BOOK REVIEW

“VANNI: A family’s struggle through the Sri Lankan conflict” by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

Benjamin Dix felt it was “a failure of the international system” when he was forced to abandon his job with the United Nations in northern Sri Lanka helping some of the thousands of Tamil people made homeless by the massive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

It was July 2008, and the UN was closing down its humanitarian work in Vanni, the north eastern part of Sri Lanka, because the army’s attacks on Tamil Tiger rebels were getting too close for it to guarantee the safety of its staff.

Vanni front cover“It was the abandonment of the people screaming at my office gates, people I’d got to know, that was the trauma,” says Dix. He went on to work in the Sudan after the liberation movement’s victory in 2005, but the trauma lasted for several years.

This has led him to produce a graphic novel, VANNI: A family’s struggle through the Sri Lankan conflict, which covers the human horrors of the tsunami and the stories of people caught in conflict at the end of the island’s civil war in 2009, with tens of thousands homeless and dead.

The book has just been published in India as well as the UK and US – see below for links – and a Tamil edition is envisaged for Sri Lanka.

Since 2012, Dix has run Positive Negatives, a not-for-profit organisation based at SOAS in London University, that uses the graphic novel cartoon strip approach to produce literary comics, animations and podcasts about social and humanitarian issues. “We combine ethnographic research with illustration, adapting personal testimonies and academic work into art, education and advocacy materials,” he says. “PhDs get excited about finding audiences for their work”.

Vanni family copy

The main family, the Ramachandrans, and their neighbours the Chologars before they were hit by the 2004 tsunami and rebel war

Projects have included some 50 stories viewed by more than 90m people such as a Syrian’s journey escaping to Europe as well as other refugee experiences.

Now there is a £20m commission from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to track various population migrations across the world. Also planned is a film for illiterates explaining how to fill in often bewildering consent forms.

Graphic novels recount horrific events in a way that prevents a reader’s attention being turned off by, for example, a whole page depiction of Tamil refugees being blown up by a bomb explosion, or a mother crying “let me grieve my son” as rockets hail down on her camp.

Such violence in the cartoons does not repel people to anywhere near the same degree as photos or a film, so they keep reading. It is also much more attention-grabbing than mere text and a few photos, and it makes the subjects feel more secure when they are being interviewed.

PTSD

“It’s very difficult to absorb people’s pain, but converting it into pictures means you don’t need to intrude into people’s privacy,” says Lindsay Pollock, Dix’s co-author who has drawn minutely detailed pictures across 250 pages of the book.

Pollock’s drawings bring to life the horrors of the attacks, and the fear and panic of civilians as they run with their belongings in search of safety. He depicts young men being made to kneel before they are shot, and of a young woman being raped. People drown in rivers, are crushed by collapsing buildings, and are blown apart by bomb blasts.

The idea of Vanni started in Dix’s mind when he left Sri Lanka and later took off as a PhD project. “It grew into a long story and morphed and could have continued to grow, but we needed it to be finished for the 10th anniversary of the war,”says Dix, who initially thought that the seven-year project, part-funded by a £30,000 Arts Council England grant, would be done in six months.

Hispital sheeled

a hospital bombed

His PhD thesis dealt with “how to take traumatic testimony and turn it into sequential art”, which Vanni does, dramatically.

It tells the story of a fictitious family, the Ramachandrans, and their neighbours the Chologars. They live in Chempiyanpattu, a small village on the northern Sri Lankan coast in the Tamil Tiger controlled area known as Vanni. First their homes are swept away by the tsunami and then their lives are threatened by the growing Sri Lankan assaults on the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE).

Together there are twelve adults and children in the two families, but by the end many have been lost or killed, reflecting the plight of 300,000 refugees, some 70,000 who died (according to the UN), and 140,000 who went missing (testified by the Catholic Bishop of Mannar).

Dix calls the book “non fiction fiction” because it recounts real life experiences fictionalised into the stories of the Ramachandrans, Chologars and others. With Pollock, he travelled by motorbike through Tamil Nadu meeting families. Pollock studied and sketched Tamil features and homes for use in his extremely detailed pictures.

12-Vanni 4 killing

They avoided going to Sri Lanka because they did not want to draw the government’s and security agencies’ attention to people they interviewed. They met Tamil refugees in Geneva, the UK and elsewhere – the 600,00-800,000 diaspora created by the disasters is spread across the world. Dix draws on stories from the time he was living in Vanni, and they studied official reports and talked to experts.

It is clear from the start of the book that the Tamil rebellion, which started in a major way in 1983, is deeply engrained into peoples’ lives. The father of the Ramachandran family had been killed in July 1983 riots in Colombo and a picture of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tamil Tigers’ leader, hangs ominously in pride of place on the wall of their home.

There is strong community support for the Tigers and, though they are also feared, there is peer pressure to be recruited and get involved. Young men who return from the rebel front lines in uniform are admired in the village, especially by younger relatives who want to be part of the glory, even though parents fear they will be killed.

Refugees driven on - from net“Our stolen Tamil land will be redeemed by our troops – Sea Tigers riding on the sea waves – We are uncontrollable human spinning bombs,” says Jagajeet, one of the Chologar’s sons, as he dons his Tiger uniform. Soon after, he steps on a land mine and loses a leg, the first of many casualties as the story unfolds, gradually revealing the hopelessness of Jagajeet’s dreams.

Ben and Lindsay

Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock at the book launch in London, relieved a seven-year project is complete

To begin with, there is hope that cease-fire talks would resolve the Tamils’ demands for more regional autonomy in the Sinhalese-dominated island.

Then disaster strikes in the form of a new Sri Lanka’s hard line president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence minister (who is a candidate in presidential elections in November).

The Rajapaksas opposed the peace process and eventually drove thousands of Tamils to their death in alleged “no fire zones” that were heavily shelled. Their aim was to ensure that every Tamil Tiger was killed, even though that meant the death of thousands of civilians.

That is the story told in this book. The pictures and the narrative are so graphic that readers will not be able to forget what they have seen and read. That of course is Dix’s aim, and he has succeeded.

Publishers 2019 (paperback):

UK: New Internationalist, London £16.99 ISBN 978-1-78026-515-5 https://newint.org/books/new-internationalist/vanni

USA: Penn State University Press $19.95 ISBN 978-0-271-08497-8 https://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-08497-8.html

India: Penguin Random House Rs799 ISBN 13 9780143449713 https://penguin.co.in/book/graphic-novel/vanni/

Posted by: John Elliott | October 24, 2019

Modi’s BJP fails to meet expectations in two state elections

Kashmir 370 does not work as a BJP rallying cry

Congress recovers in Haryana and ally improves in Maharashtra 

India’s democracy is often criticised for being corrupt and unrepresentative, but it has proved again this week that it works with voters reacting against a dominant power that is not delivering what they need.

This has happened in the important Haryana and Maharashtra state assembly elections where Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party juggernaut, fuelled by exaggerated fears of war with Pakistan and by anti-Muslim policies, has been disrupted because of voter dissatisfaction over a lack of jobs, the plight of poor farmers, inadequate infrastructure and other regional issues.

Votes counted yesterday (Oc 24) shows that the Congress Party, which has been in decline since its heavy defeat in May’s general election, has done far better than expected in Haryana, while its ally, the regional Nationalist Congress Party, has gained significantly in Maharashtra.

results

NDTV/24×7 graphic when the trends were clear, awaiting the final figures

The BJP has lost its overall majority in Haryana, having won 40 seats in the 90-seat assembly, seven less than in the last assembly elections five years ago. Congress has won 31, up 16. The recently created Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), which is linked to the Chautalas, a leading Haryana political dynasty, holds the balance of power with ten seats along with nine others. [Oct 27: The JJP joined up in a coalition with the BJP, giving it a majority – independents will also support it.]

The results are a serious blow to Modi and his party president, Amit Shah, the home minister, because the elections have been the first test of the BJP’s hardline Hindu nationalist policies since the party’s overwhelming general election victory in May. As opposition politicians have been saying since the results emerged , it has been shown that Modi and Shah are not invincible.

The setback comes a day after heavy criticism in the US Congress over the government’s controversial removal of the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under article 370 of the constitution. The criticism focuses on the continued security clampdown in the state with internet access suppressed, and politicians under house arrest for well over two months.

Campaigning in both Haryana and Maharashtra, Modi focussed almost exclusively on the removal of 370, claiming this would increase the country’s security and make it stronger against Pakistan.

Muslim discrimination

He and Shah also trumpeted their Citizenship Bill and National Register of Citizens (NRC) that discriminate against Muslims when assessing potentially illegal immigrants.

They hoped that this would deflect voters’ attention from their failure to tackle India’s worsening economic problems with GDP growth down to 5%, rising unemployment and a lack of fresh investment.

There appears to be widespread support in India for the Kashmir initiative, but this was not an effective campaign issue. Modi and Shah will now have to rethink their strategy before state assembly elections in Delhi next February, where the BJP are determined to reverse their defeat by the regional Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2015.

It had been widely expected that the BJP would improve its position this week in Maharashtra and Haryana, and this was supported by most exit polls published on October 21 evening when voting ended.

While it has lost its sole power in Haryana, it remains the government in Maharashtra in coalition with the state-based Shiv Sena Party, though with only 104 seats in the 288-seat assembly, 18 fewer than in the last election.

The regional NCP is increasing its tally by 13 to 54, a higher total than Congress’s 42, even though the BJP persuaded some NCP leaders to defect, and government investigation agencies launched high profile corruption charges against Praful Patel, one of its top leaders.

Congress could have won Haryana

Congress has lacked effective leadership nationally since Rahul Gandhi resigned as the party president after the general election. He was eventfully succeeded, supposedly on a temporary basis, by his mother Sonia Gandhi, but neither of them made many appearances during the election.

Rival Congress political factions have emerged in various states, including Haryana where Sonia Gandhi changed the leadership, replacing a Rahul Gandhi nominee with someone close to her.

As a result, the Congress lost a major opportunity to defeat the BJP in Haryana. More effective leadership (probably not by Rahul Gandhi) over the past five months could have led to an outright Congress victory there and could have also won more seats in Maharashtra.

The results do not mean that Congress has recovered from its downward slide nationally. It did well at the end of last year, defeating the BJP in state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, but then did badly in those states in May’s general election.

Nor does not mean that there is a significant swing against Modi and the BJP nationally. Voters make different choices in national and local elections, but this has been a warning that the government needs to get the economy and job creation moving, which it has so far failed to do.

Explains the rationale for ending Kashmir’s special status

Gives a finely tuned BJP politician’s account of events

India has conducted an unprecedented diplomatic campaign in America over the past ten days to try to win international understanding and support for its controversial announcement on August 5 that it is cancelling Jammu & Kashmir’s special status and imposing a state-wide security clampdown (that is now being eased).

Following prime minister Narendra Modi’s mega rally with president Donald Trump in Houston on September 22 and his speeches at United Nations meetings, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the foreign minister, has had an astonishingly large number of public appearances with virtually all the top foreign affairs think tanks, plus other audiences, in New York and Washington.

Formerly a top diplomat who retired as foreign secretary in January 2018, he has been spelling out how an increasingly strong and confident India is adopting its own style of foreign policy – and how the much criticised Kashmir move fits in with India’s continuing development because it was an attempt to solve a 65-year old problem.

jayshankar-CFR-khaskhabarJaishankar’s foreign policy statements emphasised India’s “multi-alignment”, which meant “you keep your relationships well-oiled with all the major power centres”. The country “which does that best actually has political positioning in the world which may be superior to its actual structural strengths,” he said at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York (above).

Thatmay not please Trump or China’s Xi Jinping – Trump wants exclusivity and Xi does not want India getting close to the US – but it is a notable updating of India’s Cold War policy of non-alignment.

“World affairs will see a proliferation of ‘frenemies’. They will emerge in both categories: allies who publicly turn on each other, or competitors who are compelled to make common cause on issues,” he told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “The game has now become one of positioning and optimizing”.

The remarks put the Trump-Modi Houston extravaganza in a non-aligned perspective, especially because, just three weeks after that event, Modi will be feting Xi – surely India’s leading “frenemy” – in the Tamil Nadu temple town of Mamallapuram on October 12-13.

Jaishankar confirmed while he was in America that India is buying a large-scale S400 missile defence system from Russia, despite strong objections from the US. He said he hoped to persuade the US not to retaliate and impose sanctions on India.

Sovereign rights

“We have always maintained that what we buy — the sourcing of military equipment — is very much a sovereign right,” Jaishankar told reporters just before he met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We would not like any state to tell us what to buy or not to buy from Russia, any more than we would like any state to tell us to buy or not buy from America”.

Jaishankar was not shy of going public with his think tank events – at least one of the host organisers was asked to turn what was to have been a background session into a filmed on-the-record open occasion. (Several of the events are available on YouTube, and some on the organisations’ websites). The Times of India has reported that Jaishankar’s other engagements included, nearly 100 diplomatic meetings.

Modi brought Jaishankar back from retirement to perform this role, spelling out India’s emerging foreign policy with jargon-free analysis while also explaining – extolling – Modi’s domestic policies and achievements.

Jaishankar set the tone for talking about the controversial cancelling of J&K’s article 370 semi-autonomous status when he said: “What we have presumed to be intractable challenges will have to be addressed, not ducked”.

“You had a state which was socially increasingly less aligned with the rest of the country….pretty much every progressive legislation in the country over the past twenty years did not get to be enacted and applied in Kashmir. And all of this really contributed to our political security challenge” he said at the CSIS.

J&K had not had the rest of India’s “economic activity and economic energy” which meant “less job opportunities, more sense of alienation, a sense of separatism, and therefore a climate for terrorism from across the border”, was how he put it at the CFR. It did not have India’s “progressive legislation” such as rights to work, education, and information, nor laws on domestic violence, juvenile-protection, representation of women, equal property and between men and women.

jaishankar swearing in

S.Jaishankar being sworn in as a minister in the Modi government

This “allowed really sort of a narrow elite to arbitrage this 370, to monopolize political power, to create a sort of a closed-loop politics” with a “vested interest in keeping alive separatist sentiment”.

Ignoring the primary fact that ending the special status fits the BJP’s over-riding aim to end Muslims’ special privileges, Jaishankar said  “Our expectation today is….that we will be able to push investments, economic activities, into Kashmir, that we will be able to frankly change the economic landscape, change the social landscape”.

Jaishankar put an even more optimistic spin on the heavy security clampdown with mass house-arrests and restrictions on communications that has horrified international opinion.

“Our challenge today is ….to ensure that this works on the ground” and  to “manage this transition situation without loss of life” by restricting “gathering of people and communication”. He justified the closing down of internet and social media because in the past they had been “used to radicalize and to mobilize”.

Amit Shah NRC

Amit Shah in West Bengal on the National Register of Citizens earlier this year

India needed that message to be spelt out because there is growing international concern about the restrictions on freedom of movement and communications.

Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador to India and long-time advocate for the country, reflected this when he closed the CFR session:

“Well, I think you’ve sensed, since you’ve been here, a very high degree of concern…..The responsibility lies with India to achieve the goals that you’ve set out tonight. And we all wish Kashmiris well and you well in re-finding stability in that state, building a different future”.

Jaishankar had even managed to deflect a question about “the erosion of the constitutional commitment to a secular state and the rise of a very politicized Hindu nationalism”, which is central to the BJP ethos.

“I don’t accept that secularism is under threat….secularism was not promoted by a law or by a constitutional belief,” he said.

“It was promoted by the ethos of the society [which] was not secular. No law, no constitutional provision, would have ensured it. And I don’t think the ethos of the society has changed. I think the ethos of India and the Hindu ethos of India is actually very secular. It’s very pluralistic”. What had changed was that economic power had moved from urban centres to Hindi-speaking rural areas.

With that last answer, Jaishankar’s presentations lost some of their overall credibility.

He had delivered an expert view on India’s foreign policy stance and a rational analysis of the Kashmir policy, but he took no account of the fact that Amit Shah, the home minister, BJP president and Modi’s closest ally, is certainly not behaving as though the Hindu ethos is very secular and pluralistic.

Currently Shah is stirring up emotions against Muslims with a Citizenship Bill and National Register of Citizens (NRC) that treats Muslims differently from other suspected illegal immigrants.

Jaishankar was demonstrating that he has moved on from being a respected foreign affairs expert and has become, as a member of the BJP government, a full time politician.

 

Posted by: John Elliott | September 23, 2019

Trump and Modi bond to woo some 50,000 Indian Americans

e“Howdy Modi” says Houston at joint jamboree with Trump

Hugs and walking hand in hand after Trump arrived late

Two of the world’s most powerful orator politicians bonded together yesterday (Sept 22) to woo an audience of tens of thousands of Indian Americans for their support and votes.

Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, and the US president, Donald Trump, were greeted by an ecstatically cheering crowd at a rally in a massive Houston football stadium

Billed as “Howdy Modi! Shared Dreams, Bright Futures”, and with 50,000 people registered to attend, this was a remarkable performance by the two leaders. After Trump had spoken for 25 minutes and Modi for 50, the Indian prime minister led the American president hand in hand round the stadium acknowledging the cheers.

IMG_6519

They will meet more formally in the next few days for talks that will try to solve a serious trade dispute between their two countries. In June, the US cancelled India’s beneficial status under a trade preferences scheme. And yesterday, among the smiles and hugs, Trump warned that he was determined Indian people would have access to “products stamped with the beautiful phrase Made in the USA”.

Modi is used to such Indian diaspora events – he has appeared at ten around the world since he was elected in 2014, most memorably at the first in New York’s Madison Square Garden a few months after he became prime minister. A year later he was in London’s Wembley Stadium where David Cameron, then the prime minister, introduced him to a 60,000 audience.

IMG_6532But yesterday was the first time an American president had shared such a rally with another country’s leader. It was also the largest audience in the US for a foreign leader, beaten only by Pope Francis in 2015.

The programme did not however begin quite according to plan. After a 90-minute warm-up session of music and dance by 400 artists that was greeted with frenzied applause, Modi walked dramatically on stage, met leading politicians and made his opening remarks. But Trump was nowhere to be seen – he’d decided to spend 30 unscheduled minutes with local coast guards and holding a press conference.

All was well when he eventually arrived and made his speech. It was, he said, a “profoundly historic event”. Modi was “great man and a great leader”. He spelt out how he has improved job opportunities for Indian Americans and got loud applause and a standing ovation, with Modi and his officials taking part, when he pledged to rid the country of “radical Islamic terrorism”. There was also sustained applause for him to “protect America’s borders”.

IMG_6498-1

Times of India graphic

Modi spelt out his government’s economic and other policies. He summed them up (probably fairly) when he said, “Today, India is challenging those who believe nothing can change.”

For Trump, it was a way to connect with some of America’s four million people of Indian origin ahead of next year’s presidential election.

He showed them his closeness to Modi and displayed a connection with India that many regard as their home country.  According to a 2018 survey, Indian Americans were more disapproving of Trump’s presidency than the average Asian Americans. On several key policy issues, they identified with Democratic Party policies.

For Modi, it was chance to woo people who may have a vote back in India, and who have money to donate to the BJP. They can also influence families back home, saying how impressed they were when they heard Modi speak. Diasporas are usually more intensely patriotic than people in the home country, and this makes many of them natural BJP supporters, especially now that Modi is driving a nationalist agenda.

IMG_6494

a pre-event poster

Modi also gained internationally from appearing alongside Trump. He said that Trump had introduced him to his family “and today I have the honour to introduce you to my family — over a billion Indians and people of Indian heritage around the globe”.

Such closeness is specially significant at a time when there has been some international criticism of Kashmir being deprived of its special status, along with an extended massive security clampdown on the freedom of movement and communications.

Modi’s main problem at home is that economic growth rate has fallen to 5%, but he attempted to deal with that last week by cutting corporate tax rates from 35% to 25%, the lowest since India became independent 72 years ago. That enabled him to make a positive economic pitch at the rally.

Both leaders will have gained from yesterday’s performance that was timed to be watched by evening television viewers in India. It now remains to be seen how long Trump can sustain the mood and resist his characteristic tendency to send disruptive tweets.

Posted by: John Elliott | September 6, 2019

Modi first 100 days hit by sharply slowing economic growth

Mega publicity blitz on the 100 days’ achievements

Modi tops the polls as best ever prime minister 

Narendra Modi’s government is launching a mega publicity splurge this weekend to parade its achievements during the first 100 days since the general election in an attempt to draw peoples’ attention away from its failure to stimulate India’s declining economic growth.

It hopes to repeat the general election’s Modi magic where the prime minister successfully steered the electorate’s eyes away from a faltering economy and promoted himself as the chowkidar or guard who would protect peoples’ security.

The government’s lists of successes that will be announced at a press conference on Saturday (Sept 7), and in subsequent events in Delhi and across the country. They will burnish the image of the prime minister who has dominated the news headlines during the 100 days.

Modi ratings IMG_6262

Poll results published in India Today (and below)

Modi’s popularity is at a record high. A poll published in India Today magazine found that 71% of those surveyed endorsed him (left). He was also rated as India’s best-ever prime minister by 37% of respondents, far above his predecessors (below). Another poll published in The Economic Times gave him 64% backing.

Reports suggest that Modi will mark the 100 days at India’s ISRO space agency headquarters in Bengaluru where he will watch the Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission landing on the moon. That notable achievement will be notched up as a BJP success, though it is really the result of decades of scientific work that began under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’ first prime minister.

Top of the list of achievements promoted this weekend will be the ending of the Muslim’s triple talaq divorce procedure and the cancellation of special rights and privileges for Jammu and Kashmir under the constitution’s Article 370. Both these measures appeal to the Bharatiya Janata Government’s Hindu vote bank, as does the drawing up of a National Register of Citizens in Assam that has controversially – and inaccurately – named 1.9m people as illegal immigrants.

The crisis that Modi and his colleagues are trying to blur is that the economy is growing at its slowest rate since 2012-13 after eight years of Congress rule. GDP growth fell to 5% in the three months to the end of June, down from 5.8% in the previous quarter and 8% a year earlier. Manufacturing growth has dropped to 0.6% compared with 12% a year ago with the auto industry especially hard hit, agriculture has fallen to 2% from 5% last year, and unemployment is rising.

Modi and PMs IMG_6261Such figures contradict Modi’s claims in the election campaign that his government was producing the country’s best ever economic figures. The figures also cast serious doubt on his target for India to have a $5 trillion economy by 2024, up from $2.7 trillion currently that the government has been hoping would rise to $3 trillion by next March.

His popularity ratings however show that there is widespread faith in his supreme ability to solve the problems, plus recognition across rural India that government schemes such as those to build toilets, electrify villages, finance construction of homes, and supply gas cylinders are widely appreciated, even if many are incomplete and do not work well.

Modi’s approach as prime minister has always been to launch unrealisable targets and claim exaggerated achievements. That links with a suggestion early on in the last government by Arun Shourie, a former BJP minister and strong Modi critic, that the government “believes that managing the economy means ‘managing the headlines’“.

An hour or so before the 5% growth figures were announced on August 30, the government grabbed the headlines by announcing a plan to merge ten public sector banks into four businesses, which would reduce the total number to 12 compared with 27 in 2017 before the start of a programme of phased mergers.

This is seen as a worthwhile and long awaited development for the over-indebted and often politically influenced banks, giving them stronger balance sheets and greater willingness to provide loans that will stimulate the economy. But these positive results will not come quickly and the announcement did not carry much significance for the immediate economic growth problems.

Other measures have included rolling back announcements in the July Budget that threatened foreign capital flows and undermined investor confidence, and persuading the Reserve Bank of India to help with budgetary financing by breaking with convention and transferring $25bn from its balance sheet to the government’s treasury. Foreign direct investment rules have been relaxed for mining and retailing.

Russian President Putin and Indian Prime Minister Modi visit the shipbuilding plant "Zvezda" outside Vladivostok

Narendra Modi in Russia this week with Vladimir Putin

These and other initiatives will not overcome the lack of consumer demand, nor correct the damage done to India’s small and medium sized business by the last government’s demonetisation of bank notes and complex introduction of a good and services tax.

Private sector investment is at a 15-year low, with a lack of business confidence that is partly caused by fear of intrusive government officials and over-bearing tax enforcement.

Throughout the 100 days there have been examples of the government’s basic authoritarian approach and of repression.

Corruption charges are being pursued mainly against high profile Congress politicians, while alleged crimes involving the BJP are not being tackled by the investigation agencies. This indicates that, even though he has won an overwhelming election victory, Modi is determined to continue to destroy the Congress Party’s reputation. The most notable example is P.Chidambaram being sent to Delhi’s Tihar Jail on remand for alleged corruption involving regulatory clearances when he was finance minister.

On another level, the government is trying to reduce what it regards as dissident influence in educational institutions. This has been demonstrated in a small but significant way by the leading Jawaharlal Nehru University asking Romila Thapar, 93, one of India’s most respected and lucid historians, to produce her curriculum vitae to justify why she should remain a professor emeritus.

Kashmir repression

The greatest repression however is in Jammu and Kashmir since the government cancelled the state’s special status under section 370 of the constitution, reduced it to the status of a union territory partly administered from Delhi, and hived off Ladakh.

For most of the last month, there has been a communications blackout with no telecommunication or internet links. Many areas have been under curfews with movements of people severely restricted. More than 500 politicians, including heads of mainstream political parties such as Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah have been detained in hotels and other locations, separated from their families apart from rare visits in recent days.

The government claims the state is peaceful but there are countless reports of demonstrations with violent action by security forces (described here). There are shortages of food and medical supplies. In one area, “local boys used forceps to take pellets out their wounds, fearful that a trip to the hospital could land them in jail” said one report. “The J&K police have a network of men in the city hospital to keep an eye on every visitor.”

The restrictions are being slowly lifted though Amit Shah, the home minister in charge of the operations, said internet would remained closed for most of this month. There is now a risk of violent reactions with activists whipping up widespread street protests and clashes with the authorities.

There are also signs of criticism building up in the US Congress about the security clampdown. So far Pakistan, which claims Kashmir as its territory, has failed to garner much international support for its complaints.

The story of the first 100 days is therefore mixed. Parliament had a record session ending a month ago, passing 28 pieces of legislation, though the government was criticised for restricting the opportunity for scrutiny of  proposals.

The overall impression is that Modi is determined to maintain the momentum of initiatives, though he has yet to find a way to reverse the slowing growth rate.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 6, 2019

Constitutional coup ends Kashmir’s historic rights

Changes have some support across India but methods are suspect

Lack of consultation and heavy security invite unrest in the future

Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government yesterday (Aug 5) overturned 70 years of history and controversially changed the constitutional standing of India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, cancelling its status as a full state and ending special rights and privileges.

An initiative to map out a new future for the Himalayan state is long overdue, and the recent general election manifesto of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said the government would take action by cancelling the effects of the constitution’s Article 370. [Modi made a television address on the decision on Aug 8]

This move has considerable support in India including from some leaders and younger members of the Congress Party that declared its opposition.

But yesterday’s unexpectedly rapid-fire  events were widely condemned because they evaded constitutional requirements and were carried out in a manner that invites a hostile and violent reaction in Kashmir.

Amit Shah paper

Home minister Amit Shah entering parliament with his papers clearly showing his check list for action on Kashmir – Huffington Post

The Muslim-dominated state is on a security lockdown with top political leaders, including two former chief ministers with strong democratic records, under house arrest.

More than 35,000 extra troops have been rushed to the area in recent days and movement of people is restricted. In Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, schools are closed, some 20,000 Indian and foreign tourists have been evacuated, and internet and telecommunications are shut down.

Whether the move to cancel Kashmir’s special status will lead long term to improved economic development and job opportunities is arguable, but it is clear that the government has gambled with the region’s future stability. The prime minister’s last sudden gamble was his bank note demonetisation in November 2016 that turned into an economic disaster.

This is one of several measures rushed with minimum debate through an extended Budget session of the parliament following the sweeping general election victory won in May by Modi’s BJP. Others included controversially ending the triple talaq Muslim divorce procedure, which shows the government is tackling key items on its Hindu nationalist agenda. Pending items on that agenda include introducing an Indian Civil Code to remove individual religions’ statutory rights and rebuilding a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in northern India, all of which come under Amit Shah, the hardline Home Minister and BJP president who drove yesterday’s moves.

Once security is relaxed, there are likely to be widespread and probably violent demonstrations and clashes with army, paramilitary forces and the police in Kashmir, exacerbating a situation that has worsened since Modi came to power in 2014. There will also be the risk of increased cross-border terrorist attacks from neighbouring Pakistan, as happened earlier this year when an attack triggered cross-border air combat.

Jammu and Kashmir is especially sensitive because part of the state is claimed by Pakistan, and there have been reports in the past few days of increased military activity across the disputed border or line of control.

There were street protests in Pakistan yesterday against India’s move. The foreign ministry said it would “exercise all possible options to counter the [India’s] illegal steps”, indicating that it would try to whip up international opposition.

Massive-Deployment-of-Troops-in-Kashmir

35,000 security forces sent to the region

Adding to the sense of crisis, US president Donald Trump has twice offered in the past two weeks to mediate over the two nuclear powers’ border dispute, which Modi rejected in line with India’s traditional insistence that the differences can only be tackled bilaterally.

Trump is being urged to intervene by Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, who recently had constructive talks with the president in Washington. Khan wants the US to become involved in Kashmir as part of a pay off for Pakistan co-operating with America in achieving a peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The BJP’s recent general election manifesto said it would end Kashmir’s semi-autonomous special privileges contained in the constitution’s Article 370, along with Article 35A’s ban on non-Kashmiris buying property. Its 2014 manifesto said this would be done “after full consultation with all the stakeholders”, but that phrase was dropped for this year’s election. Nevertheless, it had been assumed that the government would not act quickly, and would make the change a gradual process.

There was therefore widespread surprise yesterday when both the 370 and 35A rights were cancelled in a series of moves that began with a cabinet meeting, followed by Amit Shah making a statement in parliament. President Ramnath Kovind then signed an order cancelling the Article 370 provisions, and Shah began to steer legislation through parliament that divides the state into two Union Territories.

lake.jpg

Kashmir’s most famous tourist spot – Dal Lake in Srinagar

It had been expected that the government would propose a constitutional amendment revoking 370, which would have needed a two-thirds parliamentary majority that could have been difficult to achieve. The government instead chose a simpler route, with the president issuing an order that cancelled the state’s special status, while leaving Article 370 in place.

This is allowed under the constitution providing the state government agrees. Modi avoided having to seek that (almost certainly unattainable) agreement by pulling the BJP out of the state’s coalition administration in June 2018 and putting the state under what is called governor’s (ie Delhi’s) rule. Since then there has been no government to give its agreement, so Modi and Shah arranged for the president to act unilaterally, leading to accusations that they have evaded constitutional requirements.

Shah’s legislation was passed by the Rajya Sabha (upper house) yesterday and by the Lok Sabha (lower house) today, after a long debate and political uproar. It ends Jammu and Kashmir’s status as a state with a fully democratic assembly, and divides it into two Union Territories (UT). The Jammu and Kashmir UT will have an elected assembly, but the national government will play a permanent and direct role, as it does in other Union Territories such as the capital of Delhi and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The BJP’s National Democratic Alliance coalition has a substantial majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and is only a few seats short of a simple majority in the Rajya Sabha (house of elders).

modi_amit_kashmir_505_080519015857

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah

Some other parties supported it in the Rajya Sabha yesterday, which partly reflects a view across the country that ending the Article 370 measures and integrating Kashmir fully into the country is a good and long overdue move.

The 370 measure was intended to be temporary when it was introduced in 1950, and since then the state has been demanding increased autonomy. No government has tackled this issue, partly because of political inertia, but mainly because it would have been virtually impossible to do so without Pakistan wanting to be involved in the negotiations because of the disputed border.

The BJP has wanted to end the special treatment for years. Shah argued in parliament yesterday that benefits would include increased investment from elsewhere in India that has largely stayed away till now. Job opportunities would increase, education establishments would be developed, and doctors, other professionals and executives would be prepared to live in the state because they would be able to buy homes. He rejected fears that Kashmir’s culture and character would change, and added that Kashmiris would gain rights to information and education that have not existed in the state.

That may all be true, and there is no doubt that decisive government action has been needed for many years to break the policy logjam.

In their haste and determination to curb opposition however, Modi and Shah have unilaterally downgraded and fettered democratic institutions. They have done so by evading constitutional requirements and by putting the people and their leaders under crushing security restrictions.

That looks like a recipe for riots, violence and unrest, which Modi and Shah will seek to crush.

The criticism about yesterday’s events is therefore not so much about what the two politicians have done, but the way they have gone about it. The worry is about what other sudden unilateral power plays they are planning for the future.

Modi assumes credit but environmental protection has been cut

 Forest approvals waived for major railway projects

There’s rarely any good environmental news as storms and heat waves wreak havoc across the globe, but India has broken that trend with a big increase in its tiger population, reporting yesterday (July 29) that the total has risen by a third from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018.

This is significant because it means that India, which is home to 75% of the world’s wild tigers, is well on its way to meeting an international pledge to double the world’s tiger population by 2022.

As is usual in such a census, the 2,967 figure is an average of findings that ranged from 2,603 to 3,346. The 2,226 in 2014, and a 1,411 figure in 2006, were also averages, though the population may have been under-estimated in those years. Techniques have improved and the area covered has been enlarged in the latest census, and it is not clear how much that has contributed to the new total.

tiger_census_pm_modi_660_072919120846Always keen to claim credit for what is achieved, Narendra Modi, the prime minister, personally announced the figures (left) yesterday (July 29) and said India is “now one of the biggest and most secure habitats of the tiger”. He is also boosting his image by appearing in the Man vs Wild wilderness survival tv series, filmed in a tiger reserve.

His association with the figures however led some critics to question their validity, and his government has done little to improve the protection of the tiger and other wildlife such as elephants and leopards since it came to power in 2014.

Instead, it has done the opposite by whittling down the power of various environmental agencies and by easing the way for statutory environmental procedures to be avoided by infrastructure and other projects.

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

So it is not all good news, as the savage beating to death of a tiger in Uttar Pradesh by angry villagers shouting  “maar, maar” (beat it, beat it) three days ago also showed.

Conflict

The tigress was apparently involved in attacks on humans and the incident graphically illustrated a growing problem of human-animal conflict as development eats into tiger country.

“Rural communities in India have always shared their space with large predators such as tigers & leopards with occasional conflict, but in recent times as India’s the population has increased massively, forests & other wildlife habitats have shrunk and become fragmented, so there is huge pressure on them from surrounding villages,” says Belinda Wright, founder director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

“When the government or large companies want to extract minerals, create a dam, lay a new railway line, canal or highway, it is almost invariably in wildlife habitat. It is no longer a case of animals sharing space, but rather how to survive. In many areas, there just are not enough prey species and water for the big cats to survive, so they increasingly prey on livestock.”

_6cc57e42-e219-11e7-b4c0-9346261494eb

HT file photo

The new survey covered a wider area of 380,000 sq kms (147,000 sq miles), 20,000 sq kms more than in 2014. There were a total of 15,000 camera traps, up from 9,700 in 2014, which photographed 83% of the tigers recorded.

Tigers’ unique stripe patterns were compared to avoid double-counting and this was combined with extensive on-ground information recording tracks and data sampling of prey species, vegetation and human involvement.

Yesterday’s is the biggest increase since the current method of combining camera traps with marking animals began in 2006. That replaced a more easily falsified and less accurate method of making plaster casts of tigers’ pug marks.

There is no doubt that the results are impressive, and there has been an increase in some state-level efforts to curb poaching. In some areas however the numbers have dropped. In Chhattisgarh they are down to 19 from 46 in 2014 and in other eastern states the record is also poor, often because of industrial encroachment

Poaching gangs curbed

In the large western state of Maharashtra, the tiger numbers have gone up from 190 to 312. Nitin Desai of WPSI, who is based in the state, says that there has been no instances of organised poaching by traditional gangs in central India since 2013, when the Maharashtra Forest Department carried out a big operation against organised poachers from the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, virtually putting an end to their reign.

That does not mean that tiger deaths have not happened, nor that parts of tigers killed in other ways, for example by trucks on highways and electrocution by low hanging cables, has not led to the animal parts and skins being sold.

Tigers are getting killed in large numbers – at least 60 this year – as are leopards. India lost at least 218 leopards over the first four months of 2019, more than 40% of the previous year’s death toll of 500.

The main message from yesterday’s news is that India has far more tigers than had been thought, despite the killings. That is good, though the government needs to release more detailed figures so that they can be analysed by experts.

The cause of tiger conservation however is not served by a prime minister who uses the news to make unjustified claims.

Modi said in his statement: “We have to create a healthy balance between sustainability and development. More roads and cleaner rivers, more homes for citizens and, at the same time, quality habitat for animals are necessary for a strong, inclusive India.”

No one can argue about that. The problem is that his government is not creating or protecting “quality habitat for animals”. If it was, it would not be exempting the railway projects mentioned above from environmental tests and regulations.

Finance Minister Sitharaman delivers Modi’s Budget

‘Behavioural economics’ not controversial reforms to get 8% growth

Narendra Modi has said he intends to build India into a $5 trillion economy by 2024. Today (July 5) his finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, delivered a Budget speech that picked up on that ambition and mapped out what she described as a “five-year target” and a “ten year vision” for a “new India”. Neither Sitharaman nor Modi has however explained how the necessary economic growth would be achieved or financed.

There were few policy surprises in the speech, which set an ambitious agenda for the Modi government’s second term following his Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide election victory last month. With the mention of a ten-year vision, it did however indicate that the government envisages being in power for at least a decade.

nirmala-sitaraman-budget

Nirmala Sitharaman abandoned finance ministers’ tradition of carrying Budget papers in a dark red briefcase, saying it was “high time to move on from the British hangover.” She used a bahi khata or red cloth folder enclosed with a string and emblazoned with the national emblem.

There were also no signs that the prime minister intends to use his political strength to drive through controversial measures such as bank privatisation and labour law reforms that would encourage investment, but instead will adopt a gradualist approach aimed at nudging India into a new growth path.

This was indicated yesterday (July 4) in the finance ministry’s annual Economic Survey, which adopted “behavioural economics” to “nudge policies gently steer people towards desirable behaviour while preserving their liberty to choose”. The government, the survey added, was planning to go ahead with programmes to usher social change.

It was not therefore surprising that Sitharaman’s speech was thin on economics and financial strategy.  It contained none of the usual financial and monetary statistics on revenue, expenditure, deficits and  allocations, though some of these were announced in a pre-election interim budget on February 1. Various tax changes including higher rates for top earners.

The first hour of the speech listed old and new schemes that ranged from toilets-oriented Swachh Bharat, village electrification and building highways to expanding digitisation, reducing the use of cash, cleaning rivers and boosting space development. How these programmes would be achieved was not spelt out. There was a surprising lack of detailed focus on primary education and healthcare services that need urgent attention, though detailed figures showed a substantial increase in funding for health..

Sitharaman was slightly more cautious than Modi about the highly ambitious $5 trillion target, saying it was the aim for the “next few years”. The current level of $2.7 trillion would reach $3 trillion by next March.

Economists say it would take 11 or 12 years to achieve $5 trillion in real terms at the government’s target GDP growth rate of 8%, which has yet to be achieved. Growth dropped to a five-year low of 5.8% in the first three months of 2019 and the Economic Survey forecast 7% for the current financial year, noting that investment growth has bottomed out after years of decline.

Sith-Budget Prsident

Nirmala Sitharaman presenting the Budget documents to President Ram Nath Kovind (centre), accompanied by top Ministry of Finance officials

The $5 trillion is more realistic if it is measured in nominal terms including inflation, but the survey warned that it could only be achieved with a sustained 8% figure, and with the private sector as well as public sector investment that “drives demand, creates capacity, increases labour productivity, introduces new technology, allows creative destruction, and generates jobs”. That investment has however been lacking, though the Budget indicated that it is relying on foreign direct and portfolio investment and overseas borrowings.

As part of a special focus on encouraging entrepreneurs, corporate tax is being cut to 25% for companies with revenue of up to Rs4bn, and tax benefits are to be provided for start-ups, whose fundraising will be exempted from tax department scrutiny. There was however no relief for the biggest companies, which might have triggered much needed investment, and industrialists voiced concern about a suggestion that the minimum public shareholding in listed companies would be raised from 25% to 35%, reducing the holdings of promoters.

The government plans to ease foreign direct investment (FDI) regulations in sectors such as aviation, insurance (including intermediaries) and media animation, while local sourcing norms will be relaxed for single-brand retail companies. Protectionism has been extended with customs import duties being raised on 36 items ranging from cashew nuts and fatty acids to stainless steel products and books, though the rates were reduced on some other items.

Mega-manufacturing

Foreign companies will be invited to bid to set up “mega-manufacturing plants” in advanced technology areas such as semi-conductors, the solar industry, computer servers and laptops. They would receive tax exemptions and other benefits that are also being planned for manufacturing electric vehicles, with buyers receiving tax concessions.

Disinvestment of stakes in public sector companies (maybe of more than 51%) and in banks is to continue, including Air India that failed to find a buyer last year. Public sector banks, which urgently need reform, are being propped up with Rs700bn of fresh capital. An unpopular measure was an increase on one rupee in taxes on petrol and diesel.

A wide-ranging plan for the railways includes corporatising factories, redeveloping 50 railway stations, and modernising signalling systems. Labour laws are to be streamlined into four standardised labour codes, which should reduce disputes, though this falls short of significant reform.

The fiscal deficit target has been lowered from 3.4% to 3.3% for the current financial year, which Sitharaman almost forgot to mention, announcing it after she had finished her formal speech. Economists are sceptical whether this can be achieved.

Sitharaman delivered her two-hour speech with aplomb, but it was a Modi Budget, or maybe a Modi-Shah Budget with input from Amit Shah, the powerful party president and Home Minister. Sitharaman became India’s first woman finance minister only three weeks ago, and her appointment astonished observers and analysts because of her record in the last government as commerce and industry minister and then defence minister.

Modi has led in some pre-Budget discussions that would traditionally have been run by the finance minister, and the major decisions will have been taken by his Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) working with top finance ministry officials.

He was criticised in 2014 for not seizing the advantage of being a newly elected prime minister to tackle controversial reforms. It was thought then that he felt he needed first to learn how the central government operates.

He now has no such excuse, yet he seems to prefer incremental change, nudging forward. It remains to be seen if he has learned how to implement the myriad of policies and schemes involved.

Khakhar’s ‘coming out’ gay painting doubles his record at £2.5m

Famous artists’ distinctive early works win good prices

Sotheby’s achieved a double first in London this week with an auction of 30 South Asian paintings that had never before been offered for public sale, and then sold an explicitly gay work by Bhupen Khakhar, one of India’s most controversial modern artists, for £2.54m ($3.2m), more than doubling the artist’s previous auction record.

Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Benares, Oil o n canvas, 1982, est. £450,000-600,000

Two Men in Benares (left) has caused a sensation since Khakhar painted it in 1982, choosing the Hindus’ sacred city, also called Varanasi, for the location.

It is so explicit, with two naked men embracing alongside village scenes, that there have been objections to its public display since it was first shown in Mumbai in 1986, when Khakhar used it to indicate that he was gay (in a country where that was, till last year, illegal).

The £2.54m (£2.1m hammer price plus buyer’s premium) was more than four times the top estimate. It was achieved after a long drawn out tense series of small-step bids, eventually with two determined buyers battling through the second million pounds (below). The winner is believed to be an American, possibly buying for a US museum. The runner-up, who fought back till the price topped £2m, is thought to be an Indian collector living in London.

fullsizeoutput_5f7f

The auction, on June 10, totalled £5,489,875 (including buyer’s premium) and was the high spot of London’s South Asian art week. Sotheby’s had another general £1.97m sale, producing a total for the two auctions of £7.46m ($9.6m), far above the estimates of £4.1m-£5.8m).

On June 11 Christie’s annual London auction produced a total of  £5.88m, and a June 12-13 on-line auction by Mumbai-based Saffronart had total sales of $4.14m (Rs28.58 crores) – see below.

The Khakhar work formed part of a collection assembled, mostly directly from artists, by Guy and Helen Barbier, who visited India frequently from the US in the ten years from 1978 when he was setting up Arthur Anderson, then a leading accountancy firm. They became friendly with various artists including Khakhar, Ram Kumar, and two who are still painting in Delhi, Krishen Khanna and Rameshwar Broota.

Rameshwar Broota- Lot 20Helen Barbier, who was in London for the sale, said Khakhar’s Benares work was one of their favourites because it was a powerful spectacle of village life and humanity.

It was a time, she said, when artists were producing political and socially conscious works (more so than is usual now).

Two Broota paintings in the auction demonstrate this, both from the artist’s Ape series. They show, as one writer has put it, “a nation fighting internal demons and not ones from the outside”.

MF Hussain Lot 5

One of these works, Anatomy of that Old Story (above), almost quadrupled its estimate at £423,000 or $537,887 (£340,000 hammer price plus buyer’s premium).

The main strength of the collection is that it contained significant early works by famous names, done before the artists had settled into their better-known popular series.

There was an expressive painting, Marathi Women (above) by M.F.Husain that sold for a hammer price of £350,000, almost five times the estimate.

6PHBVf%jScSCC3mUEHSS%g

Townscapes, and an intimate painting of a couple, by Ram Kumar contrasted with his focus in later years on numerous landscape-based abstracts.

The Christie’s sale also benefited from offering early works, notably a cityscape (left) painted by S.H.Raza in 1952, long before he produced his usual bright squares, circles and triangles.

This gouache and ink on paper went for a hammer price of £450,000, more than double the top estimate of £200,000 and the second highest ever auction price paid for a South Asian work on paper. A Raza oil on canvas of a reddish church and landscape did similarly well.

These works were a refreshing change at the auctions that are usually dominated by the later works of the Progressives that led the Christie’s and Saffronart sales.

tyeb-mehta-falling-figure-with-bird

Christie’s had a Tyeb Mehta work, Falling Figure with Bird (right),  on their auction catalogue cover. Sotheby’s put on its cover an equally predictable but important F.N.Souza, which is untitled but known as Susanna and the Elders (below).  Souza described it as a “probable masterpiece” .

Both paid off. The Tyeb topped Christie’s sale at a hammer price of £1.4m, lower than the bottom £1.5m forecast. Sotheby’s Souza went for a hammer price of £980,000, beating a £800,000 top estimate.

The Saffronart auction was led by an early work by V.S.Gaitonde that sold for $1.38m, nearly doubling the mid-estimate. A Souza at $660,000 more than doubled the mid estimate.

Both were early works acquired direct by the owners from the artists and were being offered at auction for the first time. Souza gifted his brightly coloured townscape to a paints company that later became Winsor & Newton (now owned by Colart) – it is assumed the company did not charge him for the paints.

India art buyers are generally cautious and lack the imagination to stray far from these known names. The Barbier collection shows that the focus could be wider.

FN Souza- Susanna and the Elders

Posted by: John Elliott | May 31, 2019

Home minister Amit Shah tops India’s government with Modi

Former foreign secretary Jaishankar strengthens international role

Sitharaman a surprise finance minister as economy worsens

Education minister has said there were nuke tests 100,000 years ago

After an apparent hiatus that delayed the announcement of India’s cabinet for more than 12 hours, the names of Narendra Modi’s new government appeared at midday today (May 31), confirming what was already evident – that this is now a Modi-Shah government with Amit Shah, who till now had been the tough Bharatiya Janata Party president, sharing the limelight with Narendra Modi and becoming home minister.

Modi and his team were sworn in yesterday (May 30) in the grounds of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The crowd was so large – reportedly some 8,000 people – that it is tempting to suspect he was trying to replicate the swearing of a US president, where Donald Trump fared badly two years ago because of large gaps in the crowd.

2019_cabinet_swearing-in

crowds at the swearing in ceremony with Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president’s palace, in the background

The soundest appointment announced today was S. (Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar, 64, as minister for external affairs. A former foreign secretary and ambassador to the US under Modi (and earlier to China), Jaishankar is a strong advocate of Modi’s foreign policies. They have a matching vision of India’s role as a strong nation with key big-power bilateral relationships.

He will want to strengthen the country’s regional presence, and also sharpen the delivery and effectiveness of Indian diplomacy around the world. He has worked at the Tata group as an international ambassador for the past year, but there was always a strong possibility he would return to be with Modi after the election.

Top 4

The potentially most controversial appointment is Shah, 54, as minister for home affairs. A hardline Hindu nationalist, he has been outspoken on the need to take a tough line on matters such as illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar and a pending citizenship bill that is directed against Muslims. He is also likely to regard Kashmir as a problem to be dealt with by strong army and security operations, rather than a more collaborative approach, and will have control over the country’s paramilitary security forces.

Together, Shah and Jaishankar will strengthen the policy and strategic advice that Modi receives on key security and foreign affairs issues such as Pakistan and China, where Ajit Doval, a former spy chief has held tactical sway as Modi’s national security advisor in the prime minister’s office (PMO) since 2014.

The potentially weakest appointment is that of Nirmala Sitharaman, 59, who unexpectedly becomes minister for finance and corporate affairs, just as the seriousness of the country’s economic problems is becoming evident.

GDP figures released today confirm earlier disputed figures. In the three months to March the economy grew by only 5.8.%, down from around 6.5%,. The annual figure to end-March dropped from 7.2% in 2017-18 to 6.8%, the slowest for five years. New unemployment figures for what is known as the formal sector are at a 45-year record high of 6.1%. Agricultural growth is down at 2.9% from 5%.

PTI5_30_2019_000146A

Narendra Modi, taking the oath

These figures confirm the government’s failure to boost growth and tackle a growing job shortage, points that Modi, Jaitley and others were unwilling to acknowledge during the election campaign.

Help for farmers was announced along with other measures this evening at the new cabinet’s first meeting. Sitharaman’s primary focus is on the budget speech that she will deliver on July 5.

She has been mentored for years by Arun Jaitley, the outgoing finance minister, who told Modi this week that he could not take a government post because of serious ill health. She did not shine as minister of state in charge of the commerce and industry ministry from 2014, nor did she make sufficient early moves when she became defence minister 20 months ago.

Sitharaman will not however be totally in charge. As happened when Jaitley had the job, there is a strong nexus between top finance ministry officials and the PMO, which keeps a tight grip on all policies. Jaitley will also, presumably, continue his mentor’s role. She is only the second woman finance minister, the first being Indira Gandhi when she was prime minister 50 years ago.

Amit Shah was strongly rumoured by usually reliable media outlets just a few hours before the swearing in to be taking the finance ministry post. With previous experience as a stockbroker and as minister for finance (and many other areas) in Gujarat when Modi was the chief minister, he would have brought a sharp focussed mind to the job.

Whether the switch from Shah to Sitharaman, maybe linked with other changes, caused the more than 12-hour delay in announcing the cabinet is not yet clear.

new-delhi-balasore-bjp-mp-pratap-chandra-sarangi-takes-oath-as-union-848408

Pratap Chandra Sarangi takes the oath

The minister who understandably expected to get the finance job was Piyush Goyal, who became temporary finance minister when Jaitley was seriously ill last August and again earlier this year when he presented the government’s interim budget. He was an effective power and coal minister early in the last government and then took charge of railways. He now adds the key role of commerce and industry ministry, succeeding Suresh Prabhu who has not been given a ministerial post.

Prabhu was also the aviation minister during last year’s bungled attempt to privatise Air India. His number two, who has also been dropped, was Jayant Sinha, a former banker who was a successful minister of state at finance before he moved to aviation. Sinha’s career was possibly blighted by his father, former BJP finance minister Yashwant Sinha, being one of Modi’s most vocal critics among veteran politicians.

The job of trying again to privatise Air India has gone to Hardeep Singh Puri, a former top diplomat who became a Rajya Sabha MP and has been minister of state in charge of housing and urban affairs. His minister of state role has now been extended to take charge of aviation, even though he failed to win Amritsar for the BJP in the election.

Among other appointments, Rajnath Singh, who was home minister, has been moved to defence. Nitin Gadkari has added the important job-creating ministry of small and medium enterprises to his highways and transport portfolio. Former tv star Smriti Irani, who hit the headlines by winning Rahul Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency of Amethi in the election, has been given responsibility for women and child development in addition to textiles.

Nuke tests 100,000 years ago

Perhaps inevitably in a Hindu nationalist cabinet there were questionable ministerial candidates.

One was Pratap Chandra Sarangi (above) from Odisha (Orissa), who hit the popular headlines as he emerged from his bamboo hut where he lives to go to Delhi. He is also remembered as head of  the Bajrang Dal, a hardline rightwing group linked to the BJP, when a Hindu mob brutally killed Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in 1999.

Then there was Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, appointed minister of human resource development in charge of education. Referring to an ancient Hindu sage, he said in 2014, “We speak about nuclear science today. But Sage Kanad conducted nuclear test one lakh [100,000] years ago.”

Someone is ‘delusional’

Perhaps the most telling event of the day was the treatment by Amit Shah of Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) state-based party is in the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance. It won 16 seats in the election and the BJP won 17, so Kumar thought his party shold have the “proportional representation” of two ministers in the cabinet.

Indicating the government has lost none of its arrogance with allies, Shah told him there could only be one as a “symbolic representation”, which he declined.

Kumar had the last word with a sharp dig at Modi’s campaign grandstanding: “No one should have any confusion that it’s a victory of the people of Bihar. If somebody is claiming that this is his personal victory, then they are delusional.”

Older Posts »

Categories

%d bloggers like this: