Posted by: John Elliott | April 16, 2016

Does Delhi care as Kashmir erupts again?

Vested interests underpin inaction on the Kashmir “problem”

“SRINAGAR: There is virtually no prospect in the foreseeable future of long-term peace coming to India’s disputed state of Kashmir, eekhere the army has been called in today to quell a month of clashes between security forces and stone-throwing, mostly young, demonstrators.”

That was the introductory paragraph to an article that I wrote on this blog almost six years ago in July 2010 – and here is the almost identical intro to today’s article:

There is virtually no prospect in the foreseeable future of long-term peace coming to India’s disputed state of Kashmir, where the army has been called in to disperse people protesting against a soldier’s alleged molestation of a young girl.

Five people have been killed, some shot by the army – the fifth one when youth were throwing stones at an army camp. There are curfews in some areas, mobile internet services have been cut by security forces, and train services were suspended to the rest of India.

Life appeared to be mostly calm when I spent a few days in Kashmir just before the alleged molestation, though there were two indications of trouble even before the alleged molestation and army action.

PTI PhotoOne came after Kashmiri students at a National Institute of Technology (NIT) college in Srinagar in the politically sensitive Kashmir valley defiantly celebrated the West Indies defeating India on March 31 in a T-20 cricket World Cup semi-final. That triggered pro-India protests by the college’s students from other parts of the country who were then attacked with lathi (long bamboo stick) charges by Kashmir police. In the days that followed, the college became a fortress guarded by para-military forces (above).

The second indication came when thousands of people attended the funeral prayers (below) on April 7 of a militant belonging to Kashmir’s Hizbul Mujahideen separatist organisation, who had been shot by government forces in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

This was the latest example of people, especially the young, parading anti-India sentiment by attending such funerals – as many as 30,000 are reported, maybe with some exaggeration, to have been at the funeral of a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) commander last November, and there have been several other similar incidents. Youth also sometimes throw stones at the security forces to divert them while a militant under siege escapes.

Body of Dawood Ahmad Sheikh, Hizbul Mujahideen - InEx March 9 '16

The youth joining the militants are reported to be increasingly from well-off families, having been born in the early 1990s at the height of the troubles, growing up surrounded by violence and arrests. Even the black flag of the Islamic State (ISIS) is sometimes waved as an act of defiance.

“In the 1990s, it was anger and alienation, but now it is hatred against India,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq(below), a prominent Muslim cleric and a moderate leader of the Hurriyat, an umbrella separatist organisation. “I know militancy is not going to solve the problem, but we can’t control it”.

26TH_MIRWAIZ_1913645fSuch is the fragile situation in the apparently idyllic surroundings of the Kashmir valley, where tourists last week dodged the rain to enjoy boat rides on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, and travelled 50kms to the 2,650m (8,530ft) high Himalayan ski resort of Gulmarg to be pulled by local ski-wallahs on toboggans and ride to 4,200m on a cable car called the Gondola (below).

Reputed to be Asia’s highest suspended tramway, the Gondola is symbolic. It was commissioned in 1988 by the then chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, just before Kashmir’s insurgency and Pakistan-aided terrorism began. Pomagalski of France started construction, but work was abandoned in 1990. It was completed when the situation calmed down and the first stage was opened in May 1998.

It is symbolic because it illustrates Kashmir’s superficial normalcy, with the flow of tourists varying in the past 20 years while terrorism and militancy has come and gone in waves.

gondola 2Little has been done in the intervening years by either the national or state governments seriously to tackle what is generally referred to as the Kashmir “problem” as an internal India issue.

There have been many attempts to tackle it by forging peace with Pakistan, which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, but these have all failed. Narendra Modi’s current national administration has, if anything, made the situation worse than it was because of an erratic see-saw approach to relations with Pakistan.

“We in India wasted so many years in containing Kashmir militancy and, once it was contained, we sat back and were happy with the status quo, instead of taking advantage of the situation to forge a political solution,” says A.S.Dulat (below), who was a special adviser on Kashmir in the prime minister’s office in the early 2000s after a career in India’s intelligence services.

Writing in his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years that was published last year, Dulat explains that a major reason for a lack of progress is the role of vested interests who are happy for the current situation to continue.

ASDulat“The status quo has gone on a long time, with a lot of vested interests having been developed: the army, the police, the paramilitary, the bureaucracy, and politicians of every hue. Even separatists….obstinately cling on to the rebel identity because they are unable to grow” he says, pinpointing the different groups (he should have included the media) that enjoy consequential wealth, prestige, business opportunities and life-style in Kashmir (as they do in such situations elsewhere in the world).

Dulat admits in his book that the Indian government helps finance separatist organisations in Kashmir as well as informers from neighbouring Pakistan. Black money circulates widely, flowing across the Line of Control from Pakistan and from widespread corruption – and an increasing drug trade – that involves the security forces as well as the administration and other interests.

But what is the Kashmir “problem” that needs to be solved for the stand-off between the state and the rest of India to end, for troops and para-military forces to withdraw, and for life genuinely to return to pre-1989 normalcy?

Some Kashmiri separatist leaders still talk about becoming part of Pakistan or gaining independence, but that does not seem to be a popular cause because economic prospects would be reduced.

Protesters throw stones at police during clashes - PTI Photo

Protesters throw stones at police during clashes – PTI Photo

Calls for more autonomy from India are often heard and could be discussed if Delhi was prepared to bother, though that goes against the current Modi government’s approach to nationalism and its interest in repealing the state’s special constitutional provisions. Modi also refuses to recognise the Hurriyat as a legitimate party to any discussions (which conversely raises rather than reduces their image), while the Hurriyat insists on Pakistan being included in a three-way dialogue.

One view is that it is not really a “Kashmir problem” but a “Delhi problem” because it is Delhi that sustains the stand-off, preferring to leave things as they are, as Dulat’s book explains. To change that, Kashmir needs to be brought into the mainstream of India’s daily life, which would necessitate tackling the influence of the vested interests. “It’s an emotional issue. Kashmiris need justice and a feeling of dignity instead of feeling inadequate and ignored,” says an experienced observer.

There is now an opportunity for fresh initiatives because Modi’s BJP is a partner in the state’s coalition government with the local People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The government is headed as chief minister by the PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti (below), who succeeded her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, after he died on January 7. Mehbooba now has to assert her authority and straddle the contradictions inherent in leading a coalition government with the Hindu nationalist BJP in a state which is nearly 80% Muslim.

419573-file-pti-mehbooba-muftiA first step would be for Delhi to meet local demands for abolition of the 1990 Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), an emergency law that protects the armed forces from prosecution for alleged atrocities in the state. Next, some people suggest, Delhi could call the bluff of the Hurriyat leaders by reducing or withdrawing their covert financial support and persuading them to dare to test their real popular support in state assembly elections.

Delhi could also stop seeing Kashmir and Kashmiris through the prism of its relations with Pakistan. When the NIT college fracas began, the Delhi-based Indian media grossly over-played the clashes, criticising both the Kashmiri students for being anti-Indian (ie, pro Pakistan) and the local police for daring to beat up Indian students. (The reaction I heard in Srinagar was that the local police frequently beat up Kashmiri students, so why the fuss when they did it to those from the rest of India!)

The student clash need not have gown into a unnecessary crisis and should have been seen as just one of many displays of anti-India sentiment. For years, cricket matches have been used by Kashmiris for such protests, just as India-Pakistan matches have been used by Hindu nationalists, especially the Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena party, to protest against Pakistan.

As Basharat Peer, a Kashmiri writer, has put it succinctly in The Times of India, “Kashmiri students not cheering the Indian cricket team conveys the nature of the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar”. Even back in 1983, when Kashmir was peaceful, five years before the state’s insurgency and militancy began, there were cheers for the West Indies when it played against India in Srinagar. Some youngsters, remembers Peer, tried to dig up the pitch.

While a change of attitude in Delhi is essential, Kashmir urgently needs development to provide jobs for the youth and build hopes for the future. Big business is scared to invest because of the unrest and risks of terrorist attacks. Modi grabbed headlines when he visited the state last November and announced a Rs80,000 crore ($12bn) economic package, though not all the projects were new, and little has happened since then.

Basic development is needed with highways and sound village roads to open up opportunities for local trade spreading southwards. In the 1980s, I saw how the then new 800km Karakorum Highway through Gilgit-Baltistan to the Chinese border opened up village economies with locally-built connecting roads. The Chinese-built highway’s conception was strategic, but its main impact was developmental.

Delhi however has not proved itself good at such strategic thinking, preferring to leave things as they are, hoping (as India does in so many areas) that everything will be eventually work out ok, and can be fixed in the meantime.

As the final paragraph of my report said six years ago, “What hope is there then for the state’s youth? And what will they be throwing in the future if stones prove useless – grenades and bombs again, with Pakistan eagerly feeding their needs?”

MARCH 31: Tata writes down value of its UK steel operations to ‘almost zero’ reports the FT – company willing to give main Port Talbot away after failing to find a buyer. 

MARCH 30: Tata Steel’s decision late last night to seek buyers for its Corus steel business in the UK is the latest example of Indian companies finding they rushed too quickly and expensively into large foreign acquisitions that were all the rage a decade ago.  Some have been successful, notably Tata’s Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) car business but, for many, the burdens of rising debt, falling markets and lack of international savvy and expertise have led them to sell what they had bought during the “India shining” years of the 2000s.

tata-steel-corusThe Corus decision, which is triggering a political row in the UK, is a blow for the prestige of both Tata, one of India’s largest and most respectable conglomerates, and its former chairman, Ratan Tata, who drove the $13.6bn acquisition in 2007 despite opposition from some colleagues.

This was part of a plan to spread the group’s many businesses across the globe – $20bn was spent on foreign take-overs during Ratan Tata’s time in charge. Shedding Corus is the biggest and toughest decision taken by Cyrus MIstry, who took over as head of the group from Ratan Tata in 2012, presiding over (2012 figures) $100bn-plus revenues, more than half from 80 countries overseas.

It is also a blow for India – both the UK and Indian governments have been proud to boast that Tata is the biggest employer in the UK’s manufacturing industry, which it will no longer be once it loses Tata Steel’s 15,000 employees. Efforts have now started to find buyers at the same time as trade union opposition is being organised, with calls for the British government to help in what is becoming a major political issue over the future of the UK’s steel industry.


The deal looked logical because of synergy between Tata’s iron ore mining and steel producing business in India with Corus’s blast furnaces, rolling mills and other allied operations in the UK. But the purchase price was high, the steel market slumped internationally and Corus could not compete. With its mentor, Ratan Tata, gone and MIstry needing to shed debt, last night’s news was perhaps inevitable.

Up for sale is Britain’s biggest steelworks at Port Talbot. It employs 4,000 people and Tata says it is losing £1m a day, which will make it hard to find a buyer – though there are some suggestions that the UK government might consider temporary nationalisation. Plants in South Yorkshire, County Durham and Northamptonshire will also be put on the market. One estimate suggests that as many as 40,000 jobs could be at risk in allied supply-chain and downstream businesses.

In May 2007, I wrote in Fortune magazine about “the first flush of nationalistic fervour” that had greeted the Corus takeover and commented that there had been “so much foreign acquisition talk by Indian companies it seemed as if herd instinct had replaced financial caution”. And indeed, it had. Indian companies had reported 34 foreign acquisitions totalling $10.4bn as completed or pending so far that year, according to Dealogic, a British research firm. The total for the year 2006 was $23bn.

(That is small compared with China’s current international acquisitions. The Wall Street Journal has reported Chinese companies did deals worth roughly $68bn in the first few weeks of this year, which is about half the total for all of last year, according to Dealogic.)

From pupil to master - The Economist - AFP

Ratan Tata, when he retired in December 2012 and handed over to his successor Cyrus Mistry

Bankers were encouraging companies to make acquisitions, often without taking into account Indian companies’ lack of experience in very different environments abroad. “Both Tata and Birla are cushioned by substantial internal cash reserves that will enable them to cover debt taken on with the acquisitions,” one leading Mumbai banker told me for my Fortune article, wrongly in the case of Tata.

“Many companies had surplus cash, access to easy money, and hubris – an over-inflated view of what they could achieve,” a Mumbai banker said to me today.

To begin with, the overseas acquisitions were seen as an example of Indian companies growing up enough to venture outside their home markets. But by about 2009-2010, the story changed because bankers and businessmen wanted to castigate the Congress led government and its environment minister Jairam Ramesh, for making India such an unattractive place to invest that they were fleeing abroad. That may have been true in some cases, but it was mostly political spin.


Coal mines, steel plants, and power and other infrastructure projects top the lists of industries where Indian companies rushed headlong into unsustainable commitments.

Leading the pack of companies with problems caused by expanding too fast and too far is Arcelor Mittal, the world’s largest steel company that is controlled by Calcutta-born London based Lakshmi Mittal, which made an $8bn loss last year.

Companies shedding assets include Suzlon Energy, the world’s fifth-largest wind turbine maker and a stock market favourite some years ago, and a clutch of new infrastructure companies such as GMR, GVK and Lanco with interests in airports and other power, infrastructure and mining businesses.  Fortis Healthcare, run by part of the family that developed the Ranbaxy pharmaceuticals company, had a hospitals and allied businesses’ buying splurge in Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Vietnam and then shed assets.

Bharti AirTel, India’s biggest mobile telecom operator, over-reached when it assumed it could easily cope with mobile businesses across Africa. It has sold operations in places such as Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone as well as shedding a telecom towers business to raise cash. Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries got out of a US shale gas investment (though it profited from it financially, investing $254m and selling for $1bn five years later).

The Aditya Birla group did well with smallish acquisitions in carbon black and viscose fibre but then, seemingly left behind by other companies that were rushing abroad, acquired Novelis, a US industrial aluminium company, for $6bn. That seemed a neat fit with Birla’s Hindalco bauxite and aluminium producing business, but Birla paid too much and has been saddled with a financial burden.

There have of course been successes. Tata Motors provided Jaguar Land Rover with the financial strength and management commitment and focus that it had lacked under Ford, the previous owner. It was thus able to build on design work for new models that Ford had started.

Bharat Forge (Kalyani group) and the Mahindra group have also done well with relatively small scale acquisitions in manufacturing businesses linked with the auto industry. There have also been successes in the information technology area with the industry leaders such as Tata’s TCS, Wipro and Infosys plus smaller players, in healthcare by the Godrej group for example, and in the pharmaceutical industry.

So all is not lost and lessons have maybe been learned – take it slowly in small bites and avoid being swept along by a desire for size rather than precise business logic.


Posted by: John Elliott | March 24, 2016

“BJP’s swing to jingoism does not augur well”

“Misinterpreting nationalism – BJP’s swing to jingoism does not augur well”, said a headline earlier this week in the Business Standard, one of India’s leading newspapers. It reflected concern in India and abroad over what the paper called the governing BJP’s “disturbing drift towards hyper-nationalism”.

The only word slightly wrong there is “drift” because there is a growing suspicion among observers that this is not some gradual meandering, but a determination to develop divisive politics, driven for vote-catching reasons by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, notably Amit Shah, the party’s hardline president, Rajnath Singh, the government’s rather stern looking home minister, aided occasionally by Smriti Irani, the voluble minister for human resource development.

The latest example of their drive has come with a strident demand for people to prove their patriotism by declaring “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, which means “Victory to Mother India” (or the motherland).

Bharat Mata.jpgOriginally triggered a couple of weeks ago when a Muslim member of a regional assembly refused to recite the line, this is really a non-issue because a wide spectrum of the population (including some Muslims) have no problem with saying it (nor with others not saying it). It is also the slogan used by the Indian army. Some Muslims resist it because of the representation as a Hindu goddess (see illustration, left). Many people would prefer the conventional “Jai Hind” which means “Praise be to India”.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has led chanting of the Bharat Mata slogan at his big overseas Indians’ rallies in places like London’s Wembley Stadium, and this could have been a harmless debate until Shah and others said that not chanting it was “anti-national”. After a week of growing controversy that dominated the media, a meeting of the BJP’s national executive last weekend passed a resolution that said “refusal to chant victory to Bharat is tantamount to disrespect to our Constitution itself “.

The BJP ministers seem to believe that polarising opinion around such Hindu-driven nationalism, especially the word Bharat (Hindi for India), will be a vote winner for various assembly elections next month, followed by a key election in Uttar Pradesh state next year, and then the next general election that is due in 2019. For them, even opposition to the government is anti-national.

Modi presumably agrees, though he and they know that the BJP won the general election almost two years ago because of his image as a leader who would bring development and efficient government, not rampant nationalism. The BJP has lost key state elections in Bihar and Delhi in the past 15 months because Modi and others pushed the nationalist anti-Muslim agenda, but that has not deterred the hard-liners.

Modi and development

Modi is now stressing development. “Vikas, vikas, vikas (development) is my only focus and it is our country’s solution to all problems,” he said at the party’s executive meeting. He does not however seem to have tried to rein in Shah and the others, so maybe he and Shah will each run their own lines so as to broader the party’s appeal to voters.

That gels with reports that the RSS, the BJP’s ideology-driven parent organisation which steers the behaviour of the party’s leaders and government ministers, wants development to be included in the message. (The RSS has also recently softened its image by replacing its uniform of khaki shorts with long trousers). Arun Jaitley, the government chief spokesman and finance minister, said last weekend that both nationalism and development could proceed together – which is of course correct if the nationalist angle is not turned into social divisiveness.

It seems however as if the Hindu hardliners are continually seeking new ways of polarising opinion. This started late in 2014 when a government minister soured the government’s image by implying that non-Hindus (ie Muslims) were illegitimate. It continued through 2015 when eating beef, or rather not eating it, became a cause célèbre.

BJP's National Executive meet

Prime minister Narendra Modi (centre), BJP president Amit Shah (left), and finance minister Arun Jaitley at the BJP’s national executive meeting last weekend. (PTI Photo by Kamal Kishore)

A 50-year-old Muslim farm labourer was killed in September by a mob at Dadri, a town in Uttar Pradesh 56 kms from Delhi near the Noida satellite city, after the local Hindu temple broadcast a rumour that he had killed and eaten a cow. There have been other outrages over beef since then though, like the Bharat Mata, this need not have built up into a crisis because many many Indians have never eaten beef, including those who would never vote for the BJP.

Around the same time, a 76-year old renowned Kannada writer and prominent academic in southern India, was shot dead, allegedly by right wing extremists who objected to his rationalist views on idol worship and Hindu ritual and had frequently issued death threats. Lack of official concern for the writer’s killing (and two earlier murders of rationalists) led to country-wide protests, with many writers returning awards they had received in the past.

Last month there was a row at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University between left-wing leaders of the university students union, and the ABVP, the BJP’s student organisation that wants to gain control of the union. That led to violent protests and arrests on charges of alleged sedition and has now spilled over into unrest at other universities. There have been more violent scenes and arrests this week at a university in Hyderabad over unrest that was triggered by a student committing suicide in January after clashes involving the ABVP.


The intolerance of the hardliners was demonstrated a week ago at India Today magazine’s annual conclave in Delhi where the opposing sides in the JNU debate appeared together. The JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, a left-winger who was jailed for three weeks last month for alleged sedition, and his deputy Shehla Rashid, were calm and rational, whereas the representatives from the BJP’s the right-wing ABVP leaders, bellowed their messages and did not make a sound case.

Alongside these high profile campaigns, there is a more insidious invasion of freedoms, especially in academia which has always been a target for Hindutva activists. The most recent include reports of Urdu books being specially vetted to ensure they are not anti-government “For Urdu Publications, the Government’s Default Setting is Suspicion”, said a recent headline on The Wire website. Lecturers in a Delhi college were recently reprimanded by the university management for signing a petition supporting the JNU students.

It was inevitable when the BJP came to power in 2014 that there would be an onslaught on academia – for example with attempts to rewrite textbooks to reflect Hindu nationalists’ views of history and patriotism, and to remove the dominant narrative of the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. That happened during the last 1998-2004 BJP government, even though Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a moderate, was prime minister.

What was not foreseeable however in 2014 was the extent to which divisive ultra-nationalism would become a primary aim of the BJP and senior ministers. Shah and his colleagues seem to want to change society so that India’s becomes a strict Hindu nationalist nation, and dissenters are given short shrift. But that is not what the government was elected to do!

Posted by: John Elliott | March 11, 2016

Good times fade for Vijay Mallya as they did for Subrata Roy

The rural Hertfordshire village of Tewin, 40 miles north of London, has become a target for the Indian media this week because Vijay Mallya, the high profile Kingfisher beer and airline businessman, is rumoured to be there in one of his UK homes. He left India last week, just as the courts were closing in on him for massive loan defaults totalling some Rs9,000 crore ($1.3bn), plus alleged money laundering and other offences, at a time when concern is growing about India’s mountain of bad corporate debt.

Mallya Sahara Oct 13 '11.jpg

Subrata Roy (left) and Vijay Mallya in 2011

Mallya, who likes to be regarded as the “king of good times” and has seen himself as India’s answer to Richard Branson, was told two days ago by the supreme court in Delhi to return and appear by March 30 – with his passport, which the government wants impounded.

Today he has  been called by the Ministry of Finance’s Enforcement Directorate, which looks into foreign exchange dealings and money laundering, for March 18 in Mumbai.

Meanwhile his motor racing partner, Subrata Roy of the controversial Sahara real estate and personal savings group, has been living for two years this month in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, trying to generate enough funds from asset sales for the courts to let him out on bail.

That is a fate which Mallya presumably fears he could suffer if and when he returns to India and does not show more willingness to correct the mismatch between his public debt and private wealth and answer other charges.

Both these men were seen for many years as India’s most colourful tycoons. They were clearly crisis-prone, but that did not stop politicians, film stars, media people, and other public figures and hangers-on flocking round them and their lavish life-styles. Roy has shared a Formula 1 motor racing team with Mallya since he bailed him out with of an injection of funds in 2011 (photo above).

Their stories demonstrate the importance – and uncertainty – of political patronage, which is a vital business asset in India for many companies, and especially for those that operate on the fringes of business ethics and the law.

VM-PC LancHse July '15 479056222 copy.jpg

Prince Charles talks to Vijay Mallya (and his friends) at a Lancaster House reception and charity auction in London last summer

As the power of social media and round-the-clock television news coverage increases however, those who have thrived for years on crony relationship are more likely to be pursued and pilloried than they were in the past when they come unstuck – Mallya has been hit by a media frenzy that is shaming him for having fled (which he has denied) with his millions, leaving behind not only massive debts but also his airline staff who have not been paid for three years.

Political clout can wane and even collapse, as it did for Roy two years ago and is now beginning to do for Mallya. Roy thrived on powerful political links in his home state of Uttar Pradesh as well in Delhi. Mallya blossomed with backing from almost all political parties across the country – he is an MP and secured sponsorship for his membership of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house) both from the Bharatiya Janata Party and a regional party in his home state of Karnataka.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why political backing falls away, but it seems to have begun to happen to both Roy and Mallya when they became exasperatingly intransigent and unhelpful in meeting the demands from authorities to clear up debts and other alleged financial misdeeds.

Impatience with Mallya grew when he appeared to be defying the authorities by throwing an extravagant three-day 60th birthday party in Goa last December, just a month after the State Bank of India had declared him a “wilful defaulter”.

Then he announced on February 25 that he was planning to spend more time in the UK with his family. There was nothing wrong with that – he has a home there. But he said it at the same time as it was announced that he was receiving Rs 515 crore ($75m) personal payment as a final settlement with Diageo, the liquor group that has built a controlling stake in his United Distilleries business. He said that the payment “secures my family legacy”.

Debt mountain

It looked therefore as if he was disappearing to London with his millions just as, unfortunately for him, India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and the government are beginning to tackle the country’s mountain of bad corporate debt with state-owned banks that has reached near-crisis proportions.


source: First Post, RBI

On February 12, Raghuram Rajan, the RBI governor, set Indian banks a one-year deadline  to sort out their non-performing loans, and warned them at a meeting in Mumbai that this “may require deep surgery” not “band aids”. The escalating scale of the problem became clear when the RBI said that bad debts had more than tripled from Rs 15,551 crore for the financial year ending March 2012 to Rs 52,542 crore in March 2015. The Financial Times has reported that India’s stressed loan pile is now estimated to have hit about Rs8tn ($117bn).

It has also been estimated by The Wire news analysis that India’s ten most indebted business groups have about Rs.7.3 lakh crore (approximately $110bn) of loans in their books and are struggling to meet their interest payment obligations. Most of these companies are heavily invested in power, roads and telecom infrastructure projects or have been hit by falling world prices for commodities like steel.

Mallya’s inheritance

Mallya was just 28 when he inherited the United Breweries (UB) group with its Kingfisher beer and spirits business on the death of his father in 1983. When I interviewed him for The Economist in 2005, he told me he had “lived my age” – driving fast cars, breeding and racing horses, and partying. By 2005, he had a fleet of private jets, five homes in India and others abroad.

Opposition in 2011 to government help for Kingfisher Airlines

Opposition in 2011 to government help for Kingfisher Airlines

“Early in his career, he seemed set on fulfilling his critics’ prediction that he would squander his inheritance, as he expensively moved into chemicals and fertilisers, bought a stake in the Asian Age, a daily paper, ran two glossy magazines, and dabbled in filmmaking,” I wrote. “In America, he started a software firm, and bought some local papers, breweries and a vineyard”.

By 2005 he had done well, making UB the market leader in India and one of the world’s three largest liquor companies, but then he launched Kingfisher Airlines – primarily to enhance his beer brand. It was, he told me, “all about lifestyle, fun and aeroplanes – a complete Kingfisher experience”.

It was this ego-trip that saddled him with his current load of bad debt as he tried, ineffectively, to continue with a company that never made profits. He has often been accused of having a short attention span, and was known for his unstructured management style. He bought his Formula 1 motor racing team in 2007, when Forbes magazine put his wealth at a peak of $1.6bn, and a year later bought a cricket team in India’s private sector premier league, though by then he was already running into financial troubles.

Kingfisher’s problems worsened after it bought a budget airline, Air Deccan, in 2007 which blurred its up-market brand image. It eventually stopped flying in 2012, after it had failed to secure a government bale-out.

Since then, Mallya has seemed to be in denial, continuing his flash high-spending international life-style while the banks have been trying, without much success, to recoup their Kingfisher loans. Many of these loans were inexplicably extended and renewed (when the Congress-led government was in power), even though the airline was sinking.

The story of the past week or two illustrates both bureaucratic inefficiency and slothfulness, but it is also tempting to think that officials connived in letting Mallya leave the country.

NDTV March 9 '16.JPG

Media frenzy – NDTV, March 9

The announcements of the $75m payment and the move to London triggered a series of (ineffectual) steps by the State Bank of India and other banks to speed up recovery of their outstanding loans. However they appear not to have read the fine print of Mallya’s Diageo settlement, so do not seem to realise that he had already received $40m of the $75m and had probably banked it abroad. Money laundering, fraud and tax investigations and inquiries have been launched.

On March 1, Mallya attended the Rajya Sabha and the next afternoon flew out of India on a regular Jet Airways flight, without any attempt at secrecy.

But he seemed to indicate he was still in India by issuing a statement on March 6, when he was already abroad, saying, “I have been most pained at being painted as an absconder – I have neither the intention nor any reason to abscond”. It was not till two days ago that it was officially announced that he had left four days before that statement.

IMG_5350Today he has been on Twitter saying he frequently travels abroad and that “I did not flee from India, neither am I an absconder”. He reminded the media, which is hounding him, of the “help, favours, accommodation I have provided over several years which are documented”.

Subrata Roy, once the king of his own good times, has been in Delhi’s Tihar Jail for the past two years instead of in his closely guarded luxurious 270-acre compound in the centre of the north Indian city of Lucknow. He also mixed with film stars and powerful politicians of varying shades of respectability, many of whom, it has been widely rumoured, invested anonymously in his myriad of financial schemes that primarily drew savings from millions of the poor. He once owned an airline called Sahara which, like Mallya’s Kingfisher, was run not to make profits but to enhance the image of his main business.

Roy was jailed in 2012 after a series of cases and hearings involving the supreme court and SEBI, India’s stock market watchdog, which had ordered him to refund Rs24,000 crore (then $4bn, but the figure has now gone up to Rs36,000 crore) to 29.6m investors. Since 2012 he has been living what he claims in a new book  is a “stress free life”. He has been trying to secure his release on bail by raising Rs.10,000 crore to deposit with the court, half in cash and half as a bank guarantee, but has failed so far (operating from a rented conference room in the jail) to clinch sales of assets such as the grand but faded Grosvenor House hotel in London’s Park Lane.

There are many other much bigger groups hoping to evade bank strictures on their bad debts, and also more businessmen with dubious financial schemes. The courts have already shown what can happen by keeping Roy in jail with trial for two years. Now the legal system and the government have an opportunity to be tough with Mallya and show that a new regime has indeed begun that bypasses political patronage – if it has!

JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar at JNU

PTI Photo by Kamal Singh

Narendra Modi’s government got its come-uppance last night when Kanhaiya Kumar, the 29-year old Delhi student controversially accused of sedition three weeks ago, was released from jail on bail and immediately starred at a rapturous late-night rally (right)in the grounds of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Today he has followed that up with media interviews including two on television.

It is surely rare for a prisoner, other than a political hero, to walk to freedom and immediately hold such a protest meeting and challenge those who wanted him detained. Yet that is what the PhD student from a desperately poor background did, implicitly criticising Modi’s home minister Rajnath Singh, his emotionally combative education minister Smriti Irani, and B.S.Bassi, Delhi’s insensitively blunt police chief who metaphorically led the charge against students’ freedom of expression before he retired four days ago.

Kumar’s alleged crime (I wrote about it on this blog) was that a speech he made on February 9 was anti-national. “If anyone shouts anti-India slogan and challenges nation’s sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared”, Rajnath Singh had provocatively tweeted. “I have instructed the Delhi CP [chief of police] to take strong action against the anti-India elements,”

Violent scenes followed at the university and elsewhere, along with a national debate on the meaning of nationalism – and how far Singh and his colleagues thought that meant being loyal to their Hindu nationalist government. 

Kumar, who is president of the JNU students’ union, was the alleged leader of those “elements” and was arrested for sedition. Many legal experts said this was a mis-use of the law that dated back to British rule. Yesterday Kumar was freed on six-month bail on condition that he did “not participate actively or passively in any activity which may be termed as anti-national.”

That led him to establish his patriotism, saying, “We don’t want freedom (azadi) from India….We want freedom in India.” 

JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar at JNU

PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

Irani had demanded at the height of the row that the Indian tricolour flag should be flown on all university campuses, presumably daring students to challenge her instruction. So a large flag was waved energetically last night, in effect mocking Irani and demonstrating the student’s patriotism, though not for her Hindu nationalism.

It was compelling television, approaching midnight, and most channels ran it live. (It is worth watching the drama whether you speak Hindi or not. For the tv and an English summary click here – go to the last five minutes for the slogan chanting. For an English translation click here).

Kumar showed he has the charisma of a future political leader and now he has a national – and indeed international – reputation as a young leader who took on Modi and the government. He belongs to the AISF, the student wing of a minor Communist party, the CPI, but that need not restrict a political career in the future, though he has firmly said today that he is a student, not a politician. 

Last night he reasserted the students’ right to hold meetings and to protest, while carefully saying nothing that could encourage those in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its sometime-violent student wing, the ABVP, to strike back

Speaking  for some 50 minutes, Kumar said the charge of sedition had been used as a political tool against the students and attacked Modi for misleading people with his promises in the last election. If one criticised the government he said, a special cyber-cell would make doctored videos against you (as happened with him). 

IMG_5326 copyHe condemned BJP leaders and speakers on television discussion programmes for using the sacrifice of soldiers on India’s border with Pakistan to condemn the JNU students, some of who had been protesting about the execution of a Pakistani terrorist. He said he had been criticised for using the word azadi, or independence, and asked who he wanted independence from because India did not deny anyone their freedom. That led him to make the remark about wanting “freedom in India” and adding freedom from “hunger, corruption, poverty, casteism”.

A Delhi government-appointed inquiry by a magistrate did not, it was announced yesterday, find any evidence that he shouted anti-India slogans on February 9. It had examined seven tapes of students’ speeches, two of which turned out to have been been doctored to incriminate Kumar and other students

The events three weeks ago generated a wide debate, with many people condemning the students for their slogans and attitude, while opposing or at least not condoning the crisis that the government created with the sedition charges.

One extreme was illustrated by the judge in Delhi’s high court who said, when he granted Kumar bail, that some of what the students had said was not protected by freedom of speech and that it was “a kind of infection from which such students are suffering which needs to be controlled/cured before it becomes an epidemic”, adding:

“Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.”

This is far from the end of the story.  Dates for state assembly elections starting next month have been announced today, generating desperate campaigning by the BJP and its extreme wings that will emphasise Hindu nationalism and try to strengthen its hold on the country.

India’s finance minister Arun Jaitley is the calm voice at the top of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. His role is usually not to worry so much about the economy, but to try to present a sense of sanity and reasonableness as the government’s spokesman and information minister, while Modi avoids making many comments apart from mega rally speeches, and Amit Shah, the party’s president, exudes fear-inducing Hindu nationalism.

Jaitley has performed both the economy and information functions today with his annual budget speech that ran for just over 90 minutes. He focussed heavily on helping the rural poor with schemes that aim to begin to double farmers’ incomes by 2022 (an over-optimistic and probably unachievable target), and on accelerating investment in infrastructure, especially irrigation.

That should, the government hopes, increase consumer demand and economic growth, while also (though Jaitley of course did not say so) conveniently countering the Congress Party’s opposition line that the government is “not pro-poor” at a time when state assembly elections are looming.


Arun Jaitley and his team leave the finance ministry for parliament

Three days ago, Jaitley was performing the same calming role in an often screamingly angry two-day parliament debate after caste-based riots in the nearby state of Haryana had led to widespread violence and looting that cut water supplies to Delhi. The previous week had been dominated by clashes and protests in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University with rough police action and court cases, encouraged by government ministers, that irrationally accused students of sedition.

Image low

Today’s budget has therefore come when the image of India and the 22-month old Modi government has been damaged, and something is needed to revive confidence. Jaitley’s speech of course dealt with economic confidence, but it is really more important for the government to boost confidence in its politics and to show that it is not following a pre-planned policy of social divisiveness and restrictions on the freedom of speech aimed at strengthening Hindu nationalism and at enhancing the BJP’s Hindutva appeal..

Two friends visiting Delhi in the past week from the UK and US have told me how, viewed from abroad, India looks the best hope among major economies with its 7.6% growth at a time when other countries have problems. But, they both added, the social unrest and the divisive Hindu nationalist and repressive image of the government, was worrying investors.

It is against this background of social unrest and the government’s image problem that Jaitley made his speech today. His most important macro economic announcement was that he has not relaxed the government’s target of reducing the current 3.9% fiscal deficit to 3.5% of gdp in the coming year, despite being given conflicting advice that stimulating growth was more important.

Jaitley’s economic advisers, who produced the finance ministry’s annual economic survey at the end of last week, are suggesting that this year’s official 7.6% (some critics say inflated) growth figure might drop to 7% in the coming year instead of rising.

Nine pillars

Jaitley presented what he called a “transformative agenda”, with “nine pillars” covering benefits for farmers, rural communities, social issues such as health care, industry and skills, infrastructure, financial sector reforms, and governance and ease of doing business.

Proposed spending included $2.5bn in 2016-17 on delayed irrigation projects, $32bn on rail, road and other infrastructure. Another $3.6bn was announced to begin re-capitalising financially crippled state banks that have been hit by their often politically-inspired largesse of allowing massive bad loans to over-leveraged Indian companies.

But there were few significant economic reforms in the speech. Foreign ownership through direct investment is to be allowed in food processing and marketing businesses. The foreign portfolio investment limit in public sector corporations (apart from banks) is to go up from 24% to 49%, and 15% foreign investment will be allowed in stock exchanges, up from 5%.

Various measures were aimed at improving the ease of doing business in India’s rule-bound heavily bureaucratic environment, and a proposed bankruptcy code will ease the closure of bankrupt financial firms.

Chidambaram budget 2013

Palaniappan Chidambaram with his budget speech in 2013

Also included were a complex array of tax measures including some relief for small businesses, and an attack tax avoidance, plus a fresh effort (following a largely unsuccessful scheme last year) to persuade tax-payers to reveal undeclared assets.

Jaitley said that companies would not be hit, as was done in the past, by retrospective tax demands. He agreed to waive penalties and interest on outstanding payments, but failed to reassure companies such as Vodafone that are involved in outstanding multi-billion dollar cases.

Overall, the budget sounded like a long list of worthwhile innovations and incentives, though critics said it lacked an overall big idea, and that it would be difficult if not impossible to implement projects fast enough to use all the funds, especially in areas such as irrigation. Palaniappan Chidambaram (above), the last Congress government’s finance minister, noted that there had been no mention of (declining) exports, which was certainly odd. There was also virtually nothing to encourage private sector investment in manufacturing, and no mention of spending on defence where there was only a marginal budget increase despite inflated pension and pay commission costs.

Exports and the private sector however were not the targets of this politically targeted budget, which was aimed, as I have said, at shifting the government’s image from being pro-corporate to caring for the rural poor.

Now Jaitley’s job is to show, and to persuade his prime minister to show, that the government also cares for India being an open and free society without the repressive Hindu nationalist overtones.

Sometimes it seems as if Narendra Modi’s government just does not want to succeed with its economic policies – or at least that it gives a higher priority to pushing repressive social actions favoured by its arch Hindu nationalists and their often-violent supporters than it does to achieving business reforms and attracting foreign investment.

Dramatically conflicting events in the national capital of Delhi and the commercial capital of Mumbai in the past few days have illustrated this point.

They raise the question of whether Modi is in charge, or whether forces and rival factions within his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, plus some bureaucrats and other officials, undermine what he is trying to do.

The alternative view is that he approves of the ultra-nationalist approach, even though it might undermine his ambitions for the economy, especially at a time when state assembly elections are once again looming in the coming months.


A cartoon in the Indian Express showing the Make in India brand’s symbol of a lion carrying off a university student

In Mumbai, a massive Make in India promotional week was opened by Modi on February 13. It has been aimed at attracting foreign investors into job-creating manufacturing industry with a vision of India as an open and liberalising economy. Visitors have included the prime ministers of Sweden, Finland and Poland, together with top international industrialists.

Meanwhile in Delhi, the city’s police and Rajnath Singh, the home minister, triggered escalating violent and repressive clashes with students and the media that have continued till today over an issue which need never have become important outside the gates of the leftward-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the country’s leading educational institutions.

The clashes have dominated the newspapers and television, almost eclipsing the Make in India events – apart from a few hours on February 14 when a massive fire at a prestige cultural evening blazed for a few hours across the tv screens.

Foreign visitors to Mumbai might regard the students’ problem and subsequent violence as something that happens in most countries from time to time, and therefore not significant to any investment plans. But if they have inquired further, they will have discovered a government that has repressive overtones and that restricts freedom of expression more oppressively than past governments have done, while allowing its extreme wings to create social unrest.


Home minister Rajnath Singh

The way that the clashes with the students have been handled is also souring the political climate and is giving the Gandhi family-led Congress Party fresh excuses to obstruct parliament’s Budget Session that begins next week. This will not block finance minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech due on February 29, but it could upset new measures including a fresh attempts to pass urgently needed sales tax legislation.

Meanwhile, in the world of business, Modi’s Make in India message has also been undermined by finance ministry bureaucrats who have warned Vodafone, the British mobile phone company which is one of India’s biggest foreign investors, that the company’s assets might be seized if it failed to pay Rs 14,200 crore ($2.1bn) in disputed tax. This case is in arbitration, so there should be no threats, and Modi said in Mumbai that such tax demands were a thing of the past. As Vodafone put it yesterday, “In a week when Prime Minister Modi is promoting a tax-friendly environment for foreign investors, this seems a complete disconnect between the government and the tax department.”


student leader Kanhaiya Kumar

So who is setting the agendas? Was Rajnath Singh, who has sometimes been side-lined by Modi, not aware that that the escalating students’ row, and behaviour of the Delhi police who come under his charge, were undermining the prime minister’s investment pitch – and did the prime minister mind?

On a different level, the Vodafone warning raises a question about Jaitley’s control of his ministry’s bureaucrats because he was in Mumbai for the manufacturing promotion and would presumably not have wanted to see it undermined – he is also Modi’s chief spokesman and the minister for information.

The students’ crisis began on February 12 when Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU student union, was arrested and other students were suspended after an annual protest against the 2013 hanging of a convicted Kashmiri terrorist. Rajnath Singh condemned the students for “anti-national” activities and called for tough police action.


Delhi police chief B.S.Bassi

“If anyone shouts anti-India slogan and challenges nation’s sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared”, the home minister tweeted provocatively shortly before the arrests. “I have instructed the Delhi CP [chief of police] to take strong action against the anti-India elements,” he added, and repeated the remarks on television. The police gained unrestricted access to the university premises and Kumar was arrested on charges of sedition amid protests and scuffles.

The home minister must have realised that, by sending the police into the JNU and making such remarks, he was escalating what could have been an internal disciplinary matter into a headline-grabbing issue. He then went further and, on apparently weak evidence, suggested on February 14 that the student protest has been supported by Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group who is on India’s “wanted” list.

The minister’s mission was carried out by the Delhi police chief, B.S.Bassi, who adopts what is widely regarded as a pro-BJP line on many issues, ranging from this case to hassling the popularly-elected Aam Aadmi Party state government in Delhi that has just successfully completed its first year in office. Bassi retires on February 29, when he might enter politics or be given another job in the gift of the government.

Singh’s statements and Bassi’s actions were in effect curbing the freedom of expression and the right to protest, while supporting the BJP’s extreme and violent right-wing student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) that led the unrest. The ABVP rivals other student factions, including the far left Democratic Student’s Union (DSU) and a Democratic Student’s Front that was involved in February 12 protest.


Singh’s “anti-national” allegation and the use of a sedition law dating from the days of British rule has been widely criticised, while a claim by the human resources minister, Smriti Irani, that the nation would never tolerate any such “an insult to Mother India” was widely mocked for being out of proportion to what was happening. Both Congress and BJP governments have attempted to use the old sedition law to curb dissent, but there has never been a successful legal case and the supreme court ruled in 1962 that it could only be applied where there was “incitement to violence” against the government.

Bassi’s bias became evident when, having arrested Kanhaiya Kumar before carrying out any investigations, the police did not arrest lawyers (some with strong BJP connections and maybe also ABVP activists dressed up as lawyers) who have stormed Delhi’s Patiala House district court (above) where Kumar’s case is being heard, attacking students and journalists over the past three days. Bassi said he was investigating allegations, even though the actions of identifiable lawyers were being shown on television. A transcript of Kumar’s speech shows he was not inciting violence.

The violence and attacks on journalists have continued today and there have been reports that Kumar was assaulted inside the court. The supreme court has stepped in ordering the police to take action, make some arrests, and clear the Patiala court of protestors. Pointedly, it asked Bassi if he was able to maintain law and order. The government has also shown some signs of trying to calm the political mood, promising at a meeting of all parliamentary parties presided over yesterday by Modi to allow full debates on the events next week.

Kumar’s detention in jail was extended today by the Patiala court till March 2, which seems unnecessary, given that the student leader’s speech is fully available and he has told police he has not voiced anti-national views. His detention underlines concern that the government, and especially its right wing ministers and violent allied organisations, have no tolerance for students’  anti-establioshement views and are bent on restricting the independence of academic institutions and curb the freedom of expression, which has been seen on many other occasions since the general election in 2014.

The escalating crisis of the past six days need never have happened, and could have been ended on any one of the days by competent political management, unbiased and measured policing, and a respect for the rights of individuals – if the government had wanted to do so. The question that has been raised, as the Indian Express cartoon above asks, is what kind of India does Modi and his government think they are making?

It seems the most pointless military exercise in the world. Yet in the days since February 3 when ten Indian soldiers were hit by an avalanche and killed on the Siachen glacier some 20,000ft up in the Himalayas, it is clear there is no prospect of the 32-year old stand-off in the area between India and Pakistan ending in the foreseeable future.

Five days after the avalanche, one of the soldiers was discovered still alive under 35ft of snow. He died in hospital yesterday, after a national outpouring of grief and a visit to his bedside by Narendra Modi, the prime minister.


Along with the grief and extensive media coverage saluting India’s “brave hearts”, military voices have emerged arguing that the emotion should not lead to calls for India’s troops to be withdrawn – basically because Pakistan has not agreed a line for the border, and because relations with China are making the area increasingly sensitive. Pakistan reacted to the deaths by saying that a settlement should be reached quickly, but Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister, said today that “holding our presence in Siachen is very important”.

No shots have been fired since a ceasefire was agreed between India and Pakistan in 2003, but soldiers continue to die because of the conditions. With temperatures averaging minus 24 degrees centigrade and dropping sometimes to minus 50, they suffer from hypothermia and frostbite and, till relatively recently, the Indian troops were ill equipped to cope. India has lost 33 soldiers since August 2012 when parliament was told that the death toll was 846 since action began in 1984. In 2012, 129 Pakistani soldiers and eleven civilians were buried in an avalanche at a camp near the glacier.

siachen mapThe financial price is also high – about Rs7 crore (just over $1m) a day for India, according to reports, because of the high costs of air-lifting supplies by helicopter.

Indian politicians have often talked about ending the impasse. Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister, visited the glacier in 2005 and suggested – unrealistically – making it a “mountain of peace”.

Proposals have emerged at various times from “track two” behind-the-scenes consultations for a settlement as a “confidence building measure” between the two countries, which would also include resolving a disputed section of coastline know as Sir Creek between India’s state of Gujarat and Pakistan’s province of Sind. There were formal talks on Siachen in 2012 after the Pakistan avalanche, but the defence establishments objected – in India saying, as they still do, that the cause which led to such sacrifices cannot be thrown away.

“Siachen has become embedded in the Indian public consciousness as a symbol of national will and determination to succeed against all odds,” a retired Indian general said this week. “Siachen has acquired a sanctity of its own, which is part folklore, part military legend, part mythology, and a substantial measure of national pride.”


This is the only undemarcated area between the two countries (along with Sir Creek). There is a defined but disputed 776km Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. This is administered as a long-term though temporary arrangement, and there is regular firing between the two countries and loss of life. South of that is an undisputed 2,308km formal international border running down to the Arabian Sea.

The LoC was drawn on the basis of land occupied by both countries, but neither side had any presence in the uninhabited area further north up to Siachen, so this was not demarcated. Pakistan (and apparently the US) thought the line would continue eastwards to the Karakoram Pass with China (not to be confused with the quite separate Karakoram Highway to the west that links Pakistan with China across the Khunjerab Pass). That would have taken Siachen away from India, which, along with the joint Indo-Pak LoC demarcation process, thought the line should go northwards, thus officially giving it the glacier.

Siachen-mapThe trouble started in 1984 when Pakistan was dispatching groups of Japanese and other mountaineers to the area. India suspected Pakistan’s motives and mobilised its army, as did Pakistan – I was on holiday in the Pakistan’s Northern Areas during the summer of 1984 and saw helicopters flying off to the glacier from Skardu in Gilgit-Baltistan.

India is holding the dominant Saltoro Range to the west of Siachen, which gives it control of the glacier. Understandably, from a military point of view, it does not want to abandon that position without Pakistan agreeing to a demarcated line, which Pakistan, presumably encouraged by China, refuses to do.

To a bystander, it seems a pointless confrontation on the world’s highest so-called battlefield. And so it would be if China was not increasingly showing interest in the area, including the disputed territory of Aksai Chin that was part of the two countries’ brief 1962 border war, when India was defeated.

India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads ever since partition in 1947, when they became independent of Britain. They have fought three wars and one near-war (at Kargil in Kashmir in 1999). Successive prime ministers have dreamed of settling the differences, but have failed. Modi’s recent attempts with Nawaz Sharif the Pakistan prime minister, have floundered following last month’s terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot air base.

Pakistan’s army does not seem to want a settlement of the issues and the Islamic terrorist organisations based there certainly do not. Neither does China, which has a considerable hold over what Pakistan does.

The Siachen glacier stand-off is a significant part of that puzzle, so there is no chance that the Indian troops can leave any time soon.

Posted by: John Elliott | February 4, 2016

Street art adds drama for Delhi’s annual fair

Delhi’s annual India Art Fair that took place last weekend had style and crowds, but there was more artistic spontaneity on display a short auto-rickshaw ride further to the south of the city, where street artists were painting railway containers at a cargo depot in the shadow of a mountainous rubbish dump.


This is the fourth year that the artists have been active around Delhi, painting buildings in an attempt to liven up urban areas. Arjun Bahl, one of the organisers, talks about the art “giving people a sense of pride” in places where they live and work. He sees it as part of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign that generally arouses more scepticism than support.

These are not the sort of random unsanctioned graffiti works seen elsewhere, but a more formalised arrangement carried out – however improbable it may seem – in co-operation with India’s Ministry of Urban Development that runs the Swachh campaign and the government-owned Container Corporation of India (Concor).


Elephants by Senaka Senanayake

Now in its eighth year the Indian Art Fair (IAF), which also aims to spread knowledge about art, is establishing itself as an important regional venue for both established and new art collectors. For the biggest international galleries and collectors, it does not rival the annual Art Dubai fair that takes place next month, but it does attract a sprinkling of foreign buyers and institutions, though some galleries said they had seen fewer top collectors. It also generates a wide range of other activities in the capital,

This year’s overall quality of art on show was somewhat better than in the past. The organisers said this partly stemmed from 35% of galleries that applied being rejected by a selection committee, which reduced the total number from around 90 to 70. But there was little on show that was specially original or memorable, with few eye-catching installations, though the spacious layout of booths in large exhibition tents on the Okhla site was an enormous improvement on previous years.

Installation by Thukral and Tagra, Nature Morte, IMG_5103

With security guard, Nature Morte installation by Thukral and Tagra

The fair organisers have refused, for the first time, to announce attendance figures and indications of sales, even though many galleries said they had good results. This suggests that the attendance was not much higher than last year’s 80,000 visitors, though Neha Kirpal, the founder and director of the fair, talked without being specific about 100,000. Last year, the sales were said to be 25% above 2014’s (undisclosed) value, with the top 2% of collectors together spending “over Rs30 crore” (Rs300m, then $4.8m) 

The actual totals however need not be so sensitive as the public relations black-out makes them seem because the fair is successfully consolidating its position as an annual focal point for art activity.

Galleries that reported successful sales, or potential sales, included the London-based Grosvenor with paintings by Senaka Senanayake (above) from Sri Lanka. South Asian art was a special focus area for the fair, which could help to compensate for some European galleries that have stopped attending because of a lack of sales of foreign art plus Indian customs’ complex import and export regulations.

Also reflecting regional interest was the Hafez Gallery of Saudi Arabia, which might indicate that India’s collectors are broadening to Middle East art. Nature Morte, the pace-making Delhi contemporary gallery, also had good sales, as did the Experimenter from Kolkata that had one of the more innovative and interesting stands.

Raza IMG_5151The biggest display was staged by the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) with two large spaces, one devoted to its impressive collection of Indian masters. The gallery ran its own lectures and school visits, separate from those organised by the fair, as well as a daily newspaper, firmly establishing it as the biggest spender among India’s galleries. It even had a Raza painting reproduced in a pattern of lines and grids on acrylic (left and below) for blind people to be able to explore the work, along with a description in Braille. 

Raza for blind IMG_5149Curiously however it did not show it’s latest prize purchase – a large F.N.Souza, Man and Woman Laughing, which it said would be on show after it bought the work at a Saffronart auction in Delhi last September for Rs16.84 crore ($2.59m), displaying financial muscle that took the art world by surprise.

Fringe events included India Today magazine’s Art Awards that honoured elderly veteran painters S.H.Raza and Krishen Khanna and, among others, the Experimenter Gallery. Continuing exhibitions include a show of works at The National Gallery of Modern Art by Bhupen Khakhar, a modern painter whose works will be at London’s Tate Modern gallery in June. The Devi and Gujral art foundations have an abstract exhibition on 1947 partition, This Night Bitten Dawn, in a Jor Bagh house curated by Salima Hashmi from Pakistan.

paint-silverleaf fibreglass bull by Arunkumar HG below an M.F.Husain - Crayon Gallery

paint-silverleaf fibreglass buffalo by Arunkumar HG below an M.F.Husain – Crayon Gallery

Among others. collector Kiran Nadar’s museum in south Delhi features Himmat Shah, and Vijay Kumar’s archive in the satellite city of Noida is showing a collection by Jamini Roy, while a 50th anniversary exhibition of works is on at the Kumar (no relation) Gallery in Sunder Nagar. The British Council is displaying work by 55 Indian and British painters on playing cards. Last month, Mumbai’s India Art Festival held a much smaller event at the National Stadium in the centre of Delhi, catering for less significant galleries and art shops.

The street art has mostly appeared on government buildings, including some office blocks and the Lodhi Colony residential area in central Delhi, using paint supplied free by Asian Paints, India’s biggest manufacturer. The container initiative started when Sanjay Bajpai, the manager of the Concor container terminal at Tughlakabad, heard about Arjun Bahl’s St+art Foundation and offered a group of 100 ventilated food containers that might later travel together as a cargo train. 

IMG_5076Last weekend, 24 Indian and international artists included Amitabh Kumar from Bangalore, who was painting five containers (below) with a massive beast that was headless, he said, to mark the (not yet confirmed) death of the nearby rubbish mountain. For him, street art “spreads the perception of art to a wider audience”. That neatly fits with Neha Kirpal’s concept for the art fair, which has a big out-reach programme to local schools.

So it doesn’t really matter if there are 80,000 or 100,000 people at the fair, nor whether a large number of famous London and New York galleries have stands. More important is that the fair continues to pull in the most significant Indian galleries and collectors, plus others from the region,and that it remains a focus for other events and generates a wider awareness about art in Delhi – and in Mumbai, if one day it moves there.IMG_5090

Posted by: John Elliott | January 28, 2016

Crowds and personalities throng to the Jaipur lit fest

Whether you want to hear about the provision of toilets and treatment of excreta in India or the life and times of a transgender, or listen to one of Britain most famous comedian personalities or a pressured Indian bureaucrat defending his patch, or how the US has caused chaos in the Middle East ousting established regimes, the Jaipur Literature Festival was the place to be last weekend.

IMG_5028Thronged with a record 330,000 “footfalls” (a definition that includes repeat visitors) over five days, the festival, now inelegantly known as JLF, continues to grow and defy the stresses and strains of crowd control by absorbing the thousands of people without disturbances.

It is billed as the world’s largest free lit fest and, in the eleven years since it began as part of a broader arts festival, it has spawned more than 100 others around India and the rest of South Asia. Writers with new books to peddle travel along with established big names from Delhi to Calcutta and on to Chennai and Bangalore and from Goa to Mumbai and Hyderabad while there are more in the Himalayan foothills at Kasauli, Shimla and elsewhere – plus Lahore in Pakistan, Thimphu in Bhutan and Dhaka in Bangladesh.

None of these other locations however measure up to the sheer size and spread of the Jaipur fest which benefits from the colour and traditions of taking place in the capital of the desert state of Rajasthan with excitement of the crowds and vast mixture of speakers in English, Hindi and other regional languages.

Margaret Atwood, the veteran Canadian writer, launched the festival, saying “we become writers because we love to read”, and “the writer’s ‘other half’ is the reader”. She was followed by famous names such as novelists Colm Tóibín, Marlon James and David Grossman, and writer and television personality Stephen Fry.

Rachel Kelley, a writer and journalist, talked about using poetry to overcome depression while Tristram Hunt put aside his role as a Labour Party member of parliament in the UK to talk about his book on “ten cities that made an empire” – including Mumbai and Calcutta as well as Cape Town and Hong Kong.

Ruskin-Bond-1453440565Ruskin Bond (left), an India-based veteran in his early 80s, seemed to hanker for the days before television and literary festivals when writers could ”remain anonymous and not be known as a face”.

Tell that to three voluble writers in their 50s who revel each year in popping up repeatedly on various of the festival’s five stages – Shashi Tharoor, a former senior United National official and now an erudite Congress Party politician, William Dalrymple, a historian writer and the festival’s ebullient co-director, and Swapan Dasgupta, a widely-read Anglophile columnist with strong Bharatiya Janata Party links.

All three were involved in sessions and writings that, among other things, are gradually lifting the lid on the horrors of India under British rule, especially the marauding East India Company with its early versions of crony capitalism. Dasgupta and Dalrymple discussed all this in one session with Ferdinand Mount, a British writer whose book The Tears of the Rajas traces his Scottish family’s involvement in, to quote the subtitle, “money, mutiny and marriage in India 1805-1905”.

The excreta and toilets were discussed in a session titled Swachh Bharat: The India story. Sanchaita Gajapati Raju, aged 30, talked (below) about her voluntary organisation that brings sanitation, toilets and clean drinking waster to villages in Andhra Pradesh. This was one of several sessions that aired complaints and frustrations about the government of Narendra Modi, and especially about his high profile but yet-to-be-effective schemes, one of which is called Swachh Bharat or Clean India.

Anustup Nayak (L), Shashi Tharoor (2L), Sanchaita Gajapati Raju (2R),  story writer, novelist Desraj Kali (R) - Getty Images

Amitabh Kant, a top industry ministry bureaucrat who runs two government schemes, Make in India and Start-Up India, showed how stressful it is making the most of such endeavours for the prime minister when I questioned him on progress during a session last Friday. He didn’t seem to realise the strength of widespread criticism about the Modi approach and about how little has been done to ease the path for businessmen who run into constant bureaucratic blockages, accusing me of being “frozen in time” `and “anti (all) governments” when I challenged his forceful assertions. The frustrations however came out clearly when I talked a couple of days later with a business panel who tried not to be too critical of the government but were clearly less than impressed about what has been achieved.

To begin with, it looked as if the festival would not take place, or at least not in the ever-expanding stylish surrounding of the Jaipur’s Diggi Palace. A dispute in the family that own the palace triggered a court case last week that was loosely based on fears of a terrorist attack as well as filial jealousies. But after a stubborn police chief had been shunted out of his Jaipur post, a local judge wisely delayed hearings on the case till after the festival was over, avoiding the chaos that would have been caused by changing the arrangements and travel plans of some 380 visiting speakers as well as tourists and local visitors.

Meanwhile some of the best news at the festival was that Delhi’s Full Circle book shop was back running the book store, having been ousted last year by that used its multi-national muscle to outbid it with a big financial down payment. Amazon turned out to be more interested in selling its Kindle book-readers than actual books, and this year the festival organisers responded to popular pressure and went back to Full Circle – a small victory for Riding the Elephant because I campaigned on this blog a year ago for Amazon to go.

Throughout, there was the backdrop of an on-going debate in India about freedom of expression and how that has been coming under attack under the Modi government. Karan Johar, a popular film producer said that freedom of expression was the “biggest joke” and that “saying something in Jaipur” could lead to court action against him elsewhere.

Curiously a noisy debate at the end of the festival accepted that freedom of expression could be “conditional” and chanted “Modi Modi Modi” when Anupam Kher, a popular actor (awarded the  Padma Bhushan honour by the president of India the next day) disagreed with the mass of the literary fraternity by arguing that freedom did exist. It seems unlikely that most of the crowd agreed with him, though the vote went in his favour – and that I guess is freedom of expression, however transitory!

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