Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, had three main tasks in his budget speech that he delivered on Saturday, the traditional February 28 date. One was to manage the government finances, restrict spending deficits, and curb inflation. The second was to boost infrastructure, private sector investment and growth, and introduce other reforms.

The third, and politically the most important, was to revive the flagging image of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata government that has in the past four months lost the sheen of last year’s landslide general election victory.

Arun Jaitley 2015_0_1_0The finance minister (making the speech, right) managed well on the overall economic front with inflation at round 5%, manageable though somewhat higher deficits. He forecast  economic growth at 8-8.5% next year – though that is a misleading figure because the Central Statistical Office recently reworked its estimates and raised current growth by about 2% above the previously announced 5%.

Arvind Subramanian, the finance ministry’s chief economic adviser, has said he finds that “puzzling”, and Arvind Panagariya, head of the revamped planning commission, said yesterday the source of the increase needed to be identified.

Jaitley also introduced taxation reforms and did well on infrastructure. There is to be a national investment infrastructure fund, plus new financing and tax-free bonds for roads, rail and irrigation schemes. He is reworking arrangements for public private partnerships (PPP), which were mishandled by the last government and became often-corrupt blockages to development instead of boosting viable investments. Jaitley plans to rebalance risk with the government bearing a greater share, which is in line with the effective highway building programme of the last 1999-2004 BJP government.

It is too early to decide whether Jaitley has succeeded on the government’s image. What was needed was a Budget which would show that the government elected nine months ago with a landslide victory is capable of making India work and succeed. The image it has been developing is of a less-than-effective administration cluttered with determined Hindu nationalists bent on furthering their religion, led by a prime minister who often seems better at performing on the international scene than on getting to grips in Delhi with the detailed work of reforming how Indian functions.

Jaitley therefore needed to build a vision of how all his measures would lead to a more efficient growth-oriented future – which he failed to do. He had phrases such as “the world is predicting that [this] is India’s chance to fly”, and that the speech was “a significant opportunity to indicate the direction and the pace of India’s economic policy”. He claimed it provided a “roadmap for accelerating growth, enhancing investment and passing on the benefit of the growth process to the common man, woman, youth and child”, but that was in the first couple of minutes of a 90-minute speech. After that, the theme got lost in the detail.

The government needs someone who could both inspire and carry conviction, standing between Modi with his powerful oratory and catch phrases and the lawyer’s precision of Jaitley. This was done by Manmohan Singh when he was a reforming finance minister in the early 1990s, and to some extent it was also done by Palaniappan Chidambaram, the last finance minister.

Arun Jaitley and his finance ministry team

Arun Jaitley with the Budget ‘box’ and his finance ministry team

Comment on the budget so far has been bogged down in businessmen’s inevitable (given that corporate tax is being reduced) applause for what Jaitley has done, and the opposition’s insistence that the budget is “anti poor” and “pro corporate” – corporate being a dirty word because businessmen are easily cast as crony capitalists bent on seeking favours from the government.

A BJP spokesman tried to correct that on television after the budget speech when he said, probably accurately, that “we are not pro corporate but pro enterprise”. In a similar vein, Jaitley told the parliamentary opposition two days earlier in a speech on the government’s controversial Land Bill: “Don’t create an environment in the country in which infrastructure and industry become bad words”.

This illustrates the left-right divide in Indian politics at a time when the opposition, led by the Gandhi family’s leftward leaning Congress Party, plays the pro-poor card to challenge the government, even though that delays what the country needs – strong economic growth and a revival of development projects. (The Congress leadership has been hit by Rahul Gandhi, party president Sonia’s son and heir-apparent, vanishing on a two week “sabbatical” just as the parliamentary budget session began “to reflect on recent events and the future course of the party’’.)

Land Bill

The Land Bill is the main current left-right battleground with the BJP trying to reduce the crippling impact of the last government’s legislative restrictions on the use of agricultural and other rural land for industrial and infrastructure projects. Several Congress politicians opposed these restrictions when they were being drawn up, but are now opposing the BJP doing what they had wanted their own party to do a year or so ago.

Jaitley’s speech is being criticised for not containing sufficient firm plans. Notable here was the creation of an “expert committee” to design a “pre-existing regulatory mechanism” that would remove the multiple permissions needed for new investments and projects so that new businesses could be created “in accordance with publicly stated guidelines and criteria” instead of the current myriad of regulations. Since Modi was elected to introduce just this sort of reform, it is puzzling why it has taken the government nine months to set up a committee – unless it has decided that the task is virtually impossible, so a committee is the best way to buy time.

Black money

Also controversial is a plan tackle black money stored abroad to evade tax with legislation that will include 10 years imprisonment for those found guilty. The BJP pledged during the general election campaign to bring back to India billions of dollars stored illegally abroad. The government has found that harder to organise than it expected, and Jaitley’s measure shows the government is taking some action. However the move is being criticised by businessmen who say it will lead to officials extorting bribes from those involved.

Overall the budget needs to be seen in the context of other events on the economy in the past week. On February 24, the government accepted a finance commission proposal to increase to 42% (from under a third) the share of tax collections that are handed over to the states to spend on their development and aid schemes. Together with other grants, the states will now receive total of 62% of all taxes, which is in line with the government’s aim to encourage initiatives in the states. Jaitley has controversially made consequential cuts in some national schemes, which led to complaints that his budget was “anti-poor”.

On February 26, railway minister Suresh Prabhu presented the annual railway budget . This did not include the usual cuts in fares and politically inspired uneconomic new railway services, but instead proposed a 50% increase in investment to $137bn in railway infrastructure as part of a five year plan to boost efficiency and safety.

Taken together, this all shows that the government is beginning the changes that it promised during the election. It did not however do enough is its first nine months when it had the authority of a new government and it now faces a united and invigorated parliamentary opposition and an increasingly sceptical electorate.

The best Indian newspaper review of the speech  is in the Sunday Business Standard, while Mint newspaper has a useful list of the main points

LLF 1The hope that one day Pakistan will escape from the clutches of jihadist terrorism, corrupt politicians and an over-bearing army came alive last weekend at the Lahore Literary Festival, where mostly young audiences averaging 25,000 people a day applauded criticisms and wider worries about the functioning of the country as well as enjoying other sessions on literature and the arts.

The festival took place in the shadow of a bomb blast in the city on February 17 that killed more than six people, but it matched the famous Jaipur Literature Festival for the mood, the energy, and the excitement in the relaxed surroundings of the Alhambra Arts Centre, and it beat Jaipur for passion.

The enthusiasm during the three days was evident not only from the audience participation, but also from long lines of people waiting outside the five auditoriums and a queue that stretched 100 yards at a well stocked bookshop. People remembered and celebrated how Lahore had always been a centre for the arts.

The secret that the organiser kept to themselves till the end was that the Punjab state government, worried about security risks, had cancelled permission for the festival to take place on the afternoon before it was due to start, just as people were arriving from abroad and other parts of Pakistan. It took Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister and elder brother of Punjab’s chief minister Shabaz, to intervene and give the permission at 9pm that evening.

Some music and other outside events were cancelled but otherwise the festival went ahead without fuss, despite hourly power cuts. It included a stimulating exhibition that displayed the country’s vibrant contemporary art scene. There were several rings of highly visible security around the venue, though the police and other guards looked relatively relaxed and showed none of the officious heavy presence one would expect in India. A couple of foreign governments and agencies, including the British Council, panicked because of the bomb blast and withdrew approval for their sponsored speakers’ presence.

“People are almost surprised to see themselves here,” I was told by Salima Hashmi, a painter and writer, and daughter of the famous Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. “They see it almost as an act of defiance, and they are speaking with the freedom to say what they want”.

LLF 3Hashmi was talking about the volatile and engaged audiences, especially in the biggest of the festival’s five venues that housed over 700 people and staged the main political subjects. There were debates on all aspects of Pakistan’s troubled history and current political, religious and social realities, and those of the region. People were not consistent in their views, judging by frequent contradictory cheers and applause,

My over-riding impression was that, having been buffeted by everything from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan just over 34 years ago to the current jihadist terrorism, and with its own ineffective military and elected governments and their confrontations with India, the people of Pakistan are no longer sure who to trust, at home or abroad.

“We are a confused nation in the process of getting clarity,” Asma Jehangir, a leading human rights activist and lawyer based in Lahore, told me.

Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani historian and author, said that the Pakistan Taliban’s killing of 134 children in Peshawar two months ago had upset the usual Pakistani narrative that such things (including the 9/11 US terrorist attacks and the killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden) could not be done by Muslims and must have been done by an external (ie US) hand.

“Denial is now being addressed and people are looking for answers,” she said. That had led to the festival having “a dynamic you don’t often see in Pakistan”. Her recent new book, The Struggle for Pakistan, explains, among other things, why the army-dominated country has failed to match India’s democracy.

Romila Thapar (left) and Asma Jehangir

Romila Thapar (left) and Asma Jehangir

The audience at one session voted with a bigger show of hands for China to have influence in Pakistan than for the US, though they inevitably thought no interference the best. Equally mixed were views on Afghanistan and India. “The problem is deciding who the enemy is, we need to sort it out,” said Ayesha Jalal. Pakistan’s relationship with US, its chief economic aid source, has been tortuous for decades, worsened recently by drone strikes, so the show-of-hands vote was not a surprise.

China by contrast has been a lower key strategic ally providing nuclear and other defence support. That seems to be about to change, and China is stepping up its economic support at a time when the US is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and thus losing some of its interest in Pakistan.

It is also emerging as a likely mediator and facilitator in Afghanistan’s peace process, mobilising its contacts with the Afghan Taliban. As debates at the festival indicated, this is partly to increase its regional clout and partly because it is concerned about growing unrest and terrorism in its mostly Muslim western province of Xinjiang. Inevitably, this might lead to India being side-lined, though it is not yet clear how strongly New Delhi would object to China’s role. One Indian view I’ve heard is that “Afghanistan needs all the help it can get”.

Authors and others came from various countries. Those from India included veteran historian Romila Thapar, 83, who delivered a memorable opening address on the need to keep the writing and interpretation of history free from political interference – a potent subject in India with its current Hindu nationalist government.

LLF 2There was a heavy presence of two policy specialists from the US – Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist who several times said he did not know Pakistan well, and Barnett Rubin, a former US government adviser based in New York University – who seemed out of sync with the mood.

In a raucous final session in Hall 1, Rubin apparently upset many in the audience when, I’m told, he said “use your brains”. (Unfortunately, I missed the session, so we will have to wait for it to go on line to verify the words).

Peter Oborne, a British political columnist and a cricket enthusiast who has just written Wounded Tiger on Pakistan cricket, was better versed – with the added spice that he was escaping from a furore he’d created in the UK a few days earlier by resigning from the Daily Telegraph, accusing it of pandering in its editorial coverage to HSBC, the scam-scarred bank.

At the end of a debate on Afghanistan, the ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, painted a rarely heard rosy picture of a “transformed country” and a “young democracy” with education and a vibrant media.

He looked forward with the “hope next year of a Kabul version of the Lahore Literary Festival”. That’s an intriguing prospect, given the lasting impression from the festival discussions of growing roles in Kabul for the Taliban and China.

The swearing in over the weekend of social activist and anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister of Delhi marks the latest stage of a dramatic country-wide rejection of the way that India is governed, which has been building up over the past four years.

This is not a single tidal wave threatening to overwhelm the country, but it does stem from a new, young and aspirational India which wants governments that genuinely offer the prospect of change and economic growth. It threatens crony corrupt politicians, who for decades have been more concerned with self-aggrandisement and milking administrations than with governing constructively in the interests of the people who elected them.

Uniting castes, classes, religions and regional interests, it led last year to the election of Narendra Modi as a presidential-style prime minister, and last week to Kejriwal’s surprise  landslide victory that has created excitement in the city. In both cases, voters’ hopes are based primarily on the leadership ability and drive of one man – even though fulfilling the electorates’ expectations is a near impossible task.

Kejriwal swearing in

This leads inevitably to questions about where the revolt against the way India has been governed will be heading if the two men fail. Cynics suggest that voters will turn back to traditional politicians and parties – including even the discredited Gandhi dynasty’s devastated Congress Party. Sceptics see growing social unrest, fuelled by increasing unemployment, especially among the young.

The four years’ of rebellion to the status quo began in April 2011, when Anna Hazare, a Mahatma-Gandhi look-alike social campaigner, led country-wide mass demonstrations against corruption. Accompanied by Kejriwal, the primary demand was for the creation of a national Lok Pal or anti-corruption ombudsman – which the highly corrupt and traumatised Congress government agreed to do, but never implemented.

Next came mass street protests against rape at the end of 2012, which frightened the government enough for demonstrators in central Delhi to be attacked with water cannon, and then to the law for rape being strengthened.

Both sets of protests did not only stem from anger about widespread corruption and assaults on women. They showed that the tide was turning against tolerance of rampant graft, poor governance, indifferent national and local bureaucrats and politicians, widespread police brutality, and an ineffective legal system.

Kejriwal broke from what came known as the Hazare movement and set up the AAP in December 2012, offering a new style of party free from the corruption and crony capitalist vested interests that dominate virtually every other political party in India.

In December 2013, AAP won a surprisingly high 28 of the 70 seats in Delhi’s assembly elections. Kejriwal formed a minority government that resigned after 49 days, having focussed more on staging street level protests than governing.

Modi’s damaged image

The next stage came in the general election last May with the landslide victory won by Modi’s presidential style campaign for his Bharatiya Janata Party. He was seen as the only leader who could bring about dramatic changes in the way India is run, but after eight months he has become better known for high-profile sloganeering, and for self-aggrandisement that ranges from a rock star style performance for 18,000 adulating Indian Americans in New York’s Madison Square Gardens to wearing a pin striped suite with the stripes containing his full name when he met President Obama recently in Delhi.

Modi is perceived to have failed so far, which is somewhat uncharitable because the government has made progress in many areas – for example this week with India’s first on-line auction of coal mine licences.

Such progress however has to be offset against activities by other branches of the BJP’s fervently Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar family of organisations, which have pursued strong Hindu-centric policies including mass conversions. There have also been attacks on Christian premises in Delhi.

This is not the prime ministerial style, nor the India, that Modi was elected to create, and that is the key reason why Kejriwal has been given a second chance by the Delhi electorate to improve life in the city.

Kejriwal and his party have changed their approach and become more serious and constructive than they were a year ago, but their task is massive in this city of some 16m people. They have to sort out failings in water supplies (60% of the people have no piped water), electricity (there are massive power cuts), grossly inadequate waste management, and poor health and educational services. They have also promised that water will be free and that subsidies will halve electricity prices – neither of which the government can afford to finance (as Modi indirectly pointed out in a speech yesterday), even if Kejriwal achieves his aim of cutting costs by curbing corruption. There is also to be free city-wide wi-fi availability and 1.5m cctv cameras in every lane and road, and an improved Lok Pal anti-corruption ombudsman..

Kejriwal Modi teaAll this would be difficult enough to achieve if Kejriwal’s government controlled all the services, but it does not. Power is shared with the central government, which controls the police and law and order through a lieutenant governor reporting to the Home Ministry, and land acquisition and planning, which is run by the central government’s (deeply corrupt) Urban Development Ministry. Capital cities in some other countries have similar arrangements designed primarily to protect the operations of central government from the vagaries of state-level politics,

There have been calls for many years for Delhi to become a full state. The BJP saw it as a vote winner among the Delhi electorate and included it in its general election manifesto last year, but did not have it in its “vision document” for last week’s elections, presumably because it did not want to risk an AAP administration having control over government offices and residential accommodation. Kejriwal however lodged the claim with Modi, when he had tea with him on Saturday (above).

How Modi responds to this and to his government’s overall relations with the Kejriwal administration will in many way define his prime ministerial legacy. Will he co-operate, as he needs to do with all state chief ministers irrespective of their political party, or will he try to undermine Kejriwal and others that are not in the BJP?

His personal mission is to build a strong India, and that includes tackling all the issues of governance, infrastructure and public services that need urgent attention in Delhi and the states. And that surely should lead him as the country’s leader to co-operate with Kejriwal.

An updated paperback edition of my book IMPLOSION – India’s Tryst with Reality, which investigates the problems and challenges facing Modi and Kejriwal, has been published by Harper Collins India and is available in bookshops, and on-line for rupee sales on and internationally on

Posted by: John Elliott | February 10, 2015

Modi’s BJP routed in massive AAP Delhi election victory

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has today suffered the biggest defeat of his political career with his Bharatiya Janata Party being routed in elections for the Delhi state-level assembly. The Aam Aadmi or common man party has swept the polls winning  67 of the 70 seats, driving the BJP down to just three and the Congress Party to an astonishing zero.

kejriwal-main1Eight months ago, Modi was swept to power in a landslide BJP general election victory because voters wanted a new style of government leadership that would meet their aspirations for a better life, more efficient and less corrupt government, and stronger economic growth.

Today, the people of Delhi have shunned Modi and turned to Arvind Kejriwal (right, during the campaign), the AAP’s founder and leader, to drive change in the capital city’s deeply corrupt and ineffective state-level government. There was a record turnout of 67% of the mostly urban electorate, with more than 8.9m people voting.

There are many reasons for this result. One is that the BJP – along with most observers – assumed that it would win Delhi easily and that the AAP was finished. It also over-estimated Modi’s charismatic vote-winning ability and underestimated a growing feeling that his national government has not become the promised agent of change during the eight months it has been in power.

BJP panic

When it began to emerge last month that the AAP had been quietly re-building its reputation among voters, especially the poor, the BJP seems to have panicked, and ran a negative campaign that tried to undermine the AAP’s, and especially Kejriwal’s appeal. It poured top politicians and and other MPs into the campaign, even deploying several senior cabinet ministers so that it looked as if it had abandoned governing the country in order to win Delhi.

kiran bediIt then made a ludicrous decision, just two weeks before the February 7 election day, when it side-lined its Delhi political leadership and made Kiran Bedi, a 65-year old former controversial police chief and social rights campaigner with no political experience and little charisma, its chief ministerial candidate (left, after she had been picked).

It thought she would counter Kejriwal’s appeal but she quickly foundered while electioneering, and has even failed to win her own seat.

This raises questions about how such experienced politicians as Modi and his chief lieutenants, Amit Shah, the tough party president, and Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, could have made such a blunder. (There is some sympathy for Shah because his son is getting married today and the celebrations have been blighted!)

Significantly the AAP has gained a bigger popular mandate in Delhi, winning about 54% of the votes cast, than the 46% that Modi and the BJP achieved nationally in the general election.

Even more remarkable, this has happened in the city that Kejriwal and his band of well-meaning volunteers failed disastrously to govern effectively when they led a minority government (with 28 seats – the BJP had 32) after December 2013 polls. They spent more energy on street-level protests than trying to run the city, and resigned after 49 days in February 2014. Since then Delhi has been run by bureaucrats under the city’s lieutenant governor.

It has also happened after the AAP failed to win any of Delhi’s parliamentary seats in the general election when its candidates were elected in only four constituencies (in Punjab), despite fielding candidates across the country. The party then seemed to have been marginalised in both national and Delhi politics. But it has rebuilt itself and has replaced its former image of rebellion and protest with a constructive approach.

AAP decimates Congress

The BJP has however managed to hold on to its basic vote bank in Delhi, winning around 33% of the votes, which is roughly the same as in 2013. This indicates that the aspirational vote that brought Modi to power nationally last year has switched in Delhi to the AAP, deserting Congress.

Kejriwal celebrates - PTI photoThese aspirational voters are not just the young, but include all strata of society, especially the poorer sections who suffer the most from corrupt bullying officialdom. These people feel that, despite the apparent lack of direction during the AAP’s 49 days in power, they suffered less from brutal police and other officials than they had in the past.

Both Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the leader (along with his mother Sonia) of the Congress Party, both have lessons to learn from the result.

Today marks the end of Modi’s political honeymoon period of being a national icon who could wreak almost magical change in the way that India is run. He needs therefore to curb his egotistical style and to focus more on changing the way the government works and produce evidence of results, not just slogans. Many observers are looking to the Budget on February 28 for significant policy initiatives. Modi also needs to be more tolerant of fellow ministers, and less autocratic to the BJP’s MPs. Opposition parties will be encouraged by the result to challenge the government’s pending measures in parliament.

The Gandhis and other Congress leaders now have the humiliation of their party winning no seats, compared with eight in 2013 when they lost power after running Delhi for 15 years. Voters, including the Muslim minority, have deserted Congress and gone to the AAP, underlining the dramatic decline of India’s once grand old party. Rahul Gandhi played a significant role in the Congress electioneering and, repeating what has happened in other campaigns, failed as a vote winner. Congress knew it would do badly, but did not expect total failure.

AAP task “scary”

Kejriwal (above, celebrating today with his wife) is a former tax official who first attracted national attention during mass anti-corruption protests in 2011. He now has a huge job to try to run the Delhi government. This would be difficult enough if the government was totally in charge of the city, but it is not because the central government covers law and order and urban development, and there are inefficient separately elected municipal corporations (currently run by the BJP) which are notoriously corrupt.

Kejriwal said today that the overwhelming result is “scary” and “frightening”. That could apply not just to the job of governing Delhi, but also to the opportunity that now looms of maybe gradually becoming a national centre-left party, replacing Congress.

Modi reacted sensibly by congratulating Kejriwal and inviting him to have a cup of tea. Both men would gain from working together.

For Modi, it is a test case of his ability to build partnerships with states where the BJP is not in power, and of becoming a prime minister who can lead the country.

People on a metro by Valay Shende - Sakshi Gallery

A stainless steel lifesize work of people on a local Mumbai train by Valay Shende – Sakshi Gallery

Delhi’s annual International Art Fair last weekend provided a classic example of how India produces order out of chaos, but does not quite meet its potential.

Some 80,000 people arrived at the fair in the south of the city by car on chaotically crowded and sometimes gridlocked highways, or squashed into unbelievably crowded metro trains and then stumbled along broken pavements from a nearby station.

On arrival they found the orderly bussle of the fair’s vast specially erected and air conditioned tents, with works of over 1,100 artists in 90 booths.

Fringe events around Delhi included special exhibitions in many galleries, a vast eve-of festival reception at an art museum run by Kiran Nadar, one of India’s leading collectors, art lecture breakfasts on the Taj Mahal Hotel’s terrace, and a throbbing end-of-festival evening at the Meridian Hotel.

Many, but not all, exhibitors reported good sales. The organisers claimed the total was 25% above last year’s (undisclosed) value, with the top 2% of collectors together spending “over Rs30 crore” (Rs300m / $4.8m). Among those buyers was Kiran Nadar, whose purchases included Circle Uncircled, a ceramics installation by Rahul Kumar and shown by Gallery Alternatives (below). Many sales went to new and younger buyers which, along with tours by schoolchildren, met the fair’s aim of spreading art awareness and building knowledge as well achieving sales.

Ceramics Gallery Alternatives

So far so good, but the fair risks losing its international tag if it does not improve its appeal for leading galleries from the US and Europe.

It would still remain a significant event in the region’s arts calendar, and would probably continue to bring in curious buyers and other visitors from abroad – this year, groups came from museums and galleries in the US, Spain, Australia and Tel Aviv. Last year there were collectors from China.

But while the total number of galleries and booths hasn’t changed much from around 90 for the past four years, the number of foreign galleries has dropped from 31 last year to 21. There were even more in 2012 when I reported that half of the total came from 20 other countries and included names such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson, White Cube, and Other Criteria. None of those galleries was present this time, and one well known survivor, Galleria Continua from Italy, had a bleak stand and no sales. Some were put off by unruly crowds, but that is now less of a problem and the layout is better organised.

Most of the foreign galleries that were there this time continued, as before, to offer more Indian than overseas artists, which points to the basic problem of whether the fair will continue to deserve the international tag. One reason for this is that most Indian buyers are not well enough versed yet to buy foreign art, and those that are can buy on their trips to London, New York and elsewhere.

fair entrance

The other reason, which takes me back to my point about India failing to meet its potential, is the primary problem that tortuous customs regulations and controls over how art can be brought in and delivered to local buyers deters foreign galleries. Neha Kirpal, the festival’s founder director and others have been urging the government to relax, or at least rationalise, these rules for some years but nothing has been done. People more used to manipulating such problems can of course manage – one Indian gallery was showing mostly foreign works.

Perhaps the most controversial and certainly one of the most successful displays was an 11,000 sq ft free-standing structure occupied by the Delhi Art Gallery. Located a few yards away from the main exhibition tents, it was regarded by other exhibitors with a mixture of envy and criticism, which led to speculation about how and why Ashish Anand, the gallery’s director, could and would afford such a display. Some onlookers put the cost at not less than Rs 1 core (Rs10m = over $160,000/£100,000).

Early Bengal DAGAnand’s 700 works traced the history of modern Indian art from early Bengal works to the 2000s. This coincidentally showed how Indian mythology has been a constant inspiration – demonstrated by the works (right and below) by an unknown late 19th century Bengali artist and Manjit Bawa, who was a leading painter, in 2000.

With a total of 36,000 works, Anand said that his gallery has the world’s largest collection of modern Indian art, which is partly displayed in a relatively small gallery in Delhi’s Hauz Khas plus one opened last year in Mumbai. A third has just been announced for New York.

But, he told me, he never had a chance before to display so many of the works in one place. He said he’d be happy if he sold 70 works, and it seems that roughly that number have been agreed or are being negotiated. Beyond that, his aim is to educate the young – 2,300 students toured the show and the gallery produced ten books and 100 short videos.

Manjit BawaFinding new buyers in the short as well as the longer term is a constant theme in the Indian art market, which does not yet have a substantial collector base and has yet to recover from a slump four or five years ago after an investment-led boom in the mid 2000s.

Some galleries are finding new sales from companies setting up offices in areas such as Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi and are actively marketing works for newly rich customers, sometimes co-operating with architects and designers.

That is excellent for business, but the fair organisers have longer term aims of building awareness among those who might become buyers for their own homes in the years ahead. It would be good if that could happen – and with the fair’s international tag in place.

Obama Modi tea

President Barack Obama flew out of Delhi this morning after a visit spread over three days that, as he put it, was “rich in symbolism but also in substance”.

The symbolism included choreographed meetings and hugs and embraces with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. The substance included a potential solution to a long-awaited deal on nuclear power projects plus other trade, business and climate change initiatives carrying a $4bn tag, and agreements on defence and regional security co-operation.

With private talks like the one above, and several public meetings, the overall impact of the visit was greater than had been expected. It has re-set relations between the two countries on a firm progressive footing. It has also demonstrated the apparent close rapport between the two leaders, though Modi frequently called Obama “Barack” in public but Obama never said Narendra!

The biggest combination of symbolism and substance however came this morning when Obama, having broken free from Modi’s embraces, addressed his first meeting on his own and implicitly condemned the pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim policies of hardliners in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its umbrella organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

I was in the large concert hall where Obama spoke with rare passion and in measured tones on religious freedom, combining that with references to Bollywood and the many ways in which the two countries could move on from being “natural partners” (the usual slogan) to “best partners”.

To succeed, India needed to be “unified as one nation” he said, adding that India’s and America’s strengths came from their diversity and that they should guard against any efforts to divide them along sectarian lines or any other lines. “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith,” he declared.

When Obama came on his first visit to India in 2010, he said it should play a larger and more positive role in world affairs, specifically by joining America’s boycotts of Iran and Myanmar. That lecture was ignored because it was against India’s interests, but this time he has struck a popular chord with his appeal for religious tolerance. What he said runs counter to recent mass Hindu conversions and other pro-Hindu policies of government ministers, but it chimes with widespread fears about Modi’s long term Hindu-nationalist aims – though his remarks will also be resented by many people as interference in India’s affairs.

With words that dominated news bulletins as he flew off to Saudi Arabia (having cancelled a visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra to meet Saudi’s new King Salman), Obama said that “every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution, fear or discrimination”.

Listing the world’s religions, including Hinduism and Islam, he added that  “we are all god’s children”, and then quoted the view of Mahatma Gandhi that “the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden for they are all branches of the same majestic tree”.

Modi Obamas leave parade

The two leaders’ first joint engagement involved watching yesterday’s annual Republic Day parade (above) for two hours, initially in heavy drizzle and including displays of largely Russian defence equipment. With his wife Michelle, Obama applauded some of the colourful tableaux and motorcycle acrobats, but he was widely criticised for chewing gum. That looked undignified at such a formal event, though it was said later that he has recently given up smoking and the gum contained nicotine.

But if Obama was regarded as behaving uncouthly, Modi was widely ridiculed when photos appeared in the media of him wearing, at an earlier meeting with the American president, a formal pinstriped suit with the stripes made up of his full name Narendra Damodardas Modi. The prime minister frequently wears colourful headgear and smart jackets, but this egotistical extravagance led to speculation about who pays for his voluminous wardrobe, which he presumably cannot afford on his own.

modi-stripeThe proposed nuclear projects stem from a 2006 initiative by India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh and America’s president George Bush that led to a 2008 deal that freed India from sensitive technology import embargoes, and opened the way for US and other companies to build nuclear power plants. That came unstuck however in 2010 when India passed a nuclear liability law which broke with international convention by making the foreign equipment supplier as well as the local operator liable for compensation after a nuclear accident. It also made the supplier responsible for plant defects.

India’s new laws stemmed partly from the country’s experience after the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak disaster at Bhopal, where the American company (and Dow Chemical, its present owner) refused to accept responsibility. The US and other countries’ companies would not accept the Indian law, and there was stalemate till the two sides agreed last week to have a $122bn (Rs750 crore) insurance scheme, which however could both add to project costs and prove inadequate. The US also dropped demands for tracking the use of nuclear material.

Much now depends on the details of the agreement and the willingness of companies such as GE and Westinghouse to try to make it work.

The rapport between the two leaders was underlined by a recorded 30mins radio conversation and phone-in (replacing Modi’s monthly broadcast) that has been aired this evening. This all seems to be rattling China, whose foreign ministry warned yesterday that “external countries” should not cause trouble in the region. Modi will now have to ensure that his earlier efforts to draw close to China have not been upset.

He will also have to deal with the fall-put from Obama’s religious freedom remarks, which have been eagerly quoted by the BJP’s opponents in a current election campaign for Delhi’s state assembly. That has upset the campaigning advantages Modi’s party has gained from him hosting the American president.

This article appears on

Arvind Panagaria, one of India’s top economic advisers, has a short fuse and shouts. Eighty-two year old V.S.Naipaul, the Nobel prize winning author, has given what might turn out to be his last long interview, and Abdul Kalam, the 83-year old space and missile scientist who became India’s president, is greeted by young Indians like a rock star.

These are a few of the big-name impressions from the tenth annual Jaipur Literature Festival that ended yesterday after a magnificent five days in Rajasthan’s historical pink city. The total number of footfalls (including repeat visitors) reached 255,000, up from about 220,000 last year, and as usual included masses of school children

Naipaul DondyNaipaul is a Trinidad-born British citizen of Indian origin who wrote two scathing books on his early visits to India – An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilisation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Clearly frail and sitting in a wheel-chair for a slow but revealing interview with the UK-based writer Farrukh Dondy (right), he told a crowd of several thousand people that he first “came to India out of curiosity about my ancestral land”, with little idea what he would write.

When his India books caused controversy, his mother told him “please leave India to the Indians”. He didn’t take her advice and years later gave the country a more positive verdict.

The most remarkable of the three impressions was the rock star (there is no other adequate description) welcome given to Kalam (below), who was mobbed by screaming youngsters, blocking the festival throughways.

I found it difficult to get anyone to tell me why the diminutive rather quaint-looking Kalam, with his carefully manicured floppy white hair, should beat even a top film star in iconic status. Eventually, one of the festival’s dozens of young volunteers who keep the world’s largest free lit fest running smoothly told me, “He has achieved something technical”.

This was a reference to important work on ballistic missiles and launch vehicle technology done by Kalam who was known as India’s “missile man” and became the country’s highly respected president in 2002. He also played a leading role in India’s 1998 nuclear weapon tests. Some critics say that Kalam’s actual scientific achievements are over-stated, but whether that is true or not, he has become a legend and an inspiration to the young.

Chatting with the volunteer, it became clear he felt that, unlike most self-serving politicians and many public figures, Kalam has done tangible work as a scientist and an engineer. Kalam also appears as a modest man who wants to inspire the youth – he launched a What Can I Give movement in 2011 and frequently addresses young audiences.


“If four things are followed-having a great aim, acquiring knowledge, hard work and perseverance then anything can be achieved,” he said at the festival, adding that he had addressed 19.5m youth in the past 20 years and urged them to become “unique”.

Panagariya’s (below) demonstration of his apparent short fuse is significant because he has just returned from an academic life in the US to run Narendra Modi’s revamped Planning Commission, which is called the NITI Aayog or National Institution for Transforming India. Maybe he found being contradicted by a leading Indian journalist rather harder to accept than being challenged by American students!

arvindpanagriyaFor several minutes he had a shouting argument in Hindi with Om Thanvi, editor of the Jansatta newspaper, who disagreed with his claims about how much Rajasthan’s economic development and social indicators compared with other states, and whether it no longer qualified to be called a BIMARU state (an acronym coined some years ago to bracket the backward states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh).

Panagaria has been an economic adviser to the Rajasthan government and was frustrated by Thanvi’s arguments that were based on an article in India’s highly respected Economic and Political Weekly.

Thanvi also criticised the Rajasthan government’s recent controversial decision to ban people who do not have specified educational qualifications from standing as candidates in panchayat (village) elections. Panagariya backed the decision and became so agitated that he stood up and demanded solutions from Thanvi, shouting, “If Mr Editor has any better formula we are ready to implement it. I am even ready to bow and touch his feet if he has any better suggestion”.

Amazon ousts local bookshop

With over 300 speakers at six concurrent sessions during the day and over 150 musicians for evening entertainment, the festival has become a major international fixture on the literary scene since it began ten years ago. Every year, the distinguished old Diggi Palace venue is adjusted and enlarged to accommodate the growing crowds.

This year, the only negative development was that Delhi’s Full Circle book shop was ousted from running the festival’s shop by, which outbid its financial down payment. This is a sad example of foreign financial muscle ( has $2bn to spend) defeating local enterprise, and it turned out badly because the Amazon shop was drab and badly stocked.

Wal-Mart or Tesco (who, like Amazon, also sell books) could not have done a worse job. A real bookseller, not a general on-line store with little real books expertise, ought to re-appear next year.

This article appears on

Posted by: John Elliott | January 21, 2015

Obama’s India trip is significant but expect limited results

Delhi’s international airport was closed for two hours yesterday morning because President Obama is visiting India. He’s wasn’t however in the country and is not arriving for another four days, but everything is being rehearsed down to the finest detail, even closing the airspace around the capital.

That is partly because of intense and almost suffocating security arrangements that are being insisted on by Obama’s secret service officials, but it is also because any bureaucrat who mucks up the three day visit knows he will earn the unenviable wrath of Narendra Modi, the prime minister.

IndiaTv8a6a87_obama_modi_martinThis is no ordinary visit. It will probably achieve little in terms of major decisions, but it is historic because it stems from a degree of personal rapport between the two men that must be envied even by David Cameron, the latest of a long line of British prime ministers who pursue high profile special relationships with American presidents.

The idea of the visit emerged when Obama unexpectedly broke with US presidential tradition and accompanied Modi on a visit to Martin Luther King’s memorial in Washington DC early last October (left and below). While they were walking round the memorial, Obama had an unusual worry, Aditi Phadnis the Business Standard’s well-connected political editor has reported.

“My daughters, Sasha and Malia, complain that I’ve taken them all round the world but not to India,” Obama told Modi. (When Obama visited India in 2010, his wife Michelle accompanied him but their daughters were left in Washington because of school commitments).

“Then you should come to India and bring them with you!” exclaimed Modi, responding quickly to what may or may not have been a carefully orchestrated request. At the end of his bilateral meeting speech, Modi said: “I look forward to receiving President Obama and his family in India at a convenient time.” The visit was on the table and was clinched when the two leaders met again a few weeks later in Myanmar at an ASEAN summit. Obama accepted an invitation to be the official guest at India’s annual Republic Day parade on January 26, even though this meant shifting his State of the Union Speech from the 28th to yesterday. [January 27: the daughters did not come, again because of school commitments, but Obama said he would bring them another time].

This shows a remarkable rapport between the two men, but it remains to be seen whether there is to be a sea change in relations. The two countries are not and will not be allies, even though Modi did use that word around the time of his highly successful US visit last October. This is because India’s refusal to toe the American line on various issues, which is causing considerable friction.

Obama Modi MLK

There is deep unhappiness in Washington about India not implementing sanctions against Iran and allowing Crimea’s prime minister to be in President Putin’s delegation when he visited Delhi in December. India is also not playing ball on a trans-pacific treaty promoted by the US. There are other issues including trade policies and defence contracts, plus a failure to solve contractual liability problems stemming from a 2008 deal on nuclear power projects. Some but not all of these have either been addressed or will be during the visit, especially on defence.

Modi sees foreign policy primarily as a vehicle for building relationships that will attract foreign investment and technical assistance to boost India’s currently poor economic growth and business investment and he does not differentiate between the sources.

In a spate of visits that started soon after he was elected last year, Modi secured (unspecified) announcements of $35bn potential infrastructure investment in Japan and $41bn possibilities from companies in the US. There was also talk of a very vague $20bn from China when President Xi Jinping visited India in October. Putin’s trip to Delhi in December led to other possible deals, and it is significant that Russia’s defence minister has been in Delhi this week – another point that cannot please Washington.

Next weekend’s visit is however enabling the US-India relationship to be reset and reinvigorated. It slipped during the 2009-14 Congress-led government when there were various policy and other blockages and there was no leadership from either Obama or Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister. That was enabling critics in Washington to encourage problems that were not solved.

Modi can now be expected to try to keep the momentum going after all the hullabaloo of the visit. He wants to have enough big-sounding announcements to make the trip look businesslike, but his immediate task is to make sure that the trip goes smoothly, without terrorist or other interruptions, so that the American president and his wife enjoy the Republic Day parade and a visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra [cancelled because Obama left India a few hours early  to fly to Saudi Arabia and meet the new King after the death of his predecessor] on January 26 and 27, and then fly safely home.

This article appears on

Posted by: John Elliott | January 7, 2015

India’s Seven Sisters – so near and yet so far

“Are you going on to India?” I found myself asking two Swiss tourists whom I met over New Year in India’s north-eastern state of Assam. I could try to justify the question by explaining that they had been talking about going next to the nearby countries of Bhutan and Nepal, but that wasn’t what was in my mind. I clearly felt, subconsciously, that I was outside India, relaxing at the Kaziranga national park alongside the massive Brahmaputra River and watching famous one-horned rhinos, wild buffaloes and elephants.

Assam is one of the “seven sisters” states that lie to the east of Bangladesh and Bhutan, linked to India only by a 20-40km wide strip of land known at the Siliguri Corridor. Ethnically different from the Indian “mainland” (as many people there refer to the rest of the country), they look more East Asian, and there are sharp religious differences. Muslims account for 30% of Assam’s population and Christianity is widespread – it is the major religion in three of the states, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya.

north-eastWith only about 3% of India’s population, the area is usually out of the focus of most of India’s central government – until disaster strikes, as it did on December 23 when 80 people, mostly women and children, were shot dead by a local terrorist group.

That led to rapid security-oriented government activity from Delhi, but it generated far less media attention, in the rest of India as well as internationally, than the slaughter just eight days earlier of 134 school children in more newsworthy north-western Pakistan.

That indicates why the area feels it is “on the map, off the mind”, which was the title of a discussion I joined at the Guwahati Literary Festival in Assam’s capital on December 27. Bitterness about being out of the country’s mainstream was evident during that and other discussions at the festival, as was a beleaguered sense of sacrifice and misery. Poets and writers revealed a society rocked helplessly by decades of violence since it was officially classified as “disturbed” over half a century ago.

In the 1980s, on a visit to Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, a state government minister asked me during an interview which flight I was getting “back to India”. That reflected the wish in the state, whose territory is disputed with Pakistan, to have considerable autonomy (and maybe even independence) from Delhi, but the north east does not want that. There have been separatist movements, but the cry now is for Delhi to take more notice and be more involved, not less, in developing the region within India’s federal system.

The situation is complicated by the area’s location at the intersection of South, South Eastern, and Eastern Asia, bordering Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, plus the adjacent state of Sikkim’s frontier with Nepal.

The Brahmaputra River at Guwahati

The Brahmaputra River at Guwahati

The geography makes Delhi apprehensive and protective about what happens, especially because of China’s growing assertiveness in the neighbouring countries and its disputed border with India. Further complications arise from porous borders with the neighbours that provide access points for people seeking work as well as terrorists’ escape routes to safe havens. Myanmar has been reported as the most likely destination after the killings on December 23 for terrorists who reportedly belonged to an extreme faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

The Bodos are the biggest of the region’s many tribal communities and in Assam see themselves as a deprived minority deserving special treatment. As Aditi Phadnis wrote recently in the Business Standard, successive Congress state governments have given them “moral and material assistance, sometimes covertly”, using them as a counterpoint against a regional Assamese party.

Several of the seven sister states have been carved out of what was a much larger Assam, either to stem violence by the Bodos and other local pressure groups or for some other short-term political gain. The borders are often unsatisfactory because, having been drawn as quick-fix solutions, they do not reflect ethnic or religious boundaries. For example, Naga people live not only in the state of Nagaland but also in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as well as in Myanmar.

A Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) was created with its own Council eleven years ago, but this is only a notional homeland because the Bodos make up just 35% of the population alongside 20% Muslims and 15% other adivasis (tribals). “As a result, the Bodos have political power and wealth on the strength of arbitrage and rental income (largely from the funds that flow in for the development of the BTAD), but no real economic power,” says Phadnis.

Political fixes

Such short-term political fixes, aimed at placating some groups (or courting others such as Muslims) are typical of the way that Congress Party governments have operated in many states. In Assam that has led to Bodo violence not only against the other adivasis but also Muslims who include many migrants from Bangladesh and last came under major attack in 2012.

“Once the government through its paramilitary action corners the leaders of one militant outfit and arrests some of its leaders, the outfit agrees to talk to the government and comes overground,” Subir Roy wrote in the Business Standard last week. “This is signal to the section that has not been a party to the talks to start their own militant violence. The process of government action then gets repeated with this second faction”.

Delhi’s answer has also been to placate troublesome groups by flooding the states with the development funds, most of which never arrive at their destinations because they are syphoned off by group leaders, plus a heavy presence of the army and less effective para-military forces. The chief minister of a state like Assam will be glad he has the highly disciplined army at hand and that he can liaise with the local general and a unified command about what is needed.

But the presence of so much security, backed by a highly controversial special powers act, adds to the sense of a region under siege and riven with terrorism, which it is not, despite the killings.

For the vast mass of India, this is all just too complicated and distant to comprehend. As my host at Diphlu River Lodge on the edge of Kaziranga put it, people in the north-east know a lot about the rest of India, but the reverse if not true. Abroad there is even less awareness. One of my sons, who lived in India when he was young, emailed me yesterday saying, “The national park looks amazing. Just looked it up (on Google) and didn’t realise India went that far across!”

Mark Tully, the veteran BBC broadcaster, said during our “on the map, off the mind” session that the north east should not only look to Delhi for salvation, but should take more steps itself to develop the region. That of course is correct, but it requires leadership from Delhi that should go beyond misallocated funds and flurries of security-oriented activity.

Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister and a top BJP leader, rushed to Assam after the December attacks and there were highly publicised security operations, which achieved little because the leaders had found refuge elsewhere. I could find no-one in Assam, nor have I read, any credible explanation of why the militant Bodo faction struck at four different points on December 23.

There are signs however that Narendra Modi’s government intends to take more positive action: indeed the north east provides the prime minister with an opportunity to show how he intends to mend the way India is run. That needs to start with national political leadership for effective economic development, implementation of long-delayed projects, action to stem human rights abuses by security forces, and development of trade pacts and routes with neighbouring countries.

That would begin to transform the region’s prospects and tie it more into the life of the “mainland”. In the past, prime ministers have not had the time or interest to focus on such a distant problem – and that includes Manmohan Singh who was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam. Can Modi do better?

This article appears on the Asia Sentinel (Hong Kong) news website

Posted by: John Elliott | December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Haku Shah %22Flute Player%22 2006

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,591 other followers

%d bloggers like this: