“We can start a war but its end is not in our hands” – India defence minister

Himalayan snowbound brinkmanship could last through the winter

Sixty years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, thought he and China’s premier Zhou Enlai could work together as equals on the world stage – until he learned otherwise in 1962 when India was humiliatingly defeated in a brief Himalayan war by China invading its territory and then withdrawing.

Now it looks as though Xi Jinping, China’s president, may be teaching the same lesson to Narendra Modi, who has displayed Nehruvian-style ambitions since he became prime minister in 2014, parading a desire for equal ranking in carefully choreographed photo shoots when the leaders have met. 

Xi Jinping with Narendra Modi in Gujarat September 2014 – on Modi’s 64th birthday

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken territory in India’s Ladakh region on the undefined 3,488-km border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), occupying areas that were earlier regarded as ‘disputed’ and left vacant by both sides.

It claims it has been acting defensively, but the two countries are teetering on the brink of armed conflict after three months’ of military confrontation. 

Whether they will go to war at Himalayan heights of 14,000-16,000ft is, for the first time since 1962, a real risk if current attempts to defuse the crisis fail. Xi, it has been widely assumed, wants to teach lessons – including putting a brake India’s economic development – without war, but that can become accident-prone.

The Global Times, an aggressively controversial government-linked newspaper, said on September 11 that the Chinese people did not want war. They should however have “real courage to engage calmly in a war that aims to protect core interests” at a time of “territorial disputes with several neighbouring countries instigated by the US to confront China”.

Reports suggest that the PLA has over 40,000-50,000 troops in position on the LAC with supporting missiles and aircraft, and India has indicated it has matching forces. At some points, the two sides are a few hundred yards apart or less: elsewhere they have commanding positions in heights overlooking each other’s military installations.

The PLA has been signalling that “China is risen and you have to accept that China is the pre-eminent power in Asia, and you better understand your place in this hierarchy,” Gautam Bambawale, a former Indian ambassador to China, has told the Financial Times. “They are saying the 21st century isn’t an Asian century. It is merely and solely a Chinese century.”

Kashmir Observer map

The FT article, published on line last night, dealt with China’s actions in various locations with an apt headline: “China’s great power play puts Asia on edge”, with “Domestic insecurity, ambition and the pandemic blamed for Beijing’s belligerence” as a subhead.

“The potential flashpoints are familiar: Taiwan; disputed islands in the South China and East China Seas; and India’s Himalayan border,” said the article. “What is unusual is that tensions have risen in unison and some commentators have warned that there are risks of military flare-ups potentially involving the US.”

In the past, incidents on the LAC have been defused, including a ten-week confrontation at Doklam on the Bhutan border in 2017 when India stood unexpectedly firm instead of quietly backing off (though China held on to land it had gained). So it is a mystery precisely why these two nuclear powers have allowed over half a century of carefully managed co-existence to collapse into the current crisis. 

The immediate reason for the Chinese action may well have been to block road building by India in the strategically important Galwan valley close to the LAC. 

That led to an ugly and unprecedented brawl between both sides’ troops on May 23, with the first deaths on the LAC since 1975. Further escalation led to the exchange of 100-200 warning shots on September 7, again the first since 1975.  

On a broader front, it has been widely assumed that Xi wanted to teach Modi not to draw too close to the US and its allies.

An Indian village near the China border

That includes Japan and Australia in a loose but increasingly significant link-up called the Quad.

Xi now probably sees an opportunity to curb India’s emergence as an economic rival and world power by forcing it to boost spending on long-delayed defence equipment and infrastructure.

That will mean diverting India’s scarce funds from other more constructive developmental projects when the economy has been devastated by the Covid pandemic that is now spiralling out of control into the country’s vast rural hinterland.

The Chinese goal could well be to compel India “to divert our resources into military spending, pushing us away from the economic trajectory where India looked to besting China in the coming decades,” says Manoj Joshi, an experienced defence analyst.  

Some experts believe that China does not wish to invade more territory than it has already done. Instead, it is engaged in “a battle of financial and military manpower attrition” that will be “hugely manpower intensive and costly” for an “interminable period”, according to Rahul Bedi, a veteran defence correspodnent writing on TheWire.in.

That long-term view is borne out by what happened when the two countries’ foreign ministers, S.Jaishankar and Wang Li, agreed a five-point plan to avoid future clashes at a meeting on September 10 on the sidelines of a regional conference in Moscow. 

The five points include talks between militaries on the LAC and a continuation of decades-long inconclusive talks between top government representatives, but there is no indication that China will withdraw from territory it has occupied – nor that India will pull back from heights it has gained. 

There was no sense of urgency, which indicates that the stand-off could well last through the winter, hardening the positions of both sides and making a resolution difficult.

War’s end…..

In the past week, both sides have been exchanging tougher statements. China has been demanding that India withdraws from the current positions, but today in parliament, India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh, said “No force in world can stop Indian forces from patrolling on Ladakh border”.

He warned China “we can start a war, but its end is not in our hands.” 

One thing is for sure: the crisis is not of India’s making. Since it was defeated by China in 1962, it has been wary of provoking its militarily and economically more powerful neighbour. “India showed timidity since 1962”, Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary told the RUSI London think tank in a webinar today. That gave China “confidence they can handle India”.

Modi has tried constantly for six years to establish effective working relations – he has had as many as 18 meetings with Xi. But he has adopted a stronger stance on the LAC, first at Doklam in 2017 and now with the current crisis. To look weak would undermine his strongman nationalist image of invincibility honed in dealings with Pakistan.  

Equally sure is that the current confrontation fits with Xi’s determination to establish his country as a world power, ignoring and over-riding international objections, as his recent subjugation of Hong Kong has shown.

“Friction with China is a given”

“Friction with China,” is a given says S.Jaishankar, a career diplomat and former ambassador in Beijing who is now India’s foreign minister. Talking recently about his new book, The India Way, he said relations between the neighbours were made more complex because both were rising world powers.

India has fought back in recent weeks with economic action against Chinese companies including banning the video app TikTok and some 60 other apps as well as stiffening foreign direct investment controls, banning Chinese companies from bidding for some government contracts, and acting against Chinese Huawei involvement in telecom systems

But whatever the outcome of the current stand-off, the historical parallels of miscalculations stemming from Nehru’s suave hubris and Modi’s egotistical nationalism cannot be ignored.

It is unlikely Modi will find it politically credible to sit chummily on a decorated swing with Xi as he did in his home state of Gujarat six years ago today in September 2014. 

Maybe he should have learned a lesson on what was the first visit by a Chinese president for eight years. Planned as Modi’s 64th birthday party – today he is 70 – it was upset by over 1,000 troops facing off against each other in Ladakh, a foretaste of what is happening now.

Strong interest in a Japanese collector’s Pundole on-line live auction

Lone record Husain bid at AstaGuru arouses curiosity

Record prices have been realised in the past week for Indian modern art with over $5m being paid for a single work at a time when the country’s auctions are continuing to defy the Covid-19 pandemic with strong results.

The new country record was set with a bid of Rs32 crore (Rs320m)  – $5.02m including a 15% buyer’s premium – for an untitled 60in x 40in oil on canvas (below) by V.S.Gaitonde, one of India’s leading modernists, at a live on-line auction staged by Pundole, a leading Mumbai gallery.

The Pundole auction room with a Jagdish Swaminathan painting that was bought for a record of Rs10.92 crore ($1.5m)

Avoiding the need for safe distancing between bidders, but creating the buzz of a live auction, Pundole staff and the auctioneer took bids over the telephone and on line in an otherwise empty auction room for two evening sales this week.

V.S.Gaitonde’s untitled oil on canvas that set a new $5m record for Indian paintings

A week ago, a work by M.F.Husain hit a new record for the artist of $2.56m (including the premium) on a bid of Rs16.06 core ($2.23m) at a two-day on line sale staged by AstaGuru, a Mumbai auction house. 

Unusually, there was only one bid for this work (below), which led to some speculation among dealers that it might not have been a genuine sale but had been bought in at a high price to boost the auction’s image.

This has been denied by Siddhanth Shetty, a member of the family that runs AstaGuru, who told me “it was a genuine sale”. One commentator has suggested that the buyer probably came from outside India, and some market sources indicate Hong Kong. 

Gaitonde and Husain are leading members of the Progressives group, who rose to prominence in the mid-late 1900s and still dominate the top end of the auction market because collectors regard them as safe and reputable.

The Husain work on the AstaGuru website as bidding closed with one offer

The previous country record of $4.45m was achieved by another Progressive, S.H.Raza, at a Christie’s auction in New York in March 2018.

It has taken two years for a new record to be set because the market has been generally flat, but investor and collector interest seems to have been stimulated by the pandemic, as was shown earlier in successful July and March auctions.

Pundole’s auction took place on two evenings this week (September 3 and 4) with 104 works came from a Japanese collector, Masanori Fukuoka, who began buying Indian art in 1990.  All the works sold for a total hammer price of Rs70 .06 crore – $10.96m including the premium.  

“The Seashore” by Arpita Singh which achieved a hammer price of Rs4.5 crore, 50% above the top estimate

Fukuoka ranks among leading international collectors and has built the Glenbarra Museum to house the works adjacent to his home in Himeji, a city in the Kansai region of Japan.

Unlike many collectors, he has always made his works available for viewing at his gradually evolving museums, though local interest has been limited. Like others, he has lent works to exhibitions in many countries. 

Consisting of what has been described as a “few thousand” works at its peak, the collection on display at Himeji has been reduced in size. Fukuoka has also reduced his focus from around 60 artists to about ten, as well as diversifying into Japanese ceramics.

In addition to the Gaitonde, the auction also produced a record of Rs10.92 crore ($1.5m) including the premium for an untitled 68in x 68in oil on canvas by Jagdish Swaminathan (see auction room photo above), more than three times the top estimate. A sculpture of the head of a bull by Tyeb Mehta, a leading Progressive famous for his canvas works, fetched Rs3.7 crore ($500,000). Good prices were also achieved for paintings by more recent artists including Arpita Singh (photo above) and Jogen Chowdhury. 

The AstaGuru auction was unusual because it consisted only of works by Husain with 34 out of 36 on offer selling for a total of $7.77m.

Husain painted Voices (above), a 53in x 226 oil on canvas, in 1958, early in his Husain career. The work was being offered in an auction for the first time, and greater interest had been expected than the single bid that won at the sale. 

The focus now switches to Saffronart, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s auctions later this month, which will test whether the interest of the last few months is sustainable – there is a Gaitonde at Saffronart with a top estimate just under $5m.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 5, 2020

Modi dominates foundation ceremony of Ayodhya Hindu temple

Historic event symbolising the rise of Hindu nationalism

Temple on site of Muslim mosque razed by Hindu mobs in 1992

Narendra Modi staged a widely televised political coup this morning when he laid a silver brick as a symbolic foundation stone for the construction of India’s controversial Ram temple at Ayodhya on the site of a mosque demolished in 1992.

Modi head IMG_0046He was the central figure of the ceremony, establishing Hinduism’s historical role and its dominance at the expense of other religions, notably Islam.

He was not just demonstrating his government’s drive for Hindu nationalism, but also recognising the pivotal role that the temple has played in the rise of his Bharatiya Janata Party from political insignificance over the past 40 years.

“India is emotional, decades of wait has ended,” Modi said after the ceremonies. “Lord Ram lived under a tent for years, now he will reside in a grand temple”

It may seem perverse for Modi to stage the ceremony during the Covid pandemic – he and others at the ceremony wore masks and repeatedly washed their hands.

Modi ceremony IMG_0049

the foundation stone laying ceremony

Today’s celebrations in the Uttar Pradesh temple town will however give hope to hundreds of millions of Hindus among the 1.3bn population that is being ravaged by coronavirus. It will also strengthen Modi’s and the BJP’s image during a crucial state assembly election that is due (unless it is postponed) in neighbouring Bihar in October.

Construction of the temple is significantly scheduled for completion before the next general election ion 2024.

Ayodhya is the most sacred town for Hindus, who believe it was the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of their most revered deities. In December 1992, marauding Hindu mobs motivated by BJP leaders demolished a little used Muslim mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, that had been built on the site of a Hindu temple – a not unusual occurrence down the centuries.


A model of the temple that will now be built

The site has been disputed since the 18th century and the demolition turned Hindu and Muslim leaders’ rival claims into a major controversy with three decades of political infighting, riots, attempts at conciliation, and litigation. Last November, the supreme court ruled that nearly three acres of the land should be used to build a temple, and that five acres should be allocated elsewhere for a mosque. This is what has been implemented today on a 57-acre site that will become a Hindu complex.

Modi has been criticised for playing such a central role in a specific religion’s ceremony when he is prime minister of what is constitutionally a secular state respecting all religions. But that is academic given Modi’s nationalist approach, and it seems as if the construction of the temple is being broadly accepted across India. Leading Muslim figures attended the ceremony.

“We must rebuild our temples and viharas as one people. With mutual respect, love and inclusion. We must recreate them as not just places of worship, but also as centres of knowledge and social cohesion, as they were in ancient times,” says Amish Tripathi, the head of India’s cultural centre in London and an author of books on Ram. “It is a statement to the world that we will not die. We are sanatan [everlasting]. We are eternal. And most importantly, we are united. All 1.3 billion of us”.

The Ayodhya movement has been important in developing in new “national assertiveness” and “cultural pride” with Modi as “its icon,” says Swapan Dasgupta, a leading commentator and BJP MP.  “The monument to lord Ram, built on the site of an ancient temple, could yet become a powerful symbol of resurgent nationhood”.

Modi prostate IMG_0075

Modi prostrates himself at a temple on arriving in Ayodhya

The Congress Party has seemed unsure how to react, though it has been trying to appease growing Hindu consciousness ever since the the late 1980s when the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, allowed locks on the mosque to be opened.

Yesterday his daughter, Priyanka Gandhi who is a general secretary of the party, supported construction of the temple, saying she hoped it would become “a marker of national unity, brotherhood and cultural harmony in accordance with the message of Lord Ram and with his blessings”. That was echoed today by Rahul Gandhi, her brother, and the reluctant former Congress president.

Kashmir anniversary

Significantly, today is the first anniversary of another act of Hindu nationalism – the constitutional coup that the government staged on August 5 last year when it controversially reduced the standing of India’s northern state of Jammu & Kashmir. Accompanied by a lengthy security clampdown, this cancelled J&K’s status as a full state and ended special constitutional rights and privileges, opening the way for what is seen locally as an erosion of the Kashmir identity.

Most other aspects of Hindu nationalism have been muted since the pandemic struck in March, diverting attention both from growing opposition to citizenship legislation that discriminated against Muslims and from a sharp decline in the country economy that the government was failing to arrest.

A new education policy has however just been launched, which strengthens the teaching of the Hindu language in schools.

Amit Shah, the hardline home minister and Modi ally who was driving the nationalism agenda, has been less active in recent months and was hospitalised earlier this week, having tested positive for coronavirus. He therefore missed today’s ceremonies where Modi was accompanied by Yogi Adityanath, UP’s chief minister, along with the state’s governor and the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard line umbrella organisation that embraces the BJP.

Covid numbers

India’s Covid numbers seem horrific, though less so when compared with other countries relative to the size of the population. Official figures show approaching 2m confirmed cases and nearly 40,000 deaths. Both figures are widely regarded as seriously understated, especially the deaths figure which is only 2% of the total confirmed cases compared for example with some 15% in the UK.

The government has taken a tough line in combating the virus, though Modi has been criticised for a sudden shutdown in March that triggered a mass movement of migrant workers from major cities.

Today that is being left aside as Modi did what he has often done before, making himself the televised star in an important national event – an event that will be widely seen as the reassertion of Hindu India.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 24, 2020

Indian art auctions beat pandemic gloom

“Progressives” dominate the top sales, providing comfort and safety

Stay-at-home buyers plug into auctions and boost sales

Tyeb Mehta’s figures continue falling, M.F.Husain’s horses prance, F.N.Souza’s faces grimace and S.H.Raza’s Bindus sit squarely in their boxes. The dominance of such works by these highly respected members of Bombay’s mid-late 20th century Progressives Group, with their recognisable brands, has grown during the Covid-19 pandemic as auction houses have sought the safety of focussing on the top selling known names.

Christie's Top Lot 29 Tyeb Falling Figure

Tyeb Mehta’s Unitled falling figure that led the Christie’s sale at a hammer price of $800,000

The Progressives accounted for all but one of the 13 highest prices achieved in the latest of the summer auctions staged by Christie’s on line from New York that closed on July 22 with $4.83m total sales (including buyer’s premium).

As many as 30 out of the 64 lots in the catalogue were from the Progressives compared with just 18 out of 75 in the same auction a year ago.

Such caution seems not to have been necessary because on line sales of South Asian art have been buoyant since the shutdown began in March. The pandemic has not made potential buyers shrink from spending their money, and instead seems to have made them more interested in doing so, providing estimates and reserve prices are kept within reach.

“People are sitting at home, so they are engaged,” says Dinesh Vazirani, who founded Mumbai-based Saffronart with his wife 20 years ago as an on-line auction house. “They are looking at being at home long-term so their homes are becoming more important, and they are realising that art is a long term asset.”

AstaG Lot 40 Husain, Untitled (Horses) circa 1990, Winning Bid - INR 1,64,38,507. Image couresty of AstaGuru.

M.F.Husain’s Untitled horses sold in the AstaGuru auction for $225,185 hammer price

The Progressives also accounted for the eight highest hammer prices totalling $3.54m in the season’s top auction run on-line by Mumbai-based Asta Guru.

That was half the total of $7.04m achieved in the auction, where a similar proportion of the total 50 lots were from the group, roughly in line with the same auction in March last year.

They have also dominated other sales, with Saffronart, the market leader, devoting a two-day auction earlier this month to ten of Raza’s lower priced works with sales of $451,557. In its summer auction last month , the top five works were by Progressives and sales totalled $2.73m, though with only 71% of the lots selling.

Saffronart has been staging weekly and other smaller and varied auctions, including REDiscovery “art and collectibles” that closed yesterday (July 23). Sales totalled $355,661, with good prices for the art, including a G. Ravinder Reddy work (see below).

Christie's Lot_41__Souza_Frightened_Head_

F.N.Souza’s Frightened Head was among the top Christie’s lots at a hammer price of $200,000

Vazirani says these auctions bring in new buyers and have helped to build the firm’s total of $10m sales (including some done privately) since the shutdown began in March.

Siddhanth Shetty, part of the family that runs AstaGuru, says that a third of the lots in its auction went to new buyers at a time when people were “looking for a hedge against traditional [stock] markets”.

The overall result is that South Asian auctions are as strong as they have been in recent years. This is not a repeat of the sharply escalating boom of the early 2000s, but there are continuing solid sales with the “tried and tested” Progressives, as Vazirani puts it, providing the lead.

The Christie’s auction, which closed on July 22, was its first purely online sale for South Asian art and the catalogue was only slightly smaller (by about ten lots) than its usual sales. It sold 56 out of 64 lots and the total hammer price was 13% above the lowest estimate, which was a satisfactory but not astounding result. Nishad Avari, who ran the auction, says that the results showed the switch to an on-line format had not been significant.

AstaG Lot 46 - S H Raza, Panch - Tatva, 1997, Winning Bid - INR 1,81,12,500. Image courtesy of AstaGuru

S.H.Raza’s Panch-Tatva that sold for a hammer price of $248,116 in the AstaGuru auction

The top lot was Tyeb Mehta’s Falling Figure (above), a 59x49in oil on canvas painted in 1965 with a rather more blurred image than others in his series.

It was being auctioned for the first time, which is always a draw, but bidding failed to reach the top estimate of $900,000 – it sold for a hammer price of $800,000 ($975,000 including buyers’ premium). This was the highest result in Christie’s first-ever Asian Art Week Online which involved 22 countries and had $8.95m total sales.

The big surprise was that an attractive and unusual Tyeb reclining nude, which was one of the highlights, failed to sell (photo below). The bidding stopped at $220,000 compared with an estimate of $250,000-$350,000. An oil on board measuring 24x36in, it was smaller than most of Mehta’s works that come to auction.

Sfrnart G R Reddy_HighRes

G. Ravinder Reddy’s painted polyester resin on fibreglass works are always popular in auctions – made in 2008 and 18.5in high, this  sold for $66,811, beating the top estimate, in the Saffronart REDiscovery auction

Christie’s prices fell away sharply after the leading Mehta work. The next highest prices were for Woman at Work, a striking 20x20in oil on canvas by Husain that fetched $300,000 (including premium), well above a top estimate of $180,000, and Frightened Head, a typical Souza 30x20in oil on board (above) that went for $250,000, matching the top estimate.

AstaGuru, which beat all the other auction houses with a $12.7m sale in 2018, had more success with its top sales – six sold at hammer prices above $390,000 led by Landscape, an early 36x23in oil on canvas by Akbar Padamsee, which sold for $589,504 (plus 15% premium). That was followed by one of Raza’s Bindus at $569,999 and a striking Souza, Yellow Buildings, at $538,874.

The next big tests of the market will come in September when Sotheby’s, which first beat the Covid gloom in March with a $4.82m auction, has a live auction in London as well as an “affordables” on line sale.

Saffronart has an auction room-based on-line auction in Mumbai, and Christie’s has an on line auction of the deBoer collection (postponed from March). There is also to be an auction by Mumbai-based Pundole.

It seems that there is no shortage of buyers, providing the auction houses can continue to provide works that meet the demand with attractive estimates. That however is becoming more difficult as top works move into private collections and museums, making sourcing increasingly difficult.

Christie's Tyeb_Mehta_Reclining_Nude

Tyeb Mehta’s Unitled reclining nude that failed to sell at Christie’s   auction when bidding stopped at $220,000


Sticks and stones were weapons in a dangerous escalation

Talks in progress to avoid further conflict between nuclear powers

Troops have been killed for the first time in 45 years during clashes on the undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides India and China. The confrontation took place  in Ladakh, high in the Himalayas, and led to 20 confirmed deaths of Indian soldiers, and possibly more than 40 Chinese according to unconfirmed reports,

The deaths happened during hand to hand fighting – described by the Indian army as a “violent face-off” – which is not uncommon on the 3,488-km-long LAC. Indian media reports say that the weapons included iron rods, clubs armed with nails, barbed wire and stones (video – click here). There were suggestions that some deaths occurred when troops fell from a narrow ledge into a freezing river at the 16,000 ft high location.

map IMG_9542This was not a war situation between the two nuclear powers, nor were shots fired, but urgent diplomatic and military talks have been held between the two sides in an attempt to avoid further conflict.

The confrontation graphically illustrates the precarious state of security and international relations on India’s borders, especially at a time when Xi Jinping, China’s internationally ambitious president, is increasing his country’s territorial and other claims.

There are regular firings and deaths on India’s (defined though not permanent) Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, but Indian and Chinese politicians and army chiefs have been proud of the fact that no shots have been fired, nor deaths caused, on the 3,488 km LAC since the early 1970s.

It looks as if Monday night’s clashes were not pre-planned at a senior level, though this is not clear. India said there had been “an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo”. China’s foreign ministry said India had been “provoking and attacking Chinese personnel” after crossing into its territory.

For more than six weeks there has been a stand-off at three locations along the LAC after China established posts in the disputed border area. Both countries moved additional troops to the area and there was hand-to-hand fighting at two locations in Ladakh and Sikkim last month. The main focus has been at the Galwan River where Monday night’s confrontation took place, and at the Pangong Tso glacial lake at 14,000 ft in the Tibetan plateau.The Galwan River was one of the early triggers of the 1962 India-China war, when India was humiliatingly defeated but India has always regarded it as an undisputed section of the LAC.

Military talks, supported by diplomatic contacts, last week led to an agreement that the two sides would disengage from their confrontational positions. India said China had withdrawn from some positions at Galwan.

China has objected to India building roads and air strips in the area, including the Galwan Valley. A Chinese military spokesperson on June 16 claimed “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region”. On May 5, Beijing accused the Indian army of trespassing into its territory in its “attempt to unilaterally change the status” of the border in Sikkim and Ladakh.

NDTV valley view IMG_9534

India countered that it was not trespassing, but carrying out routine infrastructure-development activities along its side of the disputed LAC. It blamed China for its aggression in building up bunkers on its side, hindering normal patrolling by Indian troops.

The last serious confrontation between the two countries took place three years ago in June-July 2017 with a 73-day stand-off – the longest ever – at Doklam, a Himalayan plateau in Bhutan at a border tri-junction. Chinese troop movements and road construction on the plateau threatened the security of India’s adjacent narrow Siliguri corridor that connects its north-eastern states with the rest of the country. That prompted India to move its troops onto the plateau to block China’s advance, triggering the stand-off.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, stood firm and eventually after more than two months there was an understanding that enabled both sides to claim an advantage, though nothing was settled and China established a permanent position on the plateau.

Modi and Xi Jinping held an historic summit in April 2018 at Wuhan, made famous this year for starting the COVID-19 pandemic. This was intended to secure a basis for avoiding conflict and was followed by a similar meeting in India last October.

The current potential crisis needs to be seen against the backcloth of increased aggression by China internationally. Nepal, which borders both countries and is increasingly coming under China’s influence, has this week passed legislation that changes its maps and lays claim to land that is part of India.

On a wider front, Xi Jinping has been conducting aggressive policies ranging from a security clampdown on Hong Kong to trade differences with Australia, while also pushing its territorial claims in the South China Sea and over Taiwan.

Modi RajnathSinghIMG_9536

Narendra Modi and defence minister Rajnath Singh

With India, Xi’s aim may be to teach Modi a lesson for growing too close to the US and possibly siding with other countries, including Australia, over setting up an international inquiry on the Wuhan sources of COVID-19.

Relations between the two countries are usually stable providing India does not grow too close to the US and its allies. Modi has tried to strike a balance between increased defence and other co-operation with the US, and stable economic and diplomatic relations with China. He will be even more anxious to do this now when the country is coping with rapidly growing cases of COVID-19 and serious economic problems.

He is struggling with a precarious form of diplomacy, especially at a time when President Trump expects loyalty, not balanced relations, and Xi Jinping does not want a US ally on China’s border.

The deaths on the LAC show how precarious that is.

Posted by: John Elliott | May 30, 2020

Modi has spent six years ignoring environmental protection

Government uses on-line meetings to speed sensitive project vetting

Jairam Ramesh calls for moratorium on virtual conference decisions

Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party government have been criticised for many things ranging from their Hindutva anti-Muslim agenda to a lack of urgently needed economic reforms since they were first sworn in six years ago on May 26, 2014, and then again a year ago today, May 30 2019.

One area that has largely escaped attention is the environment that has been plundered since 2014 by a government intent on promoting infrastructure and other development at the expense of forests, rivers, and wildlife. This has increased in the past year since Modi’s second general election victory.

“We need to promote human welfare, and not focus on economic growth alone. India has long championed such initiatives, ” Modi asserted at an international COVID-19 conference earlier this month in a speech that sounded as if it included concern for the environment but flew in the face of the government’s record.

The primary lesson of the coronavirus crisis – that nature hits back when the human race upsets the balance of the world’s environment – is being ignored. The government has failed to start any debate about whether a fresh balance needs to be struck.

Dibang Valley
The Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh where a massive hydro scheme was speedily dealt with in a virtual meeting

Instead, under the cover of the lockdown, it has been using the absence of face-to-face official regulatory meetings to speed up the environmental approval process with reduced scrutiny and with inadequate opportunity for plans to be questioned and discussed. Experts’ appraisal meetings usually last an entire day but have been packed into two hours.

Jairam Ramesh, chairman of the Indian parliament’s standing committee on the environment, has called for “an immediate review and moratorium” of decisions taken during the meetings. The current health crisis  “should be an opportunity to pause and reflect”.

It was clear in 2014 that the Modi government’s determination to be growth-oriented would have a price for environment protection. “Dirty growth is inevitable,” a leading Delhi columnist told me at the time.

The government quickly whittled down the power of various environmental agencies and eased the way for statutory approval procedures to be avoided for infrastructure and other projects. Independent specialists were removed from monitoring organisations and replaced by retired and other docile officials who would toe the line wanted by Modi via the centralised authority of his prime minister’s office (the PMO).

When roads and railways cut through wildlife areas, some animals cross safely……..

Last July the environment ministry exempted 13 railway projects costing Rs 19,400 crore ($2.8bn) spread over 800 hectares of land in four states from the process of seeking environmental forest permits. At least four of the projects would damage sensitive areas including a national park, a tiger reserve, a tiger corridor and wildlife sanctuaries.

India’s National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), a top-level advisory body that has the prime minister as its chairman and 47 members including 19 ex-officio, has not met since Modi’s 2014 election victory – it should meet twice a year.

Decisions and clearances have come through a standing committee of the national board, but the committee has no formalised policy role so acts as a rubber stamp for what the prime minister wants. Some critics say the NBWL did not have any real power under previous governments, but they acknowledge that it did meet and also acted as a forum for the independent voices that have been removed.

At the beginning of April, the standing committee held its first ever video meeting, followed by a similar virtual meeting of a key expert appraisal committee (EAC). The standing committee cleared over 30 projects in eleven states, 16 for highways, transmission lines and railway tracks through scheduled national parks, sanctuaries and tiger corridors. Other projects involved some 3,000 acres of land in eco-sensitive areas.

tiger railway track
…………while others do not

The environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, reported this in a series of tweets, boasting about how the projects would help develop tourism, infrastructure, employment and economic growth – all worthy subjects – but never once mentioning protecting wildlife or environmental issues, which is his ministry’s primary duty. Only minimal conditions were attached to most of the approvals.

“In a virtual conference, it’s difficult to scrutinise maps that show the location of the proposed projects. There was also no occasion to ask questions of officials for clarifications,” an expert who was involved told The Hindu newspaper last month.

During the lockdown, statutory public hearings have also been difficult to organise, and communities that are likely to be affected by the projects have not been able to give their consent officially. (How far current relaxations in the lockdown will lead to improvements is not clear).

Perhaps the most worrying rushed approval process has involved the 3,097 megawatt Etalin hydro-electricity project in Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous Himalayan state bordering China in the far north-east of India.  Located in the ecologically and culturally rich Dibang valley, this is one of the country’s largest proposed hydro projects and it came up for “green clearance” during a virtual session of the forest advisory committee (FAC) on April 23.

Prakash Javadekar

Hydro projects are always controversial because they are of huge benefit for those who use the electricity, but inevitably wreak environmental and social havoc.

The views of the Dibang residents are said to be split on the ecological costs with the construction of two large gravity dams and all the associated infrastructure including a road network of over 50 km, felling 280,000 trees and submerging over 1,178 hectares (nearly 3,000 acres) of land over seven years of mining, quarrying and other work.

A week after the minutes of the Dibang virtual meeting were released, a group of nearly 300 scientists and conservationist professionals wrote to Javadekar protesting about forest and environment clearances being granted across India during the lockdown. The group asked the Ministry to carry out its intended mandate – “the protection of India’s forests, wildlife and natural heritage and not fast-track clearance of projects.” Decisions should be delayed till the coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

Changing the balance

COVID-19 has been widely touted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the world to reverse the destruction of natural resources and change the balance between catering for ever growing human needs and protecting the environment. That should range from taking better care of wildlife habitats and curbing carbon emissions to changing people’s travelling and working habits.

On current form, it seems that much of the opportunity will be wasted as people rush back to their old ways. There are even suggestions internationally that car ownership looks like increasing because people will want to avoid travelling on potentially contaminated public transport.

Governments should be setting an example with changes on polices that they control – including environmental regulations for projects that eat into natural landscapes, destroy wild habitats, and damage the lungs that the modern world desperately needs.

It is clear that Modi’s government is doing the reverse, despite his fine statements. His call earlier this month, when he was addressing a Non-Aligned Movement (video) conference, for the world to focus on policies “to promote human welfare, and not focus on economic growth” is not the first time he has vapidly pronounced support for environmental protection.

“We have to create a healthy balance between sustainability and development. More roads and cleaner rivers, more homes for citizens and, at the same time, quality habitat for animals are necessary for a strong, inclusive India,” he said when proudly announcing an increase in the number of India’s tigers last July – shortly after the railway projects were exempted from scrutiny.

It would be good for India if the COVID-19 pandemic had converted Modi into believing rather than just saying such things. Unless he has forgotten to tell the environment minister and officials about a change of heart, nothing has been learned, and the government will continue on its current environmentally destructive path till the next general election in four years time, and maybe for much longer.

See also https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/indias-amazon-of-the-east-under-threat?

Posted by: John Elliott | May 28, 2020

Boris can’t do PM job without Cummings beside him

Public opinion turns against UK government over adviser

Johnson reveals his inadequacies and weakens COVID-19 response

When Boris Johnson walked into No 10 Downing street in July last year for the first time as Britain’s prime minister, he was greeted by the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill (below), who represents the centre of government power. Standing in the corner, aside from the rest of the staff, was a slim balding middle-aged man dressed in a scruffy t-shirt who would wield power not only over Johnson but across Whitehall.

The man was Dominic (Dom) Cummings, Johnson’s maverick chief of staff, who seems to have been positioning himself in a memorable photograph as the shadowy power behind the throne, operating aside from the system. 

Last Monday (May 25), Johnson broke all conventions when he allowed Cummings to use the Downing Street garden to hold a press conference to explain why he should not resign or be sacked for breaching COVID-19 shutdown rules by travelling across Britain with his family.

Both men are experts at judging and responding to the public mood. That makes it odd that they have allowed what started with reports in The Guardian and the Daily Mirror newspapers last Friday (May 22) to escalate in the media, and in “Westminster bubble”, and then to grow into a venting of public anger.  Johnson’s authority has been reduced because he has insisted on keeping Cummings.

They both believe that a troublesome story fades away with denials if left alone for long enough. This one however has till now been showing stamina than they expected and has dominated British news, often mockingly, for six days (and Cummings name has been blocked on Twitter by its anti-porn filter).

Unwisely for an adviser who should, as he must know, remain in the background, Cummings has let himself become the frontline story, with Johnson retreating to the sidelines after he failed in a Sunday press conference to kill off demands for Cummings to resign or be sacked.

Not only is Cummings being hounded by the media outside his north London house in fashionable Islington, he has also been barracked by neighbours and mocked in street posters (above and lower down) and the media. Along with people all over the country who have been contacting their local MPs and writing on social media, they resent the way that Cummings apparently bypassed COVID restrictions, which they had been following strictly for two months. 

Cummings’ road to power alongside Johnson began with the successful Brexit campaign in 2016 and was followed when he steered Johnson last July to become Conservative Party leader and prime minister, and again when Johnson won last December’s general election. 

People walk by an advertising bill board in Kentish Town London on May 22. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

Fearing that he and his wife had the virus, Cummings should, according to the restrictions, have isolated the family in their London home. Instead he drove them 260 miles to a house adjacent to his parents’ Durham home in north-east England, justifying the journey by saying there was a relative there to care for their son.

Later, after being hit by the virus and recovering, he drove the family 30 miles to Barnard Castle (see posters below), a well known tourist spot, to test (he claims) whether his eyes were good enough for him to drive back to work in London. 

They both have good if not brilliant brains but, while Johnson is fluffy, frequently unable to string coherent sentences together in public without a written brief, and famously incapable of remembering detail, Cummings is focussed and driven as a disrupter determined to overhaul how government functions.

Dubbed at various times as a Svengali and a Machiavelli, Cummings was once labelled a “career psychopath” by former prime minister David Cameron, who also said he had a “malign influence” on those he dealt with and gave “bilious briefing to the papers”. He is extremely abrasive, moody and erratic, and can also be insulting about colleagues, once describing David Davis, then the Brexit secretary, as “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”.

Both Johnson, 55, and Cummings, 48, have links to Britain’s elite, though neither is welcomed by the establishment. Johnson’s background is Eton and Oxford. Cummings was also at Oxford after Durham (private) School and has a former court of appeal judge as an uncle. He is married to the Spectator’s commissioning editor, Janet Wakefield, 45, (together outside Downing Street, January 2020, in the photo below), who joined the magazine when Johnson was the editor in the early 2000s. She is the daughter of Sir Humphrey Wakefield, who owns a castle in socially fashionable Northumberland, and is related to various aristocratic families in the county.

Brexit might well not have happened without Cummings as the leading campaign organiser.  He invented the devastatingly effective Take Back Control slogan – memorably recounted last year in the film Brexit: The Uncivil War with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Cummings. 

He introduced the use of digitally managed audience data to identify and target selected groups with specially designed marketing messaging that would sway opinion and win votes.

The slogan attracted voters ranging from committed Brexiteers, who wanted to take back control from Brussels, to ordinary people who, feeling left behind by globalisation, ignored by politicians, and overwhelmed by tides of immigrants, wanted to be in control of their lives. 

It had no depth nor was it a detailed policy but, attached to Johnson’s populist campaigning style, it enabled people to reassert themselves behind a dream and a new style leader. President Emmanuel Macron of France has described the campaign as “lies, exaggerations and cheques that were promised but will never come”.

But this is not a relationship based on Johnson’s gratitude for Cummings’ Brexit and electioneering services. It is much more basic and serious than that, and Johnson has exposed his own dependency by refusing to let Cummings go, even though his and the government’s popularity ratings have been hit.

Put simply, Johnson probably reckons he could not manage without Cummings in Downing Street. He would lose the anchor who provides him with policy objectives and programmes, and who feeds him with endlessly repeated slogans like the decisive Get Brexit Done in last year’s election campaign. Acting under his tutelage and instructions, Johnson has been disciplined into drumming home basic messages and avoiding being mired in details that he cannot remember.

He probably realises that without Cummings he would tend to revert to his habitual role as the unfocused and jokey prankster that he displayed as mayor of London and even as foreign secretary. He would be vulnerable to political and civil service pressures without Cummings’ shield and would need more capable and independent ministers around him than the loyal Brexiteer lightweights that he has now, having dumped all who disagree with him and Cummings.

“The foundation of this UK government is a bunker of close allies surrounded by a lightweight, supine and largely ineffectual cabinet chosen mainly for their commitment to Brexit or their loyalty to Mr Johnson in last year’s Conservative party leadership contest,” the Financial Times said in an editorial yesterday (May 27). Rishi Sunak, the Indian-origin chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), who was appointed in February after Cummings manoeuvred his independent-minded predecessor out of office, is named as one of just two ministers who “show the gravity demanded of a secretary of state”. 

When Johnson won the election in January, he and Cummings expected to be leading Britain triumphantly out of Europe, and Cummings was looking forward to attacking the bureaucratic operations of Whitehall that he despises. He wrote on his blog that he was seeking job applications from “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to work with him in remaking Whitehall.

Neither of them is suited to the task of leading Britain through the coronavirus crisis because they are not capable policy makers or administrators. Johnson likes to delegate extensively and Cummings believes in change through disruption, not orderly management. That must have played some part in recent months’ muddled policies on herd immunity, testing and tracing, social distancing, lockdowns, and airport quarantines. COVID-19 deaths are estimated to total 45,000 and maybe 60,000, one of the highest in the world.

Tempting though it might be to suggest that Downing Street and the whole government would function better without Cummings’ erratic and confrontational style, there must be many in the government and Conservative Party who worry that, without him, Johnson would not be able to cope.

Since it is not possible, for now at least, to dump Johnson (and the next general election is four years away), some will be arguing that it is better to keep Cummings as his minder. It looks as if that is what will happen, though both Johnson and Cummings have lost credibility and the events of the past week will not be forgotten or forgiven.

This article first appeared (slightly shorter) on the Indian Wire.in news website https://thewire.in/world/boris-johnson-dominic-cummings 


PM appeared to try – but failed – to emulate 1991 reforms package

Plight of millions of migrants fleeing home continues

The Indian government has tried over the past week to offset some of the serious economic and social effects of Covid.19 on the poor and on business, while at the same time using the urgency of the crisis to announce a series of potentially significant economic and business reforms.

The plans – some extremely tentative and several not entirely new – have included extensive overall privatisation of the public sector, specific increased private sector involvement in defence manufacturing, space activities, coal mining and power distribution, plus open market access for farmers to sell their produce.  Aid measures have included financial and other help for small firms, farmers and migrant workers.

Modi face masks IMG_9328

Narendra Modi’s varying face coverings – India Today graphic

India’s economy has been crippled and the poor have been left destitute in the past two months. The country has over 90,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus including more than 56,000 currently active.

Reported fatalities have been relatively low at nearly 2,900, but the economic and social effects have escalated since prime minister Narendra Modi – who came to power six years ago this week – ordered one of the world’s strictest lockdowns on March 24. The lockdown has been extended to May 31, with varying degrees of relaxation around the country.

Modi heralded this week’s Covid.19 and other initiatives when he addressed the nation on May 12 and announced what was billed as a (much exaggerated) Rs 20 lakh crore (US$ 284bn – 10% if GDP) economic package of past and future plans for “land, labour, liquidity and laws“. This would lead to what the prime minister dubbed an Atmanirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India. (Economists estimate the actual government outlay is nearer $28bn).

That was followed by five daily televised media conferences, which ended yesterday (May 17), when Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister, listed Modi’s proposals on aid measures and broad-brush policy changes.

Modi’s speech, and subsequent twitter messages, were so strong that there was even speculation he might be planning to use the Covid.19 crisis to trigger major reforms in the same way that Congress prime minister Narasimha Rao and finance minister Manmohan Singh dramatically opened up the economy to tackle a deep financial crisis in 1991. That initiative led to the development of modern India, but the pace of further reform has been slow and, for the past 20 years, there has been speculation about what sort of crisis would be needed to push a government into another mega initiative.

Biswajit's photo 1

Biswajit Mahant, an environmentalist in Orissa  found this group of 80 walking to Jharkhand last week, on the highway, with little kids walking in the hot sun: “I gave them money for food & they stopped to rest in the shade of a bridge. I informed the district collector & he kindly arranged a bus to take them to the border, saving them a walk of 300 kms … The state govt orders to local police are now clear – any migrants found walking will be given food and water and sent by hired bus till their state border” – and photo below

Modi has undoubtedly tried to reach out to domestic and foreign companies to persuade them to invest and help to revive the economy, but the measures – many of which re-package plans announced in the past – are too uncertain to match up to the 1991 initiatives.

Biswajit's pic 2They have also not met the need for an economic stimulus because they do little to accelerate demand. They ignore some key areas including the hard-hit tourism industry and private healthcare (though curiously there is a Rs500 crore allocation to help 200,000 bee keepers).

Even more importantly, they have specifically failed to tackle the continuing social misery – and potential economic problems – of tens of millions of migrant workers fleeing home from big cities since the sudden March 24 shutdown, many infected with coronavirus.

Little has been done by the government to help these workers, maybe as many as 90m of whom have trudged their way hundreds of miles with scarce food. A total of 130 have been killed on the roads. Overcrowded trains have been provided but not in sufficient numbers and states initially blocked their borders.

This week’s measures have provided them with free food for two months (why only two months is unclear), and with countrywide ration cards. The Government has also made a substantial Rs 40,000 crore allocation under a rural work scheme (MGNREGS) to provide employment in their home areas. How effective those measures will be, given extensive bureaucratic corruption, remains to be seen.

Migrant workers

There are estimated to be a total of some 170m migrant casual workers in India and they play a key role in many industries. Employers in the cities are now beginning to worry that they might not return as the economy recovers, upsetting the chances of a quick recovery. Some companies must also now be regretting that they treated the casual workers as little better than slave labour and not as valued employees.

In his speech, Modi said that self-reliance would be based on five pillars – an economy “that takes quantum jumps and not incremental change”, modern infrastructure; a technology-driven system; vibrant demography as a “source of energy”; and a strong demand and supply chain.

The biggest potential reform is that there is to be a policy for the private sector to be allowed to invest and operate in all parts of the public sector apart from industries selected as “strategic”. All public sector enterprises in non-strategic areas would be privatised while, in strategic areas, between one and four enterprises would remain in the public sector, the remainder being merged or brought under a holding company.

in-migrantworkers wait Chennai

Stranded migrant workers wait to board a special train home from Chennai – ToI photo

This seems most unlikely to be implemented any time soon – the government’s statement ominously said “timing to be based on feasibility etc”. The first step will be the publication of a policy, but there will be considerable opposition from trade unions and from right wing forces in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s broad Sangh Parivar (family or organisations) that have already started to protest.

Earlier announcements last week said that the private sector’s involvement in defence manufacturing would be boosted with a list of weapons and systems that would not be open to foreign companies. The government hopes this will encourage foreign direct investment by major international defence companies, which will be allowed 74% FDI stakes (up from 40%) on an automatic basis for high technology equipment.

Farmers’ markets

The big initiative for farmers is that restrictions on how they sell their produce are being lifted so that they can avoid bureaucratic and often corrupt mandis (local public sector markets) that currently have a statutory monopoly. This idea of de-regulation has been mooted for some 20 years and is basically a subject for states, not the central government, so it is not clear how far the proposal will go. Selling across state borders will also be freed under Modi’s broader theme of “one nation one market”.

To offset the impact of the Covid.19 shutdown, financing of businesses as small as street vending is being eased with special credit facilities, and farmers are being provided with emergency funding and credit arrangements. Bankruptcies are to be stalled for a year without companies being considered to be defaulters for bad loans. Other measures include liquidity is being boosted for non-banking finance companies.

Overall, there has been criticism that Modi chose this time, when the priority is dealing with the immediate Covid.19 crisis, to launch medium and long-term economic reforms, and that there were not adequate cash handouts and other measures to provide relief, especially for the poor.

It was characteristic of Modi to over-egg the proposals – for both relief and reform – in his initial speech. That will not matter however if what has been laid out in the past week is implemented, but Modi’s track record on execution is not good.

Significant criticisms as Boris convalesces and edges back to work

High Covid-19 death rate and a lack of essential equipment

Diagnosed with coronavirus at the end of last month and hospitalised on April 5 with three nights in intensive care, Boris Johnson is edging back to work as Britain’s prime minister just as criticism of his government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis is escalating.

Although the National Health Service has functioned effectively, there are glaring gaps in the delivery of equipment to hospitals and care home staff, and seriously inadequate testing of individuals.

There are also misleading overstatements by cabinet ministers on targets and achievements. And there is no government-led public debate about how the current shutdown could be eased, though there are warnings that this could take a year or more.

Boris clapping - Daily Mail

Boris Johnson joining people across the UK applauding NHS workers shortly before he was admitted to hospital

Britain’s record is poor with deaths reaching 41,000, twice the official figures, according to Financial Times analysis published on April 22.

The good news is that it looks as though the death rate peaked on April 8. Deaths outside hospitals in the week ending April 10 were 75% above normal in England and Wales, the highest level for more than 20 years. The figures are high compared with France’s 20,800 and far higher than Germany’s 5,000.

Human trials of a vaccine start at Oxford University today (April 23), but the government’s top scientist has warned that an effective one might not be available for a year. Social distancing would be needed till that happened.

The high rate of deaths and the government problems would normally be a political disaster for a prime minister. Boris’s charmed life (from school at Eton to Oxford University and Downing Street) however is continuing, despite criticism that he set his government on a muddled path and failed to focus in the early weeks of the crisis.

His mind at the time was on achieving and celebrating Brexit on January 31, and then, during a 12-day break in mid February, announcing that he was engaged to his partner, Carrie Symonds, and that she was pregnant, while also finalising his divorce.

Nightingale hospital copy

Part of a series of emergency hospitals being built across the UK

The Sunday Times published a devastating critique of the government’s failings on April 19 headed, “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster”. The subhead said “Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra [top security committee] meetings on the virus; calls to order protective gear were ignored; and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Failings in February may have cost thousands of lives”.

The Sunday edition of The Guardian (The Observer) ran a similar story. Two days earlier, the Financial Times nailed the government’s procurement programme of ventilators that are still not adequately available. The FT quoted sources saying that the programme “was plagued by disjointed thinking that sent volunteer, non-specialist manufacturers down the wrong track, designing products that clinicians and regulators so far have deemed largely unsuitable for treating Covid-19 patients.”

Yet the prime minister, having presided over all this before he became ill, is being welcomed back from convalescence, even though his popularity is waning – 47% of respondents in a recent survey said they had a negative opinion of him and a further 17% had a “neutral” opinion.


Rishi Sunak at the Covid-19 daily on-line media conference in Downing Street

The country is desperate for some sense of leadership at the head of a rudderless, divided and squabbling cabinet that he packed after December’s general election with obedient Brexit-loyalists.

The government’s undoubted current star is Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), one of three cabinet members of Indian origin in the cabinet – his Punjabi grandparents moved to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s.

He is not quite 40 – his birthday is on May 12 – and he has only been an MP since 2015, yet this wealthy former banker and son-in-law of Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of the Infosys IT company, is already being tipped as a future prime minister. Boris appointed him chancellor – to do as he was told by Downing Street – two months ago, replacing Sajid Javid who had refused to kow-tow to Boris and Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s disruptive chief adviser.

Since then, and with Boris away ill, Sunak has emerged as one of the most competent of seven cabinet ministers who appear at daily-televised press conferences. He has a modest but forceful way of delivering facts and appealing for co-operation on matters such as social distancing.

He was even given glowing praise by his department’s bureaucrats in an FT profile published on April 2. Currently he is being praised for handing out billions of pounds, but must know that his popularity will be tested in the future when he has to manage the mountains of debt, curb spending, and raise taxes.


Priti Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam who she effectively ousted from his job as the home ministry’s top civil servant

The non-performer among the Indian-origin trio is Priti Patel, 48, the home minister, who has only appeared once at the tv conferences.

Once a high profile star (and reportedly a friend of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi), she is being kept out of the front line because her extremely aggressive style of dealing with bureaucrats had put her political future at risk just as the Covid-19 crisis was emerging.

It looked as if she might have to resign till the virus swept negative stories about her from daily media headlines. This week however she is back in the news because Sir Philip Rutnam, the home office’s top bureaucrat who she effectively forced to resign in February, has accused her at an employment tribunal of unfair dismissal and whistle blowing.

The third in the trio and a rising star is Alok Sharma, 52, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. He is leading the support for companies including small businesses (and also has climate change responsibilities), and appears calm and purposeful at the media events.

All three are close to Boris (as he is generally known) but none is the official stand-in prime minister. The logical choice for that role would be Michael Gove, 52, by far the most experienced senior cabinet member, but he tripped Boris up in an earlier Conservative Party leadership contest and is not trusted.


Dominic Rabb

Instead, Dominic Raab, 46, a controversially blunt and not very respected foreign secretary who has limited ministerial experience, was named first secretary in the last reshuffle. That makes him the de facto deputy, which Boris confirmed – with limited scope – when he asked him to stand in “when necessary”.

The rest of the cabinet do not rate Raab and he has little if any authority at a crucial time.

Other much more capable and experienced politicians have been banished to the parliamentary backbenches, or even expelled from the party, because they opposed Brexit. Boris is surrounded by people who are loyal to him and none of them dares step out of line, except perhaps Gove who must realise that loyalty is essential, for now at least, if he is to survive.

The Sunday Times article explained how the UK, unlike Asian countries, treated the virus from January as a pandemic form of flu without an appropriate vaccine, so rejected a lockdown that was being introduced in other countries. Instead it followed the usual flu route of accepting widespread illness that would generate immunity (known as herd immunity). Later, it reversed that policy and introduced the current shutdown, now running for six weeks,

There was a lack of focus on building stocks of testing equipment, with the diagnostics’ trade association saying it was not formally approached for help till April 1. There was similar failure to build stocks of gowns and masks for health and care workers in February when they were and still are, urgently needed.

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock

The government is now facing heavy criticism about the lack of equipment with Matt Hancock, 41, the supremely self-confident secretary for health, in the firing line.

There has been confusion over production of ventilators and he has failed to make enough progress on a target he unwisely set for achieving 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day by the end of this month. Boris last month even talked about 250,000 daily tests. The current figure is around 23,000 even though there is capacity for 50,000, which indicates a double failing on provision of facilities and access to them.

It may seem unfair to criticise the government at a time when every country is facing crises, but Britain has been a leader in medical care, especially pandemics, so should have been better prepared.

Years of Conservative Government austerity with budget cuts, coupled with Boris’s lack of focus and leadership, have led to the failure to perform.

Boris is now convalescing at his official country home, Chequers, about 40 miles outside London. He is not yet chairing meetings, even remotely, though he is contacting people and has had a conversation with his admirer President Donald Trump.

What is sure is that he will give the National Health Service a top priority when the crisis is over because, as he has said, it saved him from possible death during his time in hospital.

But he is not the prime minister for a crisis. He hates detail and likes to appoint competent advisers and ministers, leaving them to get on with their jobs while he deals with broad-brush issues, presentation and public appearances.

The question now is whether this crisis, and his own personal experience of Covid-19, will turn him into a focussed prime minister who governs. He has the brains, but does he have the stamina?

This article first appeared on the Indian Wire.in news website https://thewire.in/world/boris-johnson-uk-coronavirus

Three-week nationwide curfew curbs outbreaks tho’ numbers rising

People follow Modi’s call to light candles and lamps against COVID 

India has always existed, and survived, in a state of turmoil. The sheer noise and clamour, the surging crowds, with apparent disorder at every turn, suggest to an observer that the country is in a state of chaos.

But it is not chaos because, in normal times, people know their place and their role in the system. They know their prospects or lack of them, and what they have to do day and night.

That applies to everyone, from the beggar on the street corner and the tailor sitting on the sidewalk with his sewing machine or the small shop keeper in a busy bazaar to the tycoon sweeping by in his Mercedes or Lamborghini, and the politician strutting importantly through the crowds. It also applies to the ordinary people scraping a living, visiting the bazaar for milk and vegetables where the police use lathis to thrash those that appear vulnerable.

Corona crowds

A bazaar in old Delhi during the nationwide lockdown REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavi

This disorderly order can survive localised natural catastrophes such as floods, or man-made disasters like railway crashes and fires in overcrowded slums. Central and state governments instantly award cash compensation and mount semi-successful attempts to rescue and help. People rebuild their lives, until the next time when the cycle repeats.

What this way of life cannot cope with so smoothly is sudden unexpected action on a countrywide scale that immediately creates a new and inescapable crisis.

Narendra Modi triggered one of those crises on a personal whim in November 2016 when he gave four hours notice that 85% of India’s currency was being removed from circulation. His action broke the system and caused economic chaos. The influential behaved normally and used the system to bribe bank officials who accepted their money, but tens of millions of people running one-person and other small businesses lost out and the economy has not recovered.

PM_Modi_on_lockdown_impact_1585065944__rend_16_9Tomorrow (April 5), Modi is trying to bring order to the potential devastation of the system caused by the coronavirus and by a consequential virtual economic shutdown that he ordered on March 24.

He wants to remind people they are not alone and has asked everyone in India to switch off their lights at 9pm and to stand at their doorways and on balconies with lighted candles, torches, and mobile lights for nine minutes.

Candlelight vigils are usually staged by crowds as signs of respect or protest, but this chimes neatly with people recently singing from balconies and lighting candles in Italy to offset the loneliness of a lockdown, and families clapping outside their homes in Britain two nights ago to thank the country’s National Health Service workers.

Modi’s mass popularity as a leader is strong and the candles will be lit, despite rumours (officially denied) that the sudden drop in electricity demand might trip the national power system.

As Shekhar Gupta, a prominent media editor, puts it in the Business Standard this morning (April 4), Modi is “able to speak directly and convincingly to a large enough section of Indians who will take his word for gospel, and his order like a papal bull.” No prime minister since the 1980s had been able to do that.


Migrant workers (above) board a bus to their native villages amid nationwide lockdown – and (below) walk, sometimes hundreds of miles to get  home

Modi’s aim is to bring some sense of unity and calm at a time when the real impact of the virus has yet to emerge for the country’s 1.3 billion population. Only around 3,500 cases have been registered with nearly 100 deaths, though there will be more that have gone unreported, and a surge seems inevitable as urban slums and other densely populated areas are hit.

So far the most widespread impact has been economic. Millions of people instantly lost their livelihoods on March 24 when Modi went on television, demonetisation-style, to announce an immediate three-week national curfew. That killed urban jobs for migrant workers who are part of what is known as India’s massive informal sector, moving from rural areas to urban centres to earn a living and send money home to their families. Instead of staying off the streets, they swarmed in thousands out of cities and began travelling, many on foot, across the country to their home states (some closed their borders), almost certainly spreading the virus on the way.


Modi has been widely attacked for triggering that panic without any apparent preparations for helping the poor and jobless. He astutely asked “for forgiveness” on television a few days later, justifying his lack of warning or pre-planning (and side-stepping personal responsibility) by saying, “India with its 130 crore population has no choice but to take the steps that have been taken.”

While there have been criticisms, especially of brutal police action against the homeward bound migrants, Modi has been praised for taking decisive action and the curfew has been widely enforced and obeyed.

Muslim missionaries

The risk of mass infection is however serious. This was demonstrated by a gathering from March 13th to 15th of some 2,000 people at a centre run by the Tablighi Jamaat, a leading Muslim missionary movement, in the Nizamuddin West area of Delhi. Some of the attendees came from abroad and there was then a mass exodus to destinations across the country, spreading the virus.

This has triggered emotions against Muslims, and there has been a nationwide hunt to track down those who were at the conclave and people they have been with since they left Delhi. Over 9,000 people have been found  and quarantined so far, with some arrests for alleged misbehaviour. More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed linked to the event.

The government has launched a mobile app called Aarogya Setu (A Bridge of Health) to help people assess their risk of becoming infected and to alert authorities if they have come in close contact with those who are ill.

The auspicious 9

There has been widespread speculation about Modi’s choice of tomorrow (April 5th) for the celebration of lights. It coincides with Vamana Dwadashi, a Hindu festival when, pundits say, the candles and other lights will focus into a powerful beam and strike at the heart of the coronavirus. Also noted has been the coincidence of the auspicious figure nine – Modi made the announcement on the ninth day of the lockdown, calling for the vigil to begin at 9pm and last for nine minutes.

The prime minister’s three-week lockdown has undoubtedly had a major impact by curbing the spread of the virus so far, but it has hit an economy that is already in bad shape.

It runs out on April 14, and there seems to be widespread assumption that it will somehow be relaxed or even ended. Modi talked this week to chief ministers about formulating “a common exit strategy to ensure staggered re-emergence of the population once lockdown ends”.

It is difficult to see how that could to happen to any significant degree on the 14th – given India’s poor sanitation and health care, the risks would surely be too great. The huge challenge for Modi, and for governments in the states, is therefore to find ways of containing and managing the virus while getting some life back into the economy – and providing help for the poor – so that the daily system of life in India does not break down.

People follow Modi’s call to light candles and lamps in the fight against COVID 

April 5: People lit candles, torches and other lamps in homes and other buildings across India for nine minutes at 9pm tonight to highlight the country’s fight against coronavirus. There were inevitably gaps where nothing happened, but the widely reported country-wide display demonstrated the unique leadership appeal of Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who lit a ceremonial lamp in Delhi and was supported by official and party organisations elsewhere.

Once again Modi has shown that he has the pulse of the people and, tapping into Hindu philosophy, can win support and motivate people, not just in elections and battles with Pakistan, but in a human crisis.

PM-Modi-lighting-diyaIn some homes, it was the staff who led the moves, going to the gates of homes. Indians living abroad who support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party also joined in. Some people, it seems, really believed Modi had found a way to defeat the virus.

In some places fireworks sounded like a replay of the annual Diwali festival. Hindu devotional songs, mantras and national anthem were also played.

The numbers of confirmed cases in India continues to rise, now topping 3,500, and Modi is being criticised for constantly appealing to people to make sacrifices without saying enough about what the government can and will be doing. Yet last night, he won the support of the people.

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