Boris and Modi have “convivial” talks on Russia – agree $1bn deals

British tv media pursue Johnson on his political “nine lives”

Boris Johnson risks losing his job as UK’s rule-breaking prime minister next month, but he has been at his boosterish and scruffy best during a two-day visit to India, despite being hounded by British television journalists questioning his political future.

With his jacket unbuttoned and flapping open even on the most formal occasions in the 35-40 degC heat, he enthusiastically launched deals that conveniently rounded off at £1bn, and heralded a free trade agreement with an almost certainly impossible six-month signing deadline.

Boris Johnson given a formal welcome by Narendra Modi in Delhi

Johnson’s most significant move was his virtual acceptance of the reality of India’s refusal to vote at the United Nations against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its continued trading in oil and other commodities. That soften’s Britain’s approach since Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, visited India earlier this month. Johnson did however did condemn “autocratic coercion around the world”.

Russia could win

He said, for the first time, that the UK would probably send ‘back-fill” tanks to Poland to replace those supplied to Ukraine. He also indicated that it was a “realistic possibility” that Russia could win the war, without defining what that involved.

On his political future, he was asked, “You are like a cat with nine lives – yet how many have you got left?” by an ITV News reporter during a series of similar media questions.

This arose from a political crisis that erupted while Johnson was flying to India. It became clear that the government might not win a vote on April 21 to delay a demand for a formal inquiry into whether he had misled parliament when he said (on several occasions) that he did not think covid restrictions had been broken by parties in his Downing Street offices and flat.

That led to the government accepting a demand for a parliamentary inquiry, which will take place after local council elections early next month – alongside an existing civil service inquiry into the parties. There are also continuing police investigations that have already led to Johnson paying a £50 fine. News of more fines emerged as Johnson flew back to London.

On Ukraine, Johnson noted in a press conference that Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, had been outspoken in criticism of the Russian invasion. He said Mod had spoken several times with Vladimir Putin “to ask what on earth he thinks he is doing and where he thinks this is going”.

India would not change

India wanted the “Russians out” but, Johnson added with virtual endorsement, “there is a difference in the balance [with other countries] because India has an historic relationship with Russia which everyone understands and accepts”. That was not going to change.

President Biden and other western leaders have not accepted that reality and are unlikely to agree. They might also be surprised by the tone of the meeting. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s top diplomat and the foreign secretary, told a press conference there had been “no pressure” from Johnson on Ukraine. The two prime ministers had a “very very useful exchange” in “very convivial terms”.

Johnson spinning yarn at the Mahatrma Gandhi Ashram in Gujarat

A joint statement said both sides “expressed in strongest terms their concern about the ongoing conflict and humanitarian situation in Ukraine. They unequivocally condemned civilian deaths, and reiterated the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a peaceful resolution of the conflict”.

That neatly rounded off the discussion, but it means that Johnson did not use his visit to persuade Modi to replace India’s abstentions at the UN with votes against Russia – something that other countries’ leaders might have hoped he would do.

Johnson also went further than some critics would have wished with an agreement on a “new and expanded Defence and Security Partnership” with India that includes co-operation on cyber security and on research and co-production – items that have been in progress for many years.

Johnson being given a bindi mark at a Gujarat temple

The Times (London) on April 21 argued against defence deals co-operation, saying “Boris Johnson must stress that there will be a cost to failing to stand with the West against Russian aggression”.

Johnson’s one Ukraine-linked gesture was (reportedly) having a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter replaced by an American Chinook to ferry him to and from a British JCB construction equipment factory in Gujarat, where he began his visit on April 21. (The visit was criticised in the Indian media because JCB bulldozers are currently at the centre of a high profile controversy in Delhi where they are being used to demolish Muslim and other poor people’s homes).

He said that he had received such a warm welcome in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, that he felt like Sachin Tendulkar, the famous Indian cricketer. Johnson called Modi khaas dost (special friend) but Modi did not meet him in Gujarat, as he has done for leaders like Xi Jinping and Donald Trump.

Instead, Johnson was greeted by Modi today in Delhi with a formal state welcome to a trip that was twice postponed last year because of the Covid pandemic. Johnson had a virtual summit with Modi on-line last May and the agreements done today build on what was agreed then

There have been plans for a free trade agreement for more than a year and little progress has been made so far, despite some talk of an interim deal to speed up relaxations of some tariffs.

There are wide gaps between the two sides on key issues such as visas, services, manufactured goods and whisky. Modi said that he hoped for a deal by the end of this year. But Johnson wants to beat the European Union to an agreement – European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen is in Delhi next week – so he has said he wants it “done by Diwali”, a major Indian festival that falls on October 24.

The outcome of such top level visits and plans between the UK and India have not in the past lived up to the initial enthusiasm and expectations – something that might happen to Johnson who, asked by a journalist if he would still be prime minister by Diwali, answered “Yes!”.

Posted by: John Elliott | April 7, 2022

India resists Russian pressure on votes at the UN

Modi refuses to have India join either camp in a ”polarised” world

A balancing act that takes China and regional tensions into account

India is beginning to shift its position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and resist pressure from Moscow – as the full horrors of the devastation and human cruelty become daily more evident.

It has not joined the US, Europe, and other Western powers in voting against Russia at the United Nations where it has abstained eleven times since the invasion began, the latest being on April 7 when Russia was suspended from the UN Human Rights Council.

But it did not respond to pressure from Russia which reportedly warned that abstention on the Human Rights Council vote would be viewed as an “unfriendly gesture”. Earlier, on April 5, it stepped up its criticism at a Security Council meeting when it condemned the killing of civilians (below) and called for a full independent investigation.

These are the latest stages of the balancing act that India has adopted since the beginning of the invasion. It wants to avoid upsetting its old ally and current trading partner while maintaining its growing relationship with the US.

India knows that its stance is being watched by Beijing, which has been growing closer to Russia and appears to be easing tensions on the currently militarised Himalayan border. At the same time, governments in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where China exerts considerable influence, are in crises.

India’s statement at the UN Security Council condemning the Ukraine killings

Against that background, it looks as if India’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine will be driven by horror at the destruction and killings, rather than by incessant lobbying from the US, the UK and European countries.

The lobbying has led to India almost restating its old non-aligned foreign policy. Speaking at a Bharatiya Janata Party rally on April 6, prime minister Narendra Modi referred to the global pressure on India to take a stronger stand against the invasion and said that, in a polarised world, the country had stood firm on its policy and had prioritised national interest. Though he did not spell it out, that meant not siding with the US and the West.

“Expecting New Delhi to take a more strident official position against Moscow is unrealistic, and Western criticism and pressure will probably rankle a postcolonial society like India’s,” says Shivshankar Menon, a former top diplomat and national security adviser.

UN statement

“Recent reports of civilian killings in Bucha are deeply disturbing,” T.S. Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the UN, told the Security Council where it currently has a seat as a non-permanent member. “We unequivocally condemn these killings and support the call for an independent investigation”.

Tirumurti was speaking shortly after US secretary of state Antony Blinken talked by phone with India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in advance of meetings they are due to hold, along with their defence ministers, in Washington next week.

A similar line was taken in the UN by China which, along with India and other nations (notably in Africa and South Asia), has abstained on UN resolutions condemning Russia.

India is still anchored to its historic relationship with Russia that goes back to the years of the Soviet Union. It is heavily reliant on Russia for defence, oil and other supplies, as I explained here on February 28.

There is also an underlying – and easily awakened – public antipathy to the US and to former colonial powers that has been exacerbated by persistent and sometimes insensitive American lobbying.

There seems to be an assumption in the US and Europe that, as the world’s largest democracy, India should have taken the same line as western democracies from the beginning of the Russian invasion.

A right-wing Hindu Sena pro-Russia rally on March 6 – photo Anushree Fadnavis Reuters

The US is however widely regarded in India as a fair-weather friend that currently finds the country useful in resisting China’s Asian ambitions. There is a strong opinion-forming liberal elite that abhors what Russia is doing. That is however offset by general antipathy for the US, which is most strongly felt by the Hindu-nationalist right wing as well as by opinion formers on the leftist end of the political spectrum. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, does not follow either extreme line, and has been working to strengthen ties with the US while maintaining Russia relations.

The Washington Post summed up the trend on March 29, when it reported that popular Indian television channels have been persisting with the lines that “the United States provoked Russia into attacking Ukraine. The Americans were possibly developing biological weapons in Ukraine. Joe Biden, the U.S. president who fumbled the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, has no business criticizing India over the war he sparked in Ukraine.”

Daleep Singh, America’s deputy national security adviser, had an unproductive official visit to New Delhi last week when he warned that there “are consequences to countries that actively attempt to circumvent or backfill sanctions”.

Russia and India are openly reviving their old Soviet Union era rupee-rouble trade arrangements to bypass sanctions, and the Bank of Russia and the Reserve Bank of India are looking for additional ways to organise payments.

Daleep Singh, America’s deputy national security adviser (right) with an apparently patronising arm on the back of India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla

That prompted Singh, who heads the US sanctions strategy, to say, “We are very keen for all countries, especially our allies and partners, not to create mechanisms that prop up the [Russian] rouble”

The implied threats, which smacked of an earlier more tetchy era in India-US relations, were quickly criticised.

Syed Akbaruddin, India’s former UN ambassador, tweeted that Singh had shown “a display of rather crude public diplomacy of a nature that is not expected from a friendly country like the US”. Akbaruddin was Modi’s trusted foreign affairs spokesman before going to the UN, which adds weight to his sharp remarks.

Delhi has been deluged with top level foreign government visitors in recent weeks including Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the British foreign secretary Liz Truss, who had a public seminar session with Jaishankar.

Truss was careful not to bully or issue threats, but made it clear that she thought democracies should stand together against Russia. Jaishankar took the line that countries should respect each other’s priorities, and gently mocked Europe for its increasing gas purchases while stating that India would have significantly reduced its dependence on Russian oil by the end of the year.

Deaf dialogue

Their conversation, while calm and firmly based on how to develop the two countries’ close relationship, was a dialogue of the deaf on Russia and Ukraine.

“If India has chosen a side, it is a side of peace and it is for an immediate end to violence,” Jaishankar told parliament on April 6. That had been India’s “principled stand” in international forums and debates.

Answering criticisms that India usually stands on the sidelines during international crises, Jaishankar added it continued “to push for dialogue” and an end to violence. “If India can be of any assistance in this matter, we will be glad to contribute,” he said.

Both Modi and Jaishankar have now spelt out India’s answer to the stream of visitors trying to turn them against Russia – India is not joining their camp and will adjust its approach as it sees fit. That is not of course the answer that Biden and other western world leaders wanted to hear.

Delhi-based AAP wins Punjab and emerges as a national player

Congress decline led by the Gandhis – Priyanka as well as Rahul

The likely trend of India’s politics and government for years ahead has been underlined today with state assembly election results producing unexpectedly substantial victories for Narendra Modi’s triumphant Bharatiya Janata Party, notably in politically significant Uttar Pradesh, and disastrous losses for the fading Congress Party in Punjab and elsewhere.

Alongside that story of relentless success and persistent decline is the arrival on the national scene of the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal. The party won a dramatic victory in Punjab (forecast and explained here earlier this week) that ousted two political dynasties, including the Gandhis whose Congress was decimated, while keeping the BJP a fringe player.

The AAP now joins other regional parties with national aspirations, notably the West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress with its charismatic leader Mamata Banerjee. These parties could, if their leaders’ egos allowed, combine with the AAP into a possibly significant force for the next general election in 2024.

They could challenge the BJP though the chances of defeating it would probably have to wait for later – Modi understandably claimed in an election rally that “2022 has decided 2024”.

For the BJP, the results in UP and elsewhere demonstrate once again the overwhelming political appeal of Modi. That is despite the government in UP failing to handle Covid and the economy effectively, while generating social dissension with its basically anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism. 

Yogi Adityanath (centre) at a rally after winning in UP – coloured powders were thrown during the celebrations in advance of the annual Holi festival of colours on March 18

The UP victory also confirms the emergence of Yogi Adityanath, the state’s chief minister who is a controversial Hindu priest-turned-politician, as a potential party leader. Never since 1985 has the UP returned a party for a second term in government, a success today won jointly by Modi and Adityanath. 

The special significance of the results for Congress, which also failed to capitalise on prospective gains in Goa and Uttarakhand, is that the Punjab loss was substantially caused by mismanagement of the party’s state leadership by Rahul Gandhi, the de facto but ineffectual party leader. 

His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who has always been seen as a charismatic and capable potential replacement for her brother, played a significant part in the Punjab mismanagement and had a lead role for the first time in Uttar Pradesh as the party’s general secretary. Her standing has therefore been diminished. Their mother, Sonia Gandhi, is the party president but is suffering from ill health and is rarely seen publicly. 

The Congress is now in power in an all-time low of only two states, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, down from nine in 2014. It won just two seats UP with a vote share of just 2.3% despite high profile campaigning by the Gandhis. Rahul Gandhi says, as he often has before as the party’s fortunes have declined, that they “humbly accept people’s verdict – we’ll learn from this”.

Bourbon monarchy

The Congress came “across as the Bourbon monarchy trying to reinvent itself after the French Revolution has taken place,” wrote Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading political commentator and columnist in the Indian Express. Never known for understating his comments, he said that Congress had been “trumpeting entitlement from a position of non-achievement and weakness”. 

There was, he added “weariness with old, corrupt, doddering, ancient regimes trying to reinvent themselves”. 

That applied also to the Samajwadi Party in UP, which did well coming second after raising its percentage of the poll to its highest ever figure of 33%. But, though its leader Akhilesh Yadav has a young energetic image, he is the second generation a dynasty and brings back memories of the corruption and disastrous law and order during the family’s earlier times in power. 

The BJP exceeded forecasts in UP, and looks like winning 274 seats (with its allies) in the 403-seat assembly. That is 48 lower than the number it won last time in 2017. The Samajwadi Party (and allies) is winning 124 seats, up 72, but it could not counter the strength of the BJP’s campaign and was let down by lack of support from the other two anti-BJP parties, Congress that got just two seats and the caste-based BSP with only one.

The return of the BJP government under Adityanath has come about despite his administration’s shortcomings that it was assumed would lead to a less favourable result. These include serious mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, poor performance on the economy and the creation of jobs, and a harsh Hindutva approach, especially the Love Jihad movement that punishes Muslims courting Hindus. 

Narendra Modi speaking at a rally in Delhi to celebrate the BJP victories where he claimed that “2022 has decided 2024”

On the western side of this vast state, which has a  230m total population, there was also opposition to the BJP’s national farm reforms that led to a year of mass protests till the government withdrew the proposals last November. 

The majority of voters seem however to have reacted positively, especially in poor villages, welcoming what has been achieved on the pandemic and other issues rather than reacting against the BJP for what has not been done.

Voters will also have been swung by Modi’s charismatic performances at widespread rallies. He raised national issues that even extended to claims that India’s growing standing internationally had helped it evacuate students from the Ukraine since the Russian invasion – though India’s efforts have been criticised by students and local Ukraine officials.

The BJP is also winning in Uttarakhand, Manipur, and Goa.

In the Punjab, the AAP has 92 of the 117 seats, up from just 20 in 2017, while Congress dropped 59 to 18 seats. The BJP won just two seats and the regional Akali party four. On vote share, the AAP rose to 42% compared with Congress’s 23%.

This unexpectedly big AAP majority followed a debacle over a former international cricketer who became a politician and, encouraged by the Gandhis, undermined the then Congress chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, a veteran politician. Both the cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, and Amarinder Singh, failed to become elected, as did the chief minister candidate. (Click here for the Punjab story). 

Kejriwal greeted his party’s victory in Punjab saying, “First this revolution happened in Delhi, then in Punjab and it will now happen all over country.” 

Its first task however will be to learn how to run the Sikh-dominated Punjab, which will be a different – and bigger – challenge than Delhi where it has been in power since 2013 (apart from a one-year gap in 2014). It will not have to suffer the sort of interference from the Modi government that it has had in the capital, which does not have the status of a full state, but it will face new issues in this agrarian state including corruption in government, a lack of jobs for the youth, and a widespread illegal drugs trade.

Other AAP leaders talked today about the party emerging as a national force and as a natural replacement for Congress. That is taking what could happen too far. The AAP, which will have candidates in Gujarat assembly elections later this year, cannot expect instant success there or in any other state.

Its reach could however gradually grow, especially if it worked with other regional parties – and if the aloof Congress could shed the Gandhis’ sense of entitlement and join in because the Congress still has brand value.

Till that happens, the BJP will dominate and extend its Hindutva ambitions, where Muslims and other minorities have to accept that they live in a primarily Hindu nation. 

When history is written, the Gandhis and the Congress Party will surely be condemned for not mounting the sort of opposition that is expected in a parliamentary democracy.

Posted by: John Elliott | March 8, 2022

Delhi’s AAP looks set for historic win in Punjab

Modi’s BJP in line to win a rare second term in Uttar Pradesh

Exit polls indicate results ahead of official count on Thursday 10th

Two politically significant results emerged yesterday (March 7) in exit polls for five India state assembly elections held over the last four weeks. One is a likely historic win in Punjab for the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which would introduce a new player into national politics. The other is a notable win for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the key state of Uttar Pradesh.

The polls were released when polling ended yesterday evening, and votes will be counted on March 10.

An average of six exit polls forecast that the AAP will win a workable majority with around 65 seats in Punjab’s 117-seat assembly, compared with just 28 for the Congress Party which is currently in power, and around 19 seats for the Shiromani Akali Dal (Alkalis), the main Sikh party. The BJP is forecast for maybe four seats. This is of course only based on exit polls and the final figures could vary.

This would be the AAP’s first win outside Delhi, and would allow it to run a state without interference from the national government. It has been in power in Delhi under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s founder and the capital city’s chief minister, since 2013 (apart from a one-year gap in 2014). The party’s roots are in a large-scale anti-corruption campaign a decade ago where Kejriwal, a former bureaucrat, played a prominent role. It also has candidates in the current Goa state election.

The likely Punjab result would be a blow for Modi, who has relentlessly tried to undermine the Kejriwal government since becoming prime minister in 2014. Delhi does not have the constitutional status of a full state, which means that the chief minister shares power with an appointed lieutenant governor, who exerts authority on behalf of the national government’s home ministry.

Stung by a massive defeat for the BJP in the capital’s 2015 assembly election, Modi defied the electoral choice of Delhi voters and set out to make Kejriwal’s administration as non-functional as possible by ordering the lieutenant governor to block legislative and administrative initiatives and appointments. This was reversed in July 2018 by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the national government should not interfere with, or attempt to undermine, Kejriwal’s administration. That however has not quelled the interference.

Arvind Kejriwal, AAP founder and leader and Delhi chief minister

Denigrated by many as an upstart that performs no better than long-established parties, the nine-year old AAP has made significant improvements in Delhi’s government schools and mohalla primary health clinics, and also on subsidised water and electricity.

The Punjab result would also be a disaster for the Congress and would reveal once again the Gandhi dynasty’s failings as leaders, though the party might be doing well this week in two other small states, Uttarakhand and Goa.

The Congress was led to a substantial victory in the last Punjab assembly elections in 2017 by Captain Amarinder Singh, a veteran politician who became chief minister for a second time. It won 77 seats against 20 for the AAP that was putting up candidates for in the state the first time. An alliance between the BJP and the Akalis won 15.

Age 80 on March 11, and a military historian as well as a politician, Singh was accused of being a remote and ineffectual chief minister who rarely emerged from his palatial residence and allowed rampant corruption and expansion of an illicit drug trade.

A rival emerged when Navjot Singh Sidhu, a former international cricket star, became active in politics and tried to unseat him, harnessing the support of Rahul Gandhi, the ineffectual Congress leader, and his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

The Gandhis seemed to encourage Sidhu to undermine the proud chief minister’s authority and image. Knowing he had lost their support, Amarinder resigned last September and linked up with the BJP while Sidhu, who became rebellious and over-assertive, was sidelined to head the state’s party organisation.

Amarinder Singh, former Punjab chief minister

Another Sikh politician, Charanjit Singh Channi, became chief minister and has led the Congress campaign. Channi is a Dalit, formerly known as “untouchables” at the bottom of the caste system. His appointment was seen partly as a bid to win this important part of the Punjab electorate votes.

Unsurprisingly, the Gandhi’s mishandling of the Amarinder Singh succession reduced Congress’s standing in the state, and enabled the AAP to emerge as a party that advocated strong governance and development without any religious or dynastic overtones.

In contrast to the Congress’s Gandhi manipulations, the AAP chose its chief ministerial candidate after a poll of members that backed Bhagwant Mann, a former stand-up comedian.

In an attempt to undermine the AAP in Punjab, there have been allegations – strongly denied – that it has links with leaders of the Khalistan movement that campaigned militantly for Punjab’s independence from India in the 1980s. The movement still has support abroad, particularly in Canada and the UK.

A letter allegedly issued by a banned pro-Khalistan group, Sikhs For Justice (SGJ), expressing support for the AAP spread across social media last month but was disowned both by the AAP and the group in a fact check run by India Today magazine.

The BJP supported the reports with Anurag Thakur, the information and broadcasting minister in the Modi government, repeating an allegation made by a former AAP member that Kejriwal had said he wanted to become the prime minister of “Khalistan”.

That is surely an unthinkable statement for a chief minister of Delhi who has national political ambitions.

Uttar Pradesh

Meanwhile, an average of six Uttar Pradesh exit polls gives about 240 seats to the BJP with its main rival, the state-based Samajwadi Party having about 150 and the Congress just four to six.

This would be the first time a party in power has won a second term in the state since 1985. It will be seen as a vote both for the controversial Hindutva-based chief minister Yogi Adityanath, and also for Modi who stamped his image on the election with extensive campaigning.

That sets Modi with a strong platform to move ahead to the 2024 general election, as well as projecting Adityanath as an major BJP figure and leader for the future.

$15bn defence orders and historic links lead it to abstain at the UN

Biden to decide on India sanctions for Russia missile system order

If Modi ji speaks to Putin, we are hopeful he will respond”, Igor Polikha, the Ukrainian ambassador to Delhi said on February 24 as Russian troops massed on his country’s borders, ready to strike.

“We highly appreciate India’s deep understanding of the current situation as well as the reasons that led to it. We expect India to support Russia at the UN Security Council,” Russia’s Charge d’affaires Roman Babushkin said in Delhi on February 25.

Neither diplomat had his way as India negotiated its approach for a meeting of the UN Security Council, where it is a temporary member, on the evening of the 25th. Vladimir Putin of course did not withdraw his massed armies as Polikha hoped, nor did India vote in favour of the Ukraine invasion as Russia wanted.

Vladimir Putin greeted by Narendra Modi in Delhi, December 2021 they signed a ten-year defence co-operation agreement

Instead, it abstained, as it is expected to do this evening in a meeting of the full UN General Assembly. China and the UAE also abstained on the 25th from the UN draft resolution. “Deploring in the strongest terms Russia’s aggression against Ukraine”, it called on Russia, to “immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine”.

India took its position despite US president Joe Biden saying that “any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association”. Antony Blinken had urged India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to accept “the importance of a strong collective response to Russian aggression.”

India’s stance will disappoint and annoy the US and other western powers, but the reality is that India has no choice but to maintain tolerable relations with Russia.

In Washington a State Department spokesman seemed to recognise that on February 25 when he said, “India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we’ve with Russia that is okay.” It remains to be seen how long that line lasts as sanctions increase.

In terms of history, Russia is seen as a long-term diplomatic supporter on international issues in the United Nations and elsewhere. On economics, it now accounts for 60% of India’s defence orders, but the support dates from the Soviet Union supplying low-cost (and low efficiency) steelworks, power projects and infrastructure for India’s developing economy.

The mutual trust was so great that rewards for loyal Soviet workers included holidays in secluded Indian seaside resorts – in the 1980s I saw a party arriving at a small Oberoi hotel on the Orissa coast. A banker friend remembers in 1982 travelling by car to an aluminium project in the state and seeing a signboard saying “ No Foreigners, Indians and Russians only”!

The US, on the other hand, which has wooed India for past 20 years with growing success, is seen warily as a fair-weather friend that wants India’s support now as a buffer against China, but cannot be wholly relied on if priorities change or India steps out of line.

‘Pragmatic tightrope walk’

“India’s stand on Ukraine is shaped by its national interest. It should continue to do so — ‘with us or against us’ doesn’t work”, said the Indian Express in an editorial headline the morning after the UN vote. The Business Standard said “India’s Ukraine move balances its principles with its interests” on a “pragmatic tightrope walk”.

“Both the US and Russia are essential partners for India; neither can replace the other,” Shivshankar Menon, a former foreign secretary and national security adviser, told me. Explaining why India cannot manage without the US, he said “Russia cannot substitute for the market, the civilian technologies, the education, and the financial system that the US offers India access to, all of which are essential for India’s transformation”.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, Beijing Olympics Feb ’22

The  refusal to step away from Russia is something that the US, UK and other western countries will have to learn to live with, at least for now, though international public opinion will inevitably swing against India for not condemning Putin’s brutal invasion.

India is seen internationally as a robust tolerant democracy despite its chaotic politics and growing Hindu nationalism. The view abroad is therefore that it should not be fence-sitting when Russia is breaching Ukraine’s national sovereignty – something that India accuses China of breaching on their disputed Himalayan border.

There is some concern in India about the line it is taking. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran noted in the Indian Express on February 26 that “there is a rising level of discomfort among Russia’s friends who have chosen to look the other way”. He reckoned that “the geopolitical calculations that led to artful ambiguity in reactions to the Russian invasion are now shifting so as not to be stranded on the wrong side of the fence”. He added that “the Indian statement explaining its vote of abstention comes fairly close to criticising Russia’s resort to arms”.

Saran was reflecting liberal opinion in India that is concerned about the government not speaking out and regrets that India will be heavily criticised. The Congress Party is broadly backing the government line, but Shashi Tharoor, a leading Congress MP and former senior UN official, echoed Saran’s point and said on television that India had “placed itself on the wrong side of history”. Mainstream concerns however are more localised about its own tensions with China and Pakistan at a time of an escalating world crisis.

The Cold War

The diplomatic relationship goes back to the 1950s when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru softened his non-aligned principles and moved closer to the Soviet Union at a time when the US was siding with Pakistan. The ties grew with the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace Friendship and Cooperation signed August 1971, which specified mutual strategic cooperation. It came after the creation of Bangladesh that India supported. President Richard Nixon, who once called Indians “slippery treacherous people”, ordered US ships to the Bay of Bengal in support of what was then East Pakistan. That has never been forgotten in Delhi.

I remember Indira Gandhi saying when she was prime minister in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union had never let India down. That contrasted with the US, which had done more than any other country to damage India strategically over 60 years (till relations began to improve 15 to 20 years ago). I was told some time ago by Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to Moscow. He cited US high technology sanctions “curbing the development of India’s strategic capabilities” till a nuclear deal was struck with the US in 2008.

Sibal takes a more pro-Moscow line than many of his peers. What he says however illustrates the legacy of history behind India’s current wish to remain at least partially non-aligned, with a tilt to Russia, while it has been growing closer to the US. It has been buying America’s defence equipment and has joined it in the counter-China link-up called The Quad along with Japan and Australia.

Russia’s defence minister Sergey Shoygu with Rajnath Singh, his Indian counterpart in Delhi Dec 2021.

It has however refused to allow the US to dictate policy on issues that it sees as being in the nation’s interest. It has insisted for example on maintaining diplomatic relations with Myanmar and Iran, moves that have been reluctantly accepted by successive American presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Defence orders

While history may be becoming less significant in the Russia relationship, India continues to be tied by large scale defence orders that amount to a priority catalogue of dependency.

Ajai Shukla, a former army colonel and now a defence analyst and columnist, estimates that India has defence orders totalling some $15bn with Russia, which for years has accounted for 50-60% of the country’s defence imports and was down to just under 50% in 2017-21 according to SIPRI, the Stockholm based defence think tank (India imports 70% of its defence equipment because it has failed to develop a manufacturing capability).

The orders include a $5.43bn missile defence system, the S-400, with deliveries under way. There is a $3bn order for four frigates, plus two to be made in India (complicated by the engines coming from Ukraine that also has a continuing contract for upgrading military transport aircraft).

Then there is a $3bn contract to lease a Russian nuclear attack submarine for ten years from 2025, and plans for an Indian factory to manufacture at least 750,000 AK-203 Kalashnikov rifles for the Indian Army. The Indian Air Force wants to buy and upgrade 21 MiG-29 fighters lying unused in Russia, and maybe build 18 Sukhoi-30MKI fighters plus 200 light helicopters worth about $2bn, says Shukla.

Vladimir Putin with Imran Khan in Moscow February 24 as Russian troops were massing on the Ukraine border – Putin not distancing himself for alleged Covid reasons as he did with other visitors over Ukraine

The list is endless stretching far into the future. India has been trying to reduce this reliance. [[INSERT MARCH 4: Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on March 2 that “India, in just the last few weeks, cancelled orders for MiG-29 (fighter jets), Russian helicopter and anti-tank weapons”. (The Indian Ministry of Defence has not confirmed this development.)]]

The US would be eager to replace some of the existing orders, but it is not willing to co-produce and co-develop advanced defence technologies with India in the way that Russia has, for example, on nuclear submarines, fighter jets and missiles.


The US pressed India to buy missile systems made by America’s Raytheon or Lockheed Martin instead of Russia’s S-400, but Delhi refused to switch.

A decision is pending from Biden on whether to impose sanctions on India under America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). There seemed a chance he would find a way to excuse India, but the S-400 constitutes a “significant transaction” under the Act and there is now a real risk that Biden will refuse a waiver. That could cause a serious disruption to US-India ties.

India might face more sanctions and will also have problems making payments to Russia now that banking is being blocked. Reuters has reported that it is considering reviving an old rupee-rouble payment mechanism for trade that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union because sanctions could disrupt vital supplies of Russian fertiliser. A payments system used for trade with Iran is another possibility.

Putin, Xi – and Imran

Relations with Russia have been complicated by Moscow growing closer to China and also, at a different level of importance, to Pakistan. There is rapport between Putin and Xi Jinping, China’s tough and ambitious president, and it seemed at first that Putin expected support for his Ukraine adventure.

But Xi is a cautious leader and he has his own battles to fight internationally, especially with the US. This has led to what a Financial Times headline called China’s “pro-Russia neutrality” after China abstained on the UN security council resolution

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, Xi told Putin during a telephone conversation on February 26 that China supported Russia’s and Ukraine’s resolving the issue through negotiation – which fell far short of endorsing the invasion and verged on opposing it.

China is however expected to offer Russia help over sanctions, with increased commodities trade arranged through state-owned banks that have less trouble circumventing US sanctions. “Look to North Korea for reference: All trade with them is banned under international sanctions and yet China accounts for 95 per cent of their foreign trade,” a US analyst told the FT.

That could lead to Putin becoming indebted to Xi, which would give the Chinese president an added pressure point against India. Relations between India and China are at a low point. Troops have been facing each other for two years in the Himalayas after serious clashes with fatalities in 2020.

India’s tortuous relationship with Pakistan, which is actively supported and armed by China, could also be affected. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, clearly enjoyed parading last week through Beijing and then Moscow, meeting Xi and Putin, while the Ukraine crisis was developing.

After India’s abstention, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Modi and sought India’s “political support”. Modi is reported to have expressed “deep anguish” over the loss of life and property, and to have reiterated India’s call for “immediate cessation of violence” and return to dialogue, indicating the furthest that India would go in condemning Putin.

Since then, Putin has escalated the crisis with attacks on Ukraine and putting nuclear forces on alert. This means that India will find it increasingly difficult to stand on the sidelines, calling for peace talks and an end to hostilities, at a time when other leading nations are imposing heavy sanctions. Despite that, India has a strong case for its current stance.

This article first appeared on –

A later updated but shortened version is here

Top prices at Pundole auction for V.S.Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta

Buoyant sales over two days of auctions as Ukraine crisis escalated

For the second time in less than two years, an auction consisting entirely of modern Indian art from a prominent Japanese collection has created record prices for leading masters. The total sale figure of $20.68m – for 57 lots – was also the highest ever for a single Indian art auction.

Run by Pundole, a long-established Mumbai gallery, the auction – and a second sale a day later – consisted of works from a collection built up over three decades by Masanori Fukuoka, a businessman living in the Kansai region of Japan. Fukuoka set up the Glenbarra Museum alongside his home.

V.S.Gaitonde’s $6.44m abstract

The museum now has one of the most impressive and accessible international collections of Indian art, which Fukuoka, who was initially drawn to India as a place of Buddhist learning, occasionally prunes.

Works have been shown in India and lent abroad. An impressive collection of Jogen Chowdhury’s works has travelled to Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi, and a Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition will be staged later this year.

Fukuoka’s s first exclusive auction with Pundole was in September 2020.

This week’s two auctions (totalling $21m together) took place in Mumbai on February 24 and 25 just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine was under way.

All the 116 lots were sold and most exceeded estimates, maybe indicating as often happens that art is seen as a safer investment than the stock markets at a time of crisis.

A large 70inx50in abstract oil on canvas that was painted in 1969 by V.S.Gaitonde, a leading member of the mid-20th century Progressive group, set a new record for the artist with a Rs42 crore hammer price – $6.44m including a 15% buyer’s premium. This was the first time the painting has been auctioned and the price was the highest ever bid for a modern or contemporary Indian work. It beat the Rs32 crore – $5.02m including the premium – paid for another Gaitonde from the Glenbarra collection in September 2020.   

Tyeb Mehta’s $4.9m “Mahishasura”

The second highest price of Rs32 crores (hammer) – $4.9m including the premium – was bid for a 59inx47in acrylic on canvas by Tyeb Mehta, another leading member of the Progressives. Part of his Mahishasura series, it depicted a goddess and buffalo-demon enacting a sacrificial combat rite of fertility.

The price doubled the low estimate and beat Mehta’s previous record of Rs26.38 crore ($3.99m including premium) that was achieved at a Mumbai-based Saffronart auction in June 2018. 

These prices confirm Gaitonde’s and Mehta’s position at the top of the Indian art market, where their paintings are regarded as both financially safe and visually important investments.

According to sources, the two works were bought by a (so far) un-named non-resident Indian with paddle number 1707, whose success as an apparently new buyer surprised established collectors based in India.

The same buyer won other works including an 84inx108in triptych oil on canvas titled My Lily Pond by Arpita Singh. Now in her mid-80s, Singh’s works were till recently under-recognised. Creating a new record for the artist, the painting was sold for three times the low estimate at a hammer price of Rs9 crore ($1.38m including premium).

At first glance it looks a calm mix of colours. The word WATER is repeated across the canvas with pinkish water lilies, but the detail – topically – reveals armed soldiers bearing down on drowning men.

Arpita Singh’s $1.38m “My Lily Pond”

Another prominent artist, Jagdish Swaminathan, doubled his record with a 61inx184in triptych oil on canvas titled The Altar from 1988. It sold for a hammer price of Rs22 crore ($3.73m including the premium) that more than tripled the low estimate.

The Indian art market is frequently hit by fake works of art so the reputation of the Glenbarra collection’s authenticity seems to reassure buyers. The total sale of on the first day of Rs155 crore ($20.68m) beat the previous auction record of $16m (Rs68.64 crore) that was set by Saffronart in the boom year of 2006 before prices crashed. That was followed by Rs97.65 crore ($14.7m) at a Christie’s auction in Mumbai in December 2015.

Bull”, a bronze sculpture by Tyeb Mehta that tripled its top estimate to sell for Rs9 crore ($1.38m including the premium)

Alongside the big names, there were many works by lesser know artists both in the February 24 auction and in the second sale of 59 works a day later. All the works sold. and many went well above estimates that seem to have been set low to pull in bids.

The auction catalogue says that, in his early years of collecting, Masanori Fukuoka had a “process of buying” that was “somewhat romantic, where emotional responses and gut reactions trump all practical considerations”.

He finished up with what he describes as “a few thousand” works and says he has been selling works at various auctions for several years, focussing since 2020 on the high profile single-owner sales with Pundole. He is still buying, having diversified into Japanese ceramics.

Dadiba Pundole, who owns the auction gallery, says that buyers on the two days included a new generation of collectors” who “fulfilled Masanori’s dream of bringing a broad range of Indian artists into the sphere of international awareness and recognition”.

The results underline the growing significance of India-based auction houses that include Saffronart as well as Pundole and Asta Guru. That leaves the internationally known Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams with a lesser role.

Posted by: John Elliott | February 14, 2022

Narendra Modi faces tough state elections notably in Uttar Pradesh

Rahul Bajaj, a tribute

Rahul Bajaj , a veteran Indian industrialist and the head of the Bajaj Auto group who died on February 12 aged 83, will always be remembered for standing up to power. At a business conference just over two years ago, he confronted Amit Shah, the Home Minister and Narendra Modi’s chief ally, and told him that the Bharatiya Janata government had created an “atmosphere of fear” which silenced critics and deterred investment (see article below). That was something his peers feared to say.

Known for decades of unguarded and often controversial public statements, Bajaj headed a family run group that was a world leader with its scooters, motorbikes and three wheeler auto-rickshaws. India has other industrialists who head bigger conglomerates and who may be regarded with awe, but Bajaj was proud, as he told me when I interviewed him for the FT in 1988, of his “family background of ethics, honesty and simplicity”.  A fellow auto industry manufacturer described him as “intellectually honest, he spoke his mind and always thought about the nation.”

Modi pitches governance though Hindu nationalism is the creed

Lack of jobs an issue in state polls that continue till early March

Viewed from abroad, the best economic news out of India for some time has been the government finally privatising Air India, the heavy loss-making and inefficient national carrier that was handed over to the Tata group at the end of last month. There was also a constructive Budget on February 1 aimed at boosting infrastructure spending.

The major focus now is on assembly polls currently taking place in five states including Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with 105m voters. Prime minister Narendra Modi needs to curb his Bharatiya Janata Party politicians and activists propensity during elections to stir up their Hindu nationalist supporters, causing social unrest and generating fear among minorities, notably Muslims and Christians.

Taken together, the potential positive reform signal from the Air India sale plus the Budget’s growth potential and relative calm during the elections could help to improve India’s image abroad.

Narendra Modi interview with ANI news agency

Investors look for positive continuity in economic policy and are deterred by some retrospective changes of recent years. They also look for stability in governance.

Modi appears to have accepted that he needs to pitch governance rather than the raucous nationalism he often projects at election rallies. He showed this in a 70-minutes Indian news agency interview on February 9 where he talked (in Hindi) about government achievements. He focussed on Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s top-priority state election where voting started a day later. Arguably the timing so close to the polls breached electoral conventions, but Modi has ignored the rules in earlier years.

Budget boost

The Budget attempted to provide some continuity with few tax changes. The government expects GDP to grow by 9.2% in the year ending March 31, reflecting some recovery from the pandemic, and 8%-8.5% in the coming year. That would be faster than other major economies.

With a focus on infrastructure spending including national highways, the budget had a 35% boost for capital expenditure. The government’s privatisation drive might however not move ahead as quickly as had been hoped in the two years before the next general election, despite the Air India success. A plan announced a year ago to monetise government assets is moving slowly and the budget’s divestment target was halved by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman from the (grossly unrealistic) $23bn pitched for the current year (2021-22) to $8.75bn for the coming year.

Positive moves like Air India and the Budget, and Modi’s calm but authoritative tv interview, together with the fading of the Covid threat that ravaged India, are not however sufficient to allay concerns abroad. There are widespread worries about social upheavals caused by the relentless drive for Hindu-based nationalism along with the government’s restrictions on freedom of expression.

This is reflected by international media coverage. My old newspaper the FT had a headline calling Modi a “textbook fascist” on a January 28 piece by its US columnist Edward Luce, who was the Delhi-based South Asia correspondent a few years ago. The New York Times ran a February 9 headline “As Officials Look Away, Hate Speech in India Nears Dangerous Levels” plus “calls for anti-Muslim violence – even genocide – are moving from the fringes to the mainstream”. The report included calls by Hindu activists and spiritual leaders last December for genocide against Muslims.

Restrictions on journalists are being criticised, notably the arrest on February 4 and imprisonment for ten days, of a prominent Kashmir journalist, Fahad Shah, who is the editor of The Kashmir Walla, an independent internet news site, and who has reported for international newspapers. The government has also in the past few days tightened its ability to cancel journalists’ official accreditation with new rules that the Indian Express said “intrudes on rights of free press” and “attempts to shrink space for dissent”.

State assembly elections

Two of the five assembly elections are important for the future direction of Indian politics. The BJP needs to win in UP in order to project Modi’s supreme vote-winning image forward to the next general election in two years’ time, though victory is not assured.

The other is in Punjab, a sensitive border state where there is a risk of interference from neighbouring Pakistan. The election result will probably underline the supreme vote losing ability of the Congress party, which currently runs the state government. The Gandhi family that controls Congress has failed to ensure an orderly succession to Amarinder Singh, the party’s veteran state politician and until recently the chief minister. This has led to splits in the party that could lead to the Aam Aadmi Party, which is in power in Delhi and has its roots in anti-corruption campaigns, increasing its significance..

The first of seven stages of voting began in UP on February 10 with Goa and Uttarakhand following today (Feb 14) and Punjab and Manipur later in the month. Voting continues till March 7 and the count will take place on March 10.

Modi usually makes Hindu nationalism the core BJP appeal, but he has to cope with rising unemployment and concern about a lack of effective governance on jobs and allied issues. Especially serious is the plight of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that were worst hit by the pandemic and by his de-monetisation of bank notes in 2016 and a complex introduction of a new Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017.  These businesses usually employ some 110m workers and many have been crippled.

Yogi Adityanath during the election campaign – NDTV photo

In Punjab and UP there is also resentment about farming laws that were cancelled in December after more than a year of mass protests on highways approaching Delhi. There are therefore strong grounds for voting to swing away from the BJP.

For Modi, UP is the prize he needs to win. In 2017, he installed a firebrand and ambitious Hindu priest-turned-politician, Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister, who regularly stirs anti-Muslim sentiment, as he has done during the election campaign. He is seen by some as a future national party leader who might eventually take over from Modi and become prime minister – a development that would cause apprehensiveness about tough pro-Hindu policies.

Modi and Adityanath are facing a determined challenge from the state-based Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav, who was chief minister from 2012 to 2017. The BJP has not been sufficiently effective on the economy since it won power in 2017, despite substantial infrastructure spending, but it has reduced the widespread lawlessness that was a feature of the Samajwadi years in power.

Akhilesh Yadav while campaigning

The state’s per capita income in PPP terms remains lower than Zimbabwe’s and is barely higher than Haiti’s according to Mihir Sharma, a prominent commentator and Bloomberg columnist. The Economist compares UP with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the only Asian countries below its $991 nominal GDP per person, which is less than half India’s average.

Yadav now has a chance to persuade the electorate that he has matured – aged 48 he is still young by Indian politics standards – and that he would lead a less harsh government than the BJP that would be more caring for the interests of minorities, and an effective provider of jobs.

Nationally, Modi remains the most popular prime minister since the Congress party’s Indira Gandhi half a century ago, and there is no national politician to challenge him. But his concern about losing ground is apparent from his relentless attacks on Rahul Gandhi, the ineffectual leader of Congress who could, were he more politically able and respected, lead a national opposition.

Modi wants to replace Gandhi’s grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, as India’s greatest leader by reversing what the BJP regards as centuries of decline and establishing a Hindu nation where minorities such as Muslims and Christians are accepted providing they recognise the overall nationalism.

A substantial victory in Uttar Pradesh would help him towards that goal, but defeat would encourage regional opposition parties, and maybe even the Congress, to mount a strong and unified challenge in 2024.

Defeat would also dent Modi’s supreme and powerful populist image. Voters of course often go for different parties in state and national elections, but he would need over the next two years to add positive policies that provide hope for the hundreds of millions of India’s poor. Focussing on defensive and negative attacks on the Gandhis and the disruptive rabble rousing of Hindu nationalism would not be enough.

Posted by: John Elliott | February 2, 2022

Boris Johnson bid to keep job after Covid lockdown parties crisis

Long history of rule breaking and surviving career crises

Eton school master criticised his lack of respect for rules age 17

If Boris Johnson was chairman of a big corporation, he would surely have had to resign on January 31 after an official report was published that condemned “failures of leadership and judgment” in his office and home at 10 Downing Street. The report, written by Sue Gray, a top civil servant, also covered the adjacent Cabinet Office and listed over a dozen potentially illegal parties that were held during the past two years of strict Covid lockdowns and social distancing.

Instead, Johnson gave a rumbustious and insensitive performance in parliament, where there were a few calls for him to resign that he rebutted.

Boris Johnson apologising in parliament on January 31, watched (top right) by former prime minister Theresa May who challenged him to say whether he understood or just ignored lockdown rulesclick for twitter video

Apologising for at least the third time in as many months for crises around his role as British prime minister, he took “full responsibility” for what had happened. That has become his confessional route of avoiding the need to acknowledge and absorb detailed criticism, but he showed no sign of changing his ways.

“I want to say sorry. Sorry for the things we simply did not get right and sorry for the way that this matter has been handled,” he said, humbly wagging his head. “It is not enough to say sorry. This is a moment when we must look at ourselves in the mirror and we must learn.” He then outlined planned organisational changes in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office that had been demanded in the report, but gave no hint however that he, personally, had to learn or change.

“I get it and I will fix it”, he added, no doubt hoping he was giving instant splash headlines for the next day’s papers that instead led with “A failure of leadership”, “Zero Shame”, “PM pleads for his job” and “Johnson rejects calls to quit”.

Boris Johnson at Eton

The report said that “at least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time”. There had been “too little thought given to what was happening across the country in considering the appropriateness of some of these gatherings, the risks they presented to public health and how they might appear to the public”.

He is now staging what must be the most audacious of the many recovery coups that have rescued his disaster-strewn career.

Despite all that, after two months of mounting crises with allegations of lying and misleading parliament (a resigning offence), Johnson has  so far avoided being ousted from his post as prime minister.

Two weeks ago it looked as if his time in office was about to end, even though he had won a landslide general election victory for his Conservative Party in 2019, and then fulfilled his pledge to take Britain to its Brexit future outside the European Union. Last year he led a highly successful Covid vaccination programme. Britain acted faster and more effectively than most other countries in stark contrast to his unfocussed mismanagement of the pandemic early in 2019. Johnson then looked good for maybe ten years in power.

Throughout his career however he has displayed disdain for established institutions and scant respect for the truth. This has led to the current flood of crises, with his credibility plummeting both among Conservative members of parliament and the party’s countrywide membership. Last month it looked as though there might be a vote against his leadership, which needs to be triggered by 54 (15%) of the 359 Conservative MPs. Johnson’s allies have cajoled and bullied many of the likely rebels into line, but the number is still rising.

Boris Johnson was given a birthday cake on a school visit before his wife Carrie gave him one at a party during lockdown in Downing Street

The crisis built up from the end of November after a story in the Daily Mirror about Christmas drinks in Downing Street the previous year. That led to a stream of media reports of a total of 12 parties held in Downing Street offices and gardens between May 2020 and April 2021, with at least three being attended by the prime minister. Also leaked were details of three parties in the adjoining Cabinet Office and one in the education ministry.

One party was in Johnson’s private Downing Street flat (Nov 13, 2020), and one was in the Cabinet Room on his birthday (June 19, 2020) with a cake brought by his wife Carrie. Gatherings of two or more people indoors, and more than six outdoors, were prohibited at that time. (Sue Gray’s report has the restrictions’ details and dates)

One of the worst apparent breaches was a party in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020 organised by a top official with a “bring your own booze” invitation at a time when outside recreation was officially allowed with only one person.

The most publicly shocking was a party (without Johnson present) that went on late into the night on April 16 2021, the eve of the funeral of 99-year old Duke of Edinburgh. That party was contrasted in the media with a striking picture of Queen Elizabeth (below) sitting in the funeral service the next day with no one alongside her because she was abiding by the Covid distancing rules. 

Throughout, Johnson has obfuscated (some say lied) and never admitted that anything wrong was done. To begin with, he refused to admit to any knowledge of the parties, later claiming they were either work events or in line with Covid restrictions which they clearly were not. Asked in parliament on December 8 whether he would confirm the November 13 2020 event happened, Johnson replied: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

Johnson fended off the stream of leaks by ordering an inquiry on December 8 by his cabinet secretary, who had to withdraw after a few days because of an on-line quiz that had taken place in his office. He was replaced on December 17 by Gray, who is a highly respected and experienced civil servant, but the leaks continued. Johnson swept them all aside saying “wait for the Sue Gray report”, but by the beginning of last week it was becoming apparent that her report would be damming with a massive amount of detail.

It is debatable whether what happened next was a clever plot or happenstance. It involves Cressida Dick, London’s highly controversial Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Dick’s five-year posting was extended last September for two years by Priti Patel, the home secretary and a committed Johnson supporter, who rejected widespread calls for the commissioner to be replaced.

Commissoner Cressida Dick, Johnson and Sue Gray – Huffington Post

On January 25, Dick unexpectedly announced that The Met was conducting inquiries into the parties, reversing the established police line that it was not looking into long-past Covid regulation cases. The Met then asked Gray to make “minimal reference” to eight events it was investigating. 

Gray then did substantial redrafting over the weekend to remove the bulk of the report and she also downgraded the title to a mere “Update” because it contains none of the expected  analysis of the 16 cases.

That suited Johnson because it prevented publication of potentially incriminating information that could escalate the crisis around his leadership, possibly showing, that he misled parliament, which would lead to widespread calls for his resignation.

The Metropolitan Police (The Met) said on Monday that it was reviewing “more than 300 images and over 500 pages of information” on the allegations. Some photos are reported to incriminate both Johnson and his wife Carrie who could be fined, along with officials and guests.

Police fines

The police intend to fine anyone found guilty of breaking the regulations – £200 (Rs20,200) for the first offence rising to a maximum of £6,400 (Rs6.5 lakhs) for repeat offences – but say they will not announce the names. Appeals will go to court for trial by judge and jury.

Under pressure from MPs, Johnson has reluctantly agreed to ask Gray for a further update when the police inquiries are completed, but it is not clear if he is still resisting publication of a full detailed report. His spokespeople have indicated he might be willing to say if he has been fined.

Johnson now hopes that the police inquiries, which could last weeks, will give him time to rebuild his prime ministerial momentum so that public interest in the parties scandal ebbs away and MPs decide not to try to evict him.

Substantial policy initiatives are planned and yesterday (Feb 1) he flew to Ukraine for crisis talks that provided photo-ops and sound bites. His authority however is waning – he was asked by the international media in Ukraine if he had the authority to speak for Britain, and a day earlier had to postpone a phone call with Vladimir Putin because he was dealing with his parliamentary session.

Many of the leaks about the parties have come from Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s maverick and divisive former chief of staff who he sacked in November 2020. Cummings is determined to get Johnson removed and can be expected to produce new leaks and allegations that have already started appearing in today’s (Feb 2) newspapers.

Dominic Cummings leaving Downing Street, October 2020

In a recent interview with the New York magazine, Cummings said removing Johnson from power was “an unpleasant but necessary job. It’s like sort of fixing the drains.”

Johnson has a history of rule breaking and re-emerging apparently unscathed. He was sacked as a graduate journalist trainee on The Times in 1988 over allegations he had fabricated a quote. In 2004 he was sacked as a front bench parliamentary spokesman and Conservative Party vice-chairman for allegedly lying to the party leader about an extra-marital affair he had with a colleague on The Spectator magazine where he was the editor.

There have been questions over a businessman helping to fund the £112,000 redecoration of his Downing Street flat and about the funding of two holidays in the Caribbean and Spain while he has been prime minister. An American woman, who claims she had a four-year (much photographed) affair with him when he was London mayor (2008-2016), is alleged to have received business favours.

It may seem odd that such a character with so little respect for conventions and rules can become prime minister. But these are deeply engrained life-long traits. His classics master when he was at school at Eton complained to his father than the 17-year-old thought he “should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone”.

The reason for his success is that he exudes charm and panache and is a brilliant campaigner, which he has shown with Brexit and various elections. MPs and the party have supported him because they want him to win local council polls in the summer and a general election in 2024. They have known his limitations, which include a chaotic lack of interest in detailed policy issues and a short attention span, but thought they could tolerate them.

The question now is whether his lack of ethics is too serious for his supporters to tolerate and they dump him because he is no longer a vote winner. That would be the logical conclusion for any other politician, but so far his opponents have not united around a single cause and there are no outstanding characters to succeed him. So don’t write him off yet.

This article was commissioned by –

Prinseps and Artiana led the way last week with two sales 

Big name auction houses cautious about South Asia digitals

Indian modern art is beginning to appear in the astonishing digital market as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that can suddenly fetch millions of dollars – even though they exist somewhere out in the crypto stratosphere of Ethereum and Bitcoin blockchains and you can’t hang them on your wall as one-off creations.

Two relatively small South Asian art and collectibles auction houses, Prinseps of Mumbai and Dubai-based Artiana, launched NFTs last week. Others are planning launches and exploring the potential, trying to assess the appeal of the little-understood technology to existing art collectors and a wider range of speculative digital buyers.

Prinseps 35 works by Gobardhan Ash

Prinseps has auctioned small relatively low-priced figurative works (right) painted in the late 1940s by Gobardhan Ash, a little-known but significant Bengal artist. Artiana has a fixed price sale of larger more expensive works by better-known Sakti Burman, who lives between Paris and Delhi and is still actively painting. 

A different sort of NFT sale is planned by Kent Charugundla, a New York-based leading collector of Indian art and a blockchain specialist, with a massive work by the revered M.F.Husain. (He talks about that with Prinseps curators and others on this you-tube session that also covers the Gobardhan Ash works). 

Many traditional collectors of Indian modern art are mystified and scathing about NFTs, which use the same technology as crypto currencies such as bitcoin to create a certificate of ownership over a specific digital file that cannot be copied or forged.

“It sounds like the world’s greatest Ponzi scheme,” said one, referring to the crypto market in general, while another thought that it “smacks of money laundering”.

But Pratap Bose, a long time Mumbai-based collector and dealer, who bought several of the tokens in the Prinseps auction, sees them as a good investment. “Like the stock market, it’s taking a punt,” he says, adding that much of Indian art is under-valued so there is strong potential.

For artists, the NFTs provide a way to benefit from the often substantial increases in prices that come after their works are initially painted and sold. In some countries, including the UK and EU, artists benefit from resale rights that give a percentage commission on their works in the secondary professional market. This lasts through their lifetime and for 70 years after their death. That does not apply in India, which will increase artists’ potential interest in having their works offered as tokens.

Estimates of NFT sales globally last year range from $18bn to $25bn, up from $94.9m in 2020. They vary “from cartoon apes to video clips” (as Reuters put it) with images, videos and even lands in virtual worlds.

The tokens broke onto an unsuspecting art world in March 2021 when a jpeg file collage (below) of tiny digital sketches done daily for over 13 years by South Carolina contemporary artist Beeple, sold for $69.3m at Christie’s. It had been launched with a $100 bid just two weeks earlier. The FT reports that “the artist, whose given name is Mike Winkelmann, summarised his reaction to the sale with a tweet: ‘holy f..k’ ”.

Major auction houses and artists have cashed in on the craze, but they seem wary of bringing South Asian art to the virtual table. Christie’s, Bonham’s and Sotheby’s have not yet decided what to do. Saffronart, the Mumbai-based market leader, is focussing instead on reinventing auctions with a new platform that Dinesh Vazirani, the founder and ceo, says he plans to launch next month.

Beelpe’s $69m collage

Deepanjana Klein, the head of Christie’s South Asian art business, gave me the best logic for what is happening: 

“NFTs are an additional art form, such as photography, installations and digital art or AI that entered the art world at different moments in time,” she said. They were “about democratization of art and sharing of the digital art which goes with the NFT – anybody can download the art but the token belongs to only one person”. 

The democratisation comes from everyone being able to access the token on the internet, while only the buyer has ownership of the token and can sell it – though arguably that can also be said of ordinary paintings whose images can be accessed and shared by anyone on the internet. The NFT owner can of course print out the image and put it on a wall, knowing he or she owns the digital token. The original painting could sometimes also be bought. 

That is what Prinseps offered on January 14 in their auction of both the original painting and an NFT of 35 works by Gobardhan Ash (1907-1996). The paintings, oil on board and gouache on board or paper, varied in size, typically about 13in x 11in, and went for Rs50,000 to Rs100,000 or approx $670 to $1,340. The tokens fetched Rs12,500 to Rs35,000 – $170 to $470. That is in line with some market calculations that the tokens will fetch 25-30% of the original art. (Catalogue and explanation here)

Prinseps decided to launch itself into NFTs with Ash’s works from the 1940s because it felt his small paintings were in tune with the cryptopunk images’ primitive style and vibrant colours that fuelled last year’s enormous NFT growth. The works “were very avant-garde for the time – and 70 years later cryptopunks become commonplace,” says Brijeshwar Gohil, a Prinseps curator.


Some of Prinseps buyers went on January 14 for both the original and the token, while others chose only one. A few collectors tried to win as many as possible, judging by the frequency that some “alias numbers” appeared on the auction website during the bidding.

Among them was Bose, a former top advertising executive. He says that Ash is an under-recognised Bengal artist “who never got his due”. That intrigued him, not for hanging works on the walls of his home but as an crypto investment. 

Prinseps’ next NFTs auction is likely to be fashion sketches by Bhanu Athaiya (1929-2020), a film costume designer and Oscar winner, whose works it has sold earlier.

‘The Mythical Metaverse’ – one of the Sakti Burman works being offered as an NFT, based on his 2009 painting titled ‘Music Illumines the World’

While Prinseps did a deal with Ash’s estate for the NFT rights and mounted the auction on its own website with purchases payable in Indian rupees, Artiana has worked out an arrangement with Sakti Burman and his family to sell 40 NFTs on the OpenSea crypto website. The works (one is above) are priced in OpenSea’s Ethereum crypto currency, accompanied by the conventional currency equivalents – roughly $20,000 to $40,000.

The dollar rates were negotiated by Lavesh Jagasia, who runs Artiana, with Burman according to what the artist felt he should receive relative to current market values – and what the buyers might accept, given that this is the first such Indian sale.

Jagasia says Burman’s works are specially suited to NFTs because of the fresco-like images produced by artist’s marbling oil on paper and canvas technique, which the artist was using between the 1980s and 2015. 

An early 1981 (154x114cm) work in the series achieved the artist’s record auction price of $330,000 (approx Rs2.4 crore – Rs24m) in an Artiana sale last October. The paintings vary in size from 116x89cm to 162x130cm and sold, Artiana says, over the 35 years for between Rs50 and 85 lakhs (Rs5m – Rs8.5m) or $67,000 to $114,000 at current currency conversion rates. 

The originals of the 40 works are now in private collections and Artiana is trying to find the owners so that it can offer them the NFT of their paintings. That process will end on February 8 (Burman’s 87th birthday), when the unsold tokens will be generally available on the OpenSea website.

The other current NFT investment offering, that lasts through 2022, is of tokens for a famous 60ft x 10ft mural, Lightning, by M.F.Husain, one of India’s leading modernists and a member of the mid-1900s Progressives. Charugundla bought the work (below), which was painted in 1975 and is Husain’s largest work, direct from the artist in 2002. It consists of 12 panels depicting galloping horses, a Husain favourite. 

M.F.Husain’s largest painting, ‘Lightning’ that goes onto the crypto universe soon

The NFT “drop” is on a special platform with Prinseps helping on marketing. Later secondary sales will be on OpenSea. Investors can buy small random parts or “traits” of NFTs at prices that Charugundla says will be set relatively low. Buyers who manage to assemble what is called a “royal flush” of 62 “traits” will be given an NFT of the whole work that can later be traded.

Although the virtual currency world has hit headlines because of astronomic increases in values like Beeple’s $69.3m sale, the craze for cryptopunks images was built on very low prices, which Prinseps has echoed with its Ash works. It remains to be seen whether there is a virtual market stretching up into the $20,000 to $40,000 that Artiana wants for its Burmans, and how much speculation there is on the Husain.

Scepticism remains. The total market value of NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain is held by just 9% of the accounts, according to one expert, rebutting the idea that they somehow democratically spread the assets widely. 

The Washington Post reported last March that MetaKovan, who paid the $69.3m, was in fact driving up the value of NFTs he had created earlier. He had bought 20 other works by Beeple for $2.2m, divided them into 10m blockchain-based tokens, and sold 25% of them to the public.  As bids for the new work kept rising, so did the value of those tokens, which reached about $51m by March 11, the day he won the Christie’s auction. 

The Post’s conclusion? “The recent frenzy around digital art may be less a sign of an artistic revolution than a gold rush into highly speculative blockchain technology.”

Posted by: John Elliott | December 25, 2021

Merry Christmas!…..

To all friends and followers of this blog, seasons greetings and all best wishes for 2022 – with this splendid painting of a Red-naped Ibis by a Gond artist from the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh

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