Posted by: John Elliott | November 8, 2015

Narendra Modi and the BJP routed in Bihar state election

Indian politics have today been hit with the biggest disruption since last year’s general election, with prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suffering an unexpectedly heavy defeat in the state of Bihar’s assembly polls. 

A close result had been widely predicted, but that proved wrong and a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Nitish Kumar, chief minister for the past ten years, has won 178 seats in the 243-seat assembly, while Modi’s BJP-led group has only 58.

The winners Lalu Yadav (left) and Nitish Kumar

The winners – Lalu Yadav (left) and Nitish Kumar

This is a personal defeat for Modi, who addressed about 30 election campaign meetings, far more than is usual for a prime minister in a state election, and was relying for victory on his personal charisma that won him last year’s general election. It is also a significant defeat for Amit Shah, Modi’s abrasive chief aide and president of the BJP, who exemplifies the Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim approach of many leaders both in the party and in the RSS, the ideology-driven parent organisation.

It is also a serious setback for his government, which needed a victory in Bihar to begin to build up its minority position in parliament’s Rajya Sabha (upper house) where members are indirectly elected via the states.

Modi leaves in a few days for a visit to the UK where, next Friday November 13, he will address what was expected to be a celebratory assembly of some 70,000 overseas Indians in London’s mammoth Wembley Stadium. He will no doubt still be cheered like a pop star, as he has done at similar spectaculars in other capitals over the past year (though there have been some reports of a backlash). It will be worth watching to see if he shows how he intends to recover his political authority in India.

Modi and Shah ran a divisive campaign, which included trying to rally Bihar’s majority Hindu electorate with anti-Muslim rhetoric. The BJP claims it had a development-oriented agenda, but that did not emerge from most of the campaign speeches at a time when the national focus has been on extremists trying to ban beef eating and restrict freedom of speech.

Narendra Modi (left) and Amit Shah

The losers – Narendra Modi (left) and Amit Shah

Nitish Kumar , leader of the Bihar-based Janata Dal United (JDU) party has won a remarkable victory, being voted in as chief minister for a third consecutive term.

The most surprising aspect of the result however is that Bihar’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister convicted of massive corruption, has won more seats than Kumar’s party – 80 compared with 71, going up by around 55 whereas Kumar has lost some 45. The Congress Party also did surprisingly well, winning 27 seats, up from just four in the last (2010) state assembly election.

Yadav is disqualified from standing for election or holding political office, but he is still his party’s leader and is lauded for leading a social revolution in the 1990s that empowered his backward Yadav caste. 

This indicates that the election result stemmed from a strong vote by Lalu Yadav’s large Yadav caste and other low castes and Muslims combined with recognition of Kumar’s development record, and concern about the Modi and Shah divisive approach.

Kumar has done an amazing job building roads, bridges, and electric power supplies, as I saw on a visit to the state a week ago. That was specially evident in his first term in office, but he has shown little or no interest in promoting private sector business and entrepreneurship, which the BJP could have been expected to do, had it won.

Kumar therefore has two main challenges. One is to ensure that he and not Yadav’s RJD runs the government – and, linked with that, he attacks corruption which he has failed to do effectively in the past. 

Second, he needs to broaden his development horizons for what is India’s poorest state so that businesses begin to appear along the roads that he has built, and that so far non-existent investment comes in from elsewhere in India. 

The result marks a new low point for Narendra Modi and the BJP, which also suffered a unexpectedly major defeat in Delhi’s assembly elections at the beginning of this year. Modi’s image, and that of the government, has slumped in recent months, partly because of Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim rhetoric from ministers and other activists that he has failed to curb over the past 12 months.

Few real successes

His government has few lasting successes to chalk up on economic and social development, or on foreign affairs. Modi has launched many campaigns such as Make in India, Digital India, and Clean India, but he has failed to show firm results in reforming the way that India is run, and has developed a reputation for being more interested in personal glory and symbolism than in implementation. That is in stark contrast to his reputation as chief minister of Gujarat before last year’s general election.

He has also failed to build constructive relations with chief ministers of states, including some run by BJP politicians who do not belong to his camp in the party, as well as those from other political parties. The lieutenant governor of Delhi, who reports to Modi’s home ministry and has some key administrative responsibilities, has continually tried to undermine Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the populist Aam Aadmi Party that defeated the BJP earlier this year.

Abroad, Modi has had major successes with more than 20 high-profile foreign trips, such as the one he is about to make to the UK, and he has even been billed in the past few days by Forbes’ magazine as the world’s ninth most powerful person. But there have been few firm investments from tens of billions of dollar promises he has reaped in places ranging from China and the US to Japan and Dubai, and little evidence of real power.

In South Asia, he has squandered much of a constructive approach that he began to adopt last year with India’s neighbours. Government policy on Pakistan has little coherence, and Modi’s successful efforts at establishing good relations with Nepal have turned into a disaster with a blockade of oil and other supplies from India, triggered by a constitutional row in Nepal. India also last week inexplicably lodged a formal complaint at the United Nations for the first time over Nepal’s human rights record.

The impression in all these areas is that the prime minister is not focussing on following through and implementing the announcements he has made. Much will now depend on how he reacts to today’s defeat – whether he reshuffles his ministers and sidelines those who have been the most disruptive, and whether he begins to emerge and act as a statesman and leader.

Perhaps the unkindest remark on television, as today’s results have been emerging, came from Vir Sanghvi, a veteran commentator. Referring to Modi’s UK trip and the overseas Indians’ Wembley Stadium event he said, “He might win in Leicester or Wembley but not in Bihar”.

Posted by: John Elliott | November 1, 2015

Bihar voters have a difficult choice in current assembly elections

Nitish Kumar has achieved a lot but can he drive entrepreneurial development?

The voters of Bihar, India’s poorest state, have a difficult choice deciding who to vote for in current assembly elections if they put aside their usual caste and religion-based preferences and go for the party that will be best for development.

They can choose a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Nitish Kumar (below), chief minister for the past ten years, who has transformed many aspects of daily life in what was a mafia-ridden basket-case society.

nitish_kumar_21032013Or they can choose Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who has dominated the BJP’s election campaign but has not announced the name of the regional politician he would anoint as chief minister.

This suggests that the voters’ safest choice is Kumar, the capable leader they know, who can be expected to expand the road, bridges, electric power and other government-funded infrastructure developments that have been built, along with improved basic education and law and order.

Modi has no such track record, but he and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) do understand and promote private sector business and entrepreneurship, which Kumar has neither done nor talked about beyond some hopes of food processing factories. Modi would also bitterly resent what would be a humiliating defeat by Kumar and could be expected to restrict central government help for the state.

Bihar is now ready to expand from its largely government-funded economy, and from farmers producing mostly for their own consumption, to productive private sector business activity, says Shaibal Gupta, who runs the Bihar-based Asian Development Research Institute. This means encouraging local small endeavours ranging from roadside outlets to industry with inward investment from companies based elsewhere. Currently, there is virtually no such investment, and tens of thousands of hard-working Biharis emigrate elsewhere in India and abroad to find employment ranging from menial manual labour to software engineering.

The trumpet call of every Bihari ~ move with the BJP in Bihar ~ come let's change BiharNationally, this is an important election because Modi desperately needs to win, for two reasons.

First, he cannot afford politically for the BJP to repeat the devastating defeat that it unexpectedly suffered in Delhi’s assembly elections early this year. His image has been hit both by the government’s lack of tangible achievements and by his failure to rein in his Hindu nationalist extremists, and neither he nor his unpopular henchman, BJP president Amit Shah (they are together on the poster above), need another setback.

Second, the BJP needs a clear victory in order to begin to build up its minority status in India’s Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament whose members are indirectly elected via the states. The government’s ability to implement urgently needed new legislation will be curtailed until the BJP has a majority of the seats, which will not be till 2017-18 at the earliest, and even later if it loses in Bihar.

My hunch is that Kumar will win, but I’ve heard about the possible advantages of a BJP victory while visiting Bihar in the past week. I asked in the capital, Patna, and elsewhere, “which party does Bihar need”, rather than journalists’ more usual “who will you vote for” and “who do you think is winning”.

Bihar’s politics are sharply polarised around caste and by the unbridgeable and politically-sharpened divide between the majority Hindus and the Muslims who make up 17% of the population. That divide was dramatically illustrated when Amit Shah, reflecting the BJP leadership’s fear that it was losing, brazenly tried to rally the Hindu vote on October 29 by saying that “crackers will be burst in celebration in Pakistan” if the party did not win.

lalu-48Bihar has been one of India’s poorest state for decades. Some 80% of the population are “multi-dimensionally poor” compared with a national average of 55%, according to estimates based on a UN Human Development Report index that includes levels of health, education, and standard of living as well as income.

A social and political revolution was set in motion by Lalu Prasad Yadav (right), a populist politician who parades his roots by keeping cows in his Patna garden. He became chief minister in 1990 and ruled for 15 years together with his uneducated wife Rabri, who stood in for him for nine years after he was banned from office and briefly imprisoned for corruption. He empowered his own backward Yadav caste and others, replacing the established high caste social elite that had thrived under British rule and continued to dominate after independence.

He ignored economic development, seeing no need to do anything more than caste empowerment. He is still regarded as a hero by many Yadavs who make up 14% of the population, even though he led the plunder of the state’s exchequer in a fodder scam which he inherited from his predecessor. That cost the poverty-stricken state and its government some Rs950 crore ($200m at the time) in lost revenue.

Bihar was therefore desperate for economic development when Nitish Kumar came to power in 2005 with his Janata Dal (United) party. He headed a National Democratic Alliance coalition with the BJP, which allowed him leeway to establish and implement policy.

Starting from such a low base of neglect, Kumar made rapid progress that still continues. Economic growth, which had been almost stagnant from 1990, has averaged 10% since 2005. Crime – notably robbery and kidnapping that were double the national average – has dropped significantly, partly helped by speeding up cases and creating an auxiliary police force of ex-army staff.

BJP workers checking election lists during Patna's polling day

BJP workers checking election lists during Patna’s polling day

Roads have been transformed, as I saw on my visit, with smooth tarmac surfaces, even on usually rough village roads, that rival anything I have seen elsewhere in India. Five-year build-and-maintain contracts encourage quality work by contractors who usually do shoddy work and make money out of constant repairs. A three-hour journey to the north-east of Patna was only blighted by a 5.8kms semi-crippled bridge across the River Ganges that is gradually being repaired, though far too slowly.

Electric power, which was only available for a few hours a day, and was unavailable in rural areas, is now on tap for 12 hours or more in over 36,000 of the state’s 40,000 villages, with some, I was told, getting 20 hours. Supplies are bought on the national grid and there has been some improvement in Bihar’s power generation.

Attendance at schools has improved dramatically, encouraged by a national mid-day meal scheme, and by a Kumar initiative to provide girls at secondary schools with money to buy bicycles so they can cycle safely to school.

Keota village schoolIn Keota village, near Dalsing Sarai just north of the Ganges, Rajeev Chaudhary, the head of a girls’ school (left), told me that an average of 400 out of 670 registered pupils attended every day and were successfully persuaded to stay for afternoon classes after the midday meal. State-level incentives included Rs1,800 cash pay-outs to those who achieved 75% attendance, though that had been relaxed during the election.

Corruption has however remained rampant because Kumar handed power back from Lalu Prasad’s Yadav mafias to civil servants who, unrestrained, have cashed in, demonstrating how endemic graft and extortion are in India. Kumar has not been interested in developing non-government social society organisations that might provide some offset, so the civil service is dominant. Tertiary education colleges have declined.

Despite these problems, this is a remarkable development record, showing what can be done by a determined chief minister. It compares for example with two other poor states – Orissa where a popular though somnolent chief minister has little drive, and crime-ridden Uttar Pradesh where there is no reforming zeal.

Kumar was re-elected in 2010 at the age of 59, when his coalition with the BJP won 206 out of 243 seats in the state assembly, routing both the Congress Party whose campaign had been run by Rahul Gandhi, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal party led by Lalu Yadav (though he personally is banned from active politics).

By this point, Kumar was even seen as a possible prime minister of a future coalition government. But his political stock declined when he broke with the BJP in 2013 because he could not accept Modi’s personal brand of overt Hindu nationalism. He meekly stepped down from the chief ministership, handing over the post to a party colleague who he later ousted, taking the job back himself. That has led to a redrawing of political alliances. Kumar has teamed up with his old political opponents – Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal party and the Congress Party – against his old ally, the BJP.


But Kumar has his drawbacks. He is said by those who know him to dislike new ideas that challenge his views, let along criticism, and he deals roughly with those who challenge him. That is most graphically illustrated by an astonishing new Bihar Museum (artist’s impression above) that is being built on a vast site in central Patna at a cost of Rs500 crore (£50m, $70m). Designed by a Japanese architectural firm, the structure now being built looks an anachronism in such a poor state and has been widely criticised. Kumar is said to see it as a foundation for his laudable aim to build mass tourism around Bihar’s Buddhist sites, though critics say he sees it as a monument to his reign.

His political ego is however mild compared with Modi and Shah whose faces dominate election posters as if they, not some un-named politician, would be chief minister. A former deputy chief minister, Sushil Modi (no relation), is regarded as the front runner, but he has not been named partly because he comes from a small minority cast and others might object that he had been chosen, and partly because, some people suspect, Modi wants to name someone else.

Modi has put a lot of poitical capital into the campaign, addressing some 25 rallies which is far more than any other prime minister has done in a state election for decades. That is a measure both of how he and Shah regard him as a potential vote winner, and also how desperate they are to win.

Whether they have calculated wrongly, and the BJP is heading for defeat, will begin to emerge when exit polls are broadcast on the evening of November 5th after the last day of polling ends. The count then takes place next Sunday the 8th.

Experts say the result is too close to call and, with 30% of the 66m electorate under 30 (3m of them first time voters), anything could happen.

India has been hit by waves of growing religious and social intolerance since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was elected 18 months ago. This has flushed out some of the Hindu nationalist party’s most stridently anti-Muslim voices, and has also sharply increased liberal concern about where a Modi-led India is heading.

For the most part, Modi and his fellow ministers have done little to restrain the extremists though, facing the possibility of failing to win the state of Bihar’s current assembly elections, they have been trying to defuse a row over eating beef that has escalated into a national issue. 

“Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef,” Manohar Lal Khattar, who was personally picked by Modi to be chief minister of the BJP-run state of Haryana adjacent to Delhi, said last week in the latest of a series of such remarks. He later said he regretted his words, but then the Panchjanya weekly newspaper published by the RSS, the BJP’s ideology-driven parent organization, said that Vedic scriptures ordered the killing of “sinners” who slaughtered cows that are regarded as sacred by Hindus. The agriculture minister has described cow slaughter as a “mortal sin”

So serious has this issue and other examples of prejudice and intolerance become – and so silent was Modi and his fellow ministers – that Pranab Mukherjee, the country’s President, has broken tradition by speaking forcefully on a current topic. He has twice called for restraint in recent days, expressing “apprehension about whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”.

The events have confirmed the worst fears of those who opposed Modi’s election last year. They have also damaged India’s image abroad, which has already been hit in the past two or three years by evidence of widespread rapes, caste-based repression and violence, and endemic corruption.

A 50-year-old Muslim farm labourer was killed on September 28 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. Two months earlier, three Muslim men were beaten to death in the same area for transporting cattle in a van.

Secular historian and rationalist MM Kalburgi was murdered in Dharwad in KarnatakaAt the end of August, M.M.Kalburgi (left), 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. 

The lack of official condemnation of this and other similar killings, and the failure of the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), a government-funded but supposedly independent institution, to condemn the slaughter and commemorate the life of one of its awardees, led to a stream of protests from other authors. This became linked with protests against the government’s inaction over the beef row, and numerous writers have demonstrated by returning awards given by the Akademi, which has increased national publicity over the issue.

Modi was slow to comment on the killings and the broader beef issue, and when he did speak on the Dadri death, he only said it was “saddening and unfortunate”. 

A prime minister might be expected to be more outspoken about such a crime, but it fitted with his approach to all controversial anti-Muslim events and extreme Hindu nationalist remarks since a government minister soured the government’s image and undermined the apparent supremacy of its economic agenda last November when she implied that non-Hindu’s (ie Muslims) were illegitimate.

Two months later, in January this year, the BJP was unexpectedly routed in Delhi’s state assembly elections. Now it seems unlikely to achieve a clear win, and might even lose, in Bihar’s assembly polls, which are being seen both by the BJP and by opposition parties as a test of Modi’s political standing 18 months after his landslide general election victory.

It was noticeable earlier this month that, as reports of the BJP doing badly in the first phase of he Bihar polling began to emerge, Modi and his colleagues presented a softer face, having earlier apparently believed that a strong Hindu nationalist approach would win them votes. Modi echoed the president’s words, and said that “Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty. Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty”.

That goes to the heart of India’s current political divide between the aspirational young who voted BJP last year because they want Modi to lead the country into a new era of economic success, and the BJP’s traditional supporters (and many party leaders) who believe in Hindu nationalism. Modi seems to have a split personality on the issue as, probably, does Arun Jaitley, his finance minister and chief spokesman, whereas Amit Shah, Modi’s chief political strongman, is seen as a nationalist hardliner.

It was politically significant therefore when, 16 days after the Dadri killing, Shah eventually said that it was “wrong” and that those responsible should be punished. He then reprimanded ministers and others who had made controversial comments, saying that they were diverting attention from Modi’s economic agenda. The prime minister was said to be “upset and distressed”, which seemed odd, given that he had stayed silent for so long. 

CowHANot eating beef from cows, which are seen as a mother symbol since they provide milk for humans, is a typically Indian unclear taboo (buffalo beef is widely used instead, and is a major export). The taboo is widely accepted as something that most but not all Hindus, many of whom are vegetarians, follow as a way of life without any controversy or argument. Because it has a religious basis (like Muslims not eating pork), it is however easily used by extremists to stir up unrest. The 1857 Indian Mutiny (or India’s First War of Independence) was sparked by rumours that cartridges for new Enfield rifles were greased with beef and pork fat

There have been laws on cow slaughter in almost all of India’s states for many years, but in the past many have not been enforced, especially for ageing cows that stop producing milk. But since the BJP came to power last year, many states have strengthened enforcement for ideological reasons, led by Maharashtra which activated a 1996 law for the first time in March, with some including heavy prison sentences. 

Other developments in the past 18-months that have threatened social harmony have included mass Hindu conversions of  Muslims and Christians, allegations that Muslims seek Hindu brides in order to spread their religion (known as Love Jihad), and suggestions that Hindus should protect their religion by breeding faster than Muslims. There are also moves to strengthen Hindu nationalists’ grip on the education system and other academic and literary institutions (such as the Sahitya Akademi) so as to strengthen Hindu nationalism’s grip.

KASURI-KULKARNI_2582216fThe anti-Muslim line also erupts over relations with Pakistan. Extremists, notably the arch fundamentalist Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, which is a BJP ally and has for years tried to block Pakistan cricket matches and other activities. 

Last week, Shiv Sena protestors poured black paint (above) over the organiser of the launch in Mumbai of a book by Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, a former Pakistani foreign minister. Kasuri was on a tour of India, and had been welcomed at the Kasauli Literary Festival (that I attended) in north India. He debated his version of history with Indian writers and other specialists and went on to speak in Chandigarh, a regional capital, without any disruption. The Mumbai attack therefore was an isolated event, but it demonstrated the intolerance of a vocal and influential minority promoting nationalist (and regional) chauvinism.

The Shiv Sena also forced the cancellation of a Mumbai concert by famous Pakistani singer, and this week its activists stormed into a meeting of the Pakistan and Indian cricket officials in Mumbai who were planning future matches.

On a different level, the government has become intolerant of dissent by non-governmental groups, notably Greenpeace and others that try to ensure that environmental regulations are followed by infrastructure and other development schemes. The Ford Foundation has also been under attack for funding such groups, and individuals have been harassed.

Governments have tried to curb dissent for decades, and there have also been violent protests about beef eating and strongly held views on religion for years. But this has escalated in recent months, with nationalism being raised to a new level for a variety of causes that, as can be seen from these events, range from curbing Muslims’ freedom to harassing well-meaning environmentalists that dare to criticise government actions.

This implies that India is being run by an embattled, authoritarian and repressive regime, supported by vigilantes, a view which contrasts sharply with the friendly open “make in India” economic-growth face that Modi displays on his frequent visits abroad – and will do again in the UK next month. 

As President Mukherjee, a veteran Congress Party politician said, there is apprehension that “tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”.

Posted by: John Elliott | October 13, 2015

Amrita Sher-GiI joins the top end of Indian art auction sales

Three works by Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter regarded as a pioneer of modern Indian art, have been sold for over $2.5m at auctions this year. All are self-portraits by an artist whose works have a rarity value internationally because they have been declared “national treasures” by the Indian government, which means that those in India cannot leave the country. 

A.Sher-Gil_Untitled-Self--portrait-Oct-2015The latest of the three works (left), a 22in x 18in oil on canvas, went for £1.75m ($2.65m) including the buyer’s premium (£1.45m hammer price) at Sotheby’s annual South Asian art auction in London on October 6.

That was half way between Sotheby’s top and bottom estimates, but was below the artist’s record of $2.92m achieved at Sotheby’s New York sale in March this year (below left). It was also just under a similar work (below right) at Christie’s in London in June that fetched £1.76m ($2.72m), and is rumoured to have been bought by one of London’s richest Indian industrialists. The other two works are said to have gone to US-based collectors.

The artist died in 1941 at the early age of 28 and there are only 173 documented works, 95 of which are in Indian museums, notably the National Gallery of Modern Art that has an impressive permanent exhibition displaying the full range of her work. 

amrita_sher_gil-self_portrait_Sotheby's March '15Very few are abroad, so those that come to the international market have a rarity value that boosts prices. Once a benchmark figure is set for such an artist, as happened for the first time for Sher-Gil in March, collectors are encouraged to sell, egged on by auction houses and dealers who seek out potential lots.

Last month, works by F.N.Souza hit new records twice in just eight days, reaching $4m, so there was hope that demand at the top end of the market was strong enough for the latest Sher-Gil to beat the March record.

But it was not to be, even though it had the added attraction of being  sold by the daughter of Boris Taslitzky, a left-wing French painter with Russian Jewish parents who was Sher-Gil’s lover and muse when both were young art students in Paris.

AmS-G Christie's June '15Sher-Gil’s international background was quite different from India’s other leading modern artists such as Souza and M.F.Husain, and she was well established by the beginning of the 1930s, 20 or more years before their Progressives group began in Mumbai.

She is respected because her works have more originality than the Progressives, who drew heavily on established western artists such as Picasso and Matisse, and because of her use of strong colours.

Born in 1913 in Budapest with a Hungarian Jewish mother and an Indian Sikh father, she was taken by them to Paris when she was 16 to pursue her artistic studies, and she remained there for about five years till she moved to India. In Paris, she lived a bohemian life style with both male and female admirers who included Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and controversial personality, as well as Taslitzky. 

sayed-haider-raza-bhartiya-samarohSotheby’s sale produced mixed results with some other good prices, including one for an Husain, but 27% of the 111 lots failed to reach their reserve price and did not sell. A similar percentage were sold below the estimates.

Those that did not sell included a major work (left) by Sayed Haider Raza, a leading member of the Progressives. It’s top bid was £480,000 ($730,000), which was not only below Sotheby’s £500,000 lowest estimate but was also lower than the rupee equivalent of $905,000 (£483,000) that the painting fetched at a Mumbai-based Saffronart on-line auction in 2010.

The sale totalled £4.85m ($7.39m) including buyers premium, which put it in third place behind two other leading auction houses’ recent South Asian auctions – Christie’s, which totalled $8.77m in New York last month, and Saffronart, India’s main on-line auction house. Saffronart occasionally stages live auctions, which it did in New Delhi a week before Christie’s and achieved sales totalling $12.7m, with only two of its 75 works not being sold.

Lot 46 A prince holding a falconTrailing dismally behind all three was Bonhams, which had a modern art auction in London on October 5 and sold only nine out of 33 lots. Sales totalled about £163,000 ($250,000), about half of which came from a remarkable 120cm x 108cm lapis lazuli mosaic of two horses by Ismail Gulgee from Pakistan that fetched £86,500 including the premium.

Sotheby’s did much better with a sale of Indian miniature paintings owned by The Sven Gahlin Collection, which roughly doubled £2m-2.8m pre-sale expectations with a total of £4.6m. The sale was led by a late 17th-century painting (above) depicting a Mughal Prince on horseback holding a falcon, which sold for £329,000 that had been estimated at £60,000-80,000).

There is now a continuing stream of Indian art auctions throughout the year. Pundole’s of Mumbai, one of India’s oldest galleries, has a significant auction in Mumbai early next month, and Christie’s plans a high-profile one, also in Mumbai, in mid-December. After the recent mixed results, the market will be watching to see whether these two auctions pack in the key ingredients of winning selections of works and sufficient high-spending buyers.


LONDON: What do Narendra Modi, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Arvind Kejriwal, to name but a few, have in common? They are all politicians (or in one case, a potential politician) who have emerged recently because of voters’ disenchantment with the way that their predecessors have run broadly consensus politics supported by establishments controlled by vested interests. 

All of them are populists who have inspired voters with the prospect of a change, and their emergence has shocked and horrified the old establishments. 

Jeremy Corby addressing the Labour Party conference yesterday

Jeremy Corbyn addressing the Labour Party conference yesterday

The cosy courtiers and generations of supporters of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India can’t accept that Modi, an arch Hindu nationalist with a controversial past as chief minister of Gujarat, can be trusted as prime minister to run their country.

The cosy mainstream politicians of the UK can’t come to terms with the fact that Corbyn, a 66-year old outsider who has been a Labour Party far-left rebel for most of his life, is a credible leader of Britain’s main opposition party, even though he won 59% of the votes in a election for the post two weeks ago, defeating three more conventional candidates. 

There was similar shock horror when Kejriwal, a 47-year old social activist-turned politician, won a landslide victory to become chief minister of Delhi in February at the head of his new Aam Aadmi Party, defeating Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose fresh popularity, won just a few months earlier, was already waning. 

And there is similar amazement and concern around the world that Trump, an egotistical business tycoon who grabs headlines with insults and other extravagant remarks, has cashed in on disenchantment and emerged as the Republican Party’s leading contender for next year’s US presidential election.

At last year’s general election, Modi offered India’s aspirational youth more hope for the future than the subsidy-oriented backward-looking Gandhis. Kejriwal then offered Delhi voters the prospect of clean and more honest politics in a deeply corrupt country, and now Corbyn has miraculously boosted the Labour Party with thousands of mostly young and prospective members who had tired of previous remote middle-of-the road leaders and want more involvement, debate and honesty.

Modi and Corbyn come with baggage of the far right and far left of their country’s politics, which they will both have to overcome if they are to succeed. 

For Modi, that means not only showing he can change the way than India is governed but, almost more importantly, controlling the anti-Muslim nationalistic rhetoric of many of his colleagues so that he is re-elected at India’s next general election. He also needs his BJP to win state assembly elections in the intervening years, starting with Bihar in a few weeks’ time. 

For Corbyn it means surviving as party leader for longer than the couple of years that he is being given by a sceptical verging-on-hostile British media, and by most of his shell-shocked MPs who fear losing their seats at a general election under his leadership. To do that, he needs to show, as he is doing, that he is prepared to debate and trim his anti-war, anti-nuclear lines and then find a way to turn debates into firm policies, though he would risk alienating his more extreme ideologues.  

Modi-at-San-Jose-380Both men have been on stage in the past few days. Modi has been doing what he does best, wowing thousands of overseas Indians at pop-star type events at St. Jose in California. He has also been appealing to the young during a session with Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has met Barack Obama, and lectured United Nations and other conferences on climate change and security. His next mega event will be wowing some 70,000 overseas Indians in London’s Wembley Stadium in mid-November.

Modi must be the first prime minister or president in history frequently to invade his hosts’ territories by staging such spectacles. He started a year ago with some 18,000 cheering and screaming overseas Indians at New York’s Madison Square Gardens (where the Pope blessed thousands at a mass last weekend). Since then he has done the same thing in Sydney, Toronto, Dubai and even Shanghai. What his hosts really think of such politically inspired ego-trips  is not recorded.

Corbyn made his first speech as Labour leader yesterday at his party’s annual conference in Brighton. He won the standing ovations and constant applause that any leader would expect, even though he almost failed to be nominated for the leadership election because of a lack of support from Labour MPs. He wears boring brown jackets and has a chatty style of answering interviews’ questions, both of which are easily mocked but are a refreshing change from the slick suits and the bland dodging-the-issue spins of David Cameron and Labour’s Tony Blair.

His theme in Brighton was that he would introduce “kinder more inclusive” politics. He was primarily against the Cameron government’s austerity programme, preferring to tackle economic problems with (ill-defined) growth. He is intent on gradually re-nationalising the railways, which it is no bad thing to debate because the privatisation craze has romped out of control to such an extent over the past 35 years that the Post Office was recently sold off way below its market prices. 

The Econ Backwards ComradesHe wants to change the balance of tax to benefit the poor at the expense of the rich, which is an inevitable old Labour policy. He harks back to Labour governments of 40 years ago with talk of a national investment bank, and he has horrified people by favouring a united Ireland, which could stir up motions and hostilities that are best avoided.

He is also in favour of abandoning the £100bn renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear missile, a possibly laudable aim, but one which rakes up decades-old arguments about nuclear disarmament. Abandoning Trident is also opposed by trade unions and MPs who, fearing job losses in naval shipyards, stopped Corbyn having it debated at the conference.

Even The Economist magazine, which greeted his election with the headline Backwards Comrades and an illustration of him in a Vladimir Lenin pose, had to admit however that Corbyn would “at least enrich Britain by injecting fresh ideas into a stale debate”. Voters who “felt uninspired by the say-anything, spin-everything candidates who dominate modern politics have been energised by Mr Corbyn’s willingness to speak his mind and condemn the sterile compromises of the centre left”.

That comment also applies in broad terms to Modi and Kejriwal, who have changed the tone of India’s political debate, awakened political interest among the young, and tried (so far with little success) to improve the way that their governments operate.

Few people think Corbyn has any chance of becoming prime minister at Britain’s next general election in 2020 because of his Leftist past, but his leadership appeal will be tested before that in local council elections beginning next year, and he has to try to win over the masses lot Labour MPs and the party’s Blairite supporters who are speaking out against him.

Aside from that, what he can and should do is to change his party’s style so that it becomes a firm constructive left-of-centre alternative in policy and approach to the Conservatives, distinctly different from the Blair style. 

Modi did that with the BJP, making it a nation-wide alternative to the Gandhis’ Congress, even though he had been an outsider till a year or so before he was elected. And Kejriwal, whose party was even more of an outsider, has shown that voters are ready for new ideas and new faces.

So outsiders can wreak surprising change. Maybe one can write off Trump, but watch Corbyn, Modi and Kejriwal because they all have the potential to bring new life and meaning to their countries’ politics – and maybe, hopefully, their governments.

souza_-_birth Christie's NY

A new record price for an India painting was set today at a Christie’s auction in New York when $3.5m ($4.01m including buyer’s premium) was bid, it is believed by Kiran Nadar, India’s most prolific collector, for Birth, a monumental 8ft x 4ft oil on board (above) by F.N.Souza, one of the country’s most famous artists.

The previous record price of $2.59m for a work by Souza, who died in 2002, was set just last week at a Saffronart auction in Delhi.His  5ft x 4ft Man and Woman Laughing (below) went to the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) for a hammer price of Rs14.6 crore (Rs146m) – Rs16.84 crore ($2.59m) including the premium.

Souza ManWoman Laughing SaffronartSouza’s earlier record was held by Birth, which was bought at a Christie’s London auction for £1.27m ($2.5m) in June 2008 at the height of a boom in Indian art by Tina Ambani, wife of Anil Ambani, one of the two Mumbai-based Reliance business brothers.

She bought it for her Harmony Art Foundation, which has made a tidy profit on the sale, though the work was estimated in the Christie’s catalogue at surprisingly low figures of $2.2m-$2.8m.

India’s old modern masters have been taking it in turns to hit record India prices at auctions. Souza’s sometimes tortured canvases and evocative line drawings of figures, often nude, and of townscapes, are regularly on offer, but their prices have been beaten in recent years by other old members of the Progressives Group such as V.S.Gaitonde, who held the record till today with a $3.79m work sold at Christie’s in Mumbai in December 2013, Syed Haider Raza, and Tyeb Mehta, plus Amrita Sher-Gil.

“It is a world record for a major work and it is well deserved,” says Hugo Weihe, who was the auctioneer both for Birth in 2008 and the Laughing work last week, having left Christie’s and joined Saffronart in recent months.

Painted in 1955, Birth embraces many of Souza’s main themes of extravagant female nudes, gaunt male faces, still life, religion and townscapes. For some people, it captures all the magic and intimacy of his works, while others see it as too oppressively dark with little apparent joy in the pending birth.

raza_cityscape Christie's NY

There’s been speculation that this is why Tina Ambani never took the work to India. I was in the London auction room in 2008 and watched Preeti Ambani, a cousin of Anil and president of Harmony foundation, make the bid at a sale buzzing with excitement that may have encouraged her to push up the price.

Her bid was 56% higher than the previous record for any modern Indian work. But Birth then went not to Tina Ambani’s Mumbai home, nor to the Harmony foundation in the city, but to the US on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Subodh Gupta Seven Seas Christie's NYThe dramatic changes in the market since the boom of the mid-2000s are demonstrated by the fact that Christie’s did not even put Birth on the cover of its 2008 catalogue. (See Comment below.) That honour went instead to Subodh Gupta, a contemporary artist whose installations and paintings of shiny pots and pans, and poor Indians travelling through airports and delivering milk, were then fashionable market leaders.

A large installation of his pots and pans fetched £601,000 ($1.2m) at that auction, but his prices have slumped from their peak as buyers have swung away from contemporaries to the safer havens of the older moderns like Souza. A Gupta work consisting of two cast bronze airport luggage trollies went today for a hammer price of $70,000 ($87,500 including buyer’s premium).

Gaitonde watercolour and inkThe Delhi Art Gallery has one of India’s largest gallery collections of modern art but has not entered auctions at the $2m-plus level before, so its bid was a surprise. It intends to show Man and Woman Laughing  in a special section for masterpieces that it will display next January at Delhi’s annual India Art Fair. The $2.59m price might have been higher if Kiran Nadar, wife of the founder of the HCL software business, had bid, but she already has a similar rather grimmer work called Man and Woman Grinding and was presumably waiting to bid for Birth.

Apart from the record Souza, Christie’s New York auction had mixed results in the upper ranges. Three of the five works with the highest estimated prices failed to reach their minimum price, including two by old masters Raza (the cityscape above) and M.F.Husain (whose 100th birth anniversary yesterday was marked by with  the home page below).

Google Husain IMG_4296The sale totalled $8.77m including buyer’s premium and six of the 73 works on offer were not sold,

One of its star results was the first lot, an early 10in x 7in Gaitonde (above) similar in style to Indian miniature figurative painting, which went for a hammer price of $160,000, approximately five times the estimate.

Saffronart did better last week with a sale totalling $12.7m, and only two out of 75 works failing to sell. This is basically an on-line auction house and last week’s sale was one of its rare live events, which seemed to pay off because the auction room in a Delhi hotel was packed and lively.

Tyeb-Mehta_lot23 SaffronartIts second highest sale was by Tyeb Mehta (left) and was bought for Rs9.75 crore ($1.77m including buyer’s premium) by another Delhi collector, Shivinder Mohan Singh from the family that used to own the Ranbaxy pharmaceutical company and now runs healthcare businesses. That work was sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction in 2000 for just $26,000, which illustrates the enormous movement in prices over the past 15 years.

The lessons from the two auctions, as always these days, is that top artists’ best works sell well. Gone are the days of the early 2000s when, as Hugo Weihe said to me in 2008, “every new collector wanted an Husain”.

Extensive marketing is needed to match the works and buyers and, for the record prices, there needs to be a collector determined to acquire prestige works – as Tina Ambani was in 2008, and as Kiran Nadar is today buying for her Delhi modern art museum.

Posted by: John Elliott | September 7, 2015

Bhutan leads the way in the quest for happiness

“Gross National Happiness is critical for Bhutan – otherwise we will undo all our success so far,” says Tshering Tobgay, prime minister of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of some 700,000 people that is sandwiched between the giant nuclear powers of India and China. For him, this means balancing economic development with maintenance of the country’s unique culture and identity. Otherwise, he adds, “we will be lost”.

This echoes what Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck said during a rare interview he gave me for the Financial Times in 1987. He talked at length about how he wanted the country to develop and tied that into GNH with “political stability, social harmony, and the Bhutanese culture and way of life”.

Prime minister Tshering Tobgay

Prime minister Tshering Tobgay

Few other prime ministers would be taken seriously airing Tobgay’s views.

When Britain’s David Cameron extolled the virtues in 2010, a trade union leader was quoted in The Guardian  saying the prime minister would probably “claim that despite rising unemployment, home repossessions, longer NHS waiting lists and unaffordable education, the people of this country are happier under Tory rule”.

Cameron is not the only leader to pick up the idea, which was first mooted publicly by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s as a better national ambition than GDP.

Bhutan’s last prime minister, Jigmi Yoeser Thinley, energetically spread the gospel around the world (till he lost office two years ago). He focussed on the United Nations and persuaded it to take “happiness” as a development aim, and designate the UN’s first annual “International Day of Happiness” in 2013.

An international conference is being held in Bhutan in November to assess the progress in the country and internationally. Dasho Karma Ura (youtube video here on GNH), an economist and historian who runs the Centre for Bhutan Studies in the capital of Thimphu, expects about 550 people to attend with visitors from 56 countries. He says that those who are “seeking better ways to improve life” around the world are mostly non-governmental organisations rather than governments. GNH has also been the subject of many PhD theses.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

The conference will assess how far the dream has spread and how seriously it has been adopted, despite considerable scepticism. In Bhutan there are four pillars of sustainable economic development, conservation of the environment, preserving the culture, and good governance. That was developed by Karma Ura’s centre into nine domains ranging from education and health to community relations and living standards, and over 33 detailed indicators.

A massive six-month national survey of some 8,000 people has just been carried out, with each person being interviewed for three hours or more. The results will be presented to the conference.

An earlier survey was mocked for producing findings such as men being happier than women, and young unmarried people being among the happiest. This time the analysis will reflect the impact of rapid development on people’s living standards, their ability to cope with rising prices, increased access to international television and the internet, plus more traditional issues such as the impact of rivers on a person’s contentment.

The significance of river waters in mountainous Bhutan is so great that it has even influenced a debate on privatisation of state owned assets. The rivers serve rural communities across the country and they also have rich potential for hydro-electric schemes. Projects are developed in collaboration with India, which already takes about 75% of electricity generation, providing more than 40% of Bhutan’s revenues. This raises environmental concerns, and there are also serious problems on one of the current projects, which has large time and cost over-runs plus an unstable mountainside at the construction site.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

It suits the governments of both India and Bhutan not to lose control of such assets, but there is also a deeper view, espoused by Karma Ura, that the hydro input “is collective” because of the way that the rivers form part of peoples’ lives and because of their large role in the nation’s wealth. “It would be like privatising the sky,” he says.

The current GNH focus in Bhutan under prime minister Tobgay is to apply the principles in the way that the country develops. “I don’t want to be obsessed in exporting GNH,” he told me when I was in Thimphu recently for an annual Mountain Echoes literary festival. “I want to do, rather than talk about it”

In fact, it’s not talked about much and, at the opening of the literary festival, it was scarcely mentioned in speeches that extolled Bhutan’s virtues.

The festival formed part of the celebrations for the 60th birth anniversary this year of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king in the Wangchuck dynasty that was established when it united the country in 1907.

It was evident when I met him in 1987 that the King was anxious to map out a future for opening up the country, both to the outside world and to democracy. That led him to announce his abdication in 2006 in favour of his son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was then 25 and was crowned in November 2008, six months after the country’s first general election.

There is now a delicate evolving power balance between the roles of the elected government and the monarchy, as there is between Bhutan and India, which has regarded it as a virtual protectorate for some 65 years. Prime minister Thinley destabilised those balances by drawing closer the China than either India or the monarchy wished, or even initially knew about. That seemed to be heralding movement on China’s wish for formal diplomatic relations. Thinley also proposed land reform legislation that would have reduced the monarchy’s role in land allocations.

Thimphu sprawl - Getty images

Following those developments, India is widely perceived to have intervened in the 2013 general election to ensure Thinley’s defeat, not least by suddenly withdrawing a kerosene and cooking oil subsidy in the middle of the election campaign.

Under prime minister Tobgay, the balances have been restored, though one hears criticism in Thimphu of the way that India used its professed friendship. That adds to the significance of Narendra Modi making Bhutan his first foreign destination for a visit after he became India’s prime minister last year.

The main domestic concerns central to GNH include maintaining the country’s free education and health care, and finding jobs for over 170,000 school children and students when they need employment. Every household has electricity, say officials, with solar energy in remote areas. The constitution requires forests to account for 70% of the land area, though the urban sprawl (above) that dominates the once green valley approaches to Thimphu illustrates the problem of maintaining that percentage.

It is the job of Lynopo Dorji Choden, a construction engineer and former bureaucrat who is now minister of works and human settlement, which includes town planning, to ensure that the Thimnphu valley type of development is not repeated elsewhere. She sees that as part of GNH. Heights of buildings are restricted to two floors except in urban centres where there can be three with traditional designs and colours.

These and other pressures of a modern consumer society are increasing, and that includes corruption. The fourth king talked at length to me about this in 1987 and said that, though it was small problem compared to other countries, it had started when development began in 1961. Now the opportunities have become greater, and the current king has described it as “the highest probable risk to development”. The government set an example when it sacked its foreign minister earlier this year for embezzlement of public property when he held an earlier post.

Sometimes the country makes sudden modernisation strides, and at other times change comes surprisingly slowly. In 1987 Kinley Dorji, then a young journalist and now the government’s secretary for communications, had just launched Keunsel, Bhutan’s first newspaper, using advanced technology – an Apple Mac computer and a laser printer.

On this visit I was amazed to discover that there is no helicopter anywhere in the country. When Bhutan needs one, it has hired or borrowed from India, or sometimes Nepal, say government officials, explaining that Bhutan is a poor country. Now it is about to get one for $3.6m. Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services Ltd has been set up, and its offices were opened by the prime minister last month. Services will begin, appropriately, on November 11, the fourth king’s 60th birthday.

fruit stall on the road from Thimphu to Bhutan's airport at Paro

the road from Thimphu to Bhutan’s airport at Paro

There is no prospect of India and Pakistan coming to terms and settling their border differences in the foreseeable future, certainly not in the lifetime of the two countries’ present governments and probably not for much longer. Efforts to improve the relationship in other ways will also be precarious and uncertain.

That has been clear for years, but it became even more obvious at the end of last week when planned talks between the two countries’ national security advisers (NSAs) on cross-border terrorism were scuttled in a flood of accusations and counter-accusations.

There are two reasons for the lack of hope.

One is that there can be no deal while Pakistan’s army chief and the ISI intelligence agency are the country’s final authority, not the democratically elected prime minister – and there is no prospect of that ending. Both the army and ISI have for decades seen aggression against India as central to their existence and ambitions. Behind them of course there is China, which likes India being preoccupied with Pakistan.

As a democratically elected government, India would not deign to engage formally with General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief, or the intelligence chiefs. So, officials say, they have to take the country’s democratically elected leaders such as prime minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation) at face value, which can obviously be misleading to put it mildly. (The army chief does meet other country’s leaders – including David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, in London last January where the government gave him a ceremonial guard-honour welcome – below.)

Gen Raheel Sharif meets David Cameron - Jan 15 '15 The Sindh TimesThe second reason is that India is implacably opposed to any third party becoming involved as an intermediary, so the chances for incremental improvements in the relationship become mired in antagonistic confrontations.

Countries like the US and, to a lesser extent these days, the UK, can advocate peace talks and military restraint, but they have learned to their cost not to offend India by trying to mediate. The most recent major exception to this was in 2001-02, when India accepted both those countries mediating to defuse a potential border war after a terrorist attack on the parliament in Delhi, and there were earlier examples.

Consequently, there was no chance last week of a desperately needed third party being able to try to bridge the gulf over debilitating quibbles – mainly about the agenda for the talks and who the Pakistan NSA could meet in India aside from the formal events.

Viewed from abroad (I was in Bhutan reading Twitter and other news sound-bites), the events looked like a cross between a French farce, with characters rushing nosily across the stage banging doors, and a Chinese opera with actors belting out scripts to impress the audience without quite looking at each other.

This was a setback for Narendra Modi, who has wanted to draw Pakistan into a circle of improved sub-continental relationships that would lead to the sort of connectivity and interchanges that are routine between most neighbouring countries elsewhere in the world. In South Asia, such a development has been stymied by decades of Pakistan-India antagonism. It has also been complicated in recent years by a growing Chinese presence.

Modi has however succeeded, to varying degrees, in showing how India can be friendly and useful – with Bangladesh where there has been a cross-border land swap deal and other talks, with Nepal on immediate earthquake relief and other initiatives, with Sri Lanka since the defeat of a pro-China president (who has lost two elections this year), and with Bhutan which is a long term land-locked ally.

modi-sharif-7591 UfaModi’s hopes were raised on July 10 when he met Nawaz Sharif in the Russian city of Ufa where they were attending BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summits (left).

The talks appeared to be unusually constructive. Sharif and his officials seemed to want to improve relations and join Modi’s circle of co-operation. With Pakistan’s security forces preoccupied with terrorism at home and a worsening situation in Afghanistan, Indian officials hoped that the country’s all-powerful army chief would support Nawaz Sharif acceptance of India’s request for talks between the two countries’ NSAs on “all issues connected to terrorism”.

Hopes rose when it was agreed that the foreign secretaries, Pakistan’s Aziz Chowdhury and India’s S. Jaishankar, would jointly draft and read out a statement (below) after the meeting – a rare if not unique event. Constructive agreed points included meetings between border security forces, and Modi attending a South Asia regional (SAARC) summit in Islamabad next year.

Ufa statementAs soon a Nawaz Sharif returned to Islamabad however, there were negative noises from Pakistan. The main complaint was that the statement agreed to discuss “all outstanding issues” but did not specify the usually-included issue of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Firing quickly increased across the Line of Control that divides the two countries in Kashmir, and there was a 12-hour terrorist attack and gun battle on July 27 at an Indian police station at Gurdaspur in Punjab near the border that killed seven people including four Indian police guards. On August 5, there was an attack on an Indian border security forces’ bus in Kashmir.

The NSA talks were planned for last weekend, August 22-23, to discuss terrorism, which India thought would provide it with an opportunity to pinpoint incidents of cross-border infiltration, and attacks such as the one at Gurdaspur.

But Pakistan began to insist that Kashmir should be specifically included in the agenda, which India said was against the Ufa agreement. Pakistan also said that its high commissioner (ambassador) in Delhi would be inviting leaders of separatists based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, who want varying degrees of independence or autonomy from Delhi, to a reception before the talks.

That was a direct challenge to the Indian government because Modi had unexpectedly cancelled talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries in August a year ago after the high commissioner similarly invited the separatists for talks. India has tolerated these meetings for years, but Modi wanted to demonstrate that the separatists and their Hurriyat umbrella organisation were not a party to India-Pakistan relations.

In Delhi, Ajit Doval, 70, the NSA and one of Modi’s closest advisors, who earlier headed India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), was playing a leading role. This inevitably changed the rhythm and tactics of the interchanges from the usual diplomacy.

Both sides announced that they had prepared detailed dossiers of each other’s terrorist attacks, Pakistan claiming that India responds to attacks in Kashmir with disruption in the province of Baluchistan and elsewhere. Maybe they were eventually content for the talks to be abandoned, which happened when Pakistan eventually withdrew last Saturday night. They then did not have to respond to the dossiers, which would inevitably have been leaked to the media.

Losing the plot

Rakesh Sood, a former senior Indian diplomat, has commented in an article in The Hindu, that “a diplomatic engagement was converted into an ‘us versus them’ battleground”. Somewhere along the way from Ufa, “it was clear that the plot was lost sight of and the management of the process was reduced to a rhetorical tit for tat.” Other commentators have referred to what they regard as a lack of focussed diplomatic preparation and groundwork before and after the Ufa meeting.

The story entered the realm of unreality when Indian officials indicated that they would not mind too much if Sartaj Aziz, 86, Pakistan’s NSA and a former foreign and finance minister, met the separatists’ leaders after, not before, his formal talks. That was after India put some of the leaders under house arrest for an hour or two in Srinagar, then released them, and then arrested others when they arrived at Delhi airport to stop them reaching the high commissioners’ reception.

That is surely where an intermediary could have stepped in and found a compromise, as could have happened on whether Kashmir could be just mentioned in the talks. But such an idea is heresy in Delhi!

India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said last weekend that there are “no full stops in diplomacy”, which shows that she knows the dance between the two sides will continue. There was nearly a trade deal in 2012 (which maybe could be resurrected), and earlier in the 2000s there was an almost-soft-borders’ deal, but they remained almost-deals.

Talking is however essential. Both countries have nuclear weapons. They have fought three (or four depending on how you count them) border wars since independence, and there is frequent firing across the disputed frontier. Not to talk would be worse than what has happened in the past few weeks.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 15, 2015

Narendra Modi’s problems tone down his Independence Day style

11884085_632614840211658_3284405192525578021_o copyIf Narendra Modi has learned anything since becoming India’s prime minister, it must be that the country changes slowly and that bombast does not work, at least not all of the time and less in India than it does abroad.

That became evident when he delivered his second prime ministerial speech this morning (Aug 15) in Hindi from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on the country’s 69th independence day.

He was dressed more soberly than last year, exchanging a flowing bright red turban for a more subdued orange model that matched with a calm cream kurta and jacket

There were fewer extravagant claims and less egotistical bravado in the unusually long 90 minute speech, delivered in the 29 degree C sweaty heat of Delhi’s humid monsoon season.

That is scarcely surprising coming at the end of a three-week session of parliament that conducted virtually no business because of Congress Party-led opposition tantrums with MPs protesting so noisily that sessions had to be adjourned. Urgently needed sales tax reforms pushed by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led government were not passed, partly because the government would not compromise with the Congress on some points.

He and his team also seem to have lost the plot on their once determined plans to speed up industrial and infrastructure projects by reversing key sections of land acquisition legislation that was introduced by the last Congress-led government.

The parliamentary disruption, which I described on this blog on July 22, continued with Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, stopping both houses of parliament operating because of corruption and ethics allegations involving three top BJP politicians.

rahul-gandhi-notes-telegraph_650x400_71439448382The only winner out of this shambles was Rahul Gandhi, who has found his voice leading the protests, though his limited abilities were exposed a few days ago when a photo of him carrying his detailed speaking brief was splashed across twitter (left).

Arguably the Gandhis are working against the national interest by blocking parliamentary proceedings (which the BJP did to them before the election). They have however successfully made Congress heard, punching far above its weight with only 44 members in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, and they have shown Congress has the power to take on the government. As Ajit Doval, Modi’s national security adviser said in a different context recently (he was referring to India-Pakistan border fighting), there is no point in having power if you don’t use it!

When Modi spoke from the Red Fort ramparts a year ago, he was capturing a national mood of hope and desire for change following his landslide general election victory, but that mood has been dissipating since last November when the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, not economic development, dominated the news.

Many of his dreams have failed to become reality. Perhaps the most significant is his job-creating Make in India campaign that was aimed at attracting masses of foreign manufacturing investments with relaxed and efficient regulatory procedures. But though foreign investment has increased, there has been little discernible improvement in procedures and, despite multi-billion dollar project pledges collected during Modi’a foreign visits, there have been no large scale job-creating manufacturing plans.

Narendra Modi climbs up to the ramparts of the Red Fort to deliver his speech - pics also above and below

Narendra Modi climbs up to the ramparts of the Red Fort to deliver his speech – pics also above and below

That failure seemed to have ended a week ago when Foxconn of Taiwan, which makes components for Apple and other electronics companies, announced a dramatic $5bn investment plan that would generate 50,000 jobs in five years.

The Business Standard however quickly pointed out that Foxconn has failed to implement similar grand plans in Brazil and Vietnam.

Perhaps realising Make in India’s limitations, Modi today announced a Start-Up India; Stand up India initiative to encourage young entrepreneurs, especially among the lowest castes. Modi said, rather hopefully, that this would give a new dimension to entrepreneurship and help in setting up a network of start-ups in the country.

He claimed progress in curbing government corruption and recovering black money secreted abroad. Picking up other points from his speech last year, he claimed that the promise of toilets in all schools had been “almost fulfilled” as part of a Clean India campaign, which was overstated. The Centre for Science and Environment said today that the campaign for toilets country-wide was only running at 25% of the target and that, at the current rate of progress, would be completed by 2032, not Modi’s promised 2019.

Along with the Make in India and other Modi schemes, this shows how difficult it is to generate change in India and, as I have written before, it now looks as if this will not be the transformational government that voters hoped for last year.


This might be broadly acceptable politically if there were no other downsides, but the government is developing an arrogance and self-aggrandisement that often comes unstuck. Modi is failing to solve problems before they become crises, most recently over changes for armed services’ pensions that he should have dealt with today but didn’t.

Potential success on subjects such as India-Pakistan relations and ending rebel activities in the north eastern state of Nagaland have recently been over-sold and risk failure. At the same time, the government has been bullying non-government social activists whose activities it dislikes and restricting personal freedom. Last week it even mishandled an aggressive attempt to block access to internet pornographic sites.

The next verdict on the government’s performance will come during October when assembly elections are held in the state of Bihar. The BJP will be competing against two regional parties that have the Congress as a minority ally. Modi still has strong approval ratings in national opinion polls, but his image will take a beating if the BJP does badly, as it did in Delhi assembly elections earlier this year.

Modi leaves tomorrow for the easier role of prime ministerial foreign visits where he can shake other leaders’ hands and woo enthusiastic overseas Indians. He will be in the United Arab Emirates and on Monday is billed to address an astonishing 50,000 in Dubai, mostly Indians working there. At the end of next month he is going to the US west coast where he is expected to address some 20,000 Indian-Americans in San Jose, California. A bigger adoring crowd beating even the Dubai figure is expected in London, where he is due in November.

Modi has undoubtedly raised India’s profile abroad, and last year inspired the hope of change. The question now is whether that is the end of the story or just the beginning – can he find a way over the next three or four years to turn voters’ hopes into reality? He hasn’t really begun to do that yet, and his problems are getting bigger, not smaller.

Of all the visits to 25 foreign countries that Narendra Modi has made since he became India’s prime minister 14 months ago, a recent trip to neighbouring Bangladesh yielded perhaps the most concrete outcome. On a relatively brief weekend visit in June, Modi signed an agreement with Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, for the two countries to swap 162 small parcels of land known as enclaves that were left behind in each other’s territories when boundaries were drawn in 1947.

The Indian government has announced today that the exchanges are being implemented from midnight tonight.

That may sound simple and unremarkable, but in the tortuous world of South Asian politics and diplomacy, it is a rare breakthrough. Among Modi’s visits, it has been matched only by the chord he struck with President Barack Obama in the US last October, having been denied a US entry visa for nine years after the 2002 Godhra riots in his state of Gujarat.

India-Bangla mapThe land deal, one of about 20 agreements signed during Modi’s visit, ended more than four decades of bickering with Bangladesh. It is a rare example of India getting its regional diplomacy right, and seeing a deal through to a successful conclusion.

Tariq Karim, a former top diplomat and, till recently, Bangladesh’s high commissioner in Delhi, praises Modi’s role for achieving what he describes as the “first solution for a post-colonial land dispute in South Asia since independence”.

India hopes it becomes an example of what it can achieve with its other neighbours, though such efforts are bedevilled by fractious relations with Pakistan, and by China’s ambitions to eclipse India and become the undisputed regional power. China has been increasing its influence on all India’s neighbours for many years, and has recently even emerged as an internationally accepted key player in Afghanistan’s embryonic peace talks, leaving India without a role.

It is rare for real progress to be made. Modi hoped that talks that he had with Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister on the sidelines of a multi-lateral conference in Russia early in July would also yield positive results. The pleasantries, and the way that top officials jointly delivered their statements after the meeting, looked remarkably hopeful, but this was quickly followed by negative noises from Islamabad. Then on July 27 there was a 12-hour terrorist attack and gun battle at an Indian police station at Gurdaspur in Punjab near the border that killed seven people including four (inevitably) ill-equipped and under-prepared Indian police guards.

India and Bangladesh have a 4,100km (2,500-mile) border drawn erratically in heavily populated areas that left the enclaves invisible on most maps and on the ground. Some 50,000 inhabitants have effectively been stateless in 111 Indian enclaves located in Bangladesh and 55 Bangladeshi enclaves in India.

The Economist reported that there was even “the world’s only ‘counter-counter-enclave’ – a patch of India surrounded by Bangladeshi territory, inside an Indian enclave within Bangladesh”. One theory about the history is that the enclaves “resulted from a series of chess games played between two maharajas centuries ago” while another suggests that they were “borne of 18th-century treaties signed between local rulers and the Mughal empire, before the emergence of the British raj”.

The next challenge for the two countries is to complete a long-delayed agreement on sharing the waters from the Teesta River, one of 54 rivers flowing between the two countries. The Teesta rises in the Indian state of Sikkim and flows through West Bengal to Bangladesh, which makes sharing the waters a sensitive issue in both countries.

Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina

Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina

A bilateral deal was also almost done by Manmohan Singh when he made a prime ministerial visit to Dhaka in 2011, but he failed because Mamata Banerjee, the unpredictable irascible chief minister of West Bengal, refused to go along on the visit and approve the deal.

That may have been partly pique that she had not been properly consulted in advance, but she was also worried about political repercussions in the north of her state that could lose some water.

Modi’s breakthrough on the enclaves was partly the result of liaison with Banerjee that led to financial grants for her state and to her being in Dhaka at the same time as his visit. Modi was also able to persuade the Bangladeshis that Delhi would deliver on its promises, which meant overcoming historic distrust of India’s often over-bearing diplomacy.

Perhaps the most startling feature of the weekend visit was the welcome given to Modi by Bangladesh’s political opposition, especially the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia, whose decades long rivalry with Hasina has held back the country’s economic and political development. Zia boycotted a general election in January last year and has has staged street protests to ry to force fresh elections.

Zia’s welcome indicates that the new co-operation with India could survive a change of government, though the BNP might create problems on a Teesta agreement. Bangladesh’s politics are volatile and unpredictable  – the latest instability comes from a leading BNP politician being sentenced to death for alleged war crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Commentators in India have heralded the land deal as a springboard for Modi to transform relations with other neighbours. That however won’t be easy, though Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign secretary, has talked about the relationship with Nepal being transformed by the instant help that India gave after a recent earthquake  and by  co-operation on hydro power generation that Nepal had resisted for many years.

Wherever India goes however, China will be there as well, and in force. Sri Lanka had a pro China government till a presidential election at the beginning of this year brought in a leader who favoured Delhi, but that position might be reversed in a general election on August 17. Meanwhile, it looks as if China’s grip on the nearby Maldives islands, previously an India ally, is complete.

India cannot stop this trend, so the challenge is to make what progress it can, as Modi has done with the Bangladesh enclaves.

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