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

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

There are two reasons for the lack of hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing the plot

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: John Elliott | August 15, 2015

Narendra Modi’s problems tone down his Independence Day style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina

Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: John Elliott | July 22, 2015

Congress goads BJP government and blocks parliament

Until a few weeks ago, Shivraj Singh Chauhan was regarded as one of India’s most successful and responsible chief ministers. During the ten years that he has held that post in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, he has transformed its agriculture and introduced significant economic reforms, cared for the poor and for minority groups such as Muslims, and displayed a gentler Bharatiya Janata Party face than those of the nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi and tough party president Amit Shah.

Now Chauhan is at the centre of one of India’s biggest and longest-running corruption scandals that, together with another scam linked to an Indian cricket league, is being used by the Congress Party-led opposition to stop India’s monsoon session of parliament functioning.

Congress is calling for Chauhan to be dismissed along with two other top BJP politicians – Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, and Vasundharan Raje Scindia, the chief minister of Rajasthan, who are caught up in the scandal involving Lali Modi (no relation to the prime minister), founder of the glitzy high-rolling Indian Premier League.

Parl protest

In a tit for tat response, the BJP has made corruption allegations against an official close to the chief minister of the northern state of Uttarakhand, and has also against two other regional politicians.

Congress is blocking parliament (left) and its students’ branch has been staging noisy street protests in Delhi, not because it expects the three to be sacked or resign, but because this is a simple and high profile way of drawing attention to alleged corruption at the top of Modi’s party.

Reduced ignominiously in last year’s general election to just 44 MPs in the 543-member Lok Sabha lower house, Congress has been resorting with its opposition allies to disruption and sound-bite politics on many issues instead of generating debates.

This is not a new tactic – blocking parliamentary proceedings with protests has become a regular practice for 10 to 15 years. During the last Congress-led government, the BJP staged so many protests that between 40% and 80% of time was lost in the years from 2010 to 2014, according to PRS Legislative Research.

Arun Jaitley, then the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha upper house and now the frustrated finance minister, was pleased with what he had helped to lead. “Parliament being used as a forum in more than one ways to expose the weaknesses of the government, I think, is a positive development,” he declared, after one session had been totally wiped out.

The tables are now turned and Congress MPs have become the rabble that storms into the well of the parliamentary chamber to stop proceedings – no business took place today for the second day running. This parliamentary session is only scheduled to last for 23 days and if little business is done, as seems possible because of Congress threats, progress will have been blocked on about 15 bills including long delayed measures on sales tax reform and land acquisition.

Shivraj-Singh-ChouhanThe Chauhan scandal shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is for politicians not to be tainted by India’s endemic corruption. Manmohan Singh, prime minister in the last government, is a prime example of how a basically honourable man felt he had to let corrupt deals on telecoms, coal mining and other subjects, wash around his desk.

Chauhan (right) similarly must have known about the scams but did little to ensure that official inquires actually made progress after they were started. Maybe it was simpler to allow the people involved to have their way.

Known as Vyapam, the scam engulfing Chauhan has involved masses of people obtaining civil service jobs, medical school places and false exam results for many years. Vyapam is an abbreviation of the Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal, which is Hindi for the state’s professional examination board, founded in 1970, that from 2007 also conducted entrance exams for government jobs. Investigations are in progress and a total of some 2,000 people have been arrested.

The story has hit the national headlines and become a major political issue in recent weeks because it is alleged to have led to at least 26 (some reports say 40 and it could be far more) mysterious deaths of people involved in various ways including, earlier this month, a 38-year-old reporter and the dean of a medical college.

sushma-swarajMethods used in the scam, according to reports, have included an impersonator with a doctored admission card standing in for the student in the examination, plus an “engine and bogie” system (which starred in a Bollywood comedy Munna Bhai MBBS) where a clever guy sits between two other candidates who then copy answers from his (or her) paper – the examiners having been bribed to fix the seating arrangements. In a third system, candidates leave their answer sheets blank and are randomly given high percentages after the exam after which they fill in the answers

One of the first complaints were registered back in 2000, but its scale only seems to have attracted attention in 2009 when a book appeared on the subject, and it then took another six years for investigations and arrests to start in 2013.

The other scandal centres around the highly successful but tainted India Premier League cricket tournament and its original promoter, Lalit Modi who has been in living in London for the past five years to avoid court action in India.

Congress is demanding the resignation of Sushma Swaraj (above), the foreign minister, because last year she told the British government that her ministry had no objection to it issuing travel documents to Modi whose passport had been revoked by Delhi. The BJP argues that Modi was helped on humanitarian grounds because he needed to travel to Spain in connection with his wife’s ill health, and that Swaraj had done nothing illegal or immoral.

Vasundhra-Raje-ScindiaThe resignation of Vasundharan Raje Scindia (right), the chief minister of Rajasthan, who was close to Modi when she held that post a few years ago, is being demanded because she helped his application for residency in the UK four years ago when she was in opposition and not chief minister.

Neither of these two ministers is accused of any serious corruption of the type or levels of graft and extortion that enveloped the last Congress government.

But there are hidden depths to all such scandals, and Congress hopes that its campaign will undermine the prime minister’s over-stated claims that he is running a clean administration.

It might have seemed logical for Narendra Modi to want to damp down the controversies, which he has not done. Maybe that is because Swaraj, who has seen herself as a possible future prime minister, belongs together with Chauhan and Scindia to a faction within the BJP that was opposed to Modi becoming the party’s prime ministerial candidate last year.

There are few better ways of taming opponents than letting them be exposed to public scandal – and then protecting them, which is exactly what the government is now doing for Swaraj in parliament.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 2, 2015

Bajaj rickshaw sold for £100,000 in aid of wild elephants

London taxiIn India, the iconic Bajaj auto rickshaws or tuk-tuks cost around Rs200,000 or £2,000, Two nights ago, twenty were sold for up to £100,000 each in brightly coloured designs at a wildlife charity auction hosted in Lancaster House by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.

There was a London taxi lookalike, a bamboo framed vehicle suitable for the jungle, one with bodywork covered with splashes of fried eggs, and a fluffy looking model called Princess Tickey-Tuk.

A total of over £700,000 was raised in aid of Elephant Family, a charity set up by Mark Shand, a writer and colourful adventurer – and Camilla’s brother – who died after a fall in New York in April last year. His death meant that the cause of protecting wild Asian elephants lost one of its most vocal and passionate champions. 

His involvement began in 1988 when he bought a scrawny beggar elephant called Tara and rode her over 600 miles across India (right). He then wrote a best-selling book, Travels on my Elephant.

Mark Shand on TaraThe auction auto-rickshaws, built to the same engineering specifications as those in India with 198cc petrol engines, have been roaming the streets of London for the past month with a top speed of 35mph. They were launched by actress Goldie Hawn (below with the friend egg paintwork). 

The campaign will be continued in November when 40 more ordinary auto-rickshaws will race 500kms across the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to Kipling Camp on the edge of Kanha National Park. The participants will come from the UK and elsewhere and each rickshaw team has pledged to raise £10,000 for the cause.

Several of the rickshaws went for between around £15,000 and £35,000 but top prices were achieved when between two and four determined bidders rivalled each other, encouraged by an enthusiastic auctioneer, Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. 

They included an intriguing bunch of backgrounds. There was Sir Evelyn de Rothschild from the banking family, who was involved in farming and retail investments in India a few years ago. He paid the top price of £100,000 for the London taxi look-alike, conceived by Benjamin Shine, an artist and designer. 

image003Vijay Mallya, whose Kingfisher airline defaulted and stopped operations in 2012, and whose massive corporate debts have lost him control of his family’s market-leading liquor business and Kingfisher beer brands, bid unsuccessfully for Golden Voyager.

This stylish bronze coloured rickshaw sported the British and Indian flags (above, carrying Prince Charles and Camilla). Designed by The Paintbox, custom car specialists, it went for £40,000. That was just a step too far for Mallya, who later paid a more modest £15,000 for a bright blue and red rickshaw styled by Mulberry, a luxury brand.

image001Other bidders included Olivia Harrison, widow of ex-Beatle George Harrison, who bought one lot for £55,000, Hilary Weston, the owner of Selfridges department store, who bought two for a total of £80,000, and Garreth Wood, entrepreneur and charity-organiser son of Sir Ian Wood, a Scottish oil industry businessman. Wood bid for several of the vehicles and bought one for £45,000 plus a 10ft high model elephant (see below). He plans to use them at restaurants and pubs he owns in Edinburgh and elsewhere. 

Behind the party’s flowing drinks, the trays of canapés, the presence of royalty, and the flamboyant bidding, lies the plight of the wild Asian elephant – there are only 35,000, down 90% over the past 100 years.

This 10ft high model of an elephant, symbolising Tara, was also auctioned for £42,000

This 10ft high model of an elephant, symbolising Tara, was also auctioned for £42,000

These grand animals are under attack not only from poaching and accidents on railway track and from electrocution. A more serious threat is conflict with local people who attack the animals when they roam through their crops and villages.

Elephant Family, now headed as joint presidents by Prince Charles and Camilla, aims to create 100 elephant corridors within the next ten years, starting with a major one in the north-eastern state of Assam. A memorandum of understanding was signed by five non-governmental organisations to achieve what Prince Charles described as “an enormously important cause, particularly because of its human-animal dimension”. 

Since it was set up by Mark Shand in 2002, the Elephant Family charity has raised over £9m, often through art related events. In 2010,  £4m was raised by auctioning model elephants that were paraded around London.

Now about 55, Tara lives a gentle life (below) in Kipling Camp, the destination of the November rickshaw race. India’s first private wildlife camp, it is run by Anne Wright and her daughter Belinda, who founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Elephant Family’s target is to raise £1m, and the £700,000-plus achieved at the auction, organised with the Quintessentially event-organising foundation, means that it is well on the way. And, as Prince Charles put it, the campaign will help to ensure that Mark Shand’s legacy is maintained and enhanced.

Tara in camp IMG_7515

Posted by: John Elliott | June 12, 2015

India’s old moderns keep the art auctions buoyant

Auction houses need to find something special to galvanise the hesitant Indian modern art market and make their sales a success, and that is what both Christie’s and Bonhams have succeeded in doing at their annual June sales in London this week.

A self-portrait painted by Amrita Sher-Gil in 1931 when she was only 18 - sold at Christie's for £1.8m ($2.7m) including buyer's premium

A self-portrait painted by Amrita Sher-Gil in 1931 when she was only 18 – sold at Christie’s for £1.8m ($2.7m) including buyer’s premium

Christie’s hit a winner on June 10 with a large historic work by M.F.Husain (below), one of the best known of India’s modern painters, who died four years ago this week.

The work sold for something of a record at £1.08m (US$1.67m), including buyer’s premium. Also in the auction, which totalled £7.23m ($11.15m) with 80% of the 76 lots sold, were memorable works by Gaganendranath Tagore (below) and Amrita Sher-Gil (right).

Bonhams scored yesterday with six Vasudeo S. Gaitonde drawings from the 1960s that rarely come to the market. They were sold for a total of £727,000 (including buyer’s premium) after keen bidding that included at least one established Indian collector and generated more telephone bidding chatter than is usual in auction rooms.

Also running at the same time was a two-day on-line auction by Mumbai-based Saffronart that totalled US$3.49m (Rs219.7m) including buyer’s premium, though only 67% of the 85 lots found buyers. Topping the sales was a work by another veteran modernist, S.H.Raza, titled Earth that fetched $1.23m (Rs77.6m).


Overall it was a successful week for the Indian modern art market that is still recovering from a slump in recent years. Christie’s best recent results have totalled $15.45m and $12.09m at its heavily marketed Mumbai sales in 2013 and 2014

Top collectors, dealers and a few artists gathered in London for the sales and a series of parties and gallery events.

Gaganendranath Tagore's unititled work, priced low as the Christie's auction opening lot, beat estimates by four or five times, selling for £56,250 (S86,738) including buyer's premium

Gaganendranath Tagore’s unititled work, priced low as the Christie’s auction opening lot, beat estimates by four or five times, selling for £56,250 ($86,738) including buyer’s premium

There has been a special emphasis on 89-year old Krishen Khanna, with the release of a film on his life and work, and an exhibition of his recent paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery in Mayfair (see his Bandwallas painting below).

He talked at the Courtauld Institute about his memories of Husain, F.N.Souza, Tyeb Mehta, S.H.Raza and others who gathered soon after India’s independence in 1947 around what was known as the Bombay-based Progressives Group.

The auction market still largely depends on Krishen Khanna’s generation of painters for its big sales.

Only one of Christie’s top ten works was by an artist born after 1925, and all of Saffronart’s top ten were born in the 1920s or earlier. Art Tactic, the art analysis firm, calculated recently that 20 of these artists generated 75% of India’s main auction sales last year.

There are of course younger modernist style painters, but they do not command top prices. Once-prominent contemporary artists are no longer in demand, having reached unsustainable prices during the mid-2000s boom years. ArtTactic says the top 20 only accounted for only 5% of sales last year. Even a work by the internationally-recognised Bharti Kher, estimated at £50,000-70,000, failed to find a buyer at the Christie’s auction, though a large depiction of pots and pans against an urban background by her husband, Subodh Gupta, sold for a hammer price of £90,000.

Strong demand for the most interesting moderns was demonstrated by the record-making Husain (below, and to the left of the auctioneer in the higher auction scene) that was bought by Kiran Nadar, one of the India’s top collectors, for her Delhi museum.

Originally shown in 1956 at the Venice Biennale, the work is more than 8ft wide. Ten panels depict ideas and subjects such as a village woman, a triumphal elephant and galloping stallions that became Husain’s trademarks in later years, representing says Christie’s “a political testament to a progressive India”.
CKS_10247_0027Competition against another strong bidder drove the hammer price to the top pre-estimate figure of £900,000. Including buyer’s premium that came to the dollar equivalent of US$1.67m, which is almost three times the $602,000 paid for it by a dealer at a Sotheby’s New York auction just four years ago.

Christie’s says that this is a record for an Husain, which it is, just – $1.61m was achieved at its New York auction for the artist’s Battle of Ganga and Jamuna in 2008, when it was also an all-India record. This week’s figure is only slightly bigger, and that is more than offset by currency depreciation, but it does demonstrate the prices than collectors such as Nadar are prepared to pay for significant art. The sale is also important because Husain has lagged since 2008 behind record prices set by others of his generation, led by Gaitonde, Mehta and Souza.

Lot 31 - Vasudeo S. Gaitonde - Composition No. 3Gaitonde’s ink on paper drawings (left) of about 28in x 20in, reminiscent of Japanese sumi-e works, rarely come to the market – some are in a collection at Delhi’s National Museum of Modern Art.

The fact that Bonhams had six for sale drew international attention. The works were originally acquired directly from the artist by an American abstract painter, Morris Graves, who visited Gaitonde’s studio in 1963 and described him as “one of the finest painters I have ever seen”.

Estimated between £20,000-35,000 each, they went for hammer prices between four and five times higher at £110,000 to £130,000. Including buyer’s premium, that put the highest price at £158,500 for one of the works and the lowest £134,000.

The auction houses were happy with their results this week – Christie’s Deepanjana Klein said they showed that “collectors are coming back”. The next tests of that trend will be Sotheby’s annual London auction in October and Christie’s in Mumbai in December. Meanwhile, maybe, someone will find a way to persuade collectors to broaden out beyond the original modernists!

Krishen Khanna's 'Untitled' (Bandwallas in White and Blue), 2012

Krishen Khanna’s ‘Untitled’ (Bandwallas in White and Blue), 2012

Images of Christie’s auction works © Christie’s Images Limited 2015

Image Gaitonde work, courtesy Bonhams

Image Krishen Khanna work, courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Social media is awash today with messages marking the first anniversary of Narendra Modi’s swearing in as prime minister. Modi himself is celebrating with tweets to his on-line followers (below, and his letter further down) and others that make exaggerated claims about his government’s successes.

narendra-modi-one-yearAmid all the trending, it is worth noting that the prime minister’s communications with his electorate, and the wider world, are a one-way street where he speaks and others receive the message. People can of course reply through tweeting or other statements, but Modi has avoided on-the record questions from the media, and amazingly has not dared to hold a press conference that would be attended by Indian and foreign journalists to mark his first year in office today. Nor has he done a television interview.

This lack of a willingness to expose himself to media questions has been widely criticised, but Modi might be surprised by the fact that even Lance Price, the British writer who he personally selected to be the chronicler of last year’s election victory, says he should open up.

 Lance Price Modi Effect front cover“I believe it is a fundamental principle of a democracy that an elected prime minister should be accountable through the media,” says Price, whose book The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India, was published in March. “That means answering legitimate questions put freely by journalists on a fairly regular basis.”

This is what Modi has resolutely refused to do since becoming prime minister, preferring to tweet one-liners that do not lead to journalists’ questions. He has also relied on his considerable skills at oratory to mass audiences where no journalist can question him, and on his able all-purpose finance and information minister, Arun Jaitley, to face the press.

Price, who used to be a spokesman for prime minister Tony Blair, voiced his criticism during a session on Modi’s first year that I was moderating at the Jaipur Literary Festival’s JLF at South Bank in London on May 16. I asked him at the end of the session to imagine he was again a prime ministerial adviser – for Modi – and comment on his chances of winning a second five-year term in 2019.

He thought Modi could be re-elected if he made more progress, and was very critical of him for not making himself available to the media. Later he gave me the comment I’ve quoted above. He also said, “I was given exclusive access to Narendra Modi for my book, but unusually for a journalist it is an exclusive I would gladly give up”.

Lance Price was head-hunted

Lance-PricePrice (left) says he was head-hunted for the job of writing a book on Modi’s victory, and that he had about five hours of interviews with prime minister in three sessions last year. No other writer has had anywhere near that access. Rajdeep Sardesai, who wrote 2014 The Election that Changed India and who was also on the JLF panel, had no meeting, even though he has known Modi for some 20 years and talked with him till the election.

At first glance, it seemed odd that Modi should choose to provide the opportunity for long and exclusive book interviews with a writer who, though he had visited India several times, had never written about the country – nor was he in India during the election, so he had to start his research from scratch. 

But maybe that was the exactly the detachment and lack of background knowledge that Modi wanted because it would limit what the author could achieve in terms of critical analysis and comment, revisiting history such as the Godhra 2002 riots in Modi’s Gujarat.

Price says in his book that Modi may have chosen him because he wanted to be recognised on the world stage and be compared “as a consummate genius of electoral tactics” with people like Blair, But, he adds (and I agree), the more likely reason is that he “came with no prejudices or preconceptions”.

Modi is probably pleased with the book, which does not have the personal revelations and insights one might have expected after five hours of interviews. Instead there is a workmanlike history of the man and a very detailed account of the election campaign, with special emphasis on social media and mass communications.

Modi's tweeted letter - click on the image to enlarge

Modi’s tweeted letter – click on the image to enlarge

Apart from Price’s five hours, there seem to have been no other long interviews, though Modi has recently met (with Jaitley) a few carefully selected groups of editors and economics correspondents, and one or two foreign correspondents, who are then not allowed to report what is said.

Modi has given only two on-the-record to the Indian media – with the Hindustan Times last month and Dainik Jagran (in Hindi) on May 11. [June 1: There have now been interviews with the government-controlled Press Trust of India news agency, the UNI and ANI agencies, and Hindusthan Samachar .] Internationally, here was one with Time magazine, which ran internationally as a cover story on May 7 and one with The Economist.

These interviews were mostly reported as questions and answers, enabling Modi to be reported saying what he wanted without being seriously pursued by follow-up questions. The Economist however only published selected quotations in a special ten-article report with the somewhat negative headline Modi’s rule – India’s one-man band – The country has a golden opportunity to transform itself. Narendra Modi risks missing it. That cannot have been what Modi was hoping for, though he knew what he was getting into because the magazine couldn’t bring itself to recommend him and the BJP in the general election last year and fell back lamely on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Party

There are strong criticisms, including this paragraph towards the end, which is scarcely what a Modi interview is supposed to generate: “He has not done enough to promote other talented individuals. In the course of a long conversation he never once refers to any of his ministers. He tends to say things like ‘I have created a ministry’ or ‘my government is acting’. When speaking about world affairs, he focuses on his personal rapport with other leaders. He seems to think he is the government.”

Earlier this month there were what looked like well informed reports that Modi would hold his first press conference on May 23 to mark the first anniversary today of his swearing in. But he decided not to do so, and instead Jaitley was fielded at a big press conference to deploy his suave and agile lawyer’s mind to advocating and defending the government’s record. Jaitley is a good spokesman, but he is not the prime minister, and Modi’s decision not to appear in person was a setback for his image as a strong and confident leader.

Other prime ministers of course have given very few media conferences, notably Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee who led India’s last two governments. But Singh was naturally withdrawn and wary of upsetting Sonia Gandhi, his party leader, while Vajpayee was ageing and spoke little.

Modi by contrast is a consummate extrovert who loves performing in public and does it well. He is doing neither himself nor his government any favours by standing aloof from the media and it looks as if his tweet-based public relations is not working because opinion poll surveys have found that only a small minority (20% in one survey) felt that Modi effectively communicated through social media and even fewer (17%) felt his big speeches made a substantial impact. 

It is widely known that Modi’s distaste for the media stems from reporting after the 2002 riots, for which he was widely-held responsible. But if he expects everyone to forget those riots and treat him on his current record, shouldn’t he put his 2002 views of the media behind him and deal with reporters, as Lance Price says, in the way that one would expect a prime minister to do in an open democracy?

For earlier blog posts analysing Modi’s first year see:


Two days after Narendra Modi ended his trip to China at the weekend, the state-ruGlobal Times ran a critical article on Modi’s Make in India campaign, saying  that the  “private business sector skeptical about the whole idea” and that “even if New Delhi keeps persuading investors how promising it is to do business in India, the current situation is far from reassuring”.

Make in India lionThis damning verdict, albeit from a newspaper that ran a critical piece on border issues last week, underlines the failures so far of Make in India which, with its strange lion logo made of old fashioned engineering cogs, has been the main slogan drummed out by Modi and his ministers and bureaucrats for many months.

It surely time for India’s prime minister to adopt a personal slogan to Make Things Happen because there will not be many foreign investors responding to his call until he personally focuses on making India’s rules and regulations operate more easily.

That thought must have been in the minds of many people who played a part in Modi’s three day trip to China at the end of last week, and maybe also on his visit yesterday to South Korea as part of a three-country tour that included the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Mongolia.

“For the moment, there is little evidence of success for foreign investments from private enterprises,” the Global Times stated in an opinion piece titled Economy a dilemma for globe-trotting Modi. “In the end, if any country tries to encourage investments to India, most of the programmes will be led by the government itself, with most of the private business sector skeptical about the whole idea,” .

Modi Shanghai May 16 '15  2-5

Modi spent the first anniversary of his general election victory on May 16 doing one of the things he does best – wowing a huge crowd of several thousand adulating overseas Indians in a foreign country. Previously he’s done this in friendly places like America, Australia and Canada, but this time he was in potentially enemy territory – Shanghai, China’s commercial capital, where some 5,000 Indians had been encouraged to flock to hear the political rock star perform.

He was a little more restrained than his earlier shows that began in New York’s Madison Square Gardens with some 20,000 people last September. He was also more soberly dressed in a buttoned up dark Indian style formal suit instead of the salmon pink sleeveless jacket and yellow shirt he wore in New York. That reflected his more conservative style since he was mocked for wearing pin stripes with his name stitched in gold when he met President Obama in Delhi four months ago.

Foreign trips to some 17 countries have been the high spots of Modi’s first year. His energy and focus, and the charm and friendly informality that he displays on these tours, has broadened India’s international relationships.

Narendra Modi's selfie with China's Premier Li Keqiang selfie

Narendra Modi’s selfie with China’s Premier Li Keqiang

Conversations, including those with Chinese leaders, are more direct, and personal relationships seem to be stronger, though there is little to show yet in terms of concrete outcomes.

A Delhi businessman said to me last week that the only significant result so far from all the trips was uranium supplies from Canada that are urgently needed for India’s power reactors.

The China visit tested Modi’s skills of mixing tough diplomacy, especially on the two countries disputed Himalayan border, with his main target of rapidly expanding business links with Chinese infrastructure and other investment in India. As usual, a multi-billion investment target was rolled out – $22bn on this occasion for 21 projects, which was slightly more than the $20bn when President Xi Jinping visited India last September, but far less than the $46bn Xi promised Pakistan on a visit last month, and less than the $50bn-plus that Brazil expects on a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that began today.

Indian sources said that Modi did some straight talking about India’s unease over aspects of China’s foreign policy, telling Beijing that it should “reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership” – by which he mainly meant the two countries’ disputed 4,000km (2,500-mile) Himalayan border that Chinese troops frequently cross.

India formally complained on the eve of the visit about the $46bn Pakistan investment because it includes infrastructure for a trade route through territory that India officially claims. That complaint may have been in response to an authoritative Chinese writer complaining that Modi in February had visited Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state that China claims, two days before he went to Beijing. This squabbling did not seem to do anything to spoil the visit, but it enabled India to show more toughness than it might have done in the past.

Modi examines Xian’s world-famous terracotta warriors and horses of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China

In Xi’an, Modi examines world-famous terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China

There was no real progress on the defining the border, despite expectations among some China watchers in Delhi a few weeks ago that Xi had a dramatic new proposal to unveil. There was however agreement on military exchanges and expanding direct links between both sides’ army commanders. There also seems to have been no change on China’s intentionally provocative way of only issuing visas stapled into passports of Indian’s from Arunachal.

Modi did however surprisingly agree to introduce e-visas for Chinese visitors, making it the 77th country to get that facility. Modi announced it addressing students and faculty at Tsinghua University in Beijing even though, just a few hours earlier, his usually well-informed foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, had briefed journalists that “no decision has been taken yet”. Jaishankar chooses his words carefully and the “yet” maybe should have led journalists to realise that it was still possible Modi would over-rule objections from security officials in the Home Ministry. It is not clear however what if anything he got from the Chinese in response to the controversial decision.

Like the oratory and official statements, the dollar investment figures do little to indicate how many projects will come about, and statements during the visit implied that there is little sign yet of the ease of doing business in India really easing.

That is something that Japanese companies are complaining about after Modi’s apparent failure after he visited Tokyo last year to set up a special investment management team, with two Japanese nominees, in his own Prime Minister’s Office – the team has been moved to the industry ministry’s investment promotion department.

This all indicates that, while Modi has done well on his foreign trips, he has failed in his first year to work hard enough in India to clear investment blockages and ensure that bureaucrats at all levels implement the changes that have been made. He was elected a year ago primarily to make India work better. As I wrote here on May 11, he now needs to have fewer grandiose trips abroad and personally focus on running India.

Narendra Modi visiting the Daxingshan Temple, in Xi'an

Narendra Modi visiting the Daxingshan Temple in Xi’an

America’s ambassador to India certainly did not mean to deliver a verdict on the first year of Narendra Modi’s time as prime minister when he referred on May 6 to the “potentially chilling effects” of current government threats to restrict or close organisations such as the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace.

Modi Time cover - May 6 '15But as I sat listening to a speech that the ambassador, Richard Verma (below, left) was making in Delhi, it occurred to me that “chilling” is as good a word as any to describe at least half of the reasons why the government has lost a lot of its appeal in the past few months.

Next Thursday, May 14, is the first anniversary of the vote count that produced the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory, and Modi will be in the Chinese city of Xian with President Xi Jinping at the start of a three-day country visit. The timing is appropriate because it is on the world stage that Modi has performed best, though there are few concrete results yet to show after all the razzmatazz in Japan, the US, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

At home Modi is perceived to have achieved far less than had been hoped, even after discounting for the fact that expectations generated by his election campaign a year ago were euphorically unrealisable. But, even though people ranging from small farmers to big company businessmen are unhappy with what he has done, his popularity seems to be intact – an opinion poll published on May 11 by Mint newspaper showed his approval rating has only dropped from 82% to 74% in the year.

What has been achieved is being under-valued partly because Modi’s egotistical persona has not morphed well from being the chief minister of Gujarat and presidential style general election campaigner to the post of prime minister. His autocratic style has upset fellow ministers, MPs of his own party, and bureaucrats, and he has not emerged as a leader with the measured authority of a potential statesman.

He seems to frighten more than inspire which, reports suggest, makes many ministers and bureaucrats reluctant to take decisions – a development accentuated by the centralisation of decision making in the prime minister’s office (PMO), and by Modi bypassing many ministers to deal direct with top bureaucrats.

Ambassador Verma AnantaThat authoritarian approach fits with the “chilling” aspects of the past year where religious tolerance has been undermined and attempts have been made to curb freedom of expression. The autonomy for educational and other institutions has been under attack and, as the ambassador (left) mentioned, there have been recent curbs on the Ford Foundation – plus Greenpeace and, more understandably, several thousand other (often spurious) non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Two authoritative and widely differing views on the first year have appeared in the past ten days – one from a former BJP minister and the other from Modi himself. Both are worth reading in detail.

The first was a tv interview (click here for the video) on May 1 with Arun Shourie (below, right), a distinguished former newspaper editor and minister in the last BJP government, who expected to be finance minister or have some other post, but was sidelined by Modi. He delivered a formidable (click here for text) critical analysis on the Headlines Today tv channel, which hit all the right points.

He praised Modi’s energy and efforts but “didn’t know “what other ministers” were doing or what was happening. On foreign policy he gave “very high marks for focus and energy”, but was concerned about a lack of real effects. On the economy he said the government was “directionless” and a “great disappointment”. On my “chilling” theme, he had “great anxiety” about social relations and “anxiety bordering on apprehension” on institutions.

Time magazine cover story

The second, on May 7, was a cover story and interview (click here for text) given by Modi to Time magazine. This was only his second big media interview, though there may be another one soon, and he is expected to hold his first prime ministerial press conference on May 23 as part of an anniversary public relations blitz in the coming days.

In Time, he described his first year in positive terms that gently countered the sort of points made by Shourie and other critics. He claimed a “meeting of minds” on what he described as “federal government structures” (which however is far from apparent), and he bypassed allegations of his autocratic style by saying the country did not “need a powerful person who believes in concentrating power”. His government would “not tolerate or accept any discrimination based on caste, creed and religion” (though of course his party’s activists think and act otherwise).

He then said that “so far as the expectations of the people are concerned, both in the country and internationally, we are moving very rapidly to fulfil those expectations” (which is certainly not the perception).

Arun ShourieThe government’s image problems began towards the end of last year when arch Hindu nationalists within the BJP’s Sangh Parivar (family of organisations) voiced extreme views about minorities such as Muslims, which Modi took a long time to rebut. One minister implied that everyone apart from Hindus were born illegitimately. There were also mass conversions of Christians and others to Hinduism, and a government minister turned the December 25 traditional Christmas religious and public holiday into a working day for many bureaucrats.

This was the first bad patch that Modi had hit since the general election, and it gave opposition parties a base on which to build up criticism to his government, which spread to economic and other subject. The BJP then unexpectedly lost badly to the Aam Aadmi Party (AA) in Delhi state-level elections and did not do as well as it had hoped in Jammu & Kashmir, further harming its image as an effective government.

The Congress Party, which was devastated after its electoral defeat last year, began along with other parties to put the government on the back foot. Rahul Gandhi, the re-energised Congress deputy president, is now leading an attack on the government for being anti-poor and pro-corporate – an image that stems from insensitive proposed land-use legislation  (now blocked in parliament) and other measures, plus a sense that the days of crony capitalism are far from over. Modi has done nothing to hide his closeness to the Adani group from Gujarat, and even apparently to Anil Ambani, one of the two Reliance brothers.

The Ford Foundation and other NGO’s troubles are the latest example of authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent that is expected in totalitarian regimes but not the world’s largest democracy. The issue stems partly from the government’s need to get investment moving on stalled projects, and its opposition to organisations that raise objections. It claimed Greenpeace, which can be controversial in the way that it opposes projects such as mining in rural areas, had allegedly “prejudicially affected the economic interest of the state”. Its bank accounts were blocked a month ago, and there is a risk that its registration as an NGO might be cancelled. The Ford Foundation has backed social and other organisations since the 1950s, but the government apparently objects to it funding an organisation that helps victims of the 2002 Godhra riots in Modi’s Gujarat, and now wants to vet its financial allocations.

Make in India lionSuch moves have done serious damage to India’s international credibility and are undermining attempts to attract investment.

At the same time, multi-billion dollar tax demands on international companies long-established in India, plus unexpected $6.4bn historical revenue charges against global investment funds, have further worried investors. In the past few days, this has led to serious falls in the stock markets, and the value of the rupee dropped to 2013 levels (prompting Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, to set up a committee to defuse the matter).

Jaitley has repeatedly said he is trying to stop what has become dubbed as “tax terrorism”, which seems to suggest that parts of the finance ministry are acting against the policies of the government.

I have heard many reports from businessmen of bureaucrats that tax and other officials at all levels in the ministry act on their own, and this fits with other conversations I have had about bureaucrats in many ministries failing to change their old blocking and restrictive tactics, despite Modi’s promise of change.

It is not clear whether the finance ministry problems are exacerbated by Jaitley, whose health was not good last year, having too many wide-ranging government responsibilities to be able to focus his able lawyer’s mind on detailed financial and economic policies. He is also information minister and the government’s chief spokesman.

Image problem

India is therefore suffering from an international image problem, both for “chilling” social issues and because it is still not regarded as an attractive place for investment in many areas.

The government has of course got several achievements to its credit over the past year. It has tackled the policy paralysis that developed under the Congress-led government, and various long-delayed measures have been introduced including higher foreign direct investment limits in defence manufacturing and insurance. Diesel prices have been de-regulated and natural gas prices have been raised, and new rules have been introduced for controversial coal mining leases. A major tax reform that has been under discussion for 15 years could also come about if the government can persuade the opposition to approve new goods and services tax (GST) legislation.

Spurred by lower international oil prices, the fiscal deficit has eased. Inflation has fallen and economic growth is picking up – the IMF and other international observers are forecasting 7.5% both this year and next, beating China.

Various high profile schemes have been introduced by Modi such as cleaning India, spreading financial inclusion and involvement, cleaning the Ganges river, and more are being announced. All of them are well meant, but he has not shown how some of them are or will be implemented.

amit_shah_reuters_360_22A key Make in India campaign (logo above), which is intended to make the country an easier place to set up and run manufacturing and allied businesses, has seen few results.

It was undermined last month when Modi cancelled a potential contract to make 126 Rafale fighter jets in India and instead ordered 36 to be made in France. Defence preparedness and manufacturing arms in India should have been a relatively easy subject for Modi to tackle, but far from enough has been done – the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has just reported that a massive ammunition shortage means that stocks are 50% below requirements and would barely last 20 days of intense fighting.

Overall the image of the government one year on is of an unreformed bureaucracy performing far below its potential, despite some improvements at the senior levels. Many ministers lack experience and authority and are topped off by a troika that exerts overall control – Modi and Jaitley plus Amit Shah (above), the BJP president, who packs a tough image personifying the “chilling” theme.

The responsibility for that rests with Modi, who was elected last year to change the way India is run. That of course was a totally unachievable goal in the short term, and Modi said he would need ten years to “take India into the 21st century”.

He has not however in his first year shown how he is going to drive that change through the national government and the states, and generate an investment-friendly image. Maybe he needs to have fewer grandiose trips abroad in the four years he has left before the next election and personally focus on running India in India.

photo CNN-IBN

photo CNN-IBN

Nepal’s devastating earthquake, with over 5,000 people reported dead so far, was a disaster waiting to happen.

This small and impoverished country of 28m people lies in a prime earthquake zone – international experts were in Kathmandu just over a week ago predicting an imminent disaster.

And it happened in and around a city with a population of over one million that is crammed with vulnerable old structures, many new buildings that have been inadequately designed and badly constructed, masses of shantytown slums, and narrow inaccessible alleyways. Beyond the city are many crippled villages. There are fears the death toll could reach 10,000

The story has been building up in Nepal for decades, confounding international aid agencies and others who have tried to tackle social, environmental and other challenges. Now the government is not equipped to handle the effects of the disaster.

Nepal quakeWhen I first visited the country 30 years ago, I wrote (in The Financial Times) that “deep-rooted corruption siphons off a large proportion of international aid and cripples the country’s economic growth and public administration”.

Members of the now-ousted royal family were heading the plunder, and one aid worker told me the leakages were so dire that his country would only provide equipment, not money. Since then Nepal, which is a buffer state between India and China, has been wracked by relentless political instability, a Maoist uprising and civil war.

Governments have not even been able to begin to tackle macro economic development, let alone the intractable problems that made the earthquake and its after-shocks so serious. The good news is the way that international help was quickly mobilised over the weekend. India led the way within hours of the quake, flying in supplies and support teams in an operation personally led by Narendra Modi, the prime minister who showed, perhaps for the first time since he was elected a year ago, his ability to swing a cumbersome government machine into immediate action.

 Nepal is prone to earthquakes because it is at the junction of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Himalayas were created when the plates collided millions of years ago, and the still-moving Indian plate pushes the mountains a few millimeters higher every year.- Washington Post

Nepal is at the junction of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates which collided millions of years ago – Washington Post

The earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, had been forecast to happen because it is 80 years since the last such disaster which demolished large areas of Kathmandu and killed over 17,000 people.

It is the result of what is known as the Indian tectonic plate moving northwards at the rate of 5cm a year into central Asia and the Eurasian plate. Originally this threw up the Himalayan mountain range, and the fault line has triggered a series of quakes, most recently in Kashmir in 2005 when over 70,000 people were killed in Pakistan and neighbouring countries.

Just a week ago, 50 earthquake scientists from around the world met in Kathmandu to discuss how the area would cope with such  a disaster. “Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen,” seismologist James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at the Cambridge University, told the Daily Mail. “I was walking through that very area where that earthquake was and I thought at the time that the area was heading for trouble,’ said Jackson, lead scientist for Earthquakes Without Frontiers, a group that tries to help Asian cities prepare for disasters.

There is of course extreme grief in Nepal, and across the world, for the loss of those who have died, and concern for those who have been injured or have not yet been found. Government ministers join in the expressions of sorrow and pledges to provide aid, but it often seems that life in this region is not valued highly. Little is done once the crisis has past, beyond slowly rebuilding people’s lives, their homes and places of work. nepal-quake-mapPublic services are allowed to decay, and there is scant concern for public safety.

Two years ago, there were some 6,000 deaths when devastating floods hit the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand adjacent to Nepal. The floods were caused by torrential rain but they were exacerbated by the reckless construction of buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment. Many settlements had been built next to the rivers in blatant violation of corruptly administered environmental laws – but little or nothing has been done in the past two years to improve the situation.

The Nepalese are sturdy strong people and they will rebuild their lives, haphazardly. But they have little opportunity to plan further than their immediate needs. The sort of action taken by, for example, Japan to construct buildings that can withstand earthquakes is beyond what most can even dream about.

That then is the challenge for international aid agencies, and for Narendra Modi at the head of Nepal’s largest neighbour. From Afghanistan across to Bhutan and Bangladesh and down into India, a new approach is needed to handling natural disasters and, in particular, trying to ensure that buildings can withstand earthquakes. That is a huge challenge for governments, but in India it is just the sort of thing that Modi was elected to achieve, by making government work.

See Comments below for two examples – in Bangladesh and Orissa – of governments showing that it is possible for them to learn from crises.

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