Impact reduced by a wink after he hugs Modi in parliament

Modi responds with a long list of government achievements

Rahul Gandhi made the most impressive speech of his parliamentary career during a no-confidence motion debate in the Indian parliament today (July 20), but diverted the serious impact by winking at a fellow Congress MP and laughing after he had astonished the house by breaking convention and crossing the floor to hug Narendra Modi.

He hit at key negative points in the government’s record ranging from the plight of farmers and broken promises made to them and others, to a spate of countrywide lynchings. He also criticised Modi’s handling of relations with China and alleged corruption on both a French Rafale fighter jet contract and the business activities of the son of Amit Shah, Modi’s henchman and president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

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This was a powerful condemnation of Modi’s leadership and it built up Gandhi’s reputation as a serious politician, but his theatricals (picture above and below) at the end enabled government supporters to condemn him for a “comedy show”. The BJP tweeted: “We cannot thank you enough for the entertainment!”

The impression that Gandhi created is important because he needs, at the age of 47, to be taken seriously as a politician and potential prime minister now that he has taken over from his mother Sonia as the Congress president.

No-one yet knows who will lead the opposition in the general election that is due in nine months’ time. There are attempts to unite the opposition, which comprises mostly regional parties plus the communist CPI(M), but there is no apparent leader. Gandhi has little visible support outside his own party, though he has said he would be ready to become prime minister if Congress (improbably) wins the most votes. This indicated he would not follow the lead of his mother, who passed the job to Manmohan Singh in 2004.

IMG_0976The no-confidence motion was tabled by the Telegu Desam Party (TDP), an Andhra Pradesh regional party, that recently broke away from the BJP’s coalition because the government has not delivered on an election promise to give the state special development-enhancing status. (The BJP’s second largest coalition ally, the Maharashtra-based ultra nationalist Shiv Sena, significantly did not support the government and abstained from voting).

Andhra’s development issues were lost in what eventually became a Gandhi versus Modi contest, with Modi making a long 90-minute uninspiring speech attacking the Gandhi dynasty and Congress, and listing the government’s claimed achievements.

The government won the vote by an expected large margin – 325 votes against 126 – but the opposition succeeded in staging the high profile debate, with Congress projecting Rahul Gandhi as the potential leader

Most of Gandhi’s speech, which lasted for more than an hour, was in Hindi, but he dramatically switched to English when he said that Modi and Shah could “not afford to lose power because if they did, many forces will turn against them”. They therefore acted “out of fear and that fear causes anger”. The whole of the country felt that anger as they tried “to silence every voice in India”.

This direct attack on the ethics and behaviour of the country’s two most powerful politicians echoed the view of critics who say that the BJP is running a harsh regime aimed at turning India into a primarily Hindu nation while, at the same time, refusing to criticise growing mob violence and killings.

Twenty-seven people have reportedly been killed in the past two months in lynchings linked to vigilantism whipped up by WhatsApp fake rumours, some over cow slaughter and others over suspected child abductions. Modi, said Gandhi, had failed to condemn the lynchings.

mj74qf8o_pm-modi-laughing-no-confidence-pti-650_625x300_20_July_18Criticising Modi’s record on stemming corruption, which the prime minister portrays as a major success area, Gandhi said that Modi worked for “10-20 big businessmen” and had “no place in the heart for weak people”.

In an attack at Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah, he said that “Modi’s friend’s son’s property has increased 1600 times” since the election and asked why Modi had been silent despite widespread media allegations.

He then accused Nirmala Sitharaman, the defence minister, of “speaking untruth” in parliament when she said that the terms of a contract for 36 Rafale fighter jets was confidential, so she could not reveal the price.

The deal was struck by Modi on a visit to Paris in April 2015, when his accompanying businessmen included Anil Ambani, head of one of India’s two Reliance groups, who has a stake in defence manufacturing and stands to benefit from the deal. Congress alleges that the contract, which was finalised on a government-to-government basis without open tendering, was corrupt and it wants the price revealed. Gandhi said that French president Emmanuel Macron had told him he had “no issues in making the cost public”.

Sitharaman then made a statement in parliament during Gandhi’s speech and produced documents that she said proved the need for secrecy. The allegation had clearly rattled the government because, presumably at Sitharaman’s request, the French embassy in Delhi later issued a statement saying the two countries were bound to “protect the classified information….that could impact security and operational capabilities of the defence equipment”. That statement however did not seem to include the price of the aircraft.

Returning at the end of his speech to Modi’s style and Hindu nationalism, Gandhi said, “You can abuse me, you can call me Pappu (dumb kid), but I don’t have a speck of hatred against you. I will take out this hatred out of you and turn it into love. I am the Congress…. to be a Hindustani, to be a Hindu, means to love somebody even if they attack you.”

He then walked quickly across and embraced Modi, who is known for bear-hugging other country’s leaders. Initially visibly startled, Modi then caught Gandhi’s sleeve as he walked away and spoke to him, patting his back.

Gandhi had successfully made his point, and maybe had indicated that Congress’s main plank for the coming general election will be that India and Hinduism means love not hate.

He spoilt the moment when, back in his seat, the television cameras caught him winking and laughing with Jyotiraditya Scindia, a friendly ally and adviser who was sitting next to him as he always does in parliament.

What could have been a significant and maybe even impromptu moment looked like a pre-planned hug-and-wink stunt.

Modi dismissed it, joking that it was an attempt to get him out of his prime ministerial seat so that Rahul could move in and invited him to try again in 2024.

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Posted by: John Elliott | July 4, 2018

Supreme Court backs AAP’s right to govern in Delhi

BJP in effect told to end harassment of the AAP government

AAP now has a better chance to show it can govern well 

One of the potentially most significant experiments in Indian politics for decades was given a new lease of life today (July 4) when the country’s supreme court ruled that Narendra Modi’s national government should not interfere with, and attempt to undermine, the elected Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi.

Since February 2015 when the fledgling AAP (common man party) won an overwhelming state-level election victory in Delhi with 67 of the assembly’s 70 seats, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has worked through the capital’s lieutenant governor to block many key initiatives and decisions.

kejriwal-residence_7f0a4da4-2cfa-11e8-a5fc-524b5b61153fThe Supreme Court today has ruled that, while the central government is responsible as it has always been through the lieutenant governor for land, law and order and the police, the elected government has the power in all other areas. The chief justice said that the lieutenant governor does not have independent decision-making powers and, while the government should consult him on decisions in other areas, he cannot interfere.

It now remains to be seen how much the central government continues to obstruct. BJP spokesmen have tried to dismiss the judgement as dealing with narrow legal issues, and a senior law officer said that “nothing has changed”. The lieutenant governor could still disagree with the elected government “for good reasons” and ask India’s president (which means the government) to take a call before a decision was implemented.

The AAP’s election in 2015 stemmed from the same frustration with the way that the country was being run that had led to Modi’s BJP sweeping general election victory in May 2014. The BJP expected therefore to win in Delhi, but it got just three assembly seats while the Congress Party, which had ruled for 15 years till 2013, won none.

This was a major political embarrassment for Modi eight months after he became prime minister and both the BJP and Congress were concerned about the AAP’s ambitions to field candidates in other states (which have not led to much success).

Modi then set about undermining the AAP’s reputation through the lieutenant governor, currently Anil Baijal (below), a former central government official, who reports officially to India’s home ministry.

Political experiment

The emergence of the AAP has been a significant political experiment because it is a rare example of a new style of party. It was born out of a country-wide anti-corruption movement in 2012, and it promised a different form of government that would be less corrupt and more attuned to voters’ needs than the BJP and Congress.

Led by Arvind Kejriwal (above), a former tax official and leading anti-corruption campaigner, the party held power briefly as a minority Delhi government in 2013-14. Failing to establish a workable administration, the party’s instinctive reaction was to protest and stage demonstrations, which it continued to do even when it won its big 2015 victory.

Anil_Baijal_PTILast month Kejriwal and other ministers occupied a waiting room in the lieutenant governor’s house and refused to leave for nine days as a protest against what they dubbed a strike by uncooperative bureaucracy. “It is obvious that your only intention is to paralyse the elected government of Delhi,” Kejriwal told Modi in a letter as the sit-in ended.

The problems stem from Delhi being a special sort of state with less power than India’s 29 states, but with a chief minister and a bigger legislative role than most other union territories. The powers have varied over the years, and Delhi governments regularly demand full statehood, which the central governments resist because, as in other countries, they want to have some control over how the capital city functions and is developed.

The BJP won a constitutional victory in August 2016 when the Delhi High Court ruled that all government decisions had to be approved by the lieutenant governor, who was not bound to act on the government’s advice. The freedom for the Delhi government’s anti-crime branch (ACB) to investigate central government officials working for it was also curtailed.

When the supreme court heard the case last November, the BJP’s government lawyers argued that there was nothing undemocratic about the central government and the president exercising complete executive power over the national capital through the lieutenant-governor, and that the “real power ” was vested with the president and the Union of India.

Today’s supreme court decision overturns the Delhi High Court ruling and rejects the central government’s arguments.

Chief justice Dipak Misra said in his written judgement that the lieutenant governor had no independent or executive power, and was bound by the aid and advice of the Delhi council of ministers. He could not work independently, nor be “obstructionist” but should “work harmoniously” with the government. With a dig at both the lieutenant government and the AAP, he added that there was “no room for absolutism or anarchy”.

Misra was presiding over a panel of five judges. One of the other four said that “nations fail when democratic institutions fail” and that a “society like India’s – one with a diverse culture – requires dialogue”.

The conventional view among Delhi’s middle class is that Kejriwal has lost sight of his original aims to introduce a new form of clean and efficient government and has been behaving irresponsibly, though he still has support among the poor. The Congress Party, which has held power in the past, is as critical as the BJP of the AAP because it fears an interloper in the former two-party system.

The AAP did badly last year in municipal elections when it won only 46 out of 270 seats with the BJP winning 184, and it now needs to prove, especially to the poor, that it can provide continuity as an effective government.

AAP success in scopes and health

It has made significant improvements in the city’s health and education facilities, especially schools where it has expanded state schools and curbed overcharging by private establishments.

It claims it has been blocked in areas such as providing education loans and expanding mohalla (neighbourhood) free health clinics for the poor, introducing home delivery of rations, strengthening measures to tackle chronic pollution, and introducing solar energy developments and anti-corruption governance measures.

It will now try to go ahead with these and other measures. Whether Modi allows that to happen, or continues to tell the lieutenant government to interfere, will be a measure of whether the prime minister can rise above party politics for the good of the capital city.

Saffronart celebrate its 200th auction

Top Delhi collector pays 15 x estimate for sensual figure at Christie’s

Saffronart, India’s leading on-line auction house, today beat Christie’s, the traditional market leader, with a two day auction of South Asia modern and contemporary art that yielded sales of $11.38m (Rs75.14 crore) – well over double the £4.53m ($6.07m) achieved by Christie’s earlier this week at its London live auction on June 12. Saffronart’s total included a new world record auction price of $3.998m for a work by Tyeb Mehta, one of India’s top selling artists.

IMG_0499crpdBut Christie’s produced the surprise result of the week with an astonishing hammer price of £450,000 – 15 times the £25,000-35,000 estimate – for Abhiman (Wounded Vanity), a sensual female figure (left) by Hemendranath Mazumdar (1894-1948), whose works were often bought by India’s old maharajas in the last century.

Believed to have been bought by Kiran Nadar, India’s leading collector who has a large art museum in Delhi, the 32in x 16in oil on canvas fetched a total price of £548,750 ($732,000) including buyer’s premium. That was five to ten times the prices that have been paid for similar works by the artist in other Christie’s auctions, and was inevitably a personal world record.

There is strong competition between the four or five main auction houses for South Asian art sales at a time when the top collectors are only interested in an artist’s best works and when it is becoming increasingly difficult to find lots of sufficient quality.

In sales three months ago, Mumbai-based Asta Guru, the most recent entry into the market, beat other Indian and international auction houses with a two-day on-line sale that yielded a total of Rs89.16 crore ($13.93m). Christie’s achieved $10.29m in New York and Saffronart came third with a Rs27.64 crore ($4.32m) live Mumbai auction.

The Christie’s South Asian modern art sale started amazingly well but later showed signs of auction fatigue for some of the most famous mid-late 20th century “moderns” such as Syed Haider Raza, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, and Maqbool Fida Husain, who failed to shine while older artists from the classical Bengal school did extremely well.

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A 29.5in x 21.5in untitled oil on canvas by Ravi Ravi Varma (1848-1906) sold for $545,455
(Rs3.60 crore) in the Saffronart auction – owned by a Delhi collector, it cannot be exported

Kiran Nadar (it is assumed) won the Mazumdar after just a few minutes of dramatic bidding that began at £24,000 and immediately jumped to £40,000. With just her and another bidder (possibly from the UAE) contesting by telephone, it then rose quickly through the hundred thousands and then in £30,000 jumps to the final figure that was made on the phone to Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s international department head.

Observers said that Nadar had not expected such competition and tried to explain the price by pointing to extremely fine detailed work, some in gold, on the woman’s bracelet and sari, and flowers in her hand and on the floor. Several people at the auction preview talked about how there were many similar portraits in Delhi and elsewhere by the highly productive artist.

Basically though, it was a case of two determined bidders pushing up a price till one of them backed off. If only one of them had bid, the work would have probably gone for little more than £40,000.

That was the sixth lot in the Christie’s sale. The first three lots had also done well, albeit at lower levels. All by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), they went at several times the estimates. These works are regarded as non-exportable national art treasures in India (like the Ravi Ravi Varma above left) so realise a premium when sold abroad.

By contrast, the moderns by members of Mumbai’s Progressives group of artists that began in the 1950s did poorly. They usually dominate auction headlines but two by Raza and one by Husain failed to sell.

Lot_22The hammer price for a medium sized 39in x 30in saffron coloured oil on canvas (left) by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), which was on the front cover of the auction catalogue, did not even reach the low estimate and sold after just a couple of desultory bids for £850,000 (£1.3m including buyer’s premium).

Perhaps the most disappointing result was the £700,000 (£848,750 with the premium) achieved by a gigantic 10ft x 10ft red, black and white acrylic on canvas of a falling figure by Tyeb Mehta, one of the best selling Progressives (see image at the bottom of this article). That was far below the £1.2m – £1.8m estimate.

Too large for many private buyers to contemplate, the work has a memorable history. It was painted by Mehta in 1992 as the central backdrop for an Artists against Communalism sit-in at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park at a time when the city was being submerged by communal riots.

“Tyeb Mehta got up from a very sick-bed, against his doctor’s orders, and painted the outstanding blow-up of his traffic leitmotif ‘falling figure’ for the extensive back-drop of the stage,” the Economic Times reported at the time.

“The red that he uses is equally the colour of love, and of blood”, said Hugo Weihe in 2012 when he was Christie’s international director of Asian art, just before he auctioned the work in New York for $722,500. “This was the obsessive theme that moved him—human suffering—and it was a painting that was incredibly important to him. It represents what was at his core”.

Saffronart Lot_33Offsetting that low result for what most buyers would see as an iconic but difficult work, was the record price achieved by the Saffronart auction for Tyeb Mehta’s 67in x 54in oil on canvas. Depicting Kali (left), the often-violent goddess who represents the ultimate triumph of good over evil, it is one of only three works that Mehta did on this subject.

It was originally owned by Ebrahim Alkazi, one of India’s most famous and expert collectors, and was sold by Saffronart for Rs5.72 crore, then a record price, in June 2007.

The bidding on this work – trackable because Saffronart’s website shows bids as they are made – was by two proxy potential buyers who, by 6pm (Delhi time) on the first day, had pushed the bids to Rs20.46 crore ($3.1m). That was more in dollars than the hammer price of £2.3m ($2.9m) which produced Mehta’s existing record auction price of £2.74m ($3.56m, Rs19 crore) including buyer’s premium in May last year at Christie’s in London.

So a record had already been made, but after that there was no more activity till a few minutes before the lot closed. Two bids then brought the price to a record of $3.998m (Rs26.38 crore) including buyers premium.

Its success helped 18-year old Saffronart celebrate its 200th auction with strong results, including good sales for the moderns that had been slow at Christie’s – the competition continues.

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India’s former president goes to RSS headquarters

“We derive our strength from tolerance” says Pranab Mukherjee

India’s former president Pranab Mukherjee today went to the heart of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s political and social movement and appealed for an end to the divisive policies being pursued by the BJP’s prime minister Narendra Modi and the party president Amit Shah.

“Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogma and identities or religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our identity,” Mukherjee told a youth audience at the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right wing umbrella organisation that has direct influence on government policy and embraces the fiercely Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organisations), that includes the BJP. (The full text is here)

“In India, we derive our strength from tolerance, and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity,” he said.  “I am here to share my understanding on nation, nationalism and patriotism about our country”

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Pranab Mukherjee (right) stands alongside Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, while the RSS trainees march and Bhagwat does the traditional RSS salute

Visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, central India, was a highly controversial move by the 82-year old politician, who held senior ministerial posts spanning four decades and who was defying the current Congress party leadership that had appealed to him to cancel his visit.

Even his daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee, a Congress activist, went on Twitter to warn him that his speech would “be forgotten”, but that pictures of him with RSS leaders would “be circulated with fake statements” to legitimise the organisation and plant rumours and false stories.

“India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one enemy. It is the ‘perennial universalism’ of 1.3 billion people,” Pranab Mukherjee said, attacking the very basis of the Modi and Shah approach, which is widely believed to be to craft India into a Hindu-centric uniform society where Muslims and other minorities are tolerated but not regarded as equals.

“Every day, we see increased violence around us. At the heart of this violence is darkness, fear, and mistrust. We must free our public discourse from all forms of violence, physical as well as verbal. Only a non-violent society can ensure the participation of all sections of people in the democratic process, especially the marginalized and the dispossessed. We must move from anger, violence, and conflict to peace, harmony, and happiness”.

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Pranab Mukherjee as India’s president welcoming Mohan Bhagwat to the presidential palace

He began by talking about the durability of India’s ancient culture which will have pleased his RSS hosts. “Throughout….2,500 years of changing political fortunes and conquests, the 5,000 year old civilizational continuity has remained unbroken. In fact, each conqueror and each foreign element had been absorbed to form a new synthesis and unity,” he said.

“It is the confluence and assimilation of all these cultures that makes us unique. It is important to remember that the confluence of cultures do not mean extinction of another. Our nation is neither bound by religion nor race. In fact our Bharat is made up of its diversity”.

“Our national identity has emerged through a long drawn process of confluence, assimilation, and co-existence. The multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special. We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. These have been a part of our collective consciousness for centuries”.

Congress supporters and other opponents of the BJP believe that the RSS should be shunned and condemned because it is the driving force behind the nationalist party’s Hindu dogma and provides it with its grass-roots strength.

Mukherjee was challenging that view and arguing that India has become riven and polarised with so much violence and discord since Modi’s government was elected in 2014 that there is a need for the RSS, as the BJP’s mother organisation, to be drawn into a national dialogue.

Critics will argue that this is a naive view, that neither the RSS nor the BJP will heed Mukherjee’s words, and that all he has done with his aura of a former president is to give the RSS a national legitimacy that it should never have.

His speech may also have had only a limited impact on his young audience who were attending a big parade at the end of a three-year training camp. Many of them would not have fully understood his speech, which was in English because he is not fluent in Hindi that is rigidly used by RSS and BJP leaders.

There have however been reports that the RSS fears the extreme authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture being driven by Modi and Shah is so divisive that it is weakening the BJP’s chances of being returned to power in a general election due within the next eleven months. It may have therefore suited the RSS to host Mukherjee and show that it is not averse to some of what he said.

Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief who invited Mukherjee, said in a long opening speech that “everybody has the right to have a political opinion but there is a limit to have opposing opinion”.

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Pranab Mukherjee on the stage with RSS leaders while an RSS choir sings

Mukherjee’s motives in making the visit are harder to divine. He may have simply wanted to start a national dialogue and may even see a possible political mediating role for himself in the future.

He went despite widespread criticism, including public remarks by two Congress leaders close to Sonia Gandhi, the party’s former president. Ahmed Patel, Gandhi’s closest political adviser, tweeted in response to Mukherjee’s daughter that he  “did not expect this from Pranab da(brother)!”

Anand Sharma, a former Congress minister and family loyalist, tweeted that “dialogue can only be with those who are willing to listen, absorb and change”, adding “there is nothing to suggest that RSS has moved away from his core agenda as it seeks legitimacy”.

Mukherjee has not been trusted by the Gandhi family since 1984 when prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and he (then the finance minister) hoped to become prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi took that job and immediately dismissed him from the finance post. Mukherjee formed his own party but then re-united with Congress.

In 2004 when Congress won the general election under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, he was the logical choice to take the prime ministerial post but she chose Manmohan Singh, who she trusted.

Mukherjee then held influential posts as foreign, defence and finance minister, though he did considerable harm to the economy in the latter job with taxation and other policies.

Eventually Gandhi agreed that Congress should back him as India’s president in 2012, a post which he carried out with dignity and effectiveness till last year.

The Congress Party softened its opposition after the speech. Anand Sharma said that “there was never any doubt of Pranab Mukherjee’s ability to articulate and his conviction, but for dialogue the other side must listen and change – hope RSS does it”.

That of course is for the future. Today, the main point is that, by going to the RSS den, Mukherjee has drawn attention to the seriousness of India’s current drift into a polarised and often violent society.

Strong list of schemes with varying rates of success

Archbishop sets the tone for criticisms

The Catholic archbishop of Delhi spoke for many of India’s minorities as well as a broad spectrum of liberal opinion earlier this month when he controversially asked priests to lead a prayer and fasting campaign ahead of next year’s general election. The aim was to save India from the “turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation”.

Delhi archbishopAs Narendra Modi’s government approached the completion this weekend of four years in power, the message was clearly against the re-election of his Bharatiya Janata Party.

It was underlined by a more senior Catholic church figure, Cardinal Oswal Gracias of Mumbai, who criticised the Delhi Archbishop (right) Anil Couto’s timing, but said there was “growing anxiety” among minority communities “because the government is not acting enough” to protect them.

This minorities point is perhaps the most significant criticism of Modi’s four years in power.

One can argue about how far his numerous foreign forays and myriad of high profile domestic economic and other schemes and announcements have led to real achievements, and whether he has or has not begun to tackle India’s job creation crisis.

Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, has given one view with a report card that awarded Modi an ‘A+’ grade for slogan creation and self-promotion, but an ‘F’ for agriculture, foreign policy, fuel prices, and job creation. His overall verdict was “Master communicator; struggles with complex issues; short attention span”.

That was ironic because Gandhi has till recently had the shortest attention span of any top political leader – and people I have spoken to who have attended meetings with Modi are impressed by the length of time that he listens and focuses.

What cannot be refuted however is that Modi has condoned, or at least has allowed, a deterioration in the social fabric of the country that has been engineered by more extreme elements in the fiercely Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organisations), which embraces the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right wing umbrella organisation that has direct influence on government policy.

modi_function_7591At the same time, Modi (left) has led a presidential-style attempt to centralise power and control the judiciary, civil service and media, while encouraging a weakening of the institutions that are essential for India’s noisy and turbulent but open democracy to continue to run the country.

Examples include the undermining of the revered Election Commission during the Gujarat state election last November, and the encouragement of bribing to swing the result of Karnataka’s state election earlier this month. His approach has been so authoritarian that a well-designed identity card scheme called Aadhaar that was introduced by the last Congress government has been seen as an instrument of state control.

The overall aim is widely seen to be the imposition of an authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture across India to replace the long accepted diversity of religions, languages and life-styles with intolerance and even violence against minority communities and dissenters.

That leads to Muslims being seen as an over-cosseted minority that needs to adapt to a new reality in which, to quote one staunch BJP supporter, they are regarded as “aliens”. They have been harassed, and beef-eaters have been attacked and even killed by vigilante enforcement gangs that cause communal unrest and extort bribes from those they target. In Uttar Pradesh, where such events have been most prevalent and a prominent Hindu priest has been made chief minister, there were police crack-downs last year both on slaughterhouses (mostly run by Muslims) and on the freedom of young people to meet in public.

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech and expression has been curtailed and there have even been killings of anti-Hindutva rationalists and independent journalists. Hindu nationalist activists have been appointed to many academic, educational and cultural institutions and other organisations so that current and future generations are imbued with the doctrine. Recently, there was a proposal to delay the posting of young bureaucrat recruits till after they had been assessed during an induction course, which would enable those who support the BJP and RSS ideology to be picked for the most influential ministries and other public service organisations.

The treatment of women has worsened and the official tolerance of rape, often with Muslims as the victims, has increased. Following the rape last month of an 8 year old Muslim child by men associated with the BJP in a Hindu temple in Kashmir, 49 top retired police and government officials bureaucrats wrote to Modi saying that the “bestiality and the barbarity” of the crime reflected “the depths of depravity” into which India had sunk. “In post-independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble”.

The broad trend began to emerge in the first few months of Modi’s government in 2014 when a minister implied that everyone apart from Hindus was born illegitimately. There were mass conversions of Christians and others to Hinduism, and a government minister turned the December 25 traditional Christmas religious and public holiday into a working day for many bureaucrats.

Modi and his hard-line ally Amit Shah, the BJP president, cannot be personally accused of ordering such excesses, and many members of his cabinet are appalled by the authoritarian and violent trends. This is however what happens when extreme elements feel free to indulge in excesses because their government is in power, which means that Modi and Shah can be blamed for not restraining their followers.

Modi was not elected to introduce such a society. He won a landslide result in the 2014 election by appealing to the frustrated aspirational young who wanted him to change the way that India had been run for most of the years since independence by the Gandhi dynasty’s Congress Party.

Sonia-and-Rahul-Gandhi-1024x751The young wanted job opportunities and the poor wanted to move on from Congress’s sops and corrupt aid schemes that were targeted by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (left) more at enshrining poverty and sustaining the status quo than generating change and personal advancement for the 50% of the population who are under-educated, under-nourished and have poor (if any) public health facilities.

The question now is whether Modi’s government has done enough on the broad economic front to have a plausible general election platform, and to win, despite promoting increasingly intolerant and authoritarian Hindu nationalism. Much will of course depend on whether the opposition, comprising the fading Congress and Communist parties plus regional parties, manage to sustain a new unity they forged to unseat the BJP after the recent Karnataka state election.

From a longer term perspective, the key question is whether the future of India and its 1.3bn people spread across 26 states and as many languages and dialects, with a variety of religions, is to be a Hindu-centric authoritarian and often intolerant country. Or can Congress and the other parties carve out an alternative vision of a more relaxed and all-inclusive government that drives change – which, to give Modi his due, has begun to happen in the past four years.

150 schemes

The government has announced about 150 schemes and slogans (according to a list in the Mint business newspaper), often revamping existing plans with new branding and apparent energy. Often there have been high profile launches that are inadequately followed-through, giving the impression that Modi has not been able to adapt the administrative style that won him praise as chief minister of Gujarat and develop as prime minister into a national leader rather than a ruler of ministers and bureaucrats.

If even only a few of these schemes were successful, Modi would justifiably be able to claim that he had begun to change the way that India is run. But he spoils his case with exaggerated claims about what has been achieved, and by ordering officials to generate evidence that over-state statistics.

A report published a few days ago from the rural Madhya Pradesh district of Mandla on the Scroll.in news website illustrates the intrigues and mismanagement that go into manufacturing statistics, and how tribal villagers in particular are frustrated and angry about what they see going on around them. “Incomplete houses, broken toilets, Adivasis (tribal people) anger in one district of Madhya Pradesh,” reads the headline.

‘Cultural aggression’

The report also point to the regime’s determination to spread Hinduism. “The BJP has ruled Madhya Pradesh for 15 years, but Modi’s ascendance has accelerated the Sangh Parivar’s cultural agenda,” said a tribal student leader. “The Congress looted us. But the BJP is worse, it is carrying out cultural aggression…they want to make us Hindus.”

In 2015, Modi promised country-wide electrification within 1,000 days – roughly by the end of this year. Last month he announced that all villages had been electrified, but that only means that 10% of local households have a connection along with some community buildings. It ignores the fact that many villages cover wide areas, parts of which will not have electricity. The government admits that 14% of households still need to be connected and the real figure is almost certainly far higher.

On Swachh Bharat (Clean India Movement), which aims to install toilets in all households and end widespread open air defecation, official figures show that 72.6m household toilets have been built in rural areas since 2014 making 366,000 villages “defecation-free”, though 95m households still do not have toilets. There are however many many local reports of toilets not being used and not being properly equipped, and there has been no independent verification of the figures. Last year the government claimed that the number of people defecating in the open had dropped from 550m to 320m which, if true, is significant in a country where 100,000 children die each year from diarrhoea related diseases.

One of the highest profile campaigns is Make in India, which has become an internationally recognised brand name but has failed to create the manufacturing jobs for which it was designed, despite a substantial increase in foreign direct investment. Its most serious and visible failing is in defence procurement and production were Modi has failed to implement existing policies to switch to domestic manufacturing and cut the total of more than 60% of purchases that come from abroad.

The same story of unrealistic launch claims and exaggerated reports of achievements extends to other schemes including the Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts campaign where the number of accounts has reportedly jumped from 125m in January 2015 to 316m this month, though there are doubts about how many are actively used.

Steady growth

On the economy, which is growing at a steady but unremarkable figure of just over 7%, the two most potentially promising but controversial and badly implemented policies have been the demonetisation of 86% of bank notes in November 2016 and the introduction of a long-awaited general sales tax (GST) last year. In the longer term the GST will yield dividends, further expanding the number of taxpayers that has risen significantly. Other positive moves have included a new bankruptcy code and an attack on banks’ non-performing assets.

Highway construction is one of the government’s biggest achievements, driven by Nitin Gadkari, the road transport and shipping minister, who is close to the RSS and is rumoured as a possible successor to Modi should the prime minister fail at the general election. Construction of national highways hit a record of about 10,000km in 2017-18, or 28km a day, up from 8,231 km in 2016-17. The target this year is constructing 40km a day.

On corruption, which demonetisation was intended but failed to address, enough has not been done. Modi claims his government is corruption free, which it is not, judging by reports I have heard – and of course, all political parties need to raise funds.

Corruption

The government is enormously cleaner than the corruption-ridden 2009-2014 Congress administration, but that was not hard to achieve and does not mean it is corruption free. Improvements among top ministers and bureaucrats in the central government do not run far down through the system, nor do they impact state governments which have a mixed record. The encouragement of bribing after the Karnataka election shows that the ambition to form BJP governments is more important than stopping corruption.

Corruption is far too deep-seated to be tackled quickly as has been illustrated by a sting reported a few days ago on Cobrapost.com about top newspaper owners, including the Jain family that heads the Times of India group, discussing biased pro-Hindutva coverage in exchange for large payments.

On foreign policy, a senior retired diplomat has told me that “Narendra Modi has a sense of the manifest destiny of India in the world” as it moves up the league of top countries by population and the size of the economy. That is the positive spin on Modi’s series of flashy excursions around the world, wooing both foreign leaders and the Indian diaspora, and announcing many billions of joint projects and investments.

Modi has undoubtedly raised the country’s international profile and strengthened its relations with countries ranging from the US and Australia to Japan and Vietnam, while boosting its involvement in international organisations that include the London-based Commonwealth.

Junior neighbour

With China, India remains, perhaps inevitably, the junior neighbour that always reacts and can rarely take the initiative. With its other immediate neighbours, Modi has run what many critics see as an erratic policy with Pakistan that has worsened rather than improved relations, while China has been able to increase its influence in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Yet despite the shortcomings, and the concern over the general Hindutva direction of the government, Modi has begun the job of making India function better, and he remains the most popular potential leader for the future, with 72% favouring him if the general election was held today according to the latest opinion poll.

India will never change quickly whoever is in charge. But there is always room for optimism about the future, as the Delhi archbishop showed in the prayer that he urged his priests to recite:

“Let the poor of our country be provided with the means of livelihood. Let the tribals, Dalits and marginalised be brought into the mainstream of nation building. Protect our legislature as a place of discerning minds; raise our judiciary as the hallmark of integrity, prudence, and justice. Keep our print, visual and social media as the channels of truth for edifying discourse. Protect our institutions from the infiltrations of the evil forces.”

BJP loses bid for power after Supreme Court intervenes

Congress-JDS coalition to be sworn in on 23rd 

The credibility of prime minister Narendra Modi’s much vaunted campaign to end corruption in India has been seriously undermined by his Bharatiya Janata Party’s bid last week to buy the loyalty of members of the Karnataka state assembly with large sums of cash and offers of ministerial jobs – a bid that failed ignominiously on May 19 when B.S.Yeddyurappa, the BJP chief minister, resigned having failed to bribe his targets.

A coalition of Congress and the regional Janata Dal (Secular) will (unless there is another mishap) be sworn in on May 23. This follows days of dramatic developments since the assembly election on May 11 when the BJP won 104 seats against 114 for an unexpected coalition of the Congress Party and regional Janata Dal (Secular).

The state governor, a BJP loyalist, gave the party 15 days to build a majority, but Congress appealed to the supreme court, which cut it to two days. That was insufficient, so Yeddyurappa dramatically stepped down at the end of a speech (below) in the state assembly before a vote could be taken – having indicated that he had been following the orders of Modi and Amit Shah, the tough party president.

Floor Test for BJP government

The Congress-JDS link-up is a marriage of convenience and may break up because of tensions and jealousies but, even if that does happen, this is Modi’s biggest setback since the BJP lost polls for Delhi’s legislative assembly soon after the general election in 2014.

It also marks a resurgence of energy and determination in the Congress Party, which has let the BJP push it aside in other recent state elections.

Anti-BJP leaders from other states encouraged the Congress-JDS to work together, and the result has strengthened the will of opposition parties to combine in a possible joint assault on the BJP, which no longer looks as invincible as it has done ahead of next year’s general election.

Rahul Gandhi, the dynastic president of the Congress Party, said that it was a “blatant lie” that Modi was fighting corruption. “He is corruption,” he declared on May 19. Prakash Karat, a top communist party (CPIM) leader, said the “BJP has murdered democracy in Karnataka”.

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The Karnataka assembly building in Bengaluru (Bangalore)

There is of course no proof that the BJP tried with money and job offers to bribe Congress and JDS members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) to change sides. The only possible evidence comes from tapes released by Congress of alleged conversations that Yeddyurappa, along with other BJP leaders and supporters (including a mining industry tycoon convicted of corruption), had with a Congress MLA. Some have been rejected as fakes but one says “come back and we’ll make you a minister and help in any way you want” and “we’ll get you 10 to 15”, which presumably meant 10 to 15 cores of rupees – Rs100m to Rs150m or $1.5m to $2.3m.

There is nothing unusual in this – bribing MLAs to change sides frequently happens in Indian politics, and the figures are always large. The significance of the last few days is the blatant way that the BJP insisted to the governor that it could win, knowing that it could only do so by bribing other parties’ MLAs, and then pleaded in the supreme court for more time to be able to do so.

V ValaAlso significant is the determination with which the till recently ineffectual Congress and the JDS corralled their MLAs and bussed them to luxury resorts so that they could not be seduced by the BJP and its emissaries.

It is not unusual for a central government to build support in the states by appointing supporters as governors to ensure they get favourable treatment, especially when election results are not clear-cut.

In this case however the governor, Vajubhai Vala (above), a loyalist who vacated his BJP parliamentary seat in Gujarat for Modi in 2001, went to extremes by inviting the BJP to form the government, knowing they would have to buy MLAs, and then by giving it an excessive amount of time – 15 days – to do so.

Both the bribing and the behaviour of the governor illustrate the arrogance with which Amit Shah approaches his job and, supported by Modi, has in the past won.

The BJP of course is not alone in its acceptance of corruption and criminality. In Karnataka, the BJP has 42 (41%) MLAs with criminal backgrounds, while the Congress has 23 out of 78 and the JDS has 11 out 37, according to an analysis by Karnataka Election Watch and Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). As many as 54 have had serious criminal cases such as murder and attempt to murder.

They were also far from poor. Some 215 MLAs declared assets of Rs 1 crore ($154,000) or more, and 50% declared Rs10 crore ($1.5m) or more, with three of the richest belonging to Congress. They could not have amassed such wealth legally unless they were in big business, which most undoubtedly were not.

Fourth anniversary

The fourth anniversary of Modi’s swearing-in as prime minister is next Saturday May 26 and, as usual, he and his ministers will no doubt manage this week to extoll through a largely pliant media what they claim to have achieved.

But it will be less plausible than in the past because the BJP’s ethically and democratically negative tactics in Karnataka cap growing criticism of both the government’s achievements and of the poor human rights and attacks on freedom of expression that have grown under the party’s Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) rule.

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Narendra Modi in Nepal while Karnataka voted

Modi personally remains popular, and the BJP did win the most seats than Congress in Karnataka – it would have been seen as a BJP and Modi triumph if they has won just a few more.

So it is far too early to predict the result of the general election. The BJP will no doubt recover its elan and there is as yet no coherent unified opposition and no credible alternative government – and Rahul Gandhi is not accepted as a viable national leader by other opposition parties or the electorate.

Modi and Shah will now look for new ways to win votes. For them personally, a victory next year is essential because, if the BJP loses, their positions will be vulnerable and they will risk being ousted by their many critics in the party who do not like their arrogant and strong arm tactics. There are even rumours already of mutterings against Shah, asking whether he should remain as party president for the two key state elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that precede the general election.

The immediate point however is that Modi was elected to clean up the way that India is run, and he said he would stamp out corruption. Instead of doing so, he and Shah have in the past week not only been condoning it but have encouraged it – and they lost because the supreme court over-ruled their crony governor.

BJP chief minister sworn in to form new government

Allegations of BJP offering Rs1bn bribes to MLAs to switch sides

MAY 17 – The BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa was sworn-in as the new chief minister of Karnataka by the state’s BJP-linked governor this morning, even though a potential Congress-JDS combine has more seats – the BJP has 104 seats and Congress-JDS 114.

The governor gave Yeddyurappa 15 days to get together enough supporters to prove a majority in the state assembly, but the chief minister said he would “seek vote of confidence at the earliest”  

The Congress-JDS appealed against the swearing-in at a rare emergency session of the supreme court at 2am this morning, arguing it would go against precedents set by the BJP in other states (see below).

The court refused at the end of a three-and-a-half hour hearing to stop the swearing-in, but said it will continue hearing the case tomorrow (May 18) morning and that the swearing-in was conditional on its final judgement.

The BJP’s move in Karnataka shows that it changes its tune from case to case in Modi’s determination to build regional strength before the general election due within 12 months.

Congress-JDS leaders are alleging that massive bribes of Rs10 crore (Rs100m/$1.5m) are being offered to their MLAs to move across to the BJP – as forecast below. 



 

MAY 15: Massive bribes are likely to be on offer in the Indian high tech state of Karnataka, where Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party wants to form a government following assembly polls last weekend. Earlier today, it thought it was winning outright but its celebrations were dramatically interrupted by the Congress and a state-level party linking up to try to keep it out of power. 

The BJP could still form the Karnataka government because it has the substantial finances needed to win members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) over from the rival parties – money and promises of lucrative government posts are irresistible for many regional politicians all over India.

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The results – NDTV graphic with vote changes since the 2014 general election in the column on the right

BJP celebrations began this morning when results and forecasts from counting centres suggested it had a near-majority of 110 in the 222-seat assembly, but that figure fell away to 104 within a few hours. The Congress Party, which ruled with 122 seats in the outgoing government, rose from 70 to 78, while the state-level Janata Dal Secular (JDS), led by H.D. Deve Gowda, a prime minister in the mid-1990s, achieved 38.

The Congress and JDS unexpectedly then joined up to form a potential coalition, with Congress offering the chief minister’s post to Gowda’s son, H. D. Kumarasawamy.

This indicated a new willingness by the Congress to link with other parties and, if necessary, let them take the lead. It also showed the way that regional parties are preparing to come together to fight the BJP in the general election that is due by this time next year

Together Congress and the JDS have a total of 114 seats, which is more than the BJP’s 104, and the two parties’ leaders rushed to lodge claims to form the government with the state’s governor, Vajubhai Vala, a BJP appointee who vacated his Gujarat parliamentary seat for Narendra Modi in 2001. The BJP sent a similar delegation headed by B.S.Yeddyurappa, a former chief minister. He later said that the governor had given the BJP about a week to prove a majority on the floor of the assembly, though this was not officially confirmed.

There will now almost certainly be a bidding war, which could lead to a holiday for MLAs who, as often happens in state polls, may be virtually locked up in comfortable holiday locations (see below) without mobile and internet connections to keep them away from rival parties.

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A tweet from Kerala Tourism jokingly advertising the state as a location for MLA lock-ups!

The governor’s apparent decision to invite the BJP, as the largest single party, and not the Congress-JDS, to have the first stab at forming a coalition was highly controversial.

The Congress-JDS claimed they should be invited first, citing the precedent of what has happened when the BJP has run roughshod in the past 14 months over Congress majorities in the states of Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya to impose its rule with the help of subservient governors.

Modi wants to secure Karnataka to keep his momentum going in the run-up to the  general election. If the BJP wins, it will be ruling in 23 states, leaving Congress with just three – Punjab, Mizoram and Puducherry

There was a high 72% voter turnout with Congress winning 37.9%, the BJP 36.2% and the JDS 18.4%. The Congress was widely expected to do badly because of considerable unhappiness about its record in power with extensive corruption and poor performance.  

BJP mining corruption

The BJP fielded candidates linked to the corruption-hit mining industry that led to a scandal when the party was last in government, centred on the Reddy brothers, one of whom was a BJP minister. Modi, who frequently claims that he is stamping out corruption, even seemed to exonerate those involved in the scandal by criticising Congress for projecting the region “as inhabited by robbers and thieves”.

Both Modi – and Rahul Gandhi who is trying to establish himself as a vote winner for the party of which he is now the dynastic head – campaigned extensively. Figures calculated by television channels suggest that Modi had a better strike rate in terms of votes than Gandhi, and that Modi’s electioneering combined with that Amit Shah, the BJP president, and Yogi Adityanath, the controversial Hindu priest-turned politician who is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, won widespread support, especially among young voters.

Yesterday Modi made what might be the last ministerial changes before the polls. Piyush Goyal, the minister for railways (and previously power), has been given temporary additional charge of the finance ministry while Arun Jaitley, the finance minister since 2014, recovers from a kidney transplant operation. In another move, Smriti Irani, an accident-prone former model and film actress, lost her job as information and broadcasting minister after a series of gaffes – in 2016, she similarly lost the key human resources ministry.

The Karnataka vote shows that Modi still has pulling power with voters who want a change from their current governments. He has sometimes not done so well in other state polls where the BJP is currently in power – for example in Gujarat last December where the BJP won the assembly election but with fewer seats, and in Uttar Pradesh by-elections where it lost seats. But he still has the power to win, which will be tested nationally in a year’s time.

Posted by: John Elliott | April 30, 2018

Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi start talking again

Friendly photo-ops in Wuhan 

While the world was focussed over the weekend on the historic meeting of the Korean peninsula’s two leaders, the president and prime minister of Asia’s two biggest countries were holding a rare high profile meeting that could herald a period of improved relations.

India’s Narendra Modi flew to the Chinese city of Wuhan on April 27 for an informal two-day summit with Xi Jinping, China’s president, after confrontations dating back to last summer on their disputed border high in the Himalayas, plus angry exchanges and threats exchanged between spokesmen and commentators.

modi-xi-wuhan_650x400_71524905642Nothing of major long-term significance was immediately evident, though good sounding words were exchanged about “peace and tranquillity”. There were none of the multi-billion joint agreements and memoranda of understanding that usually accompany summits – a fact that may point to the seriousness of the get-together.

It was however agreed there there would be a joint India-China economic project (yet to be identified) in Afghanistan, which is important because the two countries are both active there but have not co-operated.

There also seems to be some understanding about India’s refusal so far to join in with China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) international infrastructure plan linking Asia with Europe. China’s vice foreign minister, Kong Xuanyou, said after the talks that he did not think it was “important to see if India accepts the expression of the BRI”.

Both men played to each other’s substantial ego with photo opportunities. Modi revels in travelling the world for photo-op meetings – a week before Xi, he was with Queen Elizabeth and, (less relevantly) prime minister Theresa May, plus 51 other Commonwealth leaders in London.

In Wuhan, Modi enjoyed the distinction of being the only foreign leader for whom Xi has travelled out of Beijing, extolling (in Hindi) that “this in itself is love towards India and your affection towards India, which is visible…. this is a welcome for India. I express my gratitude from my heart.”

At the end of the meetings, two separate statements were issued on what had been discussed and achieved, though they did not emphasise all the same points, and India generated much more publicity than China, which played the event low-key.

India stressed joint efforts to avoid confrontations in the Himalayas, saying the two leaders have given “strategic guidance” to their militaries “to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs”.

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The two leaders on a house boat on Wuhan’s East Lake

That enabled Modi to show back home that he had achieved something positive by toning down the risk of an armed conflict. Newspapers dutifully produced appropriate headlines such as  “Modi, Xi direct their armies to build trust” in the Indian Express and “Avoid future Doklams & build trust Xi, Modi tell their armies” in the Times of India.

The Chinese statement had no such pledge. It merely talked about “the two militaries will strengthen confidence-building measures and enhance communication and cooperation to uphold border peace and tranquility”.

The meeting was however described as a “milestone in relations” by a Chinese official talking to reporters, which was over-interpreted by one India news-site headline  proclaiming: “Wuhan talks reflect China’s acceptance of India as a major Asian power.”

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Modi with Xi at the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan

Modi has sounded tough against China since last summer when the two countries’ armies had a ten-week confrontation at Doklam, a remote plateau in Bhutan on their undefined border known as the Line of Actual Control. The face-off eventually ended with an understanding that enabled both sides to claim an advantage, but nothing was settled and reports indicate that China has been embedding itself long-term on the plateau instead of backing off.

Along with other countries, India is reassessing its response to China’s increasingly global reach. On the one hand, it is becoming more active in international organisations (including the UK-based Commonwealth), shedding its traditional role of an often reluctant and frequently negative participant. At the same time it is prepared to go along with China’s blandishments while also maintaining stronger relations Japan, Australia and the US in a loose alliance against China known as the Quad.

In the short term, Xi was probably setting the scene for the June annual meeting in China of the Beijing-based Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which will bring together countries from the old Soviet empire and Asia. Presumably he did not want that to be upset by conflict with India.

Diplomats and some analysts in Delhi see the meeting more in terms of wider international relations than a primarily bilateral event. They suggest that Xi wants to consolidate relations with China’s Asian neighbours alongside supporting Donald Trump’s possible summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Maybe Xi is modifying his tactics, having achieved his ambition at the National People’s Congress in March to remain president indefinitely. Before that happened, he established himself as a tough leader with neighbours from Japan to Vietnam and India and tried to commandeer the South China Sea and other regional waterways.

He can now afford to choose his targets more selectively and there is no urgency to confront India openly in the Himalayas. Beijing has settled border disputes with 12 of its 14 neighbours, and will choose the timing with India and Bhutan, which are the remaining two.

The Wuhan meeting does not mean that India and China are about to settle the border, nor that confrontation between the two in the Himalayas will stop, nor that China will reduce its military capability there. But at least the leaders are talking again.

New funds and plans to try to re-energise a product of Empire

“An actual family with a royal family at its heart”

“The Commonwealth is turning the corner – it’s not quite round it, yet but it’s turning,” a leading official involved with the 53-country organisation, which gets more brickbats than praise, said to me at the end of the past week’s two-day summit and forums in London.

That just about sums up the most optimistic view possible on the current status of this strange post-empire body which, if it owes allegiance to anything or anybody, seems to do so to Queen Elizabeth who was 92 yesterday. She has been the organisation’s head, and has held it together, since her mid 20s. Two days ago she secured agreement from the 52 leaders attending the summit that Prince Charles, 69, her eldest son and heir to the British throne, will in due course take over from her.

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The Queen attending a birthday concert at London’s Albert Hall

The Queen and Prince Charles are therefore two of the week’s three top winners. The third is probably Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, whose country has shed its previous disinterest and is beginning to become a prominent player. It is doubling its contribution to a technical co-operation fund and providing funds and development work in other areas, though had hoped to do more.

India’s new involvement was directly sought by the British government in a series of moves over the past year. This reflected both the organisation’s urgent need for an injection of fresh thinking and action, and India’s growing international importance – it is expected to become the Commonwealth’s largest economy in the next year or two when its GDP overtakes Britain, and it accounts for more than half the Commonwealth’s 2.4bn people.

Modi was wooed personally by Prince Charles, among others, to attend CHOGM, which no Indian prime minister had done since 2009, and to step up India’s involvement. Modi then championed the prince in discussions to inherit the Queen’s role.

Questions at a press conference two nights ago about whether there were any objections to Charles drew answers that suggested not all the countries wanted him. The Ghana president, Nana Akufo-Addo, revealingly said there was “a strong consensus”, and Theresa May, the British prime minister said it was “unanimous” which, of course, does not mean there were no dissenters during the discussions.

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Suggestions that the role could rotate around the members did not have much support, and there was no other international figure of sufficient stature. The decision could have been delayed, but the British government and royal family lobbied effectively against that happening.

After the three winners, May was the fourth important figure this week, but more as a survivor. She desperately wanted to use the summit to pitch the UK’s interest in increasing its role as a trading partner after Brexit. Instead she was distracted by a row over the UK’s appalling treatment of Caribbean British immigrants, whose lives have been devastated by a “hostile environment” on immigration that she determinedly pushed as home secretary before becoming prime minister.

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Narendra Modi sitting in a prime position on the right of  Theresa May and Baroness Scotland at the Windsor Castle retreat

For months, she and her government ignored reports in The Guardian about the problems and rebuffed parliamentary questions, till a week ago when May’s office refused to arrange a meeting with Caribbean leaders. That triggered a crisis that continues this weekend despite days of apologies and offers of compensation.

This points to how accident-prone the summit, known as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), can be. It was boycotted by three countries in 2013, and only 27 the 50 that attended were represented by heads of state, because of the human rights record of Sri Lanka, the host. It could be heading for a repeat of that because Rwanda, where human rights abuses have a longer and more embedded history than Sri Lanka, has almost unbelievably been chosen for the 2020 summit.

No management structure

The primary problems are that the 53-country body itself does not have an effective leadership or management structure, and has been floundering for at least ten years as a worthy collection of nations with many laudable causes but no clear international role (which it did have for over 30 years against South Africa’s apartheid).

The Queen presides but does not lead, though Prince Charles, who champions various environmental and other causes, may begin to be more active before he formally takes over. The country that hosts the biennial CHOGM is regarded as the leader for the next two years, so Britain has that role till 2020. Frequently, however, the country involved has little capability or interest to push more than the ceremonials and summit.

Then there is the Secretariat, housed in Marlborough House close to the London’s royal palaces. At its head is a secretary general appointed by the member countries. The post is currently held by Baroness (Patricia) Scotland, 62, who was born in the former British colony of Dominica and was attorney general in the UK’s last Labour government.

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Narendra Modi walking towards Theresa May and Baroness Scotland at St James’s Palace at the start of the summit

In the two years that she has held the post, the general view is that the secretariat has not functioned well – preparations for CHOGM were hived off to a special unit in the Cabinet Office reporting direct to the May and headed by Tim Hitchens, a senior Foreign Office official who was earlier ambassador to Japan and assistant private secretary to the Queen. Scotland’s predecessor, who came from India and held the post for eight years, was regarded as charming but ineffectual – maybe partly because of India’s lack of interest.

This is why it was crucial for this CHOGM to set a new course while the Queen was still the focal point. It was due to be held in Vanuatu in the Pacific, which was hit by a devastating cyclone, so the UK gladly took over, enabling the Queen (who no longer flies abroad) to be present.

Nothing was done this week to tackle the diffused management problem, but officials hope the secretariat will work more effectively because the mass of declarations that have emerged are not just laudable causes but are, this time, anchored in more finance-backed action by individual states than before.

Under four bland themes of a “common future” that is fairer, more secure, more prosperous and shared, these include: a Blue Charter to protect oceans from the effects of climate change, pollution and over-fishing; a declaration on cyber security backed by £15m from the UK government to help individual countries; and proposals for girls’ education and observer work on elections.

With increased funding of schemes, the challenge now is to turn good intentions into action that will prove the Commonwealth’s worth. Individual countries are taking responsibility for implementing sections of the Blue Charter with, for example, Australia, Belize and Mauritius focussing on coral reefs, Sri Lanka on mangrove restoration, and Vanuatu on ocean plastics supported by the UK with a £60m commitment to a clean ocean alliance. On cyber security it will be India, Singapore and the UK.

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Prince Charles’s new all-electric Jaguar I-Pace heading the summit cars driving down The Mall – Jaguar Land Rover cars manufactured in the UK by India’s Tata Motors seemed to have a monopoly on the leaders’ transport

Trade did not figure in the two days as much as had been expected, but an ambitious target was set to increase the total between member countries to $2 trillion by 2030, up from $600bn in 2016 and an expected $700bn in 2020.

At the Windsor retreat, Modi focussed on the need to help small countries, especially island states, with climate change and other environmental problems. He stressed that aid should be geared to what the recipients need, not donors’ agendas. With Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Malta, India is creating a £5m small states trade finance facility to be managed by the UK’s Standard Chartered Bank and India’s Bank of Baroda. This will benefit India because it will help it develop relationships at a time when China is also looking for naval bases and ocean alliances.

India’s involvement is not however so ambitious as its earlier idea of hosting a trade and investment centre, or “business hub”, which Modi was thought to favour. Initially there was a general welcome for the idea, but the Indian commerce ministry lost enthusiasm, while the secretariat felt it would be losing a key role. A joint international exercise with private sector federations is now being explored.

India has accepted this outcome, seemingly having learned that changes and interventions can only happen gradually. “Reform and reinvigoration is a process and not an event – there is lots more to be done, but it is a good start, “says Manoj Ladwa, a London-based Indian businessman who organised Modi’s overseas Indians’ assemblies in London this week and in 2015 and helped with his 2014 election campaign.

Sensitive issues avoided

But key sensitive issues were avoided this week. Theresa May talked at the opening session about the need to eliminate old colonial laws that banned same-sex relationships, and she referred to the subject again at the end. Nothing was heard however on this during the summit’s formal sessions, nor was there anything in the communiqué, probably because 37 member countries (including India) would have felt criticised and pressured.

Freedom of expression and protection for journalists also failed to figure, despite recent killings of journalists, and even though the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (CJA) and other organisations produced a new set of principles on freedom of expression and the rule of law. Again India, where there have been recent killings, would have felt pressured. William Horsley, a former BBC journalist and prominent CJA member, says the failure “casts doubt on the capacity and conscience of the Commonwealth and its elected leaders to live up to the much-vaunted ‘Commonwealth values’ ”.

Since the organisation operates on consensus embracing all 53 members with their different priorities, politics and cultures, it is never likely make waves in these contentious areas, and will always fall short of implementing the “common values” that it proudly pronounces.

Strengthen development

The only way for it to prove its worth therefore is probably to strengthen its development role and turn its plans into action. Taking a cautiously optimistic view David White, head of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in London, says that “a refreshed Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, new working groups, the Blue Charter, and investment to support small states and to tackle trafficking and child exploitation point to a renewed energy and purpose, at least in the short term”.

Meanwhile the cheap jibes will continue. “Any 80-year-old institution based on the contours of a defunct 19th-century empire and largely held together by the charming drive of a 91-year-old woman is going to struggle to prove its modern relevance,” wrote a Guardian columnist this week.

Most of the severest critics are outsiders, who have little experience of, or interest in, what it actually is or does. There are of course voices such as the CJA’s Horsley, who understandably despair of basic rights being ignored.

Over recent months however, listening to people involved from different countries, it has become apparent to me that the Commonwealth, however insignificant it may seem compared with other multilateral organisations, is especially valued by the 30-plus small states because of the development and other aid and advice they receive, and because it gives them a voice, however small, in international affairs. Done effectively, that would make it worthwhile.

God Save the Queen!

“It’s an actual family with a royal family at its heart – it wouldn’t survive without the royal family who can speak to heads of government like no-one else can,” Lord (Paul) Boateng, a former British high commissioner to South Africa and Labour government cabinet minister, said at the launch of a mostly negative book on the Commonwealth this week.

As the future family head, Prince Charles will be inheriting a much more crucial task than he probably realises, which will require much more sustained focus than many of his other devolved activities.  God Save the Queen!

Other articles in this series:

https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/modi-hits-a-winning-streak-in-london/

https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2018/04/18/sharp-contrast-between-narendra-modi-and-theresa-may-on-human-rights/

https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/india-to-take-on-more-commonwealth-responsibilities/

https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/india-considering-a-leading-role-in-a-de-centralised-british-commonwealth/

https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/could-india-jointly-co-lead-the-commonwealth-and-counter-china/

Posted by: John Elliott | April 19, 2018

Modi hits a winning streak in London

An ego-boosting day from breakfast to dinner

Fire-side chat with an audience of 1,500

Narendra Modi is on a winning streak in London, which he is visiting for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that began this morning.

narendra-modi-queen-elizabeth-ii-pti_650x400_81524129006He had an ego-boosting day yesterday, having flown in from Sweden the night before. He was met at the airport by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary.

Theresa May, the prime minister, gave him breakfast, met him again at a technical centre, and saw him at a formal Commonwealth leaders’ dinner in the evening. He met the Queen for tea (above) and saw Prince Charles (below) at the Science Museum. No other Commonwealth leader had so much attention.

Between tea and dinner a new avatar emerged – in advance of the general election due in a year’s time – of a quiet and thoughtful Narendra Modi, full of simple homilies like “work hard”. There were stories about his youth and life from a tea seller’s stall to a “visitor to a royal palaces”, interspersed occasionally with issues such as surgical strikes on Pakistan and dealing with rapes.

Modi was speaking at an event in Central Hall, Westminster called Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath, (Talking of India, With Everybody) with an audience of 1,500 cheering people of Indian origin, many of them from his home state of Gujarat.

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Here was the prime minister, renowned for being a tough unapproachable politician and a great orator used to bellowing out his messages (as he did at a spectacular last time he was in London in November 2015), sitting with an interviewer gently answering questions in an often fatherly-like manner.

He found time during the day for an astute political move when he garlanded a statue of Basava, the founder saint of the Lingayat community, which is an important vote bank in the coming Karnataka state assembly election. The community is controversial because it is trying to to carve an identity away from mainstream Hinduism, so it was neat for Modi, a powerful Hindu nationalist leader, to show respect for their founder.

“Indian Commonwealth”

India is also getting a good press with newspaper stories about how it’s will overtake the UK and become the biggest economy in the 53-country Commonwealth by GDP in the next year or so (the timing will partly depend on the value of the pound and rupee). “You could almost call it the Indian Commonwealth,” BBC Newsnight’s presenter semi-joked on television last night, remembering it used to be called the British Commonwealth.

Narendra-Modi-addressing-Indian-diaspora-in-LondonThe meeting with Theresa May capped off a number of deals and agreements covering terrorism, cyber and other international crime, space, technology sharing through a hub at the UK high commission in Delhi, cleaning the Ganges, and skill development – said to total £1bn .

There is even to be an ayurvedic institute on traditional Indian medicine (combining the interests of Prince Charles and Modi , who have developed a rapport after a dinner together in Delhi last November).

But the two leaders failed to renew a memorandum of understanding that expired in 2014 on the return of illegal immigrants from the UK. This had been expected but talks will continue. It links with the sensitive issue of visas, with India wanting more access to the UK, as well as the UK pushing India for faster and greater immigrant returns – and with Theresa May’s on-going crisis over the Caribbean “Windrush generation” migrants.

The Bharat Ki Batt event (below) was of course pre-arranged – rigged, some would call it. The interviewer was Prasoon Joshi, a branding expert and a poet who heads the McCann World advertising group that worked on Modi’s 2014 election campaign. Joshi asked the mostly gentle questions, with a few prearranged ones coming from the audience.

IMG_0097The event went on for two hours and will have won over the Indian audience, who will be telling their relatives back home what a nice gentle man Modi really is.

In India there was blanket tv coverage, and the event marginalised several hundred demonstrators who were corralled by police in the nearby Parliament Square protesting over issues such as Kashmir, rape, and a Khalistani independent Punjab (below).

Modi spent so much time talking about himself and his views and attitudes, and how his leadership fitted in with the emergence of India on the world stage, that he teased himself for doing so. Looking at his watch he said, “Some people might say it is time to stop…and say that it’s all stage managed so he can talk about himself!”

But he didn’t stop and went on to answer a series of Joshi’s “last questions”, the final one about how he wanted to be remembered by history. Modi replied that since no-one remembered who wrote the Hindu religion’s sacred Vedas texts, how could it matter how a “nobody” like him was remembered. Earlier he had said, “Modi was not born to get his name included in the pages of history. I just want to do my job and nothing more than that. I do not want to be immortalized in the pages of history”.

“Ask not how I would like to be remembered, ask what India represents to the world….I have no need for fame or riches or power. I have lived through poverty, I am restless for India’s development.”

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He is being heavily criticised in India for not speaking out strongly about rapes, Last night he said “Rape is rape … How can we accept this?” and “This is a matter of great concern for the country and these sinners are somebody’s sons…..the rape of a (daughter) is a matter of worry, a shame for the country”. He then turned it into a parental problem rather than one of unacceptable male violence saying, “When a girl comes home late, all parents are worried. When a boy goes out and comes home late, why don’t we ask him where he was?”

Asked about the Indian army’s “surgical strikes” in Pakistan in 2016, he described the country as a “terror export factory” and said the strikes were aimed at sending an unequivocal message to the neighbouring country. “We believe in peace. But we will not tolerate those who like to export terror. We will give back strong answers and in the language they understand. Terrorism will never be accepted”.

Returning to his personal attitudes, he even said: “I always welcome criticism. People sometimes ask me why don’t I speak up against them. But my job is not to shut the mouth of people who are criticising me, it’s my job to think where I am going wrong”.

How other Commonwealth leaders will react to the emergence of Modi as what could be seen as an aspirant first among equals remains to be seen. There are even rumours he will travel in a separate car, not the coach carrying other leaders, when the summit moves tomorrow to Windsor Castle, an hour or so’s drive from central London.

India is adept at mis-managing its international relations, especially with its neighbours, because it has not discovered how to project its power without upsetting others. Modi has a chance to show the lesson is being learned.

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