No longer seen as a “white war” or India’s “forgotten war”

Khadi poppies and marigolds commemorate sacrifice

Until four years ago, virtually nothing had been done in either Britain or India to recognise the sacrifice of more than 74,000 Indian troops who died fighting in World War One. Also ignored was the vital role played in almost all the theatres of the conflict – Europe, the Middle East and East Africa – by the total of more than 1.3m servicemen from what was then undivided India.

This was scarcely mentioned in 1964 on the 50th anniversary of what was dubbed a “white war”, later becoming known as “India’s Forgotten War”, even though the Victoria Cross (the Britain’s highest military award) was won by eleven Indian soldiers.

IMG_2456Change began in 2014 on the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. The contribution has now been fully recognised in events that have been taking place in London and India ahead of this Sunday’s 100th anniversary of the Armistice, which coincides with Britain’s annual Remembrance Sunday.

In the UK, red khadi poppies mark that change at the end of four years of events tracing the history of a terrible war. Some 40,000 khadi poppies have been distributed alongside the traditional British Legion paper poppy.

Khadi is the spun cotton cloth identified with Mahatma Gandhi, who not only led India’s independence movement, but in 1914 encouraged Indians in Britain to volunteer for service.

The poppies were launched in London’s Trafalgar Square last Sunday during annual Diwali festival celebrations that mark the triumph of good over evil.

TMay poppy IMG_2458Theresa May has said she would be interested in wearing a khadi poppy during the events, though she had a traditional poppy at the Cenotaph ceremony in London today.

In Delhi, Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a former army officer, yesterday presented leather-bound (and electronic) copies of war diaries to colonels of 26 Indian regiments that were involved. Today he attended a multi-faith ceremony of remembrance at the city’s war memorial – a contrast with the Christian orientation of most other events around the world.

The increased interest, even determination, in the UK and India to commemorate the contributions and sacrifice reflect changing attitudes over the years. In 1964, Britain had not moved on sufficiently from its colonial past to commemorate the contributions of its old territories, and India did not have the post-colonial self-confidence to assert its military history (it had been defeated two years earlier in a brief war with China).

India has also moved on from deep resentment, which would still have existed in 1964, that Britain did not acknowledge India’s contribution to the war effort by awarding it some form of autonomy, or at least the sort of dominion status of Australia and Canada.

indiansoldiersww1

During a march past of Indian troops, a woman pins flowers on to the tunic of one of the soldiers – Imperial War Museum archives

“Many Indians volunteered in the expectation that one good deed would lead to another, that Britain would end the colonial Raj,” Tugendhat said in Delhi, acknowledging the history. “When those hopes were dashed, India’s sacrifice in the war became an awkward and painful subject, which both countries preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, the generation who fought in the war grew old and died, taking their stories with them. And India’s immense contribution went largely unrecognised”.

Now India is asserting itself internationally as a growing economic force in contrast to the UK’s probable-post-Brexit future and declining military capability. With its Bharatiya Janata government, India also has a nationalistically proud party in power.

Those who volunteered were mostly desperately poor and uneducated. There were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and maybe other religions as well, but they were all fighting in a war that was seen by both sides as being blessed by Christ. An American Baptist leader, Samuel Batten, even called the war “a continuation of Christ’s sacrificial service for the redemption of the world,” as the Wall Street Journal has reported. German theologians endorsed a letter by prominent intellectuals that declared Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war policy a defensive necessity.

“The soldiers came from the length and breadth of undivided India, from the Punjab, Garhwal, the North West Frontier, Rajasthan and Nepal to Madras and Burma and represented different religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Most of the sepoys, flung into the greatest war of the century, were from peasant stock and hill tribes,” says Shrabani Basu, a journalist and author, in For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18.

1110indiaenglandww101

Indian soldiers serving with the British Army, at camp during World War I, circa 1916 – Getty Images

Scarcely any would have previously travelled abroad, or even dreamt of ever leaving their home areas. When they arrived for battle, they had scant clothing for the cold climate and inadequate shoes. They were given weapons they had never used before, yet they were quickly sent into action and played a leading role in some key campaigns

“Less than four weeks after landing at Marseilles, the Indian troops were thrown into the First Battle of Ypres against the world’s best-equipped army,” says Basu. “They went into the trenches still in their cotton khakis, soon to face one of the harshest winters they had ever seen….They faced the first gas attacks totally unprepared and without any equipment”. The recruitment drive carried on through the four years of the war – as late as spring of 1918, 100,000 Indians were needed to fight in Turkey.

The motives of the volunteers varied. Some maybe had loyalty to the King Emperor, though not as many as a BBC presenter would have liked when a programme on the war was being recorded in Delhi in 2014. It became clear this was not an empire’s “patriotic army”, as one speaker put it.

For most, it would have been the attraction of wages in cash that could be sent home plus a uniform with tough shoes – and loyalty to their villages with forceful leadership by local headmen. The natural loyalty and bonding of a soldier with his regiment, plus the pride of going off to war and the respect that would be earned back in the villages, all contributed – though there were desertions and mutinies.

indian-infantry-digging-trenches-prepared-against-gas-attack

Indian infantry in France with an early version of gas masks

The launch of the khadi poppy was marked at an event hosted by the London School of Economics’ South Asia Centre where Lord Gadhia, a British peer of Indian origin, explained how the campaign had developed.

Noting the contribution made by the Indians to the war effort, Gadhia said that David Lloyd George, the war-time British prime minister, had written (in the last volume of his War Memoirs) that if the Indians had “stayed home, the world would have taken a different course”.

In India, the marigold – the traditional flower for celebrations and commemorations – has been selected by  the United Service Institution of India as a symbol of remembrance.

The British government has announced plans for three six-foot statues of soldiers to be erected at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to honour the sacrifices made by a total of over 3m Commonwealth soldiers, sailors, airmen and labour corps from the Caribbean, Australasia and Canada, along with what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who served in the war. That is in addition to various Commonwealth memorials, including one erected in 2002 on Constitution Hill near Buckingham Palace to the memory of soldiers from the  sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean who died in the two World Wars.

Basu records how enthusiasm was turning to despair by the first winter. “No one who has ever seen the war will forget it to their last day,” wrote one soldier. “Just like a turnip is cut into pieces, so a man is blown to bits by the explosion of a shell… All those who came with me have all ceased to exist… There is no knowing who will win. In taking a hundred yards of trench, it is like the destruction of the world.”

The tragedy is that while the Armistice commemorations have been in progress, there has been no armistice in the world’s current conflicts. On India and Pakistan’s Line of Control (de facto border) in Kashmir, an Indian soldier was killed by sniper fire yesterday and the day before an army porter was similarly shot.

Advertisements

Target to clear out the Nehru-Gandhis and end secular traditions 

Symbolic of Modi’s earlier supreme leader phase as prime minister

Narendra Modi likes to think big, to cut a dash and stage mega events. At the same time, he and his Hindu nationalist stalwarts want to end India’s secular traditions embracing all religions that were set by the Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru in the early years after the country’s independence seven decades ago.

This all came together yesterday when Modi unveiled a mammoth and highly controversial 182-metre statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a prominent Congress independence leader, in his (and Modi’s) home state of Gujarat.

statue-of-unity

The statue stands alongside the reservoir of the Sadar Sarovar dam that has controversially displaced many tribals

Twice the height of America’s Statue of Liberty and 20% taller than a 153-metre Spring Temple Buddha in China, it has been mocked by some for the audacity of its size. Critics point to the cost of  Rs. 2,989 crore ($407m/£314m)  – and the way that tribal land has been seized.

“These forests, rivers, waterfalls, land and agriculture supported us for generations,” said a letter sent to Modi by the tribals.  “If Sardar Patel could see the mass destruction of natural resources and injustice done to us, he would cry. When we are raising our issues, we are persecuted by police. Why you are not ready to listen to our plight?”

Many political dictators erect massive statues in their own image. Displaying not dissimilar ego, Modi hopes that the giant Patel will stir emotions in India’s democracy and help to rewrite India’s post-independence history, eclipsing the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – not only for short term political gain in the coming general election, but also to replace Nehru’s secularism with his Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism.

modi-statue-of-unity-suppliedPatel, whose birth anniversary was yesterday, was responsible for uniting disparate provinces and princely states, some by force, after independence in 1947. He was Nehru’s rival for the prime minister’s post, but became deputy prime minister and home minister, even though he opposed Nehru’s left-leaning centralist economic policies.

Modi now wants to build up the memory of Patel as the politician who should have got the top post, even though Patel banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s umbrella organisation, after one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Modi argues that India would not have lost a large part of Kashmir to Pakistan if Patel had become prime minister.

Modi said yesterday that the Statue of Unity, as it is called,was “an answer to all those who question the existence of India”. Its height was intended “to remind the youth that the future of the country will be as huge as this”.

Strangely, since the theme was unity, official guests at the elaborate unveiling ceremony, which included an Indian Air Force fly-past, were predominantly from Gujarat and there were no Congress or other non-BJP politicians .

IMG_2367The statue was also symbolic of India’s “engineering and technical prowess”, said Modi. Executed by Larsen and Toubro, the country’s leading structural engineering company, the project used tens of thousands of tonnes of Indian steel and hundreds of tonnes of zinc. Bronze cladding had to be imported from China, which did not fit with Modi’s Made in India campaign.

Conceived in 2013 and begun when Modi became prime minister in 2014, the project reflects his early self-confidence when he seemed to think that, with him as the supreme leader, anything and everything was possible.

In 2015 he went to Paris along with Anil Ambani, one of India‘s less successful top businessmen, and defied India’s defence procurement procedures by ordering 36 Rafale fighter jets that are now haunting him with allegations of cronyism and corruption.

Later, with similar gusto, he announced the debilitating demonetisation scheme that failed to curb corruption but decimated small businesses. His ego also led to him addressing tens of thousands of adoring overseas Indians in mega rallies as he toured foreign capitals.

Patel statue constructionToday the Modi magic has faded, at least in the more urbanised parts of the country, and he and his ministers are having to explain away their failure to fulfil promises of curbing corruption, creating jobs, and reforming the way the government is run.

The question now is whether the statue will be seen by the mass of people in rural India, and by the BJP’s cadres, as a symbol of a Modi-led prosperous future, eclipsing Nehru and defeating Congress in elections, or as an unwarranted mega folly.

“It is hard to argue that this is the most important priority for a cash-strapped government (when) the money spent on the statue could instead have funded several modern institutes of higher education; or, for that matter, irrigated several tens of thousands of under-productive agricultural land,” the Business Standard newspaper said this morning. “There is little doubt that Patel himself would have preferred one of the latter uses,” .

The sculptor, Ram V. Sutar, age 93,  was also responsible for extravagant statues built by Kumari Mayawati, when she was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as celebrations of the Dalits who formed her political base at the bottom of India’s caste ladder.

The statues were however also seen as examples of her egotistical extravagance, and she was voted out of power. Modi must be hoping that the giant Patel does not foretell a similar fate for him.

OCTOBER 17: M.J.Akbar resigned today from his post as minister of state for foreign affairs just two days after he refused to stand down, rejecting #MetooIndia movement allegations that he harassed young women journalists and others in the 1980s and 1990s when he was a prominent newspaper editor.

Akbar attempted to explain his change of stance and resignation with a statement that said:  “Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity, I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me, also in a personal capacity”

The statement was drafted to look as if Akbar himself decided to resign, hiding the fact that this is a major climbdown by the government. It is an extremely rare example of Narendra Modi bending to popular opinion, which was becoming overwhelming.

A growing number of journalists have in the past two days cited examples of Akbar’s alleged behaviour (see below). A total of 20 have demanded to be heard in court when his defamation action begins tomorrow so that they can testify against him.

Nirupama Rao, one of the few women to become India’s foreign secretary, tweeted:  “So glad that Minister MJ Akbar has resigned his post. His continuation was untenable and indefensible. A big shoutout to all the brave women journalists who called him out for his alleged, sickening and exploitative behaviour towards them.”

October 15:  M.J.Akbar starts legal action against journalist Priya Ramani

Years of women’s silence fade as harassment stories explode 

The Indian government has challenged public opinion by allowing Mobashar Jawed Akbar, a 67-year old high profile minister of state for foreign affairs, to refuse to resign over MeToo allegations that he sexually harassed young women employees when he was an editor of leading newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s.

MJAkbar-1

M.J.Akbar returning yesterday from a visit to Africa

M.J.Akbar, as he is usually known, yesterday rejected the accusations as “false and fabricated” and today (Oct 15) he has filed a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, one of more than ten journalists who have named him for implied sexual and other advances.

Most of those involved were young and he was their editor when the alleged incidents occurred. One has written that he tried to kiss her  when she was a teenager and suggested he set her up with an apartment. Another, then a student, said he wore “a bathrobe with nothing underneath while meeting young women in hotel rooms” in the 1980s,

Akbar is one of many men with prominent roles in the film industry, television, the media and elsewhere who have been publicly accused on Twitter over the past two weeks as the #MetooIndia movement, which began last year in the US with Harvey Weinstein, the film personality, has mushroomed in India.

Abuse of women is widespread in India and is rarely discussed, partly because of the shame felt by those who have suffered, and partly because of fear of reprisals, especially at work. The question now is whether the Twitter claims and revelations, many of which have been widely gossiped in the past, will lead to a gradual change of attitudes.

Priya Ramani

Priya Ramani

Several of those accused have resigned from their positions in films and the media. Akbar is the first to take legal action. Chetan Bhagat, a prominent author of popular fiction, has rejected charges made against him as “false”, while Suhel Seth, a flamboyant marketing and image building expert, who is frequently on Twitter and television discussion panels, has gone unusually silent and has deleted his Facebook account that tracked his travels and friends.

Seth is an international specialist in damage limitation public relations and it looks as if the government has decided to back Akbar’s almost aggressive response in an attempt to prevent further allegations against other public figures, including politicians (there are rumours concerning one cabinet member). Perhaps significantly, Akbar has hired Karanjawala & Co, a leading law firm run by Raian Karanjawala, who is a close friend of Seth and of Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, to represent him. (Seth has not replied to my emailed request for a comment). It seems there are over 90 lawyers on the case (below).

lawyers IMG_2116Akbar and the others presumably hope that the legal action will deter other women from going public with fresh accusations against him and others. If so, they were wrong because (updated Oct 16) artist Jatin Das has been named and there’s a new allegation against Akbar  (total of nearly 20 allegations against Akbar by Oct 17).

Ramani has said “truth and the absolute truth” is her “only defence” in response to Akbar saying their stories were “fabricated”.

Akbar has questioned the timing of their charges, suggesting that they are part of a political conspiracy against the Bharatiya Janata Party and the government ahead of the general election next April.

Many of the men accused have much to lose. Film personalities and journalists might scramble back, but others could find that more difficult. Akbar, for example, has built a ministerial career in the BJP, having earlier been a Congress Party MP and launched newspapers that include the Asian Age.

Bhagat is one of India’s most popular authors, especially among younger generations, with books that explore ambitions for success in university, love and a career. Seth spends much of his life flying to foreign capitals and his close contacts include Ratan Tata, the veteran Indian industrialist, George Osborne, the former British finance minister, and senior Financial Times editors.

Tanushree Dutta

The women however may find it difficult to defend their claims in law because, as several have said, “nothing happened”. Priya Ramani wrote on Twitter that she did not name Akbar when she first wrote about his advances in India’s Vogue magazine a year ago “because he didn’t ‘do’ anything”.

It is unlikely, given the nature of Indian society, that women will be prepared to go public with cases where men were successful in their advances because they would be seen as tainted. Unlike probable reactions in the US and Europe, many husbands and in-laws would not be understanding or sympathetic. “Most of those who did succumb, will not dare to come forward – there will be too much shame,” Madhu Trehan, a leading editor, said in a television discussion.

She and others are also concerned that women seeking publicity and instant attention – or settling vendettas – will make false and unjustified claims against men, doing harm to their reputations. Akbar’s legal action could have the effect of stemming such false claims as well as more warranted allegations.

A survey by the IndiaSpend media analysis firm has found that registered cases of sexual harassment at Indian workplaces increased by 54% from 371 in 2014 to 570 in 2017, according to official data. But as many as 70% of women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors because they feared the repercussions, according to a survey conductedby the Indian Bar Association in 2017

Suhel Seth

@suhelseth Twitter photo

India’s MeToo outpourings began when Tanushree Dutta, a model and Bollywood actress, alleged harassment on the sets of a movie in 2008 by Nana Patekar, an actor. Dutta has filed a police complaint naming Patekar and a choreographer, producer and director who were involved with her in the film Horn Ok Please. She told the police that Patekar had “indecently” touched her on the sets of the movie andsaid she suffered psychological trauma and was unable to work in films.

The accusations against Akbar are that he summoned young female journalists to hotel rooms and harassed them at work. “My last six months as a journalist at Asian Age, the newspaper he edited, were pure hell with repeated physical advances,” wrote @ghazalawahab

Ira Trivedi, a successful author, wrote in Outlook magazine on October 13 that, when she was in her early 20s, Bhagat “made a pass (and) tried to plant a kiss on my lips” in his hostel room after having tea in a public area. He “seldom passed on an opportunity to make overtures” when they met later and “groped” one of her friends on a bus. Seth “became too familiar with me and other women – putting his arms around our waists at parties, holding us a second longer than necessary after a self-imposed hug, planting one on our cheeks or lips when you least expected it”.

Chetan-Bhagat-Images-4-700x400

Chetan Bhagat

Trivedi is the daughter of a senior bureaucrat and felt well enough established to remain in contact with the two men at literary and other events and repel any advances. The stories she told did not happen in the workplace and, taken individually, what happened to her may seem merely inappropriate. Trivedi and others have however been motivated to go public to demonstrate widespread behaviour and support MeToo stories of more serious harassment against more vulnerable young women.

The government’s aim now seems to be to support Akbar’s legal action and hope that this stems the tide of revelations against him and others. The Congress Party is seizing on the allegations to demand Akbar’s resignation, which is being called for in the media and has been supported today by the India Women’s Press Corps, the Press Club of India and other media organisations. Congress will make as much political capital as possible out of the case in the run-up to important state assembly elections next month and the general election.

Narendra Modi’s government however has shown over the past four years that public apologies and admissions io guilt are not its style. Some government ministers, including two women, have said that the guilty should be punished, but Akbar is far from admitting guilt.

Posted by: John Elliott | October 6, 2018

Exit of two women who broke Indian banks’ glass ceiling

Chanda Kochhar has left ICICI after 34 years

Part of what was chauvinistically dubbed ICICI’s “petticoat brigade” 

The resignation this week of Chanda Kochhar, the chief executive of ICICI Bank, has terminated the impressive career of India’s top woman banker, while illustrating how easy it is to become snared in the country’s crony business world of shady liaisons and deals that straddle the borders of ethics and good corporate practice.

Kochhar (below), age 56 and widely described as “feisty”, had been with the bank for all of her 34-year career. She had been the chief executive since 2009 and could maybe have risen to further heights in India’s financial world if she had not been caught in conflicts of interest with her businessman husband and a company that does not shine in the league tables of Indian corporates.

Her apparently forced departure, after taking indefinite leave in June, brings to an end a remarkable rise in the early 2000s of women bankers in ICICI, India’s second largest private sector bank. Breaking the glass ceiling  women held 13 of the top 40 management posts just over a decade ago, had three of five executive board seats, and ran two of five subsidiaries.

Chanda K.JPG“Almost all the leaders we have picked have succeeded and most have been women,” K.V.Kamath, then ICICI’s (male) managing director and ceo, told me in September 2006, when I wrote about them in Fortune magazine. He had been responsible for empowering them, mostly when they were young.

Once dubbed the “petticoat brigade” by Mumbai’s chauvinistic banking fraternity, these highly competitive women helped build ICICI into a business that became famed for its aggressive risk-taking attitude and for its growth from a sleepy and bureaucratic development institution into India’s most widely diversified and customer-oriented bank.

Kochhar told me then that she knew nothing about retail banking when she became head of ICICI Bank’s fledgling retail operations in 1998 at the edge of 36. That made “Citi and others think we were doing a small flirtation”, she said. In April 2006, she was made head of corporate banking, then a small activity, and later that year figured for the second time in Fortune’s list of top 50 international busineswomen.

Now the tables have turned and she is the third top private sector banker to have their jobs curtailed in recent months.

Earlier this year it was announced that Shikha Sharma (below), Kochhar’s former ICICI colleague and rival , will leave Axis Bank, the third largest private sector lender, in December. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) opposed her reappointment as chief executive after Axis Bank’s non-performing assets (NPAs) rose by more than 300% in three years.

617996-sharma-shikha-101817.jpgMore intriguing is the RBI saying that Yes Bank, the fourth largest, should not renew the contract next January of its chief executive, Rana Kapoor, 61, who was one of the bank’s two founders in 2004. His co-founder, Ashok Kapur, was killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Again, bad loans were the problem – the RBI said that Yes Bank had under-reported its bad loans for two years. Kapoor also hit the headlines in 2014 when, for unexplained reasons, he refused to allow Kapur’s widow (and his sister-in-law) or her daughter to be appointed to the board.

It is worth noting that, while the RBI’s action on these private sector banks reflects a long-needed assault on the banking system’s failings, it has also helped to deflect attention from public sector banks that have been heavily criticised for poor management and regulatory controls.

The criticisms escalated early this year when an alleged $1.77bn corporate fraud emanated from the government’s owned Punjab National Bank and the businessman involved, jeweller Nirav Modi fled abroad.

News of Kochhar’s alleged conflicts of interest, that were started by a whistle-blower over a year ago, built up shortly after that. She had led a big expansion of ICICI’s retail and corporate banking, more than doubling the bank’s assets, but she then presided over a sharp increase in non-performing corporate loans.

One of the defaulters was Videocon Industries, a diversified group controlled by Venugopal Dhoot, who had done business deals with Kochhar’s husband, Deepak Kochhar involving an energy company. This led to questions about the transactions, which included Chanda Kochhar failing to recuse herself from a loan committee that approved a $440m Videocon loan in 2012 as part of a multi-bank consortium.

Ironically I was told in 2006 that one of the basic reasons why there were so many women was that, while they enjoyed working in the ICICI environment, their husbands were the main money earners (almost all those in the top levels were married). The wives could therefore afford to enjoy job fulfilment without worrying about ICICI’s then low pay levels that were in the bottom 25% of the country’s banks.

An era is ending with the departure of Kochhar and Sharma, but their removal along with Kapoor shows that the RBI has at last had begun to deal with the enormous mountain of banks’ bad assets and broader issues. If it continues with the work, more skeletons will emerge because India’s corporate sector is riddled with corporate cronyism and a lack of ethics.

Posted by: John Elliott | September 28, 2018

Coincidence of Supreme Court, RSS and BJP interests on key issues

Supreme court Aadhar verdict helps to soften BJP election image

RSS leader endorses gay sex after Supreme Court de-criminalisation

Supreme Court starts Ayodhya temple hearings next  month

As election season approaches, there appears to be a strange coincidence between the liberal decisions of the Supreme Court, the interests of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata government, and policy pronouncements from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organisation that embraces the BJP and holds extreme views on India being a Hindu nation.

The court’s restricted authentication this week of India’s Aadhaar biometric identity scheme softens the government’s intrusive image, while the court’s decriminalisation of homosexuality earlier this month has been echoed with an endorsement by Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS.

There was also Bhagwat’s talk ten days ago about a new moderate approach by the RSS that helps moderate the BJP’s hardline Hinduvta image, possibly increasing its appeal to voters and to potential coalition partners after the general election.

And yesterday the supreme court decided to start long-delayed hearings on the famed Ayodhya temple dispute at the end of next  month, which will please RSS activists on whom the BJP relies for support in election campaigns.

There is no evidence to suggest that these events are co-ordinated but, coming shortly before important state assembly elections and a few months before next spring’s general election, they are worth noting. Ahead of the retirement on October 2 of the chief justice, Dipak Misra, the supreme court has taken key liberal judgements on other issues in the last few days including decriminalisation of adultery and allowing access by women of all ages to the important Sabarimala Hindu temple.

Aadhaar authenticated

For liberal rights campaigners, India’s Aadhaar biometric identification number system violates human rights and allows an authoritarian government and others to invade personal privacy. For its supporters, Aadhaar is a successful bid to bring some semblance of order to the country’s shambolic public records and to provide individual identities that protect the poor against intimidation and extortion by corrupt bureaucrats.

Sample-Aadhar-CardI-nsertThe supreme court neatly straddled that divide this week (Sept 26) when, by a majority of four to one, a five-judge bench ruled that Aadhaar (left) is constitutionally valid and could be mandatory for tax registration and returns and for obtaining welfare payments, but restricted its use elsewhere.

Launched in 2009, this is now the world’s largest and most ambitious digital identity scheme with enrolments by a total of 1.2bn, almost all India’s population.

Many commentators have seen the majority judgement as a blow for Narendra Modi’s BJP government because it stops businesses such as banks and mobile phone operators requiring a customer’s 12-digit Aadhar number. In addition, investigative agencies must in future obtain a warrant before accessing Aadhar information.

Seen in a broader context however, the judgement is one of a series of events that help the image of government in the run-up to key state assembly elections before the end of this year and a general election next spring.

Modi and the broad Hindu nationalist movement is being widely criticised for its authoritarian approach to human rights, privacy and freedom of expression, and for allowing its most extreme activists to indulge in violence and even killings associated with issues such as cow slaughter and beef eating.

Some softening of the image must therefore be welcome and the supreme court’s Aadhaar judgement has removed one plank of the political opposition to the government on grounds of personal privacy. (There is of course nothing to stop the BJP government, if it is returned to office next year with a sufficiently large majority, introducing laws that make bank accounts, mobile phones and other services dependent on having an Aadhar card.)

RSS and its image

Another easing of the BJP’s image came last week in an unprecedented three days of public lectures with questions and answers by Mohan Bhagwat (below), the head of the RSS. Bhagwatsaid that the idea of Hindutva was not achievable without acceptance of Muslims and other minorities. He condemned lynch mobs and gangs who have pursued people, usually Muslims, transporting cows to slaughter and others accused of having beef in their homes.

Bhagwat, chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, gestures as he prays during a conclave on the outskirts of Pune“Hindu Rashtra [nation] doesn’t mean there’s no place for Muslims. If we don’t accept Muslims, it’s not Hindutva. Hindutva is Indianness and inclusivity,” he asserted to the amazement no doubt of RSS members as well as critics. “Hindutva binds us together and our vision of Hindutva is not to oppose or demean anyone”.

Bhagwat’s remarks counter relentless criticism by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, about the RSS. He accuses the organisation and the BJP of dividing India.

Opinions vary sharply over how much Bhagwat was pursuing that political path or whether he really was declaring a new RSS approach – continuing with the cause of Hindutva but softening it on the minorities and other issues and suggesting that harsh Hinduvta was not in line with modern India. He said that some of the ‘bunch of thoughts” of M.S. Golwalkar, an early leader of the RSS that was formed in 1925, were no longer “pleasurable”. Times change, and “accordingly our thoughts transform”.

That would fit with a surprise break from tradition in June when he hosted Pranab Mukherjee, India’s former president and a senior Congress minister over four decades, to  speak to an RSS youth meeting at the organisation’s Nagpur headquarters.

Critics see it as mere pre-election propaganda, while others believe that Bhagwat is trying to redirect the Sangh Parivar, as the family of organisations that includes the RSS and BJP is known.

The big test will be whether Amit Shah, the tough BJP president, modifies his anti-Muslim rhetoric, which he is currently aiming at Bangladeshi people suspected of being illegal immigrants in the north-eastern state of Assam and elsewhere. The other test will be whether the vigilante mobs modify their tactics, which seems unlikely to happen quickly.

Ayodhya temple in supreme court

Bhagwat also supported the building of a new temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on the site where Hindu activists destroyed the 16th-century Babri Mosque in 1992, and took a new line on gay sex, saying that homosexuals exist and that society needed to change with time.

The Supreme Court yesterday said that on October 29 it would start hearings on whether or not a temple should be built at Ayodhya on the site, which will please RSS activists and give the BJP a plan for its general election campaign, even though a judgement might not come till after the polls.

Gay rights

The court laid the groundwork for Bhagwat’s gay sex line earlier this month when it decriminalised homosexuality on the grounds that it was not banned by the Indian constitution. This was an historic judgement on a subject that successive governments have avoided because of entrenched traditionalist views in virtually all political parties.

Issuing that judgement chief justice Misra, who was implicitly accused in January by four fellow judges of doing the government’s bidding, showed some independence by implicitly criticising Hindu nationalists’ attitudes on Muslims and other issues. “Majoritarian views and popular morality cannot dictate constitutional rights,” he said.

Aadhaar opposition

Misra was one of the judges who ruled this week in favour of Aadhar, with restrictions. When it was launched by the last Congress government in 2009, the scheme faced criticism from human rights activists along with legal opposition. It was designed by a team in the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) led by Nandan Nilekani, a founder of Infosys, one of India’s largest information technology companies.

Nilekani’s stated a-political aim was not to invade privacy but to provide people with a proof of identity that many lack, thus stemming extortion by officials from the central government down to villages. “This enhances access of the common man to public services while reducing the hassle he or she faces,” he said during a lecture on curbing corruption.

Fears have however grown under Modi’s more authoritarian government that it wanted to extend the mandatory use of the card so that it became a owerful surveillance tool of the state.

The Aadhaar system has also been hacked, allegedly allowing unauthorised printing of the cards. Critics point to the risk of personal biometric details being stolen, and suggest that thumb print registration machines in crowded and chaotically run registration centres have been rigged to retain personal information. Officials, or their private sector subcontractors, have demanded bribes to issue the cards, thus blocking access to food rations if cards are not issued.

The judges’ majority verdict however said that the benefits were worth the risks. “We have come to the conclusion that Aadhaar Act is a beneficial legislation which is aimed at empowering millions of people in this country…..At the same time, data protection and data safety is also to be ensured to avoid even the remote possibility of data profiling or data leakage.”

That’s a neat package of measures that soften the Hinduvta image, along with the Ayodhya move that could stir communal passions but will please the RSS and BJP activists.

This blog has replaced with a new version starting with round-up paragraphs setting the theme:   https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2018/09/28/coincidence-of-supreme-court-rss-and-bjp-interests-on-key-issues/

 

Anil Ambani got Rafale work and funded French president’s partner 

French media give Rafale story fresh boost as heir to Bofors  

It would have seemed improbable if not impossible when he became India’s prime minister in 2014 that Narendra Modi would personally face allegations of crony capitalism and possible corruption involving a French actress, a former French president, one of India’s most unsuccessful debt-ridden prominent businessmen and a contract for fighter jets.

Yet that is what has built up in recent months and was escalated yesterday by a statement made by former French president Francois Hollande to Mediapart, a French news website that is investigating a contract for 36 Dassault Rafale jets arranged unexpectedly by Modi when he visited Paris in April 2015.

modi-rafale

A Congress Party protestor in Delhi with a model of a Rafale jet with Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah

Hollande was still in power in 2015 and the contract later generated work for Anil Ambani, one of two Mumbai-based brothers who run separate businesses with the name Reliance.

Ambani is close to Modi and his heavily indebted Reliance Group part-funded a film in 2016 planned by Julie Gayet, a French film actress and producer who is Hollande’s partner.

Clearly anxious to dismiss a report that there was a link between the Rafale deal and the film financing, Hollande told Mediapart that the Indian government “proposed” Reliance. “We did not have a choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us”.

The India government, equally anxious to dismiss crony links between Modi and Ambani, has repeatedly insisted that Ambani was chosen by Dassault as its joint venture partner for supplying components under an offsets deal.

This seems unlikely because Ambani and Reliance have no experience in the defence sector, let alone aircraft component engineering. It is widely assumed in Delhi that Dassault came under considerable political pressure – presumably being assured that it would have effective management and financial control, even though Reliance has a 51% stake against its 49%.

Capture_7

Julie Gayet and Francois Hollande

Hollande’s statement was a blow for Modi, but equally significant is Mediapart’s investigation because it increases the likelihood that the scandal will haunt Modi and the BJP government up to the general election that is due by next April.

The Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, wants to build the contract into India’s biggest defence scandal since the mid-1980s. That was when allegations built up against his father, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, of Rs64 crore (then about $50m) bribes on a $1.4bn howitzer gun contract with Bofors of Sweden, leading to a scandal that continues to haunt the dynasty.

Bofors developed into a major issue because it was pursued not just by the Indian media but also became a big media and political issue in Sweden. Similarly, an Augusta Westland VVIP helicopter contract scandal during the last Congress government has run for years because it was also being pursued in Italian courts.  When I last wrote about Rafale in July, I said that there was no sign of such action in France building new roots for the current allegations.

MediapartThat has now changed with Mediapart taking up the story. Interested because of the French political implications of Hollande’s involvement, it says the funds from Reliance were handled by Visvires Capital, an investment fund with offices in Paris and Singapore founded by Ravi Viswanathan, a French-Indian former banker who had previously provided services forAmbani.

The report says: “One day, the Indians came and the film could be made,” recalled one of the production team of the film Tout là-haut, co-produced in 2016 by the actress Julie Gayet, the partner of then French president François Hollande. Tout là-haut (‘To the top’)….The film’s budget was 10 million euros and the Indian funding – initially to be 3 million euros but later reduced to 1.6 million – was a lifeline”. (The Mediapart report is in full here)

The Indian government yesterday “reiterated that neither GoI nor French Govt had any say in the commercial decision.” Today it has implicitly accused Hollande of a “conflict of interest”, suggesting that his statement “perhaps needs to be seen in its full context – where the French media has raised issues of conflict of interest involving persons close to the former President”.

In fact, the positions being taken by all sides are perfectly tenable and in line with each other. It is alleged that Modi personally said in Paris that Ambani should have the joint venture contract, so the Indian government can claim not to have been involved.

Equally, Hollande can say he had no role because Modi could have told Dassault, or made sure it got the message. That left Dassault and Ambani to do their joint venture deal later, separate from the government-to-government main contract. It could also be argued that Ambani, who accompanied Modi on his Paris visit and who had a company involved in film financing, met Julie Gayet while he was there and became interested in helping with her film.

But that is not how political scandals and battles develop because Modi and Hollande (below, in 2015) were performing as prime minister and president and were close, respectively, to Ambani and Gayet. It is also alleged Modi breached established defence procurement procedures by striking the sudden deal which senior officials did not expect.

S. Jaishankar, the foreign secretary who accompanied the prime minister on the trip, did not seem to know what was planned. When asked about Rafale negotiations at a media conference that I attended on April 8 before he left Delhi, Jaishankar said that, as was customary for heads of government meetings, Modi and the French president would only focus on ‘big picture issues, even in the security field’.

hollande-modi-rafaleIn its attempt to fight off the Congress assault, the government is now alleging corruption involving the last Congress-led government, which struck an earlier deal for 126 Rafale jets in 2012. Reliance Industries run by Anil Ambani’s brother Mukesh would have been involved in that deal, which was never finalised and was cancelled by Modi when he went to Paris.

No price was announced for the 36 aircraft during the Paris visit, but after long negotiations a government-to-government contract was eventually signed in September 2016 forRs58,000 crore (then Euros 7.85bn), which equalled an average of Rs1,611 crore (then Euros 216m) for each aircraft. Congress and other critics say that is far more than the per-aircraft price for the 126 aborted order, which means that Modi has gone back on a statement he made in Paris that the 36 aircraft price would be less.

That led to pressure on the government to announce the final contract price, but it has repeatedly refused to do so, saying it had to remain secret for security reasons. Its obfuscations have increased suspicions that it has something to hide.

If it had revealed the figure months ago, the political momentum might not have built up around the alleged cronyism of Modi, Ambani, the former president and his film star partner – and Modi might not have become saddled with a potential heir to the Bofors affair.

Posted by: John Elliott | September 2, 2018

‘Rahul’s got passion and pep but he needs far more prep’

A slightly shorter version of this article is the “By Invitation” column on today’s “Sunday Times of India” opinion page

“I am sitting here and saying ‘ask me whatever you want’. I might make some mistakes. I’m not bothered. I’ll learn and the next time I speak I’ll come up with something better,” said Rahul Gandhi at one of three events where I heard him speak in London a week ago.

“I have the guts to sit here with so many journalists, live streaming. It’s risky. I take the risk because I value this conversation. I think this conversation is more important than the risk”.

He got loud applause from the audience, which included members of the Indian community  and journalists, at which point he made his main political point: “That’s not how our Prime Minister thinks. I would love to have a conversation like this with the Prime Minister of India on issues like corruption, the Rafale deal and the agriculture policy, but he won’t do it”.

IMG_1196

Rahul Gandhi speaking at the Indian Journalists’ Association lunch in London

Whether it is wise for a political leader to take such a “not bothered, I’ll learn” attitude is arguable. But clearly Gandhi’s trip to Germany and the UK brought out some of the Congress president’s best qualities, while revealing failings that made him look like the accident-prone politician his critics claim him to be.

The content of three one-hour question and answer sessions in London was good. It showed that Gandhi is getting his election themes together, that he can cope with a wide range of subjects, and that he has the passion needed by a political leader warming up for general election battle – the passion being to remove Narendra Modi and all he stands for from power.

But Gandhi lets himself down with one-liners that grab the headlines and allow the BJP and its trolls and twitter feeders to mock him. Along with more serious criticism, that diverts attention from his main messages. His image gets reduced, both among those in India who would like to be able to praise him, and among  opinion-makers in the countries he is visiting.

Gandhi failed to pitch his remarks with sufficiently anchored policy content and context. He often did not spell out his arguments until forced to do so in self-defence. He also appeared to avoid direct answers by referring back to his favourite subjects of India’s traditions of non-violence and compassion, the need to decentralise policymaking and execution, and to protect the  lower castes, farmers and minorities. These are all crucial issues, given the growing instances of lynchings and other violence, Modi’s over-centralisation of government, the denigration of Dalits and Muslims, and the plight of farmers, but repetition needs substance.

Unrehearsed unscripted

This points to a lack of  preparation on policy and lines to take. I am not decrying Gandhi’s performance. It was impressive that he was happy to  answer questions in unrehearsed, unscripted sessions – with moderators he had not met. The three I attended were at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the London School of Economics (LSE) and a lunch event organised by the Indian Journalists’ Association.

It is brave (some would say foolhardy) of a political leader, experienced or otherwise, to expose himself on the record to such an extent, but Gandhi uses it to show he has a wide spread of views – and to contrast it with  Modi’s refusal to take questions in public.

He should rehearse his points in advance with policy briefs so that he begins his answers with succinct statements that make it more difficult for the trolls. The nearer the general election, the more pertinent this becomes. He should also make key policy statements, as for example he could have done at the IISS on defence and foreign affairs. He did however successfully deflect mischeivous questions from a BJP supporter about the surgical strikes in Pakistan and a controversy in Assam about Indian citizenship, giving crisp answers that showed he was prepared.

Controversial one-liners

The most controversial one-liners were a comparison of the RSS and the Muslim Brotherhood, a link between joblessness, lynchings and  ISIS, and denying Congress responsibility for the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The first two were sound points that he failed to define effectively when he first mentioned them.

On the Muslim Brotherhood, he should have clearly set out his argument about how both organisations’ ambition is “one ideology runs every institution….one idea should crush all other ideas”, while acknowledging the RSS has not been named as a terrorist organisation. On the lynchings and ISIS, there is no dispute that joblessness can lead the young to indulge in violence and extremism and to stray into terrorist organisations, but this needed explaining.

On the 1984 deaths, he could have avoided the controversy by referring back to Manmohan Singh’s apology, and then adding his own lines about abhorring violence and the guilty being punished through the courts.

Back in Delhi over the past week, he has shown a similar lack of preparation and consistency in his criticism of France’s controversial Rafale fighter jets deal, and his unexplained allegations that the “biggest aim” of Modi’s demonetisation was “to help 15-20 crony capitalists”, saying “Notebandi is nothing less than a huge scam”.

This is not an argument about whether Gandhi will, or could be, the next Prime Minister, but how the leader of the Congress party ought to be well briefed and prepared so that his wide range of mostly sound ideas carry weight rather than triggering controversy.

See also my blog last weekend on Rahul Gandhi’s visit to London   https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2018/08/25/rahul-gandhi-attacks-bjp-and-rss-as-his-election-strategy-develops/

Maps out his version of a Congress approach

LONDON: Rahul Gandhi is beginning to assemble a package of political arguments against Narendra Modi’s government and its Hindu nationalist allied organisations that will form the basis of the Congress Party’s campaign at India’s coming general election. Fired up to defeat Modi, he is emerging as a leading politician with messages that he hopes will win votes.

On a visit to London over the past two days, he has avoided detailed policy discussions, as he always has, but he now has a clear and coherent strategy that substitutes for policy.

This is to build an election platform based on opposition to five developments under the Modi government. They are growing country-wide violence, attacks on basic freedoms, a lack of concern for minorities and the weak, the imposition of “a very rigid, hate-filled angry ideology”, and attempts to “capture and destroy” institutions

IMG_1219

Gandhi stresses that lack of jobs is India’s biggest crisis and, on that, he does move into policy. Congress would boost agriculture and improve technology and focus on helping small and medium sized firms and extending transport infrastructure. Improved education was also needed – “you can’t have a country with world-class education systems and everything below them is a disaster’.

He  offers a return to the traditional all-embracing freedoms and respect for institutions that Congress has always stood for. He advocates de-centralisation of government down to the villages as he has for years, though what sounded earlier like a political novice’s well-meaning dream now has substance and relevance because of the way that Modi has centralised all government control in his prime minister’s office.

This overview has emerged from three interactive sessions that I have attended while Gandhi has been in London on his first working visit to the UK since becoming Congress Party president. The sessions each lasted about an hour and were live-streamed on twitter and elsewhere. Held at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the London School of Economics (LSE) South Asia Centre, and an Indian community lunch meeting organised by the Indian Journalists Association (click on the links for full length videos), they have enabled Gandhi to pull together lines of attack on the government that he has been developing in recent months.

Other meetings in London included one with the Royal Society of Medicine where he discussed Congress plans to develop a universal healthcare initiative for India with King’s College, Imperial College and other medical professionals. Before London, he spent two days in Berlin and Hamburg. He also met opposition leaders of the Labour Party.

Contrasting his openness with Modi’s refusal to face questioning, Gandhi said at the journalists’ association session, “Come at me with whatever questions you like and then judge…the prime minister of India has never done this”. Being open to any questions, live-streaming, was “a risk” but, if he made mistakes, he would correct them next time.

Opposition Unity

He said that Congress wanted to open its doors, which had been closed too much, and work with all opposition parties. The BJP would lose the election that is due by April next year if the parties worked together, as they have begun to do. They had agreed that decisions on a prime ministerial candidate would be deferred till after the election.

“On one side there is the BJP and on the other side, there is every opposition party. The reason is, for the first time, Indian institutions are under attack,” said Gandhi. “The RSS is trying to change the nature of India”. Institutions were being “torn down one by one”, and the fight was against “something that is trying to destroy the idea of India”.

Stepping up an attack that he began in Germany on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ultra right wing umbrella organisation, he added: “Other parties haven’t tried to capture India’s institutions. The RSS’s idea is similar to the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world that one ideology runs every institution….one idea should crush all other ideas”.

That brought a sharp rebuff from the BJP in Delhi because the Muslim Brotherhood is an extreme Sunni Muslim organisation, banned in some Arab countries for alleged terrorist links. A BJP spokesman implicitly criticised Gandhi for breaking the diplomatic convention that politicians do not criticise their country and their opponents when abroad. “Instead of being a proud Indian leader in foreign countries, the Congress president has been attempting to insult and belittle India abroad,” he said.

IMG_1178The Muslim Brotherhood barb had clearly struck home because the spokesman unusually clubbed the RSS and BJP together and said, “India is asking you ‘is some terrorist organisation ruling India?’ It is a democratically elected government. Is this government, is this choice of people of India for a terror organisation?”.

Gandhi undoubtedly knew what he was doing by trying to sharpen a negative image of the RSS, and today replied to the BJP criticisms. Both organisations, he said, “viewed the electoral process as a means of capturing institutions”, both had been banned in the past and neither of them allowed women to be members.

Attacking the 2016 demonetisation of bank notes, which caused extensive economic harm, especially for small businesses, he said the idea “came directly from RSS, bypassed the Finance Minister and RBI (India’s central bank), and was planted in Prime Minister’s head”. That enabled him to combine an attack on the RSS with criticism of Modi’s centralisation of power. He later extended this to the external affairs ministry which, he said, had no independence. “The PM knows his mind,” he had been told by ministry officials to avoid answering questions.

What had he learned in 2014?

At the IISS meeting, I asked Gandhi what he had learned from Congress’s defeat in 2014. He was silent for almost ten seconds before he answered (most of his other answers were immediate). Eventually he said “You have to listen, leadership is about listening, about empathy to the person who is speaking, whether you agree with them or not – that’s at a personal level”.

At the party level, there was “a certain degree of arrogance that had crept into the Congress Party after ten years in power”. Congress should be open to other parties and “build a bridge between them”.

He returned to the theme at the LSE and said that the party had “run into trouble in 2014 because of an internal fight between the older and younger sections” when it had tried to merge “the future and the past”.

Congress was not as good as the BJP at working out its “narrative”. The BJP and RSS messages were clear but, while the Congress originally had Mahatma Gandhi and other independence leaders to put forward the theme, it had not been developed.

IMG_1204

The idea of Congress, which needed to be heard, was that “when you see a strong person beating up a small person, you feel a sense of protection, that’s the Congress”. The “weakness is that (Congress) is not able to say ‘that idea is us’”.

At the journalists’ meeting he said, “my ideology is respecting all points of view”, even if he violently disagreed the person he was meeting.

During the IISS meeting, Gandhi talked about foreign policy. There was however some disappointment among analysts that he did not use the visit to a leading international policy institute to deliver a prepared speech on defence and foreign affairs that could have been seen as a definitive statement on key issues.

Recognising reality, he said that India should have relationships with China as well as the US. Inevitably he felt “more comfortable with democratic structures” of the US and Europe but, as a neighbour, China could not be ignored. India should “play a balancing role” between them bringing in, he said at a later session, a new approach to what was the “foundation of a potential conflict”.

“The opportunity is there. There is an Indian way of doing things that is completely different to the Chinese way or the America way….we have our own ideas that are old, tested by non-violence and listening….we specialise in reducing confrontation”. He did not spell out how such an idyllic idea would work in practice.

Mocking Modi’s style of greeting foreign leaders, Gandhi said, “You can’t run a foreign policy based on hugs”. The prime minister’s “’episodic” approach meant that the ten-week standoff with China on the Himalayan plateau of Doklam earlier this year had been treated as “an event”, rather than as a process, so the government had failed to stop it happening. The inference was that Modi’s lack of continuity on relations with China had allowed the crisis to develop.

On the lack of employment opportunities, he criticised the government for only creating 450 jobs in the formal economy every 24 hours compared with 50,000 achieved by China. While he was in Germany, he made a direct link between unemployment and gang violence and killings, and conversion to terrorism. “If one does not give vision to people, someone else is going to give that. It’s important that we involve people and carry people and that people feel they are part of nation building,” he said.

These visits to Germany and the UK were the latest of an international series organised by the Indian Overseas Congress that have earlier taken him to the US, Malaysia and Singapore. His passion to drive the BJP out of power and pursue Modi at every opportunity impressed audiences. He will have succeeded in boosting the work of Congress organisations and, more generally, making it clear that Modi is not India’s only political leader.

Next time – if there is one before the general election – he will need to prepare himself with more policy details in order to show that he has the focus needed to be a prime minister.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 16, 2018

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the moderate face of the BJP, has died

Economic reformer who led by consensus

Contrasting style with current Modi-Shah regime 

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s former prime minister who died today, was one of the country’s greatest and most widely respected statesmen and the moderate face of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism. His death brings into sharp focus the contrast with the harsh and strident version of that ideology which the party now exercises with prime minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah.

Age 93, Vajpayee has suffered ill health for many years and was in a Delhi hospital from June. He has not been a part of public or political life since his BJP-led coalition government was unexpectedly defeated in a general election in May 2004 by the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, which led to Manmohan Singh becoming prime minister

atal-bihari-vajpayee1Tributes today from all sides of the political spectrum have talked with admiration and sincerity about his ability to handle ideological differences without personal animosities, and how he reached out to opponents as well as difficult coalition partners – all sharp contrasts with the Modi and Shah autocratic style that instils fear but not loyalty.

He became an MP in 1957 and was noticed as a young parliamentarian with potential by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first (Congress) prime minister. To a foreign visitor, Nehru described him as “India’s blooming young Parliamentarian”, and said on another occasion that he would one day become prime minister.

Having already emerged as a potential leader, he was one of the founders of the BJP in 1980, He failed in 1996 to form a workable government, but became prime minister in 1998 and held power for six years (with a general election in 1999). He successfully managed a disparate coalition of 23 parties, including difficult egotistical regional politicians, displaying a sense of compromise and leadership that generated consensus.

A brilliant orator and a poet, Vajpayee was a slow speaker famous for long silences in conversations. He did not lead in an outgoing or inspirational sense. Instead he ruled with delegated authority, mainly through Brajesh Mishra, his national security adviser and principal secretary, on whom he relied to implement his wishes (Mishra is behind Vajpayee in the photo below). Part of Vajpayee’s strength was that he always seemed to know what was happening, I was once told by Arun Shourie, who was a minister in his government. “People heeded him (Mishra) because they knew he was speaking with the full backing of his boss.”

Vjpayee MishraAlthough he led a coalition, Vajpayee’s government achieved some notable advances, especially on economic reforms which far exceed what the current Modi government has done He ordered privatisation of public sector businesses including metals and telecom corporations – something Modi has not dared, or wanted, to do. He began the debate in 2000 on a general national sales tax that was eventually introduced last year, and started opening up the government-controlled insurance industry to the private sector.

He also introduced a scheme for free education for children aged six to 14, and ordered the construction of the country’s first highway network, known as the Golden Quadrilateral, linking India’s four biggest cities.

More controversially, his government staged India’s nuclear tests in 1998 that were seen at the time as an example of excessive nationalism and of a desire (which succeeded) to establish India’s status in the world.

He tried consistently to improve India’s relationship with neighbouring Pakistan, despite criticism from some Hindu hardliners – again a contrast with Modi’s erratic approach. He famously travelled by bus to the Pakistani city of Lahore in February 1999 for a summit with Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister. Three months later, Pakistani troops triggered a mini-war at Kargil in Kashmir, but withdrew when Sharif failed to garner support from either China or the US. He then tried again in March 2001 when he held talks, which failed, with President Musharraf at the Indian city of Agra.

In December 1999, an Indian airliner was hijacked by Pakistani militants and Vajpayee was criticised for allowing it to fly on to Afghanistan, after landing in the Indian city of Amritsar. .

He was also criticised for not dealing firmly in 2002 with Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, who failed to quell anti-Muslim riots in the town of Godhra, allowing some 2,000 people to be killed.

For the BJP and its hardline president, L.K.Advani, he was the acceptable face of their nationalist creed, which he allowed to percolate out into academia and other areas. Textbooks were rewritten to reflect Hindu nationalists’ views of history and patriotism, and to remove the dominant more leftist narrative of the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Such actions led to major controversies, but they were mild compared with the extreme Hindu nationalism that has built up since Modi came to power with Shah.

The image that Modi tried to portray yesterday, when he made his final prime ministerial Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, was more in the Vajpayee mould.

He mapped out the plans and achievements of a socially inclusive government that cares for the poor and brings benefits for everyone ranging from adequate food, education and health services to toilets, housing, electrification and the empowerment of women. India’s great future even included its space programme sending an Indian into orbit. Inevitably the speech was full of generalisations and excessive claims – and it avoided any mention of Modi’s sudden demonetisation of 86% of the country’s bank notes in 2015 that caused extensive economic harm and hardship but achieved little.

That contrasts with the growing fear among Muslims and other minorities at a time when an authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture is spread across India with attacks on people alleged to be eating beef or trading in cows. Freedom of expression is being curtailed and dissenting voices silenced.

Vajpayee knew how to manage such tensions before they became destructive in a way that does not seem to interest the current government and party leadership.

Older Posts »

Categories

%d bloggers like this: