Posted by: John Elliott | February 15, 2018

Delhi’s India Art Fair rises to the occasion

Key foreign galleries test the market 

South Asian art established as primary identity

Delhi’s annual India Art Fair has needed a clear identity after growing successfully for nine years into one of the country’s leading cultural jamborees. Last weekend that identity began to emerge with new direction, a strong Indian base, fresh international interest and a flood of fringe exhibitions and other events around India’s capital city. That should anchor it in the art world’s annual calendar, boosted by the owners of Art Basel being its biggest shareholder.

Many exhibitors reported good sales and reserves on the first pre-view afternoon (February 9) including, significantly, David Zwirner, a leading New York and London gallery (below) that came to the fair for the first time. If Zwirner had gone away unhappy, it would have damaged the fair’s foreign image and deterred others from abroad in future years – in the past big international names such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson and White Cube have not returned.

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A triptych by Sujan Dangol showing three generations’ symbolic objects of Nepalese consumption. Nepal Art Council.

There was also good news on the opening day from ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, which produced a report that said the South Asian market rose 13% in 2017 to an estimated $223m, driven by global auction sales up 17% to $118.2m, though the contemporary auction market remained weak.

Gallery sales within the region were estimated, on the basis of a partial survey, to have risen only 8% to $104.5m (including $81.1m in India), but this included strong contemporary sales with newer galleries allocating over 70% of their space to such works

Commenting on the success of contemporary art in galleries, Anders Pettersen, who runs ArtTactic, says that “auction houses show little confidence in this market, so by default contemporary art is sold through galleries, art fairs or online, though the it is still relatively modest”.    That was reflected in the fair, where many exhibitors showed contemporary works and relatively few offered (albeit impressive) works by India’s famous old Moderns such as S.H.Raza, Tyeb Mehta and F.N.Souza.

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Starry Pumpkin – fibreglass reinforced plastic and tile – by Yayoi Kusama, showing in India for the first time. David Zwirner gallery, London/NewYork

Many visitors however felt that there was nothing outstandingly memorable among the contemporary works.

That was despite some socially conscious paintings such as those by Nepalese, Gujarati and Assamese artists (above and below), and a humorous rendering of Mahatma Gandhi doing a selfie (below), plus a few quirky exhibits like a clever painting of a carpet, which looked so real that visitors strained to touch it.

Zwirner had sales and reserves ranging from etchings and screen prints at $10,000 up to major works around $650,000 (Rs4.3 crore) by artists who included Thomas Ruff, Yayoi Kusama, and James Welling. “We came to see what was possible. We have strengthened existing connections and made some new ones,” James Green, a Zwirner director, told me, indicating the gallery would be back next year.

Along with other Indian and foreign galleries, Zwirner was attracted by Art Basel’s owner, the Swiss MCH Group taking control late in 2016 with a 60.3% stake. Even more important for many however was the choice last August of Jagdip Jagpal, 53, (below) to succeed Neha Kirpal, the founder director.

Jagdip Jagpal IAF FinEx photoJagpal was brought up in London by Indian (Bengali and Punjabi) parents and has been an international programme manager at the UK’s Tate.

Till last year she was working in Manchester on a New North and South network to bring together arts organizations from South Asia and the UK. She decided last year, on her second visit to the fair, that she wanted to become the director.

“I’m proud of being Indian,” she told me. “We’ve focussed on Indian galleries to get those who haven’t been coming”. She allocated 70% of the space to South Asian galleries and applied strict criteria with firm guidance about the works on show, refusing to admit some 30 would-be exhibitors. “They mustn’t show stuff that hasn’t sold elsewhere so has been brought here,” she says. In total, the fair had 70 galleries, broadly the same as recent years, with some 420 artists.

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A triptyc by K.P.Reji from Baroda (Gujarat) depicting dissatisfaction with security forces.  The Guild, gallery, Mumbai

One of Jagpal’s leading fans is Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai and returned to the fair this time after staying away for four years. “We love her energy and that’s why we are here,” he told me. “Young Indians buyers are willing to buy challenging words at international market prices….it’s been our best year ever”.

The most flamboyant participant in the fair for the past few years has been the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), run by Ashish Anand, whose continually high expenditure causes wonderment among rivals, not least because of its gallery expansion to Mumbai and New York with rumoured plans for London.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary as a family business, DAG has had two brand-building exhibitions over the past week that have surpassed anything else on show. Navratna – Nine Gems at the art fair showed India’s “national treasure” artists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, and Rabindranath Tagore, while India’s French Connection at the Visual Arts Gallery in the Habitat Centre had works by 27 Indian artists who had studied or worked in France. They included Amrita Sher-Gil (again), S.H. Raza and Jehangir Sabavala. Also at the Habitat, DAG staged a series of events that included a lecture by Pablo Picasso’s grandson.

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The Reader by Anju Dodiya – acrylic on mattress 48” diameter. Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi

Other notable exhibitions on the fringe have included two by contemporary artists that are still open – a 50-year retrospective of Vivan Sundaram at the Kiran Nadar Museum, and gripping recent works by Anju Dodiya (right) staged at Bikaner House by the Vadehra Art Gallery.

At the end of the fair on February 12, a large number of galleries said they had sold well, or had reserve options on works that they expected to go through, though some of the first evening’s euphoria cooled.

One of the biggest deals I heard about involved a collection of five paintings by S.H.Raza dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, which a private Delhi buyer acquired from the Akar Prakar gallery of Kolkata and Delhi for an undisclosed sum.  Experimenter from Kolkata told the organisers it sold 80% of its works with buyers including Kiran Nadar’s art museum and Devi Art Foundation.

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Endangered – acrylic digital painting on canvas by Veer Munshi who also did the sculpture. Art District III gallery, New Delhi

Delhi galleries that told me about good sales included Gallery Espace, which sold a complete collection of recent small works by Manisha Gera Baswani on the first day for between Rs250,000 and Rs450,000.

Threshold said it had sold well in the Rs150,000-800,000 range, and Art Indus was successful between Rs120,000 and Rs300,000, having brought in lower priced works this year.

Higher up the price range, Art District XIII sold a new Veer Munshi painting of Kashmir (above) for around Rs700,000. Dhoomimal Gallery did “better than last year” with sales of its Moderns between Rs500,000 and Rs2m. Palette Art Gallery was “happy” with contemporary sales from Rs600,000 upwards.

Among the foreign galleries, Aicon from New York was “overall happy” (ie, not ecstatic) with several sales and reserves around Rs20,000-30,000, while Lukas Feichtner Galerie from Vienna did well on its second year at the fair with contemporary sales totalling Euro100,000. From Bahrain, Art Select was pleased with sales of five women artists’ paintings on its first visit.

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Sounds Good by Sachin Bonde, described as “dental pop, etching and collage on brass weighing scales” – a set of ten variable sizes. 1×1 Art Gallery, Dubai

Foreign galleries have not always been successful, sometimes because they brought Indian artists who were already in plentiful supply. Often it has also been because there has not been much Indian appetite for foreign works – many Indian collectors aim for whatever their friends and peers can recognise and admire on their walls, which steers them to Indian artists (mostly Moderns despite a brief surge a decade ago for contemporary works). This year however, partly because of guidance from Jagpal, they did better.

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Gandhi taking selfie with a cow by Debanjan Roy – painted fibreglass. Akar Prakar gallery, Kolkata

The ArtTactic report notes a swing from international to local auction houses with Moderns art sales at Christies, Sotheby’s and Bonhams being 22.5% lower than in 2016 while India’s Saffronart, AstaGuru and Pundole more than made up for the loss. The relatively less-known Asta Guru has emerged as the third largest auction house after Saffronart and Christie’s, beating Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

Now that the art fair is over, attention moves back to the famous old Moderns who dominate the top end of auctions, as they will do next month with auctions in New York, where both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have a Raza as their highest priced offering – Sotheby’s is called Ville Provenҫale and is expected to fetch more than $2.5m. Saffronart also has a live auction in Mumbai with a Tyeb Mehta work as its top lot.

Meanwhile Jagpal says she is starting work immediately on next year’s fair and is aiming to have the “concept” ready by the end of March. The exhibitors will be expecting greater success when they return, and visitors might welcome some more memorable examples of contemporary art.

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Sudipta Das with her Soaring to Nowhere installation hung from the ceiling. Depicting the displacement of refugees, it was bought by a London collector with four more editions available – Gallery Latitude 28, Delhi

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Posted by: John Elliott | February 1, 2018

India’s Budget aims for votes with “Modicare” for the poor

Preparing for general election that might come early

Congress beating BJP in Rajasthan elections

Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, today presented his annual Budget which was designed to help the Bharatiya Janata Party government win the next general election that is due by April next year but might be brought forward to the end of this year.

Jaitley’s broad aims in his last annual budget before the election were to show that the government cared for the less well off, and especially the rural poor, with a special focus on health and education where the government is strongly criticised for not having done enough since it was elected in 2014.

This lack of success has been underlined today with by-election results in Rajasthan  where the BJP is in power. The Congress Party has won two parliamentary seats and one state assembly seat, defeating BJP candidates. In West Bengal, the regional Trinamool Congress has won an assembly and a parliamentary seat.

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Arun Jaitley arriving at Parliament

Delivering his almost-two-hour speech for the first time partly in Hindi (the language favoured by prime minister Narendra Modi and most other of the Hindu nationalist government’s ministers), Jaitley set out five aims: to strengthen agriculture and the rural economy, improve health care for the less well off, provide help for the aged, boost infrastructure construction, and improve education in conjunction with the states.

The annual Economic Survey which was published on January 29, helped him by forecasting that the rate of economic growth will rise from 6.75% to 7.2-7.5% in the next financial year. Jaitley said the country was “firmly on course” to exceed 8%. This was because the country is emerging from a slow-down triggered by the chaotic and disruptive implementation of the demonetisation of bank notes 15 months ago and the new goods and services tax (GST) last summer.

More tax payers

The survey said that GST had triggered a “50% increase in unique indirect taxpayers” which led to “3.4 million new indirect taxpayers” and an additional 1.8m individual tax papers (adding 3% to the total). However a majority of the people’s total earnings are below the tax threshold.

The finance minister is being criticised for allowing the fiscal deficit to reach 3.5% this year against a target of 3.2%, and for aiming at 3.3% in 2018-19, which many commentators considered unlikely to be achieved. There is general concern about increased spending, but the main worry is that many of the proposals and schemes announced will not be adequately implemented,

“Modicare” health insurance

The headline announcement was a National Health Protection Scheme to provide the poor with insurance to access private sector health care without building up sizeable debts. The plan is to roll it out in the next six months and eventually to cover 100m poor and vulnerable families – an estimated 500m people, 40% of the population.

The government will provide up to Rs500,000 (US$7,800) a year per family for private sector secondary and tertiary level care. Jaitley said this would be the world’s largest government-funded healthcare programme, but critics commented that it would create a government-funded bonanza for private sector insurance and healthcare companies.

“If we manage to reach even 10 crore Indians, the world will consider Modicare more successful than Obamacare,” Jaitley said in a television interview.

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Prime minister Modi applauding during the speech

Perhaps the most unpopular budget initiative for the well off is the introduction of a 10% capital gains tax on stock market investments held for more than a year and exceeding Rs100,000 (US$1,560) – there is already a 15% tax on short-term investments of under a year.

Jaitley’s budget has been criticised for not doing enough on job creation at a time when, according to one official estimate, educated unemployment may be as high as 20%. The survey is trying to improve the jobs outlook by including occupations in what is called the informal sector.

On other points, Jaitley said the Government “take all measures to eliminate use” of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, which it did not consider legal tender. It would however explore use of the crypto-currencies’ block chain technology to boost the digital economy.

A billion flights a year

Among his more ambitious targets, he said that the country’s airports’ capacity would be increased five-fold with a target “to handle a billion trips a year” – though he did not say when this would be achieved. Currently, the Airports Authority of India runs 124 airports and there are a few private sector operators.

In a protectionist move aimed at boosting India-made goods and encouraging companies to manufacture in India, he announced an increase from 15% to 20% in customs duty on mobile phones and a rate of 15% for televisions.

On defence, Jaitley announced yet another initiative to increase India’s at present low level of defence manufacturing with the promise of what will be the latest in a long series of defence industrial policies. The aim would be “to promote the domestic defence sector by investment from private and public sector”. The only change here is that the public sector is being mentioned as well as the private sector, which might reduce opposition from the defence establishment.

On railways, which have been hit by a series of serious crashes and accidents, Jaitley promised that “focus will be on safety, maintenance of railway tracks, increase in use of technology and fog safety devices”, plus the installation of escalators and railway station wi-fi connectivity.

General election timing

Indications that the general election might be brought forward came earlier this week. In his annual address to parliament, India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, echoed the views of Modi and the BJP’s 2014 manifesto that assembly elections should take place simultaneously with national polls to cut costs and reduce the negative impact that constant electioneering has on government policy making.

If Modi goes ahead with this proposal in the coming months, and organises a constitutional amendment, the next national election could be brought forward from next April to around the turn of the year along with various assembly polls including key states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan that are due by next January.

Overall, the budget has caused little excitement. Modi said during a long television statement that it would “bring new opportunities for rural India”, but that will depend on the government’s dubious ability to implement what it has announced. There is widespread scepticism about this happening, for example on education and health.

Modi and his ministers are regarded as being strong on the razzmatazz of announcements and special schemes, but weak on making them happen. That needs to change, if Modi is to avoid a difficult general election, whenever it comes.

Posted by: John Elliott | January 21, 2018

China expands its reach and meets little resistance

“Congagement” suggested as a solution

China is gradually moving to a position where it will play an increasingly dominant role in the world’s international affairs, disrupting established institutions and trade routes and building its own alternatives – and most of the rest of the world has little idea how to respond except to try to persuade it not to be too disruptive.

That is a broad-brush take from the Raisina Dialogue, a high level two-day conference on Managing Disruptive Transitions that was held in Delhi last week by the Observer Research Foundation, one of India’s leading think tanks, with the country’s foreign ministry.

In session after session, there was worry and consternation about the disruption caused both by China’s assumption that it can unilaterally claim authority over Asia’s sea lanes, and by its presence in the Indian Ocean and its spread of ports in the region and elsewhere

“The Chinese already have a naval base in Djibouti and we’re aware of their base in Hambantota,” said Admiral Sunil Lanba, the Indian Navy’s chief of staff, referring to a Chinese naval base on the Horn of Africa and a port in Sri Lanka. “This is going to be the pattern for the future”.

There was also almost universal concern that China’s multi-billion dollar One Belt One Road (OBOR – also called Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) economic, trading, transport and pipeline infrastructure plan linking Asia and Europe is trampling on countries’ economies, institutions and security.

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Narendra Modi with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who made the inaugural speech at the Raisina Dialogue

The US and India have boycotted the OBOR, which was dubbed “one belt one trap” by Theresa Fallon of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Studies. She cited the loss-making $1.3bn Hambantota port that was built with Chinese bank loans and opened in 2010 but has little business. Sri Lanka has been unable to repay the debt and last July had to sign the port over to Beijing on a 99-year lease, a move that has been seen by critics as an invasion of sovereignty. There are fears of similar China takeovers elsewhere on the OBOR.

Vijay Gokhale, a senior Indian diplomat who becomes the country’s foreign secretary at the end of this month, pinpointed the worries. At the start of a session called Contested Connectivity he posed a series of questions that assumed negative answers: “Is the process demand-driven? Is the process consultative? Does the process allow for fair and open competition? Does the process build on multilateral frameworks that already exist, and is the process consonant with principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity?”.

Gokhale advocated fair and open competition for construction contracts – a point that stems from China insisting that most of the OBOR work is carried out by Chinese companies, which restricts the benefit for the host countries.

Infrastructure needed

There was a hint that American private sector companies welcome the OBOR because of the increased trade that it will generate, filling a vast multi-billion dollar gap in infrastructure funding. Nisha Biswal, a former US State Department diplomat who now heads the US India Business Council (USIBC), said the question should be how all societies would benefit from increased connectivity “serving the interests of the many”.

For India, the other key issue at the conference was cross-border terrorism from China’s ally Pakistan, which linked with general concern at the conference about growing terror worldwide. India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj called terrorism “the mother of all disruptions”.

Well-connected experts speculated whether President Donald Trump’s recent confrontational suspension of US aid and security assistance to Pakistan would worsen rather than curb the Pakistani army’s and intelligence service’s support for international terrorist organisations. China is stepping into the aid and power vacuum left by the US and some people hoped privately that it would restrain Pakistan because it would not want an escalation of terrorism from what India’s foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, neatly dubbed “ungoverned spaces”.

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There was plenty of experience, clout and brains at the conference, including navy chiefs (above) from the four “Quad” countries – Japan,  Australia, India and the US – that have formed a alternative (containment) grouping to China’s OBOR, plus army chiefs from India and the UK. Foreign, defence and security ministers and their deputies from Iran, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Australia, Singapore, the US and India mixed with a galaxy of ambassadors past and present.

Then there were former leaders and officials, including former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, and retired US general David Petraeus. And of course there were think tankers galore populating the extended days – breakfast sessions started at 9am and night-caps “over kahwa” (Kashmiri tea) ran from 10.30pm.

As so often happens at such gatherings, the discussions were, for many people, an end in themselves. “I think we identified the issues well” was a typical refrain.

“Congagement”

None of this stellar roll call of international experts had any real solutions. When I put that at the end of the conference to Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran former US ambassador, he advocated “congagement”, which he wrote about earlier this year. China should be “engaged” and encouraged to participate in existing institutions, laws and treaties. At the same time, countries concerned about China’s expansionism should try to “contain” its reach with fresh alliances and alignments. He acknowledged that the advent of China’s President Xi Jinping meant that the balance needed to be increasingly tilted towards containment.

The gradualist engagement approach was implicitly condemned just as the conference ended by Trump’s administration, which criticised the terms on which America had supported China entering the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Those terms had “proven to be ineffective in securing China’s embrace of an open, market-orientated trade regime”. Trump told Reuters earlier in the week that he was considering a big “fine” against Beijing for forcing US companies to transfer their intellectual property to China if they wanted to do business there.

Some of the best sense was talked by visitors from two countries in China’s immediate arc of influence. Patti Djalal, a former Indonesian ambassador to the US and one of the most practical of the think-tanker speakers, said that China’s rise could not be checked, so it needed to be accommodated peacefully with the country being engaged strategically.

That meant finding a way to present the US-Australia-Japan-India “Quad” not as a rival or adversarial response to China’s OBOR (which is what has been done), but as a co-operative connectivity plan

Paucity of Ideas

There was, said Djalal, a “paucity of ideas” about how to move to the next level on China. “Strategic ego” was a stumbling block – when China offered the OBOR, the US wouldn’t join in because joining would be accepting China’s leadership. “On one hand, we need regional architecture. On the other, major powers can’t make that strategic leap”.

Australia’s navy chief, Vice Admiral Tim Barret, warned against a lack of direction and co-ordination: “There’s a plethora of fora. An emphasis on info-sharing. A multitude of exercises, most relatively simple”. But, he warned, “an abundance of arrangements, poorly managed or not aligned, produces dilution of practical outcomes.”

India’s current and future foreign secretaries, both former ambassadors in Beijing, took a broader view and even saw some benefit in China’s rise. Jaishankar, who gives up the post at the end of this month, acknowledged: “We need to have a balanced view. Certainly, for India, in some ways China has been a motivator and an example.”

But he warned that China’s emergence was not just that of another world power but of a “very different power” that was “challenging the international order”.

Gokhale saw the 21st century as a “tipping point” in history with the re-emergence of India and China as the world’s globally large economies. Without mentioning China or the OBOR, he put them in a historical perspective, saying that connectivity had been a “hot topic” for centuries with the Roman Empire, the Suez Canal, and the sea routes of the Portuguese and Spanish all benefitting certain civilisations and countries.

Finally, he asked rhetorically: “What is the rest of the world going to do to ensure that there is a certain rule setting, and that rule setting globally is not disrupted because any one country or any group of countries decides it has its own set of rules and then proceeds regardless”.

He didn’t of course get an answer, but at least the questions had been asked.

this article appears on the Asia Sentinel website 

Chief Justice of India under attack by his peers

Four of the five most senior judges in India’s Supreme Court last Friday held an unprecedented press conference to complain about their colleague, Dipak Misra, the Chief Justice of India. At first glance it looked like a spat between ageing legal minds angry at being side-lined during the allocation of cases by their boss, who they insist is not the boss but just the first among equals.

The event hit media headlines and stirred up political controversy because judges had never before gone so public with grievances. Their complaint – about the allocation of major cases and alleged government influence – was also significant because it comes at a time when Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata government is being accused of having little respect for key institutions that underpin India’s democracy. Amit Shah, the BJP president, was involved in one of the cases cited by the four.

The judges were back in their courts on the morning of January 15, seemingly working as if nothing untoward had happened. There were however tensions, though official statements were issued that all was “back to normal”. Efforts were made by both the government and the legal establishment over the weekend to play down the importance of Friday’s eruption, and also to shift attention by blaming the four judges for undermining the reputation of the judiciary.

The row has been simmering for some time and will not be so easily dismissed. Four months ago, the four judges wrote a letter to Misra, which they issued publicly last Friday, complaining about the way that cases were being allocated. The chief justice is regarded as the first among equals but, as “master of the roster”, has the right to decide on the allocation, subject to a convention that nationally important and sensitive cases are given to the most senior and experienced of the court’s 25 judges.

SupCt judges pc

The basic complaint of the four (above) is that Misra has been giving cases to junior judges who, though the four did not specify this, are either loyal to the BJP government or can be influenced – corruption has spread across the judiciary in recent years including the top court.

The letter to Misra, who is due to retire in October, complained that there “have been instances where case having far-reaching consequences for the Nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rationale basis for such assignment”.

The real issue has been spelt out by an outspoken senior Supreme Court lawyer, Dushyant Dave, to a leading news website. He has said the protest reflected “frustration on the part of the senior judges at the conduct and behaviour of the Chief Justice of India in dishing out matters of public importance and political sensitivity to a chosen few, who will decide only in favour of the government, the BJP and the RSS, and who will not independently decide those matters.”

Death of a judge

Dave said he knew of 50 other instances where leaders of opposition political parties’ cases were dismissed, while “matters affecting the current government and the political party in power” were sent “to certain judges to see that they (the government of the day and the political party in power) benefit”.

One of the four judges said that their press conference had been prompted by issues surrounding the death of a judge, B.H.Loya, in December 2014. Loya was hearing a case over the alleged killing of a gangster in a “fake encounter” in 2005. Among the defendants was Amit Shah, now the BJP president, who was accused by the Central Bureau of Investigation of ordering the killing when he was Gujarat’s home minister (and Modi was the state’s chief minister). The case was dismissed after it was taken over by another judge.

Dipak Misra CJIThere has been continuing controversy over the cause of Loya’s death, which was recorded a cardiac arrest.

Loya’s family was reported to have alleged that he had been offered a substantial bribe shortly before he died, and there continue to be conflicting reports and testimonies involving doctors, police and others about what happened when he was taken ill.

A court headed by the chief justice last week admitted a public interest petition asking for an inquiry into the matter, but then allotted it to the tenth most senior of supreme court’s judges, not to the most senior and experienced. The four judges met Misra (above) and complained and, after he failed to meet their demands, held their press conference.

On January 15, Loya’s 21 year old son,appeared at a media conference closely flanked by two lawyers. Unexpectedly, he said that the family accepted his father’s death was natural and asked for the public debates to end. His appearance however caused more controversy with allegations that he was not reflecting the family’s views.

Other controversial cases, involving alleged bribes, include judgements given by Misra on appeals by a medical institute that had been barred, along with others, from admitting students. That case is still in the courts.

Of more political significance, Misra was the judge who ordered in November 2016 the playing of the national anthem in cinemas to “instill committed patriotism and nationalism” – an initiative that fitted with the government’s nationalist and authoritarian approach. Two months ago however, he changed his mind and, along with two other judges, said it was not compulsory, which the government supported.

The reputation of the judiciary has been declining in recent years because of increasing corruption at all levels. Dushyant Dave told the news website that “ the higher judiciary, corruption, political interference are destroying judicial independence for quite some time, which has always been kept under the wraps, unfortunately, due to weak bars and an even weaker press”.

Government attempts to influence the judiciary are also not new though, lawyers say, they have not blown up so seriously since the mid-1970s State of Emergency ordered by prime minister Indira Gandhi.

It is too soon to forecast how this will play out. What is clear however is that the BJP, for whatever reason, does not want an inquiry into Loya’s death, and is resisting Congress Party demands for one.

Two pro-government English language television channels are this evening running long programmes aimed at rubbishing suggestions that there was anything controversial about the death, and attacking lawyers and others who want an judicial inquiry. Medical records have been discovered that are aid to show Loya did die of a heart attack.

All of which leads to the question of why the BJP and the government are so concerned!

 

Posted by: John Elliott | January 14, 2018

Cleaning the Ganges is a Metaphor for India

“River of Life, River of Death – the Ganges and India’s Future”  By Victor Mallet.   Oxford University Press 

India’s River Ganges is a mess. The great and awe-inspiring sacred Ganga, as it is generally known, is revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus who foul its waters and assume that all will be well, however awful and health-endangering it becomes.

That in many ways is the story of modern India, a country that manages to be awe-inspiring and brilliant, but is also frequently dysfunctional, defying most efforts to make it work better.

The challenge for an author is how to combine a study of all the enormous potential and the failings of this magical and frustrating country, and to explain how people tolerate the faults but do little to improve them, while making the most of what is available.

Successive foreign correspondents based in India have tackled this in different ways, mostly with broadly based surveys of political economic and social life, but with an increasing emphasis in recent years on the negatives.

Victor Mallet, a widely experienced Financial Times journalist who is now the paper’s Hong Kong-based Asia news editor, has chosen a neat solution by writing about the Ganges after spending four years in Delhi as his newspaper’s South Asia correspondent.

River of Life....He has explored the 2,525 km river’s history, religion, economics, industry, environmental and health issues, and the people, while using it as a metaphor to explain how India functions, or doesn’t. Politics comes in too because Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, has failed so far to fulfil his 2014 promise to clean the river that Hindus both revere and pollute.

A keen yachtsman, Mallet first developed an interest in the river when he spotted an image on a Delhi map of a sailing boat in a red circle – the universal sign for a yacht marina. It is in an industrial zone called Okhla on the banks of Delhi’s (filthy) Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges.

There he found “an immaculately kept building and garden called the Defence Services Sailing Club” with sailing dinghies nearly stacked on racks. “It was obvious that the boats were rarely used. The caretaker confirmed it. The reason was there in front of the club: the stinking, foamy black filth that was once a river”.

After explaining how the Ganges was portrayed in India’s legends and paintings “as a natural paradise of lilies, turtles and fish” where “the cheerful god Krishna would play his flute amid a troupe of adoring female cow herds”, Mallet reports that “the water at Okhla is so polluted by human waste that it contains nearly half a million times the maximum level of faecal coliform bacteria established as the Indian standard for bathing water”.

That is a good introduction to modern India, enabling the author to show in the first two pages of his preface why the Ganga is such a great vehicle for exploring all the contradictions of a country that could be a world leader but somehow is not (yet?) getting there. As he travels, he meets a contrasting series of people from Saffron-clad Hindu priests to engineers and well-meaning environmental activists, and from tannery businessmen and bureaucrats to ashram devotees.

Superbug River

The most horrifying part of the book is a chapter headed “Superbug River”. Many of us living in Delhi (and elsewhere in India) tolerate air pollution many times above safe limits, as well as undrinkable tap water, because we are protected by purifying filters in our homes and offices.

Mallet however uncovers much worse health hazards in the Ganges, saying that people are liable to pick up a recently discovered bacterial gene that can make various diseases highly resistant to antibiotics.

He stumbled on the gene, known to scientists as NDM-1, while researching “normal” pollutants such as sewage and industrial waste. “It only takes a short visit and exposure to acquire such genes in your gut,” he was told in Britain by an environmental engineering professor. As Mallet notes, this is a politically sensitive matter – Indian officials and doctors “were furious” when The Lancet medical journal in 2010 named the new gene NDM after New Delhi.

Devout Hindus, says Mallet, are unwittingly spreading diseases, and antibiotic resistance to diseases, in the very river to which they have come to pay homage. Water samples have demonstrated that what are usually regarded as the relatively pristine reaches of the upper Ganges near Haridwar suffer surges of bacterial pollution during visits by thousands of urban Indians during the May-June pilgrimage season.

Throughout the book, the Ganges is the main focus but, along the way, there are many other subjects and issues ranging from the poisoning of vultures and a state government suggesting the use of cow urine as a hospital disinfectant, to corruption among water tanker drivers (and others), and India’s desperate need for jobs that Modi’s Make in India campaign cannot begin to solve.

Modi was elected in 2014 both to change the way that India is run by making the machinery of government cleaner, more effective, and less bureaucratic, and to create jobs and opportunities for the aspirational young. Make in India is one of a myriad of high profile schemes that he has launched to try to inject focus and drive into a somnolent government, but it is difficult as yet to assess how much has actually been achieved as a result of all the razzmatazz.

Varanasi

Modi’s pledge to clean the Ganges and reverse the failure of many earlier attempts can however be assessed, especially at the holy city of Varanasi which he chose as his parliamentary constituency. Little seems to have been achieved in the city apart from some beautification of the ghats on the Ganges banks.

Varanasi’s disillusioned residents reminded Mallet about Modi’s televised launch of a plan to clean tonnes of mud off the city’s famous Assi Ghat, and criticised the lack of progress on the more important problem of sewage. Such cosmetic projects were like “putting lipstick on a woman with a dirty sari”.

Curiously, Modi made Uma Bharti, a religious activist and politician the minister in charge of water, and thus the Ganges. Mallet says “she appeared more interested in proving the existence 5,000 to 6,000 years ago of the extinct Saraswati River… than in solving the very real crisis facing the contemporary Ganges.”  That demonstrates one of the Modi government’s limitations – that several ministers and leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party are more interested in Hindu religion and mythology (and nationalism) than they are in building a strong nation that works.

Mallet is however too optimistic about the prospect of the Ganges being cleaned. He cites great and well-organised religious festivals like the Kumbh Melas, which bring millions of worshippers to the Ganges, as examples of even the most corrupt state governments being able to perform. “Good organisation and efficient infrastructure, in short, are no more impossible in India than anywhere else,” he declares.

This misses the point that the Kumbh Melas are one-off events where a single official is given overall charge without political interference (though politicians are quick to claim credit when all goes well). There are other similar examples, such as the building of the Golden Quadrilateral highways around India 15 years ago and the construction of the Delhi Metro railway. In each case, politicians stood aside and left officials to get on with the job – and there was overwhelming support for what was being done.

Sadly, that is unlikely to work with cleaning the Ganges because there are too many interests and the project is neither time-bound like a Kumbh Mela nor of clear immediate benefit like a metro or highway.

Cleaning the Ganges is therefore a perfect metaphor for modernising India. The task, as this well-researched book shows with its detailed reporting, is just too huge and too complex for quick solutions. And that is something Modi is discovering with a general election which is due by April next year but could happen earlier.

This review first appeared on Asia Sentinel news website

Posted by: John Elliott | December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

to all my blog readers – do keep coming back next year!

Christmas card IMG_2540

Posted by: John Elliott | December 18, 2017

BJP holds Gujarat and wins Himachal Pradesh

Modi has failed to get the 2019 general election boost he wanted

Rahul Gandhi has made a good start as Congress president

Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to two victories in regional assembly elections. He has extended the party’s rule in his home state of Gujarat for the sixth consecutive term after 22 years in power, which is a rare achievement. The BJP has also won in the small northern state of Himachal Pradesh, ousting a Congress government.

The Gujarat result however is almost a personal defeat for Modi in his home state, and it does not give him the springboard he hoped for to sweep on victorious through state elections next year and the general election in March-April 2019.

Unusually for a prime minister, Modi held 34 rallies in Gujarat to boost the flagging record of the BJP state government, but the party has won only 99 seats, well below the 115  that it won in 2012. The 99 is around ten seats  below the figure BJP leaders had been expecting and far below the 150 total that Amit Shah, the ebullient party chairman, had boastingly forecast.

Rahul Gandhi at election campaignIn the same way, this result  is a success for Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress president (left). He has not led his party to victory, but his campaigning, which included 30 rallies, shows his potential as a leader and has boosted the Congress seat tally from 60 in 2012 to 77.

In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP’s victory with 44 seats against 21 for Congress, was expected because the outgoing Congress chief minister is facing serious corruption allegations.

It is significant that Modi, although he remains his party star campaigner, was not able to overcome considerable opposition to the BJP in Gujarat. This opposition has arisen because of a lack of development by the state level in recent years, and because of the way that Modi’s nation-wide demonetisation blitz, and a new sales tax (GST), has hit small traders and business whose cash-based transactions are often outside the tax net.

The BJP did well in urban areas such as Ahmedabad, the state capital, and even in Surat where diamond traders and textile businesspeople were expected to vote against the BJP.

Modi after voting

The main Congress support has come from agricultural areas where small faming communities are dissatisfied with the state government’s record on infrastructure, especially water supplies. That is where the personal reputation of Modi was least effective and where anti-government feeling was energised by three minority groups, one led by a 24-year old member of the large Patidar community, Hardik Patel.

Modi has been criticised for his style of campaigning, personally attacking the Congress, Rahul Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh, and raising the spectre of trouble from neighbouring Pakistan. If anything, Modi raised Gandhi’s profile with his barbs.

Early on in the campaign, he veered away from his usual proud focus on vikas (development) after he realised how dissatisfied the electorate was with the BJP state government’s performance.

Modi reverses 2014 campaign role

That was a curious reversal of what happened in the 2014 general election campaign when Gandhi and other Congress leaders, with no vision, lost votes by focussing on scare tactics about Modi and the BJP,  whereas Modi had a positive message about economic growth and development in the future and won. This time, with an amazing error of judgement, Modi attacked Rahul and the Gandhi family but had no vision about the future of Gujarat and lost seats to Congress.

Modi has also been criticised for the way that the Election Commission, which till now has been one of India’s most respected impartial and incorruptible institutions, has appeared to bend to his will. It delayed announcing dates for the Gujarat election after it declared them for Himachal, thus leaving time for Modi to announce a package of economic measures for the state, along with changes to the GST which helped traders. He then broke election rules by staging a virtual road show (photo above) after he cast his vote on December 14.

Governments always try to pack the Commission’s ruling body with supporters, but do not usually exploit them to such a degree. Modi’s critics say this illustrates that he has little respect for India’s institutions, which he is prepared to undermine in pursuit of his personal leadership objectives.

“Medieval past”   

Rahul Gandhi launched an outspoken attack on Modi during his presidential acceptance speech on December 16. In an oblique reference to attacks on Muslims and killing of people suspected of easting beef or transporting sacred cows, he said Modi was “taking us backwards to a medieval past where people are butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat”. Such “ugly violence shames us in the world”.

The big question now is how Modi will react to his failure to achieve the sweeping victory in Gujarat that he and Shah wanted. The BJP is likely to face tougher opposition when it tries to defeat Congress in Karnataka and be re-elected in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Modi is also targeting three smaller states in the north east of the country where the BJP has little standing – he was campaigning there over the weekend.

Modi has this evening stressed development but he needs to focus much more on jobs and economic growth, and on trying to ensure that the myriad of social and development schemes that he has launched become effective. The temptation will be to fall back on the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rallying cry of anti-Muslim Hindutva and issues such as banning the eating of beef and extreme displays of nationalism.

He will probably go for both, which means watching to see whether what Gandhi dubbed the “medieval past” becomes more prominent as 2019 approaches.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 14, 2017

Exit polls give Narendra Modi’s BJP victory in Gujarat

Rahul Gandhi pushes Congress vote up a forecast 10 seats 

Exit poll in Himachal Pradesh shows BJP defeating Congress

Exit polls published by television channels indicate that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is holding on to power in his home state of Gujarat. Most show it winning  in the range of 105-125 seats compared with the 115 it had in the last election in 2012. This is in line with the widely predicted result and would mean that the BJP’s ambitions significantly to increase the 2012 tally have failed.

The polls mostly indicate that Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party has won in the range of 65-75 seats, adding five to 15 seats to 2012’s total of 61. If correct, this would mean that  Gandhi has managed to have an impact on the votes, though not as significantly as the party had hoped.

This modest Congress success would however have to be set against the polls suggesting that the party  is facing a devastating defeat in the northern hill state of Himachal Pradesh, with the BJP seizing power for the first time with 47 to 55 seats against Congress’s 13-20. The outgoing Congress chief minister is facing serious corruption allegations which will have affected voting.

PM Modi casts his vote in Gujarat

The votes in both states will be counted on December 18 and, if the exit polls are correctly forecasting clear BJP victories, the results should be known soon after midday. Such polls can of course be wrong because they depend on voters telling the truth when they leave election centres!

The last day of voting on December 14 in Gujarat was marred by a controversy over Modi ignoring Election Commission rules by  staging a virtual road show after he cast his vote (above). The prime minister’s critics see this as evidence of his lack of respect for India’s established institutions, though there are also other allegations of less dramatic rule-breaking, including Gandhi taking part in a television interview.

The Election Commission has reported that the voter turnout in Gujarat was 68%, down from 71.3% in 2012. This supports the likelihood of the BJP staying in power because there has not been the surge in voting that usually indicates a desire for a change of government.

After 22 years of BJP rule in Gujarat, with Modi as a widely-praised chief minister from 2001 to 2014, the prime minister’s aim has been to show that his populist vote-pulling power remains strong enough for the party to achieve the considerable feat of being voted back for a sixth term in office.

For Gandhi, who will formally take over from his mother Sonia Gandhi as Congress president on December 16, the aim has been to demonstrate that he is now capable of reviving the party’s flagging prospects and propelling it to victory in 2019.

If the exit polls are correct, Modi will have succeeded in rescuing the BJP from the failings of the state government while Gandhi will have taken the first steps in establishing himself as a viable Congress president.

SEE ALSO: Gujarat election used by Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to boost national ambitions

Congress unlikely to have dramatic state assembly win it hopes for

Gujarati pride in Modi being prime minister looks like saving the BJP

For past few weeks the two leaders of India’s main political parties have been slugging it out in the western state of Gujarat as if they were engaged in a national general election campaign. They have both been fighting for their political futures, using the state’s current assembly election as the springboard for India’s next general election in March-April 2019.

Gujarat is the home state of prime minister Narendra Modi where his Bharatiya Janata Party has ruled for 22 years and he was a widely-praised chief minister from 2001 to 2014. His aim in the current election campaign has been to ensure that the BJP does not win fewer than the 116 seats in the 182-seat assembly that it won in the last election in 2012, and maybe adds significantly to that number.

The other top leader is Rahul Gandhi, who has gained that ranking this week by being confirmed as president of the Congress Party, a post he will take over from his mother Sonia Gandhi on December 16.

His aim has been to demonstrate that, after years of shirking responsibility and failing to emerge as a political leader, he is now capable of reviving the party’s flagging prospects and propelling it to victory in 2019. In Gujarat, that means reducing the BJP’s majority in the assembly by significantly increasing the 60 seats that Congress won in 2012.

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Rahul Gandhi prays in one of many Hindu temples he has visited in Gujarat in recent months

After a two-day visit to Gujarat this week, my assessment is that Gandhi has failed in the campaign, which officially closed last night (tomorrow is the second and final day of voting) dramatically to increase Congress’s position. The party will almost certainly gain a few seats, but probably not enough to embarrass Modi – though the BJP certainly will not win the 150 seats extravagantly claimed by Amit Shah, the party’s president.

Experienced journalists and other observers in the state ducked giving me forecasts, saying the election was too uncertain to call. At least one opinion poll has forecast a surge for Congress though, of the four polls conducted in December, two have the BJP winning 134 seats and two say 102.

The first signs of any surprises will come when exit polls are announced tomorrow (Dec 13) evening. The count takes place on December 18.

My assessment is primarily based on the most convincing argument I heard in Gujarat – that Modi is regarded by voters as their man, who they are proud to have sent to Delhi as prime minister. They do not want to do anything to harm his national standing and thus reduce his chances of winning again in the next general election.

This is despite undoubted widespread dissatisfaction with the current Gujarat state government, which has failed to perform well on development and social issues under two chief ministers since Modi moved to Delhi in 2014. After 22 years, many voters believe it is time for a change, but will not abandon Modi.

Demonetisation and GST

It is also despite the fact that there is anger in some areas about Modi’s controversial policies of demonetisation last November, when he cancelled 86% of bank notes overnight, and a new sales tax (GST) that he introduced in July as a breakthrough equivalent only to India’s declaration  of independence from Britain in 1947.

Both demonetisation and GST were badly implemented.  Across the country, they have seriously disrupted traders’ and other small businesses’ traditionally informal cash-based and tax-free transactions. In Gujarat, there is widespread resentment, especially in the western city of Surat, which is a diamond and textile centre, and in Saurashtra, where the BJP is believed to have done badly in the first phase of voting on December 9.

Local issues have played little part in the election campaign, despite Gandhi’s attempts to play up the state government’s failings with a 50-page development-oriented election manifesto. He has tried to highlight issues such as water supply shortages, and secondary and higher education which is predominantly supplied expensively by the private sector.

Gandhi has managed for the first time to relate well to vast crowds at rallies, showing humour and sensitivity that has often been missing in the past. Observers say that the Congress party’s organisation in the state has also improved considerably and that, for the first time in many years, the party has been making a concerted effort to win. Strangely, that is reported not to have been so earlier when Ahmed Patel, an MP and Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, played a leading role in the organisation.

modi-on-seaplane

Narendra Modi left Ahmedabad yesterday in a seaplane as a publicity stunt

Gandhi has however sometimes got his facts wrong, for instance suggesting that a Tata Motors factory set up with generous state government loans to produce the company’s unsuccessful Nano car was closing – it is producing a successful new model. He has a reputation for failing to master and understand a brief, and this has been evident at various times during the campaign.

Modi and other BJP politicians abandoned his usual focus on vikas (development) as a rallying cry when he realised how dissatisfied the electorate was with the BJP state government’s performance.

He then focussed on praising his own record and personally denigrating Gandhi. He also turned to populist gambits, raising the spectre of Pakistan (which borders Gujarat) as a threat – something the BJP has often done in past election campaigns when worried about voting intentions.

Pakistan Congress collusion

After former Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh attended a private dinner given in Delhi last week for a former Pakistan foreign minister, Modi unrealistically alleged that Pakistan was colluding with Congress to bring down the BJP in Gujarat.

He seemed to have no worries about dramatically lowering the tone of the political campaign and breaking convention by implicitly denigrating a respected former prime minister, presumably believing that the line would win the BJP voter support.

He also mocked Gandhi for suddenly visiting a large number of Hindu temples, which Gandhi had done in order to counter the BJP’s appeal as a Hindu-focussed party.

If hyper-activity is sometimes a sign of both a desperation to win and a fear of defeat, then Modi’s frenetic saturation of Gujarat with political rallies and speeches must indicate that the BJP was worried about losing more than a handful of seats to Gandhi’s energetic campaign.

In a final publicity flourish, Modi left Ahmedabad yesterday from the city’s Sabarmati River in a seaplane – an aircraft so rarely seen in India that one newspaper carried a description of  what it is. Gandhi mocked the flight as a gimmick but, for Gujarat voters, it was probably yet another example of what can be achieved by their former chief minister.

If his populist tactics have worked, Modi will have succeeded in rescuing the BJP from the failings of the state government. What is not so clear is whether Congress is doing well enough for Gandhi to have begun to establish himself as a viable Congress president.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 4, 2017

Rahul Gandhi finally to be Congress president

The “pop-up” crown prince accepts his inheritance

First test is current election in BJP stronghold of Gujarat 

At last the years of waiting are over. Rahul Gandhi, the 47-year old “pop up” vice president of India’s Congress Party, is being elected – anointed would be more accurate – as the party president. Nominations for the post closed this afternoon with no rival candidate emerging and generations of top Congress politicians gathered in the party’s headquarters to congratulate the “young” Gandhi, who has been resisting his coronation for years.

Later this month, when the formalities are completed, Rahul Gandhi will succeed his mother Sonia, who will be 71 on December 9 and is not in good health. She has held the post for 19 years, waiting for him to be ready and willing to inherit the dynastic mantle of his father and her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991.

raga-president--story_647_120417122318

Rahul Gandhi signing his nomination with Manmohan Singh watching (left) and Jyotiraditya Scindia advising (right)

Rahul Gandhi’s succession has been widely mocked and criticised for its lack of democracy and the inevitability of his rise during a laborious and long-delayed country-wide candidate-selection process without any other contestants stepping forward. Prime minister Narendra Modi today congratulated the Congress on their “Aurangzeb Raj”, a caustic reference to the undemocratic succession of India’s Mughal rulers.

“Rahul has been the darling of the Congress men and Congress women and this is yet another step in his devotion to the Congress party and country,” former prime minister Manmohan Singh (above), 85, told a television reporter in a remark that seemed unnecessarily eulogistic but in fact echoed the views of most Congress politicians who believe the party would break up without a Gandhi at the top.

How well Rahul Gandhi does or does not do as party leader – and many expect a negative rather than a positive outcome – is of vital importance for the future of Indian politics and the country’s noisy and chaotic but effective democracy.

If he emerges from the ineffectual role he has played since he entered politics in 2004, the Congress could again become a major force, working with other mostly regional opposition parties to challenge the dominant Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But if he fails, political opposition to the BJP and prime minister Narendra Modi will remain fragmented, and Congress itself could gradually implode.

rahul-Gandhi-pranab-PTI-696x464

Rahul Gandhi being greeted before the nominations by Pranab Mukherjee, a veteran Congress politician and, till recently, President of India

Gandhi’s ascendancy should not therefore be dismissed as merely a questionable but inevitable dynastic inheritance in the family that has dominated the Congress Party since before independence in 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s great grandfather, became prime minister.

A state assembly election now taking place in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, presents Gandhi with his first crucial test. An election has also recently been held in Himachal Pradesh, a small northern state currently run by Congress.

Voting in Gujarat, where the BJP has been in power continuously since 1995, is scheduled for December 9th and 14th, and the count for both states will be on December 18th.

The BJP is virtually certain to win in Gujarat. Gandhi’s success or failure will be judged on whether he has managed to work effectively enough with other opposition groups to reduce significantly the BJP’s number of seats from the 115 it won in the last election in 2012 to maybe 100 out of the total 182. That will be difficult, though BJP leaders appear resigned to losing some of their majority after 22 years in power.

Nationally, Congress is at its lowest point ever. Gandhi has had a series of election failures since he became vice-president in 2013, when he gradually took over some of the  party leadership from his mother.

Congress lost badly in the general election in 2014, after ten years in power, winning only 44 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. It failed in a state assembly election in Bihar in 2015, and was routed earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The BJP secured a landslide victory in UP and significantly won six out of ten assembly seats in the districts of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Gandhi family’s traditional political base where Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are the members of parliament. Last week in UP civic polls. Congress lost Amethi’s two municipal board seats.

The BJP has been targeting the Amethi constituency with Smriti Irani, a fiery politician and government minister, standing against Rahul Gandhi in 2014. She cut his majority from 370,000 in 2009 to just 108,000, and is now aiming to humiliate him further by defeating him in the 2019 general election.

It may seem odd that the BJP is putting so much effort into attacking and ridiculing the hapless Gandhi. “Some people grow in age but not in understanding”, Modi said in parliament in May last year.

The reason must be that they realise the Congress Party cannot function effectively without a Gandhi as the leader. Mocking him and defeating him in key elections therefore weakens both him and the party. On the other hand, if he does emerge as an effective leader now that he is the party president, he could rally opposition and provide a significant opposition to Modi in 2019.

No leadership potential

Till recently, he has shown no leadership potential and has had no distinct political or economic message. He has taken no apparent interest in formulating and developing government policy beyond occasional bursts of noisy opposition and carefully scripted speeches and interventions in parliament. He refused when Congress was in power to gain experience as a minister, despite being urged to do so by Manmohan Singh.

He earned the “pop up” reputation because of the way he has suddenly taken up issues, or visited trouble spots, especially those affecting the landless poor, but has shown little or no further interest after a few loud and mock-angry performances.

Early in 2015 he literally disappeared from public life just before Budget Day and was away, presumably abroad, for 56 days without any explanation of where he was or why he had gone. Later it emerged that he had been pondering a major political role, maybe becoming party president – the post he is now accepting at he end of 2017.

Even Jyotiraditya Scindia (see top picture), one of the most competent and discreet Congress politicians of Gandhi’s generation, and a close adviser, said in a television interview that, while he accepted Rahul Gandhi’s (and Sonia’s) leadership, “the time for introspection is way over. I think the time for execution [of a new approach] should have started a couple of months ago”. That was in March 2015 and it has taken till now for the new approach to begin.

Re-energised campaigning

A re-energised Rahul Gandhi began to emerge in September when he visited the US and impressed audiences with his grasp of issues at the University of California in Berkeley and then in Washington and New York , though his answers to questions were not always impressive. This favourable view gained wide publicity in India, angled at the idea that he had progressed  from his earlier off-beat style. He was guided in the US by  Sam Pitroda, one of his father’s close advisers who first helped develop India’s telecom industry in the 1980s. Pitroda has stayed close to the family over the past 30 years and now has brought a fresh angle to Gandhi’s presentations.

Gandhi has emerged further in recent weeks during the Gujarat election campaign where he has stayed the course with several day-long visits packed with election meetings. But his style is not subtle: for example, with the Hindu nationalists as his main opponents, he has suddenly made a series of visits to Hindu temples, which he has not done before. At one temple, he was reportedly entered in the visitors’ book in the “non-Hindu” list, which unnecessarily gave Modi and other the chance to question his religion. The report was denied, but the event revived memories of criticisms that Sonia Gandhi faced because of her Italian Catholic background.

He has also harried the government, especially over its controversial demonetisation and sales tax (GST) policies that have caused widespread disruption and hardship for very small traders and businesses. He can with some justification claim to have forced the government to introduce wide sweeping improvements to the GST.

There have been media reports that the Congress Party has been in touch with UK-based Cambridge Analytica, which helped President Trump win his election with closely focussed campaigns. It has also stepped up its Twitter and other social media campaigning, though that ran into problems with several thousand retweets on a @OfficeOfRG tweet from alleged ‘bots’ of Russian, Kazakh and Indonesian origin.

Rahul's PidiMore positively, he allowed his Twitter handlers to announce somewhat sarcastically, but with a sense of fun, that his pet dog ‘Pidi’ (left) was the mastermind behind his tweets. “People been asking who tweets for this guy… I’m coming clean, it’s me… Pidi. I’m way cooler than him. Look what I can do with a tweet… oops… treat!”, Rahul tweeted with a video of Pidi balancing a biscuit on its nose and then obediently, on Rahul’s command, eating it.

Perhaps his main failing is the sense of entitlement that he displays as the crown prince of the dynasty that has played a leading role in India politics for a century and has had a dominant role since independence. Although he can be a mild conversational individual genuinely interested in social and other causes, he has an air of superiority that is not acceptable to leaders of other parties.

Sitaram Yechury, a Communist party leader who has had good relations with Congress, said on television last month that “Sonia is the glue that binds the opposition”, adding “the united opposition will break if Rahul takes over.”

For that reason, reports suggest that Sonia Gandhi will continue to play a role on broader opposition issues, leaving Rahul to run the Congress Party. How well that will work remains to be seen. One of the reasons for Rahul declining to become president in recent years has been a clash between the older and younger generations of the party’s leaders, with Sonia Gandhi siding with those who want to minimise change.

That is a challenge that Rahul Gandhi will now have to grapple with. Much will depend on who he picks as his chief advisers, and how well he and they work with the older generation.

Later, there will be speculation about whether he ever wants to be prime minister and whether, if Congress emerged from a general election as the leading party (improbable though that seems today), he would hand the prime minister’s job to someone else, as his mother did with Manmohan Singh.

What is clear is that the Gandhi family is here to stay, with Rahul’s sister Priyanka, hiding for now in the background but possibly a potential player.

For many observers, as the Financial Times put it in an editorial a few days ago, Rahul’s presidency cements Congress’s “status as a hereditary anachronism”.

The reality however is that, while it may look anachronistic from abroad, it is not so in India where there are many political dynasties in the states.

The more important point is that, as a reluctant heir, Rahul Gandhi has been doing the country a disservice by not stepping aside because he has been blocking the evolution of the Congress Party, either under new competent leadership, or by allowing it to split and crumble and thus encourage new opposition alignments to emerge.

He now has a chance to prove the critics wrong.

 

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