Posted by: John Elliott | September 2, 2018

‘Rahul’s got passion and pep but he needs far more prep’

A slightly shorter version of this article is the “By Invitation” column on today’s “Sunday Times of India” opinion page

“I am sitting here and saying ‘ask me whatever you want’. I might make some mistakes. I’m not bothered. I’ll learn and the next time I speak I’ll come up with something better,” said Rahul Gandhi at one of three events where I heard him speak in London a week ago.

“I have the guts to sit here with so many journalists, live streaming. It’s risky. I take the risk because I value this conversation. I think this conversation is more important than the risk”.

He got loud applause from the audience, which included members of the Indian community  and journalists, at which point he made his main political point: “That’s not how our Prime Minister thinks. I would love to have a conversation like this with the Prime Minister of India on issues like corruption, the Rafale deal and the agriculture policy, but he won’t do it”.

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Rahul Gandhi speaking at the Indian Journalists’ Association lunch in London

Whether it is wise for a political leader to take such a “not bothered, I’ll learn” attitude is arguable. But clearly Gandhi’s trip to Germany and the UK brought out some of the Congress president’s best qualities, while revealing failings that made him look like the accident-prone politician his critics claim him to be.

The content of three one-hour question and answer sessions in London was good. It showed that Gandhi is getting his election themes together, that he can cope with a wide range of subjects, and that he has the passion needed by a political leader warming up for general election battle – the passion being to remove Narendra Modi and all he stands for from power.

But Gandhi lets himself down with one-liners that grab the headlines and allow the BJP and its trolls and twitter feeders to mock him. Along with more serious criticism, that diverts attention from his main messages. His image gets reduced, both among those in India who would like to be able to praise him, and among  opinion-makers in the countries he is visiting.

Gandhi failed to pitch his remarks with sufficiently anchored policy content and context. He often did not spell out his arguments until forced to do so in self-defence. He also appeared to avoid direct answers by referring back to his favourite subjects of India’s traditions of non-violence and compassion, the need to decentralise policymaking and execution, and to protect the  lower castes, farmers and minorities. These are all crucial issues, given the growing instances of lynchings and other violence, Modi’s over-centralisation of government, the denigration of Dalits and Muslims, and the plight of farmers, but repetition needs substance.

Unrehearsed unscripted

This points to a lack of  preparation on policy and lines to take. I am not decrying Gandhi’s performance. It was impressive that he was happy to  answer questions in unrehearsed, unscripted sessions – with moderators he had not met. The three I attended were at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the London School of Economics (LSE) and a lunch event organised by the Indian Journalists’ Association.

It is brave (some would say foolhardy) of a political leader, experienced or otherwise, to expose himself on the record to such an extent, but Gandhi uses it to show he has a wide spread of views – and to contrast it with  Modi’s refusal to take questions in public.

He should rehearse his points in advance with policy briefs so that he begins his answers with succinct statements that make it more difficult for the trolls. The nearer the general election, the more pertinent this becomes. He should also make key policy statements, as for example he could have done at the IISS on defence and foreign affairs. He did however successfully deflect mischeivous questions from a BJP supporter about the surgical strikes in Pakistan and a controversy in Assam about Indian citizenship, giving crisp answers that showed he was prepared.

Controversial one-liners

The most controversial one-liners were a comparison of the RSS and the Muslim Brotherhood, a link between joblessness, lynchings and  ISIS, and denying Congress responsibility for the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The first two were sound points that he failed to define effectively when he first mentioned them.

On the Muslim Brotherhood, he should have clearly set out his argument about how both organisations’ ambition is “one ideology runs every institution….one idea should crush all other ideas”, while acknowledging the RSS has not been named as a terrorist organisation. On the lynchings and ISIS, there is no dispute that joblessness can lead the young to indulge in violence and extremism and to stray into terrorist organisations, but this needed explaining.

On the 1984 deaths, he could have avoided the controversy by referring back to Manmohan Singh’s apology, and then adding his own lines about abhorring violence and the guilty being punished through the courts.

Back in Delhi over the past week, he has shown a similar lack of preparation and consistency in his criticism of France’s controversial Rafale fighter jets deal, and his unexplained allegations that the “biggest aim” of Modi’s demonetisation was “to help 15-20 crony capitalists”, saying “Notebandi is nothing less than a huge scam”.

This is not an argument about whether Gandhi will, or could be, the next Prime Minister, but how the leader of the Congress party ought to be well briefed and prepared so that his wide range of mostly sound ideas carry weight rather than triggering controversy.

See also my blog last weekend on Rahul Gandhi’s visit to London   https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2018/08/25/rahul-gandhi-attacks-bjp-and-rss-as-his-election-strategy-develops/

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Maps out his version of a Congress approach

LONDON: Rahul Gandhi is beginning to assemble a package of political arguments against Narendra Modi’s government and its Hindu nationalist allied organisations that will form the basis of the Congress Party’s campaign at India’s coming general election. Fired up to defeat Modi, he is emerging as a leading politician with messages that he hopes will win votes.

On a visit to London over the past two days, he has avoided detailed policy discussions, as he always has, but he now has a clear and coherent strategy that substitutes for policy.

This is to build an election platform based on opposition to five developments under the Modi government. They are growing country-wide violence, attacks on basic freedoms, a lack of concern for minorities and the weak, the imposition of “a very rigid, hate-filled angry ideology”, and attempts to “capture and destroy” institutions

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Gandhi stresses that lack of jobs is India’s biggest crisis and, on that, he does move into policy. Congress would boost agriculture and improve technology and focus on helping small and medium sized firms and extending transport infrastructure. Improved education was also needed – “you can’t have a country with world-class education systems and everything below them is a disaster’.

He  offers a return to the traditional all-embracing freedoms and respect for institutions that Congress has always stood for. He advocates de-centralisation of government down to the villages as he has for years, though what sounded earlier like a political novice’s well-meaning dream now has substance and relevance because of the way that Modi has centralised all government control in his prime minister’s office.

This overview has emerged from three interactive sessions that I have attended while Gandhi has been in London on his first working visit to the UK since becoming Congress Party president. The sessions each lasted about an hour and were live-streamed on twitter and elsewhere. Held at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the London School of Economics (LSE), and an Indian community lunch meeting organised by the Indian Journalists Association (click on the links for full length videos), they have enabled Gandhi to pull together lines of attack on the government that he has been developing in recent months.

Other meetings in London included one with the Royal Society of Medicine where he discussed Congress plans to develop a universal healthcare initiative for India with King’s College, Imperial College and other medical professionals. Before London, he spent two days in Berlin and Hamburg. He also met opposition leaders of the Labour Party.

Contrasting his openness with Modi’s refusal to face questioning, Gandhi said at the journalists’ association session, “Come at me with whatever questions you like and then judge…the prime minister of India has never done this”. Being open to any questions, live-streaming, was “a risk” but, if he made mistakes, he would correct them next time.

Opposition Unity

He said that Congress wanted to open its doors, which had been closed too much, and work with all opposition parties. The BJP would lose the election that is due by April next year if the parties worked together, as they have begun to do. They had agreed that decisions on a prime ministerial candidate would be deferred till after the election.

“On one side there is the BJP and on the other side, there is every opposition party. The reason is, for the first time, Indian institutions are under attack,” said Gandhi. “The RSS is trying to change the nature of India”. Institutions were being “torn down one by one”, and the fight was against “something that is trying to destroy the idea of India”.

Stepping up an attack that he began in Germany on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ultra right wing umbrella organisation, he added: “Other parties haven’t tried to capture India’s institutions. The RSS’s idea is similar to the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world that one ideology runs every institution….one idea should crush all other ideas”.

That brought a sharp rebuff from the BJP in Delhi because the Muslim Brotherhood is an extreme Sunni Muslim organisation, banned in some Arab countries for alleged terrorist links. A BJP spokesman implicitly criticised Gandhi for breaking the diplomatic convention that politicians do not criticise their country and their opponents when abroad. “Instead of being a proud Indian leader in foreign countries, the Congress president has been attempting to insult and belittle India abroad,” he said.

IMG_1178The Muslim Brotherhood barb had clearly struck home because the spokesman unusually clubbed the RSS and BJP together and said, “India is asking you ‘is some terrorist organisation ruling India?’ It is a democratically elected government. Is this government, is this choice of people of India for a terror organisation?”.

Gandhi undoubtedly knew what he was doing by trying to sharpen a negative image of the RSS, and today replied to the BJP criticisms. Both organisations, he said, “viewed the electoral process as a means of capturing institutions”, both had been banned in the past and neither of them allowed women to be members.

Attacking the 2016 demonetisation of bank notes, which caused extensive economic harm, especially for small businesses, he said the idea “came directly from RSS, bypassed the Finance Minister and RBI (India’s central bank), and was planted in Prime Minister’s head”. That enabled him to combine an attack on the RSS with criticism of Modi’s centralisation of power. He later extended this to the external affairs ministry which, he said, had no independence. “The PM knows his mind,” he had been told by ministry officials to avoid answering questions.

What had he learned in 2014?

At the IISS meeting, I asked Gandhi what he had learned from Congress’s defeat in 2014. He was silent for almost ten seconds before he answered (most of his other answers were immediate). Eventually he said “You have to listen, leadership is about listening, about empathy to the person who is speaking, whether you agree with them or not – that’s at a personal level”.

At the party level, there was “a certain degree of arrogance that had crept into the Congress Party after ten years in power”. Congress should be open to other parties and “build a bridge between them”.

He returned to the theme at the LSE and said that the party had “run into trouble in 2014 because of an internal fight between the older and younger sections” when it had tried to merge “the future and the past”.

Congress was not as good as the BJP at working out its “narrative”. The BJP and RSS messages were clear but, while the Congress originally had Mahatma Gandhi and other independence leaders to put forward the theme, it had not been developed.

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The idea of Congress, which needed to be heard, was that “when you see a strong person beating up a small person, you feel a sense of protection, that’s the Congress”. The “weakness is that (Congress) is not able to say ‘that idea is us’”.

At the journalists’ meeting he said, “my ideology is respecting all points of view”, even if he violently disagreed the person he was meeting.

During the IISS meeting, Gandhi talked about foreign policy. There was however some disappointment among analysts that he did not use the visit to a leading international policy institute to deliver a prepared speech on defence and foreign affairs that could have been seen as a definitive statement on key issues.

Recognising reality, he said that India should have relationships with China as well as the US. Inevitably he felt “more comfortable with democratic structures” of the US and Europe but, as a neighbour, China could not be ignored. India should “play a balancing role” between them bringing in, he said at a later session, a new approach to what was the “foundation of a potential conflict”.

“The opportunity is there. There is an Indian way of doing things that is completely different to the Chinese way or the America way….we have our own ideas that are old, tested by non-violence and listening….we specialise in reducing confrontation”. He did not spell out how such an idyllic idea would work in practice.

Mocking Modi’s style of greeting foreign leaders, Gandhi said, “You can’t run a foreign policy based on hugs”. The prime minister’s “’episodic” approach meant that the ten-week standoff with China on the Himalayan plateau of Doklam earlier this year had been treated as “an event”, rather than as a process, so the government had failed to stop it happening. The inference was that Modi’s lack of continuity on relations with China had allowed the crisis to develop.

On the lack of employment opportunities, he criticised the government for only creating 450 jobs in the formal economy every 24 hours compared with 50,000 achieved by China. While he was in Germany, he made a direct link between unemployment and gang violence and killings, and conversion to terrorism. “If one does not give vision to people, someone else is going to give that. It’s important that we involve people and carry people and that people feel they are part of nation building,” he said.

These visits to Germany and the UK were the latest of an international series organised by the Indian Overseas Congress that have earlier taken him to the US, Malaysia and Singapore. His passion to drive the BJP out of power and pursue Modi at every opportunity impressed audiences. He will have succeeded in boosting the work of Congress organisations and, more generally, making it clear that Modi is not India’s only political leader.

Next time – if there is one before the general election – he will need to prepare himself with more policy details in order to show that he has the focus needed to be a prime minister.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 16, 2018

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the moderate face of the BJP, has died

Economic reformer who led by consensus

Contrasting style with current Modi-Shah regime 

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s former prime minister who died today, was one of the country’s greatest and most widely respected statesmen and the moderate face of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism. His death brings into sharp focus the contrast with the harsh and strident version of that ideology which the party now exercises with prime minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah.

Age 93, Vajpayee has suffered ill health for many years and was in a Delhi hospital from June. He has not been a part of public or political life since his BJP-led coalition government was unexpectedly defeated in a general election in May 2004 by the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, which led to Manmohan Singh becoming prime minister

atal-bihari-vajpayee1Tributes today from all sides of the political spectrum have talked with admiration and sincerity about his ability to handle ideological differences without personal animosities, and how he reached out to opponents as well as difficult coalition partners – all sharp contrasts with the Modi and Shah autocratic style that instils fear but not loyalty.

He became an MP in 1957 and was noticed as a young parliamentarian with potential by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first (Congress) prime minister. To a foreign visitor, Nehru described him as “India’s blooming young Parliamentarian”, and said on another occasion that he would one day become prime minister.

Having already emerged as a potential leader, he was one of the founders of the BJP in 1980, He failed in 1996 to form a workable government, but became prime minister in 1998 and held power for six years (with a general election in 1999). He successfully managed a disparate coalition of 23 parties, including difficult egotistical regional politicians, displaying a sense of compromise and leadership that generated consensus.

A brilliant orator and a poet, Vajpayee was a slow speaker famous for long silences in conversations. He did not lead in an outgoing or inspirational sense. Instead he ruled with delegated authority, mainly through Brajesh Mishra, his national security adviser and principal secretary, on whom he relied to implement his wishes (Mishra is behind Vajpayee in the photo below). Part of Vajpayee’s strength was that he always seemed to know what was happening, I was once told by Arun Shourie, who was a minister in his government. “People heeded him (Mishra) because they knew he was speaking with the full backing of his boss.”

Vjpayee MishraAlthough he led a coalition, Vajpayee’s government achieved some notable advances, especially on economic reforms which far exceed what the current Modi government has done He ordered privatisation of public sector businesses including metals and telecom corporations – something Modi has not dared, or wanted, to do. He began the debate in 2000 on a general national sales tax that was eventually introduced last year, and started opening up the government-controlled insurance industry to the private sector.

He also introduced a scheme for free education for children aged six to 14, and ordered the construction of the country’s first highway network, known as the Golden Quadrilateral, linking India’s four biggest cities.

More controversially, his government staged India’s nuclear tests in 1998 that were seen at the time as an example of excessive nationalism and of a desire (which succeeded) to establish India’s status in the world.

He tried consistently to improve India’s relationship with neighbouring Pakistan, despite criticism from some Hindu hardliners – again a contrast with Modi’s erratic approach. He famously travelled by bus to the Pakistani city of Lahore in February 1999 for a summit with Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister. Three months later, Pakistani troops triggered a mini-war at Kargil in Kashmir, but withdrew when Sharif failed to garner support from either China or the US. He then tried again in March 2001 when he held talks, which failed, with President Musharraf at the Indian city of Agra.

In December 1999, an Indian airliner was hijacked by Pakistani militants and Vajpayee was criticised for allowing it to fly on to Afghanistan, after landing in the Indian city of Amritsar. .

He was also criticised for not dealing firmly in 2002 with Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, who failed to quell anti-Muslim riots in the town of Godhra, allowing some 2,000 people to be killed.

For the BJP and its hardline president, L.K.Advani, he was the acceptable face of their nationalist creed, which he allowed to percolate out into academia and other areas. Textbooks were rewritten to reflect Hindu nationalists’ views of history and patriotism, and to remove the dominant more leftist narrative of the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Such actions led to major controversies, but they were mild compared with the extreme Hindu nationalism that has built up since Modi came to power with Shah.

The image that Modi tried to portray yesterday, when he made his final prime ministerial Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, was more in the Vajpayee mould.

He mapped out the plans and achievements of a socially inclusive government that cares for the poor and brings benefits for everyone ranging from adequate food, education and health services to toilets, housing, electrification and the empowerment of women. India’s great future even included its space programme sending an Indian into orbit. Inevitably the speech was full of generalisations and excessive claims – and it avoided any mention of Modi’s sudden demonetisation of 86% of the country’s bank notes in 2015 that caused extensive economic harm and hardship but achieved little.

That contrasts with the growing fear among Muslims and other minorities at a time when an authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture is spread across India with attacks on people alleged to be eating beef or trading in cows. Freedom of expression is being curtailed and dissenting voices silenced.

Vajpayee knew how to manage such tensions before they became destructive in a way that does not seem to interest the current government and party leadership.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 26, 2018

Modi allows Rafale fighter jet price allegations to grow

Price escalation plus Anil Ambani’s involvement spurs questions

Modi did the deal without his defence minister’s knowledge

For a prime minister who has made the fight against corruption and cronyism a primary government aim, and who asserts there have been no such allegations since he was elected in 2014, it seems odd that Narendra Modi has allowed secrecy over the purchase of 36 Rafale jets from Dassault of France to become a potential political scandal.

India has become accustomed to Modi not quickly condemning – nor stepping in to curb – violence by Hindu extremists over the sacred cow and alleged beef eaters, and more recently over lynchings by cow and child abduction vigilantes.

But with Rafale, Modi has not only allowed the tempo to build up over the government insisting that the price of the deal be kept secret, but he actually laid the ground for the controversy with three moves when he visited Paris in April 2015.

Even more odd, the government is refusing to reveal the current figures for the contract, even though they were announced in 2016. The Congress Party has tabled a censure motion for misleading parliament against Modi and against defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman who made an unsatisfactory statement last week in a parliamentary confidence debate.

RafaleModi’s first move came in Paris when he unexpectedly announced that he had personally asked for 36 of Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter jets to be delivered “in fly-away condition as quickly as possible”. That replaced a $13bn order in 2012 for 126 of the jets that had become stuck in negotiations under the last Congress-led government. Even Manohar Parrikar, who was then Modi’s defence minister, did not  know Modi’s intention, though there had been prior discussions about the urgent need for some Rafales, and that the 2012 contract negotiations should be abandoned.

Secondly, he stated that the 36 would be supplied “on better terms and conditions” than those proposed for the 126 deal. They seem however to be far more expensive, hence the requests for the figures.

The third brings in apparent cronyism and makes the saga more intriguing because businessmen accompanying Modi included Anil Ambani, the younger and less successful of Mumbai’s two Ambani bothers. Ambani had absolutely no prior experience of defence manufacturing, and has had problems with heavily indebted businesses, but his newly formed Reliance Defence (based on, Pipavav, a defence company he had bought) then arranged a joint venture with Dassault to execute the deal in India.

Curiously, Ambani was in effect replacing his estranged elder brother Mukesh, whose Reliance Industries was a Dassault partner for the original 126-aircraft deal along with the government designated manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics, an Indian public sector corporation that has monopolised aircraft manufacturing.

Dassault Ambani Gadkari

Dassault CEO Eric Trappier (left), Anil Ambani, and Nitin Gadkari (right)

Like Modi, the Mumbai-based Ambanis originate from Gujarat, which is also the base for Anil Adani, whose Adani group has been picked as a partner by Saab for its Griffin fighter jet that is competing in another proposed contract. Adani, who also has no experience in aircraft manufacturing, is known to have been close to Modi for many years. His far flung infrastructure and allied industries empire has grown exponentially since the early 2000s, and especially since 2014.

Despite these seemingly crony links, none of this has turned into allegations of personal corruption against Modi. There have been no suggestions of him benefiting personally throughout his political career, though it is widely believed that businessmen made payments to the Bharatiya Janata Party when he was chief minister of Gujarat, and there are similar stories circulating in Delhi now about payments to the BJP nationally.

Memories of Bofors

The Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, however sees this as an opportunity to try to pin on Modi and the BJP the same sort of long-running corruption allegations that hit Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, when he was prime minister in the mid-1980s over a $1.4bn howitzer gun contract with Bofors of Sweden. That led to allegations of Rs64 crore (then about $50m) bribes and a scandal, which continues to haunt the Gandhis.

The primary difference however is that the Bofors story built up because it was pursued by the media and became a cause in Sweden as well as in India, just as an Augusta Westland VVIP helicopter contract scandal during the last Congress government has run for years because it was also being pursued in Italian courts.

There is no sign of the Rafale case getting a similar foundation in France, some of whose fighter and submarine contracts with India have for more than 35 years been accompanied by suggestions of corruption.

Last week, the French embassy played a straight bat during a parliamentary confidence debate after Rahul Gandhi accused Sitharaman of “speaking untruth” about the need to keep the contract price confidential under a 2008 government-to-government agreement. Gandhi said that French president Emmanuel Macron had told him he had “no issues in making the cost public”.

Rel-DasSitharaman interrupted Gandhi’s speech to reassert the confidentiality point, and a statement was issued a few hours later by the French embassy in Delhi (presumably at Sitharaman’s request), which the government (also presumably) hoped would confirm the need for secrecy under a 2008 agreement.

The statement said security issues were confidential, but did not mention whether that included the price, which it presumably did not. This indicates that it is the Indian government, not the contract terms, that is dictating the secrecy.

No price was announced for the 36 aircraft at the time of Modi’s Paris visit, but it was reported at the time, based pro rata on the expected 126 aircraft price, to be around $4.5bn.

Eventually however, when the government-to-government deal was finalised in September 2016, the price was Rs58,000 crore (then Euros 7.8bn, $8.66bn). That was a far bigger escalation than could be justified by inflation together with enhanced specifications, and the extra labour costs involved in all 36 being manufactured in France with some component supplied from India. (Under a 50% “offsets” agreement, 20% of the price is being spent by the Dassault-Ambani joint venture in India on components, along with Dassault spending 30% on aero research programmes).

Various figures

There are various versions of the two deals’ figures in circulation. Congress claims that the figure for 36 of the aircraft based on the 126 aircraft plan was Rs18,940 crore, whereas the price for Modi’s 36 is Rs60,145 crore. That is broadly in line with the Rs58,000 crore announced in September 2016 and breaches Modi’s pledge.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, the law minister, has posted on twitter a television interview where he said on that the 2016 deal was finalised at a cost of Euro 91.75m per aircraft, which was 9% less than the price quoted in 2011 – but does not tally with other figures.

The scale of Anil Ambani’s involvement has been indicated by an Indian defence website, Livefist, which in March reported that Rafale, under its “$4bn offsets plan”, had developed partnerships with at least 72 companies to contribute towards other Dassault equipment, the Rafale’s airframe, its Snecma M88 engines, radar, electronic warfare and avionics, aeronautical components, engineering and software.

A factory to produce components for assembly in France is being set up by the joint venture company, Dassault Reliance Aerospace, near the central Indian city of Nagpur, where the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s right wing umbrella organisation, is located and Nitin Gadkari, a leading government minister, is the MP. Dassault has said the factory will also produce parts for its Falcon business jets, and that it will assemble complete Rafale aircraft if there are further orders in India.

Along with other defence contracts, this is probably 60-year old Anil Ambani’s final chance to build a viable substantial business, having exited various big power and other infrastructure projects over the years, some incomplete, and sold assets to clear debts. His Reliance Communications telecom business, which he took over when he and his brother split the family group in 2005, has been beaten into the ground by a price war launched by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm.

India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) is preparing a report on the Rafale order, which will presumably include how Anil Ambani was chosen for the joint venture, but it is not expected to be published till the end of the year. That gives Rahul Gandhi and Congress plenty of time in the run-up to next year’s general election, to try to push Modi further into a Bofors-style scandal, unless of course the prime minister decides the government should reveal the figures, which surely it should.

Meanwhile the Indian Air Force continues to be seriously underequipped with only 31 squadrons of fighters instead of 42. The need for 126 fighters was first identified in 2001 and it has taken till now for the manufacture of just 36 to be about to begin. Modi was elected to reform the way India is run and he directed his Make in India campaign towards transforming defence procurement and production. It seems he has failed on all counts and has finished up instead with a potential political scandal over contract costs and alleged cronyism.

Impact reduced by a wink after he hugs Modi in parliament

Modi responds with a long list of government achievements

Mystery deepens on price of Franch Rafale jets

Rahul Gandhi made the most impressive speech of his parliamentary career during a no-confidence motion debate in the Indian parliament today (July 20), but diverted the serious impact by winking at a fellow Congress MP and laughing after he had astonished the house by breaking convention and crossing the floor to hug Narendra Modi.

He hit at key negative points in the government’s record ranging from the plight of farmers and broken promises made to them and others, to a spate of countrywide lynchings. He also criticised Modi’s handling of relations with China and alleged corruption on both a French Rafale fighter jet contract and the business activities of the son of Amit Shah, Modi’s henchman and president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

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This was a powerful condemnation of Modi’s leadership and it built up Gandhi’s reputation as a serious politician, but his theatricals (picture above and below) at the end enabled government supporters to condemn him for a “comedy show”. The BJP tweeted: “We cannot thank you enough for the entertainment!”

The impression that Gandhi created is important because he needs, at the age of 47, to be taken seriously as a politician and potential prime minister now that he has taken over from his mother Sonia as the Congress president.

No-one yet knows who will lead the opposition in the general election that is due in nine months’ time. There are attempts to unite the opposition, which comprises mostly regional parties plus the communist CPI(M), but there is no apparent leader. Gandhi has little visible support outside his own party, though he has said he would be ready to become prime minister if Congress (improbably) wins the most votes. This indicated he would not follow the lead of his mother, who passed the job to Manmohan Singh in 2004.

IMG_0976The no-confidence motion was tabled by the Telegu Desam Party (TDP), an Andhra Pradesh regional party, that recently broke away from the BJP’s coalition because the government has not delivered on an election promise to give the state special development-enhancing status. (The BJP’s second largest coalition ally, the Maharashtra-based ultra nationalist Shiv Sena, significantly did not support the government and abstained from voting).

Andhra’s development issues were lost in what eventually became a Gandhi versus Modi contest, with Modi making a long 90-minute uninspiring speech attacking the Gandhi dynasty and Congress, and listing the government’s claimed achievements.

The government won the vote by an expected large margin – 325 votes against 126 – but the opposition succeeded in staging the high profile debate, with Congress projecting Rahul Gandhi as the potential leader

Most of Gandhi’s speech, which lasted for more than an hour, was in Hindi, but he dramatically switched to English when he said that Modi and Shah could “not afford to lose power because if they did, many forces will turn against them”. They therefore acted “out of fear and that fear causes anger”. The whole of the country felt that anger as they tried “to silence every voice in India”.

This direct attack on the ethics and behaviour of the country’s two most powerful politicians echoed the view of critics who say that the BJP is running a harsh regime aimed at turning India into a primarily Hindu nation while, at the same time, refusing to criticise growing mob violence and killings.

Twenty-seven people have reportedly been killed in the past two months in lynchings linked to vigilantism whipped up by WhatsApp fake rumours, some over cow slaughter and others over suspected child abductions. Modi, said Gandhi, had failed to condemn the lynchings.

mj74qf8o_pm-modi-laughing-no-confidence-pti-650_625x300_20_July_18Criticising Modi’s record on stemming corruption, which the prime minister portrays as a major success area, Gandhi said that Modi worked for “10-20 big businessmen” and had “no place in the heart for weak people”.

In an attack at Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah, he said that “Modi’s friend’s son’s property has increased 1600 times” since the election and asked why Modi had been silent despite widespread media allegations.

He then accused Nirmala Sitharaman, the defence minister, of “speaking untruth” in parliament when she said that the terms of a contract for 36 Rafale fighter jets was confidential, so she could not reveal the price.

The deal was struck by Modi on a visit to Paris in April 2015, when his accompanying businessmen included Anil Ambani, head of one of India’s two Reliance groups, who has a stake in defence manufacturing and stands to benefit from the deal. Congress alleges that the contract, which was finalised on a government-to-government basis without open tendering, was corrupt and it wants the price revealed. Gandhi said that French president Emmanuel Macron had told him he had “no issues in making the cost public”.

Secrecy on Rafale deal

Sitharaman then made a statement in parliament during Gandhi’s speech and produced documents that she said proved the need for secrecy. The allegation had clearly rattled the government because, presumably at Sitharaman’s request, the French embassy in Delhi later issued a statement saying the two countries were bound to “protect the classified information….that could impact security and operational capabilities of the defence equipment”. That statement however did not seem to include the price of the aircraft.

Returning at the end of his speech to Modi’s style and Hindu nationalism, Gandhi said, “You can abuse me, you can call me Pappu (dumb kid), but I don’t have a speck of hatred against you. I will take out this hatred out of you and turn it into love. I am the Congress…. to be a Hindustani, to be a Hindu, means to love somebody even if they attack you.”

He then walked quickly across and embraced Modi, who is known for bear-hugging other country’s leaders. Initially visibly startled, Modi then caught Gandhi’s sleeve as he walked away and spoke to him, patting his back.

Gandhi had successfully made his point, and maybe had indicated that Congress’s main plank for the coming general election will be that India and Hinduism means love not hate.

He spoilt the moment when, back in his seat, the television cameras caught him winking and laughing with Jyotiraditya Scindia, a friendly ally and adviser who was sitting next to him as he always does in parliament.

What could have been a significant and maybe even impromptu moment looked like a pre-planned hug-and-wink stunt.

Modi dismissed it, joking that it was an attempt to get him out of his prime ministerial seat so that Rahul could move in and invited him to try again in 2024.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 4, 2018

Supreme Court backs AAP’s right to govern in Delhi

BJP in effect told to end harassment of the AAP government

AAP now has a better chance to show it can govern well 

One of the potentially most significant experiments in Indian politics for decades was given a new lease of life today (July 4) when the country’s supreme court ruled that Narendra Modi’s national government should not interfere with, and attempt to undermine, the elected Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi.

Since February 2015 when the fledgling AAP (common man party) won an overwhelming state-level election victory in Delhi with 67 of the assembly’s 70 seats, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has worked through the capital’s lieutenant governor to block many key initiatives and decisions.

kejriwal-residence_7f0a4da4-2cfa-11e8-a5fc-524b5b61153fThe Supreme Court today has ruled that, while the central government is responsible as it has always been through the lieutenant governor for land, law and order and the police, the elected government has the power in all other areas. The chief justice said that the lieutenant governor does not have independent decision-making powers and, while the government should consult him on decisions in other areas, he cannot interfere.

It now remains to be seen how much the central government continues to obstruct. BJP spokesmen have tried to dismiss the judgement as dealing with narrow legal issues, and a senior law officer said that “nothing has changed”. The lieutenant governor could still disagree with the elected government “for good reasons” and ask India’s president (which means the government) to take a call before a decision was implemented.

The AAP’s election in 2015 stemmed from the same frustration with the way that the country was being run that had led to Modi’s BJP sweeping general election victory in May 2014. The BJP expected therefore to win in Delhi, but it got just three assembly seats while the Congress Party, which had ruled for 15 years till 2013, won none.

This was a major political embarrassment for Modi eight months after he became prime minister and both the BJP and Congress were concerned about the AAP’s ambitions to field candidates in other states (which have not led to much success).

Modi then set about undermining the AAP’s reputation through the lieutenant governor, currently Anil Baijal (below), a former central government official, who reports officially to India’s home ministry.

Political experiment

The emergence of the AAP has been a significant political experiment because it is a rare example of a new style of party. It was born out of a country-wide anti-corruption movement in 2012, and it promised a different form of government that would be less corrupt and more attuned to voters’ needs than the BJP and Congress.

Led by Arvind Kejriwal (above), a former tax official and leading anti-corruption campaigner, the party held power briefly as a minority Delhi government in 2013-14. Failing to establish a workable administration, the party’s instinctive reaction was to protest and stage demonstrations, which it continued to do even when it won its big 2015 victory.

Anil_Baijal_PTILast month Kejriwal and other ministers occupied a waiting room in the lieutenant governor’s house and refused to leave for nine days as a protest against what they dubbed a strike by uncooperative bureaucracy. “It is obvious that your only intention is to paralyse the elected government of Delhi,” Kejriwal told Modi in a letter as the sit-in ended.

The problems stem from Delhi being a special sort of state with less power than India’s 29 states, but with a chief minister and a bigger legislative role than most other union territories. The powers have varied over the years, and Delhi governments regularly demand full statehood, which the central governments resist because, as in other countries, they want to have some control over how the capital city functions and is developed.

The BJP won a constitutional victory in August 2016 when the Delhi High Court ruled that all government decisions had to be approved by the lieutenant governor, who was not bound to act on the government’s advice. The freedom for the Delhi government’s anti-crime branch (ACB) to investigate central government officials working for it was also curtailed.

When the supreme court heard the case last November, the BJP’s government lawyers argued that there was nothing undemocratic about the central government and the president exercising complete executive power over the national capital through the lieutenant-governor, and that the “real power ” was vested with the president and the Union of India.

Today’s supreme court decision overturns the Delhi High Court ruling and rejects the central government’s arguments.

Chief justice Dipak Misra said in his written judgement that the lieutenant governor had no independent or executive power, and was bound by the aid and advice of the Delhi council of ministers. He could not work independently, nor be “obstructionist” but should “work harmoniously” with the government. With a dig at both the lieutenant government and the AAP, he added that there was “no room for absolutism or anarchy”.

Misra was presiding over a panel of five judges. One of the other four said that “nations fail when democratic institutions fail” and that a “society like India’s – one with a diverse culture – requires dialogue”.

The conventional view among Delhi’s middle class is that Kejriwal has lost sight of his original aims to introduce a new form of clean and efficient government and has been behaving irresponsibly, though he still has support among the poor. The Congress Party, which has held power in the past, is as critical as the BJP of the AAP because it fears an interloper in the former two-party system.

The AAP did badly last year in municipal elections when it won only 46 out of 270 seats with the BJP winning 184, and it now needs to prove, especially to the poor, that it can provide continuity as an effective government.

AAP success in scopes and health

It has made significant improvements in the city’s health and education facilities, especially schools where it has expanded state schools and curbed overcharging by private establishments.

It claims it has been blocked in areas such as providing education loans and expanding mohalla (neighbourhood) free health clinics for the poor, introducing home delivery of rations, strengthening measures to tackle chronic pollution, and introducing solar energy developments and anti-corruption governance measures.

It will now try to go ahead with these and other measures. Whether Modi allows that to happen, or continues to tell the lieutenant government to interfere, will be a measure of whether the prime minister can rise above party politics for the good of the capital city.

Saffronart celebrate its 200th auction

Top Delhi collector pays 15 x estimate for sensual figure at Christie’s

Saffronart, India’s leading on-line auction house, today beat Christie’s, the traditional market leader, with a two day auction of South Asia modern and contemporary art that yielded sales of $11.38m (Rs75.14 crore) – well over double the £4.53m ($6.07m) achieved by Christie’s earlier this week at its London live auction on June 12. Saffronart’s total included a new world record auction price of $3.998m for a work by Tyeb Mehta, one of India’s top selling artists.

IMG_0499crpdBut Christie’s produced the surprise result of the week with an astonishing hammer price of £450,000 – 15 times the £25,000-35,000 estimate – for Abhiman (Wounded Vanity), a sensual female figure (left) by Hemendranath Mazumdar (1894-1948), whose works were often bought by India’s old maharajas in the last century.

Believed to have been bought by Kiran Nadar, India’s leading collector who has a large art museum in Delhi, the 32in x 16in oil on canvas fetched a total price of £548,750 ($732,000) including buyer’s premium. That was five to ten times the prices that have been paid for similar works by the artist in other Christie’s auctions, and was inevitably a personal world record.

There is strong competition between the four or five main auction houses for South Asian art sales at a time when the top collectors are only interested in an artist’s best works and when it is becoming increasingly difficult to find lots of sufficient quality.

In sales three months ago, Mumbai-based Asta Guru, the most recent entry into the market, beat other Indian and international auction houses with a two-day on-line sale that yielded a total of Rs89.16 crore ($13.93m). Christie’s achieved $10.29m in New York and Saffronart came third with a Rs27.64 crore ($4.32m) live Mumbai auction.

The Christie’s South Asian modern art sale started amazingly well but later showed signs of auction fatigue for some of the most famous mid-late 20th century “moderns” such as Syed Haider Raza, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, and Maqbool Fida Husain, who failed to shine while older artists from the classical Bengal school did extremely well.

Saffronart Lot_65

A 29.5in x 21.5in untitled oil on canvas by Ravi Ravi Varma (1848-1906) sold for $545,455
(Rs3.60 crore) in the Saffronart auction – owned by a Delhi collector, it cannot be exported

Kiran Nadar (it is assumed) won the Mazumdar after just a few minutes of dramatic bidding that began at £24,000 and immediately jumped to £40,000. With just her and another bidder (possibly from the UAE) contesting by telephone, it then rose quickly through the hundred thousands and then in £30,000 jumps to the final figure that was made on the phone to Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s international department head.

Observers said that Nadar had not expected such competition and tried to explain the price by pointing to extremely fine detailed work, some in gold, on the woman’s bracelet and sari, and flowers in her hand and on the floor. Several people at the auction preview talked about how there were many similar portraits in Delhi and elsewhere by the highly productive artist.

Basically though, it was a case of two determined bidders pushing up a price till one of them backed off. If only one of them had bid, the work would have probably gone for little more than £40,000.

That was the sixth lot in the Christie’s sale. The first three lots had also done well, albeit at lower levels. All by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), they went at several times the estimates. These works are regarded as non-exportable national art treasures in India (like the Ravi Ravi Varma above left) so realise a premium when sold abroad.

By contrast, the moderns by members of Mumbai’s Progressives group of artists that began in the 1950s did poorly. They usually dominate auction headlines but two by Raza and one by Husain failed to sell.

Lot_22The hammer price for a medium sized 39in x 30in saffron coloured oil on canvas (left) by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), which was on the front cover of the auction catalogue, did not even reach the low estimate and sold after just a couple of desultory bids for £850,000 (£1.3m including buyer’s premium).

Perhaps the most disappointing result was the £700,000 (£848,750 with the premium) achieved by a gigantic 10ft x 10ft red, black and white acrylic on canvas of a falling figure by Tyeb Mehta, one of the best selling Progressives (see image at the bottom of this article). That was far below the £1.2m – £1.8m estimate.

Too large for many private buyers to contemplate, the work has a memorable history. It was painted by Mehta in 1992 as the central backdrop for an Artists against Communalism sit-in at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park at a time when the city was being submerged by communal riots.

“Tyeb Mehta got up from a very sick-bed, against his doctor’s orders, and painted the outstanding blow-up of his traffic leitmotif ‘falling figure’ for the extensive back-drop of the stage,” the Economic Times reported at the time.

“The red that he uses is equally the colour of love, and of blood”, said Hugo Weihe in 2012 when he was Christie’s international director of Asian art, just before he auctioned the work in New York for $722,500. “This was the obsessive theme that moved him—human suffering—and it was a painting that was incredibly important to him. It represents what was at his core”.

Saffronart Lot_33Offsetting that low result for what most buyers would see as an iconic but difficult work, was the record price achieved by the Saffronart auction for Tyeb Mehta’s 67in x 54in oil on canvas. Depicting Kali (left), the often-violent goddess who represents the ultimate triumph of good over evil, it is one of only three works that Mehta did on this subject.

It was originally owned by Ebrahim Alkazi, one of India’s most famous and expert collectors, and was sold by Saffronart for Rs5.72 crore, then a record price, in June 2007.

The bidding on this work – trackable because Saffronart’s website shows bids as they are made – was by two proxy potential buyers who, by 6pm (Delhi time) on the first day, had pushed the bids to Rs20.46 crore ($3.1m). That was more in dollars than the hammer price of £2.3m ($2.9m) which produced Mehta’s existing record auction price of £2.74m ($3.56m, Rs19 crore) including buyer’s premium in May last year at Christie’s in London.

So a record had already been made, but after that there was no more activity till a few minutes before the lot closed. Two bids then brought the price to a record of $3.998m (Rs26.38 crore) including buyers premium.

Its success helped 18-year old Saffronart celebrate its 200th auction with strong results, including good sales for the moderns that had been slow at Christie’s – the competition continues.

2577_333_mehta_falling-figure1

India’s former president goes to RSS headquarters

“We derive our strength from tolerance” says Pranab Mukherjee

India’s former president Pranab Mukherjee today went to the heart of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s political and social movement and appealed for an end to the divisive policies being pursued by the BJP’s prime minister Narendra Modi and the party president Amit Shah.

“Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogma and identities or religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our identity,” Mukherjee told a youth audience at the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right wing umbrella organisation that has direct influence on government policy and embraces the fiercely Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organisations), that includes the BJP. (The full text is here)

“In India, we derive our strength from tolerance, and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity,” he said.  “I am here to share my understanding on nation, nationalism and patriotism about our country”

IMG_3822

Pranab Mukherjee (right) stands alongside Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, while the RSS trainees march and Bhagwat does the traditional RSS salute

Visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, central India, was a highly controversial move by the 82-year old politician, who held senior ministerial posts spanning four decades and who was defying the current Congress party leadership that had appealed to him to cancel his visit.

Even his daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee, a Congress activist, went on Twitter to warn him that his speech would “be forgotten”, but that pictures of him with RSS leaders would “be circulated with fake statements” to legitimise the organisation and plant rumours and false stories.

“India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one enemy. It is the ‘perennial universalism’ of 1.3 billion people,” Pranab Mukherjee said, attacking the very basis of the Modi and Shah approach, which is widely believed to be to craft India into a Hindu-centric uniform society where Muslims and other minorities are tolerated but not regarded as equals.

“Every day, we see increased violence around us. At the heart of this violence is darkness, fear, and mistrust. We must free our public discourse from all forms of violence, physical as well as verbal. Only a non-violent society can ensure the participation of all sections of people in the democratic process, especially the marginalized and the dispossessed. We must move from anger, violence, and conflict to peace, harmony, and happiness”.

bhagwat-pranab meet Nov '15

Pranab Mukherjee as India’s president welcoming Mohan Bhagwat to the presidential palace

He began by talking about the durability of India’s ancient culture which will have pleased his RSS hosts. “Throughout….2,500 years of changing political fortunes and conquests, the 5,000 year old civilizational continuity has remained unbroken. In fact, each conqueror and each foreign element had been absorbed to form a new synthesis and unity,” he said.

“It is the confluence and assimilation of all these cultures that makes us unique. It is important to remember that the confluence of cultures do not mean extinction of another. Our nation is neither bound by religion nor race. In fact our Bharat is made up of its diversity”.

“Our national identity has emerged through a long drawn process of confluence, assimilation, and co-existence. The multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special. We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. These have been a part of our collective consciousness for centuries”.

Congress supporters and other opponents of the BJP believe that the RSS should be shunned and condemned because it is the driving force behind the nationalist party’s Hindu dogma and provides it with its grass-roots strength.

Mukherjee was challenging that view and arguing that India has become riven and polarised with so much violence and discord since Modi’s government was elected in 2014 that there is a need for the RSS, as the BJP’s mother organisation, to be drawn into a national dialogue.

Critics will argue that this is a naive view, that neither the RSS nor the BJP will heed Mukherjee’s words, and that all he has done with his aura of a former president is to give the RSS a national legitimacy that it should never have.

His speech may also have had only a limited impact on his young audience who were attending a big parade at the end of a three-year training camp. Many of them would not have fully understood his speech, which was in English because he is not fluent in Hindi that is rigidly used by RSS and BJP leaders.

There have however been reports that the RSS fears the extreme authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture being driven by Modi and Shah is so divisive that it is weakening the BJP’s chances of being returned to power in a general election due within the next eleven months. It may have therefore suited the RSS to host Mukherjee and show that it is not averse to some of what he said.

Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief who invited Mukherjee, said in a long opening speech that “everybody has the right to have a political opinion but there is a limit to have opposing opinion”.

IMG_3826

Pranab Mukherjee on the stage with RSS leaders while an RSS choir sings

Mukherjee’s motives in making the visit are harder to divine. He may have simply wanted to start a national dialogue and may even see a possible political mediating role for himself in the future.

He went despite widespread criticism, including public remarks by two Congress leaders close to Sonia Gandhi, the party’s former president. Ahmed Patel, Gandhi’s closest political adviser, tweeted in response to Mukherjee’s daughter that he  “did not expect this from Pranab da(brother)!”

Anand Sharma, a former Congress minister and family loyalist, tweeted that “dialogue can only be with those who are willing to listen, absorb and change”, adding “there is nothing to suggest that RSS has moved away from his core agenda as it seeks legitimacy”.

Mukherjee has not been trusted by the Gandhi family since 1984 when prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and he (then the finance minister) hoped to become prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi took that job and immediately dismissed him from the finance post. Mukherjee formed his own party but then re-united with Congress.

In 2004 when Congress won the general election under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, he was the logical choice to take the prime ministerial post but she chose Manmohan Singh, who she trusted.

Mukherjee then held influential posts as foreign, defence and finance minister, though he did considerable harm to the economy in the latter job with taxation and other policies.

Eventually Gandhi agreed that Congress should back him as India’s president in 2012, a post which he carried out with dignity and effectiveness till last year.

The Congress Party softened its opposition after the speech. Anand Sharma said that “there was never any doubt of Pranab Mukherjee’s ability to articulate and his conviction, but for dialogue the other side must listen and change – hope RSS does it”.

That of course is for the future. Today, the main point is that, by going to the RSS den, Mukherjee has drawn attention to the seriousness of India’s current drift into a polarised and often violent society.

Strong list of schemes with varying rates of success

Archbishop sets the tone for criticisms

The Catholic archbishop of Delhi spoke for many of India’s minorities as well as a broad spectrum of liberal opinion earlier this month when he controversially asked priests to lead a prayer and fasting campaign ahead of next year’s general election. The aim was to save India from the “turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation”.

Delhi archbishopAs Narendra Modi’s government approached the completion this weekend of four years in power, the message was clearly against the re-election of his Bharatiya Janata Party.

It was underlined by a more senior Catholic church figure, Cardinal Oswal Gracias of Mumbai, who criticised the Delhi Archbishop (right) Anil Couto’s timing, but said there was “growing anxiety” among minority communities “because the government is not acting enough” to protect them.

This minorities point is perhaps the most significant criticism of Modi’s four years in power.

One can argue about how far his numerous foreign forays and myriad of high profile domestic economic and other schemes and announcements have led to real achievements, and whether he has or has not begun to tackle India’s job creation crisis.

Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, has given one view with a report card that awarded Modi an ‘A+’ grade for slogan creation and self-promotion, but an ‘F’ for agriculture, foreign policy, fuel prices, and job creation. His overall verdict was “Master communicator; struggles with complex issues; short attention span”.

That was ironic because Gandhi has till recently had the shortest attention span of any top political leader – and people I have spoken to who have attended meetings with Modi are impressed by the length of time that he listens and focuses.

What cannot be refuted however is that Modi has condoned, or at least has allowed, a deterioration in the social fabric of the country that has been engineered by more extreme elements in the fiercely Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organisations), which embraces the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right wing umbrella organisation that has direct influence on government policy.

modi_function_7591At the same time, Modi (left) has led a presidential-style attempt to centralise power and control the judiciary, civil service and media, while encouraging a weakening of the institutions that are essential for India’s noisy and turbulent but open democracy to continue to run the country.

Examples include the undermining of the revered Election Commission during the Gujarat state election last November, and the encouragement of bribing to swing the result of Karnataka’s state election earlier this month. His approach has been so authoritarian that a well-designed identity card scheme called Aadhaar that was introduced by the last Congress government has been seen as an instrument of state control.

The overall aim is widely seen to be the imposition of an authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture across India to replace the long accepted diversity of religions, languages and life-styles with intolerance and even violence against minority communities and dissenters.

That leads to Muslims being seen as an over-cosseted minority that needs to adapt to a new reality in which, to quote one staunch BJP supporter, they are regarded as “aliens”. They have been harassed, and beef-eaters have been attacked and even killed by vigilante enforcement gangs that cause communal unrest and extort bribes from those they target. In Uttar Pradesh, where such events have been most prevalent and a prominent Hindu priest has been made chief minister, there were police crack-downs last year both on slaughterhouses (mostly run by Muslims) and on the freedom of young people to meet in public.

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech and expression has been curtailed and there have even been killings of anti-Hindutva rationalists and independent journalists. Hindu nationalist activists have been appointed to many academic, educational and cultural institutions and other organisations so that current and future generations are imbued with the doctrine. Recently, there was a proposal to delay the posting of young bureaucrat recruits till after they had been assessed during an induction course, which would enable those who support the BJP and RSS ideology to be picked for the most influential ministries and other public service organisations.

The treatment of women has worsened and the official tolerance of rape, often with Muslims as the victims, has increased. Following the rape last month of an 8 year old Muslim child by men associated with the BJP in a Hindu temple in Kashmir, 49 top retired police and government officials bureaucrats wrote to Modi saying that the “bestiality and the barbarity” of the crime reflected “the depths of depravity” into which India had sunk. “In post-independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble”.

The broad trend began to emerge in the first few months of Modi’s government in 2014 when a minister implied that everyone apart from Hindus was born illegitimately. There were mass conversions of Christians and others to Hinduism, and a government minister turned the December 25 traditional Christmas religious and public holiday into a working day for many bureaucrats.

Modi and his hard-line ally Amit Shah, the BJP president, cannot be personally accused of ordering such excesses, and many members of his cabinet are appalled by the authoritarian and violent trends. This is however what happens when extreme elements feel free to indulge in excesses because their government is in power, which means that Modi and Shah can be blamed for not restraining their followers.

Modi was not elected to introduce such a society. He won a landslide result in the 2014 election by appealing to the frustrated aspirational young who wanted him to change the way that India had been run for most of the years since independence by the Gandhi dynasty’s Congress Party.

Sonia-and-Rahul-Gandhi-1024x751The young wanted job opportunities and the poor wanted to move on from Congress’s sops and corrupt aid schemes that were targeted by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (left) more at enshrining poverty and sustaining the status quo than generating change and personal advancement for the 50% of the population who are under-educated, under-nourished and have poor (if any) public health facilities.

The question now is whether Modi’s government has done enough on the broad economic front to have a plausible general election platform, and to win, despite promoting increasingly intolerant and authoritarian Hindu nationalism. Much will of course depend on whether the opposition, comprising the fading Congress and Communist parties plus regional parties, manage to sustain a new unity they forged to unseat the BJP after the recent Karnataka state election.

From a longer term perspective, the key question is whether the future of India and its 1.3bn people spread across 26 states and as many languages and dialects, with a variety of religions, is to be a Hindu-centric authoritarian and often intolerant country. Or can Congress and the other parties carve out an alternative vision of a more relaxed and all-inclusive government that drives change – which has begun to happen in the past four years.

150 schemes

The government has announced about 150 schemes and slogans (according to a list in the Mint business newspaper), often revamping existing plans with new branding and apparent energy. Often there have been high profile launches that are inadequately followed-through, giving the impression that Modi has not been able to adapt the administrative style that won him praise as chief minister of Gujarat and develop as prime minister into a national leader rather than a ruler of ministers and bureaucrats.

If even only a few of these schemes were successful, Modi would justifiably be able to claim that he had begun to change the way that India is run. But he spoils his case with exaggerated claims about what has been achieved, and by ordering officials to generate evidence that over-state statistics.

A report published a few days ago from the rural Madhya Pradesh district of Mandla on the Scroll.in news website illustrates the intrigues and mismanagement that go into manufacturing statistics, and how tribal villagers in particular are frustrated and angry about what they see going on around them. “Incomplete houses, broken toilets, Adivasis (tribal people) anger in one district of Madhya Pradesh,” reads the headline.

‘Cultural aggression’

The report also point to the regime’s determination to spread Hinduism. “The BJP has ruled Madhya Pradesh for 15 years, but Modi’s ascendance has accelerated the Sangh Parivar’s cultural agenda,” said a tribal student leader. “The Congress looted us. But the BJP is worse, it is carrying out cultural aggression…they want to make us Hindus.”

In 2015, Modi promised country-wide electrification within 1,000 days – roughly by the end of this year. Last month he announced that all villages had been electrified, but that only means that 10% of local households have a connection along with some community buildings. It ignores the fact that many villages cover wide areas, parts of which will not have electricity. The government admits that 14% of households still need to be connected and the real figure is almost certainly far higher.

On Swachh Bharat (Clean India Movement), which aims to install toilets in all households and end widespread open air defecation, official figures show that 72.6m household toilets have been built in rural areas since 2014 making 366,000 villages “defecation-free”, though 95m households still do not have toilets. There are however many many local reports of toilets not being used and not being properly equipped, and there has been no independent verification of the figures. Last year the government claimed that the number of people defecating in the open had dropped from 550m to 320m which, if true, is significant in a country where 100,000 children die each year from diarrhoea related diseases.

One of the highest profile campaigns is Make in India, which has become an internationally recognised brand name but has failed to create the manufacturing jobs for which it was designed, despite a substantial increase in foreign direct investment. Its most serious and visible failing is in defence procurement and production were Modi has failed to implement existing policies to switch to domestic manufacturing and cut the total of more than 60% of purchases that come from abroad.

The same story of unrealistic launch claims and exaggerated reports of achievements extends to other schemes including the Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts campaign where the number of accounts has reportedly jumped from 125m in January 2015 to 316m this month, though there are doubts about how many are actively used.

Steady growth

On the economy, which is growing at a steady but unremarkable figure of just over 7%, the two most potentially promising but controversial and badly implemented policies have been the demonetisation of 86% of bank notes in November 2016 and the introduction of a long-awaited general sales tax (GST) last year. In the longer term the GST will yield dividends, further expanding the number of taxpayers that has risen significantly. Other positive moves have included a new bankruptcy code and an attack on banks’ non-performing assets.

Highway construction is one of the government’s biggest achievements, driven by Nitin Gadkari, the road transport and shipping minister, who is close to the RSS and is rumoured as a possible successor to Modi should the prime minister fail at the general election. Construction of national highways hit a record of about 10,000km in 2017-18, or 28km a day, up from 8,231 km in 2016-17. The target this year is constructing 40km a day.

On corruption, which demonetisation was intended but failed to address, enough has not been done. Modi claims his government is corruption free, which it is not, judging by reports I have heard – and of course, all political parties need to raise funds.

Corruption

The government is enormously cleaner than the corruption-ridden 2009-2014 Congress administration, but that was not hard to achieve and does not mean it is corruption free. Improvements among top ministers and bureaucrats in the central government do not run far down through the system, nor do they impact state governments which have a mixed record. The encouragement of bribing after the Karnataka election shows that the ambition to form BJP governments is more important than stopping corruption.

Corruption is far too deep-seated to be tackled quickly as has been illustrated by a sting reported a few days ago on Cobrapost.com about top newspaper owners, including the Jain family that heads the Times of India group, discussing biased pro-Hindutva coverage in exchange for large payments.

On foreign policy, a senior retired diplomat has told me that “Narendra Modi has a sense of the manifest destiny of India in the world” as it moves up the league of top countries by population and the size of the economy. That is the positive spin on Modi’s series of flashy excursions around the world, wooing both foreign leaders and the Indian diaspora, and announcing many billions of joint projects and investments.

Modi has undoubtedly raised the country’s international profile and strengthened its relations with countries ranging from the US and Australia to Japan and Vietnam, while boosting its involvement in international organisations that include the London-based Commonwealth.

Junior neighbour

With China, India remains, perhaps inevitably, the junior neighbour that always reacts and can rarely take the initiative. With its other immediate neighbours, Modi has run what many critics see as an erratic policy with Pakistan that has worsened rather than improved relations, while China has been able to increase its influence in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Yet despite the shortcomings, and the concern over the general Hindutva direction of the government, Modi has begun the job of making India function better, and he remains the most popular potential leader for the future, with 72% favouring him if the general election was held today according to the latest opinion poll.

India will never change quickly whoever is in charge. But there is always room for optimism about the future, as the Delhi archbishop showed in the prayer that he urged his priests to recite:

“Let the poor of our country be provided with the means of livelihood. Let the tribals, Dalits and marginalised be brought into the mainstream of nation building. Protect our legislature as a place of discerning minds; raise our judiciary as the hallmark of integrity, prudence, and justice. Keep our print, visual and social media as the channels of truth for edifying discourse. Protect our institutions from the infiltrations of the evil forces.”

BJP loses bid for power after Supreme Court intervenes

Congress-JDS coalition to be sworn in on 23rd 

The credibility of prime minister Narendra Modi’s much vaunted campaign to end corruption in India has been seriously undermined by his Bharatiya Janata Party’s bid last week to buy the loyalty of members of the Karnataka state assembly with large sums of cash and offers of ministerial jobs – a bid that failed ignominiously on May 19 when B.S.Yeddyurappa, the BJP chief minister, resigned having failed to bribe his targets.

A coalition of Congress and the regional Janata Dal (Secular) will (unless there is another mishap) be sworn in on May 23. This follows days of dramatic developments since the assembly election on May 11 when the BJP won 104 seats against 114 for an unexpected coalition of the Congress Party and regional Janata Dal (Secular).

The state governor, a BJP loyalist, gave the party 15 days to build a majority, but Congress appealed to the supreme court, which cut it to two days. That was insufficient, so Yeddyurappa dramatically stepped down at the end of a speech (below) in the state assembly before a vote could be taken – having indicated that he had been following the orders of Modi and Amit Shah, the tough party president.

Floor Test for BJP government

The Congress-JDS link-up is a marriage of convenience and may break up because of tensions and jealousies but, even if that does happen, this is Modi’s biggest setback since the BJP lost polls for Delhi’s legislative assembly soon after the general election in 2014.

It also marks a resurgence of energy and determination in the Congress Party, which has let the BJP push it aside in other recent state elections.

Anti-BJP leaders from other states encouraged the Congress-JDS to work together, and the result has strengthened the will of opposition parties to combine in a possible joint assault on the BJP, which no longer looks as invincible as it has done ahead of next year’s general election.

Rahul Gandhi, the dynastic president of the Congress Party, said that it was a “blatant lie” that Modi was fighting corruption. “He is corruption,” he declared on May 19. Prakash Karat, a top communist party (CPIM) leader, said the “BJP has murdered democracy in Karnataka”.

Karnataka assembly bldg

The Karnataka assembly building in Bengaluru (Bangalore)

There is of course no proof that the BJP tried with money and job offers to bribe Congress and JDS members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) to change sides. The only possible evidence comes from tapes released by Congress of alleged conversations that Yeddyurappa, along with other BJP leaders and supporters (including a mining industry tycoon convicted of corruption), had with a Congress MLA. Some have been rejected as fakes but one says “come back and we’ll make you a minister and help in any way you want” and “we’ll get you 10 to 15”, which presumably meant 10 to 15 cores of rupees – Rs100m to Rs150m or $1.5m to $2.3m.

There is nothing unusual in this – bribing MLAs to change sides frequently happens in Indian politics, and the figures are always large. The significance of the last few days is the blatant way that the BJP insisted to the governor that it could win, knowing that it could only do so by bribing other parties’ MLAs, and then pleaded in the supreme court for more time to be able to do so.

V ValaAlso significant is the determination with which the till recently ineffectual Congress and the JDS corralled their MLAs and bussed them to luxury resorts so that they could not be seduced by the BJP and its emissaries.

It is not unusual for a central government to build support in the states by appointing supporters as governors to ensure they get favourable treatment, especially when election results are not clear-cut.

In this case however the governor, Vajubhai Vala (above), a loyalist who vacated his BJP parliamentary seat in Gujarat for Modi in 2001, went to extremes by inviting the BJP to form the government, knowing they would have to buy MLAs, and then by giving it an excessive amount of time – 15 days – to do so.

Both the bribing and the behaviour of the governor illustrate the arrogance with which Amit Shah approaches his job and, supported by Modi, has in the past won.

The BJP of course is not alone in its acceptance of corruption and criminality. In Karnataka, the BJP has 42 (41%) MLAs with criminal backgrounds, while the Congress has 23 out of 78 and the JDS has 11 out 37, according to an analysis by Karnataka Election Watch and Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). As many as 54 have had serious criminal cases such as murder and attempt to murder.

They were also far from poor. Some 215 MLAs declared assets of Rs 1 crore ($154,000) or more, and 50% declared Rs10 crore ($1.5m) or more, with three of the richest belonging to Congress. They could not have amassed such wealth legally unless they were in big business, which most undoubtedly were not.

Fourth anniversary

The fourth anniversary of Modi’s swearing-in as prime minister is next Saturday May 26 and, as usual, he and his ministers will no doubt manage this week to extoll through a largely pliant media what they claim to have achieved.

But it will be less plausible than in the past because the BJP’s ethically and democratically negative tactics in Karnataka cap growing criticism of both the government’s achievements and of the poor human rights and attacks on freedom of expression that have grown under the party’s Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) rule.

PM-Modi-in-Nepal

Narendra Modi in Nepal while Karnataka voted

Modi personally remains popular, and the BJP did win the most seats than Congress in Karnataka – it would have been seen as a BJP and Modi triumph if they has won just a few more.

So it is far too early to predict the result of the general election. The BJP will no doubt recover its elan and there is as yet no coherent unified opposition and no credible alternative government – and Rahul Gandhi is not accepted as a viable national leader by other opposition parties or the electorate.

Modi and Shah will now look for new ways to win votes. For them personally, a victory next year is essential because, if the BJP loses, their positions will be vulnerable and they will risk being ousted by their many critics in the party who do not like their arrogant and strong arm tactics. There are even rumours already of mutterings against Shah, asking whether he should remain as party president for the two key state elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that precede the general election.

The immediate point however is that Modi was elected to clean up the way that India is run, and he said he would stamp out corruption. Instead of doing so, he and Shah have in the past week not only been condoning it but have encouraged it – and they lost because the supreme court over-ruled their crony governor.

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