Sticks and stones were weapons in a dangerous escalation

Talks in progress to avoid further conflict between nuclear powers

Troops have been killed for the first time in at least 45 years during clashes on the undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides India and China. The confrontation took place  in Ladakh, high in the Himalayas, and led to 20 confirmed deaths of Indian soldiers, and possibly more than 40 Chinese according to unconfirmed reports,

The deaths happened during hand to hand fighting – described by the Indian army as a “violent face-off” – which is not uncommon on the 3,488-km-long LAC. Indian media reports say that the weapons included iron rods, clubs armed with nails, barbed wire and stones (video – click here). There were suggestions that some deaths occurred when troops fell from a narrow ledge into a freezing river at the 16,000 ft high location.

map IMG_9542This was not a war situation between the two nuclear powers, nor were shots fired, but urgent diplomatic and military talks have been held between the two sides in an attempt to avoid further conflict.

The confrontation graphically illustrates the precarious state of security and international relations on India’s borders, especially at a time when Xi Jinping, China’s internationally ambitious president, is increasing his country’s territorial and other claims.

There are regular firings and deaths on India’s (defined though not permanent) Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, but Indian and Chinese politicians and army chiefs have been proud of the fact that no shots have been fired, nor deaths caused, on the 3,488 km LAC since the early 1970s.

It looks as if Monday night’s clashes were not pre-planned at a senior level, though this is not clear. India said there had been “an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo”. China’s foreign ministry said India had been “provoking and attacking Chinese personnel” after crossing into its territory.

For more than six weeks there has been a stand-off at three locations along the LAC after China established posts in the disputed border area. Both countries moved additional troops to the area and there was hand-to-hand fighting at two locations in Ladakh and Sikkim last month. The main focus has been at the Galwan River where Monday night’s confrontation took place, and at the Pangong Tso glacial lake at 14,000 ft in the Tibetan plateau.The Galwan River was one of the early triggers of the 1962 India-China war, when India was humiliatingly defeated but India has always regarded it as an undisputed section of the LAC.

Military talks, supported by diplomatic contacts, last week led to an agreement that the two sides would disengage from their confrontational positions. India said China had withdrawn from some positions at Galwan.

China has objected to India building roads and air strips in the area, including the Galwan Valley. A Chinese military spokesperson on June 16 claimed “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region”. On May 5, Beijing accused the Indian army of trespassing into its territory in its “attempt to unilaterally change the status” of the border in Sikkim and Ladakh.

NDTV valley view IMG_9534

India countered that it was not trespassing, but carrying out routine infrastructure-development activities along its side of the disputed LAC. It blamed China for its aggression in building up bunkers on its side, hindering normal patrolling by Indian troops.

The last serious confrontation between the two countries took place three years ago in June-July 2017 with a 73-day stand-off – the longest ever – at Doklam, a Himalayan plateau in Bhutan at a border tri-junction. Chinese troop movements and road construction on the plateau threatened the security of India’s adjacent narrow Siliguri corridor that connects its north-eastern states with the rest of the country. That prompted India to move its troops onto the plateau to block China’s advance, triggering the stand-off.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, stood firm and eventually after more than two months there was an understanding that enabled both sides to claim an advantage, though nothing was settled and China established a permanent position on the plateau.

Modi and Xi Jinping held an historic summit in April 2018 at Wuhan, made famous this year for starting the COVID-19 pandemic. This was intended to secure a basis for avoiding conflict and was followed by a similar meeting in India last October.

The current potential crisis needs to be seen against the backcloth of increased aggression by China internationally. Nepal, which borders both countries and is increasingly coming under China’s influence, has this week passed legislation that changes its maps and lays claim to land that is part of India.

On a wider front, Xi Jinping has been conducting aggressive policies ranging from a security clampdown on Hong Kong to trade differences with Australia, while also pushing its territorial claims in the South China Sea and over Taiwan.

Modi RajnathSinghIMG_9536

Narendra Modi and defence minister Rajnath Singh

With India, Xi’s aim may be to teach Modi a lesson for growing too close to the US and possibly siding with other countries, including Australia, over setting up an international inquiry on the Wuhan sources of COVID-19.

Relations between the two countries are usually stable providing India does not grow too close to the US and its allies. Modi has tried to strike a balance between increased defence and other co-operation with the US, and stable economic and diplomatic relations with China. He will be even more anxious to do this now when the country is coping with rapidly growing cases of COVID-19 and serious economic problems.

He is struggling with a precarious form of diplomacy, especially at a time when President Trump expects loyalty, not balanced relations, and Xi Jinping does not want a US ally on China’s border.

The deaths on the LAC show how precarious that is.

Posted by: John Elliott | May 30, 2020

Modi has spent six years ignoring environmental protection

Government uses on-line meetings to speed sensitive project vetting

Jairam Ramesh calls for moratorium on virtual conference decisions

Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party government have been criticised for many things ranging from their Hindutva anti-Muslim agenda to a lack of urgently needed economic reforms since they were first sworn in six years ago on May 26, 2014, and then again a year ago today, May 30 2019.

One area that has largely escaped attention is the environment that has been plundered since 2014 by a government intent on promoting infrastructure and other development at the expense of forests, rivers, and wildlife. This has increased in the past year since Modi’s second general election victory.

“We need to promote human welfare, and not focus on economic growth alone. India has long championed such initiatives, ” Modi asserted at an international COVID-19 conference earlier this month in a speech that sounded as if it included concern for the environment but flew in the face of the government’s record.

The primary lesson of the coronavirus crisis – that nature hits back when the human race upsets the balance of the world’s environment – is being ignored. The government has failed to start any debate about whether a fresh balance needs to be struck.

Dibang Valley
The Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh where a massive hydro scheme was speedily dealt with in a virtual meeting

Instead, under the cover of the lockdown, it has been using the absence of face-to-face official regulatory meetings to speed up the environmental approval process with reduced scrutiny and with inadequate opportunity for plans to be questioned and discussed. Experts’ appraisal meetings usually last an entire day but have been packed into two hours.

Jairam Ramesh, chairman of the Indian parliament’s standing committee on the environment, has called for “an immediate review and moratorium” of decisions taken during the meetings. The current health crisis  “should be an opportunity to pause and reflect”.

It was clear in 2014 that the Modi government’s determination to be growth-oriented would have a price for environment protection. “Dirty growth is inevitable,” a leading Delhi columnist told me at the time.

The government quickly whittled down the power of various environmental agencies and eased the way for statutory approval procedures to be avoided for infrastructure and other projects. Independent specialists were removed from monitoring organisations and replaced by retired and other docile officials who would toe the line wanted by Modi via the centralised authority of his prime minister’s office (the PMO).

When roads and railways cut through wildlife areas, some animals cross safely……..

Last July the environment ministry exempted 13 railway projects costing Rs 19,400 crore ($2.8bn) spread over 800 hectares of land in four states from the process of seeking environmental forest permits. At least four of the projects would damage sensitive areas including a national park, a tiger reserve, a tiger corridor and wildlife sanctuaries.

India’s National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), a top-level advisory body that has the prime minister as its chairman and 47 members including 19 ex-officio, has not met since Modi’s 2014 election victory – it should meet twice a year.

Decisions and clearances have come through a standing committee of the national board, but the committee has no formalised policy role so acts as a rubber stamp for what the prime minister wants. Some critics say the NBWL did not have any real power under previous governments, but they acknowledge that it did meet and also acted as a forum for the independent voices that have been removed.

At the beginning of April, the standing committee held its first ever video meeting, followed by a similar virtual meeting of a key expert appraisal committee (EAC). The standing committee cleared over 30 projects in eleven states, 16 for highways, transmission lines and railway tracks through scheduled national parks, sanctuaries and tiger corridors. Other projects involved some 3,000 acres of land in eco-sensitive areas.

tiger railway track
…………while others do not

The environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, reported this in a series of tweets, boasting about how the projects would help develop tourism, infrastructure, employment and economic growth – all worthy subjects – but never once mentioning protecting wildlife or environmental issues, which is his ministry’s primary duty. Only minimal conditions were attached to most of the approvals.

“In a virtual conference, it’s difficult to scrutinise maps that show the location of the proposed projects. There was also no occasion to ask questions of officials for clarifications,” an expert who was involved told The Hindu newspaper last month.

During the lockdown, statutory public hearings have also been difficult to organise, and communities that are likely to be affected by the projects have not been able to give their consent officially. (How far current relaxations in the lockdown will lead to improvements is not clear).

Perhaps the most worrying rushed approval process has involved the 3,097 megawatt Etalin hydro-electricity project in Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous Himalayan state bordering China in the far north-east of India.  Located in the ecologically and culturally rich Dibang valley, this is one of the country’s largest proposed hydro projects and it came up for “green clearance” during a virtual session of the forest advisory committee (FAC) on April 23.

Prakash Javadekar

Hydro projects are always controversial because they are of huge benefit for those who use the electricity, but inevitably wreak environmental and social havoc.

The views of the Dibang residents are said to be split on the ecological costs with the construction of two large gravity dams and all the associated infrastructure including a road network of over 50 km, felling 280,000 trees and submerging over 1,178 hectares (nearly 3,000 acres) of land over seven years of mining, quarrying and other work.

A week after the minutes of the Dibang virtual meeting were released, a group of nearly 300 scientists and conservationist professionals wrote to Javadekar protesting about forest and environment clearances being granted across India during the lockdown. The group asked the Ministry to carry out its intended mandate – “the protection of India’s forests, wildlife and natural heritage and not fast-track clearance of projects.” Decisions should be delayed till the coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

Changing the balance

COVID-19 has been widely touted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the world to reverse the destruction of natural resources and change the balance between catering for ever growing human needs and protecting the environment. That should range from taking better care of wildlife habitats and curbing carbon emissions to changing people’s travelling and working habits.

On current form, it seems that much of the opportunity will be wasted as people rush back to their old ways. There are even suggestions internationally that car ownership looks like increasing because people will want to avoid travelling on potentially contaminated public transport.

Governments should be setting an example with changes on polices that they control – including environmental regulations for projects that eat into natural landscapes, destroy wild habitats, and damage the lungs that the modern world desperately needs.

It is clear that Modi’s government is doing the reverse, despite his fine statements. His call earlier this month, when he was addressing a Non-Aligned Movement (video) conference, for the world to focus on policies “to promote human welfare, and not focus on economic growth” is not the first time he has vapidly pronounced support for environmental protection.

“We have to create a healthy balance between sustainability and development. More roads and cleaner rivers, more homes for citizens and, at the same time, quality habitat for animals are necessary for a strong, inclusive India,” he said when proudly announcing an increase in the number of India’s tigers last July – shortly after the railway projects were exempted from scrutiny.

It would be good for India if the COVID-19 pandemic had converted Modi into believing rather than just saying such things. Unless he has forgotten to tell the environment minister and officials about a change of heart, nothing has been learned, and the government will continue on its current environmentally destructive path till the next general election in four years time, and maybe for much longer.

See also

Posted by: John Elliott | May 28, 2020

Boris can’t do PM job without Cummings beside him

Public opinion turns against UK government over adviser

Johnson reveals his inadequacies and weakens COVID-19 response

When Boris Johnson walked into No 10 Downing street in July last year for the first time as Britain’s prime minister, he was greeted by the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill (below), who represents the centre of government power. Standing in the corner, aside from the rest of the staff, was a slim balding middle-aged man dressed in a scruffy t-shirt who would wield power not only over Johnson but across Whitehall.

The man was Dominic (Dom) Cummings, Johnson’s maverick chief of staff, who seems to have been positioning himself in a memorable photograph as the shadowy power behind the throne, operating aside from the system. 

Last Monday (May 25), Johnson broke all conventions when he allowed Cummings to use the Downing Street garden to hold a press conference to explain why he should not resign or be sacked for breaching COVID-19 shutdown rules by travelling across Britain with his family.

Both men are experts at judging and responding to the public mood. That makes it odd that they have allowed what started with reports in The Guardian and the Daily Mirror newspapers last Friday (May 22) to escalate in the media, and in “Westminster bubble”, and then to grow into a venting of public anger.  Johnson’s authority has been reduced because he has insisted on keeping Cummings.

They both believe that a troublesome story fades away with denials if left alone for long enough. This one however has till now been showing stamina than they expected and has dominated British news, often mockingly, for six days (and Cummings name has been blocked on Twitter by its anti-porn filter).

Unwisely for an adviser who should, as he must know, remain in the background, Cummings has let himself become the frontline story, with Johnson retreating to the sidelines after he failed in a Sunday press conference to kill off demands for Cummings to resign or be sacked.

Not only is Cummings being hounded by the media outside his north London house in fashionable Islington, he has also been barracked by neighbours and mocked in street posters (above and lower down) and the media. Along with people all over the country who have been contacting their local MPs and writing on social media, they resent the way that Cummings apparently bypassed COVID restrictions, which they had been following strictly for two months. 

Cummings’ road to power alongside Johnson began with the successful Brexit campaign in 2016 and was followed when he steered Johnson last July to become Conservative Party leader and prime minister, and again when Johnson won last December’s general election. 

People walk by an advertising bill board in Kentish Town London on May 22. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

Fearing that he and his wife had the virus, Cummings should, according to the restrictions, have isolated the family in their London home. Instead he drove them 260 miles to a house adjacent to his parents’ Durham home in north-east England, justifying the journey by saying there was a relative there to care for their son.

Later, after being hit by the virus and recovering, he drove the family 30 miles to Barnard Castle (see posters below), a well known tourist spot, to test (he claims) whether his eyes were good enough for him to drive back to work in London. 

They both have good if not brilliant brains but, while Johnson is fluffy, frequently unable to string coherent sentences together in public without a written brief, and famously incapable of remembering detail, Cummings is focussed and driven as a disrupter determined to overhaul how government functions.

Dubbed at various times as a Svengali and a Machiavelli, Cummings was once labelled a “career psychopath” by former prime minister David Cameron, who also said he had a “malign influence” on those he dealt with and gave “bilious briefing to the papers”. He is extremely abrasive, moody and erratic, and can also be insulting about colleagues, once describing David Davis, then the Brexit secretary, as “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”.

Both Johnson, 55, and Cummings, 48, have links to Britain’s elite, though neither is welcomed by the establishment. Johnson’s background is Eton and Oxford. Cummings was also at Oxford after Durham (private) School and has a former court of appeal judge as an uncle. He is married to the Spectator’s commissioning editor, Janet Wakefield, 45, (together outside Downing Street, January 2020, in the photo below), who joined the magazine when Johnson was the editor in the early 2000s. She is the daughter of Sir Humphrey Wakefield, who owns a castle in socially fashionable Northumberland, and is related to various aristocratic families in the county.

Brexit might well not have happened without Cummings as the leading campaign organiser.  He invented the devastatingly effective Take Back Control slogan – memorably recounted last year in the film Brexit: The Uncivil War with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Cummings. 

He introduced the use of digitally managed audience data to identify and target selected groups with specially designed marketing messaging that would sway opinion and win votes.

The slogan attracted voters ranging from committed Brexiteers, who wanted to take back control from Brussels, to ordinary people who, feeling left behind by globalisation, ignored by politicians, and overwhelmed by tides of immigrants, wanted to be in control of their lives. 

It had no depth nor was it a detailed policy but, attached to Johnson’s populist campaigning style, it enabled people to reassert themselves behind a dream and a new style leader. President Emmanuel Macron of France has described the campaign as “lies, exaggerations and cheques that were promised but will never come”.

But this is not a relationship based on Johnson’s gratitude for Cummings’ Brexit and electioneering services. It is much more basic and serious than that, and Johnson has exposed his own dependency by refusing to let Cummings go, even though his and the government’s popularity ratings have been hit.

Put simply, Johnson probably reckons he could not manage without Cummings in Downing Street. He would lose the anchor who provides him with policy objectives and programmes, and who feeds him with endlessly repeated slogans like the decisive Get Brexit Done in last year’s election campaign. Acting under his tutelage and instructions, Johnson has been disciplined into drumming home basic messages and avoiding being mired in details that he cannot remember.

He probably realises that without Cummings he would tend to revert to his habitual role as the unfocused and jokey prankster that he displayed as mayor of London and even as foreign secretary. He would be vulnerable to political and civil service pressures without Cummings’ shield and would need more capable and independent ministers around him than the loyal Brexiteer lightweights that he has now, having dumped all who disagree with him and Cummings.

“The foundation of this UK government is a bunker of close allies surrounded by a lightweight, supine and largely ineffectual cabinet chosen mainly for their commitment to Brexit or their loyalty to Mr Johnson in last year’s Conservative party leadership contest,” the Financial Times said in an editorial yesterday (May 27). Rishi Sunak, the Indian-origin chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), who was appointed in February after Cummings manoeuvred his independent-minded predecessor out of office, is named as one of just two ministers who “show the gravity demanded of a secretary of state”. 

When Johnson won the election in January, he and Cummings expected to be leading Britain triumphantly out of Europe, and Cummings was looking forward to attacking the bureaucratic operations of Whitehall that he despises. He wrote on his blog that he was seeking job applications from “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to work with him in remaking Whitehall.

Neither of them is suited to the task of leading Britain through the coronavirus crisis because they are not capable policy makers or administrators. Johnson likes to delegate extensively and Cummings believes in change through disruption, not orderly management. That must have played some part in recent months’ muddled policies on herd immunity, testing and tracing, social distancing, lockdowns, and airport quarantines. COVID-19 deaths are estimated to total 45,000 and maybe 60,000, one of the highest in the world.

Tempting though it might be to suggest that Downing Street and the whole government would function better without Cummings’ erratic and confrontational style, there must be many in the government and Conservative Party who worry that, without him, Johnson would not be able to cope.

Since it is not possible, for now at least, to dump Johnson (and the next general election is four years away), some will be arguing that it is better to keep Cummings as his minder. It looks as if that is what will happen, though both Johnson and Cummings have lost credibility and the events of the past week will not be forgotten or forgiven.

This article first appeared (slightly shorter) on the Indian news website 


PM appeared to try – but failed – to emulate 1991 reforms package

Plight of millions of migrants fleeing home continues

The Indian government has tried over the past week to offset some of the serious economic and social effects of Covid.19 on the poor and on business, while at the same time using the urgency of the crisis to announce a series of potentially significant economic and business reforms.

The plans – some extremely tentative and several not entirely new – have included extensive overall privatisation of the public sector, specific increased private sector involvement in defence manufacturing, space activities, coal mining and power distribution, plus open market access for farmers to sell their produce.  Aid measures have included financial and other help for small firms, farmers and migrant workers.

Modi face masks IMG_9328

Narendra Modi’s varying face coverings – India Today graphic

India’s economy has been crippled and the poor have been left destitute in the past two months. The country has over 90,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus including more than 56,000 currently active.

Reported fatalities have been relatively low at nearly 2,900, but the economic and social effects have escalated since prime minister Narendra Modi – who came to power six years ago this week – ordered one of the world’s strictest lockdowns on March 24. The lockdown has been extended to May 31, with varying degrees of relaxation around the country.

Modi heralded this week’s Covid.19 and other initiatives when he addressed the nation on May 12 and announced what was billed as a (much exaggerated) Rs 20 lakh crore (US$ 284bn – 10% if GDP) economic package of past and future plans for “land, labour, liquidity and laws“. This would lead to what the prime minister dubbed an Atmanirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India. (Economists estimate the actual government outlay is nearer $28bn).

That was followed by five daily televised media conferences, which ended yesterday (May 17), when Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister, listed Modi’s proposals on aid measures and broad-brush policy changes.

Modi’s speech, and subsequent twitter messages, were so strong that there was even speculation he might be planning to use the Covid.19 crisis to trigger major reforms in the same way that Congress prime minister Narasimha Rao and finance minister Manmohan Singh dramatically opened up the economy to tackle a deep financial crisis in 1991. That initiative led to the development of modern India, but the pace of further reform has been slow and, for the past 20 years, there has been speculation about what sort of crisis would be needed to push a government into another mega initiative.

Biswajit's photo 1

Biswajit Mahant, an environmentalist in Orissa  found this group of 80 walking to Jharkhand last week, on the highway, with little kids walking in the hot sun: “I gave them money for food & they stopped to rest in the shade of a bridge. I informed the district collector & he kindly arranged a bus to take them to the border, saving them a walk of 300 kms … The state govt orders to local police are now clear – any migrants found walking will be given food and water and sent by hired bus till their state border” – and photo below

Modi has undoubtedly tried to reach out to domestic and foreign companies to persuade them to invest and help to revive the economy, but the measures – many of which re-package plans announced in the past – are too uncertain to match up to the 1991 initiatives.

Biswajit's pic 2They have also not met the need for an economic stimulus because they do little to accelerate demand. They ignore some key areas including the hard-hit tourism industry and private healthcare (though curiously there is a Rs500 crore allocation to help 200,000 bee keepers).

Even more importantly, they have specifically failed to tackle the continuing social misery – and potential economic problems – of tens of millions of migrant workers fleeing home from big cities since the sudden March 24 shutdown, many infected with coronavirus.

Little has been done by the government to help these workers, maybe as many as 90m of whom have trudged their way hundreds of miles with scarce food. A total of 130 have been killed on the roads. Overcrowded trains have been provided but not in sufficient numbers and states initially blocked their borders.

This week’s measures have provided them with free food for two months (why only two months is unclear), and with countrywide ration cards. The Government has also made a substantial Rs 40,000 crore allocation under a rural work scheme (MGNREGS) to provide employment in their home areas. How effective those measures will be, given extensive bureaucratic corruption, remains to be seen.

Migrant workers

There are estimated to be a total of some 170m migrant casual workers in India and they play a key role in many industries. Employers in the cities are now beginning to worry that they might not return as the economy recovers, upsetting the chances of a quick recovery. Some companies must also now be regretting that they treated the casual workers as little better than slave labour and not as valued employees.

In his speech, Modi said that self-reliance would be based on five pillars – an economy “that takes quantum jumps and not incremental change”, modern infrastructure; a technology-driven system; vibrant demography as a “source of energy”; and a strong demand and supply chain.

The biggest potential reform is that there is to be a policy for the private sector to be allowed to invest and operate in all parts of the public sector apart from industries selected as “strategic”. All public sector enterprises in non-strategic areas would be privatised while, in strategic areas, between one and four enterprises would remain in the public sector, the remainder being merged or brought under a holding company.

in-migrantworkers wait Chennai

Stranded migrant workers wait to board a special train home from Chennai – ToI photo

This seems most unlikely to be implemented any time soon – the government’s statement ominously said “timing to be based on feasibility etc”. The first step will be the publication of a policy, but there will be considerable opposition from trade unions and from right wing forces in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s broad Sangh Parivar (family or organisations) that have already started to protest.

Earlier announcements last week said that the private sector’s involvement in defence manufacturing would be boosted with a list of weapons and systems that would not be open to foreign companies. The government hopes this will encourage foreign direct investment by major international defence companies, which will be allowed 74% FDI stakes (up from 40%) on an automatic basis for high technology equipment.

Farmers’ markets

The big initiative for farmers is that restrictions on how they sell their produce are being lifted so that they can avoid bureaucratic and often corrupt mandis (local public sector markets) that currently have a statutory monopoly. This idea of de-regulation has been mooted for some 20 years and is basically a subject for states, not the central government, so it is not clear how far the proposal will go. Selling across state borders will also be freed under Modi’s broader theme of “one nation one market”.

To offset the impact of the Covid.19 shutdown, financing of businesses as small as street vending is being eased with special credit facilities, and farmers are being provided with emergency funding and credit arrangements. Bankruptcies are to be stalled for a year without companies being considered to be defaulters for bad loans. Other measures include liquidity is being boosted for non-banking finance companies.

Overall, there has been criticism that Modi chose this time, when the priority is dealing with the immediate Covid.19 crisis, to launch medium and long-term economic reforms, and that there were not adequate cash handouts and other measures to provide relief, especially for the poor.

It was characteristic of Modi to over-egg the proposals – for both relief and reform – in his initial speech. That will not matter however if what has been laid out in the past week is implemented, but Modi’s track record on execution is not good.

Significant criticisms as Boris convalesces and edges back to work

High Covid-19 death rate and a lack of essential equipment

Diagnosed with coronavirus at the end of last month and hospitalised on April 5 with three nights in intensive care, Boris Johnson is edging back to work as Britain’s prime minister just as criticism of his government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis is escalating.

Although the National Health Service has functioned effectively, there are glaring gaps in the delivery of equipment to hospitals and care home staff, and seriously inadequate testing of individuals.

There are also misleading overstatements by cabinet ministers on targets and achievements. And there is no government-led public debate about how the current shutdown could be eased, though there are warnings that this could take a year or more.

Boris clapping - Daily Mail

Boris Johnson joining people across the UK applauding NHS workers shortly before he was admitted to hospital

Britain’s record is poor with deaths reaching 41,000, twice the official figures, according to Financial Times analysis published on April 22.

The good news is that it looks as though the death rate peaked on April 8. Deaths outside hospitals in the week ending April 10 were 75% above normal in England and Wales, the highest level for more than 20 years. The figures are high compared with France’s 20,800 and far higher than Germany’s 5,000.

Human trials of a vaccine start at Oxford University today (April 23), but the government’s top scientist has warned that an effective one might not be available for a year. Social distancing would be needed till that happened.

The high rate of deaths and the government problems would normally be a political disaster for a prime minister. Boris’s charmed life (from school at Eton to Oxford University and Downing Street) however is continuing, despite criticism that he set his government on a muddled path and failed to focus in the early weeks of the crisis.

His mind at the time was on achieving and celebrating Brexit on January 31, and then, during a 12-day break in mid February, announcing that he was engaged to his partner, Carrie Symonds, and that she was pregnant, while also finalising his divorce.

Nightingale hospital copy

Part of a series of emergency hospitals being built across the UK

The Sunday Times published a devastating critique of the government’s failings on April 19 headed, “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster”. The subhead said “Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra [top security committee] meetings on the virus; calls to order protective gear were ignored; and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Failings in February may have cost thousands of lives”.

The Sunday edition of The Guardian (The Observer) ran a similar story. Two days earlier, the Financial Times nailed the government’s procurement programme of ventilators that are still not adequately available. The FT quoted sources saying that the programme “was plagued by disjointed thinking that sent volunteer, non-specialist manufacturers down the wrong track, designing products that clinicians and regulators so far have deemed largely unsuitable for treating Covid-19 patients.”

Yet the prime minister, having presided over all this before he became ill, is being welcomed back from convalescence, even though his popularity is waning – 47% of respondents in a recent survey said they had a negative opinion of him and a further 17% had a “neutral” opinion.


Rishi Sunak at the Covid-19 daily on-line media conference in Downing Street

The country is desperate for some sense of leadership at the head of a rudderless, divided and squabbling cabinet that he packed after December’s general election with obedient Brexit-loyalists.

The government’s undoubted current star is Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), one of three cabinet members of Indian origin in the cabinet – his Punjabi grandparents moved to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s.

He is not quite 40 – his birthday is on May 12 – and he has only been an MP since 2015, yet this wealthy former banker and son-in-law of Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of the Infosys IT company, is already being tipped as a future prime minister. Boris appointed him chancellor – to do as he was told by Downing Street – two months ago, replacing Sajid Javid who had refused to kow-tow to Boris and Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s disruptive chief adviser.

Since then, and with Boris away ill, Sunak has emerged as one of the most competent of seven cabinet ministers who appear at daily-televised press conferences. He has a modest but forceful way of delivering facts and appealing for co-operation on matters such as social distancing.

He was even given glowing praise by his department’s bureaucrats in an FT profile published on April 2. Currently he is being praised for handing out billions of pounds, but must know that his popularity will be tested in the future when he has to manage the mountains of debt, curb spending, and raise taxes.


Priti Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam who she effectively ousted from his job as the home ministry’s top civil servant

The non-performer among the Indian-origin trio is Priti Patel, 48, the home minister, who has only appeared once at the tv conferences.

Once a high profile star (and reportedly a friend of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi), she is being kept out of the front line because her extremely aggressive style of dealing with bureaucrats had put her political future at risk just as the Covid-19 crisis was emerging.

It looked as if she might have to resign till the virus swept negative stories about her from daily media headlines. This week however she is back in the news because Sir Philip Rutnam, the home office’s top bureaucrat who she effectively forced to resign in February, has accused her at an employment tribunal of unfair dismissal and whistle blowing.

The third in the trio and a rising star is Alok Sharma, 52, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. He is leading the support for companies including small businesses (and also has climate change responsibilities), and appears calm and purposeful at the media events.

All three are close to Boris (as he is generally known) but none is the official stand-in prime minister. The logical choice for that role would be Michael Gove, 52, by far the most experienced senior cabinet member, but he tripped Boris up in an earlier Conservative Party leadership contest and is not trusted.


Dominic Rabb

Instead, Dominic Raab, 46, a controversially blunt and not very respected foreign secretary who has limited ministerial experience, was named first secretary in the last reshuffle. That makes him the de facto deputy, which Boris confirmed – with limited scope – when he asked him to stand in “when necessary”.

The rest of the cabinet do not rate Raab and he has little if any authority at a crucial time.

Other much more capable and experienced politicians have been banished to the parliamentary backbenches, or even expelled from the party, because they opposed Brexit. Boris is surrounded by people who are loyal to him and none of them dares step out of line, except perhaps Gove who must realise that loyalty is essential, for now at least, if he is to survive.

The Sunday Times article explained how the UK, unlike Asian countries, treated the virus from January as a pandemic form of flu without an appropriate vaccine, so rejected a lockdown that was being introduced in other countries. Instead it followed the usual flu route of accepting widespread illness that would generate immunity (known as herd immunity). Later, it reversed that policy and introduced the current shutdown, now running for six weeks,

There was a lack of focus on building stocks of testing equipment, with the diagnostics’ trade association saying it was not formally approached for help till April 1. There was similar failure to build stocks of gowns and masks for health and care workers in February when they were and still are, urgently needed.

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock

The government is now facing heavy criticism about the lack of equipment with Matt Hancock, 41, the supremely self-confident secretary for health, in the firing line.

There has been confusion over production of ventilators and he has failed to make enough progress on a target he unwisely set for achieving 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day by the end of this month. Boris last month even talked about 250,000 daily tests. The current figure is around 23,000 even though there is capacity for 50,000, which indicates a double failing on provision of facilities and access to them.

It may seem unfair to criticise the government at a time when every country is facing crises, but Britain has been a leader in medical care, especially pandemics, so should have been better prepared.

Years of Conservative Government austerity with budget cuts, coupled with Boris’s lack of focus and leadership, have led to the failure to perform.

Boris is now convalescing at his official country home, Chequers, about 40 miles outside London. He is not yet chairing meetings, even remotely, though he is contacting people and has had a conversation with his admirer President Donald Trump.

What is sure is that he will give the National Health Service a top priority when the crisis is over because, as he has said, it saved him from possible death during his time in hospital.

But he is not the prime minister for a crisis. He hates detail and likes to appoint competent advisers and ministers, leaving them to get on with their jobs while he deals with broad-brush issues, presentation and public appearances.

The question now is whether this crisis, and his own personal experience of Covid-19, will turn him into a focussed prime minister who governs. He has the brains, but does he have the stamina?

This article first appeared on the Indian news website

People lit candles, torches and other lamps in homes and other buildings across India for nine minutes at 9pm tonight to demonstrate the country’s determination to win the fight against coronavirus.

The country-wide display also demonstrated the unique leadership appeal of Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who lit a ceremonial lamp in Delhi and was supported by official and party organisations elsewhere.

Once again he has shown that he has the pulse of the people and, tapping into Hindu philosophy, can win support and motivate people, not just in elections and battles with Pakistan, but in a human crisis.

PM-Modi-lighting-diyaIn some homes, it was the staff who led the moves, proudly going to the gates of homes. Indians living abroad who support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party also joined in. Some people really believed Modi had found a way to defeat the virus.

In some places fireworks sounded like a replay of the annual Diwali festival. Hindu devotional songs, mantras and national anthem were also played.

The numbers of confirmed cases in India continues to rise, now topping 3,500, and Modi is being criticised for constantly appealing to people to make sacrifices without saying enough about what the government can and will be doing. Yet last night, he won the support of the people.

Coronavirus  challenges the daily functioning of India’s turmoil

Three-week nationwide curfew curbs outbreaks though numbers rising

April 4: India has always existed, and survived, in a state of turmoil. The sheer noise and clamour, the surging crowds, with apparent disorder at every turn, suggest to an observer that the country is in a state of chaos.

But it is not chaos because, in normal times, people know their place and their role in the system. They know their prospects or lack of them, and what they have to do day and night.

That applies to everyone, from the beggar on the street corner and the tailor sitting on the sidewalk with his sewing machine or the small shop keeper in a busy bazaar to the tycoon sweeping by in his Mercedes or Lamborghini, and the politician strutting importantly through the crowds. It also applies to the ordinary people scraping a living, visiting the bazaar for milk and vegetables where the police use lathis to thrash those that appear vulnerable.

Corona crowds

A bazaar in old Delhi during the nationwide lockdown REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavi

This disorderly order can survive localised natural catastrophes such as floods, or man-made disasters like railway crashes and fires in overcrowded slums. Central and state governments instantly award cash compensation and mount semi-successful attempts to rescue and help. People rebuild their lives, until the next time when the cycle repeats.

What this way of life cannot cope with so smoothly is sudden unexpected action on a countrywide scale that immediately creates a new and inescapable crisis.

Narendra Modi triggered one of those crises on a personal whim in November 2016 when he gave four hours notice that 85% of India’s currency was being removed from circulation. His action broke the system and caused economic chaos. The influential behaved normally and used the system to bribe bank officials who accepted their money, but tens of millions of people running one-person and other small businesses lost out and the economy has not recovered.

PM_Modi_on_lockdown_impact_1585065944__rend_16_9Tomorrow (April 5), Modi is trying to bring order to the potential devastation of the system caused by the coronavirus and by a consequential virtual economic shutdown that he ordered on March 24.

He wants to remind people they are not alone and has asked everyone in India to switch off their lights at 9pm and to stand at their doorways and on balconies with lighted candles, torches, and mobile lights for nine minutes.

Candlelight vigils are usually staged by crowds as signs of respect or protest, but this chimes neatly with people recently singing from balconies and lighting candles in Italy to offset the loneliness of a lockdown, and families clapping outside their homes in Britain two nights ago to thank the country’s National Health Service workers.

Modi’s mass popularity as a leader is strong and the candles will be lit, despite rumours (officially denied) that the sudden drop in electricity demand might trip the national power system.

As Shekhar Gupta, a prominent media editor, puts it in the Business Standard this morning (April 4), Modi is “able to speak directly and convincingly to a large enough section of Indians who will take his word for gospel, and his order like a papal bull.” No prime minister since the 1980s had been able to do that.


Migrant workers (above) board a bus to their native villages amid nationwide lockdown – and (below) walk, sometimes hundreds of miles to get  home

Modi’s aim is to bring some sense of unity and calm at a time when the real impact of the virus has yet to emerge for the country’s 1.3 billion population. Only around 3,500 cases have been registered with nearly 100 deaths, though there will be more that have gone unreported, and a surge seems inevitable as urban slums and other densely populated areas are hit.

So far the most widespread impact has been economic. Millions of people instantly lost their livelihoods on March 24 when Modi went on television, demonetisation-style, to announce an immediate three-week national curfew. That killed urban jobs for migrant workers who are part of what is known as India’s massive informal sector, moving from rural areas to urban centres to earn a living and send money home to their families. Instead of staying off the streets, they swarmed in thousands out of cities and began travelling, many on foot, across the country to their home states (some closed their borders), almost certainly spreading the virus on the way.


Modi has been widely attacked for triggering that panic without any apparent preparations for helping the poor and jobless. He astutely asked “for forgiveness” on television a few days later, justifying his lack of warning or pre-planning (and side-stepping personal responsibility) by saying, “India with its 130 crore population has no choice but to take the steps that have been taken.”

While there have been criticisms, especially of brutal police action against the homeward bound migrants, Modi has been praised for taking decisive action and the curfew has been widely enforced and obeyed.

Muslim missionaries

The risk of mass infection is however serious. This was demonstrated by a gathering from March 13th to 15th of some 2,000 people at a centre run by the Tablighi Jamaat, a leading Muslim missionary movement, in the Nizamuddin West area of Delhi. Some of the attendees came from abroad and there was then a mass exodus to destinations across the country, spreading the virus.

This has triggered emotions against Muslims, and there has been a nationwide hunt to track down those who were at the conclave and people they have been with since they left Delhi. Over 9,000 people have been found  and quarantined so far, with some arrests for alleged misbehaviour. More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed linked to the event.

The government has launched a mobile app called Aarogya Setu (A Bridge of Health) to help people assess their risk of becoming infected and to alert authorities if they have come in close contact with those who are ill.

The auspicious 9

There has been widespread speculation about Modi’s choice of tomorrow (April 5th) for the celebration of lights. It coincides with Vamana Dwadashi, a Hindu festival when, pundits say, the candles and other lights will focus into a powerful beam and strike at the heart of the coronavirus. Also noted has been the coincidence of the auspicious figure nine – Modi made the announcement on the ninth day of the lockdown, calling for the vigil to begin at 9pm and last for nine minutes.

The prime minister’s three-week lockdown has undoubtedly had a major impact by curbing the spread of the virus so far, but it has hit an economy that is already in bad shape.

It runs out on April 14, and there seems to be widespread assumption that it will somehow be relaxed or even ended. Modi talked this week to chief ministers about formulating “a common exit strategy to ensure staggered re-emergence of the population once lockdown ends”.

It is difficult to see how that could to happen to any significant degree on the 14th – given India’s poor sanitation and health care, the risks would surely be too great. The huge challenge for Modi, and for governments in the states, is therefore to find ways of containing and managing the virus while getting some life back into the economy – and providing help for the poor – so that the daily system of life in India does not break down.

Elected PM to complete Brexit, he’s been slow to act on coronavirus

Prime ministerial ambitions from childhood and through a gilded life

Boris Johnson, Britain’s usually blustering but canny prime minister faces the biggest test of his gilded life. His winning charm has enabled him so far to glide effortlessly from Eton to Oxford and on to journalism, and politics.

Along the way, he has been a jokey Mayor of London and an irresponsibly flippant Foreign Secretary. He has had two wives and an unknown series of female relationships, fathering five or maybe six children (four with a recently divorced long-suffering wife) and another on the way with his fiancé in Downing Street.

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Broadcasting last night (March 23) to the nation on new restrictions

He usually finds it difficult to stay serious in public for long, and he is also frequently in denial, often for personal political reasons.

That is now changing, as he showed last night when he broadcast to the nation on television and announced tough restrictions on people’s movements, backed if necessary by police action.

He has resisted such draconian moves till now and is still resisting a total lock-down. That has led to criticism of both his failure to face up to the realities of the pandemic and his preference for maintaining Britain’s liberal democratic traditions while avoiding tough measures that could damage his political popularity.

The previously most alarming and damaging denial – backed by rumbustious flippancy – was over Brexit, which he successfully but dishonestly sold as the trigger for Britain regaining its former glories of empire.

That won him a resounding victory in a general election last year with the compelling slogan “Get it Done”. Britain formally left the European Union nearly three months ago but is only partially out, pending tough trade negotiations due this year.

Now, coronavirus has triggered a much more damaging state of denial and sense of political survival in terms of risks to the lives and health of Britain’s 66m people. Boris (no-one ever says Johnson) seems to find it difficult to replace his flippancy with the stern approach of other prime ministers, forcing people to face reality with tough measures. However hard he seems to try, he sounds earnest, looking sometimes puzzled and even worried, but not (except for last night when he was reading a script) commandingly forceful.

Virus graph IMG_8996

A BBC graph showing how deaths in the UK, with its more gradual response than other countries, are now escalating at the rate Italy was two weeks ago – hence the new restrictions

Narendra Modi was suitably calm with a persuasive paternalistic style when he broadcast on March 19, urging the vast masses of India’s 1.3bn population to “resolve that we will protect ourselvesand save others”.

He urged them to stay indoors from 7am to 9pm on Sunday for a Janata Curfew  – which has now become a country-wide shutdown. In France, President Emmanuel Macron looked fiercely stern when, with cities already shut down, he warned “we are at the start of this crisis”. Even Canada’s lightweight prime minister Justin Trudeau stayed serious earlier in the week when he talked about the border with the US being closed.

But not Boris, that is not his way when he goes off-script. On March 19, he managed to be serious for most of his daily live tv media conference but could not resist a headline-grabbing misleading statement, delivered enthusiastically. “I think we can turn the tide in the next 12 weeks,” he declared to a bemused audience.

He ducked a question about where the figure came from, as did one of his advisers when the question was tossed over to him. The next day he repeated the 12 weeks line, downgrading it to a “determination”, even though a group of scientists had that morning advised the government that social distancing would “need to be in place for at least most of a year”. Then 12 weeks became the time that those most at risk with severe illnesses were advised to isolate themselves.

“I don’t want to sound unduly boosterish about things, nor strike that note, but I do think that we will turn the tide with a concerted effort,” said Boris after floating the 12 weeks. Even six years ago he was being described as a “Woosterish, boosterish Mayor” by a columnist who vainly hoped “voters in future general elections note Johnson’s naked careerism and adjust their votes accordingly”.

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Boris with the government’s chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty (left) and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right)

Boris tried to be stern in his first coronavirus tv appearance saying, “I must level with you, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” He was then resisting closing activities down and was acting on the advice of top science and health advisers, though these experts were widely divided on the advice they were giving.

While this would mean more elderly people would die he said, it would be useful for the young to catch the virus and develop immunity – even though there is as yet no scientific evidence that a person becomes immune after being ill once. That contrasted sharply with tougher lines, shutting down cities, being taken in other countries such as the US and France and the devastating deaths in Italy.

The line changed daily to the current position of everyone, not just people over 70, staying indoors. Spreading immunity is now billed as a plus but not the primary aim, which is to curb the spread of the disease so that the National Health Service is not overwhelmed with patients. That led in the past week to gradual closing of schools, restaurants and clubs, but masses of people failed over the weekend to follow the advice and went in large numbers to parks and other venues.

Boris washing hands

a typical photo opportunity

To be charitable, Boris is seen as a supporter of individual freedoms rather than the heavy hand of government, so it does not come naturally to him to force people to stay in their homes, for schools and shops to be forced to close, and transport to be shut down, as is happening.

Boris sees himself as a new Winston Churchill, Britain’s controversial wartime leader, about whom he wrote a biography. He has the right bulky build, with conveniently stooping shoulders, and the old warhorse’s absolute certainty that whatever he wants he gets and that he is right in whatever he thinks. With Boris, it also matters not a jot whether he is telling the truth or not.

Since childhood Boris has wanted to be prime minister. He made no secret of that when he moved from Eton to Oxford, where he became president of the Union.  He lost his nerve and withdrew from running for the prime ministership in 2015, but succeeded last year on the back of Brexit that he had helped to engineer with a wildly dishonest referendum campaign.

This has given him his chance to fulfil his ambition to carve a spot in history as Britain’s greatest prime minister since Churchill, rather like Narendra Modi wants to grab that post-Nehru accolade. The difference though is that Modi wants to displace Nehru whereas Boris will probably be happy to be ranked alongside Churchill, emulating the towering figure.

Coronavirus however is not sort of the crisis that Boris wanted for his Churchillian dream. He saw himself leading Britain completely out of EU and facing down Brussels and European countries in a series of trade negotiations.

Boris visit

doing what he always seems to enjoy, being seen in the media making visits – here at a National Infection Service lab

With his highly adversarial top adviser, Dominic Cummings, he was looking forward to confronting new targets, ousting dissident senior bureaucrats, and showing what a couple of tough inspired negotiators and bureaucracy reformers he and Cummings are.

The enemy how however is not the European president or French prime minister that he can confront, nor Jeremy Corbyn the (outgoing) Labour Party leader that he can mock, or other parliamentary adversaries that he can goad.

Instead it is a deadly virus that he cannot tease or bully, that creeps up undetectable till it strikes at individuals, groups of people, cities and even nations. He cannot sack it as he effectively did recently with Sajid Javid, the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), or ignore as he does with his predecessor Theresa May, or bypass it as he does with ministers by planting Cummings-chosen advisers in their offices.

He can of course evade responsibility to a degree by taking experts with him to what have become daily press conferences, passing difficult questions to his chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, or sometimes to Rishi Sunak, the new chancellor of the exchequer (and son-in-law of Narayana Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys).

Boris has been credited with a brilliant mind since childhood, but he has never been able to master or focus on detail. Once, in a debate at the Oxford Union, he forgot mid-speech what the motion was and which side he was supposed to be on. He rarely puts together a coherent flowing sentence unless he is reading from a script.

Boris Carrie No 10

with Carrie Symonds entering No 10 Downing Street

This is the populist figure that the British electorate chose last year to be their prime minister because of exasperation with other politicians and the Brexit debate. It was widely recognised that he had scant regard for the truth, but that was dismissed because of a widely voiced view that “all politicians lie”.

Boris, 55, has been smartened up in the past year by his 32-year-old fiancé, Carrie Symonds, the Conservative Party’s former publicity head, and by Cummings. They presented him as a viable prime minister during the general election and the run up to Brexit.

The question now is whether he can continue his charmed life and become the focussed serious decision maker and national leader that Britain needs, rising to the challenge as his hero Winston Churchill did 80 years ago.

This article first appeared on –

Christie’s cancels three auctions as New York closes down

Jailed jeweller’s works yield an MF Husain record with Saffronart

Sotheby’s seemingly odd decision to go ahead with its annual New York auction of South Asian art yesterday (March 16) after Christie’s cancelled its sales was more than vindicated by highly successful results. Good prices were achieved for the best works, including four world records, one by Nasreen Mohamedi, a respected abstract artist.

Starting not long after trading on Wall Street was paused because of dramatic falls in stock prices, the auction totalled $4.82m (including buyers’ premium). Only seven of the 79 works failed to find a buyer. That was good news for Sotheby’s, which has had some poor South Asian art auctions including one in Mumbai last November when important lots failed to sell.

Gaitonde Lot 12 (Front)The highest price yesterday was achieved for a stylish 50 x 33in untitled oil on canvas by V.S.Gaitonde (left) with a winning $1.5m bid that matched the top estimate. Gaitonde was a member of the prominent group of modernist Progressives that began in the mid-20th century.

There was an unusually large clutch of four or five bidders (on the phone) for the abstract work, which sources say went to an Indian American collector for $1.82m including the premium.

Nasreen Lot 22 (Front)The same collector (the paddle number was the same) bought a 47 x 35in oil on canvas board by Nasreen Mohamedi (left) at a record auction price of $437,500 including the premium ($350,000 hammer).

This beat the artist’s previous record of $363,636 that was achieved at a Saffronart evening sale in September 2016.

Mohamedi, who rarely makes auction headlines, was born in Karachi in 1937 and lived in India till her death in 1990. She shared a studio with Gaitonde and their two works in the auction, both painted in 1963,  have an intriguing similar sensibility.

Best known for her line drawings, she produced only a relatively few canvas paintings. Arguably, seeing her’s and Gaitonde’s paintings together, she is under-valued. “It’s specially significant that Nasreen should make a record sale at a time like this,” said one potential bidder.

Zarina Lot 1 (Front)The auction began unusually strongly with a 26 x 24in wood collage on board (right) by Zarina (Hashmi), an 83-year old Indian artist living in the US who is known professionally by her first name. The work fetched a hammer price of $70,000, nearly three times the top estimate – $87,500 including buyer’s premium.

Sotheby’s probably went ahead, despite the escalating coronavirus gloom, because preparations were too far advanced to be halted. Bidders were making absentee offers over the weekend, which could have made it hard to halt the sale. Reserve prices were lowered, according to market sources, and a major effort was made to attract bidders.

There were only a few people in the auction room, but there was strong bidding by telephone and on line, attracted by keen prices and strong provenance of previous owners and galleries.

When I asked Hugo Weihe, who used to head Christie’s South Asia sales and has also been ceo of Saffronart, the market leader, why the results were so good at a time of a global melt-down, he replied “It was mostly a function of the quality of the material, the market remains smart that way”.

“It was a good market – there’s plenty of money out there,” said Conor Macklin, who runs the India-linked Grosvenor Gallery in London’s Mayfair.

Dinesh Vazirani, co-founder of Saffronart, took it a stage further and wondered “if people are looking to acquire long-term assets at a time of such uncertainty”.

AmritaSG Boys LemonsChristie’s South Asian auctions were scheduled for tomorrow (March 18), so it had more time than Sotheby’s to pull down the shutters, in line with the auction house’s other New York sales.

There were to be three auctions, two of them offering about 150 works collected since the mid-1990s by Kito and Jane de Boer.

Now based in Dubai and London, the de Boers started collecting when Kito de Boer worked for McKinsey in Delhi. Advertised as Christie’s “largest and most important single-owner sale” of South Asian art for several years, the auctions will be revived when the virus crisis is over.

Also running last weekend was a smaller on line auction by Dubai-based Artiana, which sold 36 out of 40 works for a total of $1.47m, below the low estimate of $1.70m.

More headlines were generated earlier by Saffronart auctions of art and other luxury items, including a Rolls-Royce Ghost saloon, owned by Nirav Modi, a billionaire diamond jeweller and trader. Modi is charged in India for alleged money laundering and corruption, and is now in London’s Wandsworth prison awaiting extradition proceedings.

Ordered by India’s Enforcement Directorate, the auctions (on line on March 3-4 and live in Mumbai on March 5) yielded Rs60 crore ($8.55m) including the premium, with all the 112 lots being sold.

Husain Battle Ganga-Jamuna

Modi was known in the art world for having sound knowledge and good taste when he was considering buying works. That was demonstrated when a world record of Rs13.44 crore ($1.92m) including the premium (Rs15.68 crore, $2.24m hammer) was achieved in the Saffronart auction for a work by M.F.Husain, a leading member of the Progressives group.

This was a striking 74 x 108in oil on canvas diptych, Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, (above) with a strong provenance – Modi bought it in a Christie’s auction in 2008 for $1.7m, where it was being sold by Masanori Fukuoka, a prominent collector who owns the Glenbarra Museum in Japan.

The top price of Rs15.68 crore ($2.24m) including the premium, was paid for Boys with Lemons, a 36 x 22in oil on canvas (above) by Amrita Sher-Gil that Modi acquired from the artist’s family. Both the Husain and Sher-Gil are thought to have been bought by a leading collector for her Delhi art museums.

The Rolls-Royce sold for twice its estimate at Rs1.68 crore ($240,000). Last May, over $8m was raised for India’s tax revenue department when Saffronart auctioned other top works owned by Modi, achieving prices up to $3.7m.

There’s no chance of Sotheby’s sort of New York success , or Saffronart’s with Modi’s collection, being repeated till the coronavirus crisis eases. The results show however that good works new to the auction circuit and with sound provenance attract collectors and significant prices.

Posted by: John Elliott | February 25, 2020

Trump and Modi revel in mutual praise and massive adoring crowds

Politics and personal rapport deflect trade row and lack of initiatives 

Thirteen dead in Delhi clashes over citizenship legislation

President Trump’s state visit to India was always going to be a raging success, and so it turned out in terms of the mutual praise bordering on adoration exchanged between him and prime minister Narendra Modi, strengthening the personal bonds of two leaders who have much in common.

Both politicians gained in terms of voter appeal and Trump said it was a “great fantastic two days”. On best behaviour and mostly avoiding controversy,  he praised Modi as “a man I am proud to call my true friend”, though he was “a very tough negotiator”. India would always hold a very special place in our hearts”.

But there was relatively little of substance affecting the relationship between the US and India, and the consequences of Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism led to media coverage of the visit being disrupted by violent clashes between police and rival groups of rioters linked to protests over new citizenship legislation.

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Melania and Donald Trump with Narendra Modi in Delhi

Thirteen people were killed, vehicles and buildings burned, and teargas used in north-east Delhi, just 12kms from where the state visit was taking place on February 25. The protests over what is seen as anti-Muslim citizenship legislation have run forever two months, but this level of violence between rival groups was new. It stemmed from a BJP local politician threatening over the weekend that his Hindu followers would clear the streets of Muslim protestors if the police did not do so first.

The main announcement during the visit was that India is buying $3bn helicopters for its army and navy. This had however been under negotiation for some time and was specially packaged as the lead item.

There was no apparent progress on a long-awaited trade pact, and rumours of possible deals on nuclear power stations and a counter-terrorism centre did not materialise.

trump-stadium-ahd-696x457The highlight of the visit was an astonishing rally (left) on February 24 of over 100,000 cheering supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, many sporting white caps with the words “Namaste Trump”. The crowds were mostly bussed into what is billed as the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, the main city of Modi’s home state of Gujarat, to greet Trump and his wife Melanie a few hours after they arrived in India.

The massive crowd’s adulation of Modi as well as Trump smacked more of events organised by leaders of totalitarian states than a democracy. The Indian prime minister however revels in such occasions, as did Trump who proudly said later it was the “greatest greeting ever given to any leader”.

Both men gained in terms of voter-oriented political prestige from that event and the whole visit. There are 4m-plus people of Indian origin in the US, who are potential voters for Trump in November’s presidential election. For Modi, they form a significant and influential diaspora. More than 800,000 are from Gujarat and are instinctively his overseas cheerleaders.

Modi is also proudly credited by many voters in India for having raised the country’s profile on the world stage, so the Trump visit has also enhanced that reputation.

An artist makes graffiti showing a picture of USA President Donald Trump

A welcoming wall poster in Ahmedabad

By normal standards for state visits however, this was brief, billed as “two days” but actually just 36 hours – an overnighter in less formal parlance. Trump was invited to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade last month but did not accept, mainly it is thought because of problems with a proposed trade deal.

It was Trump’s first visit since he became president, though he and Modi have met at least seven times, most flamboyantly in Houston last September at a “Howdy Modi” rally staged by the diaspora with up to 50,000 Indian Americans. Modi took Trump along as the co-star, setting the stage for the much larger event in Ahmedabad.

The only formal agreements this week were for co-operation on mental health and safety and an oil industry issue. More important were talks covered international affairs, terrorism, security, defence, and energy technology that will have laid down plans for development of initiatives.

They included setting up working groups on curbing narcotics trafficking and reinvigorating homeland security, but nothing was said publicly to indicate that Trump had pressed Modi on issues of religious freedom – which Modi said somewhat implausibly he supported and encouraged.

On international affairs, Trump said that the two leaders had agreed on “revitalising the Quad initiative”, which includes Japan and Australia. This link-up is designed to contain China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. It has made little progress in recent years, although a meeting was held at ministerial level last September.

Trump also made a point of saying more than once that he was close to Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, as well as Modi, offering in a press conference towards the end of the visit to mediate – something he knows India rejects. That was the nearest he got to a controversial remark during the visit.

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NDTV evening news screen split between riot fires in north-east Delhi and the Trumps arriving for a banquet in the presidential palace

It is rare for defence deals like the helicopter orders to be included in such a visit – the last time it happened was when Modi visited Paris in April 2015. He set up a deal for Dassault’s Mirage fighters that became highly controversial and haunted him for years with allegations of corruption.

Trump alluded to trade problems several times during the visit, linking that with remarks about Modi being “tough”. Before he arrived, he did his regular trick of putting his hosts on the wrong foot with negative comments. “We’re not treated very well by India,” he said last week, though he added in the same breath “I happen to like prime minister Modi a lot”.

Later he grumbled that India had been “hitting us hard” on trade with tariffs that are “the highest in the world”. There would be a “tremendous trade deal”, he said, but maybe not before the November election.

There are tensions over trade in various areas including agriculture, medical devices, digital trade and new tariffs stemming from the Modi government’s increasingly protectionist policies. Modi’s Made in India campaign also clashes with Trump’s similar approach for the US.

Earlier this month, even though the Trump visit was imminent, the US removed India from the list of developing countries that benefit from US tariff preferences on countervailing duties because, as a G-20 member, it was no longer a “developing country.” Last March, the US raised tariffs on steel and aluminium and suspended India’s tariff free access for some $5.6 billion in exports under a 1970s-era Generalized System of Preferences

There are other points of tension between the two countries whose relations, overall, are more troubled than they have been for some years.

Modi referred to their “global strategic partnership”, carefully avoiding the word allies that the US would like but India refuses to acknowledge.

Trump and Modi rose above such details, but that was personal rapport, not lasting co-operation.

Posted by: John Elliott | February 11, 2020

Modi’s BJP crushed in Delhi election again

Victory for AAP people’s party and Kejriwal, its leader

Congress wins no seats, again

A diminutive former social activist and anti-corruption campaigner has today confirmed his role as the most successful political opponent of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government by devastatingly defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party in elections for Delhi’s Capital Territory assembly.

For the second time in five years, Arvind Kejriwal, 51 (below), has led his Aam Aadmi (common man) Party to a resounding victory winning 62 of the 70 assembly seats, down five from the last election, while the BJP went up from three seats to eight, and Congress hit zero for the second election running..

This is happening at a time when Modi’s authoritarian Hindu nationalist government has been facing weeks of often spontaneous mass protests, which have spread out from Delhi across India against citizenship legislation that is seen as being anti-Muslim.

This is a victory for a party that is based neither on religious intolerance nor on dynastic rule – the Gandhi family’s Congress Party has been decimated. Nor is it based on the sort of self-serving caste or linguistic foundations that dominate Indian politics.

Denigrated by many as an upstart that performs no better than long-established parties, the seven year old AAP has impressed voters by making significant improvements in the capital’s government schools and mohalla primary health clinics, and on subsidised water and electricity bills.

Efforts to deal with health-threatening air pollution and congested traffic have had little success, but the mass of voters feel that at least Kejriwal and his ministers have tried. New types of politicians have emerged, typified by Ayushi Marlena, an Oxford scholar, who helped transform government education in Delhi and who has been re-elected today.

This does not mean that voters have deserted Modi. Opinion polls are showing that his popularity remains high, and that voters who reject him and the BJP in state polls would return to him in a general election.

The Delhi result follows BJP defeats in five other state polls since November 2018 – Jharkhand and Maharashtra most recently and Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh earlier. The Congress Party and its United Progressive Alliance have made gains, despite a lack of top leadership, though not in Delhi where, in 2013, it had ruled for five years and was the dominant party alongside the BJP.

This is bad for Modi’s desired image of infallibility. The BJP’s defeat is even more humiliating (even though its vote share rose 8%) because it has flooded Delhi with election rallies in recent weeks, attempting to swing votes. Modi and his hardline home minister Amit Shah have addressed numerous meetings along with about eleven chief ministers, nearly 70 central government ministers and over 200 MPs.

BJP’s vicious Hinduvta campaign

The party has failed, as it has done elsewhere, in its attempt to win votes by running an often vicious hate campaign that focussed on Hindu nationalism rather than local issues. Kejriwal was even accused of being a “terrorist”, which will not have won many votes.

Plans for going ahead with building a Hindu temple on a controversial site at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh were significantly announced on August 5, and Modi also made two key speeches in parliament last week to try to explain the government’s controversial agenda.

Kejriwal seems to share Modi’s Hindu pride, but not his authoritarian nationalism. He has avoided attacking Modi and Shah on recent measures such as ending Kashmir’s special status and introducing the citizenship legislation with a threat of a national citizen’s register. To do so, could have alienated AAP voters who approve of the broad Hindu nationalist agenda.

Kejriwal has grown from being a street-level leader of protests since he founded the AAP in December 2012 after breaking away from what was known as the Hazare anti-corruption movement. A year later, the party won a surprisingly good result, winning 28 of the Delhi assembly 70 seats. Kejriwal formed a minority government, but he did not know how to govern and resigned after 49 chaotic days, having focussed more on staging street level protests than administration.

In February 2015, the AAP won an astonishing victory with 67 of the 70 seats, driving the BJP down to just three and the Congress Party to none. That was a major shock for Modi, coming just eight months after he had been swept to power nationally in the BJP’s landslide general election.

Modi blocked Kejriwal

Stung by the defeat, Modi defied the electoral choice of Delhi voters and set out to make Kejriwal’s administration non-functional by ordering the capital’s loyalist 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. It said that the central government was responsible, through the lieutenant governor as it had always been, for land, law and order and the police, but the Delhi government had the power in all other areas. Since then the AAP has less interference in its initiatives.

Kejriwal has had ambitions to turn the AAP into a national party, filling the anti-BJP gap that the Congress has vacated. He has however failed to establish the party elsewhere in either state or national elections, establishing only a minor role in Punjab. It currently has just one MP in the Lok Sabha and three in the Rajya Sabha.

The question now is whether Kejriwal focuses on running Delhi or revives his national ambitions. India lacks a viable national alternative to the BJP, with the Congress leadership failing to perform and other non-BJP chief ministers following their own interests.

It must be tempting for Kejriwal to try to go national, but that should not be at the expense of being an effective chief minister of the Capital Territory.

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