Posted by: John Elliott | September 23, 2016

India places $8.6bn jet order amid a trail of failed defences

Uri army camp attack shows India’s vulnerable and weak security 

At the end of a week when India agonised about how to deal with the aftermath of a deadly attack on an army camp near the Pakistan border in Kashmir that should never have been allowed to happen, the government on September 23 signed a $8.66bn deal with Dassault of France for 36 fighter jets that will have only a limited effect on the under-equipped Indian Air Force’s lack of readiness.

The link between the two events is that they both underline the deplorable state of India’s military defences, and demonstrate how inadequately it tries to improve them, despite tough talk by successive governments and especially by prime minister Narendra Modi before he was elected, and despite his promise to make the country work more efficiently.


Smoke rising from the Uri camp during the attack –

Eighteen Indian soldiers were killed in the army camp attack that was carried out at Uri on September 18 by four men – dubbed “militants” by the international media but “terrorists” in Indian reports.

It has led to outrage in India against Pakistan, whose army or ISI secret service is blamed for instigating the attack allegedly by Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based group named by the US as a terrorist organisation.

Yet the real horror of the event is not that Pakistan dare do such a thing, but that India is so lackadaisical and inefficient at maintaining security that the four men were able to cut a boundary fence, move 150 yards inside the base and set fire to tents before they were detected. Unprotected soldiers were having early morning showers in a camp whose operational troops were patrolling on the disputed “line of control”  (LoC) border with Pakistan just 10kms away.

If no Indian soldiers had been killed, the outrage against Pakistan would have been far less and Delhi could have congratulated itself on the excellence of its defences. Yet there is scarcely any public outcry against the government and defence ministry for failing to secure its bases and protect the lives of its soldiers.

More horrifying

Even more horrifying is that the camp was so unprotected despite a similar incident last January at an air base, near the Pakistan border at Pathankot in the Punjab, that had no defences against a terror attack. Border patrols and thermal imaging were inadequate, and the initial police responses were confused and slow. Floodlights were not working in some areas and buildings were located against perimeter walls, making access easy.

Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary, has warned that “India will remain vulnerable unless it does a better job of managing and securing its long land and maritime borders”. He lists numerous defence failings and warns, “Unless we turn the searchlight on our own failings….we will remain at the receiving end of terrorism”.

And as Omar Abdullah, a former Kashmir chief minister has tweeted, “While we work out who is to blame for Uri, and what an appropriate response will be, do we not owe our troops flame retardant tents & huts?”   

manohar-parrikar_647_092116070823Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister, admitted that “something must have gone wrong” at Uri, adding that “we will definitely find out what went wrong and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again”. He was speaking on September 21 at a management conference (above) and said he believed in “zero errors”, a term his audience would use in their own companies but must have heard with incredulity in this context.

“Air defence units field antiquated Soviet-era guns and missiles that should have been retired long ago,” said an editorial in the Business Standard, the next day. Talking about “serious deficiencies “ in India’s radar network, fighters squadrons and ground defence units, it continued: “The mechanised forces, too, rely on Soviet-era air defence systems from the 1980s, which are ineffective, given the advanced electronic warfare equipment in modern fighters….Obsolescent radars with inadequate coverage ranges leave gaps along the border that enemy aircraft can exploit”.

None of this is new. Senior armed forces officers have been complaining about the lack of readiness for combat for years – which makes the signing of the Rafale order inadequate. In 2012, India decided to order 126 Rafale jets from Dassault of France, but negotiations became deadlocked, and Modi suddenly substituted an order for just 36 of the planes in “fly-away condition” when he was on an official visit to Paris in April 2015.

Red tape

That was seen at the time as an astute move by Modi, cutting through the red tape and ordering the urgently-needed jets for quick delivery, even though this would undermine his Make in India manufacturing campaign. The decision was taken by the prime minister’s office without Parrikar being privy to the discussions, as Ajai Shukla, a leading defence journalist, has explained in the Business Standard.

Parrikar was instructed by Modi to speak in favour of the new deal, which he did, saying that the planes would be in service within two years of April 2015, yet they will not now begin to arrive till 2018 or 2019. The negotiations became bogged down in detail, partly because India insisted that Dassault agree “offsets” for 50% of the Rs58,000 crore (Euros 7.8bn, $8.66bn) deal. That will be done by Dassault spending in India 30% of the total on aero research programmes and 20% on components, though it is not yet known how that will be done.

RafaleThe main point here however is that the jets (right) will do little to solve the air force’s overall shortage of fighters, despite their superior capability and advanced missiles, because they will add only two squadrons to the current total of 32 when 42 are needed. The Rafales will also complicate maintenance and support services because there will be seven different types of aircraft from various countries. The air force’s concerns have been spelt out in the Shukla article, including worries that the Rafales cost twice as much as Russian Sukhoi jets that are already in service.

Now India must decide what to do about the 90 aircraft that are needed following the unexplained reduction from 126 to 36. Two more aircraft types – the US’s F16 and the Swedish Gripen – are reportedly being considered. 

India’s defence orders are awash with corruption allegations and, significantly, Shukla notes that Indian MoD officials, fearing graft allegations over deals, draw some “comfort” in US deals because of the country’s foreign corrupt practices legislation.

Such is the muddle with which India runs its defences, both in terms of its internal security and its ability to strike at its neighbouring and hostile nuclear neighbours, China and its client state, Pakistan.

The focus has been on how India should fight back against Pakistan following the Uri attack, which the prime minister has said “will not let go unpunished”. Diplomacy has so far been the main weapon, at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other possibilities aired and debated have included selected strikes across the border, cyber warfare, cutting off river waters that flow from India to Pakistan, and cancelling trade pacts.

It would however be much more effective to strengthen India’s domestic security because, as Shyam Saran says, India will otherwise “remain at the receiving end of terrorism”.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 31, 2016

India warily edges closer to the US with defence logistics deal

China warns India could become a “centre of geopolitical rivalries”

New Delhi doesn’t really trust Washington and many US policy experts regard India as a tiresome non-performer, but both countries need each other because of China’s increasing adventurism and aggression, and this is leading to a flurry of activity before President Obama’s time in office finishes at the end of this year.

A historic defence deal called LEMOA, or Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement to give it its full name, was signed in Washington on Monday (Aug 29) between the two countries’ defence ministers, Ashton Carter and Manohar Parrikar (below). After tortuous negotiations lasting some 14 years, it provides for both countries making their naval, air force and army bases available to each other for servicing and repairs on a case by case basis. 

At the same time, America’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, was arriving in Delhi for the second India-US strategic and commercial dialogue that includes India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, and both countries’ commerce ministers. Their agenda has ranged from climate change and clean energy to cyber co-operation and arbitration arrangements.

Obama, who has a built a constructive relationship with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, may be in the closing months of his presidency, but there is a continuing momentum in the country’s overall strategic links. These began in 2004, though India is intensely wary, and both sides have let progress slip at various times. 

Carter Parrikar LEMOA Sept '16The US see India primarily as a buffer against China and would like to build a closer relationship as allies, but India is prepared to go no further than being a partner on various fronts while pursuing its own independent interests. In the past that has included refusing to join US-led boycotts of Iran and Myanmar.

The US has emerged as a major supplier of defence equipment with orders totalling some $4.4bn in just the past three years, and has taken part in several joint military exercises. Russia however remains India’s most consistent defence supplier and partner and, significantly, the US failed to make the short-list on a key multi-billion jet fighter deal that it coveted.

The defence logistics agreement is historic because it shows what can eventually be achieved, while also illustrating India’s concerns. The signing owes much to the sensitivity and persistence of Ashton Carter, America’s secretary for defence and India’s most prominent supporter in the Obama administration. He said after the signing that he had spent more time with Parrikar since taking on his job than with any other defence minister anywhere in the world.

“Over the last two years, Carter and Parrikar have built up an unlikely rapport – the former a defence and security technocrat and academic; the latter a street-savvy politician, albeit with an Indian Institute of Technology degree,” says Ajai Shukla, an Indian defence journalist and analyst.

“Foundational pacts”

When the discussions on the logistics deal began in 2002, it was one of the four “foundational pacts” that the US had expected to push India into agreeing quite quickly, but Washington’s defence officials seriously under-estimated the time it would take to achieve just two of them.

An End User Verification Agreement, which was signed in 2009, paved the way for the US to become a major defence supplier by laying down restrictions on India passing technology on to other countries. But a Communications Interoperability & Security Memorandum of Agreement and a Basic Exchange & Cooperation Agreement on Geo-spatial Services have not been agreed and seem unlikely to make much progress in the near future.

This is because of concern both in India’s defence establishment and among opposition political parties that India is gradually moving into what could become a formal military alliance that would drag it into America’s international action in places such as Iran and Syria.

“We resisted this agreement for long because we didn’t want to give the perception that we are ganging up with Americans against somebody else, in particular China,” says Pallam Raju, a defence minister of state in the previous Congress-led government.

India’s defence ministry has tried to answer that point by stressing that the agreement neither created “any obligations” on either India or the US “to carry out any joint activity”, nor provided “for the establishment of any bases or basing arrangements”. It would be used “exclusively during authorized port visits, joint exercises, joint training, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.”


India’s powerful neighbour China is of course far from happy, as one of its official mouthpieces has made clear (reported above on Indian tv news). After praising India’s traditional international independence, the Global Times warned: “If India hastily joins the US alliance system, it may irritate China, Pakistan or even Russia. It may not make India feel safer, but will bring strategic troubles to itself and make itself a centre of geopolitical rivalries in Asia.”.

China is getting into the habit of warning other countries about what or what not to do as it becomes more aggressive internationally, though there is of course nothing new in it coercing others to follow its line. Some 25 years ago, when I was reporting for the Financial Times from Hong Kong, it was providing economic aid for small countries to persuade them not to recognise Taiwan as a sovereign country,

Now the stakes are far higher, as the Chinese ambassadors in both London and Delhi have shown in recent weeks with dire warnings to their host countries about failing to  fall in with Beijing’s wishes. One was over a China-backed nuclear power station project at Hinkley Point in Britain that the UK government is reconsidering.

The other was about India’s concern over China’s recent belligerent adventurism in the South China Sea, where the new agreement could become significant if India allows US ships patrolling in those waters to use its naval bases.

Perhaps India would have been less willing to sign up with the US if China had responded constructively to friendly moves initiated by Modi. Instead, it has blocked India’s entry into an international nuclear supplies body, has strengthened its ties with Pakistan, and has failed to make progress resolving differences on its disputed Himalayan border.

With Modi’s friendly overtures leading to that sort of negative response from Beijing, India seems to have had little to lose by doing the logistics deal while Obama and his friendly defence secretary are still in office.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 4, 2016

India at last takes a leap forward on tax reforms

New goods and services tax passed by Rajya Sabha

It has taken 16 years, which is sluggish even by India’s dreadfully slow approach to change, but finally it has happened – late last night the upper house of  India’s parliament passed a constitution (amendment) bill that paves the way for the introduction of an epoch-making tax reform known as the goods and service tax (GST).

The government optimistically hopes to introduce the tax at the start of the next financial year on April 1, merging myriad taxes into one value added measure that will straddle the whole country and abolish different tax regimes run by India’s individual 29 states. There will then be one national tax system for the manufacture, sale and consumption of goods and services, and India will in effect become a single common market.

This is being touted as the single biggest change since India’s major burst of economic reforms in 1991, and it probably is, given its potentially enormous benefits for business efficiency and tax collection. Arun Jaitley (below), the finance minister, says it will add 2% to gdp growth, which is currently just above 7%.

488002-355862-arun-jaitley-3-pti-edited-picmonkeyThe business welcome was well summed up by Chanda Kochhar, ceo of ICICI, a leading private sector bank. She has described it as the “most important reform in indirect taxation in India ever”, which would benefit all parts of the economy. “Consumers will see lower prices in the medium term, businesses will able to operate more efficiently and the government will see a broadening of its tax base along with ease of tax collection”.

One of the biggest benefits will be faster road transport times, which are more than double those of developed economies, partly because trucks have to pay taxes at each state border. Companies’ distribution and warehousing systems will also be simplified. It should also be possible for the government to restrict tax evasion.

Jaitley and Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister, claim this as great victory for the government, and proof that they are bent on economic reforms.

Such a claim is not wrong, but it is biased because both the BJP and the Congress Party deserve equal praise for backing the measure over the past 16 years – and both also need to be strongly condemned for blocking it when the other was in power.

It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee (below) who, as the then BJP prime minister, launched the first GST discussions in 2000 and set up a committee with states’ finance ministers to design the tax and the systems required.

Atal_Bihari_VajpayeeThe BJP however refused to support Manmohan Singh, the Congress prime minister from 2004, when he tried to push the measure with a 2010 target implementation date. It then changed tack when the Modi government was elected two years ago, but that was met by obstruction from Congress, which wanted to build up its credibility in opposition. The Modi style was arrogant, which made co-operation with other parliamentary parties, as well as Congress, virtually impossible

In the past few weeks however, the BJP has improved its political tactics. It won support from almost all regional political parties, which would have left Congress isolated had it not ended its opposition.

Consequently, the bill was unanimously passed last night after nearly eight hours of debate in the Rajya Sabha, where Congress has a majority of the seats. Opposition came only from Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK party MPs who walked out. The bill now needs to be cleared by the Lok Sabha (lower house), which is a certainty given that the BJP has a majority there.

States’ ratification needed

But the bill only paves the way for change. It needs first to be ratified by individual states, which then have to draw up their GST laws, and that will be a substantial task. At least 15 of the states must do this for the measure to be implemented. Most will fall into line, though states such as Tamil Nadu with strong manufacturing industries have reservations because they fear they will lose out, unless they are adequately compensated, by the benefit the value added tax brings to consumer-based states.

All the states, and individual businesses, need to prepare for what is in effect a totally new tax regime. That seems somewhat unlikely to be achieved by the government target date of April 1, even if the legislative process is completed with the central government setting the tax rates. Congress wants the tax capped at 18%.

The Business Standard, a leading Indian newspaper, has said this morning that almost 98% of Indian companies are not ready with the software infrastructure, accounting systems and human resources training that are needed to handle the tax. The indirect tax regime “would require all companies, their suppliers/vendors, retailers, dealers and even shopkeepers/entertainment centres/restaurants to install computers, which could access the centralised GST network so that tax credits can be logged into the system”, it said.

The GST will be collected at each stage of sale or purchase of goods or services and will provide funds for both the central and state governments. Nationally, it will subsume central excise duty, additional excise duty, service tax, countervailing duty, and special additional duty of customs. At the state level, it will absorb state value added tax/sales tax, entertainment tax, central sales tax, octroi (state border tax), purchase tax, luxury tax, and taxes on lottery, betting and gambling.

Government veto

It will be run by a council where the states will have two-thirds of the seats, but the national government will have a veto because, while it will have only a third representation, decisions will need a 75% vote in favour. This strengthens the central government’s overall powers because it will be able to control tax rates in the states, which goes against the general approach of encouraging the states to led development. This could lead to tensions and political clashes.

Critics have suggested that there are some inflationary risks and that states, which have always over-spent in order to improve the political credibility of their ruling parties, will feel even more free to spend recklessly and wait to be baled out by the council and central government.

So while there is much to celebrate today, now that the GST has crossed a major parliamentary hurdle, there is plenty of scope in the future for disagreements and lack of progress.

Successful implementation will test the government’s political leadership and skill in the coming months. That gives Modi an opportunity to prove that he can do what he was elected to do and change the way India is run.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 30, 2016

Theresa May dares to risk upsetting China

New Prime Minister delays Cameron government power project 

LONDON: At last Britain seems to have a prime minister in Theresa May (below) who means business, and is not primarily interested in playing to the gallery like her predecessor, David Cameron, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer henchman, George Osborne, did both at home and abroad.

A Financial Times columnist has reported that Whitehall officials are saying it feels like having a new government rather than just a change of prime minister.

theresa mayThis means that old assumptions about how the government will react and about who matters around town have to be re-calibrated.

People in India, and especially in Delhi (where I live), have been experiencing that with Narendra Modi’s government replacing the Gandhi dynasty two years ago. He has over-turned an established elite and governs on his own terms.

In Britain the change has been dramatically illustrated by May’s unexpected decision on the evening of July 28 to delay final confirmation of an £18bn ($26bn) nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset that would lead to China having direct involvement in Britain’s electricity supplies.

The plan is for state-owned China General Nuclear Power to provide about a  third of the finance in a joint venture with EDF, a French utility company with UK electric power interests. The UK government would buy electricity for £92.50 per megawatt hour – double the current wholesale price – for 35 years. The European Pressurised Reactor (EPF) technology involved is unproven because two projects in Finland and France have yet to be commissioned and are years behind schedule and far over budget.

China expects, as part of a deal struck by the Cameron-Osborne government, to follow this with its own Hualong technology for two more power projects at Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex.

That breathtakingly irrational gift of control over sizeable chunks of Britain’s electricity supplies (Hinkley would be a significant beginning at 7%) has been aptly dubbed by critics as the most extravagant of Osborne’s and Cameron’s “vanity projects”.


David Cameron (left) and George Osborne in the House of Commons

Another is HS2, a widely-criticised plan for a high speed railway link of dubious financial viability between London and Birmingham, for which Chinese investment has also been desperately sought despite cost estimates as high as £90bn, up from an official 2011 figure of around £50bn. (Other funding for this project has been offered by the controversial Gulf state of Qatar).

There has been extensive debate and concern internationally over the security risk of doing business with China in sensitive areas – most of its current $30bn investments in the UK  are not sensitive though it does have a stake in Thames Water.

The debate has focussed in the past mostly on telecom networks, especially as I noted on this blog in 2012, those made by Huawei for countries such as the US (which has banned it on government contracts), the UK (where BT and others use it extensively) and India where it is well entrenched.

It was argued then (by John Gapper, a leading Financial Times columnist) that it was too late to eliminate Huawei because “the time to declare telecoms a strategic, protected industry like defence, was 20 years ago”.

Well, the time to declare and make nuclear power a protected strategic industry is surely now. China has to be regarded as a potential future enemy by the west, as it already is by several of its Asian neighbours. Hinkley would be operating for around 50 years and no-one – not even Beijing’s leaders – can predict where and what fights China will begin over that timescale.

Currently China is challenging its neighbours in the South China Sea by asserting no-fly zones and by claiming sovereignty over islands and sea lanes and challenging international maritime rules, despite a recent international court ruling in the Hague rejecting its claims. This could lead to confrontations with countries in that area and with the US.

If Hinkley goes ahead with Chinese money, the UK would presumably have to remain a silent spectator instead of backing its allies in such a situation. Would a Cameron-Osborne government have even dared to vote against China at the United Nations?

The investments crystallised into a £30bn wish list when President Xi Jinping made a state visit to the UK last October. He was given a royal welcome and rode down the ceremonial Mall to Buckingham Palace in a gilded carriage with Queen Elizabeth. (Narendra Modi got invited to the palace for lunch a few weeks later but went by car).

Osborne rejected security concerns

Cameron – and Osborne, whom May sacked from the government immediately she became prime minister – had spent years courting Chinese investment. But May, formerly the former home secretary, raised security concerns with cabinet colleagues when the Hinkley decisions were being made.

Two ministers in the Cameron’s Conservative-LibDem coalition government (2010-15) have said that Osborne blocked attempts both to give the British government a “special share” that would restrict China’s ability to act at Hinkley against the UK’s interest and  to introduce security-oriented restrictions on Chinese business visitors’ visas.

May’s chief of staff warned that China would be able “to use their role to build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will”. He also said China would be buying British silence on human rights abuses, which was proved right when Cameron and Osborne duly Kowtowed to Xi.

So it is not really surprising that May stepped in on Thursday evening and got her energy minister to announce a review of the project instead of the expected confirmation.

The timing however was curious – the EDF board had earlier that day voted to go ahead and officials from France and China as well as the UK were about to travel to the site for a celebration ceremony. Even more curious, Philip Hammond, May’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, had said during a visit to China for a G20 meeting a week earlier that “we must make sure the project goes ahead.”

May was presumably concerned primarily about the Chinese angle and also maybe about disagreements in the EDF, as well as about the unproven technology and risk of delays and cost over-runs. The EDF finance director resigned last March, fearing the project would ruin EDF financially, and another director resigned just before the board vote. After those two had gone, the board only approved the project on Thursday by ten votes to seven. One executive is reported to have said that the vote might have gone the other way if May’s intentions had been known.

modi-xi-swing1 - IndianExpressMay has risked upsetting both President Hollande of France and China’s Xi. They will no doubt both understand that, having been in office for just two weeks, May needs time to approve such a massive project for which she will now bear prime ministerial responsibility.

But they will be extremely annoyed if she were to cancel the deal, which could make Xi unwilling to help the UK negotiate a quick post-Brexit bilateral trade deal with China, while Hollande could cause problems in Europe.

Such political considerations however are surely less important than Britain putting its future in a Chinese noose, and on a project of unproven technology and uncertain financial viability. A compromise solution will probably be found – maybe restricting the Chinese involvement in some way.

Narendra Modi might learn something if May takes a tough line. He is split between his inclination to serenade Xi, as he did (above) when the Chinese president visited India in September 2014, and the reality that China blocks India’s advancement internationally, encourages neighbouring Pakistan to cause problems, and hassles India on their common border.

How, one might ask, could Cameron and Osborne ever have decided to trust China with the projects. Did they really think China would treat Britain differently from the rest of the world?

India has lost one of its greatest modern painters with the death yesterday of Syed Haidar Raza, who was 94. He was a leading member of the Bombay-based Progressives Artists’ Group of the late 1940s and 1950s that now dominates the top end of the Indian art market, and his passing marks the gradual closing of a chapter in the country’s post-independence art history.

Other famous members of the group such as V.S. Gaitonde, F.N.Souza, Tyeb Mehta and M.F. Husain have died in the past 15 years, most of them painting continuously till just before their deaths, as did Raza with his familiar canvas works of brightly coloured squares, triangles and circles. 

shraza-saurashtra-lot-224-christies-june-10In June 2010, his massive 79in x 79in acrylic on canvas, Saurashtra (right), painted in 1983, hit a record price for Indian works at a Christie’s London auction.

It was bought for £2.4m ($3.5m, Rs16.4 crore) by Kiran Nadar, a prominent collector for her Delhi museum. In 2014, his La Terre (below) reached Rs8.61 crore at a Saffronart auction in Delhi.

He will be most remembered for his frequent use of the bindu, Sanskrit for dot or point, which represents cosmic power in Hindu tantric philosophy. It also leads to the name bindi for the small mark worn by Hindu women in their forehead 

He once said that, when he was nine, his teacher drew a bindu on a white wall and made him stare at it to check his restlessness. “The bindu awakened a latent energy inside me,” Raza has said. “It is a source of energy a still centre and a point from which everything radiates”.

Raza group IMG_5008

S.H. Raza, Krishen Khanna (behind him) and Ashok Vajpeyi (right) at the January 2016 Vadehra exhibition

His last exhibition, at Delhi’s Vadehra gallery in January this year, was astonishing because it consisted of more than 20 large acrylic on canvas works, and several smaller ones, all of which he had painted and were dated in 2015 (left, and Bindu below).

He came to the opening, frail and in a wheel chair, and I asked him whether he painted every day. “Yes almost,” he replied

I arranged with his friend Ashok Vajpeyi to go to his studio and watch him at work, but he became ill and that sadly never happened. Two artist assistants helped him I was told, as assistants and students have often done for leading artists down the centuries.

They drew the shapes that Raza wanted, and held a palate for him to select the paints with a slightly wavering brush. Large canvases were raised and lowered so he could reach them. The works still had their appeal of dramatic colours, tying together in a theme, though with less sharpness than before.

“He has a particular ability to weave together a canvas with different chromatic sequences all clustered together without injuring each other,” Krishen Khanna, 91, one of the few surviving Progressives told me, standing in the gallery alongside his old friend. “Look at the strong red which doesn’t interfere with the rest of the work,” he said, pointing to a particularly striking painting.

Bindu 2016

Bindu in the Vadehra exhibition of 2015 works

The two men wrote letters to each other from the 1950s that were published in 2013 by the Vadehra and the Raza Foundation.

“We couldn’t just tear them up, it’s bad to destroy such things,” said Khanna. They tell of the struggles of their early years, but are less frequent when the Progressives became standard bearers in the auctions for the boom in Indian art that developed from the early 2000s.

“I feel very lonely now. One by one they have all gone Ara, Raza, Gaitonde, Tyeb,” Khanna said yesterday. “Akbar Padamsee and Ram Kumar are the only others of our group who are now alive. Death has to happen in the course of the time but it does not take away personal sorrow”.

When the boom faded about eight years ago and works by India’s more adventurous contemporary artists fell from popularity and peak prices, paintings by Raza and his Progressive colleagues like Souza, Mehta and Gaitonde have continued to flourish. Their mostly figurative and abstract studies have continued to hit new records for the best works, though there have been some flops, and Raza in particular has sometimes been hit by fakes reaching galleries and auction houses.


S.H.Raza in one of his studios – Art&Style photo

When they started, the Progressives were important because they challenged India’s artistic traditions while also recognising and adopting art styles they saw in Europe and the US, where some, including Souza, went to live.

“We were not allowed to meet students because it was said we were a foreign influence,” Husain told me in a 2009 interview. The critics “wanted us to paint like the Bengal school” instead of breaking from tradition into new styles

shraza-sfrnart-sept-14 La Terre

La Terre, sold at Saffronart in 2014

Raza was born in 1922 in a remote rural village in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, near what is now Kanha National Park. His father was a forest ranger. After school he studied art in Nagpur, the nearest large city, and then in Mumbai where he had his first show when he was 24 at the Bombay Art Salon.

A 1948 meeting with the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson when he was 26 changed Raza’s outlook towards art. He showed his paintings to Cartier-Bresson, who said the work lacked construction. “If I hadn’t met Bresson, I would have continued painting white crosses to symbolise resurrection and black crosses for crucifixion,” Raza had said in a 2006 interview with India Today, explaining how he switched to geometrical patterns.

He went to Paris in 1950 on a French government scholarship. There, artists such as Cezanne, Monet and Gauguin fascinated him.

He stayed in Europe for some 60 years, returning from Paris only in 2010, by which time he was the celebrity that India was eager to claim as its own – as has been demonstrated in the past day with tributes from top politicians and across social media.

State governors told not to meddle ‘in any political thicket’

A few hours after Friday night’s bloody military coup failed in Turkey, the failure of a peaceful and far less dramatic unconstitutional coup staged by India’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of Arunachal Pradesh was also confirmed.

Located high in the Himalayas, Arunachal is specially sensitive because it is on the border with China, which claims it as its territory, yet the BJP under prime minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah has been encouraging the destabilisation of its state assembly politics since the end of last year.

The army in India (unlike in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh) doesn’t do coups, but central governments do – mostly those run in the past by the Congress Party that staged them for decades in order to oust state-level administrations belonging to rivals.

In place of army officers, it is a state’s governor who controversially manages things by deciding that a state assembly is unstable, usually because its members are being tempted (often with substantial amounts of money) to switch parties. The governor then triggers either a change of government, or recommends suspension of democracy with Delhi taking charge under what is known as president’s rule.

map copy 2

Last week the supreme court blocked the BJP’s ambitions in Arunachal, paving the way yesterday for the restoration of a Congress majority of assembly members. Earlier this year the court blocked the BJP.s similar ambitions in Uttarakhand, which borders Nepal.

During a meeting in Delhi chaired by Modi, chief ministers of various states yesterday took up the lead give by the supreme court and attacked the government for its interference in state-level affairs. One of them criticised governors’ “adventurism”.

Nitesh Kumar, who runs a government of regional parties in Bihar, called for the governors’ role to be abolished.

The supreme court move was a boost for Congress, though the crises in both states might have been averted if Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president, had been less aloof and more active and sensitive to churns in the states’ politics.

More importantly, it is a blow for the prestige of the BJP and Narendra Modi, who wants his prime ministerial authority to be as absolute as possible. That was demonstrated earlier this month with a substantial central government reshuffle that promoted ministers who did his and the prime minister’s office direct bidding, and demoted those that did not and also those who had upset Amit Shah. The same applied to the internationally-regarded governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, who is departing.

The court’s rulings have also come at a sensitive time in relations with the judiciary because the government has been trying to gain a say in the appointment of judges in high courts and the supreme court, rather than leaving it basically to seniority.

Ceremonial but meddling

Constitutionally, a state’s governor has a largely ceremonial role that is broadly similar to India’s president and Britain’s monarch. Central governments usually fill these gubernatorial posts with political supporters, usually grateful pensioned-off politicians, bureaucrats and armed service chiefs. They live grand lives of pomp and ritual in a style directly inherited from the British Raj with a large (but frequently faded) “Raj Bhawan”, estates, and liveried servants. Frequently controversial, they meddle in a state’s politics even though they are not supposed to do so.

The most blatant and destructive current example is in Delhi. Here the lieutenant governor (who has more powers than other state governors) has for two years done what is presumed to be Modi’s bidding by undermining the work of the government run by the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, has unnecessarily riled the lieutenant governor, Najeeb Jung, a former bureaucrat, but an official in such a position should surely rise above such provocation.

Former Congress prime minister Indira Gandhi made most frequent use of governors’ coups, which have been staged more than 100 times since India’s independence in 1947. She was as ambitious as Modi to assert absolute control (though her motives partly stemmed from paranoia, which is not a Modi characteristic).


The sensitive Actual Line of Control, as the India-China border is known in  Arunachal, when Chinese troops intruded  more than 20km into Indian territory in 2013 – Indian Express photo

The first occasion I remember was in August 1984 when she tried and ultimately failed to eject the southern state of Andhra Pradesh’s colourful ex-film star chief minister N.T.Rama Rao, head of the regional Telegu Desam. Her action led to weeks of political unrest, Hindu-Muslim riots, and army flag-marches aimed at restoring peace. This hit world headlines because it echoed her State of Emergency actions in the mid-1970s.  A month earlier, she had got the governor of Jammu and Kashmir to replace the chief minister Farooq Abdullah, albeit with another (more pliable) politician from Abdullah’s state-level National Conference party.

The Arunachal story

President’s rule was imposed in Arunachal in January after two months of political machinations that began when Congress assembly members, encouraged by the BJP, rebelled against the Congress chief minister, Nabam Tuki. The state’s governor was deeply involved in the events. A month later, a state government was installed and proved its majority in the assembly. It was led by one of the Congress rebels and supported by BJP assembly members, who together formed a new People’s Party of Arunachal.


Prem Khandu yesterday handing over assembly members’  letters of support to the Arunachal Pradesh governor, Tathagata Roy – photo

Last week, on July 13, the supreme court ruled that the Arunachal governor had acted illegally and unconstitutionally when, under article 356 of the Indian constitution, he interfered in various ways in the state’s politics and successfully advised India’s president in January to dismiss the Congress state government led by Tuki, alleging it was unable to function effectively following the members’ rebellion.

For the first time ever, the court also ordered the reinstatement of Tuki’s dismissed state government. This went further than rulings in earlier decades that stopped president’s rules and sometimes ordered complaints to test their strength on the floor of the assembly.

Yesterday there was a new twist when Tuki resigned, handing over leadership of Congress to Prema Khandu, a colleague, who could pull the Congress’s warring groups together. Khandu, the son of a former chief minister, then took over 44 assembly members to the governor (above) to show that he commanded a majority of the 58-seat assembly, finally ending the coup saga. He is being sworn in today.

Governors’  ground rules

The supreme court also went further on July 13 and, for the first time, laid down ground rules for governors:

“It needs to be asserted as a constitutional determination, that it is not within the realm of the Governor to embroil himself in any political thicket. The Governor must remain aloof from any disagreement, discord, disharmony, discontent or dissension, within individual political parties.

“The activities within a political party, confirming turbulence, or unrest within its ranks, are beyond the concern of the Governor. The Governor must keep clear of any political horse-trading, and even unsavoury political manipulations, irrespective of the degree of their ethical repulsiveness. Who should or should not be a leader of a political party, is a political question, to be dealt with and resolved privately by the political party itself. The Governor cannot, make such issues, a matter of his concern.”

Quaint language there to be sure, but a significant warning shot to Modi, and to future prime ministers, to stop ordering pliant governors to organise coups.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 12, 2016

Cuba braces itself for a second US invasion

Impressions from an eight-day holiday 

The poor in Cuba are very, very poor, but it does not feel like a country blighted by poverty – not, for example, like India, where I live. People have suffered a repressive political regime, with a virtually closed economy, for over 50 years, and the youth have to go abroad if they want the sorts of opportunities that are now available for aspirational Indians at home. 

Practically everyone, including government employees, doctors and university professors, have desperately low levels of pay, but offsetting that in terms of poverty are free health services and education. Some poverty is visible as one travels through rural areas and towns (see Santa Clara street scene below), as is the lack of organised agriculture.

IMG_1129 copy

After an all-too-brief eight day holiday, I came away last month wanting to go again to this welcoming and friendly country. In the towns, many with old squares and streets of distinguished-looking buildings and gaily painted houses, there are cafes and music seemingly everywhere, a sea of colour, and a calm that comes from a lack of traffic.

I was not however visiting as a journalist, and did not have wide ranging interviews, so these notes are the quick impressions of a tourist.

 Don’t say “Cuba” at Miami immigration!

“How long will you be here and where are you going on to?”, the US immigration officer asked me when I arrived in Miami for a Kellogg School of Management innovation network (KIN) conference before going on to nearby Havana. 


Che Guevara sculture in Havana

“Five days, and on to Cuba”, I replied. “To where?” he asked rather sternly. “Cuba,” I repeated, unthinking. He asked me again, rather more threateningly, still holding my passport and completed immigration pass in his hand.

“Oh,” I said, nervously smiling, “sorry, the Caymans, Grand Cayman” (my onward transit airport). That generated a rather grim condescending smile, and my papers.

Such it seems, is the ambivalence of officials in Florida to their socialist neighbour that the US boycotted and shunned for over 50 years till diplomatic relations were restored last July. Links were severed in 1961, the year that Cuba repelled in just three days a botched CIA-sponsored paramilitary invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south side of the island.

That was followed in 1962 by the Cuban missile crisis, when the risk of a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union was averted in a deal that sealed both Cuba’s independence and the US blockade.


The towering Soviet 1980s vintage Russian embassy

All of that can lead soft lefties to feel empathy for revolutionaries, celebrating the Bay of Pigs fiasco in a museum by the sea at Giron.

One can instinctively criticise a country that could blockade an island for so long, and also condemn the Cuban Americans who fled, mostly to Florida when Fidel Castro took over, and whose political influence in Washington kept the island isolated.

Another reminder is the mausoleum at Santa Clara of Che Guevara who, with Castro and others, led revolutionaries in 1959 to victory against General Fulgencio Batista, the country’s dictator.

 A second invasion

Now Cuba is readying for a second invasion when direct scheduled flights start from America in September – six US airlines led by American and Jet-Blue have been approved by Washington for up to 20 flights a day to Havana plus more to other cities (in addition to current charter flights). That is being welcomed because of the economic activity it will generate – but older people fear a cultural take-over, especially of the young.


Mixed signals as Castro grabs Obama’s arm, apparently deflecting an attempt to hug him

“It’s important that our kids realise that one nation’s trade embargo kept us down all these years and no-one should ever be allowed to forget that,” a middle aged university lecturer told us, avoiding mentioning America with the caution that everyone showed on political subjects.

That led us into a discussion about President Obama’s recent visit to Havana (above) where he faced a tough press conference  with President Raúl Castro, 85-year old younger brother of Fidel, the former prime minister and president. Raúl made it clear that there were limits to how far the government would respond to US pressure to soften the current regime.

“Raúl and Fidel are standing up to them but the risk is that, when they go, the Americans will gobble the place up,” said our friend. 

 Go before it’s spoiled”

People assumed we were going to Cuba “before it gets spoiled”. And so we were, just in time before the direct US flights, but not early enough.


Reflection of the Plaza Vieja in  Lacoste shop window

Even though it was the wet humid season, there were plenty of other tourists around, as there have been increasingly for a couple of decades from Canada, Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Some came while we were there from an American cruise ship that had made its first visit for decades a few weeks earlier.

A few designer and western brand shops (left and lower down) have already opened in the cobbled streets and squares of old Havana with luxury goods that are far beyond the reach of even middle class professionals who earn just $4.5 a week.

Chanel staged its annual glittering fashion show with an exclusive invited audience on the grand Paeso del Prado in central Havana two months ago. Adding to the glamour, the Rolling Stones turned up in March for an open event that was more in the Cuban egalitarian traditions of the last half century.

We were however in time to stay in Havana’s grand old Hotel Santa Isabel (below) overlooking the famous Plaza de Armas before America’s Starwood hotel group takes over the management.


The Isabel is one of several properties Starwood has said it will be running for one of the military-owned companies that control much of the island’s tourism – its Sheraton brand name has just gone up on a modern hotel close to the city’s seafront. Cuba has dozens of stylish old hotels, many in need of varying degrees of refurbishment. Foreign groups such as Melia from Spain are already there, especially at beach resorts, having been allowed in since the 1990s.

stonegate-mastercard*750xx617-347-0-23Another indication of growing American links is a bank credit card for Cuba (left), with both countries’  flags, that is being issued by Florida-based Stonegate Bank for US citizens to use for withdrawing cash. We carried British pounds and a few US dollars that were easily exchanged in banks – my Indian government press card was, amazingly, accepted as proof of identity when I wasn’t carrying my passport. Some hotels (we were told only the military-owned ones) accept European credit cards and there are a few ATM machines.

 You don’t need Coke

So how much will Cuba change? Its attraction is that it mixes being a relic of the past with some modernity, and with splendid beaches as well as the old towns. “Everyone wants to come to Cuba before the Americans change it,” said one of our guides. “You don’t come here for McDonalds or Coke”. 

And indeed you don’t need to. The local cola brands are fine. The food can be monotonous – endless tuna and cheese sandwiches at lunchtime, helped down maybe with mojito or rum and coke, and tough beef and pork in the evening. But one can work round that, especially with lamb, chicken and the occasional pasta. There are some excellent not so expensive restaurants serving a mix of local and international food – I had one of the best rogan josh dishes ever at the Sol y Son courtyard restaurant attached to a stylish old house in the popular tourist town of Trinidad.

IMG_1155There’s money to be made from the expected flush of tourism and the insides of old buildings are being torn out and rebuilt. Old Havana, as the cobbled area of the capital is known, has dozens of building sites but, so far, most keep their imposing exteriors (right).

Brightly coloured old Cadillacs, Pontiacs and other bulging American iconic limousines (below) have been refurbished and polished for tourists – at least one limo trip round Havana is a must.

But there are problems…

Behind the stylish old facades and the hotels and cafes doing increasing business all is however not well. Cuba’s is a crippled economy that stumbles on with support from unstable Venezuela and other countries. China has inevitably stepped in and seems to have supplied most of the modern coaches and buses one sees on the roads as well as cars. 

There is virtually no manufacturing industry, not even of bicycles, apart from bright yellow bubble-shaped plastic mini-taxis known as CoCos. Agriculture is held back by a lack of mechanisation and modern seeds and fertilisers. The countryside is littered with closed sugar factories, hit by the American trade embargo and inefficient operation. Amazingly for such a literate country, and with a rich countryside, exports are limited to tobacco, including the world famous cigars, and nickel plus some citrus and sugar that is far below the potential.


There have been some reforms since Raúl Castro took over from Fidel in 2008, opening up areas such as some farms, taxis and cafes to the private sector, but even that is haphazard – we heard that private fruit and vegetable sellers had suddenly disappeared from the streets a few weeks before our visit because that reform had been cancelled, apparently because of rising prices.

Stories of heavy and persistent government control even include Airbnb having to register with the government before it could advertise rooms to let. If it hadn’t done so, I was told, its internet access would have been blocked and people would have been told not to offer rooms. Now guests’ passport details have to be sent to the local immigration office.


People were willing to answer endless questions about the problems and about the new relationship with the US. They talked about pay for occupations like teachers and university professors being so appallingly low that many either emigrate or, with increased tourism, waste their talents as tourist guides. 

There is a dreadful lack of food, with strict minimal rationing, though the tiny amounts that are available can be bought at reasonable prices in the domestic national peso currency. Those who are able to lead reasonably comfortable lives do so because they have relatives abroad who help with clothes and provisions and also help finance access to the convertible peso (CUC) used by tourists, which is linked to the US dollar and is worth 25 times the local currency.

It’s not for me as a tourist to do an analyst’s job on such problems, but do go there, quickly. And tip generously – the people you’ll meet need it!

Posted by: John Elliott | July 6, 2016

Modi reshuffles with some gains and some surprises 

Finance professional Jayant Sinha demoted from finance ministry to aviation

Narendra Modi’s long-awaited cabinet reshuffle was implemented last night with some gains in terms of government efficiency and some surprises. Overall, Modi’s supremacy has been underlined, working in tandem with Amit Shah, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hardline Hindu nationalist president.

The most surprising and, it seems, self-defeating change is a demotion for Jayant Sinha, minister of state (number two) at the finance ministry to a similar spot at the aviation ministry. His only failing appears to be having as his father a former BJP finance and foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, who has been an outspoken Modi critic, most recently over setbacks on foreign policy.

Smriti Irani-An equally unexpected but constructive demotion hit Smriti Irani (left), the accident-prone and excessively combative minister for human resources (HRD and including education), who has been shunted off to the textiles ministry.

Other moves shift some under-performing ministers and reduce the responsibilities of others, mostly resulting from a rare in-depth examination of ministers’ effectiveness ordered by Modi.

Arun Jaitley, the over-worked minister of finance and corporate affairs, has lost his responsibility for the information and broadcasting ministry, which has gone to Venkaiah Naidu, a veteran BJP politician and till now the minister for parliamentary affairs. Jaitley has been given two ministers of state to replace Jayant Sinha but, without Sinha’s expertise, there will be more onus on him to spend more of his time managing economic policy and assessing proposals from the ministry’s bureaucrats.

It is difficult to see what Sinha (below) can achieve as number two at the aviation ministry, which presides over the entrenched airline (notably perpetually loss-making inefficient Air India) and airports establishment, and is far from a happening part of government.

A Harvard educated former New York fund manager and McKinsey consultant, he brought unusual professional depth to the finance ministry, where he spearheaded some initiatives and was highly regarded by foreign investors.Jayant Sinha

That is not a cv that fits easily with Modi and the BJP’s Sangh Parivar.

Unlike Raghuram Rajan, who is about to leave the Reserve Bank of India governorship after just one three-year term, he has not however paraded his professional credentials and has stayed strictly within his brief. (Rajan upset Modi and the Sangh Parivar with outspoken remarks that clashed with the government line. He recently announced his return to Chicago University when it became clear the government would not confirm him for a second term).

Unless there is some special task that Sinha is to perform at aviation, the only reason for his move therefore seems to be his father’s repeated criticisms of the Modi regime.

Irani’s move is long overdue because she has been a constant embarrassment to the government, most recently over her handling of the unnecessarily explosive student unrest at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru and other universities. She has also clashed with Modi’s policy makers on various issues .

A former famous television actress and model, she has had Modi as her patron. He protected her for two years after he unexpectedly gave the high profile HRD ministry following the 2014 general election. She immediately hit the headlines, mishandling whether or not she had got a university degree (she hadn’t).

javadekar-16-1463399666Her successor is Prakash Javadekar (right), the minister of state in charge of environment, forests and climate change since 2014. He has been promoted to the cabinet having, with relatively little controversy, boosted infrastructure development by reducing the effectiveness of environmental protection laws and regulations in line with Modi’s wishes.

The government is now working on a new education policy that will include “saffronising” curriculums along Hindu nationalist lines. With Irani in charge, this would have made controversial headlines at every step. Javadekar will handle it more effectively with less bombast.

Among other ministers whose responsibilities have been reduced or changed, Ravi Shankar Prasad has lost the telecommunications ministry. He was not regarded as a success in some areas and took an unnecessarily combative approach with foreign investors. He has however regained the law and justice ministry where he was the minister earlier, which will please him since he is a lawyer. He also retains responsibility for electronics and information technology.

At the communications ministry, Prasad is succeeded by Manoj Sinha (no relation to Jayant and Yashwant), previously number two at the railways ministry. Sinha will be responsible for a key auction of telecoms spectrum and for pushing the behind-schedule Bharat Net project spreading internet to rural areas, which is central to Modi’s Digital India programme.

Javadekar is succeeded at environment by Anil Dave, a new minister who is involved in conservation work on the famous Narmada river and also has experience on water resources and climate change.

Other appointments include M.J.Akbar, a journalist, editor, author and a former Congress MP (1989-91). He has been a BJP spokesman and is now a minister of state in the external affairs ministry.

Modi Shah - Mail Today

Amit Shah worked closely with Modi (together, above) on the changes. He interviewed many of those involved earlier this week, a job normally performed by a prime minister, which underlines his central role.

Overall, 19 MPs joined the government in what is Modi’s second ministerial expansion and reshuffle since the general election. While the changes in ministerial responsibilities appear to have been mostly based on merit, the choice of the new ministers has stemmed mainly from electoral politics,. A number of dalit and other backward caste leaders have been given ministerial positions in order to demonstrate to voters that the BJP government does not just care for upper castes and the well-off.

This is significant since key elections take place next year in various states, notably Uttar Pradesh (UP) and also including Punjab and Gujarat. Both the BJP and Congress are now gearing up for the UP polls which as a key test of ~Modi and the government’s popularity.

  • The Congress Party is now considering whether Priyanka Gandhi, the charismatic daughter of party leader Sonia and sister of Rahul, the less-than-effective deputy leader, should play a leading role in the UP campaign. That could mark her entry into mainstream politics. Rahul is currently holiday at an unknown foreign destination, and a decision might be made when he returns. Curiously, the party is also reported to be considering fielding Sheila Dikshit, 78-year old former chief minister of Delhi, as its chief ministerial candidate for UP.


Lessons for leaders in Europe and elsewhere including India

In the early hours of this morning (India time), when Britain’s Brexit referendum results began to indicate a vote to leave the European Union, it quickly became clear from BBC television’s regional reports that the vote was more a protest against the political establishment than against Europe itself.

The first significant “Leave” results came from the north-east of England where jobs are scarce, Tata’s steelworks have been facing closure, and dissatisfaction with London-based political leaders is rife. The trend then continued across the country with voters blaming Europe for all their economic and social problems. Only Scotland and London (plus a few nearby areas), along with part of Northern Ireland. provided solid support for Britain staying a member.

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The results: yellow areas to Remain, blue to Leave – map, The Independent

Europe is in shock this morning because a negative vote had not been expected by the financial markets nor, it seems by bureaucrats in Brussels at the EC’s headquarters.

It took six hours after the first votes showed that an exit result was possible around midnight (UK time) for the final result to come through – with 17,410,742 (51.9%) voting to leave and 16,141,241 (48.1%) to remain.

Fears about mass immigration, and the economy,were the most major issues, especially immigration. But if it is correct that this was overall an anti-establishment vote,  especially by older people – and it certainly seems to have been so – then there are lessons for other countries’ leaders because such dissatisfaction and a feeling of being left-behind by economic globalisation is not limited to the UK.

I argued on this blog last September that the emergence of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India, Jeremy Corbyn as the British Labour Party’s leader, and Donald Trump in the US, to name but a few, reflected voters’ disenchantment with the way that their predecessors had run broadly consensus politics supported by finance, business and other establishments controlled by vested interests.

Today’s result means Hilary Clinton needs to worry because populist support for Trump stems from a desire for a new type of president – though of course Trump might well continue with such outrageous behaviour that he makes himself un-electable.

In India there is a lesson for Modi about the need to deliver what the electorate expect. He won a landslide election victory two years ago for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on the platform of economic growth, jobs, and efficient government. That was a revolt against rule by the Gandhi dynasty’s Congress Party, and it brought in someone who had not been part of the Delhi political elite. But Modi is perceived so far as having failed to be different enough.


David Cameron announcing his decision to resign this morning – photo The Independent

A new political force, the Aam Aadmi Party that is headed by anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, now runs the Delhi state government and has shown a new approach. It has ambitions to expand into other states, presenting a fresh challenge to existing parties.

Two UK political leaders bear most responsibility for the turmoil created in the past hours and for the uncertainty that now faces the UK and, indeed, the whole of the EU because there are calls in other countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands for referendums.

One is David Cameron, the prime minister. He gambled with the referendum solely to sort out his Conservative Party’s internal problems with long-standing EU dissidents. He negotiated an inadequate package of minor changes with the EU and then campaigned for EU membership to continue, stressing reasons for not leaving rather than the advantages of remaining. He thus lost in a vote that need never have taken place.

He also called a Scottish referendum last year believing that would settle, once and for all, demands in Scotland for independence, which it has not done

There are now likely to be calls for a fresh referendum in Scotland, which voted heavily yesterday in favour of EU membership, and that could take the country out of the United Kingdom.


The United Kingdom’s union flag lies on the ground, symbolically  washed away by heavy rains yesterday – Reuters photo

Cameron has announced today that he will resign by the time of the Conservative Party annual conference in October so that a new prime minister can lead two years of negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal. He will be leaving the United Kingdom in its worst crisis since the second world war.

The other political leader primarily responsible for the result is Jeremy Corbyn whose Labour Party is in favour of remaining in the EC. But he failed to lead and generate a coherent campaign to mobilise the vote of the party’s members, proving himself incapable of effective political leadership.

In 1973 I became what is now known as a Eurosceptic when I went for The Financial Times to Brussels for a European Economic Community briefing on plans for a directive on works councils. We were told what Britain would have to implement (no mention of discussion or debate) by two senior German and French bureaucrats with all the arrogance that has helped to make the EU so unpopular.

I came away anti-EEC, and that has coloured my views on the dysfunctional institution ever since (even though the works councils directive never happened). But, as an FT columnist wrote two days ago, “the case for Britain to leave the EU just does not stack up”. I would therefore have been voting Remain yesterday if I had a vote.

Sadly not enough people did vote Remain because Europe became a proxy for everything that they felt was wrong with the way that Britain has been run for years. The Economist reported that  at Leave events around the country there was “smouldering anger about the establishment, broadly defined: the banks (especially Goldman Sachs), the Bank of England, the business leaders, the universities, the ‘experts'”.

This indicates that Leave voters dream of a new beginning with Brexit somehow leading to them having a new measure of control over how they are governed.

That of course is a fallacy because the new leadership of the Conservative Party that emerges this summer will be from the same elite establishment that they were voting against yesterday. The front runner to succeed Cameron is Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and leader of the Brexit campaign – they both went to the elite Eton College school, and to Oxford University at the same time  where they belonged to the same exclusive all-male Bullingdon drinking club.

It is difficult to see what has been gained, or could be gained, by Britain leaving the EU, except for two years, or maybe far more, of dire political and economic uncertainty that could have been avoided.

bhupen-khakhar-19941LONDON: June is usually the  month when London auctions of modern Indian art hit the headlines with dramatic million-pound sales, but this year they have been unremarkable and have been overshadowed by the opening at London’s Tate Modern gallery of a fascinating retrospective exhibition, called You Can’t Please All, of figurative works by Bhupen Khakhar (right), a provocative Indian artist who died in 2003.

Khakhar is less well known than names such as V.S.Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza, and Amrita Sher-Gil who dominate the auctions, but he is regarded highly by other Indian artists for his iconic, pioneering narrative paintings. He tells stories with humour depicting ordinary middle class life in the late 20th century, especially in his Gujarati home city of Baroda – but not always so ordinary because Khakhar was gay in a country where homosexuality was (and still is) illegal, and male nude figures appear frequently in his works.

“In the late 1960s, he was the first Indian artist to combine traditional art, Indian popular culture, and Western pop art,” says a foreword to the exhibition’s catalogue. He “turned the cultural establishment on its head” with portraits of hairdressers and tailors, and with “sad, angry affectionate pictures” of middle-class life.

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Man Leaving (Going Abroad) 1970, Courtesy Tap Collection, copyright Estate of Bhupen Khakhar

In the 1980s, he was courageously the first homosexual Indian artist to come out. The exhibition graphically illustrates that period as well as his later problems with cataracts in his eyes, which led to a blurry brushwork (masking some suggestive same-sex scenes), and then to his struggle with prostate cancer from 1998.

Some of the most appealing however are early quirky studies such as Man Leaving (Going Abroad) (above) painted in 1970, and others depicting a watchmaker  and a tiger chasing and mounting a stag (both below) and strike pickets at a factory gate. Khakhar’s inspiration is said to have come from a wide range of sources varying from pre-Renaissance painters to the India’s colonial Company style, and from post-Impressionists like Henri Rousseau to West Bengal’s 19th century Kalighat style.


Tiger and Stag 1970 Estate of Bhupen Khakhar/NGMA, New Delhi, copyright Estate of Bhupen Khakhar

His works have appeared in a few earlier exhibitions internationally, including one at the original Tate Gallery in 1982 along with five other Indian painters including Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy, and at the Tate Modern along with others in 2001. Such shows help to boost sales, as has happened for example with Gaitonde after a notable exhibition in New York’s Gugggenheim Museum in 2014.

Both Christie’s and Saffronart auction houses have managed to include Khakars in their sales over the past month. A small 24in x 24in overtly gay oil on canvas, At New Jersey (below), went at Christie’s for £134,500 ($197,715) including buyers’ premium, which was more than double the $87,500 that it fetched at Christie’s in 2014 .

bhupen_khakhar_at_new_jersey_d5995289hThere have been questions about whether the paintings – done between 13 and 50 years ago – fit the Tate Modern’s ultra contemporary image. Nada Raza, the exhibition’s co-curator with Chris Dercon (till recently the gallery’s director), points out that the Tate Modern shows art from 1900, and argues that the definition of modernism needs to be expanded when it is applied outside the US and Europe because the experience of modern life, and artistic and cultural responses, can be vastly different. Artists elsewhere resist and change the forms and rules of modern art to reflect their own experiences, often in relation to colonial or imperial powers – and that is what Khakhar did.

Some UK critics do not agree. Both The Guardian and its associated Sunday newspaper, The Observer, have slammed Khakhar and his paintings at the Tate as “incredibility unimpressive”, a “waste of space”, “uneven, garrulous, puzzling, opaque” and, having “no fluency or touch with the brush, he moves the paint around with laborious difficulty”. Those rather mindless reviews have been rightly criticised by art curator and critic, Geeta Kapur along with others including Salman Rushdie, for whom Khakhar illustrated two books.


You Can’t Please All 1981,  Tate, copyright Bhupen Khakhar

But The Observer does maybe strike a chord when it says that the exhibition fails “to give sufficient context for viewers who have no knowledge of India in the 1960s and 70s”. There are the usual notices on the theme of each room and individual works, and a neat pocket-size pamphlet that everyone is given, but more explanation could help visitors meet the challenge of understanding and appreciating what they are viewing, as I discovered when talking to Nada Raza. There is a splendid hard-backed catalogue with very informative essays, but that does not cater for everyone.

Perhaps the most important work in the exhibition is You Can’t Please All (above), which gives the exhibition its title. This 5ft9in x 5ft9in oil on canvas illustrates how Khakhar was “both voyeur and participant” because the artist has said that he is the naked man leaning on the balcony and it was interpreted as marking his coming out. He is watching a street scene based on an adaptation of an Aesop’s fable about a man, his son and a donkey – the man mounts and dismounts from the donkey, trying to please passers-by who make comments, but eventually the donkey dies.

Janata Watch Repairing 2953

Janata Watch Repairing 1972  Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur, copyright Estate of Bhupen Khakhar

Khakhar was born in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1934 and qualified as an accountant, which Nada Raza says pleased his mother who hoped he would climb the heights of the city’s business districts.

Instead, though continuing to work as an accountant, he went to Baroda to study painting in 1962 where he was taught and influenced by artists such as Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and K.G.Subramanian.

He came to the UK in 1976 (via the then USSR and Yugoslavia), and again in 1979 as an artist in residence at the Bath Academy of Art. He found Britain alienating because of the lives of working class people and lists, in notes that are displayed at the Tate, “total distrust for foreigners” as an Englishman’s qualities . Bhupen chair - NGMA - IMG_5182Writing about winter, he says: “You are not allowed to smile during this season, which lasts for ten months of the year. If you are sensible, then try to look as grumpy as possible. English people appreciate sulk”.

The exhibition is sponsored by Deutsche Bank which will be taking it to Germany later. It is also financially supported by Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi has a current exhibition of the Khakhar works that it has in its collection – including this painted chair, which neatly illustrates the range of the artist’s work, and humour.

Also see this review

Sept 9 ’16: A Mumbai gallery, Chatterjee and Lal has an exhibition open till Sept 24 of 29 drawings and watercolours from a sketchbook titled ‘Government Servants Society’. Dating from 1973, they are being exhibited for the first time. See on line:

  • ** Visiting the Tate Modern also enables one to look at the stylish Switch House extension (rising on the right behind the end of the old power station in the picture below) that was opened last week. This is a significant contribution to London architecture because of the way, after plans for the external cladding were changed from glass to specially designed brickwork, the structure blends with the gallery’s original brick power station and contrasts with nearby glass-clad buildings.

    Tate Modern's Switch House ©Iwan Baan -

    copyright Iwan Baan –

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