New ministers – railways, defence, commerce, rivers, power, housing

Narendra Modi has today carried out his most significant government reshuffle since becoming India’s prime minister three years ago with ministerial moves that strengthen three top posts while at the same time balancing the political interests of different states and illustrating the limited talent available at senior levels.

The headline-grabbing appointment is that of Nirmala Sitharaman, 58, who has been a low-key commerce and industry minister of state since 2014, to be India’s first full-time woman defence minister – the post was held twice by Indira Gandhi when she was prime minister in 1975 and the early 1980s.

Reshuffle Sept 3 '17

Ministers at the Swearing In Ceremony by India’s president

Some observers thought Sitharaman might be dropped from the government, but instead she was promoted to the cabinet and then announced as defence minister, which makes her a member of the top-level cabinet committee on security. She succeeds Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, who has been looking after defence since March when Manohar Parrikar, the previous minister, resigned to become chief minister of Goa.

The three appointments that should strengthen the government include Piyush Goyal, 53, who has been a successful power and renewable energy minister, to be railways minister, succeeding Suresh Prabhu, 64, who replaces Sitharaman at commerce and industry.

Goyal, who keeps responsibility for coal (which depends on the railways for transport), will probably prove to be tougher than Prabhu in tackling the entrenched railways establishment. Prabhu offered to resign two weeks ago after a spate of railway accidents and will bring a new policy approach to commerce and industry. The third appointment is Nitin Gadkari, 60, who has added water resources and reviving the River Ganga to his highways and shipping portfolio.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet

Narendra Modi at the Swearing In

The relatively limited talent pool hat Modi can call on to fill senior ministers’ jobs is illustrated by the appointment of four senior public officials without any political experience to be ministers of state, three of them with independent charge reporting direct to the prime minister. They all became active Bharatiya Janata Party members after retiring from public service and have been chosen because of their administrative ability and experience, not necessarily because of their past specialties.

This is graphically illustrated by Hardeep Singh Puri, 65, a former top diplomat known for his tough style, who retired as ambassador to the United Nations. He has become housing and urban development minister and will be tackling – on a steep learning curve – an acute shortage of viable homes and uncontrolled expansion of towns and cities.

A former home secretary, Raj Kumar Singh, 64, succeeds Goyal as minister for power and renewable energy and will be continuing his reforms, while a former Delhi Development Authority commissioner, Alphons Kannanthanam, 64, known as “demolition man” after clearing 15,000 illegal structures, is becoming minister of state for tourism, electronics and information technology. Satya Pal Singh, 61, previously a Mumbai police commissioner famed as a “top crime buster cop” has gone to the human resources and water resources ministries.


Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal

These moves come a few days after doubt has been cast on the success of one of Modi’s most high profile and dramatic initiatives – the sudden demonetisation of 86% of the country’s bank notes last November. The Reserve Bank of India has reported that 99% of the cancelled high value bank notes were deposited in banks. This undermines government claims that a third of the high value notes would be removed from the economy because holders of black money would not dare to try to bank them.

Economic growth has fallen to 5.7%, which is more than 2% below the figure a year ago and the lowest since 2014. It was hit by demonetisation and has also been affected by the introduction in July of a long-awaited goods and services tax which, while a much-needed reform, is far more complex and difficult to implement that was originally intended.

Such results sometimes lead to speculation that Arun Jaitley, who was responsible for demonetisation and the new sales tax, would be moved, but he remains at the finance ministry and is the most senior cabinet minister, sharing influence as a Modi adviser with Amit Shah, the party president.

The reshuffle was triggered by Prabhu offering to resign and being told by Modi “to wait” after three passenger trains derailed in the past two weeks, two of them in the space of just five days killing at least 20 passengers and injuring more than 200.

All were clearly failures of railways management – on one there was no warning of rail track works, while another happened when a truck overturned on the tracks. Since 2012, 60% of rail accidents have been caused by mistakes or the negligence of railway staff, according to a study by NITI Aayog, the government’s planning commission.

Suresh PrabhuManaging the railways that carry 23m passengers and 3m tonnes of freight every day on 66,000kms of tracks is a highly complex task, which is made worse by tensions and collusion between the various parts of the establishment that includes the ministry and a railways board.

Prabhu (above), who was the ninth railways minister in as many years, began in the three years he held the post to modernise many of the operations but some commentators say he was not tough enough with those involved.

Sitharaman faces an equally tough task at the defence ministry, where she has no prior experience (nor did her two predecessors in the past three years). The most urgent job is re-equipping the grossly under-prepared armed forces at a time when tensions are high with China and Pakistan.

This includes speeding up the award of new defence contracts, especially with Indian companies, which links with Modi’s well-marketed but under-performing Make in India campaign launched by her old ministry. Jaitley seems likely to be monitoring and encouraging this work, while Modi’s national security adviser and the cabinet security committee play a key role on the country’s defence.

Commentators have suggested that Sitharaman was given the post partly to raise the BJP’s profile and acceptability in Tamil Nadu, which is her home state in southern India where the party is not yet strong. Such regional considerations also affected the reshuffle elsewhere with the appointment of two new ministers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are key targets for the BJP in the 2019 general election.

So, as always, politics rather than ability plays a role in the selection of ministers, as it does in any democracy. But today’s appointments also show that Modi is trying to strengthen the effectiveness of his ministers and government for work that urgently needs to be done before 2019.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 25, 2017

70 years on, an outpouring of people’s stories on Partition

The British legacy – seven decades of unrest and border fighting

The history of the tortuous creation of India and Pakistan as separate countries 70 years ago has been written and recorded on a massive scale in the past two or three weeks on British television, along with other media on the Indian subcontinent as well as the UK and internationally.

The writers and speakers have not for the most part been politicians or historians, but ordinary people of all ages who have been telling their personal stories for the first time in public, stories about one of the cruellest and most vicious events in modern history, and how it affected them and their families.

The surge of coverage in the past few weeks is important because it is filling in gaps of history that has led to decades of fighting between what are now two nuclear powers. It is a history of countless tales of horror, suffering, death and unbelievable ethnic cleansing from an ageing generation, whose tales should not be forgotten any more than the horrors of the second world war’s holocaust.

This widespread focus on the Partition of Pakistan from India has side-lined the actual independence of two countries, whose 70th anniversary came on August 15. It has also side-lined what has happened since then to them (and Bangladesh, which separated from Pakistan in 1971). Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, that became independent six months later has been scarcely mentioned.

Mass migration

Estimates of the largest mass migration in history vary between 200,000 and over 1m for the number of people who died as 15m-17m Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs struggled across the border that was not formally fixed till the day after August 15. As many as 100,000 women are believed to have been abducted, raped, sometimes sold into prostitution or forcibly married, according to Urvashi Butalia, a Delhi-based Indian writer who is updating a book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.

The Partition generation, now in their 70s and older, who suffered and survived, have not generally been prepared before to open up painful memories, in the same way that troops returning from battlefields bottle up their experiences of death and destruction. Now, with the distance of 70 years, they feel able to pour out their memories and, according to many accounts, are keen to do so.

At the same time, there is a new generation of their grandchildren who want to know their families’ histories and ask questions of their parents and grandparents that they have never wanted or been allowed to explore before. It is not part of British schools’  history curriculum.

Flow India A Brush with Life 2

Schoolchildren look at paintings of Partition by Satish Gujral in Delhi

“It’s often said that memory jumps a generation, so that could explain why younger people are becoming more interested in the stories of their grandparents,” says Butalia, adding that opening up is not something sudden. “It’s been happening for the last few years, I think it’s just that anniversaries become ways to talk about these things.”

This has been specially evident from many of the television interviews and radio coverage that has swamped the BBC in recent weeks. Many of both countries’ diasporas have influential positions in the media, academia and elsewhere. International interest in India has grown in recent years as it has emerged as an increasingly successful but far from efficient economy and as a controversial society.

In India too there has been a focus on the subject. A series of articles looking at “the weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever”on the news website even includes one on how “food cultures” were changed.

I became aware of this opening-up trend in February last year at a Delhi exhibition, A Brush with Life , showing works by Satish Gujral, now 91, a prominent Indian artist. The paintings included his little known but harrowing depictions of Partition (above). At a discussion during the exhibition, he talked emotionally about how, age 20, he had stayed on in Lahore to help his father evacuate refugees before leaving and saw “murder, rape, and other brutality”.

The next focus came with the opening of a Partition museum in the Indian city of Amritsar in Punjab, a state that was split in two and suffered some of the worst cruelty

BBC Radio - Partition Voices

BBC Radio – Partition Voices

And then I arrived in London a few weeks ago, readying myself to write a 70th anniversary piece on this blog and found the BBC’s saturation coverage of Partition. This link illustrates  how much (but not all) that the British broadcaster has done, ranging from reportage to interviews and historical flashbacks and including radio discussions and a radio dramatisation in seven parts of Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie , who was among those interviewed.

The BBC press office has not answered my questions about the total number of programmes that were aired, the number of viewers and listeners, and how co-ordinated it all was. Many tv viewers and radio listeners must have been turned off by the welter of coverage, but I have also met people in the UK with no India links who have drawn in by the stories they have been hearing and have wanted to know more.

“My father broke his silence after nearly 70 years to speak about what happened to him during the partition of British India. Seventy years. A lifetime,” says Kavita Puri, a journalist who travelled widely in Britain collecting BBC stories. Her father, a Hindu, has never been back to the place of his birth in Lahore, Pakistan, but he specially wanted to talk to her about was how Muslim neighbours there saved his family’s life.

There have been sometimes angry debates and articles arguing about who was to blame for such a catastrophe. Many Indians and Pakistanis resent that they are portrayed as rioting killers, without sufficient blame being attached to the British for rushing the handover and the designation of the disputed Line of Control between the two countries in Kashmir.

Exous Krishen Khanna - Saffronart photo

Exodus by Krishen Khanna, a leading Indian artist, now 92, who crossed from Lahore at Partition

“That night ought to have been a moment of great joy for the people of the subcontinent”, says Shelina Janmohamed, a London-based Muslim writer and author of Love in a Headscarf. Speaking on BBC2 Newsnight, she said to loud applause that people talked as if it was the “problem of the colonised that made it all go wrong, when the seeds of this terrible man-made disaster was in the way that independence was granted”.

That man-made disaster and the way independence was granted has led to repeated fighting on the Line of Control for 70 years, with three wars and one near-war. Militants and terrorists have been injected with help from Pakistan’s ISI secret service and army to ferment unrest and killings in Indian Punjab in the 1980s and in Kashmir since then.

One can blame the Pakistan army for the militancy, which enhances its dominant role in the country, and one can also blame India for human rights atrocities in the Kashmir valley and for not trying harder to find solutions – solutions that are much more difficult now that China is stepping up its support for Pakistan.


But maybe there had to be wider knowledge and understanding about how it all began 70 years ago before both countries could shed what Barkha Dutt, an Indian tv journalist and author, whose parents crossed over from Pakistan, describes as “our wariness of truthfully memorializing Partition”. That created “a permanent dysfunction between our nations”. In Pakistan, she says, “lamenting or questioning Partition challenges the very basis of the country’s existence” while, in India, ”we don’t want our proud dawn of independence to be eclipsed by its long shadows”.

Mark Tully, a veteran BBC journalist who has lived in India most of his life, travelled from the north of the country to the south, testing views on Partition. He found that people wanted to “close the chapter, end the bitterness and restore relations with Pakistan…. as two nations but one people”.

It would be good if the leaders in both countries acted on that, pressured by the younger generations who have heard and talked about personal histories over the past few weeks. Sadly, that seems unlikely now that China is playing a growing role in Pakistan’s economic and regional life, using the country as a pawn in its wish to contain India.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 20, 2017

India at 40 – my 1987 anniversary article

Nehru’s cry for “work and work and work”

“ ‘I want work and work and work. I want achievement. I want men who work as crusaders’, says a poster quoting an independence dream of Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, above the dirty sluggish luggage conveyors at the unwelcoming Bombay airport”.

That was the introduction to an an article I wrote for the Financial Times on August 15, 1987, which I have just found in my computer. When I wrote last weekend about India’s 70th anniversary of independence, I said it was the third time that I had written an article marking a decade’s progress, the earlier ones being in 1997 and 2007. It was actually the fourth because this was my first.

In 1987, having been the FT‘s South Asia correspondent for four years, I vented the frustrations of a somewhat younger journalist about the failures and setbacks of a country that had so much potential yet was so self-destructive in what it achieved.

My views haven’t changed significantly down the years. There have of course been enormous changes and improvements, but much of the article sounds alarmingly familiar today.

I had just flown back to India from the UK, arriving at the old Bombay airport. I still remember standing waiting for my luggage and, looking up, seeing Nehru’s quotation (from a 1954 speech) and realising it would provide a graphic introductory paragraph for an anniversary article I was about to write.

I quoted Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a radical Pakistani poet, who answered the euphoria of Nehru’s “midnight hour” with a poem that declared “This is not the dawn we yearned for”. I wrote that “forty years on it is tempting to believe that Faiz’s gloom rather than Nehru’s hope is still valid”.

As I often did before writing a major article, I interviewed Manmohan Singh, later to be prime minister. He was then running the Planning Commission, having earlier been Reserve Bank of India governor. He talked about the “inherent good sense” of the Indian people holding the country together, but warned of an ‘identity crisis” brought about by economic development and education.

The full article is below:

Forty Years On – August 15, 1987

‘I want work and work and work.  I want achievement.  I want men who work as crusaders,” so says a poster quoting an independence dream of Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, above the dirty sluggish luggage conveyors at the unwelcoming Bombay airport.

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Nearby, a tourist corporation official in his chair chats on the telephone, blocking the efforts of a ground stewardess to help hot and weary passengers.  It takes five customs officials to clear one person’s baggage and a sequence of 12 officials, police and hangers-on to hire a taxi.

Where is Nehru’s work ethic?  Where are his dreams of a new egalitarian, economic and social order in the world’s largest democracy?  Lost, maybe, in a tortuous, destructive mixture of bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency, caste pride and an over-riding fear of unemployment in a grossly over-populated country where status matters more than compassion.

Forty years ago today India became independent after 180 years of British rule, preceded by a couple of hundred years of rule by the Mughals.  “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” proclaimed Nehru, hailing his people’s “tryst with destiny.”

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the freedom struggle, refused to join the celebrations.  He was praying because he had lost a crucial argument for a united India and the country had been arbitrarily – and perhaps unnecessarily – partitioned.  Pakistan (then including Bangladesh) had become a separate independent country the day before, setting the tone for lingering border, ethnic and linguistic divisions and battles.

Britain’s handover of power is widely seen as a model, not always followed in other countries’ colonies, but as many as 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed [Aug 20, 2017 edit: – estimates now go up to 1m] in appalling massacres when some 13m [ditto 15m-17m] people struggled across the many borders to live in Hindu-dominated India or Moslem Pakistan.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a radical Pakistani poet, answered the euphoria of Nehru’s “midnight hour” with a poem which declared “This is not the dawn we yearned for.”

Forty years on it is tempting to believe that Faiz’s gloom rather than Nehru’s hope is still valid.  It often seems as if the Indian sub-continent (including Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – which became independent six months later) is in constant self-destructive turmoil and political instability, rejecting work ethics and egalitarian policies and spurning the Mahatma’s creed of peace and non-violence.

In Sri Lanka last month a Sinhalese sailor in a guard of honour tried to wound and maybe kill Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India , whose mother, Indira, was assassinated by Sikh security guards nearly three years ago.  Gandhi was trying to help end the island’s Tamil ethnic conflict which has claimed more than 6,000 lives in the past four years.

In Pakistan, which has yet to settle down to a stable form of government after years of military intervention and rule, car bomb blasts last month killed more than 60 people in Karachi.  In Bangladesh the military ruler, President Ershad, has been facing riots and the risk of a coup.

In India , the Sikhs’ Punjab crisis that led to Mrs Gandhi’s death remains unsolved, turning New Delhi into a suspicious city full of scruffy gun-toting security guards.  In other parts of India , Hindu Moslem riots have worsened dramatically and even the Gurkhas, loyal soldiers of the army of India as well as the British empire, have their own Sikh or Tamil style insurgency among the Darjeeling tea gardens of West Bengal.  And Gandhi’s stumbling political performance is putting at risk the future of the Nehru dynasty, started by his grandfather and continued by his mother.

Turbulent events

But these turbulent events, which some people believe mean India is on the brink of breaking up, overshadow a basic underlying stability which is not yet so apparent in Pakistan or Bangladesh, and which has been shaken in Sri Lanka during the past decade. India has had steady, if slow economic and social progress on a strong and durable democratic base.

MMS at PlC?“The tensions should not be underestimated, but predictions of India ceasing to be a nation have been wrongly made before and will be proved wrong again – the inherent good sense of the people ensures that,” says Dr Manmohan Singh, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and head of the Planning Commission, who this weekend moves from Delhi to Geneva to run the Non-Aligned Movement’s new South Commission.

“Economically and socially, small homogenous developing countries with less political democracy elsewhere in Asia move faster.  But some price has to be paid for political democracy, and the Indian experiment of developing economic and social policies with the consent of the people is unique.  I think it is the best,” he adds.

Those policies started with the job of combining into a single nation 360 kingdoms and provinces, many of them tiny, with a diverse population of 350 m.  Many observers overplay the numbers game, but the enormity of the statistics in the world’s second most populous nation cannot be overstated.  That 350m figure had more than doubled to 765m by 1985 and could now be as high as 800m.

The World Bank predicts a population of just under 1bn for the year 2,000, after which India might overtake China, already just over 1bn if its birth control campaigns do not improve.  Population control is one of India’s most important failures.  Another is the lack of universal education.  Literacy has risen from only 16 to 36 per cent, affecting economic growth and holding back development for lower castes and minority groups.

The early introduction of nationalisation and bureaucratic controls, partly inspired by British socialist policies and Russian attitudes to the development of heavy industry, contributed to decades of industrial inefficiency and losses of export markets.  This is still hitting the economy, although the policies of Mr Gandhi, plus a growing affluence which partly stems from a green revolution starting in the 1970s, have led to changes in recent years.  But deep-seated problems remain.

Social changes

Social changes such as land reforms and the ending of the Maharaja system led to new local and regional political interests emerging by the time of Nehru’s death in 1964 which upset the national consensus.  By the early 1970s Mrs Gandhi was asserting national authority and was not being tolerant of social and electoral diversity just as diversity was demanding attention.  “A lot of our difficulties have come from this problem” says Mr Pran Chopra, an Indian journalist who applies a similar argument to over-rigidity on economic policies which bred widespread corruption.

But above all this, the country’s greatest asset is its cohesion.  The Indian people were, and are, bound together by five centuries of imperial rule, by their ancient 2,000 year old civilisation with its dominant Hindu religion, and by their restrictive caste system which pervades all aspects of life, combining some of the taboos of apartheid with the snobbery of the British class system.

Cohesion has been helped by a variety of legacies from the British, including an established civil service which works, even though it has failed effectively to develop from a regulatory and tax collecting bureaucracy into positive policy development.  There is also a strong, well-regulated and non-political army; an established judiciary; and a free (though sometimes subdued) press.

Against this, the country is divided by distinct differences between the Aryans of the north and the Dravidians of the south, and by a patchwork of ethnic and cultural differences of 15 main languages, 1,650 dialects, and four main minority religious groups – Moslems, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists.  There are tens of thousands of tribal people, many of them Christian, in the far north east of India , while others live pagan lives in remote primeval forests.  In central India tribal women wearing ornate saris and jewellery work on modern power stations and other construction sites.

There are 100m Untouchables (or Children of God, as Mahatma Gandhi called the bottom of the caste pile) who daily rub shoulders with blatant wealth and high technology.

At the top is the elite, old and new, but a smaller group than the 100m untouchables.  They include educated, cultured public servants and academics concerned for their country and its people, and a new generation, including technologically aware industrialists, anxious to build a better India .

Chasing prestige

There are self-seeking politicians, chasing power for the prestige and wealth it will bring in a corrupt and status-conscious society, and they have scant interest in public policies.  Older businessmen and their families thrive on the bureaucratic controls, corruption and protected economy, which have bedevilled the country’s development.

Finally there is perhaps the most dangerous group of all, the new rich middle classes, who either flaunt their wealth with garish lifestyles in the big cities, sparking new resentment among the poor, or who form the base of ethnic and religious extremist groups because they cannot find other ways of expressing themselves in an inflexible social and political system.

The social tensions and ethnic and linguistic ambitions are exacerbated by uneven economic development and the strains of an exodus from villages to urban areas.

This boils over in various ways.  It can lead to riots like the recent Hindu-Moslem clashes in the north Indian city of Meerut, where over 120 people have died; or ethnic and linguistic movements such as the Gurkhas; or it can turn into the violent extremism and seemingly unstoppable religious and political terrorism of the Sikhs.

No one is sure why there has been a sudden bunching of troubles in the past four or five years.  The most plausible explanation is that it has taken much of the 40 year span since independence for a number of factors to come together.  These include the fading of the unifying force of the independence struggle; the failure of the Nehru-Gandhi Congress Party, which has ruled for all but three of the four decades, to remain a unifying force, when regional demands are increasing; and the emergence of significant economic development, which sharpens disparities.

Mr Pai Pananadikar, director of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Studies, argues that “what seems to prove the instability of India is really a process of political evolution and social change.” He sees demands for linguistically-based states not as a disaster but as an integrating process.

Partition’s conflict

India’s Moslem-Hindu conflict has become steadily worse since the Partition massacres.  The poorer and less well educated Moslems were left behind in India.  So for decades they were dominated by Hindus.  Uneven economic development has made some of them feel more vulnerable, while others have become less willing to be downtrodden.

Hindus, hitherto dominant, resist changes in the social and economic structure.  Clashes and riots break out, fanned by local extremists and politicians.  These Hindu-Moslem tensions usually occur in urban areas, but in the villages and rural areas there are similar problems between different castes, especially the landless and the smallholders.

“A lot of our uneducated electorate are easily aroused on religious, ethnic, caste and similar issues,” said Dr Manmohan Singh.  “This is an age in which the identity crisis has acquired new meaning because of economic development and education.”

But despite these problems, India has emerged as a significant world power and a leader of the non-aligned movement, carefully balancing its relationships with the superpowers.  It tilts towards the Soviet Union and is deeply suspicious of the US which has taken over Britain’s role as suspect colonial power.

As its current peace-keeping activities in Sri Lanka show, it has ambitions to dominate its subcontinent where it constantly fears there are moves (mainly US-inspired) to destabilise its own internal unity.  It has fought four wars with its neighbours, winning three against Pakistan and losing against China.

Its foreign relationships with most countries, apart from the Soviet Union, are heavily influenced by pervasive national characteristics.  “There is a distrust of the external world, a Fortress India feeling that everyone is out to get you.”

This seems to stem partly from India’s pride at having eventually won independence, and partly from over-sensitivity about the country’s shortcomings – including more than a third of the people living below the poverty line.  Potential helpers are suspected of being over critical or would-be colonisers.

The history of the past 40 years shows India has reason to be less sensitive and more self-confident.  With skilful political leadership, which at present is sometimes lacking, it has enough cohesion and resilience to ride its internal crises and to develop at its own pace.  Given that, it should successfully continue to confound and infuriate its critics and charm and impress its friends.

Copyright 1987 The Financial Times Limited;   Financial Times (London, England); August 15, 1987, Saturday;

Posted by: John Elliott | August 14, 2017

India at 70 – hastening slowly

Nationalism looms in a chaotic democracy

It’s an easy cop out when talking about India to say everything and the opposite are true and correct. That has never been more so than when assessing the country’s performance in the 70 years since it became independent on August 15, 1947.

Put simply, India is a huge success, tackling dire poverty, ethnic social religious and cultural divisions, building a strong private sector, developing infrastructure, excelling in research such as space and rockets technology, and breeding a new young and aspirational youth, all within a successful though turbulent and noisy parliamentary democracy.

It is also a dismal failure because it has done all those things far too slowly, encumbered by lethargy and a failure to grapple with challenges together with increasingly corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and police fed by greedy business people, criminals and members of the general public. Intolerance and ethnic and religious tensions, never far below the surface, are increasing.

Falling behind

Year by year, despite substantial successes, it falls more and more behind its regional rival and potential enemy China. It has been acting tough with its larger neighbour for the past two months in a military confrontation on the Himalayan border, but it has been increasingly losing out in terms of economic and infrastructure development, manufacturing competitiveness, defence preparedness, regional influence and international clout.

Economic growth is around 7%, but it should be far more. Between 20% and 30% of the 1.3bn population are illiterate and live below the poverty line, and far more are badly fed with inadequate education, sanitation and health facilities and a serious lack of jobs for the million young people entering the job market every month.

This is the fourth time I have written a decade’s assessment. In 1987 I aired in the Financial Times the frustrations of an observer who felt so much more could be achieved. [This para inserted Aug 20, ’17]

In 1997 I said that “Indians seem unsure what there is to celebrate”. There was a “belated realisation of how far development has lagged behind the rest of Asia, plus despair with the decrepit state of the country’s corrupt politics”. The economic reforms of 1991 had sputtered to a virtual halt and their effect had not by then fed through the economy –  the major impact emerged in the following decade. I.K.Gujral, prime minister of a short-lived coalition government, said that India was “almost standing on the threshold of greatness”.

Nehru '47In 2007, I recorded a marked change with a headline on this blog (then on Fortune magazine’s website) saying “A Nehru dream comes true”. That referred to the hopes of Jawaharlal Nehru who, as prime minister, heralded in India’s independence 70 years ago tonight (left).

I noted that the country’s overall self-confidence and its economic performance were being transformed. In the previous four or five years, “a spirit of can-do” had inspired businesspeople – big and small, ranging from names like Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Azim Premji and the Infosys founders to small niche players – who invested, managed, delivered, and grew both at home and abroad.

Many problems, especially social, were however little improved: “Vast proportions of the country’s 1.1 billion people are undernourished and hungry, as well as poorly educated and illiterate. Blighted by a lack of drinking water and proper sanitation, many are plagued with poorly-treated ill health”.

No one this time is using a Nehru headline in a positive sense, despite the many advances made in the last decade. The trumpets are blasting out the new India of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by the Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi and by Amit Shah, the tough party president. Together they are more interested in celebrating the 75th anniversary in 2022 after they have won (as it seems they will) the next general election in 2019.

They and their platoons of followers crave a Hindu dominated society that replaces Nehru’s secularism and turns Muslims, Christians and others into the second class minorities than many increasingly feel they have already become.

hamid-ansari_650x400_81441081765Hamid Ansari, a veteran diplomat and government official (left), talked tellingly when he retired recently as India’s vice president about how “a feeling of unease, a sense of insecurity is creeping in” among Muslims.

Their “ambience of acceptance” was under threat and there were “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”. No-one had any doubt about his target – Modi, Shah and their followers.

India is a harsher society than it was ten years ago with rabid nationalism, violence and vigilantism adding to cruel policing and ruthless regional politicians – many encouraged by the existence of a BJP government that shuns the softer secular approach of less fundamentalist political parties.

Maybe these contrasts and contradictions are inevitable in a society that has undergone India’s massive social and economic changes of the past 26 years. The 1991 reforms have gradually transformed the face of much of India, hastened by cascading access to television, the internet and social media. There is an arrogance of success among the new rich, and feelings of bitterness and anger among those left behind.

But if one is to pick a target to blame it should not be Modi and the BJP but the Gandhi family dynasty and its Congress Party that, having successfully led India into independence and beyond, has failed in the past 15 years to adapt to the aspirations of a changing India.

The Gandhis cling to power at the top of the party with a born-to-rule style that is no longer appropriate, preventing other politicians emerging to lead anti-BJP parties. Jairam Ramesh, an outspoken Congress politician, said recently that “the sultanate has gone but we behave as if we were sultans still”.

Modi an enigma

In all this, Modi is an enigma because he talks as if he is determined to build a strong and efficient India of which he can be nationalistically proud. Reforms have included efforts to curb corruption, a strengthened national identity system (Aadhaar), and the implementation  of a long-planned national goods and services tax.

Yet he is also pulled into supporting or at least condoning the more extreme Hinduisation approach of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s extreme right wing umbrella body, and its allied extreme organisations.

Modi Aug 15 '16As India enters its 71st year of independence tomorrow, Modi is expected to talk about the target for 2022 in his annual prime ministerial speech (pictured left, last year) from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Old Delhi.

“Let us pledge to free India from poverty, dirt, corruption, terrorism, casteism, communalism and create a ‘New India’ of our dreams by 2022”, he said in a recent speech that has been backed up with front-page government advertisements in leading newspapers headed Sankalp se Siddhi (pledge to achieve).

These are ambitious goals that have been on earlier governments’ agendas to little effect. Modi was elected in 2014 to implement developmental change and he has personally launched and driven countless campaigns that include his Swachh Bharat (Clean India Movement). The government claims that the number of people defecating in the open has dropped from 550m to 320m, even though many newly installed toilets do not have water or sewerage facilities. That is significant in a country where 100,000 children die each year from diarrhoea related diseases.

At the same time as examples of such developmental success are emerging, there also the glimmerings of the government softening its authoritarian line, presumably in order to quell criticism ahead of the 2019 general election.

One example is the appointment last week of  Prasoon Joshi, a liberal screenwriter and poet, and the ceo in India of the McCann Erickson international advertising group, to head the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). He has replaced Pahlaj Nihalani, a strong BJP and Modi supporter who was a controversially tough and insensitive censor, even shortening kissing scenes in a James Bond film.

Joshi’s appointment looks like a tactical move rather than a policy change, and 230m fewer people defecating in the open is a only a small change measured against India’s enormous needs for development.

But the first shows how India’s strident democracy does have an effect on governments, and the second shows that Modi recognises the need for action.

India’s future over the next decade depends on how this balances out.

Will Modi and Shah’s Hindu nationalism be constrained by the need to operate within a parliamentary democracy, or will their likely victory in 2019 make their nationalism increasingly dictatorial and disruptive? And how successful will Modi’s government be at making India work?

Put another way, thanks to the failure of the Gandhis and Congress, India’s future development depends on the drive that will be given by Modi and the increasing number of BJP state governments. The price for that is the BJP’s Hindu nationalism.

The hope therefore has to be that India’s diverse democracy, which inserts its own unpredictable checks and balances, will somehow keep that in check.

Nitish Kumar remains Bihar chief minister of a stronger government

Lalu Prasad Yadav’s nepotism loses his party its government role

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have won yet another victory in their drive for the pan-India political domination of their Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party with a coup in the desperately poor state of Bihar, where Nitish Kumar, the chief minister and head of a regional party, dramatically resigned last night.

In a carefully orchestrated series of events spanning just 15 hours, Kumar was sworn in again this morning as chief minister at the head of a new coalition government in partnership with the BJP instead of a former dynasty-dominated and corrupt partner that lost its government role last night.

Coming four months after the BJP swept to power in Uttar Pradesh and three other states, the coup upsets and probably demolishes the dreams of the Congress and regional parties to mount some form of effective joint opposition against the BJP for the 2019 general election.

This makes it even more likely that Modi will win a second five-year term as prime minister, and it underlines again the political ineffectiveness of Congress’s Gandhi family – Rahul, the hapless heir apparent to the party leadership, and his mother Sonia.

Today Rahul Gandhi has lamely said he had known for three months that Kumar was planning the move.


Sonia Gandhi, Nitish Kumar (centre) and Lalu Prasad Yadav when they were together

The coup also enables Modi and Shah to bury the ignominy of their crushing defeat in the state’s last assembly election in November 2015, when a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Kumar, who had already been chief minister for ten years, won 178 seats in the 243-seat assembly against only 58 for the BJP’s alliance.

Irrespective of the apprehensions that many in India have about the growing clout of Modi and Shah and their often-intolerant Hindu nationalist followers, Bihar has today got the government that it should have had in November 2015.

Kumar now has the BJP to help him drive economic and social development that Bihar desperately needs. He has been unable to do that with his main mahagathbandhan partner, the dynastic nepotism-ridden Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister convicted of massive corruption, that won more seats than Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU) in 2015.

Kumar first became chief  minister in 2005 in coalition with the BJP, replacing Yadav’s RJD that had been in power for 15 years and had focussed on caste empowerment instead of economic development. Yadav’s uneducated wife Rabri had held the chief minister’s post for nine years after corruption charges led to Yadav being banned from office, as he still is.

Kumar made rapid progress on economic and other policies including law and order. Roads were transformed, as I saw on a visit to the state during the 2015 state assembly election campaign. Electric power came for 12 hours or more a day to over 36,000 of the state’s 40,000 villages, and attendance at schools improved dramatically

But in 2013 Kumar ended the alliance with the BJP because at the time he opposed the emergence of Narendra Modi as the party’s Hindu nationalist prime ministerial candidate and joined up with the Yadav’s JDU for the 2015 election.

By then, the state arguably needed the BJP’s drive for private sector business and entrepreneurship, which Kumar had not pushed alongside his other achievements.

That is why the coming together today of Kumar’s party and the BJP in the new state government could produce what the state needs, providing the focus is on economic and business development and not the BJP’s more socially divisive Hinduisation. The deputy chief minister is Sushil Kumar Modi (no relation to the prime minister), who is strong on development and worked with Kumar in earlier years.

The Kumar-Yadav alliance ran into trouble soon after the 2015 election victory because of the Yadav family’s long running corruption and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s insistence that his totally inexperienced 26-year old younger son, Tejashwi, should became deputy chief minister.

Lalu Prasad with Tejaswi

Tejashwi Yadav (left) with his father Lalu

Investment in education and health infrastructure declined, the law and order situation worsened (as was inevitable with the Yadavs in government), and Kumar’s unexpected introduction of liquor prohibition diverted attention from development.

Tejashwi Yadav is accused of being involved in a land-for-hotels scandal, along with other corruption allegations involving his family, including his father and mother. Earlier this month the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the family’s homes and other properties in Patna, Bihar’s capital, and other cities.

This indicated that the Modi government was using CBI investigations against the Yadavs, as it has been doing elsewhere against other political opponents – in this case to encourage Kumar to split from the family.

Another course would have been for Kumar to sack Tejashwi, but that would have created an uncertain political crisis. Resigning, as he did last night with the BJP primed to step in as his ally, was a much swifter way out of the problem.

The coup however seems to mark the end of Kumar’s ambition to move back into national politics (between 1998 and 2001 he was a railways and agriculture minister in a BJP-led government ) and become prime minister. But the failure of the opposition alliance to come together nationally, and the Gandhi family’s failure to back his ascendancy, made that unlikely.

In Bihar, he might have found himself pushed aside by Tejashwi Yadav and his father before the next assembly polls in 2020.

Falling into the open hands of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah therefore must have seemed to Kumar to be the best option, even though he is being widely criticised for reversing his earlier split from Modi’s BJP.  Significantly, he backed Modi’s controversial demonetisation project last November, and more recently supported the BJP’s candidate for the post of India’s president.

Ultimately, it is all to do with politics, not what is best for the people of Bihar, some 70% of whom are below the poverty line.

The good news is that Bihar now has a better government in place than it had yesterday morning.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 10, 2017

China India standoff raises memories of 1962 war

China wants to build a road at a strategic point in the Himalayas

For the past three weeks it has sometimes seemed, from India media reports and aggressive statements coming out of Beijing, that there has been a distinct possibility of a Himalayan border war breaking out between the two countries high, 55 years after India suffered a humiliating military defeat in the area at the hands of its larger Asian neighbour in 1962.

Modi-Xi HamburgIt is unlikely to happen because neither side wants a war, but the long confrontation has been closer in physical terms and noisier in the media than in the past – at least until China’s president Xi Jinping and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi met, smiled, and chatted (left) while attending a regional meeting at the G20 assembly in Hamburg last Friday (July 7).

That is not to underplay the importance of what has been happening on the 2,500 mile long undemarcated border in a face-off over Chinese road construction that has also for the first time drawn the tiny kingdom of Bhutan into the two nuclear powers’ border disputes.

The Chinese media has played a major role in raising the tempo and yesterday The Global Times, an outspokenly outspoken government-link newspaper even went to the extent of suggesting that India’s role in the border issue with Bhutan would justify another country interfering in its northern region of Kashmir.

China, led by the increasingly powerful and assertive Xi, is in a belligerent mood and is trying to extend its reach and power in areas such as the South and East China Seas as well as in the Himalayas, while also underlining its sovereignty of Hong Kong that it regained from British rule 20 years ago on June 30 1997.

Speaking on the day of the anniversary, a Beijing foreign ministry spokesman said that the UK that had no role in the future of its former territory, even though the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that led to the 1997 handover gave it a monitoring role for 50 years. The spokesman said that, as “a historical document”, the joint declaration “no longer has any practical significance”. It was not at all binding for Beijing’s management over Hong Kong.

1962 “historical lessons”

Similarly slapping down India, a China’s People Liberation Army spokesman on June 29 implicitly alluded to the 1962 defeat when he said that India should learn from “historical lessons”. He was responding to India’s army chief saying his troops were ready for a “two-and-a-half-front war”, referring to China, Pakistan and internal security.

Britain has regularly failed effectively to monitor developments in Hong Kong, and there are doubts about India’s war-readiness, but it was a sign of China’s increased assertiveness that, in the space of two days, the UK should be publicly told it had no role and that India should be reminded so openly about its 1962 defeat.

India has however resisted latest China’s territorial ambitions, despite the aggressive noises from Beijing. Perhaps Modi has heard that Barack Obama, America’s former president, once said of China: “You have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance”.

Nathu La Pass, in Sikkim, AP file photo

The border at the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim – AP file photo

In the Himalayas, China’s army has been steadily moving into Bhutan territory with tracks and roads for several years, but has met with virtually no resistance. The current crisis has arisen because its road construction has entered the specially sensitive Doklam plateau (below) that Bhutan claims as its territory but which China also claims as part of Donglang region.

The location on the China-Bhutan-India trijunction is separate from the main areas disputed by India and China, but is it critically important because the Doklam plateau overlooks China’s Chumbi Valley, a strategically important ‘v’ shaped area of Tibet located between the Indian state of Sikkim to the west and Bhutan to the east. The 9,500 ft high valley juts down towards a strip of Indian territory called the Siliguri Corridor (dubbed the “chicken’s neck”), which is the only land route from the main land mass of India to its north-eastern states.

chumbi mapThe closer China gets to the Siliguri Corridor down the Chumbi Valley, the  better equipped it would be in a war to try to cut India off from the north eastern states and invade Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims, while also making land grabs on other states and on Bhutan.

Building the road would give it a distinct strategic advantage, as Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security adviser, has told .

Because of the sensitivity, Bhutan objected and India confronted the Chinese troops and blocked construction work. That brought the opposing army troops face to face and provoked a complaint from local Chinese army commanders early in June that India had invaded its territory.

China chose to publicise the clash and complain to Delhi just as Modi was about to meet President Donald Trump for the first time in Washington on June 26. This led observers to suggest that China had timed the move as a warning to India of what could happen if it continued to grow closer to the US. China is unhappy with a more aggressive stance adopted by Modi in recent months, which has included a boycott of its trans-national One Belt One Road infrastructure and trade initiative.

Bhutan’s objections were unusual because the country, sandwiched between China and India, generally stays quiet. But on June 29 its ambassador in New Delhi delivered a formal demarche to China at its embassy – they are located five minutes drive from each other in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri diplomatic area.

“Recently, the Chinese army started construction of a road towards Bhutanese Army camp at Zomphlri in Doklam area which is in violation of an agreement between the two countries”, Vetsop Namgyel, Bhutan’s ambassador, told India’s main news agency.

“Peace and tranquility”

He was referring to a written agreement with China that that there should be “peace and tranquility” till their disputed border was agreed. That is complicated because it involves reconciling disputes about the relevance of historic documents and agreements going back more than a century to a time when Bhutan had not even decided where it thought its borders lay. An 1890 agreement with Britain gave China sovereignty over Donglang, which was subsequently claimed by Bhutan.

India used to run Bhutan’s foreign affairs, but is now only consulted. The relationship is close however, as was shown by India’s response. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China and has been resisting demands from Beijing to open them, though it does have regular but inconclusive meetings on the 470km border.

From conversations I had on my last visit to Bhutan two years ago, it was clear that there is considerable resentment about India’s sometimes overbearing interference in Bhutan’s affairs, along with a growing demand for formal relations with Beijing, which would weaken India’s role.

Hamburg atmosphere

There was excited media coverage about how Xi and Modi would not meet while they were in Hamburg, and that this would show that relations between the two countries were at a new and dangerously low point.

In fact, neither side was ready for formal talks because no solution was in sight and a formal meeting would have been useless or maybe even counter-productive. As a Chinese spokesman put it, the “atmosphere” was “not right”.

The informal meeting between Xi and Modi does however appear to have gone well with the two leaders apparently praising each others economic and anti-terrorist successes, while avoiding, at least as far as diplomatic briefings have revealed, anything about the standoff in the mountains.

Lobsang-Sangay-CTAThat has softened the mood, at least in the capitals. It is too early to predict how the situation will be solved, though it could be done with all sides agreeing to withdraw pending talks between China and Bhutan. Meanwhile, on the same day that Xi and Modi met, China issued a safety advisory to its citizens living in India to pay close attention to the security, which may have been part of the loud diplomatic onslaught before the leaders met.

Coincidentally, India, Japan and the US begin annual naval exercises in the Indian Ocean today (July 10), bringing together three countries concerned about China’s expansionary ambitions.

India’s relations with China now look like becoming even more fractious because the head of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, on July 5 unfurled the Tibetan national flag on the shores of Pang Gong lake in Ladakh (above). The lake spans the border between India and China’s Tibetan region at a height of over 14,000ft. This is the first time the independent Tibet flag has been unfurled there it is certain to anger China, which tolerates India hosting the government in exile along with the Dalai Lama, providing neither engages in political or diplomatic activity.

Relations between China and India have always been complicated, both before and after the 1962 war, but China’s growing territorial and international ambitions add new dimensions that are likely to lead to more crises.

No shot has been fired on the border for 40 years, though there are frequent confrontations. That is in striking contrast to the regular firing on India’s Pakistan line of control, but it underlines how serious would be if shooting begins.


Posted by: John Elliott | June 27, 2017

Trump and Modi bond and boost the US-India partnership

Shared views on Muslims emerge as they boycott Iftar dinners

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi had a remarkably successful afternoon and evening at the White House yesterday, bonding and even hugging in an easy way, and avoiding potential clashes on issues such as visas, climate change and trade that might have disturbed the harmony of the Indian prime minister’s first meeting with the US president. Together they furthered the cause of partnership between the two countries.

Trump, who is notoriously unpredictable did nothing to disturb the harmony of the carefully choreographed visit, which included a pre-dinner reception hosted by Melania Trump, in addition to meetings between Modi and other senior government officials, American businessmen, and Indians living in the US..


Donald Trump welcoming Narendra Modi, with Melania Trump, at the White House

Modi, who got on well with Barack Obama, thanked the Trumps for the “immense warmth” of his welcome, and invited their daughter Ivanka to lead the US delegation to a Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India later this year.

The two men clearly have a lot in common as extrovert political populists and leaders who have been elected against passionate opposition from their countries’ elites. They are also strong nationalists, who want to protect what they regard as their countries’ heritage and culture.

Shared aversion

This has led them to share an aversion for Muslims, which is significant, even though it was not mentioned yesterday as one of the subjects they formally discussed.

Trump regards Muslims as potential terrorists and yesterday, coincidentally, received the US Supreme Court’s conditional approval for part of his controversial ban on people from six Muslim countries entering America.

Modi leads a committed Hindu nationalist government whose Bharatiya Janata Party is intensely anti-Muslim to a degree that clashes with India’s secular traditions of embracing all religions.

Their common view has been demonstrated in the past week when they both broke US and Indian government traditions by avoiding Iftar dinners on the Muslim days of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Both men dutifully issued greetings to Muslims to mark the end of the month, but avoided publicly social events. Trump failed to host the traditional White House Iftar dinner that was first held in 1805 and has been an annual event since 1995.

Modi, along with all his cabinet, did not attend the president of India’s annual Iftar reception on June 24, even though dinner places had been prepared for some of them. A cabinet committee on political affairs was arranged at the same time as the dinner, which for decades has been seen as a prestigious event on Delhi’s political calendar embracing all political parties and religions.

Such moves surely alienate Muslim opinion, not only in the US and India but internationally. Along with Pakistan, India has the world’s second largest Muslim population (after Indonesia) of around 190m.


Modi gave Trump his customary hug

The nearest Trump and Modi came to discussing their shared view yesterday was on terrorism, especially the role of Pakistan. Their joint statement called on Pakistan “to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”, and “to expeditiously bring to justice” those responsible for terrorist attacks in India, including one in Mumbai in 2008.

That is a stronger statement on Pakistan than the US has issued in the past. It was accompanied by the State Department yesterday acceding to an Indian request to name Pakistan-based Syed Salahudeen, an extremist Islamic preacher, as a “global terrorist”. Both these moves increase pressure on Pakistan, though the US is careful not to go too far in alienating the country, which is drawing closer to China.

Concerns about China were also discussed, though it was not named. It was however indirectly criticised with the statement reiterating “the importance of respecting freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce”, which China is not doing in the South China Sea and the region. It also called for territorial and maritime disputes to be resolved “in accordance with international law”.

Chinese troops were yesterday accused by India of crossing the border in the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim and stopping Indian pilgrims crossing the border to a shrine. This may, or may not, be a coincidence at the time of  Modi’s visit, which has been criticised in the Chinese media today.

The mood of the talks was summed up by S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign secretary, as “very warm, very open, very cordial”, with a “great deal of ease” between the two men who were “comfortable with each other”. Previously India’s ambassador in Washington, Jaishankar said it was “one of the most productive visits I have seen to the US”

He used the word partners at least four times in an on-the-record media briefing, and the joint statement was titled “Prosperity through Partnership”. India had sent the message that it was a “reliable dependable partner” on counter-terrorism initiatives, and the two countries saw each other as “major defence partners”.

Modi Trump delegation meeting

the delegation meeting which followed a meeting between Trump and Modi

On economic and business matters, there was a “high level of comfort” between the two countries, which meant that they were “natural partners” for each in several areas including civil aviation and natural gas. They should, Jaishankar said, be seen as “preferred partners when it comes to economic issues”.

This showed that Trump is following and extending the policy of Barack Obama, which he is not doing in other areas of American policy. Obama talked during a visit to Delhi in 2015 about the many ways in which the two countries could move on from being “natural partners” to “best partners”.

It is now nearly 20 years since President Bill Clinton started moves to draw closer to India after its nuclear tests in 1998. The relationship has changed dramatically since then, but there are many in New Delhi who do not trust Washington, and there are many US policy experts who regard India as a tiresome non-performer.

It took 14 years for India to agree to a logistic deal that was signed last year to enable the two countries to use each other’s defence bases for servicing and repairs on a case by case basis. Negotiations on other agreements are still pending, but India is increasingly accepting the US as a defence equipment supplier, most recently for a surveillance drones contract mentioned during yesterday’s talks.

It remains to be seen how far yesterday’s bonhomie turns into action, and how the two countries tackle their differences over issues like US visas for Indian high technology workers (which were discussed, but not in detail), US demands for more open trade (which could become a problem when Trump’s current policy view is completed), and India’s support for the Paris accord on climate change (which Trump has abandoned, criticising benefits that India receives).

The main outcome of the visit however is that the leaders of two of the world’s largest countries, both democracies, have found they can get on with each other and have commons bonds. That should help them navigate through the future unknowns of  policy differences, Chinese aggression and other inevitable international crises – and Trump tweets.

Posted by: John Elliott | June 25, 2017

Modi on a roll as he meets Donald Trump for the first time

Lines up economic and political successes at home

Trump tweets Modi is “a true friend”

Narendra Modi is on a roll. The Indian prime minister arrived in Washington last night (below) for his first meeting with Donald Trump that takes place tomorrow (June 26), after lining up two politically significant and headline catching political and economic successes in India.

Modi arrives Washington 2

The country’s long overdue national sales tax, which is a major economic reform, is coming into force on July 1, and Modi has also stitched up the job of India’s next president for a veteran but little known senior low-caste politician in his Bharatiya Janata Party.

These three events cover Modi’s primary aims of burnishing his and India’s images on the world stage and demonstrating a primary concern for economic development, while strengthening the BJP low caste appeal ahead of the next general election in 2019.

Modi has spoken three times by phone with Trump but has not met him, so tomorrow’s encounter will set the tone for the relationship between two charismatic politicians, both of whom are strong public performers and nationalists and who also both like to spring surprises with their actions and decisions.

Given Trump’s extreme unpredictability and the sensitivity of some major issues, the Indian government has been careful not to publicise either an agenda or a wish list for the talks. Reports from Washington however show that the White House has not been so reticent in a long and positive briefing for journalists about the programme, which includes Trump’s first working dinner in the White House with a visiting prime minister or president.

The two leaders have both tweeted on the visit, with Trump fulsomely saying he had “Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend!”.

Look forward to welcoming India’s PM Modi to on Monday. Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend!

This is an excellent start for Modi who will be hoping to repeat the strong personal bond that he quickly developed with Barack Obama after becoming prime minister three years ago – he addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress last June.

There will be agreement on the need to curb terrorism, and that will lead Modi to want Trump to be tougher with Pakistan, which fuels the unrest in Kashmir. But the two men will differ on globalisation and action needed to stem climate change, which Trump spurns and Modi favours.

Visas and drones

It remains to be seen how opposed Trump is to India’s wish for visas to be available for the 100,000 Indian IT specialists working in the US. Curbing what are known as H-1B visas would seriously hit Indian high tech companies as well as their staff.

Defence sales will be a special focus – the Washington briefing mentioned that India had “supported thousands of American jobs” since 2008 by signing over $15bn defence contracts with the US.

An announcement is expected that the US has cleared the $2-3bn sale to India of 22 unarmed surveillance drones, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, for patrolling over the Indian Ocean, despite objections from Pakistan. But it seems that Lockheed Martin’s ambition to shift its F-16 single-engine fighter jet technology and production line from Texas to India, in a partnership announced a few days ago with the Tata group, will not be mentioned publicly, even if it is discussed between the two leaders.

A positive indicator for future relations between the two countries was the announcement a  few days ago that the new US ambassador to India will be Kenneth Juster, a former Warburg Pincus partner who is currently a senior Trump advisor and director of his National Economic Council.

The new GST

India’s new Goods & Services Tax (GST) will be launched with maximum fanfare in the parliament hall at midnight on June 30-July 1 at an event designed by Modi to echo the dawn of India’s independence 70 years ago when Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister made his famous “Tryst with Destiny speech”

The GST will be presented as a unique unifying measure that binds India together because it replaces a complex mass of national and state level taxes that impede economic activity, most visibly by forcing trucks to stop to pay levies every time they cross state boundaries.


Reuters photo at a state boundary tax collection point

It has been under discussion since 2000 and was in the then finance minister’s budget speech in 2010. Since then it has been opposed for short-term political reasons by whichever parliamentary parties have been in opposition, until the current government managed to break the log-jam and push through the legislation.

As might be expected in India, the new tax is however far from simple and will cause widespread confusion, even though industry is being given two months to adapt. Companies will have to file a mass of returns in the states where they operate and, instead of having just one tax rate or narrow band as happens in many countries, there will be six ranging from zero to 28%.

As The Economist reports in its current edition: “Officialdom decrees, for example, that shampoo, wallpaper and fizzy water are luxuries to be taxed at 28%; eyeliner, curry paste and plain water will attract an 18% levy. Restaurants will pay 12%, unless they are small (5%) or air-conditioned (18%)”.

Dalit president

India’s next president is set to be Ram Nath Kovind, a 71-year old lawyer and former member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament), who was the governor of Bihar till he became the BJP candidate for the post on June 19.

He has been an activist in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s extreme right wing umbrella organisation, which fitted what Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP president, wanted.

Ram Nath Govind + ModiShah

Ram Nath Kovind (left) is greeted after his selection by Narendra Modi and (right) Amit Shah

The key factor behind his selection however was that he is a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables” at the bottom of the caste system), which would almost automatically win him support from parties outside the BJP’s  National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The Congress Party, headed by Sonia Gandhi, and its allies were slow in selecting a candidate and were out-manoeuvred by Modi and Shah. Eventually, on June 23, they also picked a Dalit politician, Meira Kumar, a Gandhi family loyalist and a former speaker of the Lok Sabha, knowing that she seems to have no chance of winning.

The president is chosen for a five-year term through an indirect electoral college system that comprises members of both parliament and state assemblies. Kovind looks set to win, when the contest takes place on July 17, because the BJP and its NDA allies make up 48.6% of the vote and have enough support from other regional parties to get over 60%.

India’s president has similar but more extensive powers than Britain’s Queen. The president can ask the government to reassess legislation and can make decisions about intervening in state assemblies, in addition to inviting a potential prime minister to form a government after an election. Modi and Shah will have a loyalist in this key post, as well as a Dalit which they hope will help them win elections, especially in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The choice of Kovind and Kumar means that neither the BJP nor Congress has picked an eminent person to fill the top post. Neither candidate has the experience or authority of Pranab Mukherjee, the retiring president, an independent-minded veteran Congress politician who had been minister for finance, foreign affairs and defence over several decades and has brought stature to the position.

These high profile Modi successes help to boost his image as a strong prime minister, but there are also serious problems. Economic growth is slowing, there are widespread farmers’ protests over prices for their produce, and civil unrest in Kashmir has reached alarming proportions alongside a long period of soured relations with Pakistan. Unless Modi can tackle these and other issues, his record will not look so good when the 2019 election arrives.

Posted by: John Elliott | June 9, 2017

Britain has a hung parliament caused by Theresa May hubris

Small Northern Irish party to support weakened Conservatives 

Theresa May’s colleagues attack her style of functioning

LONDON: Yesterday’s British general election was supposed to be a coronation for Theresa May, the strict and autocratic Conservative prime minister who grabbed the party leadership last year after the Brexit referendum result and immediately turned herself from being a Remainer in the European Union debate to a hard-line Brexiteer leaver.

Instead the election has enabled Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, to emerge as a serious national politician and not the leftist rabble-rouser that has been his image for decades. He is being metaphorically crowned by his party and its MPs, many of whom had tried to dump him.

May on the other hand is fighting to remain prime minister , initially by forming a new government with the support of Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionists which has proved to be highly controversial.

UPDATE: June 10 – In order help May fight off criticism from senior cabinet colleagues about her secretive decision-making style, her two main Downing Street aides have quit. She has depended on their advice throughout her political career and is weakened and isolated by their departure.

TMay in DSt

Theresa May announcing she is forming a government, having visited the Queen in Buckingham Palace

“If I lose just six seats I will lose this election and Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting down to negotiate with Europe,” May tweeted on May 20, trying to scare voters with a reference to the Brexit negotiations that are due to begin in Brussels in ten days’ time.

The “I” in that remark graphically illustrates how hubris led her to stage the election as an endorsement of her personal leadership, with ministers and MPs tagging along behind.

She has in fact lost 13 seats from the Conservative Party score in the 2015 general election, winning 318 yesterday, whereas Labour has won 262, up an astonishing 30 on the last election. A party needs 326 to have a working majority, which is why May is talking to the Democratic Unionists who have ten seats, though even then she will only have a tiny majority of six.

The irony is that May has beaten voting records with a country-wide total of 13.7m votes, which is the best result for any party leader in Britain since 1992. That amounts to a vote share of 42.4%, which is the highest since Margaret Thatcher won a Conservative landslide in 1983. Yet, under Britain’s first-past-the-post system, May lost seats and is now being pilloried for her ineffective electioneering.

She need not have called an election because she had a working majority in the House of Commons with 331 seats compared with Labour’s 232 and the third major party, the Scottish Nationalists (which did badly yesterday) with 56.

The shock result means that May’s unbending approach for what is known as a hard Brexit in negotiations with the European Union may have to be softened – possibly, some commentators believe, even including a bid to stay in the EU’s single market that she had rejected. The government will also be under pressure to give parliament a bigger say in the EU negotiations and to ease its approach both on economic austerity and on immigration barriers (that will be good news for India in particular).

May will have to soften her style and consult her ministers and others instead of relying on just two advisors huddled in her 10 Downing Street office, and also adopt a less confrontational approach with EU leaders. She called the election to strengthen her standing in European capitals, but she has been dramatically weakened by the result.

Corbyn happy

Jeremy Corbyn celebrating last night

She should have learned from one of her predecessors, Sir Edward Heath, who picked a fight with coal miners in 1974 and called a snap election on the theme of “who governs Britain?”. Such sudden elections are not popular and he lost, just as May did yesterday, with a similar question linked to Brexit, that squandered a 20 point lead in opinion polls.

Corbyn this morning declared: “Politics has changed. Politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before. What’s happened is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics.”

It was widely assumed that when people came to vote they would shy away from his  Labour Party and vote Conservative for safety, but many didn’t, just as they didn’t shy away from voting for Brexit last year and for Donald Trump in America. The swing in the vote came from a desire for change and a rejection of May.

The youth vote was specially important, wooed partly by Corbyn’s promise to eliminate university student fees. The first evidence of turnout levels among younger voters is that it rose 12 points to 56% of 18 to 34-year-olds above 2015 figures according to an “exit poll” reported by The Guardian – 60% of under-35s and 66% of 18 to 24-year olds said they had voted Labour, 36% of them being first-time voters.

I have been amazed in the six weeks that I have been in the UK, away from my base in India, how increasingly unpopular May became, even among traditional Conservative voters, and how respect grew for Corbyn, even among people who detest his politics.

‘Strong and stable’

She was tense and unbending from the start of the campaign, repeatedly claiming that she, and she alone, would provide Britain with the “strong and stable government” that it needed in the Brexit negotiations, without ever saying how she would do it. She rarely acknowledged the role of her fellow ministers and even seemed to forget that Conservative MPs also played a role. She was aloof and evaded questions, speaking mostly to careful selected audiences and avoiding television confrontations with other party leaders.

May loses

Theresa May last night as the election result emerged

There were two deadly terror attacks in Manchester and London during the campaign but she and her ministers refused to acknowledge that cuts in police forces that had removed 20,000 police from the streets might have reduced the chances of detecting attacks before they happened.

“Her scarce TV performances have been wooden and repetitive. Journalists following her on the campaign trail have become frustrated by her stonewalling tactics,” said The Guardian, quoting a tv journalist who accused her “of responding to questions with “clichés and platitudes”.

“It’s almost as if Theresa May looked at Hilary’s campaign and said let’s do that,” wrote Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times, referring to Hilary Clinton’s defeat by Trump.

Corbyn relaxed

Corbyn on the other hand was friendly to questioners and was discursive, sometimes entertaining, and always serious and appealing. A tv commentator put it well when he said two nights ago that Corbyn had “relaxed into the election campaign” as it progressed, which enabled him to come across as a genuine person and even a trustworthy national politician. He and his colleagues also paraded a range of social and other policies that appealed to voters.

May’s main political – and personal – problem seem to stem from her childhood with a father who was a stern Church of England vicar and told her to decide what was right and stick to it. “My father encouraged me to, whatever job I did, just go get on with it and do my best,” she said in one interview. “I think you have to believe in what you’re doing”.

In another interview, she discussed her strong faith and politics. “That’s key. If you do believe you’re doing the right thing, that gives you resilience.” Asked if that was a “moral” approach, Ms May added: “I suppose there is something in terms of faith. “I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do. It’s not like I’ve decided to do what I’m going to do and I’m stubborn. I’ll think it through, have a gut instinct, look at the evidence, work through the arguments, because you have to think through the unintended consequences.”

Yet when it comes to the crunch she has abandoned that approach, dumping her strongly held views and doing U turns, thus revealing herself as a politician who is so focussed on sticking to her line that she is incapable of doing the political footwork needed to steer herself out of problems.

The Financial Times has listed ten of her reversals, most importantly that she said repeatedly she would not call a general election, and suddenly changed her mind.

Earlier, in March, she allowed her chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond to reverse, after a week of criticism, a budget announcement that self-employed workers would pay higher national insurance contributions, breaching a promise in the 2015 Conservative manifesto not to increase the tax.

May fumbled

Then she fumbled over the Conservative manifesto that said aged rich people requiring care in their homes would be obliged to pay for it, unless they had less than £100,000 in assets including the family home. Quickly dubbed a “dementia tax” she announced after just four days that care payments would be capped, and then repeatedly refused to admit she had changed anything,.

So the strong leader was no longer so strong and, steadily, Corbyn won hearts and minds.

The British media generally backed May and did everything it could to rubbish Corbyn, reminding readers of his ultra leftist rebellious past on issues like the Northern Irish IRA battles and Britain armed incursions into foreign countries, notably most recently Syria.

The Economist was so appalled by both him and May that it recommended its readers a week ago to vote for the small and fading Liberal Democrats “as a down-payment for the future” because “the leaders of both main parties have turned away from a decades-old vision of an open, liberal country”. (That was as useless a piece of advice as a suggestion The Economist made in 2014 that India’s last general election should be won by the fading Congress Party, headed by the hapless Rahul Gandhi and his mother, because of the appalling reputation gained by Narendra Modi, now the prime minister, during riots in his home state of Gujarat).

But The Economist political columnist excelled himself this week with an article headed “The country will soon go into bat against Brussels with one of its weakest teams in decades”, adding:

“The best performer in the campaign, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is a 68-year-old crypto-communist who has never run anything except his own mouth. Theresa May, the Tory leader, tried to make the election all about herself and then demonstrated that there wasn’t much of a self to make it about. As for Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, he looked more like a schoolboy playing the part of a politician in an end-of-term play than a potential prime minister”.

The Farron remark ignored the fact that the magazine had recommended voting for his party, but the anonymous columnist did have a point. Corbyn has no administrative experience and May is an egotist who does not understand the basics of political leadership.

.Authoritarianism and intolerance cloud the record

The third anniversary of Narendra Modi being sworn in as prime minister was celebrated on May 26 with all the bombast that has come to characterise a nationalist administration built around the image of one man, backed by his chief henchman, Amit Shah, the arch Hindu-nationalist president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Modi went to Assam in the north east of the country to open India’s longest bridge and, along with statements from Shah and various ministers, paraded a series of extravagant claims about what has been achieved in the three years. Many of the assertions are difficult to verify, whereas critics produced an array of more easily accessible points on which the government has failed, not least on the growth of authoritarianism and intolerance that does not fit with the traditions of a country which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

PM Modi Dhola-Sadiya Bridge Assam

Narendra Modi at the Dohla-Sadiya Bridge in Assam

The most telling event of the day demonstrated how priorities focus on Hindu nationalism, even if that runs counter to the country’s economic interests. This was an announcement of a ban that had been gazetted earlier in the week severely restricting the sale of cattle for slaughter at livestock markets and animal fairs.

Billed as a protection of animals measure, it in effect supported opposition to beef eating, which the BJP’s more Hindu fundamentalist and sometimes violent activists have been spreading across the country with bans on the slaughter of India’s sacred cows.

The measure included buffaloes, which are widely eaten as beef, as well as other cattle. This will hit Muslim meat and leather traders, as well as many farmers who raise money by selling cows for slaughter after they have ceased producing milk. Experts have warned this could upset the economics of milk production and undermine India’s $5bn a year buffalo meat export market.

Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government condemned it as a “fascist and anti-federal move” adding, in a reference to people even being killed by beef-ban vigilantes, “Cattle slaughter becomes illegal at a time when manslaughter happens in the name of cow”.

That political jibe illustrates how the government’s critics believe its primary aims are slewed towards the Hinduisation of India, even though Modi’s top priority is building an economically strong India that earns respect and influence internationally.

Foreign policy lapses

Today (May 29) Modi flies to Germany for two days of talks with Angela Merkel, the  German chancellor, and her ministers, and will then go on to Spain and Russia. His foreign trips and overall policy have not yielded the gains that had been hoped when he made high profile visits around the world in his first year in office. Many multi-billion dollar promised deals and investments have failed to materialise.

Good rapport with President Obama did however help to strengthen relations with the US, while growing ties with countries to the east, notably Japan and Australia, could form the basis of a bulwark against China’s aggression.

Modi has tried to counter China’s wooing of India’s immediate neighbours, and has achieved some success with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but he has been inconsistent in dealings with Pakistan and relations have worsened. This has exacerbated instability in India’s northern state of Kashmir, which is mired in the worst social aunrest for many years with the government doing little to ease tensions.

At the same time, Modi seems to have abandoned attempts to develop co-operative relations with China, which holds virtually all the cards in the bilateral relationship and can use its closeness with Pakistan to destabilise both that country’s relations with India and life in Kashmir.

On May 26, Modi tweeted that his three years in power had seen concrete steps that had “transformed” people’s lives. “Sath hai, vishwas hai, ho raha vikas hai”  – “There is cooperation, there is confidence and progress is being made”.

Insufficient energy

The economy is strong with around 7% growth and various measures are in train such as the introduction of a long-delayed goods and services tax, but the contrasting view to what Modi said has been summed up well by Martin Wolf, who has been studying IndiA for over 30 years and is widely regarded as one of journalism’s best economic commentators.

Writing in the Financial Times, he says that the government “has shown insufficient energy in tackling both the immediate problems of inadequate private investment, excessive debt and feeble banks, and the longer-term problems of dreadful education, lousy healthcare, weak infrastructure, corruption, regulatory incompetence, excessive interference and government waste”.

Modi has posted graphics on various sectors such as agriculture, mobile banking, tele-density, women empowerment, electrification, and solar energy and included some of his favourite branded schemes such as Make in India and Digital India.

Make in India is said to have generated a “giant boost” to investments in electronic manufacturing that has multiplied ten times. There is however little evidence that the campaign has had much success in its primary aim of boosting manufacturing industry jobs, even in the defence manufacturing where there is most potential.

LocalCircles surveyA survey (left) of 40,000 people in 200 cities by LocalCircles, a social media organisation, found that only 8% thought Make in India had been the most effective campaign, whereas 47% voted for a direct benefit transfer scheme that pays subsidies via bank accounts.\

On Digital India, Modi’s tweets claimed that the country’s optical fibre broadband network had increased to 205,404 kms from just 358 kms in 2014, but a recent study by the Centre for Equity Studies shows that much of what was promised three years ago has not materialised. Only 37% of the optical fibre needed to reach 250,000 gram panchayats (village and small town councils) has been laid.

One of the biggest failures has been cashing in on what is called India’s “demographic dividend” with two-thirds of the population under 35 and providing jobs for new entrants in India’s labour market.

Writing on news and analysis website, M.K. Venu, a leading economic columnist, says that there has been a “sheer decline” in the creation of new jobs in the organised sector which includes textiles, metals, leather, gems and jewellery, information technology, call centres and automobiles from an average of 950,000 a year between 2009 and 2011 to 155,000 in 2015 and 231,000 last year. Venu reckons that unorganised small business new jobs will have followed a similar trend.


Modi repeatedly says he has “zero tolerance on corruption”. That seems to have had an impact on central government ministers and the top grades of bureaucrats, but not on the lower levels of government employees, nor in most state governments. A new bankruptcy code could have some impact, but the government has made no attempt to introduce a Lok Pal anti-corruption ombudsman that was planned by the last Congress government.

There is also scant evidence that its dramatic demonetisation project last November, when the validity of 86% of bank notes was cancelled overnight, has had a permanent effect on corrupt deals, money laundering and general graft, though there are some reports of, for example, real estate companies being more cautious about taking large payments in cash.

Piyush Goyal, minister for power, coal, and mines, reports that the number of villages without reliable access to electricity has been reduced from just over 18,000 in 2014 to around 4,000, and says he is aiming for the whole country to have round-the-clock access to electricity by 2019, three years ahead of an official government timetable. There is however no way that power will be in widespread use throughout the villages, even though it if it reaches them.

Overall, the LocalCircles survey showed that the 44% of the people said the government had met their expectations with 17% saying the expectations had been exceeded and 39% being dissatisfied.

The real question however is whether Modi will be able to say in two years time that he has delivered on what he was elected to do, namely change the way that India is run by making the machinery of government cleaner, more effective, and less bureaucratic, and whether he has created jobs and opportunities for the young.

“My prime minister is focused on speed and scale, he doesn’t like small targets,” Goyal told the Financial Times.

That must also mean that he does not like slow small results, which inevitably leads to extravagant claims of success, but there is no other national leader, or potential leader, to challenge Modi. The political opposition is weak, despite a current attempt to unite on the choice of India’s next president, so he is on strong ground.

Currently it looks therefore as if the BJP has a good chance of being re-elected in 2019. No-one knows however whether the growth of often intolerant Hindu nationalism, which horrifies India’s liberals and strikes fear among Muslims and some other minorities, will affect people’;s judgement on how well Modi has done..

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