Posted by: John Elliott | October 23, 2021

India achieves 1bn Covid vaccines but demand is fading

A good recovery from disastrous second wave

Complacency is spreading about Covid conquered

India is good at dealing with crises when a monumental effort is made to focus minds on a single short-term target. It has problems however with staying focussed and with continued standards of delivery and quality.

That is the story of the country’s impressive achievement of delivering 1 billion Covid vaccinations, which was reached yesterday (Oct 21) with 75% of the 1.4 billion population receiving the first jab. China reached 1 billion in June and has now delivered 2.2 billion.

A second jab has however only been accepted by 30% of India’s eligible population. That is mainly because there is a widespread lack of interest after the first dose and also, probably, a lessening of official interest in driving the delivery. The average daily jabs’ figure has gone down from 8.4m in August to around 5m.

Vaccination location – A BBC EPA photo

“People say to me ‘Covid has gone so I do not need a second jab’,” says Dr Randeep Guleria, director of AIMS, Delhi’s biggest hospital and a pandemic expert. “It takes a lot of convincing….we need to establish with people that one shot is not enough”.

Some states have been distributing gifts to fully vaccinated people. In Gujarat, free medical kits and ropeway rides have been to those who have both doses.

Like prime minister Boris Johnson, who recovered politically from Britain’s disastrously unfocussed government performance on the first wave of Covid last year with an efficient vaccination drive, so Narendra Modi in India can boast about the one billion jabs after political indifference, government inefficiency and an appalling health system led to a crippling second wave early this year with hundreds of thousands of deaths.

As one report put it this morning, “after months of acute shortages, a raging second wave, an opaque system of placing vaccine orders and technical glitches, India finally seems to be on track to at least partially inoculate its adult population by December”.

Dr Randeep Guleria

For Modi it is good politics – his photo adorns every vaccination certificate and he has been involved in extensive publicity in the past 24 hours, including a broadcast that has ignored earlier problems. On September 17, a daily record of more than 20m doses was reported to mark his 71st birthday.

Such feel-good publicity diverts attention from killings in Kashmir and Hindu-Muslim unrest elsewhere in the country, and an arms build-up on the Himalayan border with China.

With a total of 34m Covid cases, more than 450,000 people have died in India from the pandemic, according to government figures that are widely believed to be considerably under-stated. Total deaths have been estimated at one million and more.

It will now be difficult to rebuild the drive and focus that enabled the billion jabs to be achieved at an average of 3.6m a day since they began last January.

Extensive co-ordination has been needed stretching from the prime minister’s and state chief ministers’ offices, and the Serum Institute of India (SII) factories where most of the vaccinations are produced, down through state organisations, hospitals, medical centres and charitable and other volunteer organisations and local village helpers.

“It’s a huge step making a cold chain from the manufacturer to the site of delivery,” says Guleria. A billion syringes and needles were needed along with trained manpower to deliver and monitor any acute adverse reactions.

Logistics solutions have included drone supplies to some remote locations. IndiGo, the country’s leading private sector airline, is reported to have carried some 1,700 tonnes in over 4,500 flights, 68% of the total vaccine doses.

Women queue in Mumbai for vaccinations – a BBC EPA photo

Persuading people to accept the jabs has been a major problem with widespread rumours throughout this year on social media about the risks that range from simply becoming sick to blood clotting and infertility. Guleria says that people were waiting “for some six months to watch for side-effects” among those who were jabbed.

The Serum Institute is now producing 220m Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, known in India as Covishield, a month. The ceo, Adar Poonawalla, expects this to rise to 370m by January. The company would by then be able to build up exports that were stopped by the government earlier when supplies were scarce in India.

Adar Poonawalla

Ultimately, the success depends on what the telecoms industry calls last mile delivery, which is a challenge in India with 60-7% of the population living in rural areas, many of them remote locations where there is frequently mistrust of officials.

“We belong to the same tribal (Mayalali) community as the residents in these (Jawadhu) hills. It bonds us. It also makes them trust us,” 52-year-old T. Chennammal, one of three volunteer health nurses in a remote area of Tamil Nadu, told The Hindu newspaper.

Chennammal and her fellow nurses have walked miles on pathways to remote villages, administering vaccines for plantation workers, traders, village elders and farmers covering at least two villages every day.

The people in that area are lucky because the nurses regularly visit to do health checks and provide medicines. That is not the case in many other places, which is why Modi’s target to have everyone vaccinated with two jabs by the end of the year is a tough challenge.

Poonawalla’s vaccines are readily available but the demand has to be created and deliveries completed.

Tata takes on $2.5m a day losses and profits-averse business culture

Decades of disruptive government interference blocked progress 

Tata’s planned $2.6bn takeover of Air India has significant ramifications beyond the basic news of what must be the biggest loss-maker ever to have been privatised anywhere since Britain’s Thatcher government coined the phrase in 1979 for what had previously been called de-nationalisation.

First, it shows that Narendra Modi’s government, while facing intense criticism internationally for its harsh Hindu nationalism, is capable of pushing through a deal that has eluded previous governments since 2001. That could bode well for economic reforms, including further privatisations that are planned along with other government asset sales

Secondly it demonstrates the continuing clout of Ratan Tata, the 83-year old former chairman of Tata Sons whose businesses include software, steel, retail, hotels, cars and chemicals. He clearly still holds sway as chair of Tata’s charitable trusts that have a 60% controlling stake, having ousted his first choice as his Tata Sons successor in a boardroom coup five years ago this month.

It also points to a new era for India’s aviation after decades of public sector mismanagement and government interference, often corrupt. Private sector airlines will no longer have to compete with the heavy subsidies doled out by the government, while politicians, bureaucrats and senior staff will have to curb their plundering of the airline for their personal benefit.

The airline is currently losing Rs200m ($2.6m) a day and Tata has agreed not to shed any of some 13,500 employees for a year. Reports suggest an injection of $1bn or more will be needed – along with changing the business culture and rebuilding a faded brand.

A letter of intent was handed to Talace, a Tata subsidiary, today (Oct 12), following the $2.4bn deal’s announcement on October 8. Details are set to be finalised by December when Tata would take over the airline along with $2bn of its total $8.2bn debt. It is paying just $388m in cash to the government, which is shouldering the remaining $6.2bn debt. The group is looking for a new ceo for the airline.

There have been problems for decades – in 1987, Ratan Tata and another top industrialist, Rahul Bajaj, were put in charge of Air India and Indian Airlines, then the domestic carrier, by prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to try to introduce private sector methods and profitability. They failed.

Problems escalated in 2007-08 when the airlines were merged by Praful Patel, then aviation minister, without any change of top management nor any attempt to align and rationalise operations. Patel, who belongs to Maharashtra’s National Congress Party, also ordered 110 aircraft that were arguably not needed with the merger. He has been questioned by investigatory agencies over various money laundering deals plus questionable sales of traffic rights to foreign airlines done while he was, with hindsight, one of India’s most notorious (and suave) aviation ministers.

Ratan Tata and Tata’s other two airlines

“Air India is notionally India’s national carrier, but its real role for decades has been to line the pockets and make life comfortable for those directly involved in its affairs – from ministers and bureaucrats, who get kickbacks on aircraft and other orders and benefit from freebies and powers of patronage, to top executives, pilots and other staff who often don’t work but do block change,” I wrote on this blog in 2009 when Patel was in charge.

In that article, I quoted the then new chairman listing many of the problems he faced, which continue despite some inprovements:

  • Air India has 32,000 employees compared with 12,000 “in any like-to-like company”.
  • Employees are not conscious of working for a business in crisis.   
  • Pilots “sitting at home” are paid “80 hours of flying allowances”.   
  • Despite a freeze on recruitment, “we have recruited”. 
  • “There is a duplication of every activity and no single chain of command”. 
  • “Revenues are 14,000 crore and costs are Rs19,000 crore” (approx $2.9bn and $3.9bn).
  • “We have 22 offline stations where we no longer fly”.  
  • “We have an alarming number of aircraft (25) and engines (33) on standby”.
  • For 800 business class seats from Delhi, 750 meals are ordered but there are only 400 travellers – “no-one knows” where the other 350-400 go.

Despite all that, and his own experiences in the 1980s – and subsequent unsuccessful attempts to start an airline – Ratan Tata has been determined to take back the carrier that was founded as Tata Air in 1932. That was when India was still part of the British empire. The founder was J.R.D.Tata, his iconic predecessor as Tata chairman.

“It was an exclusive world that exuded discreet power, spelt high society, glamour, and wealth. If you had a job in Air India as a pilot, you were the most eligible and sought after bachelor. If you were an airhostess, you were a young goddess in the skies as unattainable as an Urvashi. That was then, when JRD Tata ran the airline,” says Capt Gopinath, former founder of a private sector airline.

One of Air India’s early aircraft with J.R.D.Tata who founded the airline

Tata Air was nationalised in 1953 by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, six years after independence, because he wanted key national assets to be in the government’s hands.

Tata gains around 130 aircraft (with valuable landing and parking slots in India and overseas) that it will need to align with its two existing airline interests – Vistara, which is a joint venture with Singapore Airlines, a long-standing Tata partner, and a stake in Malaysia’s AirAsia budget airline. Both are making losses.

Some observers, including India’s influential Business Standard, have said that Tata has been “generous” in the deal, given that various of the airline’s profit-making side businesses have already been off-loaded. The government has also been desperate to sell, having failed in 2018 because of a lack of interest when it wanted to maintain a statutorily-influential 26% financial stake.

There was just one other bid, from Ajay Singh who heads SpiceJet, a successful private sector carrier, but some reports have suggested he was only doing the government a favour because it needed a second bidder in order to let Tata win.

While Ratan Tata has driven the desire to regain control, the task of turning round the unwieldy, over-manned, massive loss-maker and creating a new culture will presumably be down to Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chairman of Tata Sons and a career executive, who headed TCS, the group’s leading information technology company, till the 2016 coup. 

This is the third daring takeover driven by Ratan Tata. A $2.3bn acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover from Ford in 2008 has done well, despite some problems. Cars fascinate him and the UK-based business gained financial strength plus management commitment and focus that had been lacking. But a $13.6bn acquisition in 2007 of Britain’s Corus steel company, which was pushed through despite opposition from some colleagues, was a loss-making failure.

Privatisations

For the Modi government, the deal is a major achievement. The previous Congress government, headed by Manmohan Singh as prime minister from 2004, was not enthusiastic about selling control of government assets and made little effort to tackle Air India’s problems, leaving Patel in charge for nearly seven years.

Privatisation involves the government moving ownership into the private sector by selling off a controlling financial stake and Air India is the first case in India since 2004 – after the previous Vajpayee BJP government had privatised 12 corporations. Divestment, as it is practiced in the country, involves minority stakes being sold without any change in management. Both privatisation and divestment are usually opposed by vested interests, as happened with Air India, notably by trade unions and top management and other vested interests that do not want their status and benefits to be upset.

The Modi government’s pending divestment initiatives include an initial public offering for Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), along with privatisations where the government is selling controlling stakes in Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL), BEML that makes earth moving equipment, and the Shipping Corporation of India, along with steel and electronics businesses and a helicopter operator.

The Air India case should help to encourage buyers for those businesses because it shows that the government does have the will to finalise deals. It might also help large-scale monetisation plans announced earlier this year, which involve handing operation of businesses over to the private sector while the government maintains control. 

But first Tata has to finalise its deal with the government in the next two months and maintain currently favourable reactions among the staff. Then it will gain control and hope that its due diligence has not missed any more of the sort of problems that the chairman outlined in 2009.

Posted by: John Elliott | September 26, 2021

India’s relationship changes with Biden’s US

Modi criticised in Washington for curbing democracy and freedoms

AUKUS shunts India away from military resistance to China

Two key changes in India’s links with the US have emerged in the past ten days. During a high profile visit to Washington, prime minister Narendra Modi has faced thinly veiled criticism of the way that his government is reducing the scope of India’s democratic freedoms, while the new AUKUS security alliance between the US, UK and Australia announced on September 17 points to a reassessment by the Biden administration of India’s potential military usefulness in the Indo-Pacific.

The criticisms, which came mainly from vice president Kamala Harris, and were less forcibly voiced by president Joe Biden, were rebutted by Modi when he addressed the UN general assembly yesterday (Sept 26).

But the reassessment of India’s security role will probably be welcomed because the country is traditionally reluctant to become tied to security alliances, especially when it is trying to find balance in its complex relationship with an increasingly aggressive China.

This has led to questions about India’s potential effectiveness in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad with the US, Japan, and Australia, which has been developing as a counter-force against China’s expansionism in the past four years.

Now, with AUKUS’s high technology defence agenda against China, initially involving the development of nuclear submarines for Australia, the Quad can focus on broader less strategic military issues, as it did when the leaders of the four countries met in Washington on September 24. That fits with India’s agenda.

Modi, whose 71st birthday was widely celebrated by his Bharatiya Janata Party across India just over a week ago, has been accustomed to being enthusiastically greeted in Washington since he came to power in 2014.

To begin with, he met a surprisingly receptive Barack Obama, and then there was his rumbustious soul mate Donald Trump. Modi and Trump would hug each other (below in 2017), and even staged what amounted to joint political rallies in each other’s countries in 2019 (Houston with Indian Americans) and 2020 (Ahmedabad) with the Indian prime minister seemingly endorsing Trump for re-election.

There is now a basic antipathy in Washington for Modi’s brand of nationalism, which is focussed on building a Hindu homeland where Muslims do not have equal ranking, and where freedoms of speech and expression are harshly curbed. Obama said during an October 2017 visit that Muslims should feel integrated, something that “should be cherished and nurtured”, but that was to a private audience at the end of his trip after leaving Modi.

Given that background, Modi’s first face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden on September 24 went well. There was no hug, but the two men grasped each other’s arms and produced all the usual platitudes about shared interests. The president even mentioned family ties with 4m Indian Americans in the US and his relatives with the Biden name who have been found in India.

However, after saying that the meeting marked “a new chapter in the history of US-India ties”, he stressed the need for “democratic values” and added that the messages of “non-violence and tolerance matters more than ever before”.

Kamala Harris (who has an Indian mother) was more outspoken during a public part of her meeting with Modi (above). This echoed her earlier criticisms of the government’s policies on issues such as Kashmir.

Turning to look straight at Modi (video here), she said: “As democracies around the world are under threat, it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries and around the world and that we maintain what we must do to strengthen democracies at home.”

Directly challenging Modi’s approach, she said “I know from personal experience, and from my family, of the commitment of the Indian people to democracy and to freedom, and to the work that may be done and can be done to imagine and then actually achieve our vision for democratic principles and institutions”.

Modi failed to attend a subsequent Quad meeting held by Harris, which went ahead with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia. Modi may have stayed away because he resented what Harris had said in public, but there were also suggestions it was because he had already had his own meeting with the vice president, which officials later said had been constructive.

His response was robust when he spoke at what looked (on television – pic below – and noted on Twitter) like a rather sparsely attended meeting of the UN general assembly in New York.

Sidestepping Harris’s points, he cited his own rise from helping his father run a tea stall to becoming prime minister as an example of Indian democracy . India, he said, was the “mother of all democracies” and its diversity was “a symbol of our strong democracy, where dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects are examples of a vibrant democracy”.

The Quad was first set up in 2007 without much impact, but it has been gradually revived since 2017 and is now seen as a key bulwark against China’s aggression with the task of “maintaining stability in the Indo Pacific”.

Six months ago the four leaders came together for the first time in a virtual meeting – earlier contacts had mostly been between officials. The Washington meeting (photo below) was the first time they had met face to face. They discussed issues such as trade, the Covid pandemic, climate change, and stability in the Indo-Pacific, plus the need for Afghanistan to develop without becoming a hub for terror and condemnation of Pakistan’s role in supporting terror groups.

Responding to China’s aggression, they agreed to “recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”. But their future work will be on non-military areas ranging from vaccines and infrastructure to semiconductor supply, cyber security and satellite data – all areas targeted by China.

The AUKUS deal has underlined Australia’s superior status compared with India because, though the US sells high technology defence equipment to India and has an agreement on developing nuclear power plants, it has resisted behind-the-scenes requests for nuclear submarine technology.

“An American offer of nuclear propulsion technology, such as the one made to Australia, would be welcomed in New Delhi,” says Ajai Shukla, a leading defence analyst. “However that would carry the quid pro quo of alliance burdens, a price that India, unlike Australia is unwilling to pay.”

That goes to the nub of India’s conundrum. While it welcomes growing links with the US, including large defence orders, it resists being drawn too far into a western net, partly because it is wary of provoking China into renewed Himalayan border confrontations after major skirmishes, and deaths, last year. It also wants to continue placing major defence orders with Russia, which the US has tried, and failed, to stop.

India is therefore much more comfortable in the Quad, as modified by AUKUS, and the Biden administration probably respects that. The Harris-Modi clash over democracy and freedoms will however be less easily accommodated since Modi will not be softening his Hindu nationalism and all it entails and Harris’s line is seemingly unshakeable.

Legacy of anti-Taliban Massoud lives on – my August 2001 interview

Ahmad Shah Massoud condemned Pakistan in his last tv interview 

Afghanistan’s north-eastern province of Panjshir that became famous when its local warlord, Ahmad Shah Massoud, held out against both the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s, is becoming a focal point for resistance against the new Taliban rulers who have a grip on the rest of the country.

Ahmad Shah Massoud’s son Ahmad Massoud and brother Ahmad Wali Massoud – along with Amrullah Saleh, a former Massoud aide and Afghanistan’s senior vice president – have formed the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan in the Panjshir valley and have warned of possible war. There are already reports of fighting.

Twenty years ago, on August 13, 2001, I conducted the last television interview given by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the internationally famous 48-year old leader of the Northern Alliance, the main Afghan resistance group that prevented both Soviet troops and the Taliban gaining a foothold in the valley.

Ahmad Shah Massoud with his fighters in the late 1990s – Emmanuel Dunand AFP

His main message was condemnation of Pakistan for its primary role supporting the Taliban – a role that Pakistan continues to play today, negating efforts for peace in the region.

“In the field of military affairs, it [the Taliban] is mainly controlled by Pakistani advisors and Generals, and in the foreign affairs department it is basically run on the advice of Pakistanis,” said Massoud. Pakistan wanted “to become the axis of all Islamic countries in the region”, though that was “beyond its capacity”. 

Four weeks after the interview, on September 9 2001, Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda terrorists posing as Arab television reporters, just two days before the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. 

He was then the deputy president and defence minister of the UN-recognised Islamic Government of Afghanistan that opposed the Taliban government based in Kabul. He was assassinated to prevent him being backed by America as a stabilising force and Afghanistan’s potential new leader after what was to become 9/11. 

With such a history, it is maybe not surprising that the Massoud clan should emerge as the focal point for resistance – and for media attention – as the Taliban asserts its power after sweeping through the rest of the country.

Massoud’s brother, who was earlier Afghanistan’s ambassador in the UK, has called on the Taliban to form an inclusive government. In a video interview with the Financial Times he warned, “If you conquer the [presidential] palace by force, it doesn’t mean you conquered the hearts and minds of the people”.

His 32-year old son has told the told The Washington Post that war was “unavoidable” if the Taliban refused dialogue and added, to the Dubai-based Al Arabiya tv channel, “We confronted the Soviet Union, and we will be able to confront the Taliban.” 

Ahmad Massoud

The Taliban said yesterday that “hundreds” of its fighters were heading to the Panjshir Valley, 70 miles north of Kabul, “to control it, after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully”.

Saleh tweeted last night: “Talibs have massed forces near the entrance of Panjshir a day after they got trapped in ambush zones of neighboring Andarab valley & hardly went out in one piece. Meanwhile Salang highway is closed by the forces of the Resistance”.

My 2001 interview, for Aim Television, a Delhi-based tv programme company, took place at a Northern Alliance base near the valley. Massoud was flanked by two aides.

One of them was Saleh, now 48, who has in the past week claimed to be the country’s “legitimate caretaker president” after president Ashraf Ghani fled the country. 

In 2001, Saleh was the friendly ‘minder’ for our trip. More importantly, he was Massoud’s link with international intelligence agencies including the CIA and MI6. He was also in touch with allies in neighbouring Tajikistan, which was our base for flying covertly in and out of the country in aged Russian-made helicopters. Saleh later became head of the country’s intelligence service and interior minister. India at the time was a major supporter via Tajikistan.

The other aide was Abdullah Abdullah, then Massoud’s foreign minister. Since last year Abdullah, 60, has been the leader of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR). He is now in Kabul with former president Hamid Karzai and others negotiating with the Taliban.

Abdullah is more pragmatic than Saleh and will be seeking ways to remain relevant. He has extensive international diplomatic links, but is surrounded by more formidable operators. 

Saleh – famed for surviving suicide attempts – has a far-flung network of intelligence contacts and has gone out on a limb in the past week declaring he would “never be under one ceiling with Taliban”. 

Amrullah Saleh

 “I will never, ever and under no circumstances bow to the Taliban terrorists. I will never betray the soul and legacy of my hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander, the legend and the guide,” he wrote on Twitter.

More co-operatively, Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan and a Massoud family ally, told The New York Times they would work the Taliban if there was an inclusive government. 

Massoud’s son has also said an “inclusive government” would be acceptable but warned in an interview with the UK’s Daily Telegraph, “We are telling them that as soon as war breaks out in the Panjshir Valley, then there is no going back,”

He spent most of his youth abroad, including high school in Iran and a year at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy before gaining degrees in war studies and international politics at London University. Till a few weeks ago, he was living in the west London suburb of Ealing,

His father was brought to international attention by Sandy Gall, an ITN tv newscaster and foreign correspondent, who travelled across Afghanistan in the early 1980s to find the man who had been described to him by French and British officials as an ace Mujahideen leader fighting the Soviet occupation.

In our interview, Massoud added to that reputation by speaking with the assurance and self-confidence of a statesman who knew what his goals were and how they could be achieved. Fluent in French, he cut a suave stylish figure (as does his son wearing the same Pakol Afghan hat)) that belied his reputation as a ruthless anti-Taliban leader.

He stressed that, though “the problem of Afghanistan does not have a military solution”, it was essential for him to achieve “a military balance and equilibrium” in order for the Taliban to lose the support of Pakistan and be removed from power. He claimed at the time to control a third of Afghan territory, significantly more than the 5% figure announced by the Taliban.

Ahmad Massoud at a ceremony to honour his father in Paris in March.
NYT – Pool photo by Christophe Archambault

Referring to what is generally known as Pakistan’s desire for strategic depth, he said it wanted to become “the axis of Islamic countries” in the region. “Afghanistan is their first step to Central Asia. With these intentions, Pakistan has established madrassas within Pakistan for students from Central Asian countries, where they study and these students are trained by them for furtherance of Pakistani goals in Central Asia. Pakistanis are increasing their influence in the whole region and will not be only satisfied with Afghanistan. Of course, this is their first step and they will not confine themselves to just Afghanistan.”

Pakistan wanted to reduce Afghanistan “from the level of a state to tribalism”. It had “never wanted to see that the Taliban has a regular and an organised army. 

He said that Pakistan “used the Hizb-e-Islam of Hekhmatyar to threaten and murder Afghani scholars” – Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was a ruthless Mujahideen leader who became Afghanistan’s prime minister on two occasions in the 1990s and is now in the Kabul negotiations alongside Karzai and Abdullah.

Pakistan wanted to show that Afghans were “uncultured and uncivilised” and that, having ”always led a tribal life”, they had ”become accustomed to tribal habits and will always remain so”. Pakistan’s strategy was “to destroy the identity of Afghans”. It wanted “to bring down Afghanistan from the level of a state to tribalism.” 

Ahmad Wali Massoud – credit Amir Qureshi/ AFP/Getty

Publicity for the interview was mostly lost in the mass of international news coverage after 9/11 because Massoud was not of primary interest. The text was originally published in The Hindu, a leading India newspaper, on September 12, 2001, and is now available on the Indian Ministry of External Affairs website (with my name removed from the credit line)

The whole saga was reported on September 29 2001 in an Indian magazine by Nandan Unnikrishnan, a journalist who was the programme producer and is now at the Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation.

Though the Panjshir Valley was never conquered during the years of the Soviet occupation and Taliban rule, the river banks were still strewn with crippled Soviet tanks and other armaments on my last visit, with Sandy Gall, in 2003. 

Defence technology has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, which must have reduced the valley’s impregnability. It is far from clear whether the current Massoud resistance grouping is equipped to beat off the Taliban if aggression in the media does lead to fighting because local officials refuse to recognise Kabul’s diktat. There is also risk of the valley being isolated without links, that were controlled by Massoud in earlier years, north to Tajikistan and other central Asia states.

Longer term though, the Massoud legacy and the gathering of anti-Taliban leaders in the valley could provide the core for resistance to an extremist Kabul government.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 6, 2021

HMS Queen Elizabeth fails to live up to its China seas billing

US defence secretary said Britain more useful “nearer home”

British foreign secretary tries to re-state a UK role in the region

It was to have been a triumphal demonstration of Brexit Britain’s continuing global reach into Asia and the Pacific, with the proud new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth showing that the UK can play an international role in challenging China’s widening power.

Heavily guarded by a US destroyer and a Dutch frigate and equipped with American F-35 air fighters, the £3bn QE has however just sailed through the contested South China Sea, where Beijing claims extended territorial waters around newly developed islands that have become fully-fledged military and air bases.

There was apparently no major incident, despite high profile hype dating back three years about Britain establishing “freedom of navigation” rights. The Ministry of Defence and Royal Navy websites have had little update information and even Boris Johnson, the hubristic prime minister, has avoided hailing “Rule Britannia”.

The QE is of course doing worthy work “showing the flag” at a time when Boris Johnson has announced Britain’s post-Brexit “Asia Tilt”, which basically means negotiating trade deals to replace what has been lost from the European Union.

But the Royal Navy is much diminished after years of budget cuts. Ignominiously, one of its destroyers charged with protecting the QE on its 16,000 nautical mile voyage had engine problems early on and had to retreat to an Italian port for repairs (leaving only one of the navy’s six ships in its class actively afloat).

Then, just as the QE was approaching waters claimed by China, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin punctured Britain’s Asian ambitions, implying they were misplaced. He applauded the “historic” voyage but added, “Are there areas that the UK can be more helpful in other parts of the world?” With scarce resources the US and its allies should “work out the best way to share military burdens”, hinting that Britain’s best way was nearer home. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth and escorts in the South China Sea

The Financial Times was the only media outlet to spot and highlight those words in the speech that was made by Austin in Singapore at an event sponsored by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The FT report brought tweets of protest from the IISS moderator, a former British staffer on the newspaper, who claimed this was not Austin’s main message and that no one else had spotted the remarks. 

The line however looks sound and could well have been a warning to Johnson not to allow his Global Britain hype to lead to a clash that could not be won in an area virtually controlled by China.

The report has gained credibility with repeated mentions in The TimesThe Guardian, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post and elsewhere, that would not have appeared without prior checking with US sources,. 

Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, tried on August 4 to re-set Britain’s case, saying that Austin’s remarks had been “over interpreted”. Raab talked about the UK’s diplomatic and other Asia Pacific roles working, for example, with Indonesia on counter-terrorism and Vietnam on anti-trafficking – bypassing the point that that such laudable work does not need an aircraft carrier protected by other nations’ ships. 

The Observer newspaper, the Sunday version of the rabidly anti-Boris Johnson Guardian, ran an article of August 1st saying that “Sailing into imperial delusions is no way to run foreign policy”. It mocked defence secretary Ben Wallace for declaring the aim was to “fly the flag for Global Britain”.

Flight deck operations with F-35s on HMS Queen Elizabeth in the South China Sea on July 27, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by 1st Lt. Zachary Bodner)

China reacted angrily warning (in its aggressive Global Times mouthpiece) that the QE flotilla should “remain restrained and obey the rules”, adding that it was “likely to escalate attempts to expel the warships at any time.” 

In August 2018, another British warship sparked a diplomatic row when it sailed intentionally too close to the Paracels and was tracked at close range by Chinese ships and aircraft. That was ordered by the then defence secretary, gaffe-prone Gavin Williamson (a Boris Johnson favourite and now a disastrous education secretary), who referred in a 2019 speech to the QE’s future freedom of navigation voyage. Britain, he said, would boost its post-Brexit global military standing and “enhance our lethality” in response to the threats posed by Russia and China.

On 12th July the group met up with the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group  (Photo: US Navy).

Germany also seems to have had second thoughts about provoking China with a frigate that set out this week on a seven-month voyage that will include the South China Sea. Beijing asked Germany to define the ship’s purpose, exposing splits on the issue in Angela Merkel’s government, and withheld permission for it to call in at Shanghai. 

Quad exercises

India – which did exercises with the QE strike group in the Indian Ocean – is joining the throng. It has four ships, two armed with missiles, setting out for a two-month deployment in southeast Asia that will include exercises with the US, Japan and Australia, its partners in what is called the Quad security alliance.

India will no doubt be careful not to challenge China’s South China Sea claims – it has enough problems dealing with the two countries’ 15-month long confrontation in the Himalayas where China is steadily encroaching on what India regards as its share of disputed territory.

At the heart of all this naval activity – which includes American and Chinese ships – lies the world’s dichotomy about how to deal with an aggressive China under its president Xi Jinping. Britain has failed to affect China’s brutal clampdown on freedoms in its former territory of Hong Kong, and its complaints about treatment of the Uighurs in Xinxiang province are ignored along with protests from other countries.

As has been shown over the QE, China will issue threats to those who sail too close to the heavily armed islands that it has expanded in recent years, despite international protests, to the point where they control the area.

It will not however be worried by the deployment of one ship from Germany, a few from the UK and its allies, and a few more from India. These countries are underlining international determination not to let China block key shipping lanes but no nation – maybe apart from the US – can muster the force that would be needed to deter Beijing.

Britain however is not giving up. It has announced that it will permanently assign two offshore patrol vessels to work with other countries in the region – just a token gesture from the country that once “ruled the waves”. 

Saffronart leads auction results with $28m sales this year 

Christie’s and Sotheby’s far behind at about $7m

The auction market for modern Indian art has been doing well during the Covid pandemic, but the big international auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, are not playing a leading role.

In the past four months, prices above $5m have been achieved on two works, establishing world records for Indian modern art and for their artists. Both works were sold by Mumbai-based Saffronart. 

Amrita Sher-Gil’s “In the Ladies’ Enclosure

One was a rare figurative work, In the Ladies’ Enclosure, by Amrita Sher-Gil (above) that went in a live auction yesterday (July 13) for a hammer price of Rs32 crores ($4.35m) – Rs37.8 cores ($5.14m) including buyers’ premium.

In March, an untitled 50in x 80in oil on canvas by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (below) exceeded its top estimate and sold for Rs 39.98 crore ($5.55m) including the premium That set a new India record price, beating the $5.2m achieved for another Gaitonde in a Mumbai-based Pundole’s auction last September.

V.S.Gaitonde’s untitled record work

Saffronart’s total for 2021 so far is now $28m compared with $7.1m for Sotheby’s and approaching $7m for Christie’s (including an important after-auction deal of a rare Sher-Gil work – see image below). Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions took place in New York in March, but Christie’s did not stage its annual London South Asian auction in June, apparently because the pandemic impeded liaison between countries.

India-based auction houses, including Mumbai-based Astaguru and Pundole’s as well as Saffronart, now account for over 75% of the India moderns auction market (see pie chart below)

Amrita Sher-Gil’s  “Portrait of Denyse”, a 18⅛ x 15 in oil on canvas sold after Christie’s March auction for around $2.5m

Of the two $5m-plus sales, the Sher-Gil was the more remarkable. Gaitonde has for years achieved top prices in modern art auctions, which are dominated by members of his Bombay Progressives Group. 

Saffronart however had one of his works in a 24-hour on-line auction today (July 14) that did not excel. It sold at a hammer price below estimates of Rs12.79 crore, ($1.74m) –  Rs15.35 crore ($2.09m) including buyers’ premium.

Sher-Gil has a rarity value internationally because her works have been declared “national treasures” by the Indian government, which means that those in India cannot leave the country. Many of her paintings were self-portraits – three of them established her in the auction market in 2015 when they each sold for over $2.5m.

Her previous record of $2.9m was set at a Sotheby’s Mumbai auction in 2018 for The Little Girl in Blue, a small 19in x 16in oil on canvas. Dinesh Vazirani, founder and ceo of Saffronart, says yesterday’s sale was the “culmination of years of coming into her own as an artist of repute”.

An unusual 23.5in x 18in watercolour and ink on paper by M.F.Husain, which sold in Saffronart on-line for over three times the top estimate at Rs31.13 lakhs ($42,600)

Yesterday’s work was a 21.5in x 31.5in oil on canvas painted in 1938, depicted a group of women in a field. Sher-Gil’s artist nephew, Vivan Sundaram, writes in a catalogue essay that “the figures are ‘portraits’ of people known to Sher-Gil, all living in the family estate at Saraya, Gorakhpur [Uttar Pradesh], over long periods of time”. 

There were four bidders, all on the phone, with two remaining at the end. Kiran Nadar, India’s most prominent collector, is believed to have won for her Delhi art museum which is open to the public and has many top works.

Sher-Gil died in 1941 at the early age of 28 and there are only 172 documented works, 95 of which are in Indian museums, notably the National Gallery of Modern Art. Born in Budapest to a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and a Sikh aristocrat in 1913, she was brought up in India and then Paris from the age of 8 but maintained Hungarian links.

Saffronart’s live auction yesterday produced total sales value of Rs54.25 crores ($7.4m), with 93% of 30 lots sold. Today’s on line auction had sales of Rs29.3 crores ($3.98m) with 86% of 70 lots sold. 

Attention will now focus on the autumn when in addition to Saffronart, Christie’s plans an auction during New York’s Asia week and Sotheby’s will have one in London, providing opportunities for reassessments of market share.

The chart shows the large share of the market taken by India-based auction houses that Include Astaguru and Pundole’s as well as Saffronart. (Christie’s share excludes the Amrita Sher-Gill sold after its March auction – see text). Source: Saffronart
Posted by: John Elliott | July 9, 2021

Modi reshuffles his cabinet, looking for a reboot

Health minister replaced by follower of ayurvedic medicine

IT minister Prasad’s dismissal will be welcomed abroad

Narendra Modi has reshuffled his Cabinet and other ministers with moves that are as signficant for those he has sacked as it is for those he has appointed.

The top posts of finance, foreign affairs, defence and home are unchanged, but key portfolios of health, information-technology, communications, law, information and the environment have the most important dismissals along with labour and education – and a high profile defector from the Congress Party has been rewarded.

Amit Shah, India’s tough Home Minister and arch-Hindu nationalist, has strangely also been given the job of heading a new Ministry of Cooperation – dealing with co-operative based development – that looks like controversially invading state governments’ responsibilities.

Prime Minister Modi and President Kovind with the new ministers

The reshuffle, announced on Wednesday night (July 7), comes at a time when the government’s image is low after its mishandling of the second phase of the Covid pandemic, which had disastrous effects on millions of people. 

Modi will be hoping to deflect criticism of his prime ministership by producing a sea of new and reshuffled faces that will enable his government to recover lost ground. He has also accommodated politicians from states facing assembly elections, and from various castes, in order to show that their interests are being catered for by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies.

Some ministers have been removed for under-performing, others for being too abrasive.

Harsh Vardhan declaring in March the “end-game” for Covid 19

Predictably sacked is the health minister, Harsh Vardhan. He is taking the blame for the mishandling the pandemic, though Modi was responsible for not acting quickly enough in April and May when the current surge was building up.

Regarded as a good doctor, Vardhan sometimes seemed out of his depth. He made the unforgiveable mistake in March of saying that India was “in the end-game of the Covid-19 pandemic”, just as it was becoming clear that it was not. A change was clearly needed, even though Vardhan seemed in awe of Modi and is unlikely to have done, or not done, anything that the prime minister did not condone.

His successor, Mansukh Mandaviya, was previously a junior minister for shipping, ports and chemicals, and is a believer in ayurvedic medicine. He has also been given charge of the chemicals ministry, to improve co-ordination on vaccines and other supplies, so his interest in non-western medicine could be significant.

Ashwini Vaishnaw takes oath as a Cabinet Minister

 “Ayurveda is a great gift from India to world. The more you let Ayurveda & Yoga become basis for your living, the easier it gets!” he wrote on Twitter three years ago. “Where Allopathy fails, Ayurveda-the science of life, is an answer,” he tweeted in 2015.

The main ministerial dismissal that might ease relations with foreign investors concerns Ravi Shankar Prasad, who has lost his two jobs as minister for communications, electronics and information technology, and for law.

He has taken tough uncompromising stands with foreign companies for several years, initially when he was telecommunications minister and more recently with social media, notably Facebook and WhatsApp. In the past few weeks he has had a confrontation with Twitter over the supremacy of India’s laws and new information technology regulations.

Grandstanding

Prasad has seemed to revel in turning consultations into grandstanding confrontations, especially where foreign companies are involved, presumably believing that was in line with his party’s Hindu nationalism. “His repeated mockery of the foreign tech giants made them dig in as well – at its heart was the belief that if China can outlaw Google, why shouldn’t India give Big Tech a hard time,” says a Delhi analyst.

His successor at the information and technology ministry is Ashwini Vaishnaw, who has also been given the charge of railways. A former civil servant and businessman who worked in the office of former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he has made it clear the line will not change. “Everyone will have to follow law of the country,” he said when asked about the Twitter case, but he is expected to be less confrontational.

Departing ministers: Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad

Also dismissed is Prakash Javadekar as minister both for information and broadcasting and for the environment. Given the government’s problems in recent months, and the way that Modi and Shah personally dominate the media headlines, it was unlikely that any information minister could have done the job successfully.

The Congress defector is Jyotiraditya Scindia, a minister in an earlier Congress government, who has been made minister of aviation with a seat in the cabinet. He was a close ally and aide to Rahul Gandhi, the former party president, but joined the BJP a year ago because he felt he was being under-valued in his role as a leading Madhya Pradesh politician.

Modi has kept him waiting for a job, but the fact that he has been given a significant post – his father ran the same ministry in a Congress government 30 years ago – may encourage other Congress politicians to leave their largely-ineffectual party.

Jyotiraditya Scindia with Narendra Modi

His main task will be to handle the latest, and so far unsuccessful, attempt to privatise Air India. The government has said the alternative will be to close the airline. 

Other changes include Piyush Goyal, the commerce, industry and consumer affairs minister, taking over the textiles ministry but handing railways to Vaishnaw. Hardeep Singh Puri, a former top diplomat who is minister for housing and urban affairs has also been put in charge of petroleum and natural gas, has given up aviation to Scindia. The new law minister is Kiren Rijiju, a lawyer who has been sports minister and was earlier at the home ministry.

On paper, the changes look promising with new often younger ministers taking up prominent posts, some straddling more than one ministry to improve coordination. For real progress however, Modi needs to de-centralise his control of the government and give ministers – who have all praised his vision and leadership – the self-confidence and freedom to run their own areas.

Makes apparently co-operative moves with Kashmiri leaders

India’s institutional Covid implosion undermines its image abroad

Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, and his hard-line home minister Amit Shah made a tentative move last week towards rebuilding international acceptability and credibility when they held a seemingly co-operative meeting with leading politicians from  Jammu and Kashmir, many of whom they arrested in August 2019.

The meeting was a first step towards holding assembly elections in the state following the moves announced nearly two years ago that reduced the constitutional standing of J&K, demoting it from being a full state to a union territory administered by Delhi. Special rights and privileges contained in article 370 of India’s constitution were also removed.

Hundreds of political leaders and activists were detained for many months, some for more than a year. There was a massive security lockdown, which is still partly in force. Internet links were shut down for several months as part of a communications blackout.

Narendra Modi meets former J&K chief minister Farooq Abdullah (left) and other leading Kashmir politicians with Amit Shah

This clampdown on Muslim dominated Kashmir was broadly supported by India’s majority Hindus, but was widely criticised by foreign governments.

Last week’s move by Modi and Shah has been widely interpreted as a diplomatic initiative aimed primarily at improving relations with neighbouring Pakistan at a time when India’s other foreign policy problems include a year-long Himalayan border confrontation with China. There is also a risk of Taliban-linked regional instability when the US withdraws from Afghanistan in the next few weeks.

The bigger question however is whether the Kashmir meeting on July 24 is an initial indication that the prime minister and Shah are willing to soften their broader nationalist agenda in an attempt to rebuild India’s international recognition.

The country has taken a series of knocks in the past year that have stymied Modi’s triumphal parade across the world stage as the charismatic leader of the world’s most important and successful growing economy and democracy.

With Donald Trump out of office, Modi no longer has a fellow populist as an ally in the White House. His Hindu nationalist confrontational approach to dealing with minorities, especially Muslims, does not sit well with the Biden administration, so the excesses of Hindutva risk being challenged, even though the US needs India as a buffer partner against China.

Most importantly, India’s basic weaknesses have been exposed by the government’s failure to cope with the Covid pandemic, revealing signficant institutional and organisational incapacity.

Many countries have stumbled in the past year when dealing with Covid. But the devastating impact of the second wave in India over the past four months was largely the result of a gradual decline in the effectiveness of the Indian state over many years that has led to the risk of systems and organisations imploding.

It was exacerbated by Modi’s failure to act quickly enough in April when he was electioneering in West Bengal, leading to official (understated) figures for new cases rising to a peak of over 400,000 a day and deaths to over 4,000.

‘IMPLOSION’

Seven years ago I wrote a book on India called IMPLOSION – India’s Tryst with Reality. It explored how institutions were crumbling as the increasing speed and complexity of current events, coupled with organisational and political limitations, were eating away at the country’s foundations along with inefficient bureaucracy, widespread corruption, and scant respect for laws and regulations,

That is what happened with Covid because India’s governance and systems failed to provide what the country needed. The health service failed to work across vast swathes of the country and the private sector failed to work effectively with government on the production of vaccines. Rampant profiteering and corruption added to the chaos as the pandemic took hold.

The political system also failed when Modi, Shah and others decided electioneering in West Bengal was more important than dealing with the pandemic. Without Modi actively in charge, Delhi froze under his centralised system of government till he returned from West Bengal. Modi and Shah then vanished from public appearances, leading to speculation that they had been shocked into silence. When Modi has appeared with public statements, he has failed to accept responsibility.

The line up at Modi’s meeting with Kashmir leaders

Diplomacy also tripped up when S.Jaishankar, the foreign minister failed, along with top diplomats posted abroad, to talk down India’s debacle and persuade foreign capitals that the high figures were not so serious when compared with the size of the 1.4bn population.

India has therefore lost a substantial amount of the international credibility that it had been building in recent years as a new world power whose strength was based on development.

India-sceptics around the world, especially in Washington DC, have for years derided India’s inefficiencies and doubted whether it could ever operate as such a power. They now have specific examples stemming from the Covid pandemic to add to the regular demonstrations of inefficiency – the latest being the absence of a plan to guard military installations against drone attacks that emerged over the weekend when there was an attack, emanating it was assumed from Pakistan, on an air base in Jammu.

Image abroad

Modi now urgently needs to rebuild India’s image abroad and prevent concern about its embedded limitations leading to the country being both downgraded in the eyes of foreign capitals and being criticised for its wider domestic policies.

The Jammu and Kashmir initiative last week will help because Modi can claim that, as promised earlier, he intends to restore democratic institutions that were suspended in 2019, and provide the state with a new and prosperous future. This might stem foreign criticisms that have been aired by the US Congress, the European Union and elsewhere.

Certainly the optics at last week’s meeting were good. The formerly imprisoned (mostly house arrest or dentation in a hotel) politicians from long-established parties lined up to meet Modi and Shah, even though they had been insulted and mocked over the past two years.

They knew however that this was a climb-down for the government, which has failed to fulfil its declared intention to replace them with new parties.

These moves are closely linked with behind-the-scene contacts between India and Pakistan that are aimed at easing tensions between the two nuclear powers. Pakistan claims J&K as part of its territory and was affronted by the August 2019 change in the state’s constitutional basis.

But progress will be slow. Modi wants to hold elections while J&K remains a largely Delhi-administered union territory. Local politicians however want full statehood to be restored before elections, not later, and they want all political prisoners to be released. Some are also demanding that the special Article 370 rights are restored, though they know there is no chance of Modi agreeing to this. [In a later statement, the J&K leaders said they were disappointed with the meeting.]

This is the first time in his seven years in power that Modi has given ground and tried a rapprochement with politicians and political parties he has opposed and threatened to crush. It indicates that he and Shah realise the world has changed in the past years for all the reasons discussed here and that they too might have to tone down their Hinduvta rhetoric for a time.

Krishen Khanna, 95, shown working in his home

Veteran artist tracks Indian life including wedding bandwallas

Krishen Khanna, a veteran 95-year old painter, was to have had an exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Galley in Mayfair this week. The works were packed and ready to leave, but India’s Covid lockdown meant there were no UK-bound flights to carry them, so the show has gone on line and includes as a bonus four short videos of Khanna painting in his Delhi home.

It’s rare to be able to watch an artist painting like this, not for some high profile public relations exercise, but because his son Karan thought it the best way to show him at work in his sitting room – he’s recently moved upstairs from his basement studio. Scroll down this link below all the images

The works in the on-line show, done over the past year, are of bandwallas, the brightly uniformed musicians whose drums and trumpets  generate cacophony for Indian wedding processions, with the groom usually on a horse (or elephant) and guests dancing in the street. 

Khana has been fascinated by the culture of the brass bands since the 1960s when he was stuck in a Delhi traffic jam by a raucous wedding procession. “In a way bandwallahs are a relic of the past, a legacy of the British rulers, who now belt out Indian film tunes in traditional celebrations. The uniforms add grandeur and also give certain anonymity to them, almost like the military personnel,” he has said. “There is something sad and musical about them”.

Weddings now often opt for more modern electronic music.

But the bandsmen remain a link with the past, especially Partition when – like Khanna and his family – many crossed over into India, continuing to play in raucous Punjabi and other weddings

Born in what is now the Pakistani city of Lahore, Khanna is the last remaining prominent member of the Progressive Group of artists that was formed in Bombay in the 1950s. Introduced to the group by M.F.Husain, one of the best known of that generation, Khanna is now surrounded in his sitting room by works done by his old friend and others including Tyeb Mehta, S.H.Raza, and V.S.Gaitonde.

“It is a completely new experience moving away from my usual studio in the basement,” he says. “I have to look for paints on the ground which are all mixed up and improvise but it’s all a part of the game in the end.” 

He started out as a banker with what was then Grindlays, a bank that catered initially for the British Indian army. He opened Husain’s first account in 1949, but left Grindlays after 13 years and became a full time painter. 

His work was recognised with an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy in 2007, though he has never hit the $4m-$5m prices achieved by four or five other Progressives who dominate the top end of modern art auctions. His works have exceeded $320,000 (£225,000) and he dismisses the dollar difference, saying it is down to him doing the work that he enjoys. His current small (12”x10” to 18”x12”) oil on canvas works, pictured in this blog, are priced at £6,000 to £20,000.

Aside from his India-inspired works, Khanna has a continuing focus on Christianity, stemming partly, as with many middle-class Indians, from going to a Christian school. He read the Bible closely and became interested in theology.

“We were Hindus but we were not coerced into Christianity, though it was impossible not to listen…It fascinated me to see what happened and how clever Christ was,” he told me last month. “Christianity does not negate the Hindu or Muslim element – being a Hindu doesn’t mean this is an area that is out of bounds”.

To coincide with Easter, I was writing about Last Supper paintings including Khanna’s The Last Bite, which has Husain in Jesus’s seat and Khanna sitting opposite with other Progressives in place of the Disciples around the table. 

Khanna has for decades portrayed daily India life more closely and sensitively than other painters of his generation, reflecting the hardships and the colour. Studies range from the struggles of Partition in 1947 to migrant labourers and truck drivers – and the bandsmen. 

“In this current atmosphere, one can become very depressed, but fortunately for me there are the Bandwallas who are still making noise,” he says. “When I’m painting them, I have to concentrate fully on them. The Bandwallas take prime position in my life right now.” 

PM tries to rise above criticism for his government’s failings 

Cases and other tatistics easing but no end in sight for the pandemic

Mired in India’s Covid crisis, Narendra Modi is marking the seventh anniversary of becoming prime minister with emotional speeches, on one occasion seemingly moved near to tears. He is trying to rise above his government’s failed management of the pandemic and show himself sharing the country’s pain in the style of a non-executive president or religious leader.

With over 300,000 dead because of the pandemic – and maybe as many as one million or more by July – this is Modi’s attempt to side step his failure to run the country in April when Covid cases soared. Instead of organising health crisis facilities and a stable supply of vaccines, and encouraging mask wearing and social distancing, he and Amit Shah, the powerful home minister, addressed closely packed mass rallies during state assembly elections.

Political power, not governance, is Modi’s top priority. After showing that in April, he again illustrated it on May 24 when he is reported to have called a meeting of top government and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders to plan how to recover politically in time for state assembly elections, even though they are nine months away. The NDTV news channel said that the main focus was Uttar Pradesh, an authoritarian BJP stronghold, where a multitude of Covid deaths has even led to hundreds of bodies floating in the sacred River Ganges.

Seven years ago today (May 26 2014), Modi was sworn into office (below) after a triumphant general election. Voters saw him as a new style of leader who would leave behind the failures of the Gandhi-led Congress Party and drive the country into job-creating growth. He was sworn in for a second time two years ago next Sunday, May 30 2019.

Modi set out to build his own personal image at home and abroad as a strong populist leader, driving economic growth along with his Hindu nationalist agenda.

Now, the image abroad has been crippled by his failure to focus and manage the pandemic. Economic growth fell to around 5 per cent even before Covid hit early last year, and recovery this year is uncertain. The Hindutva agenda has been largely stalled by the current crisis.

Modi and the government are being widely criticised, even by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organisation that embraces the BJP. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, said on May 15 that the government was among those that had “dropped their guard” after last year’s first wave of the pandemic. The remark sounded mild but, coming from Bhagwat, it was a sharp reprimand that Modi and Shah cannot ignore. 

The government seemed inert at the peak of the crisis in April when Modi and Shah disappeared from public view for at least two weeks. Modi’s most emotional speech came on May 4.

“This virus took away so many people who were close to us. I offer my deepest condolences to their families,” he told health workers in a virtual address, halting for many apparently emotional pauses when he seemed to be fighting back tears. The media broadly reported the emotion, but Modi was mocked by opposition leaders who doubted his sincerity.

The speech skated above the surface of the pandemic with generalisations and unachievable exhortations. Officials were told to ensure that rural India was Covid free, which is impossible, and to spread awareness in rural districts so that the pandemic could be curbed in villages.

This was in line with a general aim to shift responsibility and blame from central government ministers to officials, state governments, and the country’s (inadequate) institutional systems.

Having been criticised for imposing an economy-crippling national lockdown in March last year, Modi avoided being blamed again and passed responsibility for restrictions and closures to the states.

Responsibility for Covid vaccinations was also passed partly to the states, which are constitutionally responsible for health. The central government however continued to exert authority and was accused of discriminating in the allocation of scarce resources against states that have non-BJP governments such as Delhi.

The states now share half the vaccination supplies with private sector hospitals and there are different price levels. This has led to confusion over allocations, plus bureaucratic delays in placing orders. Manufacturers have rejected approaches from some states.

A Mumbai vaccination queue – ANI photo

Approaching 200m doses have been administered, the equivalent of one vaccination for 14% of the 1.4bn population – two doses have gone to only about 3%. The pace of vaccinations is slowing because of a slump in supplies, even though India is the world’s largest vaccine producer. There is also considerable resistance to the jabs, especially in rural areas where people fear vaccinations will make them sick and maybe die. 

Other complications are emerging because of a lack of medical expertise and a shortage of doctors and hospital beds. There have been outbreaks of mucormycosis, or black fungus, that spreads quickly from the nose to the eyes and brain and can cause rapid death. Specialists say this has been caused by indiscriminate use of steroids in people’s homes and crowded hospitals, plus possibly incorrect application of oxygen cylinders.

Basically, the health system is grossly inadequate. It has been under-funded and under-developed by consecutive governments for decades – India ranked 155th out of 167 countries for hospital bed availability in the 2020 UNDP Human Development Report.

The Covid problems are too large, complex and rapidly changing to be managed by India’s heavily bureaucratic systems. Modi’s apparent inability to inspire and lead the government machine, while concentrating power in his office and demotivating ministers and officials, has added to the crisis.

Restrictions introduced by Modi last year to control foreign donations to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have hampered the flow of aid and equipment such as oxygen cylinders. The government believes NGOs restrict development, for example by opposing environmental approvals for highways and industrial projects, but it did not take into account what would happen when urgent help was needed.

A group of 116 former senior bureaucrats and diplomats signed a statement on May 20 calling for government action and criticising the Modi administration for being “more concerned with managing the narrative of ‘efficient’ management of the Covid crisis rather than addressing the crucial issues at stake.”  

An editorial in the Lancet medical journal said, “Modi’s actions in attempting to stifle criticism and open discussion during the crisis are inexcusable”. This referred to statutory and other attempts to block criticisms of government actions on Twitter and other social media outlets.

The pandemic’s growth seems to be decreasing overall, though it varies around the country and the situation is worsening in some states in the north-east and south. Official figures showed 196,427 new cases and 3,980 deaths yesterday (May 25), down from more than 400,000 new cases daily and over 4,000 deaths at the beginning of May.

These figures are however seriously under-stated because of inadequate reporting. They  are even more unrealistic now than they were earlier because cases are spreading fast in poorly administered smaller towns and rural areas where accurate records are unlikely.

The total official death toll is now over 300,000. The real figure however is estimated by many specialists to be considerable higher, maybe over 1m, given extensive reports of unrecorded cremations and burials.  

If 1m (or more) is correct, it brackets the pandemic with India’s two most serious disasters in the past 80 years – the Bengal famine of 1943 and the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, each with estimates of 1m to 2m deaths.

This is not a record that Modi wants to be remembered for. His dream has been to drive growth and establish India as an internationally strong and respected Hindu nation, so that he would go down in history as the country’s greatest modern leader, rated above Jawaharlal Nehru, the first post-independence prime minister.

Modi now has to find a way to govern and revive at least some of what he hoped to achieve. BJP leaders have been told not to celebrate this week, but to try to show people that the government is coping well.

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