Posted by: John Elliott | January 13, 2019

Delhi foreign affairs conference produces UK case to leave EU

Netherlands-Hungary immigration dogfight on conference platform

Asia’s debate continues on need somehow to “contain” China

As Britain flounders towards its unpredictable semi-European future, an international foreign affairs conference in New Delhi has surprisingly produced a persuasive case for Brexit being the UK’s best long-term course, despite all the problems and uncertainty, and even if remaining in the European Union seems more immediately sensible.

It happened at India’s annual Raisina Dialogue in a brief but memorable dogfight between speakers from Hungary and the Netherlands over immigration into the European Union, and in an equally memorable but more constructive speech from Spain’s foreign minister, who pleaded the case for sovereignty-ceding political, diplomatic and defence unity.

Who could want to stay in such a divided club with such unreal disruptive ambitions? Former British prime minister Tony Blair, for one, who bounced onto the stage full of smiles to assert the case for a new remain-yielding referendum. “You have a Brexit that is pointless or a Brexit that is painful,” he said. Since there was no majority for either, “it makes sense to go back to the people to ask do you really want to go ahead with this?”


Brexit of course wasn’t the main focus of the conference, which was organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation, a leading policy institute, and was attended by some 600 delegates from over 90 countries.

The threat of a growing and aggressive China inevitably was the main concern, as it was last year. I reported then that, even though China was gradually moving to a position where it would dominate the world’s international affairs, disrupting established institutions and trade routes and building its own alternatives, most of the rest of the world had little idea how to respond except to try to persuade it not to be too disruptive.

People I spoke to this year said ideas had moved on since then, though it was difficult to pin down how. The main thought was “containing” China’s disruptive expansion, which speakers pointed out was an inadequate reactive approach compared with what was described by a Japanese admiral as China’s conflict-provoking drive. India’s naval chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, whose fleets are desperately under-equipped, mournfully noted that China’s navy grown by 80 ships in the last five years – the biggest naval growth in two centuries.

borrell raisina

Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell

Much has been made of The Quad, a group linking the US, Australia, Japan and India as the vehicle to contain China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Its limitations however were spelt out by Stephen Smith, former Australian defence minister, who said the countries had only had had only two or three meetings in ten or eleven years and indicated it was not a viable forum.

Tony Blair’s call for a fresh referendum has considerable support in the UK as the next sensible step if prime minister Theresa May’s blighted agreement is rejected by Britain’s parliament on January 15.

No-one knows whether that would produce a majority to remain in the EU because of the economic costs of leaving, or to leave because of the tough treatment meted out to the UK since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

What the Raisina Dialogue pinpointed however was that there are deeply held issues, especially how to treat and control immigrants, that defy solutions so it may be better for the UK to try to do it itself which, indeed, is May’s approach.

Add to that, if Britain did remain in, there would be constant arguments about Spain’s – and France’s – keenness for closer union on issues like an army that would arouse the passions of the UK’s anti-EU lobby and bedevil British politics for years to come, as they have done already for decades. The rump of the Conservative Party, and other groups, that passionately believe Britain should leave will never give up, so maybe it is better to cut loose now.

The theme of Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, was that no single European nation was capable of dealing with the emergence of “economic giants” such as India, China, and Brazil.The only solution was for countries to act together. “Sometimes, ceding sovereignty can help protect sovereignty” he argued. ”We cannot be a soft power forever. The EU needs to develop its hard power to be collectively seen as a credible power”.

We are few, we are old…..

Borrell, who is a former president of the European Parliament, painted Europe as a continent in decline in terms of its percentage of the world’s population, and the size of its economy compared with the rising powers of Asia and Africa.

“We are few, we are old, and we are dependent because we buy 60% of our energy, and being few, old and dependent is not a good prospect for the future,” he declared.

The only way was therefore to be united, “putting together our army, our diplomatic strength and what we have best – our intellectual capacity, cultural heritage”, but that required “sharing sovereignty”.


Marietje Schaake, an MEP from the Netherlands

A speaker from Finland also saw the EU as the “protector of our security”, while one from Latvia similarly said the EU is “about security and offers peace” which required a “sense of partnership”.

Borrell recognised however that many European countries did not want to cede sovereignty, especially those in eastern Europe who had relatively recently been freed from the group of the Soviet Union. “Sometime you listen to them saying Brussels is a kind of new Moscow,” he said.

The European Union dogfight broke out during a session on Diversity within the Union – The EU’s Mid-Life Check-List. It began when Marietje Schaake, an outspoken politician from the Netherlands, said there needed to be “shared obligations…sharing burdens”. She robustly condemned Hungary, saying it took billions of dollars of EU funds, but then did not accept Syrian refugees, which meant it was not doing its share of what was needed.

Péter Szàray, Hungary’s security minister, who was sitting next to Schaake on the platform, countered that his country had been within its rights in refusing to accommodate the refugees and close its borders because the EU’s Schengen free movement of people rules allowed a country to close its borders in exceptional circumstances.

Scathingly noting that “the only migrants still in Hungary are the ones on posters,” Schaake, who is a member of the European Parliament, said that “countries cannot expect full benefits and zero obligations from EU membership”, adding “shared obligations are important over individual interests for the EU”.

She insisted before the session that she was going to attack Hungary, instead of avoiding the issue of immigration, which Szàray had suggested.

One could argue that, if a club has such differences that they have to be aired in a third country‘s foreign affairs conference, is it worth being a member. Would it not be better to get out and leave them to their inconclusive bitter wrangles?

EU sensitivities

So sensitive are EU members about what they all say about each other that Francoise Nicolas, director of a French Asian affairs centre, resented the Spanish foreign minister apparently (she said) referring to her country when he had talked about small EU states not realising that they were small.

She capped that however with a dig at the UK, saying that a small state which “was about to leave” would “be more negligible and will know it” – that was greeted with laughter.

France’s foreign secretary, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, also referred to the UK when he said in the final session on The Road to 2030 that, in the EU, “we are more sovereign than when we are on our own”, echoing a point made by Borrell.

That was a dig at Mark Sedwill, Britain’s newly appointed Cabinet Secretary, who doubles up as national security adviser and had flown in specially for the conference, abandoning his crisis-ridden Whitehall office. Never mind, said Gourdault-Montagne, patting Sedwill’s arm, “the closeness of our relationship will remain”.

It might have seemed irresponsible for Sedwill to desert his London office, a few days before the parliament vote, for a conference in India, but these are extraordinary times. His decision not to cancel shows how desperate Britain is to keep in favour with its old colony, hoping this will help it negotiate a trade pact once Brexit is done, assuming it is.

The other message from the conference was that Brussells had treated Britain so roughly that no other EU member would dare risk trying to escape. As the Finnish speaker put it, referring to Britain’s current plight, “I don’t think many countries will be willing to experiment with these sorts of ideas”.

“We’ll miss you guys,” Marietje Schaake told me. Maybe, but having got so far, is it really sensible to try to scramble back into such a club?

Posted by: John Elliott | January 8, 2019

Billionaires and Jugaad have built India’s ‘Gilded Age’

BOOK REVIEW: Two journalists’ look at how modern India works

Mukesh Ambani daughter’s wedding and a shady car crash

Former US secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and others among the hundreds of guests at the Ambani family’s mind-blowing wedding celebrations last month that cost maybe as much as $100m, will not have been given a copy of The Billionaire Raj.

hiliary ambanis

Hilary Clinton with Mukesh and Nita Ambani

Mukesh Ambani, a top industrialist who revels in showing he is India’s richest man, treated the guests to massive pre-wedding parties in the Rajasthan city of Udaipur and to the wedding ceremony at his (literally) over-the top 27-floor home in Mumbai (there was a later less glamorous reception for thousands of guests). But Billionaire Raj will not have been in the elite guests’ two-tiered invitation box, each rumoured to have cost Rs300,000 ($4,300), nor on their bedside tables.

The six-page prologue of the book – and the most revealing of its 300 pages – tells of another side of Ambani’s life that he would rather not display. Indeed, it is remarkable that the various publishers of the book in the UK, US and India have not been forced to remove or at least tone down the six pages that explain how an Aston Martin owned by one of Ambani’s Reliance Industries’ companies had a spectacular 1.30am crash in Mumbai in December 2014. The driver, described as a young man, was rushed away into the night by escort cars and a portly 55-year old Reliance driver claimed the next day that he had been behind the wheel.


Crabtree’s US edition cover shows the Ambani’s home towering above its surroundings

This is the world that James Crabtree, a former Financial Times’ Mumbai correspondent writes about in Billionaire Raj, recounting tales of people he met, and some he didn’t – strangely it appears he did not interview Ambani, whose empire straddles oil exploration and refining to textiles and telecoms with significant (and useful) stakes in the media and even India’s iconic Oberoi hotel chain.

It is also the world that another former foreign corresponded, Dean Nelson of the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph, explores in Jugaad Yatra, which describes the “fix-it” mentality that governs much of Indian life. The Ambanis’ father, Dhirubhai, built a wide-ranging successful business by mixing deft fixing of government policies and regulations with astute management, skills his son Mukesh has inherited and burnished. Nelson ranges widely with extensive original stories and research that reveal how Indians’ (and his own family’s) ability to make the most of scarce resources leads on to what is recognised internationally as laudable frugal engineering.

Jugaad came into action after the Ambani’s Aston Martin crash. The owner of another car in the accident, an Audi, told a local newspaper that the driver, who was bundled into one of the two escort cars, was a young man. Later however she signed a statement in a magistrates’ court that the 55-year old had, after all, been the driver. No-one was hurt, so it was easy for the media to let the story fade away, unlike what happened in Delhi in a 1999 hit-and-run case when a BMW driven by the son of a prominent Indian Navy and defence agent family killed six people in the early hours. The son finished up in jail, but not before two witnesses changed their story saying it was a truck, not a BMW.


The identity of the Ambani car driver was being widely gossiped in Mumbai’s business community, but Crabtree does not provide a name. Forbes’ on-line India edition however did do so, saying that “speculation online [with a link, now removed] has been rife that Akash Ambani, Mukesh’s older son was allegedly involved in the smash-up”. (He’s the brother of Isha Ambani, the bride in the recent wedding). Forbes’ veteran business writer, Naazneen Karmali, wondered in the article who bought new upgraded models for the owners of the Audi and another car in the crash, because insurance companies have said that they did not paid up.

Mukesh Ambani is basically a hard working and focussed businessman with extensive entrepreneurial and managerial skills that were displayed first on oil and gas projects and more recently on Jio, his latest mammoth venture that has changed the face of India’s telecommunications. The extreme extravagance on his daughter’s wedding seems out of kilter with this driven and ruthless entrepreneur, as does his multi-storey home.

Crabtree and Nelson both tell compelling stories about India’s business life, revealing how the country works. Crabtree has an underlying theme of extravagant wealth among widespread hardship, but mostly tours through examples of Mumbai’s “gilded age”. That is the subtitle of his book that draws parallels with America in the second half of the 19th century when it had ‘the great corporation, the crass plutocrat [and] the calculating political boss”, as one historian put it. Nelson burrows away in small towns as well as mega cities.

james crabtree

James Crabtree

There’s a contrast in the characters they describe. Crabtree goes for the colourful, focussing for far longer than is deserved on the widely reported Vijay Mallya, who inherited a liquor business, expanded it and branched out into other businesses including an airline named after his Kingfisher beer brand. He managed by whatever means to elbow most other beers out of often government-controlled wine and beer shops, but his management style was far too unfocused and erratic for the airline which collapsed. He fled to Britain to escape court action and is now fighting extradition.

Crabtree spends considerable time on Mukesh Ambani, despite the lack of an interview, but there is no mention of many other stars of past and present business generations.  Ratan Tata, patriarch of the Tata conglomerate, is only mentioned twice, including the astonishing line that he is “perhaps the only man to rival Mukesh Ambani’s stature in business”. That remark requires a new definition of “stature” because Tata, while not always deserving the pedestal on which he is generally placed, is in a league that Ambani can never hope to match.  Crabtree also brackets Mallya with Ambani and Gautam Adani as “self-evidently talented managers” when, if there was anything self-evident about Mallya, it was that he hadn’t a clue how to manage a business efficiently.

Kumar Mangalam Birla, the only surviving leading industrialist from the once sprawling Birla business clan, is only mentioned once, and the older business families such as Bajaj, Godrej, Kirloskar, and Singhania get rare mentions. The entrepreneurial characters who founded the highly successful IndiGo and currently-struggling Jet airlines, that survived when Kingfisher collapsed, do not appear, even though both are excellent examples (like Ambani) of mixing entrepreneurship with managing government relations. India’s internationally successful software companies get scant attention. Among market leaders, Infosys has less than half a page, while Wipro is amazingly not mentioned, nor is Tata’s TCS (along with most of the activities of India’s biggest group).


Dean Nelson

These lapses can be understood if one accepts that Billionaire Raj is not focussed primarily on business, but goes instead for stories that bolster the image of a Western movie sort of swashbuckling corporate culture with a touch of the Mafia and Trump-the-businessman thrown in. That view is bolstered by the number of Indians in Forbes’s annual list of the world’s rising from just two in the mid-1990s to over 100 – without including hordes of illicit hidden wealth. Crabtree gives us a good informative read, with entertaining pen portraits of crony capitalists and others, and has useful chapters on how corruption works.

Nelson goes for slightly different jugaad “fix it” characters and appropriately chooses one of the controversial London-based Hinduja brothers, and a veteran of the Delhi-based cigarettes to cosmetics and education Modi family. The only businessman to figure prominently in both books is Anand Mahindra, a leading exponent of frugal engineering who runs the Mumbai based Mahindra group that for decades has been regarded as one of India’s most ethical groups.

When I wrote Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality in 2014 (there is as new updated edition out later this month), critics said I had failed to realise that India, with all its corruption and failings, was just going through a growth phase. To criticise it now, I was told, missed the point that it would come good, as America had done with a Progressive Era following the Gilded Age, and with the robber barons Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Carnegie becoming respectable.

Crabtree reflects a similar guarded optimism that India will replicate America progression, though there is little evidence of that. Nelson does not seem to think that the negative fix-it attitudes of jugaad will change. Even if characters like an Ambani, a Mallya, and an Adani follow the Rockefeller and Carnegie course, now or in later generations, there are hordes of new would-be crony capitalists (big and small) lining up behind them to fix and milk the system in league with greedy politicians and bureaucrats. With its speed of technological and social change, and an increasingly impatient youth, today’s India is far different from 19th century America.

The Billionaire Raj – A Journey Through India’s Gilded Age, by James Crabtree. Oneworld Publications (UK), Harper Collins (India), Penguin Random House (US), 2018

Jugaad Yatra – Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving, by Dean Nelson. Aleph Book Company, Delhi 2018


Posted by: John Elliott | December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas…….

…… all of you who visit my blog – do keep coming back in 2019!

Use Dhavat C'mas '18 IMG_2679 copy


Posted by: John Elliott | December 12, 2018

India’s state elections change the political landscape

Modi and his BJP hit by defeats as Gandhi’s Congress recovers  

Congress wins Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh

The Indian political landscape has changed. The Congress Party is no longer in decline under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, and the prospect of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party with its Hindu nationalist agenda being in power for the next few years does not look as inevitable as it seemed just a year ago.

This is the main take-away from the state assembly election results announced yesterday (Dec 11). Congress has won power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – three key BJP-governed states in what is known as the Hindi heartland. It lost Mizoram in northeast India to a regional party, and failed to make an impact in Telangana that was separated from Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

KNath claim IMG_2658

Kamal Nath, Congress’s Madhya Pradesh state president, claims victory at 2.30am – Congress’s final figure was 114 and the BJP’s 109

In Madhya Pradesh, constituency counting yesterday was evenly balanced for much of the day, but at 2.30am this morning  (India time), Kamal Nath, the Congress state president, (above) claimed victory with 116 seats, a clear majority in the 230-seat assembly. That dropped slightly later in the night to 114 against the BJP’s 109, but  Congress has a majority because it is supported by four independents and two parties based in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP made a counter claim but that was dropped when the figures became clear.

The results show that the Congress Party is re-energised after its devastating general election defeat in 2014 and subsequent defeats in most state assembly polls. The reversal of that trend has enabled Gandhi to confirm his role as the party’s leader, a year after he took over the president’s post in December 2017 from his mother Sonia Gandhi.

Voting patterns

It does not however mean that the BJP will necessarily do badly in the three heartland states in the general election due by next May. Nor does it mean that Modi’s government will be defeated nationally, though the BJP would lose 44 of the three states’ parliamentary seats in the general election if today’s voting patterns were repeated, according to estimates by the NDTV television channel.

The results, which were broadly in line with exit polls published on December 7, also show that Modi has lost a lot of his personal vote-winning power that has has driven BJP successes over the past five years. It remains to be seen whether he can recover that in the general election campaign.

The question now is how Modi will react to what, privately, he will regard as a serious defeat and a negative verdict on his rule. Specifically, will he try to win the electorate by focussing on economic development, or will he strengthen the BJP’s  divisive Hindu nationalist agenda with its anti-Muslim overtones, driven especially by Amit Shah, the party president.

Shaktikanta Das 48010057On the economy, Modi will be looking to Shaktikanta Das (left), who was appointed yesterday as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, to relax interest rates and drive growth. Das was the secretary for economic affairs in the finance ministry till May last year, and was in charge of Modi’s economically damaging bank note demonetisation at the end of 2015.

As a career civil servant, he was accustomed to working for and with government ministers, and is therefore different from the past two governors who come different backgrounds and have been conscious of the need to maintain the RBI’s traditional independence.

Das replaces Urjit Patel (below) who resigned quietly and with “immediate effect” on December 10 after two years in the post. Patel was coming under intense pressure from the government to accept its policies and to allow it to interfere in RBI affairs. Reports suggest he had tired of the battles and pressure involved and decided to retire ten months early, which is a very rare occurrence for RBI governors – it has only happened once before since 1947.

urjit patel 2-kR5E--621x414@LiveMintThis is significant because it is yet another example of the Modi government’s persistent attempts to undermine the independence of India’s respected institutions such as the Election Commission and the judiciary including the Supreme Court.

Welcoming the results last night, Rahul Gandhi said that Modi had “refused to listen to the heartbeat of he nation”, whereas he had learned from Congress’s 2014 general election defeat that he had to listen. Congress had led the country in reforms such as the “green revolution” in the 1980s, and the 1991 opening up of the economy, and it was now developing a “vision for the future” that would tackle the lack of jobs and youth disenchantment.

This picks up on the main issues that faced the BJP in the states – distress among farmers despite various government schemes, a failure to generate jobs, and the negative effects of the 2015 demonetisation together with later complicated implementation of a new national sales tax (GST). That hit the BJP vote in rural areas – for example losing it the tribal vote – and in the towns.

There is also a debate about how far a “soft Hindutva” stance adopted by Rahul Gandhi influenced votes to support Congress, in preference to the BJP with its harsher nationalist version that includes its slant against Muslims and bans on cow slaughter and beef eating.


Rahul Gandhi (centre) with (to the right) Sachin Pilot, Rajasthan Congress president and a candidate to be the chief minister

Gandhi has been ostentatiously visiting Hindu temples over the past year and has talked about how cows should be protected. Meghnad Desai, a leading political and economy commentator, yesterday suggested on a television programme that “Rahul has turned Congress into a Hindu party”. That was the “biggest change ever” to the party’s ideology. Congress politicians refuted this, pointing out that Congress accepts and works with all religions, but it is a fact that Gandhi has paraded Hindu credentials on election campaigns.

The detailed results in the states showed a substantial shift towards Congress. In Madhya Pradesh, it added more than 50 assembly seats to its tally in the last (2013) election. The BJP has been in power under Shivraj Singh Chauhan, its chief minister who has a sound reputation for implementing policies, for three terms totally 15 years. It would have been remarkable if it had won a fourth term.

In the adjacent state of Chhattisgarh, Congress added almost 30 seats, winning the contest with 68 seats against the BJP’s 16 in the 90-seat assembly. In Rajasthan, it added around 80 seats, winning 101 against the BJP’s 73 in the 201-seat assembly.

General election seats

The national importance of the states is indicated by votes in the 2014 general election, when the BJP won 27 of the 29 parliamentary constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh and all 25 seats in Rajasthan.

But results in national elections can be very different. In 2003, the BJP won the three states in assembly elections but lost the 2004 general election, and in 2008 the Congress lost Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2008 but its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition won the 2009 general election.

There will now be a tough and probably bitter battle between the BJP and Congress during the next four months till general election voting begins. It is likely to be even more bitter between the two leaders as Narendra Modi tries to counter the growing confidence of Rahul Gandhi.

Sotheby’s bounces into Mumbai but some prices set too high

Bhupen Khakhar emerges as auctioneer’s new favourite Progressive

It looks as though auction interest might be picking up in India’s contemporary art market, where prices slumped a decade ago. That followed a few years of over-priced frenetic buying by image-conscious collectors who were chasing the latest big names during the country’s art boom of the early 2000s.

Saffronart, India’s leading auction house, this week sold all the 47 lots in an on-line auction from the Amaya Collection of contemporary works for just under $1m. The collector was Amrita Jhaveri, formerly with Christie’s, who was one of India’s first serious buyers of contemporary art from the late 1990s.


This Side Is The Other Side by Subodh Gupta

The question now is whether this indicates a real recovery of interest. Dinesh Vazirani, founder of the auction house, thinks it might for two reasons. “Every time a great collection comes in, there’s a lot of excitement and the market regenerates itself,” he says, adding that younger collectors are interested in more recent works at a time when those by earlier generations of modern artists are becoming more expensive.

Hugo Weihe, who was till recently Saffronart’s ceo and earlier headed Christie’s South Asia sales, says the auction benefitted from the works being fresh to market and coming from a single owner who was a respected collector. “This provided the context for good results, and it bodes well for the growth of the market”.


Saurabh Society by Atul Dodiya

Amrita Jhaveri, who runs the Jhaveri Gallery in Mumbai, sold the works because she had too many in store and needed to rationalise her collection. The single source gave a coherence to the auction that a sale of randomly collected works might have lacked.

Some works were sold for less than Jhaveri originally paid, but most showed considerable gains. A bronze and milk urns bronze sculpture (above) by Subodh Gupta, who benefited hugely from the buying craze in the early 2000s, sold in the auction for $257,916 (Rs1.78 crore) including buyer’s premium. It is one of a series of three and Jhaveri bought her’s a decade or so ago for less than 10% of that figure.


New Avataar by Chintan Upadhyay

Gupta hit a $1.1m high in 2008 for an airport luggage trolley painting in a Christie’s auction, but prices crashed and a similar work fetched only £180,000 ($250,000) at Sotheby’s in 2010. Jhaveri says that the bottom didn’t fall out of the over-inflated market at that time. “It went back to where it should have been”. She thinks that the prices achieved in her auction indicated realistic values – they were all under $100,000, apart from Gupta’s scooter, and about a half were under $10,000.

Lot 23, Mehta, Durga Mahisasura Mardini (1993), INR 20,00,00,000-30,00,00,000 copy

Tyeb Mehta’s Durga Mahisasura Mardini

Other artists in the auction included well known names such as Jitish Kallat, G. Ravinder Reddy, Bharti Kher, Chintan Upadhyay (above) and Surendran Nair. The second top sale was Saurabh Society, a 48in x 72in oil on canvas (above) depicting small town India by Atul Dodiya, which sold for £72.870 (Rs50.28 lakhs) including premium.

There have been very few contemporary auctions in recent years, though some works have started to creep into moderns sales and AstaGuru, a Mumbai-based on-line auction house, had an auction in October 2016.

The Jhaveri sale came at the end of a busy few weeks for India and South Asian modern art auctions.

Sotheby’s bounced back into prominence with a partially successful mostly-moderns sale in Mumbai on November 29 that included furniture and photographs. It notched up sales totalling $7.9m, with 80% of 59 lots being sold (having overcome the loss of its India ceo who went on leave a week before the auction after being named in the country’s MeToo wave).

Lot 12, Sher-Gil, The Little Girl in Blue (1934), INR 8,50,00,000-12,50,00,000

The Little Girl in Blue by Amrita Sher-Gil

Filling a prestige pre-Christmas slot in the auction calendar curiously vacated two years ago by Christie’s, Sotheby’s total figure was not far off the $8.31m achieved by its rival in New York two months ago.

It was notable for having works that have rarely been seen or offered on the market, but two of its top four paintings by famous members of the post-war Progressives group, M.F.Husain and V.S.Gaitonde, failed to sell because, experts said, they were priced too high. This followed a similar situation in London on October 23, when four of its five top lots failed to find buyers and sales totalled an astonishingly low £974,313.

In Mumbai, its highest priced work, a 58in x 41in acrylic on canvas by Tyeb Mehta titled Durga Mahisasura Mardini (above), sold for a hammer price of Rs 17 crore or $2.43m which was below the lowest estimate of Rs20 crore, though he buyer’s premium brought it up to Rs20.49 core. This was surprising because the work had been with the same owner since it was painted in 1993 so was a fresh offering.

It did nevertheless compare well with a very low Mehta sale at the New York Christie’s auction two months ago when Diagonal XV, a 66in x 51in oil on canvas, went for a hammer price of just $1.15m ($1.39 including buyers’ premium). That was well below a $1.5m-2m estimate, and also lower than what was assumed to be the reserve price. Perhaps the market for this leading artist is beginning to fade and his works need more sensitive pricing.


The Bathing Ghat  by Bhupen Khakhar

Sotheby’s most notable work in Mumbai was a small 19in x 16in oil on canvas, The Little Girl in Blue by Amrita Sher-Gil (above), which sold for a hammer price of Rs15.5 crore ($2.22m) – Rs18.69 crore ($2.68m) including the premium. This was well above the top estimate of Rs12.5 crore ($1.7m) and an auction record for the artist. The work had remained in the same collection for 80 years after being displayed in the artist’s first solo show in 1937.

The top end of Indian modern art auctions has been dominated for years by just a handful of names – Souza, Gaitonde, Husain as well as Mehta – so it was noteworthy that Saffronart’s top lot in its moderns auction (which followed the contemporaries), was for a work by Bhupen Khakhar, a far less well known artist from the same Progressives group. This was a 68in x 45in oil on canvas titled The Bathing Ghat (above), which sold for $900,000 (Rs6.21 crores), including buyers premium, almost double the top estimate.

Souza LouisA Bonhams

Louis Armstrong by F.N.Souza

That was the second highest auction price ever recorded for this ostentatiously gay artist who was largely ignored till he had a retrospective at London’s Tate Modern gallery in 2016. His auction record of $1.1m was achieved at a Sotheby’s auction in London a year ago. Now it is rare to find a moderns auction that does not include his work as owners seek to benefit from his growing popularity. Sotheby’s had five of his works in its auction.

Another remarkable result was achieved by Bonham’s, which is rarely in the news, at a sale in London last month when an 11in x 8in ink on paper drawing of Louis Armstrong by F.N.Souza, one of the leading moderns, reached a record price of £125,000 or ($159,459) including premium. The auction produced sales totalling £3.15m, selling 52 out of 57 lots.

With these auctions, Saffronart has established itself as the market leader, beating Christie’s with total sales so far this year of $28.89m accounting for 28.55% of the market compared with Christie’s $26.63m (26.35%). AstaGuru comes next with $16.55m followed by Sotheby’s at $11.73m.

The cardinal rules for the Indian market have been reinforced with these results – find fresh works with the best pedigree (provenance is the correct word) in terms of ownership, and pitch them at estimates and reserve prices that do not deter bidders. Also choose the most practical location – New York with all its prestige can be matched or outclassed by Mumbai.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 3, 2018

Narendra Modi’s vote-winning power looks vulnerable

Exit polls suggest bigger Congress gains than expected


DECEMBER 7, 2018: Exit polls published today for assembly elections indicate that the Congress Party might be doing significantly better than had been expected.

The figures are averages calculated by the NDTV television news channel from exit polls conducted by a number of organisations, whose results varied very widely. The actual results will come on December 11 when votes are counted.

If correct, and that is far from guaranteed the figures mean that Narendra Modi’s influence, which I described in my blog below earlier this week, has not been as successful in swinging votes as had been thought possible. 

Congress’s strongest prospect is in Rajasthan, where it had been expected to do well unless Modi had managed personally to muster support for the BJP towards the end of the campaign .

The surprise is in Madhya Pradesh, a BJP stronghold, where the result looks evenly-balanced and far too close to call. The same applies to Chhattisgarh.

Not included in the chart above are Mizoram in the north-east, where the Congress looks like losing power to a regional party, while in Telangana, a state-level party seems set to hold on to power against a combine of the Congress and another regional party, the TDP.

State assembly polls set the tone for general election

‘Is 2019 election to be fought on terrain of faith vs ground reality?’

DECEMBER 3, 2018: Does Narendra Modi continue to have pulling power over a vast section of India’s 900m electorate? That is the big question in current assembly elections that are taking place in five states, led in importance by Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the BJP is in power. It will then be the central question in the general election due by April/May next year.

The states have their own local issues and there are many national problems, but individual reports I have heard and read from various parts of the country indicate that, for many, confidence in Modi over-rides such concerns and even dissatisfaction with state governments.

This would mean that Modi (below) does still have that pulling power, though probably not to the same extent as in 2014 when he became prime minister.

PM-Modi-in-NepalIf this is correct, the Bharatiya Janata Party could emerge from the current polls in a strong position to be re-elected nationally next year, the question then being how big a majority it could secure.

Opinion polls have been indicating a close result in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, but the position should become clearer when exit polls are published this coming Friday evening December 7 after voting ends. The count will take place on December 11.

Support for Modi would not mean that he is seen as the saviour in the way that he was in 2014, but that there is no other national leader who inspires trust among voters.

There is no sign that the opposition parties, which are now coming together for the general election, will coalesce around one politician. The leader of the Congress Party historically has had that role, or has at least been a “king maker”, but its president, Rahul Gandhi, does not have the experience or authority to do either.

Gandhi needs Congress to win in one of the states in order to build his credibility after a series of losses across the country, offset only by a marginal victory in Karnataka in May. His best chance is probably in Rajasthan where the BJP chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, is said to be unpopular, and where Congress seemed to be in to lead until a series of big Modi rallies last month.

Were it not for Modi’s dominant personality and image, Congress and other opposition parties should now notching up victories. The government has not met the targets, expectations and hopes that Modi flamboyantly set in 2014, partly because of a lack of improvements in the broad running of the economy. Promises of urgently needed new jobs have not materialised, and a raft of economic and social schemes ranging from the Make in India manufacturing campaign to Swachh Bharat (Clean India) have been far less successful than has been claimed.

In addition, there has been a serious decline in social cohesion and an acceleration of attacks on personal freedoms that are causing immense concern among urban-based opinion leaders, and more widely among Muslims and other minorities. These issues may not however turn out to be major vote-influencing factors among the vast mass of voters who have other priorities.


The BJP has been ramping up Hindu nationalist issues, which are currently focussed on the highly controversial proposed construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on the site of a Muslim mosque. Built on the site of one of the holiest temples, the mosque was demolished by Hindu demonstrators in 1992, which led to widespread riots..

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a hard line wing of the Sangh Parivar (family of organisation) that includes the BJP, has been pressuring the government to start the long-delayed construction before the election. That would provide a cause to rally the BJP’s Hindu nationalist cadres at election time, increasing communal tensions. A week ago there were mass demonstrations (above) at Ayodhya organised by the VHP and the Shiv Sena, a rival Maharashtra-based party.

Hindu nationalist causes

Amit Shah, the BJP’s hardline president and Modi’s closest ally, supports the Ayodhya cause, which is supposed to be on hold pending a supreme court ruling on how the site should be shared between Muslims and Hindus.

Indicating that Hindu nationalist causes will be ramped ahead of the general election, Shah has raised communal tension in recent months in West Bengal over the treatment of possibly illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh, and in Kerala over women being allowed, by a supreme court order that is opposed by Hindu traditionalists, into a famous temple at Sabarimala.

“Is the 2019 election going to be fought on the terrain of faith vs rationality – faith vs ground reality? How many jobs have been generated? Has the quality of school education improved?” a columnist asked rhetorically on The Wire news website recently.

758164-farmers-protest-mumbai-112618The economic failures were graphically demonstrated last week when tens of thousands of farmers marched through Delhi (left), Mumbai and Kolkatta protesting against the low prices they receive for their crops under government-controlled systems that push them into debt and suicide. The farmers were demanding better prices and wavers on bank loans. This is a potent issue in the states now having elections, but the government has done little to offset the problems.

Economic measures taken over the past two years are still having an effect on small firms, especially the demonetisation three years ago of 86% of bank notes that failed in its bid to curb black money and corruption. This was a Modi dream project, but has been implicitly criticised as a “massive, draconian, monetary shock” by Arvind Subramanian, then the government’s chief economic adviser, in a book being published this week. Neatly titled Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley economy, the book mocks demonetisation as “one of the unlikeliest economic experiments in modern Indian history”.

Contested figures

The government last week launched revised economic statistics that conveniently reduced the average growth figures for 2005 to 2012, when the Congress-led coalition government was in power, from a previously announced 7.75% to 6.82%, which is less than the 7.35% average since 2014. This inevitably led to accusations that the government was fixing the figures to win votes by playing down allegations that growth was hit by demonetisation and the introduction of a new general sales tax.

The government claims the figures are based on “internationally accepted standards”, but the Business Standard, India’s leading business newspaper, has this morning taken the extreme step of calling for them to be withdrawn because “the data does not align with that from the real economy — tax revenues, credit growth, trade performance, corporate sales and profits, or indeed the level of investment”. The growth figure for the last quarter dropped to 7.1% from a high of 8.2% earlier this year.

PTI10_26_2013_000158BIn the current elections, the key contests are in Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP has been in power for 15 years with the same chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The other states are Mizoram in the north-east India where Congress rules, and Telangana that used to be part of Andhra Pradesh where a regional party runs the government.

Madhya Pradesh, which is India’s second largest state with a population of 72m, is seen as the bell-weather for Modi. It would be remarkable for any party to win a state for a fourth consecutive term and a line is emerging in the media – presumably pushed by Modi’s staff – that he and Shah would put a positive spin on losing there and in Rajasthan.

Neither Chauhan nor Raje (photo with Modi above) are from the Modi-Shah hardline Hindu nationalist wing of the BJP, and Raje’s aloofness from Modi is widely known. Chauhan would gain stature if he won for a fourth time and could prove a challenge for influence inside the party, though he has confined himself to his state since Modi emerged as the party’s national leader.

If the BJP loses power in either, it will be blamed on Chauhan and Raje, and if Modi wins it will be billed as his victory. The current indications are that it will be Modi’s victory because voters still believe in him.

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

Khadi poppies and marigolds commemorate sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Indian infantry in France with an early version of gas masks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Years of women’s silence fade as harassment stories explode 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Priya Ramani

Priya Ramani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanushree Dutta

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

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

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

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

Suhel Seth

@suhelseth Twitter photo

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

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

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


Chetan Bhagat

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

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

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

Posted by: John Elliott | October 6, 2018

Exit of two women who broke Indian banks’ glass ceiling

Chanda Kochhar has left ICICI after 34 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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