BJP focus on national security and Narendra Modi’s image

Modi appeals to new voters to dedicate their vote to the IAF pilots

Voting begins today in India’s massive general election with opinion polls suggesting that Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist coalition might just scrape through with a tiny majority in the Lok Sabha. Regional non-aligned parties could win almost as many seats in the new parliament as the Congress Party’s coalition.

It does not however, at this stage, look as if the opposition and regional parties will muster enough votes to rein in the authoritarian religion-based Hindu nationalism espoused by prime minister Modi and Amit Shah, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president.

With an electorate of some 900m casting their votes over seven phases, polling ends on May 19 and the votes will be counted on May 23. By then, a variety of possible poll results will have been published. Nothing is certain at this stage.

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The NDTV ‘poll of polls’

The BJP has been showing signs of desperation to try to drum home its messages that Modi protects India’s security, especially against Pakistan, and that it is curbing corruption. It hopes this will divert attention from its record on the creation of jobs and other development issues.

In a series of moves that challenge India’s model code of conduct for elections, the finance ministry’s enforcement directorate has raided the premises of eleven opposition leaders in the past month, revealing hordes of black money that are always present at election time. There have been no raids on BJP and its election allies. The leaders included Kamal Nath, a veteran Congress politician, who is chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

Modi has breached Election Commission instructions by appealing to new voters, “Can your first vote be dedicated to those who carried out the air strike,” referring to an Indian Air Force strike on an alleged Pakistan terrorist camp on February 26.

Two BJP regional leaders have called the Indian army “Modi ki sena (Modi’s army)” and said that Modi had sent “his air force” to attack an alleged terrorist base in Pakistan on February 26. This fits with Modi’s message, but is in direct contravention of the Commission’s edict that the attack and the Pakistan confrontation should not be used in the election campaign.

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Film star Vivek Oberoi in the Modi biopic lead role

Modi and his government have undermined many of India’s respected institutions during the past four years, including the commission. But no politician has previously tried to politicise the role of the army and air force,

The BJP also planned a Bollywood biopic film of Modi’s life that was due for release this week. This was blocked yesterday by the Commission that has been heavily criticised for not being tough enough on the BJP’s breaches of the election code.

“The Election Commission of India, once a formidable force during elections as poll monitor, is now being heard less and less, or only for its feeble interventions,” the Indian Express has said in an editorial.

The indication of voting intentions came in a “poll of polls” published this week by the NDTV television channel. It found that the BJP would win 54 fewer seats than it did in 2014 when Modi swept to power, but that its coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), would achieve 274 seats, just topping the 272 needed for a majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (lower house).

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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah launch the BJP manifesto

Congress would double its dismal 43-seat tally in 2014, but would still only reach 88 seats with its UPA coalition winning a total of 139, while regional parties would get 130. That would be a bad result for Congress, which is hoping that its new leadership of Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka will rally Congress activists and win over voters.

The poll of polls supports views of other observers and is also not far off what, according to one source, the political parties are forecasting privately – the BJP saying it would get around 200 seats, and Congress fearing it will fall below 100. Both main parties would do badly in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, according to the polls, with regional parties taking nearly half the 73 seats that the BJP won in 2014 and Congress going up from just two to four.

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Rahul Gandhi launches the Congress manifesto with his mother, Sonia, and former prom minister Manmohan Singh

Both the BJP and Congress have published their manifestos, with the BJP focusing especially on its Hindu nationalist agenda, national security and building a vision for 2047 when India reaches 100 years independence. Congress focuses more on support for the poor and ways of off-setting the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. Both parties talk about boosting India’s manufacturing industries – a key factor in job creation – without saying how it would be done.

Behind all the noise, voters basically have to decide whether Modi’s NDA government has done enough of what has been needed to fulfil his Achhe Din promise that “good times are coming”.

Overall it looks as if it has not. Policies and initiatives have produced far less than was required in the broad running of the economy, the creation of jobs, and reform of the government machine – and far less than the  prime minister promised in his 2014 presidential style election campaign.

As a committed Hindu nationalist, Modi had a ten-year vision to build a strong India that would be respected worldwide as a modern version of an ancient Hindu civilisation after a thousand years of Muslim and British invasions and rule.

But Modi has not met many of the targets, expectations and hopes of those who voted for him, and has instead led an increasingly authoritarian and centralised government with restrictions on media and personal freedoms, and with growing mob violence by vigilante gangs who feel protected by the regime.

The choice therefore is between the BJP which, despite its Hindu nationalist approach, has the promise of a more focussed economic programme, providing Modi improves his implementation, and the softer option of the Congress-led UPA, which is unlikely to have the same economic drive and focus.

The result of the election will decide whether or not India is to grow into a Hindu nationalist country.

A new “Modi” edition of John Elliott’s  book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality has just been published by Harper Collins with a special section analysing the current government’s record.    It is available as a paperback in India’s bookshops and on Amazon India at https://amzn.to/2HldJQ3 . A Kindle edition is on the Amazon India site and in the US on https://amzn.to/2CmQwZE  and the UK https://amzn.to/2FinQTm

 

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Society jeweller Nirav Modi in London jail as his art works are sold

Part of Narendra Modi’s attack on high level corruption

Over $8m was raised yesterday (May 26) in Mumbai for India’s tax revenue department when an alleged $2bn bank fraudster’s art collection was successfully auctioned. This was the latest example of Narendra Modi’s bid to demonstrate his government is attacking corruption and punishing defaulting businessmen.

Good prices up to $3.7m were achieved in the Saffronart auction for top works by two famous modern painters and by another from the 19th century, as well as other modern and contemporary artists.

niravmod jewelThe collection belonged (through a shell company) to Nirav Modi, a billionaire diamond jeweller and trader (right), who is now languishing in London’s Wandsworth prison awaiting extradition proceedings. In India, he is charged with money laundering and corruption.

Modi, 48, fled from India in January 2018 when a $2bn (Rs13,000 crore) fraud centred on the government-owned Punjab National Bank emerged. He and his uncle, diamond trader and retailer Mehul Choksi, were the main beneficiaries of cash advances criminally obtained from overseas branches of Indian banks.

Saffronart conducted the live auction for central Mumbai’s tax recovery office, having beaten Christie’s and two other India auction houses, AstaGuru and Pundole, to get the commission; the first ever staged for the tax department. Saffronart won partly on its ability to carry out the auction quickly, which the government presumably wanted so that it can demonstrate during the current general election campaign that it is beating fraudsters.

Lot_37The total value of the auction sales was Rs59.37 crore or $8.73m (including buyers’ premium), which was at the top end of estimates, and 55 of the 68 lots were sold including most of the important works.

The top lot, (left) which fetched a hammer price of Rs22 crore or $3.24m (Rs25.24 crore or $3.71m including buyer’s premium), was a dense red 60in x 40in oil on canvas by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, a leading Indian modernist.

It had the cache of having been shown in the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The price achieved was less than an over-optimistic but undisclosed estimate made for the tax department by Mumbai’s Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy (JJ) School of Art that had probably been influenced by the Rs25.5 crore ($4.38) record price achieved at a Christie’s Mumbai auction in September 2016.

The other most important work was a south Indian royal scene (below) from the late 1800s by Raja Ravi Varma, who died in 1906, having built a reputation for merging European artistic styles with Indian life, seeking commissions from rich and powerfulpatrons. A 42in x 57in oil on canvas, it fetched a hammer price of Rs14 core or $2.1m (Rs16.10 crore, $2.47m including buyers’ premium). The hammer price was below the artist’s record price of Rs20 core reached at a Pundole auction in Mumbai in 2016, but was close in dollar terms.

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Worries that collectors might not bid because the works were tainted by being owned by a fraudster proved wrong.  Some critics originally suggested that the collection included several fakes (a growing problem in auctions), and that Modi had poor taste. Neither turned out to be true. Whether he collected art simply to show off his wealth and display his artistic interests to his important friends and customers, or whether he was a genuinely involved collector, many of the works in the auction showed that Modi had a discerning eye or at least listened to knowledgeable experts.

Both Varma and Gaitonde are regulars in most Indian auctions, as was another notable name in the collection, F.N.Souza, who was clearly a favourite of Modi because ten of his paintings were sold. Contemporary artists included Jitish Kallat and Subodh Gupta, and there were five lots by Chinese artists (see below) that sold at good prices.

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A large four panel 74in x 158in water and mineral colour work on paper by Chinese artist Ge Guanzhong that fetched a hammer price of Rs13 lakhs ($19,118)

Saffronart have their regular spring on line auction over the next two days, as does rival on-line AstaGuru, so there was a fear that some bidders might be tempted to wait for those sales, though that appears not to have happened. The annual South Asian spring auctions have also just been held in New York with Christie’s achieving sales of $5.84m and Sotheby’s $3m last week, so there has been plenty of competition.

Modi was a celebrated and internationally known jeweller with top society and film world customers and rave articles in the Financial Times about his watch collection and an Indian architectural magazine about his art works.

Centre_Point_LondonTracked down earlier this month by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, it emerged that Modi had started a new diamond business after he fled to London.

He has been living, perhaps appropriately, in Centre Point (left), a luxury tower block of flats at the eastern end of Oxford Street that was regarded, when it was built for offices in the mid-1960s, as an outrageous example of rampant capitalism and property speculation.

He was arrested when he was  trying to open a new bank account soon after the Telegraph story appeared, and is now in jail (and demanding bail) while India’s request for extradition and his counterclaim for political asylum pass through the courts.

Curbing corruption and preventing black money flowing abroad have been a major focus for Narendra Modi’s government so the fact that Nirav Modi and his uncle managed to flee, having bled the Punjab and other government banks of $2bn, was a serious embarrassment. A new Fugitive Economic Offenders Act that came into force last year allows the government to confiscate properties and assets of alleged economic offenders who go abroad to evade prosecution

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Nirav Modi when he was spotted in Oxford Street earlier this month

While it took a British newspaper to find the jeweller, the government has taken what action it could over the past year. Banks clamped down on the jewellery retail outlets to such an extent that the business collapsed. Modi’s 30,000sqft luxury seaside house near Mumbai that violated coastal planning regulations was demolished by authorities using explosives (video here) earlier this month.

The Finance Ministry’s Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Income Tax Department have a total of 173 paintings, of which Modi was the effective owner, and eleven vehicles that include Rolls Royce, Porsche and Mercedes models. The ED have said that the paintings belong to Camelot Enterprises, one of Modi’s companies, and were comandeered by the tax department as part of their efforts to recover tax dues of over Rs95 crore.

Modi’s lawyers took unsuccessful legal action on March 25 to stop the auction, alleging that Camelot only owned a few of the works and that the tax department did not have the right to sell the full catalogue.

Narendra Modi no doubt hopes that his namesake’s extradition proceedings, and those of Vijay Mallya, a failed liquor and airline businessman who is also holed up in London, will proceed fast enough for him to be able to claim that he is punishing corrupt and fraudulent businessmen, especially those who flee abroad.

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A report in the Asian Age newspaper about Nirav Modi’s unsuccessful attempt this week to halt the auction

New “Modi” edition of my book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst With Reality just published – Amazon India https://amzn.to/2HldJQ3 , Kindle UK https://amzn.to/2FinQTm , Kindle US https://amzn.to/2CmQwZE

New “Modi” edition of IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality

Modi’s performance – and non-performance – analysed in detail

The key decision facing India’s electorate as they vote in the coming weeks is whether Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has performed well on his 2014 Achhe Din promise that “good times are coming”.

The raucous election campaign is dominated currently by the high-decibel battle between Modi and the Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi over whether the tag Chowkidar (guard) is positive or negative, especially over corruption. There has been little focus on substantive issues such as a lack of jobs.

But, behind all the noise and personal attacks, the real issue is to balance what Modi has – or has not – achieved on broad development and economic issues against what has been a Hindu nationalist attack on institutions and a serious decline in social cohesion.

Implosion cover for blogIn a new “Modi” edition of my book, IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, which has just been published by Harper Collins India, I come to the conclusion that the presidential-style prime minister has indeed not done enough to meet the targets, expectations and hopes of 2014.

The headline for a new section of five chapters is The Modi Years: Not What Was Needed.

This is because, alongside the growing social concerns, there has been a lack of improvements in the broad running of the economy. Policies and initiatives have produced far less than was needed or promised.

In my conclusions however, I say that the choice is not so simple because, despite his many shortcomings, Modi has begun the job of making India function better. In ten or twenty years’ time, 2014-19 could well be seen as a period when big developments were begun in health and cleanliness, skills and the digital economy.

Modi said in 2014 that he would need a second five year-term to see through what he started. To bolster his prospects of being elected, having failed to deliver enough, he and his ministers have been announcing a flood of initiatives since the end of last year.

There seems to be little prospect of the Congress Party under Rahul Gandhi and its mostly regional allies uniting into an effective reforming government.

Grandstand less

The key question therefore is whether voters will accept India becoming a Hindu-centric country and a more authoritarian and intolerant society in order to have a BJP government driving change – hoping that Modi realises he needs to grandstand less and actually manage the implementation of policies.

Put simply, the choice is between gambling on the hope that a Hindu nationalist government will drive economic and other reforms, or accepting the gentler more inclusive Nehruvian idea of India but with less reforming coherence and drive.

IMPLOSION is available in India’s bookshops as a paperback – or on Amazon.in at https://amzn.to/2HldJQ3  where there is also a Kindle edition  

Internationally, a Kindle edition is on Amazon.co.uk at https://amzn.to/2FinQTm and Amazon.com at https://amzn.to/2CmQwZE

Implosion '19 jacket

 

 

Posted by: John Elliott | March 10, 2019

Voting in India’s election starts April 11 – result May 23

Modi on a patriotic nationalist roll to deflect attention from failures

Election Commission bans BJP posters showing Modi and warfare

Narendra Modi looks as if he is on a roll for India’s coming general election, where voting starts on April 11. India’s recent air strike on a terror camp in Pakistan and subsequent fighter jet battle have eclipsed the opposition Congress Party’s state assembly victories last December, enabling him to pitch, in his usual presidential style, that he alone can keep India safe.

It is still possible that this will change before voting ends on May 19 and that Modi’s failure to deliver on many of his 2014 election promises will become the focus – issues such as a failure to create jobs and solve the problems of farmers and other rural voters.

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Sunil Arora, the chief election commissioner, announcing the plans

His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign seems however to have far more momentum than the opposition combine of the Congress Party, headed for the first time in an election by Rahul Gandhi, and allied mostly-regional parties. Gandhi’s personable sister Priyanka has also entered national politics, as a party general secretary, which will help the campaign.

The massive election programme involving 900m eligible voters (Europe’s entire population is just 740m) and nearly one million voting stations was announced yesterday (March 10) by the Election Commission.

Electronic voting will take place on seven dates ending on May 19, and the count will be held on May 23, with the trends emerging quickly by midday. The current term of the Lok Sabha (parliament’s lower house) runs till June 3.

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An example of military political posters banned by the Election Commission (and below) – posted on Twitter by Yogendra Yadav, a political analyst and activist

Assembly polls are also to be held during the same period in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha (Orissa), and Sikkim, but not in Jammu and Kashmir where the security situation is specially sensitive following the cross-border clashes.

Shortly after the dates were announced, Modi issued a series of tweets saying that “the festival of democracy, elections are here” and urging a big turnout, especially from first time voters.

Social media will play a big role and the Election Commission is bringing it into its model code of conduct, which comes into force today, in an attempt to curb excesses. Candidates and political parties will have to provide  details of their social media accounts and expenditure, and political advertisements will require pre-certification.

Modi’s main theme looks like being patriotism and nationalism, built especially on India’s jet fighters crossing the Pakistan border on February 26 and engaging in combat for the first time in nearly 50 years. That was in response to a terror attack in Kashmir on February 14, when some 40 paramilitary troops were killed. There are however doubts about whether India’s jets actually hit their target at Balakot (left) and killed as many as the 250 people claimed by Amit Shah, the BJP president. The Indian Air Force said it had no numbers.

The Election Commission has however said that political parties’ advertisements should not use images of military personnel in their election campaign (above and below). “The armed forces of a nation are . . . neutral, apolitical stakeholders in a modern democracy,” the commission said, urging parties to exercise “great caution” in invoking the military during the election campaign.

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The state assembly elections that Congress won in December, ousting BJP governments, were in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This was a low point for Modi and the BJP and there was widespread speculation in Delhi about whether he would engineer a crisis with Pakistan to boost his nationalist image.

The terror strike did that for him, enabling him to develop his theme that anyone – including Congress politicians – who criticises the government, or questions the air force’s success on February 26, is being unpatriotic.

The image of a strong Hindu nationalist India will be pushed by Modi to try to deflect doubts about what his government has actually achieved in terms of job creation and other programmes. He also wants to deflect allegations of cronyism and corruption, notably in a French Rafale jet deal that he commissioned.

Modi is frequently criticised for undermining institutions, and has been accused by the opposition of arranging for the usually-revered Election Commission to delay the announcement of the election dates so that he could make a splurge of potentially vote-winning announcements.

Mega announcements

The NDTV television channel estimated last night that Modi made 28 trips in the past month to announce 157 projects (plus 60 more in January), several of which had already been announced in the past. They ranged from three new and extended metro railways in the key north India state of Uttar Pradesh, to a highway in in the southern state of Kerala, and a sewerage system in Maharashtra to the west. In the past 15 days, Modi’s Cabinet cleared a total of 96 decisions affecting groups such as farmers, the poor, ex-servicemen and government employees.

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Pakistan’s soldier stands at the edge of a crater, after the Indian aircrafts strike on February 26, according to Pakistani officials, in Jaba village, near Balakot – REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The election provides a sharp choice between Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its aggresive  and divisive Hindu nationalism, and the softer approach of the Congress Party and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The choice however is not simple because the BJP has a much stronger economic reform agenda than Congress and its regional allies. That may change when manifestos are published, but the BJP is more reform oriented.

In 2014, Modi was elected by appealing to India’s aspirational youth, with 50% of the population below 25. There are as many as 15m eligible voters aged between 18 and 19 in this election.

Opinion polls

Opinion polls taken before the air battle gave the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition about 250 to 265 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, just short of the 272 needed for a simple majority. That is considerably less than the 336 seats that the NDA won in 2014, but is better than the BJP had feared at the end of last year and it would be easy for Modi to entice smaller parties to make up the 272.

The same opinion polls gave Congress’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition 150 to 170 seats, indicating the big gap that Gandhi and the other party leaders have to bridge. Gandhi has failed so far to entice friendly parties into formal alliances in some states, notably Uttar Pradesh (and Delhi, though that might be reviewed). This means that the anti-BJP vote is splintered, making it easier for Modi to win seats.

Poll pundits suggest that if the BJP’s NDA dropped below 200 seats, it would have problems attracting new allies with Modi as prime minister, which could lead to moves within the party to remove him. That prospect was being widely discussed at the turn of the year, but now seems less likely. Nitin Gadkari, the minister for highways and shipping, who is a more approachable inclusive politician than Modi, was then being rumoured as the likely alternative candidate.

Some politicians in southern India wanted the timing of yesterday’s announcement, fixed for 5pm, changed because the period between 4.30 and 6 pm would, they said, be Rahu Kaal or an inauspicious time for the start of any activity. In Vedic astrology, Rahu is an unpredictable planet, and Rahu Kaal lasts for about 90 minutes at different times throughout a week.

Modi’s opponents will be hoping that the timing was indeed Rahu Kaaled

see also

from 2014   https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/the-mystery-of-rahul-gandhis-unpredictable-beard/

and 2011 https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/could-narendra-modi-be-the-leader-india-needs/

Posted by: John Elliott | February 28, 2019

India Pak aircraft fight across border – first time since 1971

Nuclear powers allow Kashmir dispute to fester from crisis to crisis

Modi makes pre-election political capital out of Pakistan conflict 

For decades, India and Pakistan have allowed their dispute over Kashmir to fester, risking the sort of crisis that has led to the current land and air confrontation escalating hostilities to a level not seen for nearly 50 years.

Viewed dispassionately, that is a grossly irresponsible stance for two nuclear powers to take, yet international pressure has never tried consistently to force a settlement, and India has resolutely refused to allow any third party to intervene.

That has not seemed unbearably risky for most of the 20 years since a limited war at Kargil on the Line of Control (LoC) in 1999, though there have been dangerous confrontations, notably following a terror attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and on two Mumbai hotels in 2008. A BJP-led government did not let the Indian air force or army cross into Pakistan during the Kargil fighting, though it massed troops on the border after the parliament attack. Congress did not take any publicised retaliatory action after the Mumbai attack.

Mirage

Current events changed that when, in response to the February 14 terror attack in Kashmir by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group, the Indian Air Force on February 26 attacked inside Pakistan territory for the first time since the two countries’ last full-scale war in 1971. Twelve Mirage (above) fighter jets, supported by a fleet of Sukhoi fighters and other aircraft, took part in the attack and, India claimed, destroyed a big JeM camp at Balakot. Unsubstantiated reports put the death toll at 300.

Pakistan responded yesterday morning (Feb 27) by trying to attack sites in India, and that led to the first encounter between the two air forces since 1971. Both sides lost one crashed fighter.

An Indian pilot was captured and was shown on social media being protected from angry Pakistani villagers, who pummelled his bloodied face and struck him with blows, Reuters reported. India protested – and demanded his release – after Pakistan’s information ministry posted a video on Twitter with the pilot, blindfolded, saying “I’ve got hurt and I would request some water”. [Later he appeared in a video praising the Pakistan army’s treatment, and Pakistan then announced he would be released.]

This level of conflict after a gap of nearly 50 years took the escalation to dangerous levels. Imran Khan (below), Pakistan’s relatively new prime minister, who is close to his county’s powerful military, then broadcast to the nation. Presumably responding to international pressure, he remarked, “where will this go if there is escalation”. He appealed for talks with India and added “better sense should prevail”.

India inevitably condemned the Pakistan attack and there were conflicting reports from both sides of what it had achieved. India also handed over a dossier alleging Pakistan’s and the JeM’s involvement in February 14 terrorism.

Imran KhanAlso significant was a statement issued after a meeting of leaders from 21 Indian opposition parties that praised the Indian Air Force, but expressed “deep anguish over the blatant politicisation of the sacrifices made by our Armed Forces by leaders of the ruling party”. National security should “transcend narrow political considerations”, they said. The prime minister should have “followed convention and held an-all party meeting”.

Modi has been blatantly politicising the crisis since February 14 to gain maximum political advantage in the run-up to India’s coming general election. Since the India air attack, he has made various public appearances declaring, “India is in safe hands”. Today (Feb 28) he is scheduled to address hundreds of thousands of party workers through his NaMo app, where he will no doubt repeat the “safe hands” pledge as an electioneering slogan.

The question is whether the fighting is over, for now, and whether India will allow the current crisis to lead to talks, before or after the general election – and then how far any talks will go. There is strong pressure on India’s social media and frenetic television panel discussions for more action to be taken against Pakistan, both because it struck back and for the way it has treated the captured pilot. But Modi might decide to wait for international pressure to build up on Pakistan to take more action against the terror groups.

In many ways, it has suited both counties not to try down the years to solve the intractable issues involved – though there is a simple solution which, eventually, will probably be what both sides will one day agree with a few adjustments. That is to make the existing 776 km Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir the permanent border.

Pakistan’s aggression is driven not by its democratically elected government but by the army, whose dominant role is boosted by the conflict and potential conflict, and by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that aims to destabilise India by assisting with terror attacks.

That suits China, which is Pakistan’s patron and, to put it simply, approves of India being destabilised – providing the military conflict does not escalate beyond the level of the past two days. Significantly, it has appealed for both countries to exercise restraint.

Peace Attempts

India at one level would like peace. Earlier prime ministers, notably the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh, both had ambitions to make that happen, though their efforts were disrupted by terror attacks and cross-border incidents triggered by Pakistan.

When General Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan’s president, a possible agreement was reached in the 2000s for a ‘soft border’ with relaxed visa restrictions, cross-border travel and trade, and liaison arrangements on economic policy and other matters. This was, however, not approved (and might never have been) by the Pakistan army, nor by hard-line lobbies in either country. The talks faded away when Musharraf faced political problems in Pakistan and, in 2008, was ousted from office. Such a soft border solution is now not feasible until Pakistan closes down the Islamic terrorist bases used to attack India.

Modi tough line

Modi has not shared his predecessors’ persistent wish for peace and, after a few friendly gestures towards Nawaz Sharif, the former Pakistan prime minister, decided that taking a tough line on both Muslim Pakistan and the security situation in Indian Kashmir suited his purposes because it pleased his Hindu nationalist vote bank.

That ended a formal and broadly successful ceasefire on the LoC that had been introduced in 2003. Official figures show that the number of incidents came down from 3,401 in 2003 when 795 civilians, 314 security forces and 1,494 militants were killed to 118 incidents in 2012.

Modi’s rule has changed that and the Home Ministry’s number of terrorist incidents has risen from 222 in 2014 to 614 last year, while the number of security force personnel killed has gone from 47 in 2014 to 91 in 2018 – nowhere near so bad as 2003, but much worse than the intervening years.

The Modi government has made no significant moves to stem this decline, nor to engage in constructive talks on Kashmir. The hope must be that the current crisis will involve heavy and continued international pressure that forces the two sides to come to some sort of deal that will remove the nuclear risk.

For that to happen however, Pakistan will first have to be forced, again by international pressure, to close the terror camps.

Pakistan blamed for not curbing terrorist leader 

Incident exposes failings in Modi government policy

A devastating suicide car bomb attack at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir yesterday that killed some 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in the area’s worst terror incident for decades has today united India’s political leadership in tributes to the victims at the same time as the government starts to consider what action to take against Pakistan.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, led government and opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, Congress president, at an airport ceremony evening, paying respects as coffins were flown into Delhi. Modi and Gandhi cancelled other public appointments, as did Priyanka Gandhi on her first press conference as a party general secretary. “We will stand with the government,” said Rahul Gandhi.

While the country mourns, questions are being asked about how the incident at Pulwama was allowed to happen, which is significant because the devastating attack highlights failures in the Indian government’s policies on Pakistan and Kashmir, plus inadequate security planning.

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Modi now has an opportunity to act tough with Pakistan in the run up to India’s coming general election due in the next two months. There has been speculation in Delhi for many months that he would find a way to ratchet up tensions in order to win votes. Yesterday’s suicide car bomb attack, with the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror group claiming responsibility, has triggered such an opportunity.

Modi dominated the tribute ceremony (above) for several minutes, standing bowed in front of the coffins and walking alone around them with hands clasped as in prayer. A more modest leader might have taken at least one top military or cabinet leader with hm, but Modi chose to be the focal point of the ceremony during prime time evening television,

In an earlier televised address, he said that “the terrorists have made a big mistake and they will have to pay a very heavy price”. Referring to Pakistan, he added, “We will give a befitting reply, our neighbour will not be allowed to de-stabilise us.” He said he had given the army “a free hand”.

The government has cancelled Pakistan’s most favoured nation trading status, which has existed since 1996. Formal trade between the two countries only amounts to about $2.4bn (there is far more via Dubai), but the move is symbolic because it marks a new low point in bilateral relations and is intended to send out an international signal. Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, told reporters that India would work to ensure the “complete isolation” of Pakistan.

A military strike on terrorist bases across the Line of Control (LoC) between the two countries is one of the options being considered. In September 2016, ten days after 18 Indian soldiers were killed in an attack on an army camp at Uri – the last major incident in Kashmir – India conducted a “surgical strike” against terrorist locations in Pakistan.

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19-year old Adil Ahmed Dar in the video made before the suicide bomb blast

Modi has repeatedly played this up as a major initiative to impress his Hindu nationalist electoral vote bank, culminating with a leaked video of the action, and celebrations of the second anniversary last September.

There are also implications for India’s relations with China, which protects Pakistan and has repeatedly blocked India’s request for the United Nations Security Council to list Masood Azhar, leader of the JeM, as a ‘global terrorist’.

Today a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing expressed shock and sympathy over the attack, but failed to indicate that China would support India at the UN over Azhar, who has complete freedom of movement in Pakistan.

Intense diplomatic activity is under way with the Indian government meeting ambassadors of some 20 countries in Delhi today, calling for pressure on Pakistan. India’s high commissioner (ambassador) in Pakistan has been recalled to Delhi for consultations.

There are reports this evening that top US officials are talking to Beijing, urging it to withdraw its UN objections. That would lead to Azhar being listed by the UN and to China putting pressure on Pakistan to take action against him which, in turn, would reduce the risks an escalation of hostilities on the LoC.

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While the JeM has claimed responsibility for the attack, the car carrying the bomb was driven by a 19-year old Indian boy, Adil Ahmed Dar (above), from the Pulwama district. The JeM released a pre-recorded 10-minute long video statement by Dar in which he says, “By the time this video reaches you, I will be in Heaven”. He criticised India saying, “your oppression fuels our jihad”.

This illustrates how the Modi government’s aggressive military-oriented policy on Kashmir, and its failure to engage in dialogue with local interests, has increased the alienation of Kashmiri youth since 2014. While not condoning terror atrocities, there have been constant criticisms for many years of the security forces’ tactics and their impact on successive generations of young Kashmiris.

Dar’s family told the Scroll.in news website that they regarded their son, who had joined the terrorist group nearly a year ago, as a martyr. “Nobody talks about the daily blinding of civilians, killings and encounters,” said his father referring to the security forces. “Why don’t these politicians invite all the parties and find a solution to Kashmir issue?”.

Radicalised son

Discussing why his son had been radicalised, Scroll reports that Dar talked about an incident in 2016. “One day, he was returning from his school and men from the STF [security forces] stopped him and made him rub his nose on ground”. The men had forced the boy to make a circle around their jeep with his nose, his father said: “He kept mentioning this incident again and again.”  His son “wanted to become a cleric and had already memorised eight chapters of the Quran”.

Indian soldiers examine the debris after an explosion in Lethpora in south Kashmir's Pulwama district

Dar drove a car with 60kg of high explosives which caused a massive blast when it hit and demolished the bus (pictures above) that was part of a convoy of 78 vehicles carrying over 2,500 troops.

While security operations had been carried out to ensure there were no landmines or terrorist preparations to fire on the unusually large convoy, no preparations had apparently been made to block or check road vehicles, even though the highway had been opened to civilian traffic – enabling Dar’s vehicle to have access. This is the latest of a series of security lapses in recent years under the Modi government.

Modi’s policy in relation to Pakistan has been erratic since he was elected in 2014 and he has become increasingly aggressive, playing to his nationalist vote bank in India. The deteriorating relations with Pakistan have worsened the situation in Kashmir where killings and violent confrontations with security forces in the Srinagar valley have increased in a revival of . Home ministry figures show that the number of terrorist incidents have risen from 222 in 2014 to 614 last year while the number of security force personnel killed has gone from 47 in 2014 to 80 in 2017 and 91 in 2018.

The central government has made no significant moves to stem this decline, and is unlikely to do so until after the general election. This indicates a fraught and dangerous two to three months, both in Kashmir and on the Line of Control.

This blog post has been revised on https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/modi-steps-up-action-against-pakistan-as-india-mourns-kashmir-terrorist-killings/

Posted by: John Elliott | February 8, 2019

Delhi’s India Art Fair looks for new owner as Basel bales out

Fringe events pull in thousands to view art for the first time

Boosts for a flattish modern and contemporary market

Delhi’s annual India Art Fair was a success last weekend, even though its Swiss owners have put it up for sale. It brought together a focussed collection of 75 Indian and international galleries that reported substantial sales, plus other displays, though the organisers shied away from revealing attendance figures.

The fair is becoming significant for inspiring fringe events, which this year included gallery exhibitions of leading artists such as Arpita Singh, an under-recognised painter now aged 82, and the opening of an art museum at the Old Delhi’s Red Fort with four galleries of works tracing India’s history that is attracting thousands of visitors.

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Ayesha Kidwai with Grandma, oil on canvas by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar Museum

The past year however has not seen strong sales in the Indian modern and contemporary art market. This was confirmed by ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, whose 2019 South Asian Art Market Report recorded only a 6.8% increase in sales of seven leading auction houses during 2018 compared with 17% a year earlier.

The report highlights a trend that has been evident throughout the year and reported on this blog – that Christie’s and Sotheby’s are being beaten on sales by Indian-based auction houses, notably Saffronart but also Astra Guru, whose sales rose 63%.

Overall, art market sales rose 7.7% to an estimated $240m with gallery sales rising 9.1%. This included a revival of the flagging contemporaries, whose sales doubled to $5.82m. But, as ArtTactic emphases, the auction market is still dominated by a handful of famous names led by Tyeb Mehta ($15.4m sales), S.H.Raza ($15.2m) and M.F.Husain ($10.8m), with the top 25 artists accounting for 87% of the auctions’ total.

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A Krishen Khanna bandsman and F.N.Souza painting on the Dhoomimal Gallery stand at the art fair

ArtTactic also produced a report on South Asian Art and Philanthropy, focussing on a growing number of public art initiatives that have more than doubled in the past ten years with over 30 new openings.

The latest of these is the Red Fort project where the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), building on its reputation for substantial expenditure on shows, has taken over a 27,000 sq.ft. three-storey barrack block for a year.

It has four historical exhibitions  with patriotic themes covering three centuries of art, the most stunning of which are portraits by British and Indian artists of people ranging from grand maharajahs to a self portrait by modern artist Paritosh Sen, and a collection of works by India’s nine “art treasure” artists including Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ravi Varma. There is also a remarkable collection (bought intact by DAG from a London owner) of all the 144 aquatint prints produced by Thomas and William Daniell after they travelled around India at the end of the 18th century.

Restored by the government’s usually lethargic Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the colonial era barrack is part of a revival project supported by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who is encouraging the development of patriotic and nationalist museums. He opened galleries in two barracks at the Red Fort last month, including the DAG’s and one devoted to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a prominent political leader who sided with the Japanese against the British during the second world war. Two other museums follow the theme critical of the British covering the 1857 army uprising (mutiny) and the 1919 Amritsar massacre.

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Krishna and Yashoda by Raja Ravi Varma at DAG’s Red Fort galleries

According to the ASI, about 4,000 people visited the museums on February 1. Some 1,500 of them went to DAG’s galleries that were only just opened, a figure that rose to 2,500 two days later. This is presenting a challenge faced by all such public shows in India – how to make people aware of the remarkable works they are viewing.

I was at the DAG museum on February 1, and many of those I saw seemed to have no comprehension of what they were looking at. Walking quickly, they glanced briefly at important works, thus reducing the value of the exercise. “The visitors are mostly ill-informed about art. Most would never have seen an original work in their life, so they will not know quite what to make of what they are seeing,” acknowledges Kishore Singh of the DAG.

A similar point is made by Peter Nagy, who runs Nature Morte, a gallery in Delhi and is the curator of an impressive sculpture park in the Madhavendra Palace at Jaipur’s 18th century Nahargarh Fort. This is the first such exhibition in India and, while it is not part of the art fair programme, it was linked to the annual Jaipur literature festival last month. Displaying the sculptures in the grand setting of the palace, it is another example of the new ventures mentioned in the ArtTactic report, in this case a partnership between the Rajasthan state government and private philanthropists.

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Spine of Spine by Savia Mahajan in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park

“We get 5,000-6,000 people visiting the Sculpture Park every day during the October-March high season…..If we get 100 people per day paying attention to the art and being inspired to learn more about contemporary art in general, then I think we are doing great,” says Nagy.

The DAG is working on ways to improve the access to information and has hired staff and interns to guide visitors, while the sculpture park is developing an educational programme.

“Once visitors encounter the artworks, they are engaging by reading our signs in both Hindi and English, taking photographs and asking questions,” says Noelle Kadar, the park’s director.

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Arpita Singh

India’s most prominent philanthropic collector is Kiran Nadar, who has two museums in Delhi and staged the Arpita Singh exhibition that is open for six months (video of the works and opening here). There are 109 oil paintings, watercolours, works on paper and sketchbooks on showing, as one writer has put it, Singh’s “carnival of images arranged in a curiously subversive manner” with an artistic approach described “as an expedition without destination”.

This was the first retrospective of an artist who hit the headline in December 2010 when one of her works, Wish Dream, was sold in a Saffronart on-line auction for $2.24m, which was the highest price achieved by an Indian woman artist at auction and a world record price for an artwork sold online. Since then there has been a steady flow of Singh’s works in auctions but no spectacular sales. Experts suggest that is partly because owners have been seeking unrealistically high estimates and reserve prices, while auction houses have not been willing to risk reserves not being met.

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Girls by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar museum

That might now change, following the interest generated by Kiran Nadar’s show. It will be worth watching to see whether Arpita Singh now gains the same popularity in auctions that happened to Bhupen Khakhar, a provocative gay artist, after his retrospective three years ago in London’s Tate Modern gallery.

Sales at the fair

Most galleries are shy of revealing their sales, but there have been various positive reports from this year’s fair, along with some criticisms. Foreign galleries have had mixed results in past years, but the New York-based David Zwirner, which has branches in London and Hong Kong, was showing for a second year and said relationships it had built with Indian collectors had “really paid off ”. Strong sales included a work by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama bought by a “major India collector”, as well works by other artists new to the Indian market. Zwirner also has a work in the sculpture park.

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A poster in the DAG’s Red Fort galleries

Prajit Datta from the Aicon Art in New York said works had been sold by five of its seven artists on show. They included a sculptures by Rasheed Araeen, an influential British-Pakistani artist, and by the Algerian- French Rachid Koraichi, both of whom are collected by the Kiran Nadar museum.

Delhi’s Vadehra and Dhoomimal galleries reported sales ranging between $2,000 and $140,000, while Chatterjee & Lal from Mumbai put theirs at $2,800 to $42,000.

With so much activity, it may seem odd for the fair to be up for sale, but the MCH Group of Switzerland, which owns the internationally famous Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, decided last November to cut back its activities and abandon plans for a string of regional art fairs after it was hit by a fiasco at its key watches fair.

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Mahbubur Rahman’s Transformation in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park

It is selling the 65% controlling interest in the India fair that it started buying in 2016. Angus Montgomery Arts, a UK-based exhibition and events company that has been involved since 2011, has a 35% stake, which it could be interested in expanding. Sandy Angus, the chairman, worries that an Indian businessman with his “own agenda” might buy the stake. Other rumoured potential Indian and international bidders for the 65% include Sunil Munjal of the India’s Hero auto industry family, who runs the annual Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. Galleries and auction houses are being excluded.

MCH appointed a new ceo this week who will finalise valuations and a timetable. The group is being criticised by people involved in the fair for its inconsistency as an investor, and for bringing uncertainty to the event, though MCH says it will remain committed till a sale is agreed. It is credited with having sharpened the focus and raised the standards of exhibits under a new director, Jagdip Jagpal, who took over last year.

Whoever buys control will inherit a fair that is now well established, though the limited participation by foreign galleries – there were only 15 out of the 75 – shows that it is not yet fully recognised on the international art circuit. Aside from that, its real value is the way that important events are expanding on the fringe, broadening the opportunities for those with no knowledge or experience to view the best the art can offer.

Posted by: John Elliott | January 13, 2019

Delhi foreign affairs conference produces UK case to leave EU

Netherlands-Hungary immigration dogfight on conference platform

Asia’s debate continues on need somehow to “contain” China

As Britain flounders towards its unpredictable semi-European future, an international foreign affairs conference in New Delhi has surprisingly produced a persuasive case for Brexit being the UK’s best long-term course, despite all the problems and uncertainty, and even if remaining in the European Union seems more immediately sensible.

It happened at India’s annual Raisina Dialogue in a brief but memorable dogfight between speakers from Hungary and the Netherlands over immigration into the European Union, and in an equally memorable but more constructive speech from Spain’s foreign minister, who pleaded the case for sovereignty-ceding political, diplomatic and defence unity.

Who could want to stay in such a divided club with such unreal disruptive ambitions? Former British prime minister Tony Blair, for one, who bounced onto the stage full of smiles to assert the case for a new remain-yielding referendum. “You have a Brexit that is pointless or a Brexit that is painful,” he said. Since there was no majority for either, “it makes sense to go back to the people to ask do you really want to go ahead with this?”

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Brexit of course wasn’t the main focus of the conference, which was organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation, a leading policy institute, and was attended by some 600 delegates from over 90 countries.

The threat of a growing and aggressive China inevitably was the main concern, as it was last year. I reported then that, even though China was gradually moving to a position where it would dominate the world’s international affairs, disrupting established institutions and trade routes and building its own alternatives, most of the rest of the world had little idea how to respond except to try to persuade it not to be too disruptive.

People I spoke to this year said ideas had moved on since then, though it was difficult to pin down how. The main thought was “containing” China’s disruptive expansion, which speakers pointed out was an inadequate reactive approach compared with what was described by a Japanese admiral as China’s conflict-provoking drive. India’s naval chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, whose fleets are desperately under-equipped, mournfully noted that China’s navy grown by 80 ships in the last five years – the biggest naval growth in two centuries.

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Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell

Much has been made of The Quad, a group linking the US, Australia, Japan and India as the vehicle to contain China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Its limitations however were spelt out by Stephen Smith, former Australian defence minister, who said the countries had only had had only two or three meetings in ten or eleven years and indicated it was not a viable forum.

Tony Blair’s call for a fresh referendum has considerable support in the UK as the next sensible step if prime minister Theresa May’s blighted agreement is rejected by Britain’s parliament on January 15.

No-one knows whether that would produce a majority to remain in the EU because of the economic costs of leaving, or to leave because of the tough treatment meted out to the UK since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

What the Raisina Dialogue pinpointed however was that there are deeply held issues, especially how to treat and control immigrants, that defy solutions so it may be better for the UK to try to do it itself which, indeed, is May’s approach.

Add to that, if Britain did remain in, there would be constant arguments about Spain’s – and France’s – keenness for closer union on issues like an army that would arouse the passions of the UK’s anti-EU lobby and bedevil British politics for years to come, as they have done already for decades. The rump of the Conservative Party, and other groups, that passionately believe Britain should leave will never give up, so maybe it is better to cut loose now.

The theme of Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, was that no single European nation was capable of dealing with the emergence of “economic giants” such as India, China, and Brazil.The only solution was for countries to act together. “Sometimes, ceding sovereignty can help protect sovereignty” he argued. ”We cannot be a soft power forever. The EU needs to develop its hard power to be collectively seen as a credible power”.

We are few, we are old…..

Borrell, who is a former president of the European Parliament, painted Europe as a continent in decline in terms of its percentage of the world’s population, and the size of its economy compared with the rising powers of Asia and Africa.

“We are few, we are old, and we are dependent because we buy 60% of our energy, and being few, old and dependent is not a good prospect for the future,” he declared.

The only way was therefore to be united, “putting together our army, our diplomatic strength and what we have best – our intellectual capacity, cultural heritage”, but that required “sharing sovereignty”.

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Marietje Schaake, an MEP from the Netherlands

A speaker from Finland also saw the EU as the “protector of our security”, while one from Latvia similarly said the EU is “about security and offers peace” which required a “sense of partnership”.

Borrell recognised however that many European countries did not want to cede sovereignty, especially those in eastern Europe who had relatively recently been freed from the group of the Soviet Union. “Sometime you listen to them saying Brussels is a kind of new Moscow,” he said.

The European Union dogfight broke out during a session on Diversity within the Union – The EU’s Mid-Life Check-List. It began when Marietje Schaake, an outspoken politician from the Netherlands, said there needed to be “shared obligations…sharing burdens”. She robustly condemned Hungary, saying it took billions of dollars of EU funds, but then did not accept Syrian refugees, which meant it was not doing its share of what was needed.

Péter Szàray, Hungary’s security minister, who was sitting next to Schaake on the platform, countered that his country had been within its rights in refusing to accommodate the refugees and close its borders because the EU’s Schengen free movement of people rules allowed a country to close its borders in exceptional circumstances.

Scathingly noting that “the only migrants still in Hungary are the ones on posters,” Schaake, who is a member of the European Parliament, said that “countries cannot expect full benefits and zero obligations from EU membership”, adding “shared obligations are important over individual interests for the EU”.

She insisted before the session that she was going to attack Hungary, instead of avoiding the issue of immigration, which Szàray had suggested.

One could argue that, if a club has such differences that they have to be aired in a third country‘s foreign affairs conference, is it worth being a member. Would it not be better to get out and leave them to their inconclusive bitter wrangles?

EU sensitivities

So sensitive are EU members about what they all say about each other that Francoise Nicolas, director of a French Asian affairs centre, resented the Spanish foreign minister apparently (she said) referring to her country when he had talked about small EU states not realising that they were small.

She capped that however with a dig at the UK, saying that a small state which “was about to leave” would “be more negligible and will know it” – that was greeted with laughter.

France’s foreign secretary, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, also referred to the UK when he said in the final session on The Road to 2030 that, in the EU, “we are more sovereign than when we are on our own”, echoing a point made by Borrell.

That was a dig at Mark Sedwill, Britain’s newly appointed Cabinet Secretary, who doubles up as national security adviser and had flown in specially for the conference, abandoning his crisis-ridden Whitehall office. Never mind, said Gourdault-Montagne, patting Sedwill’s arm, “the closeness of our relationship will remain”.

It might have seemed irresponsible for Sedwill to desert his London office, a few days before the parliament vote, for a conference in India, but these are extraordinary times. His decision not to cancel shows how desperate Britain is to keep in favour with its old colony, hoping this will help it negotiate a trade pact once Brexit is done, assuming it is.

The other message from the conference was that Brussells had treated Britain so roughly that no other EU member would dare risk trying to escape. As the Finnish speaker put it, referring to Britain’s current plight, “I don’t think many countries will be willing to experiment with these sorts of ideas”.

“We’ll miss you guys,” Marietje Schaake told me. Maybe, but having got so far, is it really sensible to try to scramble back into such a club?

Posted by: John Elliott | January 8, 2019

Billionaires and Jugaad have built India’s ‘Gilded Age’

BOOK REVIEW: Two journalists’ look at how modern India works

Mukesh Ambani daughter’s wedding and a shady car crash

Former US secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and others among the hundreds of guests at the Ambani family’s mind-blowing wedding celebrations last month that cost maybe as much as $100m, will not have been given a copy of The Billionaire Raj.

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Hilary Clinton with Mukesh and Nita Ambani

Mukesh Ambani, a top industrialist who revels in showing he is India’s richest man, treated the guests to massive pre-wedding parties in the Rajasthan city of Udaipur and to the wedding ceremony at his (literally) over-the top 27-floor home in Mumbai (there was a later less glamorous reception for thousands of guests). But Billionaire Raj will not have been in the elite guests’ two-tiered invitation box, each rumoured to have cost Rs300,000 ($4,300), nor on their bedside tables.

The six-page prologue of the book – and the most revealing of its 300 pages – tells of another side of Ambani’s life that he would rather not display. Indeed, it is remarkable that the various publishers of the book in the UK, US and India have not been forced to remove or at least tone down the six pages that explain how an Aston Martin owned by one of Ambani’s Reliance Industries’ companies had a spectacular 1.30am crash in Mumbai in December 2014. The driver, described as a young man, was rushed away into the night by escort cars and a portly 55-year old Reliance driver claimed the next day that he had been behind the wheel.

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Crabtree’s US edition cover shows the Ambani’s home towering above its surroundings

This is the world that James Crabtree, a former Financial Times’ Mumbai correspondent writes about in Billionaire Raj, recounting tales of people he met, and some he didn’t – strangely it appears he did not interview Ambani, whose empire straddles oil exploration and refining to textiles and telecoms with significant (and useful) stakes in the media and even India’s iconic Oberoi hotel chain.

It is also the world that another former foreign corresponded, Dean Nelson of the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph, explores in Jugaad Yatra, which describes the “fix-it” mentality that governs much of Indian life. The Ambanis’ father, Dhirubhai, built a wide-ranging successful business by mixing deft fixing of government policies and regulations with astute management, skills his son Mukesh has inherited and burnished. Nelson ranges widely with extensive original stories and research that reveal how Indians’ (and his own family’s) ability to make the most of scarce resources leads on to what is recognised internationally as laudable frugal engineering.

Jugaad came into action after the Ambani’s Aston Martin crash. The owner of another car in the accident, an Audi, told a local newspaper that the driver, who was bundled into one of the two escort cars, was a young man. Later however she signed a statement in a magistrates’ court that the 55-year old had, after all, been the driver. No-one was hurt, so it was easy for the media to let the story fade away, unlike what happened in Delhi in a 1999 hit-and-run case when a BMW driven by the son of a prominent Indian Navy and defence agent family killed six people in the early hours. The son finished up in jail, but not before two witnesses changed their story saying it was a truck, not a BMW.

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The identity of the Ambani car driver was being widely gossiped in Mumbai’s business community, but Crabtree does not provide a name. Forbes’ on-line India edition however did do so, saying that “speculation online [with a link, now removed] has been rife that Akash Ambani, Mukesh’s older son was allegedly involved in the smash-up”. (He’s the brother of Isha Ambani, the bride in the recent wedding). Forbes’ veteran business writer, Naazneen Karmali, wondered in the article who bought new upgraded models for the owners of the Audi and another car in the crash, because insurance companies have said that they did not paid up.

Mukesh Ambani is basically a hard working and focussed businessman with extensive entrepreneurial and managerial skills that were displayed first on oil and gas projects and more recently on Jio, his latest mammoth venture that has changed the face of India’s telecommunications. The extreme extravagance on his daughter’s wedding seems out of kilter with this driven and ruthless entrepreneur, as does his multi-storey home.

Crabtree and Nelson both tell compelling stories about India’s business life, revealing how the country works. Crabtree has an underlying theme of extravagant wealth among widespread hardship, but mostly tours through examples of Mumbai’s “gilded age”. That is the subtitle of his book that draws parallels with America in the second half of the 19th century when it had ‘the great corporation, the crass plutocrat [and] the calculating political boss”, as one historian put it. Nelson burrows away in small towns as well as mega cities.

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James Crabtree

There’s a contrast in the characters they describe. Crabtree goes for the colourful, focussing for far longer than is deserved on the widely reported Vijay Mallya, who inherited a liquor business, expanded it and branched out into other businesses including an airline named after his Kingfisher beer brand. He managed by whatever means to elbow most other beers out of often government-controlled wine and beer shops, but his management style was far too unfocused and erratic for the airline which collapsed. He fled to Britain to escape court action and is now fighting extradition.

Crabtree spends considerable time on Mukesh Ambani, despite the lack of an interview, but there is no mention of many other stars of past and present business generations.  Ratan Tata, patriarch of the Tata conglomerate, is only mentioned twice, including the astonishing line that he is “perhaps the only man to rival Mukesh Ambani’s stature in business”. That remark requires a new definition of “stature” because Tata, while not always deserving the pedestal on which he is generally placed, is in a league that Ambani can never hope to match.  Crabtree also brackets Mallya with Ambani and Gautam Adani as “self-evidently talented managers” when, if there was anything self-evident about Mallya, it was that he hadn’t a clue how to manage a business efficiently.

Kumar Mangalam Birla, the only surviving leading industrialist from the once sprawling Birla business clan, is only mentioned once, and the older business families such as Bajaj, Godrej, Kirloskar, and Singhania get rare mentions. The entrepreneurial characters who founded the highly successful IndiGo and currently-struggling Jet airlines, that survived when Kingfisher collapsed, do not appear, even though both are excellent examples (like Ambani) of mixing entrepreneurship with managing government relations. India’s internationally successful software companies get scant attention. Among market leaders, Infosys has less than half a page, while Wipro is amazingly not mentioned, nor is Tata’s TCS (along with most of the activities of India’s biggest group).

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Dean Nelson

These lapses can be understood if one accepts that Billionaire Raj is not focussed primarily on business, but goes instead for stories that bolster the image of a Western movie sort of swashbuckling corporate culture with a touch of the Mafia and Trump-the-businessman thrown in. That view is bolstered by the number of Indians in Forbes’s annual list of the world’s rising from just two in the mid-1990s to over 100 – without including hordes of illicit hidden wealth. Crabtree gives us a good informative read, with entertaining pen portraits of crony capitalists and others, and has useful chapters on how corruption works.

Nelson goes for slightly different jugaad “fix it” characters and appropriately chooses one of the controversial London-based Hinduja brothers, and a veteran of the Delhi-based cigarettes to cosmetics and education Modi family. The only businessman to figure prominently in both books is Anand Mahindra, a leading exponent of frugal engineering who runs the Mumbai based Mahindra group that for decades has been regarded as one of India’s most ethical groups.

When I wrote Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality in 2014 (there is a new updated edition out in March), critics said I had failed to realise that India, with all its corruption and failings, was just going through a growth phase. To criticise it now, I was told, missed the point that it would come good, as America had done with a Progressive Era following the Gilded Age, and with the robber barons Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Carnegie becoming respectable.

Crabtree reflects a similar guarded optimism that India will replicate America progression, though there is little evidence of that. Nelson does not seem to think that the negative fix-it attitudes of jugaad will change. Even if characters like an Ambani, a Mallya, and an Adani follow the Rockefeller and Carnegie course, now or in later generations, there are hordes of new would-be crony capitalists (big and small) lining up behind them to fix and milk the system in league with greedy politicians and bureaucrats. With its speed of technological and social change, and an increasingly impatient youth, today’s India is far different from 19th century America.

The Billionaire Raj – A Journey Through India’s Gilded Age, by James Crabtree. Oneworld Publications (UK), Harper Collins (India), Penguin Random House (US), 2018

Jugaad Yatra – Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving, by Dean Nelson. Aleph Book Company, Delhi 2018

 

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