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”.

Karnataka assembly bldg

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 saying “come back and we’ll make you a minister and help in any way you want”. One said “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.


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.


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.

IMG_0319 copy

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 achieved, though good 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”.


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.”


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 such as 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 annual meeting next month in China of the Beijing-based Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which brings 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Charles IPace

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:




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.


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.”


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.

May tries to avoid Commonwealth rows with two apologies

Modi international image vulnerable over rape cases involving BJP

LONDON: When Narendra Modi flew into London on a three-day visit last night (April 17), having left behind a growing row in India about his failure to react effectively over horrifying rapes, he will have found that his host, prime minister Theresa May, in an sharply-contrasting and uncharacteristically penitent mood over human rights.

It is unlikely that Modi will learn anything from the way that May has apologised for the treatment in the UK of Commonwealth people from the Caribbean in recent years. The apology, along with one over gay rights, was a forced last-minute attempt to save an explosive issue upsetting carefully structured plans drawn up by the British government, and by Queen Elizabeth’s family and advisers, for the two-day 53-country Commonwealth summit that begins tomorrow (April 19).

May meeting

Theresa May at her meeting with Caribbean leaders

Nor will he be affected by the street demonstrations against him and his government that will be staged today (April 18) when he has an ten-hour bilateral visit as May’s guest and meets the Queen.

Indeed, he probably won’t see the demonstrations – over issues ranging from Kashmir to human rights – that will be kept well back from the two prime ministers, as they were when he last visited London in November 2015.

But stories of him failing to take action over an alleged rape by a regional politician belonging to his Bharatiya Janata Party, and over other BJP ministers actions in another case, do not project the image he needs as he tries to boost his and India’s role in the Commonwealth, where common values and the rights of individuals have been stressed this week in seminars and forums during the run up to the summit.

Modi and his government have failed to respond effectively to the horrifying rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kashmir in January, in which two BJP state ministers appeared at a rally protesting against arrest of a man accused of the crime. It took Modi till last week to speak about the plight of the girl, who was held and abused at a Hindu temple. BJP activists took part in a rally in support of the man arrested for the crime. Modi has also said little about an alleged rape of a 16 year-old girl by a BJP assembly member in Uttar Pradesh. The girl tried to kill herself in front of UP’s BJP chief minister’s home after months of trying to get the police to act on her complaint.

Modi NRIs Sweden

Narendra Modi addressing an audience of overseas Indians in Sweden yesterday before he flew to London

Noting that Modi frequently tweets and makes powerful public speeches, a sharp editorial in the New York Times says “he loses his voice when it comes to speaking out about the dangers faced by women and minorities who are frequent targets of the nationalist and communal forces that are part of the base of his Bharatiya Janata Party”.

May has not lost her voice this week and, though she is not accustomed to making big public apologies, she has made two. The first one was to a Caribbean delegation over the plight of Caribbean people who have lived in the UK for decades, and the second was over old colonial-era laws that criminalise same-sex relations.

The Caribbean issue threatened to disrupt the summit, known as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), after May (or her officials) refused to set up a meeting between her and a delegation of 12 leaders from Caribbean counties belonging to the Commonwealth to discuss immigration problems faced by what are known as Windrush-generation British residents.

The name comes from a ship, the MV Empire Windrush, which in 1948 brought to the UK the first of thousands of workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands in the then British Empire to help the UK with serious labour shortages. Many of the families of those entirely legal British residents now lack the formal documents to show their right to live in the UK. They have consequently been denied healthcare, pensions and jobs, have had hassle over visas and immigration procedures, and may risk deportation – for which many will now claim compensation.

May Caribb meeting

The news of No 10 Downing Street’s clumsy callousness dominated the front pages of UK newspapers and caused a major row in the House of Commons two days ago where Amber Rudd, the home secretary, tried to stem the uproar. She apologised for the “appalling” actions of her department” that had “lost sight of individuals” and become “too concerned with policy”.

Critics blamed a “hostile environment” approach on immigration enforcement that was put in place rigidly by May when she was home secretary. She introduced seven immigration bills to parliament and made 45,000 changes to the immigration rules.

Yesterday, May met the Caribbean leaders (above) and said  she wanted to “dispel any impression” that her government was “in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those from the Caribbean”, adding: “I want to apologise  to you today. Because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused,” she said (click here for video).

Earlier in the day, at one of the pre-summit forum sessions, May had also expressed apologies, which sounded hollow given her hard line record as home secretary on immigration controls. She then had to listen to a stern response from another speaker, Andrew Holness, the prime minister of Jamaica.

Jamaica pmHolmes (right) was cheered by the audience of representatives from Commonwealth countries when, having welcomed May’s statement, he said: “As the case now stands and as history will show, citizens of the former colonies, particularly the West Indies, migrated to Great Britain, where they have significantly contributed to the building and enrichment of the country. Now these persons are not able to claim their place as citizens.”

May’s other apology, which drew her loud applause from the audience, was over gay rights. She said she deeply regretted Britain’s role in criminalising same-sex relations in its former colonies (including India, though that was not mentioned). Such laws, often passed under British rule and still in effect, were “wrong then and wrong now”.

Her remarks were in response to a petition launched this week by campaigners calling for Britain to apologise for colonial era laws that outlaw same-sex activity in 37 of the 53 member nations, some with the death penalty. As the UK’s prime minister, she said “I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination violence and even death that persists today”.

May, and the Queen’s royal family, must now be hoping that nothing else will disrupt the summit that is intended to transform the Commonwealth into a significant international organisation with “values which are precious, hard won and durable”, as Baroness Scotland, the secretary general, put it today.

Posted by: John Elliott | April 14, 2018

India to take on more Commonwealth responsibilities

Modi has official visit to UK and then attends CHOGM

Role of Prince Charles a key question for summit “retreat”

LONDON: India is set gradually to increase its involvement in the affairs of the Commonwealth. This will emerge next week in London at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where prime minister Narendra Modi will play a prominent role, having first had a short official visit to the UK.

The Commonwealth of Nations, as the former British Commonwealth is known, is at a crossroads. Britain, which is the host next week to 53 member countries and will be the leader till the next summit in 2020, has been working for the past year to try to turn it into a more constructively useful international organisation.

CharlesModi baton

An exaggerated view of the Commonwealth’s future leadership, with Prince Charles passing the baton to Narendra Modi, which appeared in a UK magazine run by Manoj Ladwa, a proponent of India taking on a major role and hosting a business hub

It has been urging India, which is by far the largest member country with 55% of the Commonwealth’s 2.3bn population and 26% of its internal trade, to become more active, with a long-term possibility of playing a leading role.

There has been a continuing debate in Delhi about how much it wants to respond to the UK requests, including whether it should host a trade and investment sub-headquarters or hub.

The conclusion appears to be that it will increase the work that it has been doing, but that the idea of a business hub did not gain sufficient traction either in Delhi or among other members of the Commonwealth. It is likely that this and other similar ideas will be considered again in 2020.

The arrangements for next week’s summit do however provide Modi with a special role, and it will be the first time an Indian prime minister has attended since 2009.

During his official bilateral visit on April 18, Modi will meet Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles (with whom he developed a good relationship in Delhi last November) and Theresa May, the prime minister (who had a difficult visit to India in November 2016). He is expected to renew an agreement that expired in 2014 on the return of illegal immigrants from the UK, and his engagements will include a visit to London’s Science Museum and signing of high tech pacts.

Modi will also have a televised event with about 2,000 UK-based Indians. This will be more low-key than his 60,000-people spectacular at Wembley Stadium on his last visit to London in November 2015.

Prior to the UK, Modi will visit Sweden for a day and attend an inaugural five-country India-Nordic summit.

Draft communique

It is not yet clear what will emerge in the final CHOGM communiqué, which is currently in draft form, about how far the Commonwealth should go ahead with what is officially called “reform and renewal” of its organisation and functions. This will probably not be resolved till April 20, when presidents and prime ministers go to a “retreat” at Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s homes outside London.

The informal talks on that day will probably also include whether and when Prince Charles should inherit the Queen’s (personal, not constitutional) position as head of the Commonwealth.

CHOGM LogoCHOGM starts in London the day before the retreat with structured formal meetings on four broad-based subjects – prosperity, security, fairness and sustainability – under the overall theme of Towards a Common Future. Earlier in the week, there will be foreign ministers’ meetings as well as four forums on youth, women, people, and business, plus fringe sessions on other issues.

Indian proponents of the country taking a larger role see the Commonwealth as an international organisation where it can operate without interference from China, its potential long-term enemy that has managed to gain access to other forums such as a South Asian grouping known as SAARC. They argue that it would help India strengthen its presence in areas where China is increasingly active, for example in Africa where India is building a development role, and in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere such as the Pacific and Caribbean where it could strengthen its relationship with the Commonwealth small island states.

India and China

This comes at a time when India is responding to China’s increasingly global reach by becoming more active in international organisations, shedding its traditional role of an often reluctant and frequently negative participant.

“India has been gradually stepping up the entire range of its multilateral engagement…You should see our engagement in the Commonwealth within the framework of that broader perspective,” Rudrendra Tandon, a senior external affairs ministry official told a media briefing in Delhi this week. The most obvious example was the United Nations, but India was also stepping up its role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Tandon said that the Commonwealth had the added attraction that it looked after and advocated the interests of small states, including small islands. “This is a category of country in the international system that is of particular interest to India,” he said.

India will therefore be shouldering more responsibilities and expanding the Commonwealth work that it has been doing in a low key way, but without much real influence. In recent months it has played a much bigger role than in the past on preparation of next week’s agenda and draft communiqué.

The aim is to test in the years ahead whether the bigger role has more benefits and opportunities than liabilities.

The current international crisis over use of chemical weapons in Syria, which is supported by Russia, illustrates possible problems. India regards Russia as one of its oldest allies and will be wary next week of being drawn into US and UK-led condemnation, and support for air strukes, before investigations have been completed.

A report, India and the Commonwealth: Redirecting the Relationshippublished this week by Carnegie India notes that, in 2015–2016, India was the fourth-largest contributor to the Commonwealth’s budget. It also provided 16–20% of the experts in the Commonwealth technical assistance program (more than any member, after Britain). Another new report, Commonwealth Trade Review 2018: Strengthening the Commonwealth Advantage, produced by the Commonwealth Secretariat says that India is the top recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) from within the Commonwealth group of countries, and the second biggest source of investment after the UK.

“Child in an orphanage”

But the Carnegie author, C. S. R. Murthy, a Delhi-based academic, says rather scathingly that  “scholars have described the position of the Commonwealth in India’s foreign policy as ‘no more than a child consigned to [an] orphanage’ in recent decades”. During the late 1940s and 1950s it was a “cornerstone”, but then became a “useful embellishment” during the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1970s, Indian leaders suggested that the “economic content of the Commonwealth must become more meaningful and purposeful if it had to survive” – the same point that is being made now.

The long-held counter-view is that India, as one of the world’s two largest emerging economies, should not get involved in a relic of its old colonial ruler and the British Empire. There is also doubt whether the short-staffed and under-funded external affairs ministry should be stretched further by taking on a Commonwealth role.

Britain sees the Commonwealth as an opportunity to build new international relationships as Brexit takes it out of Europe, though it acknowledges that it cannot hold an overt post-imperial leadership role after its two-year term in charge ends in 2020.

It hopes however that its Commonwealth activities will help with its primary interest of negotiating the post-Brexit bilateral trade pacts that it will desperately need. Widely rumoured (and criticised) ideas of the Commonwealth becoming a trading bloc is not however a runner in the foreseeable future, despite someone in the British civil service last year stupidly dubbing the UK’s Commonwealth country trade ambitions as Empire 2.0 (initially for an Africa free trade zone). That Empire 2.0 tag is frequently cited by critics to over-state and then criticise Britain’s Commonwealth ambitions.

“Imperial amnesia”

Behind all these short-term issues there are basic questions about whether the Commonwealth is worth saving. A new book, The Empire’s New Clothes – The Myth of the Commonwealthbeing published in the middle of CHOGM is highly critical of the organisation and its future. It has been written by Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University who, despite being the head of the Commonwealth’s only academic institute, is a well-known critic. According to the publisher’s blurb, the book “strips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia”.

That is an unduly negative and unfair view because the Commonwealth is valued by 31 small states among its 53 member countries, which rely on support they receive and welcome the voice it gives them in international affairs. The other 22 countries of varying size have mixed views and many – including the UK and India – are critical of the negative influence exerted by the central secretariat on new ideas. All decisions have to be taken by consensus, which slows and even kills progress.

Charles Modi

Prince Charles with Narendra Modi in Delhi last November

The Commonwealth is split with many African and smaller countries wanting it to continue focussing on providing them with aid. Others, led by the UK, want it to take an active role – for example in areas such as a Blue Charter on the governance of oceans, an agenda for trade and investment, a declaration on cyber crime and revised guidelines for independent (including younger) observers of elections, that are lined up for approval at the summit.

There is also a debate about whether the ponderous grip of the Commonwealth Secretariat, currently located in Marlborough House near the royal residences of Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace, should be decentralised with functions such as climate change, trade and investment and the oceans governance, moving to other countries.

That now sees less likely than it was a few months ago though it will be discussed during the retreat. There is strong pressure from some of the Commonwealths official and nonofficial bodies – there are over 70 – to keep the secretariat intact.

Prince Charles role

Behind the scenes there will be discussions about whether Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, should inherit the leadership of the Commonwealth when he succeeds the Queen. He has been touring Commonwealth countries in recent months and will play a prominent role next week. This appointment is not automatic but is in the hands of the Commonwealth’s 53 leaders, and it is not yet clear whether there will be a consensus at the retreat to announce his role or consider it again when he becomes King.

There will however be a royal splash at the Youth Forum next week and a Women’s Empowerment reception, which will be attended by Meghan Markle along with Prince Harry, Charles’ second son, who marries the American actress next month.

The reasons for widespread scepticism bordering on cynicism about the prospects of the Commonwealth becoming a useful organisation were well illustrated on April 11 when six Commonwealth organisations, including the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association, unveiled proposals for a 12-point code of conduct titled Principles on Media and Good Governance. This was aimed at reducing threats to the media and reducing the killing of journalists – 57 journalists have been killed in Commonwealth countries in the four years to 2017.

The organisers said they had failed to interest the Commonwealth Secretariat in including the code in next week’s communiqué.

Akbar Khan, secretary general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, downplayed the setback, saying, “the Commonwealth is a soft power organisation”.

The questions for next week are how soft it should remain, and whether New Delhi has the will needed to help toughening it up during the summit and in the following two years.

Less elite entertaining and more focussed widespread marketing

Saffronart and Sotheby’s pushed into third and fourth place

There is a new kid on the block in the world of Indian modern art auctions and it’s beating the market leaders. It is Mumbai-based Asta Guru, which took the market by storm this week with a two-day on-line auction that yielded total sales of Rs89.16 crore. This beat other international and Indian auction houses in the current season and was the second highest ever after a Christie’s Rs97.65 crore ($14.7m) result in Mumbai in December 2015.

The auction yielded two record prices, including one for a work by a well known but not top-selling Indian artist, Manjit Bawa, and it just missed a record for a work by Tyeb Mehta, one of the most famous highly priced members of the mid-20th century Progressives “moderns” group.


Manjit Bawa’s record-breaking  oil on canvas

The big surprise was that Asta Guru’s total (which the auction house calculated at $12.71m), was higher than Christie’s South Asian modern art auction in New York on March 21, which was seen as a substantial success with sales totalling $10.29m. This included a new record price for a monumental acrylic on canvas called Tapovan (below) by S.H.Raza, a leading member of the Progressives, at a hammer price of $3.7m ($4.45m including buyers premium).

That was also the highest figure ever paid for a modern or contemporary Indian artist. It beat Rs29.3 crore ($4.38m) including buyer’s premium on a hammer price of Rs25.5 crore that was achieved for a Vasudeo S. Gaitonde painting in the Christie’s Mumbai 2015 sale.

Third in line after Asta Guru and Christie’s came Saffronart, India’s better known auction house, which broke from its on-line base with a live Mumbai auction that yielded Rs27.64 crore ($4.32m). Trailing further behind was Sotheby’s New York auction on March 19, which achieved just $2.79m, having been dragged down by a failure to sell two significant works by Raza that could have added $3m or more.


Tyeb Mehta’s Bull

Another measure of Asta Guru’s success was that 15 of its works sold at or above $200,000, 13 of them above $300,000. By contrast, Christie’s had eight at or above $200,000 while Saffronart had five and Sotheby’s just one.

This showed Asta Guru is mining this potentially lucrative area at a time when auction houses are saying that the best results are being achieved at the top end and at much lower figures well below $100,000.

With Asta Guru’s website, it is easy to monitor an auction with access to lists of the most popular and the most highly priced works, as well as the general catalogue. As the auction closed on March 27 evening, I tracked bids (in dollars) on various lots. While most high priced works drew only three or maybe four bidders, some had more though, as happens in live auctions, the ultimate tussle at the end was between just two.

The top hammer price of Rs17.37 crore ($2.80m) – Rs19.98 crore including buyers premium – was achieved for a 70inx60in oil on canvas titled Bull (above) by Mehta. After two potential buyers dropped out after just one bid each, the battle was joined between paddle numbers 1701 and 1617 who pushed the hammer price with a total of seven bids from $2.09m at 8.35pm to 1617’s winning  $2.80m figure an hour later.

For the second highest priced work, a 55inx40in oil on canvas by Gaitonde that fetched Rs11.50 crore including buyers premium, there were only three bidders with just two bids on the final evening.

More exciting was the fourth highest but record-breaking priced work, Bawa’s  untitled 66inx78in oil on canvas (above) that attracted 21 bids. It started with eight bidders, but narrowed to two who pushed the hammer price from $453,903 to $898,698 in the final half hour, with 1617 (again) winning at Rs7.79 crore (double the estimate) including buyers premium. Bawa, who was born in 1941 and died in 2008, was 15-20 years younger than the leading Progressives and his works, though popular, rarely make such a prominent entry in auctions.


Ganeshji by M.F. Husain

Another keen contest took place for 24inx30in acrylic on canvas painting of the elephant god Ganesh by M.F.Husain, one of the most widely known and prolific Progressives. This fetched 20 bids from three potential buyers with paddle 1617 losing out to 1699 after the hammer price rose from $90,031 to $159,495 – four times the average estimated value – in the final ten minutes.

Asta Guru is not actually new – it is ten years old, but it has only begun to emerge as a significant player in the last four or five years, growing at an annual rate of 55% according to Siddanth Shetty, the head of strategy. The family-owned group was started by Vikram Sethi, its chairman, who set up The Arts Trust in 1990 that later became an on-line art gallery known as the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art and a source of market analysis.

Its reputation in the trade is that it takes care to manage relationships with both sellers and collectors so that it can source the best works and attract buyers. Christie’s and the others of course say they do the same.

Tushar Sethi, the ceo, says that 80% of the auction buyers are based in India, with Mumbai being a major centre for clients, and that it has 2,500 registered potential bidders. Some 90% of its works are sourced from India, though it hopes to broaden its base later this year with a New York office, its first abroad.

Tapopvan SHRaza

S.H.Raza’s record breaking Tapovan

The strong India focus increases its competitiveness against the international galleries. Christie’s charges a 25% buyers’ premium on most works with 20% above $250,000 (and 12.5% above $4m).

Indian buyers importing works from Christie’s New York or London auctions have to pay the country’s new 12% general sales tax on top of 10% import duty, making a total of almost 50% (without including the cumulative effect of the three levels). Asta Guru charges a 15% buyers’ premium plus the GST, but without the import duty because most of its buyers are in India.

Sethi said it threw a large dinner event, its first, in the top end Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai for this auction, but it does not usually splash out on the sort of lavish entertaining done by other auction houses in Mumbai, Delhi, London and New York, nor does it transport works for pre-auction displays in other cities. Instead, it printed 9,000 copies of its 2cm thick catalogue, couriering them to potential buyers, and it communicates via Facebook where Sethi says it has 120,000 followers.

ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, reported in January that there was a swing from international to local auction houses with “moderns” art sales at Christies, Sotheby’s and Bonhams (which is a smaller player) being 22.5% lower than in 2016 than in 2017, while India’s Saffronart, AstaGuru and Pundole (also of Mumbai) more than made up for the loss. Asta Guru saw the highest percentage growth, almost doubling its total from 2016 and had become, said ArtTactic, the third largest auction house after Saffronart (which is also into jewellery auctions and property sales) and Christie’s, beating Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

In terms of their overall business, India’s South Asian art market is relatively small for the big galleries such as Christie’s, which started an annual Mumbai auction in 2013 but abandoned it after a flop in 2016. The market is however important for their prestige, and they hope gradually to persuade Indian buyers to become more interested in international art. For the future, Asta Guru’s result shows they will face increasing competition from the locals.

Army and air force ill-equipped for action

Government avoids urgent fighter contract yet again

New draft production policy sets unreal self-reliance targets for 2025

India’s armed forces are seriously under-equipped with out-dated armaments ranging from guns and tanks to fighter jets, but the government seems to lack both the political will and the financial and bureaucratic capability to remedy the situation.

This has become clear in the past month with a serious of statements and reports about under-preparedness at a time when there is an active debate on the country’s ability to fight simultaneous border wars on the two fronts with Pakistan and China, improbable though such a double confrontation may seem.

The government has today published a draft of the latest of a series of production policies that were first issued in 2011, but have led to little change. It plans to raise foreign direct investment limits and, with scant chance of success, make India self-reliant by 2025 for 13 manufacturing areas ranging from fighter aircraft and warships to land combat vehicles and gun systems.

The Indian Air Force has only 32 squadrons of fighter jets when it should have 42, and many of these are seriously out-dated Russian MiGs, plagued with frequent crashes, yet new orders are constantly delayed. The Indian navy does not have the submarines and other ships needed to police its home ground of the Indian Ocean at a time of increased Chinese adventurism, nor other equipment such as torpedoes, nor adequate maintenance and safety measures. The army’s guns and some armoured vehicles are seriously out of date and ammunition supplies are grossly inadequate. 

Much of the public comments and reporting on these shortages focuses on the Ministry of Defence’s frequent prevarication over placing orders that can last for many years. The reality however is that so much of the annual $63.2bn defence budget goes on salaries, pensions and other routine costs that less than 25% is available for new weaponry, and much of that is committed to existing orders.

“The government can promise all it likes. It doesn’t have the money,” says Ajai Shukla, a former army officer and a leading defence journalist and analyst. “It doesn’t have the expertise, intelligence and political will to shape priorities in a coherent manner”.

Corruption, rivalry and blacklists

The result is a complex mixture of reluctance by officials to sign off on orders (fearing later allegations of corruption), foreign suppliers being blacklisted for alleged payment of bribes, disruption of tenders by competing interests, public sector corporations resisting private sector involvement, rivalry between government departments, the shortage of funds, and a Ministry of Finance refusal (just re-confirmed) to allow the armed forces to roll over unspent funds for use in later years.

Make in India lion

The Make in India clunky lion icon

For close observers of India’s defence scene, there is little new in this, but the key point now is that little has changed since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister. He focussed his Make in India manufacturing policy, launched in September 2014, on defence, which looked an easy target for a boom in foreign investment and jobs.

It has however been a dismal failure with no major projects despite frequent re-packaged policies, including the latest “strategic partnership” plan for foreign involvement that has not taken off. 

As a result, there has been an astonishingly small inflow of only Rs1.17 crore ($180,000) foreign direct investment (FDI) since 2014, according to a parliamentary answer given earlier this month. Alongside that, plans for manufacturing companies to become involved in a substantial way are repeatedly stalled.

India has been the world’s biggest arms importer for more than a decade, buying in 60-65% of its equipment which accounts for nearly 12% of global sales according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s latest annual report. Russia, the US and Israel are the main suppliers, with France bidding to become a leading player.

The precise levels of out-datedness of equipment has been spelt out to a parliamentary committee by the army’s vice chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, who said that any modern armed force should have “one-third of its equipment in the vintage category, one-third in the current category and one-third in the state of the art”, according to a parliamentary report of the Standing Committee on Defence which was tabled in Lok Sabha on March 14.

Two-thirds vintage equipment

”As far as we are concerned, the state today is 68 per cent of our equipment is in the vintage category, with just about 24 per cent in the current, and eight per cent in the state of the art category”, Chand told the Committee.

Even worse, he warned that the army did not have enough funds to buy ammunition needed for “ten days of intense war” – a scary admission at a time when there is regular firing crises the Line of Control with Pakistan and when India should be prepared for a confrontation with China in the Himalayas.

rafale-fighter-jet-2Chand said the army’s financial allocation this year “is insufficient even to cater for committed payment of Rs 29,033 crore ($4.48bn) for 125 on-going schemes, emergency procurements, or the urgent procurement of ammunition for 10 days of intense war) and other DGOF (director general ordnance factory) requirements.”

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) last year said that there was only ten days’ supply of 61 types of ammunition, a little over 20 days for 26 types, and 30 to 40 days for another 33 types. It found “no significantly improvement” in its 2015 report’s findings that only 10% of stockpiled ammunition met war wastage reserve requirements.

The most widely reported example of procrastination and indecision concerns India’s urgent need for 126 fighter jets known as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), which were first sought with a formal “request for information” to companies in the US, Russia and Europe in 2001. 

Estimated over the years at $10bn-20bn, the bids involved four twin-engine fighters – America’s Boeing F-18, Russia’s MiG-29/35, the four-nation Eurofighter, and the French Dassault company’s Rafale – and two single-engine, US Lockheed’s F-16 and the Swedish Saab Gripen.

Eventually the French Rafale (above) was chosen in 2012, but that became bogged down in contract details, including arrangements for substantial parts to be made in India, plus a lack of finance. 

Modi junked the order and personally ordered 36 Rafales “in fly-away condition as quickly as possible under government-to-government deal” when he was visiting Paris in April 2015, without informing the then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar. That deal also became bogged down in negotiations.

Saab Gripen

An over-optimistic headline!

It took 18 months to finalise at Euro 7.87bn (Rs 59,000 crore) and is now the subject of corruption allegations mounted by the Congress Party against Modi because he bypassed established procurement procedures and because the cost was significantly higher than the original 126 fighter price.

Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa acknowledged that this was a cost-cutting option last November. “Right now, we are concentrating on the single-engine so as to make up the numbers with lower cost”, he said, adding there was a requirement for twin-engine fighters later. 

In the past few weeks however, the defence ministry has indicated to all the companies involved that it wants to include twin-engine options, thus side-lining the F-16 and Gripen. Some 17 years after launching the initial inquiry, this will inevitably delay a decision for several more years, though the government could have gone ahead with the order now and looked later for a twin-engine option. France is pushing for a second batch of 36 Rafales but India is resisting that for now, which is s scarcely surprising given the corruption allegations.

No accountability

An internal defence ministry report leaked by the NDTV television station earlier this month condemned “multiple and diffused structures with no single point accountability, multiple decision-heads, duplication of processes, delayed comments, delayed execution, no real-time monitoring, no project-based approach and a tendency to fault-find rather than to facilitate”.

Prepared late last year by defence minister of state, Subhash Bhamre, the report said that of 144 deals in the last three financial years, “only 8%-10% fructified within the stipulated time period”. Delays exceeded deadlines by up to 15 times. 

The report pointed to the well-known problem of a “lack of synergy between the three services” plus the Coast Guard which “put greater strain on the limited defence budget and as a result, we are unable to meet the critical capability requirements.” Various departments in the ministry “appear to be working in independent silos” driven by their interpretation of policy and procedures, and the armed forces viewed the ministry’s acquisition wing “as an obstacle rather than a facilitator”. 

Special problems were found with a technical oversight committee that caused delays and rarely produced anything relevant, while a cost negotiation committee did not have access to international benchmarks. Finally, the finance ministry and cabinet committee on security would cancel purchases because, the report said, they were “not aware” of the defence ministry’s plans and needs.

Defexpo among the temples

Meanwhile politics trumps everything, even the siting of the bienniel international Defexpo exhibition which, till 2014, was always held in Delhi. In 2016 Parrikar, then the defence minister, moved it to his home state of Goa, which led to some from exhibitors.

In January however the current defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced that this year’s event will be held next month at Mahabalipuram in her home state of Tamil Nadu. Mahabalipuram is a famous temple town more than an hour’s drive from Chennai, the state capital, with none of the infrastructure or accessibility needed for a big international exhibition.

But, hey, if you are not going to place orders, does it matter if your biennial showcase is in a difficult location and visitors and exhibitors stay away?

Posted by: John Elliott | March 9, 2018

Sonia Gandhi launches detailed attack on Modi’s government

Rare major speech from former Congress president  

BJP “set to subvert the essence of India”

Sonia Gandhi, the usually silent head of the Gandhi dynasty and former president of the Congress Party, has today delivered one of the most direct and heartfelt attacks on the record of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government that has been heard since the 2014 general election.

Asserting that the government was “set to subvert the essence of India” with a long-planned “dangerous design”, the speech is significant because, ahead of the 2019 general election, it spelt out fears that the Modi government will change what Gandhi described as India’s open liberal democracy. 

She said that traditional dialogue anchored in “decency reason and argumentation” was being replaced with “invective innuendo and abuse”. That was changing the liberal nature of Indian society that encouraged debate and discussion and allowed dissent.

IMG_3619“Our freedom is under systematic and sustained assault” (video), she told an India Today conference in the business capital of Mumbai to occasional but not massive applause. 

“Today we are embracing a regressive vision….Fear and intimidation are the order of the day. Alternative voices are being silenced literally in far too many cases through violence even murder….religious tensions are being fuelled, vigilante mobs and private armies have been let loose with state patronage”. 

This was a reference to the government, together with the BJP and the party’s allied organisations often supported by gangs of vigilantes, harrying Muslims, attacking and quelling critics, and even killing people suspected of eating beef.

Modi has sometimes spoken against such actions, but usually too late to have much impact.

Each one of Gandhi’s points was well based, to varying degrees, on what has been happening in the past four years since the government was elected – not in terms of economic, foreign or other such policies, but on the basic aspects of a free democracy

Re-engineering DNA

“Our society is being polarised with an eye to winning elections ….. Something even more sinister is happening. Our social DNA is being re-engineered and it will have devastating consequences,” she said.

“Our judiciary is in turmoil. RTI was brought to bring transparency, but today that law is in cold storage. Aadhaar is being turned into intrusive instrument of control,” Gandhi added, referring to right to information legislation, and an Aadhaar electronic identity card system that was introduced by the Congress government but is now being extended to areas such as bank accounts and mobile phone registrations.

She also criticised the way that the government ignored what had been achieved by past governments. “Was India really a giant black hole before 26th May 2014? Did India march to progress, prosperity and greatness just 4 years ago? Is this claim not an arrogant insult to the intelligence of our people?” she asked.

Sonia before speech copy

Sonia Gandhi before her speech today

Mocking Modi without naming him, she said: “What has made our democracy precious is conversations not monologues, accountability not shunning any form of public questioning and interrogation” (though neither she nor Manmohan Singh, her prime minister, often made themselves available for media and other public questions when they were in power for ten years till 2014).

Gandhi was the president for 19 years and continues to have an active role in politics because she heads both Congress in parliament and the United Progress Alliance that includes other parties. The speech comes at a time when she is trying to unite Congress with allies  – next week she is hosting a dinner to push that forward.

She spoke with a quiet authority that cannot be managed by Rahul Gandhi, her son, who is now the Congress president but commands little respect among other politicians.

Answering questions after her speech from Aroon Purie, the head of the media group, she acknowledged that Congress had failed to match the BJP’s marketing of policies, both during the 2014 election campaign and since then in state elections. Congress now needed “a new style of connecting with people” for projecting policies.

She claimed that the massive corruption of the last Congress government had been exaggerated and dismissed other allegations, though she carefully sidestepped commenting on a current case involving the son of Palaniappan Chidambaram, previously the Congress finance minister, over alleged bribes on foreign investment approvals.

Saying “that is a very difficult question”, she also avoided saying whether Congress could survive as a viable political party without a Gandhi in charge, or whether it would break up.

Though Purie did not spelt it out, the question stems from concern that Rahul Gandhi will lead the party into election losses, as happened last weekend in three north-eastern state assembly elections.

That leads on to the worry, which lies behind Sonia Gandhi’s speech, about the widespread changes that a Modi government would be able to introduce during a second term of office if the opposition remains weak – maybe even challenging (as she mentioned) the Indian constitution.

Persistent rumours suggest Modi would like to introduce a presidential system of government with, of course, him as the president.

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