish the corrupt, and build an internationally significant manufacturing industry.

No one could write a better manifesto for making the changes that India desperately needs, but Gandhi failed to explain and add substance to his wish list with detailed policies. When pushed into a corner by the interviewer, he slipped sideways by retuning to his three priorities of changing politics, empowering women and energising the youth:

“What I want to do is going forward is basically focus on three things,” he said on the TimesNow tv channel. “Focus on empowering our people, truly empowering our people, giving them democratic rights within the political party.

“I want youngsters who come in and really, really push democracy in the party. I want to empower them and I want to make India, together with everybody, taking everybody together I want to put India on the manufacturing map, I want to make this the centre of manufacturing in the world. I want to make this place at least as much as a manufacturing power as China.

“What I feel is that this country needs to look at the fundamental issues at hand, the fundamental political issue at hand is that our Political system is controlled by too few people and we absolutely have to change the way our political system is structured, we have to change our Political parties, we have to make them more transparent, we have to change the processes that we use to elect candidates, we have to empower women in the political parties, that is where the meat of the issue but I don’t hear that discussion, I don’t hear the discussion about how are we actually choosing that candidate, that is never the discussion.”

He said (correctly!), “I am an anomaly in the environment that I’m in….I don’t get driven by the desire for power”. The “quest for power, the thirst for power” was not for him, but he w anted to use power “to reduce the pain that people feel, to reduce the pain that people feel as a result of the system that is predatory”

Rahul - Arnab 3

He also drew a sharp distinction between Congress and the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), saying that Congress believed in democratically spreading power while the BJP “believes power should be extremely concentrated in this country, few people should run this country and the large mass of this country should have no voice”. That sounded neat, but it dodged the fact that most national and local Congress leaders hold the same views as he ascribed to the BJP and do not welcome his ideas.

Gandhi was side-tracked for much of the 90 minutes into arguments about headline-catching issues such as the relative horror of anti-Sikh riots in 1984, when his father Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, and Gujarat’s anti-Muslim riots in 2002 where Narendra Modi, the BJP’s abrasive prime ministerial candidate, was (and still is) chief minister.

His choice of tv station for his first such interview was curious because, instead of going for what might have been a gentler and more amenable and constructive interview on a channel such as NDTV, he chose TimesNow and its abrasive chief editor, Arnab Goswami (above), who is famous for his high-decibel confrontational chat shows. Goswami was quiet and relatively courteous, indeed sometimes almost mockingly obsequiously so, but he was much more interested in trying to trap Gandhi into potential headline gaffes than exploring detailed policies. I suspect that Rahul’s sister Priyanka was in the room for the interview, judging by his body language (he repeatedly glanced off-camera, as if for support, and once indicated to the side when he mentioned her). And it looked (from shots when he arrived and the Husain pictures on the walls) that it was done at Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan, headquarters of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation where Priyanka has a leading role.

What did emerge was a categorical statement by Gandhi that he wants to end dynastic rule. That logically means that he could be the last in the line of the Nehru Gandhi dynasty that overall has not served India well through successive generations – as I suggest in my book, IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, which will be published soon.

Rahul - corruptionGandhi scarcely mentioned his mother Sonia, Congress’s president, and much of his condemnation of undemocratic political controls and tolerating corruption was an implicit criticism of what she has done and stood for during 16 years at the head of the party.

He also curiously said “I report to the Prime Minister” (when asked about tacking inflation), which he does not – structurally as vice president of Congress he reports to his mother and, in reality, Manmohan Singh reports to him.

On corruption, he claimed that “the Congress party, wherever we have had issues of corruption, we have taken action”. That was not true because corruption by ministers and officials was condoned for years till a popular outcry built up two or three years ago. He dodged this issue by talking about Right to Information legislation which was brought in by the government and certainly has had a major effect on the exposure of corruption.

On this, as on other subjects, his answers failed to address the shortcomings of the coalition run since 2004 by his mother as the political head and Manmohan Singh as prime minister. He would carry more conviction if he had started explaining his aims earlier in the ten years that he has been a member of parliament, and if he had managed to change what the Sonia-Singh administration has done . Instead he has stayed on the sidelines of national politics and is now producing his new approach at the tail end of a failing government, with just two months or so to go before the general election.

His sights are probably on following genera election, but he will have to sharpen up his views and leadership skills if he is to succeed even then. As many would-be reformers – including his father – have found, India and Congress are very resistant to such fundamental changes that challenge the society’s basis of power and patronage.

A video of the interview is on  http://www.timesnow.tv/Frankly-Speaking-with-Rahul-Gandhi—1/videoshow/4446831.cms  and the full text is on http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Rahul-Gandhis-first-interview-Full-text/articleshow/29455665.cms

India’s annual Jaipur Literature Festival, which finished two days ago, is different things to different people. With a total of over 200,000 footfalls and nearly 20,000 people registering for the first time each day, it is an enormous free-wheeling extravaganza of debate, humour and conversation. It has grown from just a few hundred people when it began in 2006 and has inspired the creation of 40 or 50 other smaller festivals around the country and elsewhere.

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Foreign authors say it is one of the best of the international festivals. People from Delhi’s and Mumbai’s social circuit like it because they can parade with, or close to, famous literary and other names and talk about it afterwards. The vast mass of people simply enjoy the discussions and cosmopolitan tamasha in the faded glory of Diggi Palace and its grounds, while thousands of students collect autographs and have themselves photographed with anyone who might be significant.

For me, this year was an opportunity to talk in public for the first time about my new book, IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, that Harper Collins will be launching soon in Delhi.

Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese novelist and filmmaker, produced perhaps the best illustration of the festival’s image when she said, during a debate on Who Rules the World, that China could learn from the way that “everyone here is equal, everyone has the right to listen and to get information”. If China did that, she said, it would be a better country.

Pinpointing how the festival differs from many others around the world, she commented that “not everyone here is elite – you are normal people!”. The unanimous view of course was that it would be a bad idea if China even tried to rule the world, but Guo’s remark underlined what an open and free (you only pay for food) event this lit fest has become.

Among the other sessions I attended was a strong debate over the real story of Jesus – or the quite different ANWilson with Reza Aslan and Willie Dalrymplestories of Jesus the Jewish evangelist and Jesus the Christ, as asserted by Reza Aslan, the Iranian author of a new book,  Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  A.N.Wilson (right in the picture),  a British writer and author of Jesus, disagreed about the validity of such distinctions and said that the history of Jesus was “educated speculation”.

In a stimulating session, two moderately indiscreet former diplomats – Hussain Haqqani, once Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, and Robert Blackwill, who was US ambassador to India – more or less agreed that both the US and Pakistan had mucked up their relationship over the years.

I missed Adrian Levy, a British journalist, explaining how he and Cathy Scott-Clark did some incredibly detailed reporting on the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai’s Taj Hotel and other targets and produced the recently published book, The Siege. But I shall watch that on the festival’s on-line videos.

Aditi Malhotra, The Wall Street JournalIn a gentler session on the final day, when heavy rain drove many events indoors, Richard Holmes, a British author and biographer, read from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. He said that students still regard the poem relevant today, partly because they see the mariner’s killing of the albatross as symbolic of “man damaging nature” and the destruction of the environment.

In my first panel discussion, India at the Crossroads, I explained how my book tracks the decline and crumbling of institutions, with corruption and bad governance eating into the way the country is run. On a later panel titled Is there an Indian Way of Thinking, I talked about my main theme in the book – that India’s acceptance of jugaad (fix it) and chalta hai (it will all be ok) encourages the dysfunctional side of a society and economy.

K.S.Radhakrishnan at the launch of his book 'Sculptures'

K.S.Radhakrishnan at the launch of his book ‘Sculptures’

There was much else – nearly 200 sessions in total over five days with musical evenings, book launches and a splendid book shop run by Full Circle of Delhi (it sold 35 copies of IMPLOSION) that had to close on the final day because of the heavy rain.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, a literary consultant, has tracked the growth of literary festivals since the Jaipur lit fest started in an article here.  I’ve looked up some of my earlier posts on the festival – I’ve only missed one.  In January 2010, just  15,000 people arrived in the first three days, which meant a total of not much more than 20,000 – double 2009 when there were only 10,000.  That was dramatic growth, which has now fortunately slowed – this week’s total of over 200,000 is enough for any festival. But do come next year – there will be plenty of space to squeeze in a few more people!

As he approaches the end of his ten years’ as India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh says he believes that “history will be kinder” to him than the contemporary media and political opposition. That was a recurrent theme at a large press conference lasting about 100 minutes that he gave in Delhi today. It was only his third in ten years (and second since 2004), apart from exchanges with selected journalists on flights abroad.

He has revealed little in the past, so not much was expected this time (picture below). His opening statement attempted to record his government’s performance in a good light. Most of his answers to journalists’  questions were bland, and many were evasive. He did announce that he would not be a prime ministerial candidate in the coming general election. That was expected and it turns the focus onto a Congress Party meeting in two weeks’ time when, it is rumoured, Rahul Gandhi might announced for the role.

MMS pc Jan 3 '14Manmohan Singh’s headline catcher was a blunt personal attack on Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, who he said would be “disastrous for the country”. A man who had presided “over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad” had not displayed “the sort of strength this country needs, least of all, in its Prime Minister”.

That was a reference to the Godhra riots in Gujarat in 2002, where more than 2,000 are believed to have been killed with Modi as chief minister. The remark showed that Modi will continue to come under attack for his role then, even though he has been cleared of responsibility by the courts and said last week (without actually apologising) that he was “shaken to the core” by the violence with feelings of “grief, sadness, misery, pain, anguish, agony.”

The most telling theme of the press conference was the way that the prime minister shirked responsibility for corruption scandals, notably in the telecommunications and coal industries, that have dogged his administration with him being implicated for at least condoning what has happened.

First, he tried to dodge questions by saying the scandals had started in the 2004-09 United Progressive Alliance government and that people had re-elected him and the coalition in 2009,  so did “not seem to have paid heed to all these charges of corruption which are levied against me or my party”. That missed the point that the scandals had not fully surfaced in 2009, and that Singh’s role had not fully developed and emerged – firstly with him allowing an implicated telecoms minister to be reappointed (because his Tamil Nadu-based party was needed in the new coalition), and second with him being in charge of the coal ministry during some of that industry’s scandals.

So Manmohan Singh’s reliance on so-far unwritten history to say that he had done as well as he could was significant. Will it excuse him his failings because he had to cope with both a fractious coalition that blocked some of his policies, and with Sonia Gandhi as his political boss who ruled the roost? He talked today, as he has in the past, about “coalition compulsions” and hoped that history would say he had done the best he could in the “coalition circumstances”

Or will it say he lowered the status of the prime minister’s post by condoning corruption and ceding authority, which was constitutionally his, to Gandhi and her son Rahul when he ought to have stood up to them or resigned?

Arvind Kejriwal - Mint photoMaybe, rather vengefully, he hopes that history blames the Gandhi’s for wielding power over the government without being responsible constitutionally, or in parliament, for what was done. That would be a just verdict but, even then, Singh will surely be blamed for being weak and allowing it to happen.

That however is all to do with the past, and another far more significant event to do with the future also happened in Delhi today when Arvind Kejriwal (above) began work in the city’s newly elected assembly as chief minister, following the devastating success of his anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party in recent assembly elections.

The implication of Singh’s  remarks is that coalition governments have to be corrupt in order to keep corrupt coalition partners happy. Kejriwal is setting out to prove otherwise, with Congress supporting his minority government!

While 81-year old Singh is looking to historians to produce their verdict on him, 45-year old Kejriwal is beginning a new young era in Indian politics with massive support because of the failings of the Gandhi-Singh government and the lack of hope that the BJP would be much better.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! IMG_8507

India’s slumbering modern art market came alive last night at Christie’s first auction in the country when astonishing prices were achieved totalling $15.45m (Rs96.5 crore), roughly doubling estimates. Collectors say that this was the result of extensive marketing by a big Chrisite’s team and the excitement of a live auction, though some of the top bids came by telephone from overseas.

There was also what the experts call a strong provenance – just over half the 83 lots were collected by the late Kekoo Gandhy who championed young, later famous, artists like M.F.Husain, Vasudeo S.Gaitonde and Ram Kumar in the 1940s and 1950s and then ran Mumbai’s Chemould art gallery.

Lot 1 GaitondeOne of Gandhy’s Gaitonde works set the auction – held in Mumbai’s Taj Hotel – off to a spectacular start as the first lot. An untitled early landscape (left) of just 9in by 11in, it beat the estimated price range of Rs8 lakhs to 1.2 crore ($13,000-19,400) by around ten times and went for Rs80 lakhs – that’s Rs9.83 crores ($157,200) including buyer’s premium. It was a gouache with pen and ink on card, and had Chemould Frames label on the reverse side.

Another Gaitonde – a large oil on canvas abstract (below) from a different owner – produced the highest auction sale price of Rs20.5 crore (approx $3.3m), or Rs23.7 crore ($3.79) including the premium, roughly tripling the lowest estimate. This was a telephone bid from the US and it was the highest price ever paid in India for a modern work of art. It was a world auction record for the artist.

In the past decade, India’s leading modern artists of the same vintage such Husain, Mehta, F.N.Souza and S.H.Raza have all had their day topping Indian art prices. Now Gaitonde, who died in 2001 aged 77, is reaching the same price levels for his works that are mostly abstracts. The Guggenheim Museum in New York has a Gaitonde retrospective next year and that will no doubt persuade more collectors to bring more of his works to the market, sustaining high prices.

Lot 63 Gaitonde auction shot

The second highest bid of Rs17 crore ($2.8m) or Rs19.78 crore ($3.17m) came for a Tyeb Mehta acrylic on canvas (below) in his dramatic Mahisasura series. These Tyeb works are always strong sellers, and this one depicted the Devi in her most potent form as a lion locked in a struggle with Mahisasura, the mythical Hindu demon-king who was half human-half buffalo.

This was the first time that two Indian works had been sold at above $3m in the same auction. Other leading artists with works in the auction included Husain, Ram Kumar, Raza, Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Jamini Roy, and Nandalal Bose.

Hugo Weihe, the auctioneer and Christie’s international director of Asian Art, said that this showed that the market “has matured” and that good prices could be obtained for top quality works, with collectors distinguishing the best works from lesser ones. This has been his usual line during the past five years when the Indian art market has been hit by the international economic slowdown, but he said to me this morning that last night’s results prove that new high prices are paid for best works – which they were.

Christies arranged for 30 or so international collectors to be in Mumbai for the sale but Weihe says new buyers are also appearing – about 100 people registered for the first time for the auction. There were also buyers making bids on the internet on Christie’s website as well as by telephone.

Lot 64 Tyeb Mehta- MahishasuraThe emergence of new buyers is in line with the experience of the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) which, having recently opened a new outlet in the old Fort business district of Mumbai, is finding that younger generations of old business families are beginning to buy. Significantly, they are going for the established ‘moderns’ like those featured in this auction rather than risking their money on Indian‘s contemporary artists who are still fairing badly after a serious slump in prices.

The DAG is unusual in that it has large collections of modern art and stages big exhibitions that are well backed up with art books and literature. “It is a one stop shop for buying modern art,” says Amrita Jhaveri, a collector who opened Christie’s representative office in Mumbai 20 years ago and herself had a successful sale of part of her Indian collection totalling $6.7m with Sotheby’s in New York last march

Together the DAG and Christie’s have given the Indian art market a significant boost at a time when many smaller galleries have been down-sizing or closing in both Mumbai and Delhi.

Along with Saffronart, India’s leading internet-based art auctioneer, they have shown the results that can be achieved if a significant effort is put into involving potential buyers and searching for the best works – Christie’s had 50 staff working in India on the auction. Galleries and auction houses with less energy and cachet are finding times hard and are rarely willing to cut prices sufficiently for lesser works. “If people don’t make the effort, they can’t complain that the market is flat,” says Kishore Singh of the DAG.

Dinesh Vazirani of Saffronart says he believes the auction showed a “resurgence of enthusiasm” in the market which was needed to boost sales

Collectors were also wondering today whether it is easier for an international auctioneer such as Christie’s to sell in Mumbai than in Delhi because there are more people and business houses there prepared to pay with “white” money, as opposed to the black money sloshing around in Delhi.

Whether that is correct or not, what is sure is that Christie’s yesterday showed that the cachet of an international auctioneer, plus extensive marketing for top quality works brings in top prices.

It’s almost general election time in India and the two main political parties are on the move to prove their credibility. In the past 24 hours, India has uprooted cordial diplomatic relations with the US that have been carefully nurtured for the past decade or more. It has also passed the Lok Pal Bill creating an anti-corruption ombudsman that has been pending in various forms for 45 years.

It is no coincidence that these events come ten days after the new Aam Aadmi anti-corruption political party (AAP) dominated the results of assembly elections in Delhi – so both the government and main Bharatiya Janata Party opposition now need to prove their worth in order to stop AAP becoming successful nationally. Nor is the sudden emergence of Rahul Gandhi surprising as an energised parliamentary performer (in today’s Lok Pal parliamentary debate), just there are rumours that he might be named next month as the Congress Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the general election due in April-May. He needs to act fast to save his and his mother’s party from a humiliating defeat.

Devyani KhobragadeIt is also probably not a coincidence that the dramatic (some say excessively aggressive) diplomatic battle that India has waged this week against the US – suddenly cancelling various diplomatic privileges and removing security barricades that blocked a road adjacent to the embassy in Delhi – came on the first anniversary of a horrific rape of a young medical student that shocked opinion internationally.

Since that rape, there has been a major change in the way that offences against women are regarded, especially the way they are covered in the media. So it is scarcely surprising that Indian politicians backed the outrage felt by Foreign Ministry officials when US authorities last Thursday arrested Devyani Khobragade (above), India’s 39-year old vice-consul in New York, just as she was dropping her daughter at school. She was allegedly handcuffed and later strip-searched, underwent DNA swabbing, and held in a cell with others accused of crimes including drugs till she was released on $250,000 bail.

Relationship lacks supporters

There is a bigger issue here that concerns India’s current relationship with the US which, though enormously better than it was ten to 15 years ago, is floundering because of a lack of care in both countries and a weak Indian embassy in the US. The relationship has few if any committed supporters in the current Obama administration, and there are many officials and commentators in India who would like to take a more aggressive stance, which this case has provided. [Dec 19: John Kerry, US Secretary of State, phoned a senior Indian official on Wednesday evening and expressed his "regret" for the way the arrest had been conducted, but said the law should take its course.]

The US alleges that Khobragade is guilty of visa fraud over an India maid who used to work in her home and who had not been paid the statutory minimum wage. Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary, has said that it is not unusual for foreign maids in the US to be paid less than the official minimum and that the American authorities accept the “contradiction between reality and the letter of the law”.

There are complications in this case that have yet to unravel including suggestions the maid and her family wanted to become US residents. India has accused the US authorities of fraudulently allowing the maid’s husband and children to enter the America last week two days before Khobragade was arrested, even though the maid had been reported missing by Khobragade some months earlier.

US Attorney Preet Bharara in New York has said the family were given visas and taken to the US because the Justice Department is “compelled to make sure that victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending”. Bharara, a high profile India-born attorney famous for bringing sexual assault charges against IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn two years ago and other major cases against Wall Streert banks,  suggested that the family were being harrasssed in India and therefore needed to be evacuated. Salman Khurshid, the foreign minister, has described what happened as either a “conspiracy” or “irrational behaviour”.

More significant is India’s reaction to the humiliation that the woman diplomat received. There have been earlier controversial security  checks and harassment of senior Indian officials in the US which Ronen Sen, a former ambassador in Washington, said on television this evening does not happen in other countries. This has united India’s foreign service officials, led by Sujatha Singh, India’s new foreign secretary, in demanding the strongest possible condemnation of the US. She was in Washington for talks the day before the arrest and was apparently not consulted.

anna_speaking360x270The BJP is accusing the government – with some justification – of running a weak foreign policy over the past ten years, which has enabled the US to dominate the bilateral relationship. This raises a wider issue of India not asserting itself either in world affairs or with aggressive neighbours China and Pakistan, which a BJP government might well change.

It is therefore important for the government to try to build some credibility and the Khobragade case has given it an opportunity on the emotive issue of relationships with the US, while the Lok pal Bill will, Rahul Gandhi clearly hopes, help to smother memories of the massive corruption that has run through the Congress-led coalition government.

The Aam Aadmi’s party’s rise spurred Gandhi and the government to revive the Bill, which creates a new corruption ombudsman. The main parties have resisted the Bill for decades, and the government only agreed to produce legislation two years ago under intense pressure from Anna Hazare (above), a social rights activist, and from Arvind Kejriwal who has now broken away from Hazare to form and lead the AAP. Hazare seems to be a supporter of the BJP, which has amazingly co-operated the past two days with Congress to pass the legislation through both houses of parliament.

Rahul Gandhi is now setting himself up as the politician who ensured that the Bill was passed. In parliament, he called for six other anti-corruption bills covering subjects such as public procurement, foreign bribery, judicial standards, and whistle-blowers to be passed before the general election. That is inevitably leading to him being accused of trying to capture the limelight and credit – which of course he is – when it is Hazare and others who deserve to be praised.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 8, 2013

India state elections demand political change without the Congress

India is tired of the Congress Party and its dominant Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and will demand sweeping changes in the general election that is due to be held in just over four months’ time. It may not however just want a switch between the established Congress and the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) parties, but could demand something new in politics that will tackle the country’s endemic corruption, crony capitalism and inefficient government.

Arvind K IMG_0559That is the conclusion that can be drawn from election results today for four state assemblies. A completely new anti-corruption party, the Aam Aadmi (common man), won an astonishing 28 of the 70 seats in Delhi, which will make it the official opposition. Congress was decimated after 15 years’ rule,  winning just eight seats compared with 43 in the last election in 2008 – a humiliating result that was far worse than had been expected.

Congress also suffered a resounding defeat by the BJP in Rajasthan, down from 96 seats to 21 after five years in government. The BJP held on to power against Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Vote counting in a fifth state, Mizoram in north-east India, is taking place tomorrow and could provide Congress with a victory.

The Aam Admi Party’s victory is significant because it demonstrates a desire for change and a break with the corruption and mismanagement of recent years. Its social activist-turned politician leader, Arvind Kejriwal (above), talks about a new sort of politics, and the party’s election symbol is appropriately a broom. Focussing on local as well as state-level issues, the party produced individual manifestos for each of Delhi’s 30 assembly constituencies as well as one for the state as a whole.

In recent months, Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat and the Hindu-nationalist BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has been campaigning rumbustiously around the country promising to provide the new style of efficient and clean government that India needs at a time of high inflation and relatively low economic growth and high inflation.

Rahul Sonia IMG_0558That campaigning pitch is now being challenged by Kejriwal’s party, which is offering a far more radical fresh start and style than Modi. How far it can extend beyond Delhi, where its anti-corruption campaign has been focussed, is open to question. It says it has active organisations in 22 of India’s 28 states, but it will be stretched to do well in many of them.

It will also face competition that does not exist in Delhi from established regional parties based on caste and other factors. In Delhi, it will have to show that it can transform itself from an anti-corruption movement into a working political party and play a meaningful role as the assembly’s main opposition, once a new government has been installed (this is delayed because the BJP, which led in the polls with 32 seats does not have a clear majority).

The results mean that Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis are facing a massive defeat – indeed rejection – in the general election. National polls do not necessarily reflect local results, but the scale of today’s defeats does seem to indicate what will happen next year when seen against the background of the national mood of despair about the current Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition.

This is a disastrous setback for Rahul Gandhi, heir to the party’s leadership who, once again, has failed to move voters despite extensive campaigning. He has had earlier personal leadership failures in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar state polls. He is a reluctant politician, who gives mixed messages. On the one hand he talks about reforming his party so that new leaders emerge from the grassroots, while at the same time, along with his mother Sonia and sister Priyanka, behaving as though he and they have a dynastic right to rule. It is that right that is now being rejected.

Delhi constituency voting list where Kejriwal (with his broom election symbol) defeated Dikshit (with the hand)

Delhi constituency voting list – Kejriwal (with his broom election symbol) defeated Dikshit (with the hand)

Rahul’s grass-roots ideas could  provide a credible answer to the Aam Admi, but he has not so far been able to achieve change in a party that is riven with crony patronage-oriented organisation and relationships. Speaking after Congress’s defeat this evening (seen above with Sonia), he told reporters in Delhi that political parties were “not giving adequate voice to the man in the street… and it is our job to do that”. He said that he would put all his efforts to ‘transforming the organisation of the Congress Party” and would now push those changes “aggressively”. Political analysts believe that, though he will do what he can before next year’s polls, his target is to make changes by the following general election.

Who will win next year cannot yet be forecast. It could be a BJP-led coalition led by Modi, though that will depend on the BJP winning sufficient seats in India’s northern states to persuade regional parties to join a coalition led by him. Or it could be a muddled coalition supported but not led by either the BJP or possibly the Congress. That is the best that the Gandhis’ party can hope for, but it would not be good for the country which needs strong economic and developmental leadership.

Although the BJP won in the four states, it did not have the resounding victory it had hoped for because of the Aam Aadmi’ s emergence in Delhi and a close-run contest with Congress in Chhattisgarh. There will now be arguments about how much Modi contributed to the successes, or whether they were due to strong chief ministerial candidates in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Sheila Dikshit, 71, who has been the chief minister of Delhi for the past 15 years, suffered the day’s biggest defeat because she lost her own central-Delhi assembly seat to Kejriwal, as well as losing the assembly to the BJP. She has generally tried to evade responsibility for Delhi’s significant problems in the past five years, deflecting criticism of the appalling and corrupt preparations for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and continuing inadequate water and electricity supplies. She also blamed the police during a rape case a year ago that aroused international as well as national outrage. She is identified with the Gandhi family.

The state elections were pitched in the media as a contest between Rahul Gandhi and Modi, but Arvind Kejriwal, the outsider, has emerged as the winner with Rahul as the loser. Rahul is 43 and Kejriwal is 45 – if both have the staying power, one to transform his party and the other to build a new one, they could maybe begin the political change that India needs. Both have a huge task and could be overwhelmed by the entrenched political establishment but they have time on their side which Modi, aged 63, does not.

When a massive cyclone hit the eastern Indian state of Odisha (Orissa) at the end of October 1999, at least four district officials abandoned their posts in panic or rushed to their homes, and the chief secretary flew on a private visit to the US a few days later. Some 10,000 people were killed as a result of inefficient administration and a lack of preparation, together with inaccurate weather forecasts and a chief minister who was reportedly told by his astrologers that the cyclone would not be serious. That was typical of the lack of responsibility and preparedness, plus trust in the stars and a belief that everything will work out ok, which accounts for many of India’s dreadful disasters.

Villagers returning home - PTI photo

Villagers returning home – PTI photo

As a result of lessons learned in 1999, Odisha successfully protected human life from a serious cyclone that crossed the Bay of Bengal and hit the coast on Saturday night at more than 200kms an hour.

Some 950,000 people were evacuated from the area in the previous few days, and fewer than 25 people are believed to have been killed, even though fishing villages, homes, ports, and farming areas were devastated.

National and state level disaster management and other services worked well, and the country’s meteorological department accurately predicted Cyclone Phailin’s strength and focus area, dismissing criticisms from American experts who alleged that the storm could have been as serious as New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Odisha is generally known for being sleepy and ineffectual, but it has shown what can be achieved when someone takes charge with determination to succeed and forces officials and state politicians to carry out their duties. This runs counter to India’s record of badly handled natural disasters – seen most recently in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand where environmental degradation and an indifferent state government led in June to more than 6,000 deaths after devastating floods. In another disaster yesterday, more than 120 pilgrims were killed during a stampede in Madhya Pradesh at a river where 50 people were killed during the same religious festivities in 2006.

Odisha’s evacuation plans were drawn up in time and infrastructure that was missing in 1999 such as cyclone shelters, satellite telephones and trained rescue staff had been prepared. This was backed up by effective national disaster management arrangements and modern weather forecasting and monitoring technology.

Naveen Patnaik Oct 13 '13Naveen Patnaik, Odisha’s chief minister (right) who presided over the activity, was elected a few months after the 1999 disaster by a state that wanted change. He had been a dilettante international socialite and author (mixing abroad with people such as Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Onassis, who had been his editor at Doubleday, his publishers) until he fell unexpectedly into politics a few years earlier. That  followed the death of his father, who had also been chief minister.

He now lives a semi-reclusive lifestyle in Odisha, relying on a few close advisers and cronies, and has managed to retain a “clean” image despite the state’s widespread corrupt and illegal mining.

Not enough has been done however to protect the coasts of Odisha and the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh that was also hit by Phailin – and there is now a risk of widespread floods. A report on the Wall Street Journal’s blog site suggests that they have failed effectively to implement a Rs14.9bn (about $240m) five-year cyclone disaster management programme that was set up in 2009 after a massive tsunami killed more than 15,000 people on India’s east coast in 2004. Recent government reports (see the project’s website) suggest that the programme is far behind schedule, especially in Andhra Pradesh where the government has been wracked by political crises over deep-rooted corruption and plans to split the state in two.

Patnaik now needs to ensure that his state-level politicians and officials continue to work effectively and honestly on relief, rehabilitation and stronger coastal defences. If he succeeds, he could be re-elected for a record-breaking fourth term in state assembly elections due next year. This will test his ability as a political manager because the usual reaction in India after such a success is to relax and let life takes its course. Moving nearly a million people in a few days was a massive task, but maintaining focus, and ensuring continuity of efficient and clean government, will be much more difficult over the longer term.

before the storm - AP photo

before the storm – AP photo

The past week will be seen as a milestone in Indian history. Lalu Prasad Yadav, one of the most famously corrupt and once-powerful regional politicians, is losing his Lok Sabha parliamentary seat after today being sentenced to jail for massive embezzlement. This followed an astonishing public outburst last Friday by Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the leadership of the Congress Party and the prime minister’s post, who opposed a government move to protect the regional power broker.

Rahul Gandhi watched byAjay Maken, a Congress gen secy, last Friday

Rahul Gandhi denouncing the ordnance, watched by Ajay Maken, a Congress Party general  secretary

Three questions arise from these two events. The first is the extent to which Gandhi was defying not just prime minister Manmohan Singh but also his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader, and Ahmed Patel, her closest adviser and political manager, when he burst into a party press conference on Friday and denounced a government ordnance that would have protected Yadav as “complete nonsense”. The ordnance should, he said, “be torn up and thrown out“. Today he added: “My mother told me that the words that I used were strong. In hindsight, I feel maybe my words were wrong…but the sentiment I felt was not wrong”.

The second is whether Rahul is capable of following up his highly commendable though equally controversial act of political guerrilla warfare with more sustainable moves to clean up the country’s politics and governance – or are his drive and behaviour too erratic and unpredictable for him to be capable of continuity? Often in the past he has dived into situations and controversies but then not followed them up, disappearing from public view for days and weeks. Currently he is campaigning around the country for coming elections.

Lalu YadavThe third is whether Yadav’s (left) sentencing today is just a one-off, or will legal action against politicians with high-level connections in notable cases such as 2G telecoms and the Commonwealth Games now be pursued so that they too go to jail without protection from the top of the government and Congress Party.  Another Congress politician, Rasheed Masood, was on Tuesday sentenced to four years in jail, and will lose his Rajya Sabha seat, after being convicted of fraudulently nominating undeserving candidates to medical colleges while he was health minister in a 1990 government.

The most significant remark made by Rahul last Friday was that “if we want to fight corruption in this country, whether it’s us, the Congress Party, or the BJP, we cannot continue making these small compromises because, when we make these small compromises, we compromise everything”.  This meant that he considered his mother and her advisers, and the cabinet, had gone too far with such compromises when they decided to protect Yadav by introducing the ordinance quickly before a verdict on his corruption case was announced on Monday.

Criminalisation of politics

For decades, politics and the maintenance of political power has provided an excuse and a cover for the gradual criminalisation of politicsto such an extent 30% of the members of parliament elected in 2009 had criminal charges pending against them, half of them for serious offences such as rape, murder, kidnapping and corruption. The roles of democracy, governance and institutions, which were lauded 20 to 30 years ago as India’s special strengths, have been progressively undermined and replaced by arbitrary powers wielded, often corruptly, by individuals, be they ministers, bureaucrats, policemen, or regional politicians.

Rahul Gandhi seems to understand this and wants to make changes, unlike his mother and Manmohan Singh who have presided over a highly corrupt ruling party and government and have made “small compromises” such as keeping corrupt politicians in the cabinet so that their parties would continue to support the coalition government.

What is not clear is how far Rahul had or had not tried to make his opposition known while the bill and the ordinance were being considered, nor whether he was ignored by his mother and her advisers. Also not clear is what it was last Friday afternoon that propelled him into the undignified action of using his authority as vice president of the Congress Party to invade a party press conference and condemn a cabinet decision – while the prime minister was in Washington, about to meet President Obama. Also curious is the fact that President Mukherjee was receiving complaints about the ordinance and was, it is assumed, wondering whether to block it at just the time that Rahul spoke out.

Fodder scam

Yadav and 45 others including senior bureaucrats and politicians were convicted this week of embezzling Rs9.5bn (now approx $150m or £94m) that should have been spent on buying cattle fodder when he was the state of Bihar’s chief minister in the mid-1990s at the head of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party. Yadav only promoted his own Yadav backward caste, and he mis-ruled the state for 15 years with his wife Rabri Devi (she took over the chief minister’s post when he went briefly to prison early in the case). The court – located in Ranchi, capital of the state of Jharkhand that used to be part of Bihar – today also ordered Yadav to pay a fine of Rs2.5m.

The case has dragged on through the courts for years, but became politically sensitive when the supreme court ruled in July that members of parliament convicted of crimes would no longer be able to retain their seats while they appealed – a process that can take many years in India’s clogged and manipulated judicial system.

Sonia Gandhi has been fond of Yadav, 65, since he supported her in her early days in politics, and he has been part of her Congress-led coalition, serving as railways ministers in the 2004-09 government. She and the party now wanted to help Yadav because it might need his party’s support in forming a coalition after next year’s general election. So the government acted, within the constitution, when it tabled a bill in parliament that would have overturned the supreme court judgement. But this aroused widespread public opposition – and Rahul’s ire – when the cabinet decided on September 24 to implement the change immediately with an ordinance while parliament was in recess.

If Rahul is up to it, the events of the past week could transform his lacklustre political career which has been based till now solely on his dynasty inheritance. Now he has used dynastic authority for the first time to do what he and a large mass of public opinion thought was right on a major issue. The question now is whether he can and will build on that success.

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