Saffronart leads auction results with $28m sales this year 

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.S.Gaitonde’s untitled record work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modi reshuffles his cabinet, looking for a reboot

Health minister replaced by follower of ayurvedic medicine

IT minister Prasad’s dismissal will be welcomed abroad

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

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

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

Prime Minister Modi and President Kovind with the new ministers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashwini Vaishnaw takes oath as a Cabinet Minister

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

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

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

Grandstanding

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

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

Departing ministers: Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad

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

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

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

Jyotiraditya Scindia with Narendra Modi

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

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

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

Makes apparently co-operative moves with Kashmiri leaders

India’s institutional Covid implosion undermines its image abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘IMPLOSION’

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

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

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

The line up at Modi’s meeting with Kashmir leaders

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

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

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

Image abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krishen Khanna, 95, shown working in his home

Veteran artist tracks Indian life including wedding bandwallas

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

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

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

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

Weddings now often opt for more modern electronic music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mumbai vaccination queue – ANI photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: John Elliott | May 3, 2021

Modi’s BJP fails to win West Bengal

Over-long election campaign continued during Covid surge

Mamata Banerjee sets an example to other opposition parties

Narendra Modi has lost his bid to extend the Bharatiya Janata Party’s power to West Bengal after leading a high profile and unnecessarily long state assembly election campaign, where he addressed mammoth unprotected political rallies as the Covid surge swept across the country. 

This diverted him from running the national government at a key time in the pandemic that is now producing record official numbers of some 360,000-400,000 new cases a day and 3,500-4,000 deaths.

The human tragedies stem from the national and state governments failing to prepare for a new surge. They then allowed large scale rallies and a religious festival to take place, which acted as super-spreaders and influenced opinion against mask wearing and distancing.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC), a state-based party led by Mamata Banerjee, which has been in power since 2011, won in West Bengal winning 213 seats in the 294–seat assembly. Banerjee narrowly lost her seat and will need to be stand in a by-election, unless there is a recount, which has so far been refused.

Mamata Banerjee campaigning after injuring her leg

The BJP won just 77 seats, though that was a significant improvement on its tally of just three seats in 2016 state election. It did well in the 2019 general election after extensive use of social media and substantial groundwork done by its allied organisations.

For Modi and his close associate, home minister Amit Shah, the primary focus since the end of last year has been to drive Banerjee out of power and demonstrate that the BJP is continuing to win new territories for its Hindu nationalist creed. They undermined her organisation by poaching its leaders and launched vicious personal attacks in their speeches.

Together they spoke at some 70 rallies during a five-week campaign of eight phases, with Modi only calling off his electioneering and returning to Delhi on April 22 when India’s daily total of new Covid cases topped 350,000. 

Critics say the campaign could have been much shorter, which could have lessened the rallies’ role as super-spreaders. But, they allege, the Election Commission arranged the eight phases to allow Modi time to visit every area just before voting day. 

Prasant Kishore, a professional election strategist who has advised many parties and politicians including Modi, managed the TMC’s successful campaign. Speaking on television channels as the votes were being counted, he accused India’s officially independent Election Commission of being “completely partial and an extension of the BJP”. It gave the BJP “systemic support”.

He also suggested that Modi and Shah had over-estimated the potential impact of their polarised campaign, dividing Hindus and the minority Muslims. “Polarisation can motivate 40 to 50% of the vote, and that is what they got, not the 70% that they would have liked,” said Kishore. 

India Today tv during the count .

For the BJP to have failed to win after its high profile campaign significantly dents Modi’s reputation as an iconic vote winner at the same time that he and his government are being criticised in India and abroad for mishandling the Covid crisis.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the foreign minister, held a virtual meeting with India’s ambassadors on April 28, telling them to counter the international media’s “negative” and “one-sided” reports. On Twitter, he said that the crisis has “strengthened global solidarity with India”.

The West Bengal result (analysis here) will encourage regional parties opposed to the BJP to strengthen their activities. The opposition lacks a national leader because of the Congress Party’s faltering Gandhi dynasty. Banerjee could now act as a rallying point for other regional parties, though she seems unlikely to make it herself as a national leader.

Often called Didi (elder sister in Bengali), she is a feisty 66-year old populist politician who spent part of the campaign ostentatiously in a wheel chair after injuring her leg.

Amit Shah campaigning on April 19

The TMC is built around her personality, without much structure or any distinctive political creed. In 2011, she ousted West Bengal’s Communist-led Left Front that had been in power for 34 years, and now she has defeated the rightist BJP. 

Originally in the Congress, she broke away and formed the TMC in 1998 and went on to become chief minister in 2011. She has been a national minister for railways and for coal and mines under both Congress and BJP prime ministers.

The BJP also failed to do well in results of other state elections announced today, winning only in Assam. 

In Tamil Nadu, where the contest was between two state-level parties, the staunchly pro-Tamil DMK defeated the incumbent AIADMK that has been in power for ten years and has the BJP as an ally. The DMK is opposed to the BJP’s Hinduvta policy. It wants jobs protected for Tamils and sustained teaching of the Tamil language.

In neighbouring Kerala, a Communist-led coalition, which has managed the pandemic better than most states, was re-elected, defeating a coalition that included the Congress. The BJP won no seats.

Overall, the day’s results show that the BJP’s crushing tactics do not always work. Communist parties are now virtually wiped out in West Bengal (they won only one seat) and exist only in Kerala, and the Congress has failed yet again to matter.

Posted by: John Elliott | April 28, 2021

India’s health system implodes under the strain of Covid

Surge forecast to peak in May and continue till June or July

Finance minister’s husband attacks government performance

India is facing the prospect of the crippling Covid-19 pandemic surge increasing with massive numbers of cases and mounting deaths till it peaks in mid-May, and then continues till June and July. The official number of new cases has been rising at more than 300,000 a day for the past seven days – over 2m a week – though the real total is far higher. 

This is an unimaginable catastrophe as families cope with the tragedies of the virus, the desperate lack of medical advice, shortages of hospital beds and equipment, and the ill health that can follow, and the deaths. 

April 22, India record international total of over 300,000 cases – source John Hopkins University

Scenes that have been viewed around the world on television tell of the extreme panic and desperation as families trudge from the over-loaded crowded chaos of one hospital to another, seeking medical help, oxygen cylinders and other facilities, and then mourn as their relatives pass away, sometimes lying in cars, ambulances and hospital corridors.

The peak could be reached by “possibly mid-May” with new cases going up to 500,000 or more a day, NITI Aayog, a government policy commission, told a review meeting held last week by Modi with chief ministers of states. After that, the wave would “take time to subside — be ready till June/July”. 

In the context of India’s 1.3bn population, the figures are proportionately lower than other parts of the world, though they are far higher than elsewhere in South Asia. India’s total deaths figure of nearly 200,000 is only the fourth largest in the world and the total of 14.5m recovered is by far the largest – though none of these figures are reliable.

Such comparisons become irrelevant when set against the misery and social upheaval that is being caused by the implosion of the country’s ill-prepared health service. How much damage that will do to India’s stability remains to be seen.

Usually, India rides out such crises. The Modi government has escaped much blame for the economically devastating demonetisation of 2016, and last year’s flight of millions of migrant workers when the country was locked down in March.

Narendra Modi address large crowd in Kolkata March 7 2021 – @NarendrModi

“The prime minister’s popularity, political capital and communication skills seem to indemnify him from the impact of the ineptitude, incompetence and heartlessness of this government,” Parakala Prabhakar, the economist​ husband of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, said in his weekly YouTube broadcast on April 21. 

Prabhakar has voiced criticisms in the past, but not to the extent of this carefully aimed attack. “The government and the ruling party are adept at outrage management,” he said. “They understood that the initial sharp yelp after the pain will quickly be followed by the country becoming numb to suffering”. Popularity and political capital however had “a habit of running out without giving notice”

Modi will now try to ease himself away being blamed. He has said the surge is like being “hit by a storm”, comparing what has happened to a natural event beyond the control of governments or anyone else, like the floods and earthquakes that people in countries such as India regard as part of their lives. 

India has far more cases than the rest of South Asia – source John Hopkins University

He presumably hopes his followers will pick up that theme and say to each other, “Modi says it is like a storm, so it will pass, no?”

This is not the India that Modi set out to build when he became prime minister. Nor could he have ever envisaged that he would have to ask other countries’ prime ministers and presidents, as he has done in he past week, for the oxygen, vaccines and other equipment that his government, and state governments, have failed to provide. Relief is being flown in by at least 15 countries including the US ($100m supplies), the UK and Australia, though the impact may be slow and uncertain. 

The shortages are undoubtedly being exacerbated by panic buying (and a black market) of items such as oxygen cylinders and the Remdesivir drug, and that is the result of fear and uncertainty caused by a lack of adequate medical advice and hospital facilities.

As Prabhakar indicates, Modi should surely take the lead in shouldering the blame for what has happened. Constitutionally, health is the responsibility of the states, not the central government, but Modi’s government has been in charge of vaccines (which it has just devolved to the states) and it is a prime minister’s duty to lead and set an example, which he failed to do till last week.

Other countries’ prime ministers have made many mistakes in the past year since the pandemic began. Few however have Modi’s iconic leadership stature, which gives him increased responsibility to lead the country’s people competently.

Modi and his government have focussed on politics and election campaigns with large mass and unprotected rallies, while millions of pilgrims have attended the Hindu religion’s vast Kumbh Mela that is now being wound down, having seen more than 10m worshippers since January.

The crowds seemed to believe they were safe till some of their leaders caught the pandemic and over 1,700 people tested positive between April 10 and 14. Compulsory PCR tests are being ordered for pilgrims returning to cities like Delhi, but that will be almost impossible to administer effectively.

“Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona,” declared Tirath Singh Rawahe, the chief minister of Uttarakhand where the current Maha Kumbh Mela takes place in Haridwar every 12 years.

Modi welcomed crowds at political rallies instead of restricting them till last week. Campaigning in West Bengal on April 17, the day a record-breaking 234,000 new Covid cases were registered along with 1,341 deaths, Modi said that he had “never seen such huge crowds” at a rally, but he did not call for social distancing or masks. 

Patients wait in a Delhi hospital – Danish Siddiqui Reuters/NYT

Politicians from other parties did the same in the Bengal and four other state assembly election campaigns that are drawing to a close this week. (The count will take place next Sunday May 3, but it is unlikely that Modi’s BJP will suffer much from the pandemic because voting in all the states apart from West Bengal ended on April 6 before the full scale of the emergency had emerged).

There was no attempt by national and state governments to curb the assembly of massive crowds, and virtually no precautions at events such as an England test and other cricket matches in Gujarat in early March, when Modi was preoccupied with having the world’s largest stadium re-named after himself in front of massed spectators.

There is now a glimmer of possibly good news as the number of new cases appeared to have plateaued in Maharashtra, which includes India’s commercial capital of Mumbai and accounted for 60% of India’s total cases in March. Elsewhere, curfews and other restrictions are being turned into lockdowns across the country in small containment zones, cities and states.

The official daily all-India figures – record figures of 362,770 new cases on April 27 with 3,286 deaths – understate the total. State governments and hospitals obscure figures and there are inevitable administrative failings as well as a tendency for families not to report illness and death.

“From all the modelling we’ve done, we believe the true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported,” Professor Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, has said.

Mumbai vaccination centre April 20, 2021.
 Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images

A Financial Times analysis earlier this month, based mostly on local news reports of cremations in seven districts across Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, showed that, while at least 1,833 people had died of Covid, only 228 were officially reported. In the Jamnagar district of Gujarat, 100 people died but only one death was reported.  

Mukherjee told The Wire.in that infections would peak in mid-May when India could see 800,000 to one million new cases daily. In terms of deaths, the peak would be two weeks later at the end of May with an expected 4,500 daily deaths.

This means that India is facing two and maybe three months of the pandemic surging across the country faster than medical facilities and vaccines can cope.  “No state has adequate infrastructure to deal with the surge in cases. (The) number of deaths may increase due to lack of treatment facilities,” NITI-Aayog said in its presentation. 

The problems began at the beginning of the year when, after several months of a declining rate of new cases, India thought it was escaping the second surge that hit Europe and the US. This led to complacency and a growing disregard for safety precautions such as mask wearing and social distancing. 

“India is bending the COVID infection curve: since mid-September, barring localised surges, infections are slanting fashion to support investment and consumption demand”, a bullish article in the Reserve Bank of India’s Bulletin declared just before Christmas, noting “the absence of the dreaded second wave”. 

In January, Modi told the World Economic Forum, “In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

No attempt was made during the winter to build up buffer stocks of vaccines and other medicines and equipment.

Harsh Vardhan declaring the “endgame”, India Today March 7 2021

In February, just as the numbers were beginning to rise again, many states started dismantling Covid facilities, believing they would no longer be needed, and 60m Covid vaccines were sent abroad to help other countries. That meant the states were far from ready for the surge, and there was a national shortage vaccines.

We are in the endgame of the pandemic,” health minister Harsh Vardhan declared on March 7, ignoring an already obvious surge. “Unlike most other countries, we have a steady supply of Covid-19 vaccines”.

Taken together, these developments underline four trends:

– an over-riding relentless desire for political power, especially in Modi’s BJP, that diverts political leaders and government from their primary jobs – in recent weeks and months, tackling the pandemic;

weak state and national government administration and a lack of focussed political leadership, and a widespread failure to maintain continuity of standards of performance;

– a lack of respect for legal or social rules and norms, and the absence of a sense of community, leading to disdain for pandemic precautions such as distancing and mask wearing;

– deep religious beliefs that led to millions of people attending the mega festival despite Covid, with political leaders as well as gurus saying that worshipping in the sacred River Ganges would negate pandemic risks.

As an FT editorial remarked on April 26, “In the global struggle against the virus, the chain of humanity is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Posted by: John Elliott | April 4, 2021

Indian artists focus on the drama of The Last Supper

Krishen Khanna on Judas and the supper’s ‘tragedy and victory’

Saffronart exhibition of ‘betrayal, sacrifice, friendship’ 

India’s long links with Christianity, and the country’s acceptance of all religions, has been illustrated for generations by Indian artists’ fascination with the Last Supper, the pivotal meal that Jesus had with his disciples on Maundy Thursday, the eve of his crucifixion.

For Christians, the supper has religious significance, but it is the drama of the evening that has inspired others who have painted their own interpretations – following the lead of Leonardo da Vinci’s late 15th century epic mural (above) in Milan. Searching the web produces a mass of parodies from a pole dancer on a table, and people playing table football, to a Looney Tunes version.

More seriously, an on-line exhibition of 36 new paintings by Indian artists, mostly not Christian, is now being staged by Saffronart, the Mumbai-based auction house. As has happened with earlier works, the artists have produced a variety of settings and characters to replace the disciples, sometimes including fellow artists and politicians.

Krishen Khanna’s 40in x 60in oil on canvas, “The Last Bite”, with leading artist M.F.Husain in Jesus’s seat surrounded by fellow artists – Khanna facing Husain

“Indians are fascinated with story-telling and India is a secular country accepting religions across the board historically,” says Dinesh Vazirani, Saffronart’s co-founder and ceo.

“Key themes of betrayal, sacrifice, friendship, and community” appear in the Biblical accounts of the supper, explains Ranjit Hoskote, an Indian poet and art critic in an introduction to the exhibition. “They dwell on human weakness yet also emphasise the human ability to hope”. 

With that as the stimulus, modern Indian artists who have interpreted the drama go back to Jamini Roy, who died in 1972, but works were also being produced in the 16th and 17th centuries. Famous artists outside India who have painted the scene include America’s Andy Warhol and China’s Zeng Fanzhi from Wuhan (picture at bottom of this blog).

Krishen Khanna, 95, who has a work in the current exhibition titled The Last Bite (above) and Francis Newton Souza, who died in 2002, have been among the most prolific in India. They were friends and both belonged to the Mumbai-based Progressives group that was formed in the mid 20th century – as did M.F.Husain, who also produced works, one of which sold for $1.1m in October 2017.

F.N.Souza’s famous rendering of The Last Supper with a conventional image of Jesus surrounded by distorted lopsided faces typical of the artist’s earlier works

Khanna has told me that he was introduced to the da Vinci when he was five and his father brought a copy back from Milan. “He explained the painting to me and that was my introduction to the Bible in a sense,” says Khanna who, though Hindu, has developed a detailed knowledge of the religion. 

He went to Christian schools “where we were told we could sit aside while Christianity was being taught, but it fascinated me to listen, maybe more than the others and see what happened and how clever Christ was”. His wife is a Bengali Christian, though he thinks his schooling had a greater influence on him.

Khanna focuses on the role of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, seeing it as “almost a universal phenomenon, with the supper showing him going back on what he really believed in”. That, he says, is “something that is happening here today in India”.

“The whole thing rests on Judas’s betrayal and Christ knew that it was going to happen.” Indian artists, he says, “understand what is going on and see it is a question of tragedy with victory at the end”.

Madhvi Parekh’s untitled 60in x 120in reverse acrylic on acrylic sheet is a folk art styled work of unknown characters

In his painting, which was done more than ten years ago and is not for sale, Husain is seated in place of Jesus, surrounded by contemporary artists. Khanna says that is because Husain was “quite central to the art scene, a pivotal figure and quite the leader in attitude, looked up to by most of his peers”. 

He adds, somewhat mischievously however, that “there is no specific Judas in the picture and I leave it to anyone who knows the situation to apportion that place”. The table is square, which Khanna explains, “leads the eye from the bottom to the top where Christ is in the middle – a more identifiable and sacrosanct place than in the da Vinci”.

Jesus and his disciples look down from a domed ceiling in this 48in diameter acrylic and fabric on canvas, by Jagannath Panda, titled The Last Supper.

Souza was born a Roman Catholic in Portuguese Goa, but lapsed, which led to him producing many tortured paintings around a religion “that fascinated and revolted him in equal measure,” according to one interpretation.

His best known Last Supper (above) was painted in 1990 and was owned for some time by the Japanese Glenbarra Museum, which offered it for sale in a Sotheby’s Mumbai auction in November 2019. It fetched a hammer price of Rs6.86 crore ($960,000) but the sale did not go through following a dispute during the auction over whether Souza was the sole artist or was helped by his then muse (who triggered the dispute). Another work owned by the Glenbarra had been sold two years earlier for Rs2.6 crore ($390,000) in a Pundole Mumbai auction.  

This six-unit 44in x 89in mixed media on paper untitled work is by Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi who, the catalogue says,  
“unapologetically unmasks the men and women he draws in his large-format works to reveal the grotesque, robotic creatures he believes they really are”.
 

Prices in the Saffronart show range from about Rs10 lakhs ($13,500) up to Rs 1.1 crore ($150,000) for a large bronze sculpture of Jesus’s head in front of a cross and Rs90 lakhs ($120,000) for a large 48in x 120in oil on canvas by Thota Vaikuntam of his characteristic south Indian Telangana villagers. Also following a familiar theme, is G. R. Iranna with rows of Buddhist monks in yellow robes eating from bowls of rice.

Husband and wife artists Manu and Madhvi Parekh, are both well known for their Last Supper works and both appear in the show. Manu, who is a follower of Souza, has 13 panels showing heads and shoulders of public figures standing in for the disciples, among them artists, actors, and politicians. Madhvi’s is a more dramatic work akin to folk art with a variety of figures (above). Another artist, Veer Munshi, also favours a cluster of fellow artists.

There are many other renderings in the Saffronart show, but not all of them live up to the depth of understanding and interpretation shown by Khanna. Assembled by two curators, Tanuj Berry & Saman Malik, they do however amount to what many might see as an unlikely collection in today’s India.

Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper, an 86in x 55in oil on canvas that set a record in 2013 for Asian contemporary art at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong, selling for HK$180.44m (US$23.3m), more than double its US$10m estimate
Posted by: John Elliott | March 31, 2021

India’s Covid cases surge in a second wave

Maharashtra worst hit with Punjab and Gujarat

Vaccine exports curbed to focus on India’s needs 

India has been hit by a fresh surge of the Covid pandemic in the past month with a 51% weekly increase in new cases. This is the biggest spike since last October, with around 60,000 or more cases being reported daily, five times more than in early February and twice as many as three weeks ago.

It comes at a time when massive crowds are attending political rallies for assembly elections that are running through April in six states, as well as a vast Kumbh Mela festival at Haridwar in north India. Last Monday there was the colourful Holi festival. Leading politicians, who are calling for people to socially distance and wear masks, are often themselves ignoring the measures.

On March 28, over 68,000 new cases were reported, [81,000 on April 1] two-thirds of them in Maharashtra, spreading out from Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, and two other key cities, Nagpur and Pune. Maharashtra is now the worst hit state along with Punjab and Gujarat in what is being described as India’s “second wave” with a rising number of deaths. Delhi has also been hit by a fresh surge along with Bengaluru in Karnataka, reflecting the impact on busy urban conurbations.

Active cases March 20source: https://www.covid19india.org

Hospitals are scarce and are becoming over-loaded. According to last year’s Human Development Report, India has just five beds for every 10,000 people, ranking an appallingly low 155 out of 167 countries in the index.

“No state and no part of the county should be complacent. Trends show that the virus is still very active and can penetrate our defences,” V.K.Paul, a senior government official, said yesterday. The situation was “going from bad to worse”. Echoing a message heard in many countries over the past few months, he added, “When we think we have controlled it, it strikes back”.

This is a major blow for a country whose total caseload exceeds 12m, a massive figure that needs however to be seen in the context of India’s total population of over 1.3bn. 

The government announced on March 29 that it has detected 795 positive cases of the UK, South African and Brazilian variants, half of them in the past fortnight. Together with the surge, this has dashed hopes, which developed at the turn of the year, that India was gradually achieving herd immunity. That would involve sufficient people being infected, and having antibodies, to reduce the chances of the virus spreading rapidly again. 

At a time when new cases were declining, the optimism was based on insufficient understanding about the length of protection that antibodies would provide, especially with the arrival of the fresh mutants.

As optimism grew at the beginning of the year, precautions were abandoned with reduced wearing of masks, increased travelling, and a gradual opening up of the economy.

Illustrating the problem, the surge in Gujarat was partly attributed to an India-England test match and a T-20 match early in March at the world’s largest newly-inaugurated stadium in Motera, Ahmedabad. The stadium was named after Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who attended the match. (see FT front page below).

The crowd at the England-India test match in the newly named Narendra Modi stadium – AP photo/Aijaz Rahi, Indian Express

“India is not an easy place to maintain precautions”, says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and chief executive of Biocon, one of India’s largest biotech companies. “It’s just not possible to do social distancing. Also people have been getting very mild symptoms so felt there was less worry about“.

The situation is especially poignant, reflecting the country’s complexities and contradictions. Brilliant brains developing and applying technology have led to it playing a leading role on vaccines. A Pune-based company, Serum Institute of India (SII), which is the world’s largest producer, has been turning out the internationally problem-prone Astra-Zeneca version. It is also starting trials of Novavax. Another company, Bharat Biotech, has successfully developed Covaxin with two Indian government institutes.

Two-thirds of the vast population are however too poor and preoccupied with the basic necessities of life to focus on receiving a vaccination or taking other precautions. Rural India has not been hit as badly as might have been expected, partly because villages are less crowded and many people work outdoors.

The better off, living in urban areas, are too busy with their lives and there is an habitual lack of community concern, plus widespread distrust of the vaccinations. Randeep Guleria, head of AIIMS, a large government-run hospital in Delhi, said in a recent Print.in on-line interview that only 60% of his staff had been willing to be vaccinated. 

Masks are rarely seen in rural areas and their usage is patchy in towns and cities, apart from some up-market locations, or where they are compulsory such as on air flights and where police are actively monitoring urban traffic. While 90% of people are aware of their importance, only 44% actually wear them according to a health ministry survey, though that seems a surprisingly high percentage.

It was different a year ago when the pandemic began. Modi created a crisis across India when he ordered a national lockdown on March 24 at a few hours notice. Tens of millions of migrant workers immediately started fleeing home from major cities. 

In rural areas like deepest Madhya Pradesh, where I have spent several weeks this year, the poor immediately protected their home areas. “Local people, especially the tribals, did not comprehend the threat of Covid, but they still took some action to protect themselves and their families,” I was told. Villagers stood guard on river bridges blocking people from crossing so that whole areas remained secure. Some of the travelling workers were quarantined in schools and other public buildings.

A year later, it is not likely that the same fear and response will be repeated. The mood has changed and the fear seems to have evaporated, though it remains to be seen whether it revives as the seriousness of the current surge becomes clear. 

There is a debate nationally, and in individual states, about whether to have fresh lockdowns of whole conurbations, or to avoid them, given the economic disruption and hardship that was caused last year. Average household incomes fell by 9.2% last March and 27.9% in April. Employment this February was 7m less than last year.

The FT front page Feb 25, 2021

The alternative could involve smaller local containment zones that are already operating, plus increased social distancing and mask-using, more testing and tracing, and more vaccinations. The health ministry has asked 47 districts across the country to increase RT-PCR testing so that fresh cases can be identified and tracked faster.

Meanwhile the government is increasing the focus on vaccinations and is being criticised internationally for restricting exports – so far over 60m vaccines have been sent abroad. Those exports are now being curbed at the request of the government so that they can be used for a fresh drive in the country.

Initially the government targeted health care and other vulnerable workers, but has now moved on to older people aged over 60 and those over 45 with other illnesses. That will be extended to everyone over 45 on April 1, covering 25% of the population. So far some 50m people have been vaccinated, most with just one dose.

Mazumdar-Shaw says the focus should quickly move on to the young. Many of them live in extended families with older relatives, who may not be fully protected from mutated infections by their first jab. “We need a two-pronged attack targeting these younger people and also stepping up testing in areas like Maharashtra and Punjab where there are fresh surges,” she told me.

“India needs to manage its pandemic with large scale vaccinations so it is right to stop exports for a few months till we get production levels up. Our vaccine production is just about adequate to support our current vaccination rate of 2.5m per day. Production is expected to double by end of May, so exports should only resume post May”.

It is ironic that India is now being criticised for curbing exports because it was not rated as a supplier last year when Astra-Zeneca emerged as the world’s first major producer (along with Pfizer whose product is not being used in India because it requires deep-freezing facilities).

International agencies such as the World Heath Organisation’s COVAX, which aims to ensure that world-wide vaccine supplies are evenly spread, rapidly found that production in Europe, the UK and the US was inadequate for global needs. It turned to the Serum Institute, which had taken a commercial risk and started producing Astra-Zeneca’s vaccine for the Indian market at the beginning of the year.

It is now planned that the entire April production of 60m doses will be supplied to the government as a temporary move until the supply situation improves with a boost to production.

So far, India has only vaccinated about 4% of its vast population. It seems unlikely that it will ever cover everyone. But while the programme progresses, it is human behaviour on distancing and masks that can contribute most, along with prompt government action containing the worst-hit areas.

Posted by: John Elliott | March 25, 2021

FT Editor’s ego-trip memoir on the world’s power circuit

Under Lionel Barber, the FT failed to report pro-Brexit trend 

Barber wins with switch to digital, Nikkei, 1m-plus paying readers

BOOK REVIEW: The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times, Lionel Barber. WH Allen (Penguin Random House), £25 hardback, India Rs799 paperback

Lionel Barber thrived in his first ten years as editor of the Financial Times. Nikkei, the Japanese media group, found it could work well with him so it asked him to stay on when it bought the title in July 2015. 

March 2017 at the White House

That led Barber to a 14-year reign that was remarkable for what was achieved, which he triumphantly lays out in his memoir subtitled Private Diaries in Turbulent Times.

An accomplished journalist who held senior FT jobs in Brussels, London and the US before becoming editor, Barber is known for his film star good looks (some say he could be a James Bond actor), and for his lack of both self-doubt and modesty, as the book shows.

Now aged 66, he has quite a lot to boast about. He took the FT from a low point with 400,000 circulation (80,000 on line) in a falling market to over one million paying readers around the world. That was achieved by turning the salmon-pinkish daily UK-oriented broadsheet newspaper into what he describes as a “sustainable profitable business based on digital transformation” – in effect creating a virtually new brand for the digital age. 

He also restored ”the gold standard in the FT’s reporting and commentary”, building on traditions begun by Sir Gordon Newton, the newspaper’s greatest and longest-serving editor (1950-72). “I preside over a broad church, maintaining accuracy, authority and quality”, says Barber.

Digitisation and the gold standard are frequently mentioned as the keys to success. Barber realised at the start that he would be “an agent of change…leading the transformation of a print-based product mainly funded by advertising to a fully digital, award-winning news organisation” with content that readers were prepared to pay for.

That required more leadership than he could provide alone so he picked journalists and promoted to key positions to work with him implementing the changes – and then to help manage the challenges of the Nikkei takeover, as well as reporting crises that included the 2008 financial crash along with the Brexit referendum and Trump’s presidency.

The Kremlin, June 2019

Barber glories in tracing his two or three times-a-week meetings with the world’s Powerful and Damned leaders of governments and business. “I was an interlocutor to dozens of people in power around the world,” he declares.

Partly listed at the front of the book, they range from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi (but not Xi Jinping). Showing too much obeisance for an objective journalist, he says that he was “granted interviews” by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, as well as two British princes. Heads of governments, banks and companies rank lower – with them, as the FT editor, he was “privileged to gain access”.

“It’s a totally legitimate question to debate the balance between access and distance,” Barber told The Guardian in an interview last November. “I am very aware that I enjoyed unique access to thugs and to very rich people. But it was my job to understand power, and how power is exercised, and I’m not easily seduced, believe me. 

But his lofty editing had a negative impact on Britain’s 2016 narrow referendum vote to leave the European Union. 

June 21 2016, eve of the Brexit voteBarber’s remarks on youtube

He admits that the FT failed to tune in to growing support for Brexit among UK voters before the referendum. “We could have done a better job reporting on the depth of disaffection, especially among older voters and the ‘angry white males’ who have seen their incomes either cut or stagnate,” he says.

Roula Khalaf, his British-Lebanese deputy who succeeded him as editor, had “the great idea of dispatching FT foreign correspondents to the four corners of the UK to test voter sentiment” – something that had been done earlier during general elections. “Three [correspondents] returned to London with the same message: Vote Leave. We missed the signal among all the noise!” Barber admits. That shows a serious lapse of editorial leadership.

At the top finance and business Sun Valley conference, Idaho, July 2015

There were of course other more vital reasons for the Brexit vote, ranging from prime minister David Cameron’s tone-deaf hubris in calling the referendum to Boris Johnson’s lies and deceit, which helped to mislead an electorate that was never adequately informed about what was at stake. More widely there were issues such as globalisation, disillusionment with ruling elites, and mass immigration, especially after Angela Merkel allowed nearly a million migrants into Europe at the end of 2015.

Barber was living in the stratosphere of high level contacts and was, it seems, not reaching down to discover was actually happening. The editorial stance was so determinedly pro-EU that the story was not adequately and even-handedly covered by reporters. There was excellent commentary from top columnists such as Martin Wolf, internationally recognised for his economic and other analysis. But that was a top down approach, reflecting the rarefied world where Barber spent his time when he was not at his desk.

That contrasts, for example, with the way that the FT reported the growth of trade union power years earlier. I joined the FT in 1966 and, two years later, Gordon Newton promoted me to run the labour and trade union coverage. He told me to make the FT the top newspaper on the subject, replacing the Daily Telegraph that had the best coverage. By then, the FT had moved on from being just a financial newspaper and, as Newton had put it, was designed for “those who make or influence decisions on business, finance and public affairs in the world”. 

In the next nine or ten years, we covered strikes in detail, splashed across the front page and inside the paper, reporting and analysing the trade union and workers’ cases as well as the employers’, earning respect from both. At no time was I ever asked to tone down or adjust the often trade union-empathetic lines we were taking.

I’d left the FT long before Barber became editor, but it was clear to me as a reader that he was failing to organise such coverage on Brexit. He was subsequently awarded France’s Légion d’honneur – officially “for services to journalism” but really for his loyal pro-EU stand. He was criticised, as a supposedly impartial editor, for accepting the award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading pro-Brexit Conservative politician, said he had been rewarded for “furthering the interests of a foreign government”. 

Barber admits that the Daily Mail accused him of being a “weapons-grade social climber and name-dropper extraordinaire, with a statesmanlike aura”. That critique has been widely echoed in reviews and comments since Barber’s memoir was published last October

But his successes included steering the FT through its first four or so years of Japanese ownership, which cannot have been easy. He established a rapport with Nikkei and, seemingly, ensured his and his successor’s editorial freedom. 

It is curious therefore that one of Japan’s biggest corporate stories – the arrest in Tokyo, jailing, then bail and dramatic escape of Carlos Ghosn, the former head of Nissan and Renault – gets just a five-line footnote in the book without any discussion. There was plenty of coverage in the FT, though I thought at the time that it was skewed against Ghosn.

Barber jetted around the world, often with his wife Victoria, for his meetings and parties, and also for “pro-consular visits”, as he calls them, to capitals where dutiful correspondents arranged appointments and tours. 

In India, former prime minister Manmohan Singh is seen as a “softly spoken Sikh” involved in economic reforms, while former finance minister P.Chidambaram is “bumptious” (“arrogant but effective” is a more usual description). Congress leader Rahul Gandhi “seems either shy or diffident and overburdened by leading his party”. Narendra Modi was “a lot sharper”.

No qualms – top sources named

Barber has no professional qualms about naming top background sources that he met in presumably private meetings, illustrating the contradictions and tensions of bridging closeness to power with journalistic reporting and objectivity. That is a theme that recurs throughout the book, sharpened by Barber’s desire to show off. He had built up an impressive list of contacts and friends during his years as a correspondent, but they may be surprised to find themselves directly quoted, given that such conversations usually take place off the record and without any attribution.

The regular contacts include numerous bankers, businessmen and officials such as Mario Draghi, now Italy’s prime minister and formerly head of the European Central Bank, and the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, formerly Britain’s cabinet secretary. 

At an FT conference in 2013 with Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, and steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal

In November 2015, when Modi is visiting London and appearing with Cameron at an overseas Indians’ mega rally in Wembley Stadium, Barber suggests during a meeting in Downing Street that the UK should relax Indians’ visa-entry rules. “Cameron pushes back, referring to bogus higher education colleges or job seekers who stay on. ‘We don’t need more taxi drivers’ ” – not a slight that Cameron would have wanted Modi to see in print.

A contact told Barber that Barack Obama, on a 2008 trip to London, said of Britain’s prime ministers, “On [Tony] Blair: sizzle and substance. On [Gordon] Brown: substance. On Cameron: sizzle.” 

Royal protocol is breached when he reports that Prince Andrew gave him “a nod and a wink, wink” at a Buckingham Palace lunch in September 2014 when he asks whether the Queen would make a statement against Scottish independence just before voting day in the 2014 referendum. She does, and Barber expands on the story in a book publicity article in The Times, which ran the headline “Queen ‘planned move to foil Scots independence’ before 2014 referendum”. l

Unusually for such a supremely self-confident guy, Barber eventually left the post at the top of his form and did not stay on, like many politicians and company bosses, till his position crumbled. When Tsuneo Kita, Nikkei’s chairman, makes his first visit to the FT offices in July 2015, he asked Barber to remain editor. In February 2019, Kita told him that his time would be up at the end of the year.

£500,000 payoff

That appears to have been earlier than expected because (company accounts show) he received a £500,000 “loss of office” payment that brought his total salary for the year to more than £1.9m – and strong objections from National Union of Journalists’ members on the paper.

There are some marvellous one-liners in the book. A North Korean ambassador to the UK, who comes to lunch, asks the cost of buying a discarded FT laptop.

When Reed Hastings, the boss of Netflix, was asked by a sharp reporter to explain his business model, he replied, “We actually compete with sleep”. 

John Gapper, a veteran columnist, poked his head round Barber’s door on his last day in the office and said, “You saved the FT”. Gapper was correct, he did. The FT is thriving, so this memoir could have benefitted from a little more modesty to soften such a name-dropping ego trip.

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