Posted by: John Elliott | January 21, 2018

China expands its reach and meets little resistance

“Congagement” suggested as a solution

China is gradually moving to a position where it will play an increasingly dominant role in the world’s international affairs, disrupting established institutions and trade routes and building its own alternatives – and most of the rest of the world has little idea how to respond except to try to persuade it not to be too disruptive.

That is a broad-brush take from the Raisina Dialogue, a high level two-day conference on Managing Disruptive Transitions that was held in Delhi last week by the Observer Research Foundation, one of India’s leading think tanks, with the country’s foreign ministry.

In session after session, there was worry and consternation about the disruption caused both by China’s assumption that it can unilaterally claim authority over Asia’s sea lanes, and by its presence in the Indian Ocean and its spread of ports in the region and elsewhere

“The Chinese already have a naval base in Djibouti and we’re aware of their base in Hambantota,” said Admiral Sunil Lanba, the Indian Navy’s chief of staff, referring to a Chinese naval base on the Horn of Africa and a port in Sri Lanka. “This is going to be the pattern for the future”.

There was also almost universal concern that China’s multi-billion dollar One Belt One Road (OBOR – also called Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) economic, trading, transport and pipeline infrastructure plan linking Asia and Europe is trampling on countries’ economies, institutions and security.


Narendra Modi with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who made the inaugural speech at the Raisina Dialogue

The US and India have boycotted the OBOR, which was dubbed “one belt one trap” by Theresa Fallon of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Studies. She cited the loss-making $1.3bn Hambantota port that was built with Chinese bank loans and opened in 2010 but has little business. Sri Lanka has been unable to repay the debt and last July had to sign the port over to Beijing on a 99-year lease, a move that has been seen by critics as an invasion of sovereignty. There are fears of similar China takeovers elsewhere on the OBOR.

Vijay Gokhale, a senior Indian diplomat who becomes the country’s foreign secretary at the end of this month, pinpointed the worries. At the start of a session called Contested Connectivity he posed a series of questions that assumed negative answers: “Is the process demand-driven? Is the process consultative? Does the process allow for fair and open competition? Does the process build on multilateral frameworks that already exist, and is the process consonant with principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity?”.

Gokhale advocated fair and open competition for construction contracts – a point that stems from China insisting that most of the OBOR work is carried out by Chinese companies, which restricts the benefit for the host countries.

Infrastructure needed

There was a hint that American private sector companies welcome the OBOR because of the increased trade that it will generate, filling a vast multi-billion dollar gap in infrastructure funding. Nisha Biswal, a former US State Department diplomat who now heads the US India Business Council (USIBC), said the question should be how all societies would benefit from increased connectivity “serving the interests of the many”.

For India, the other key issue at the conference was cross-border terrorism from China’s ally Pakistan, which linked with general concern at the conference about growing terror worldwide. India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj called terrorism “the mother of all disruptions”.

Well-connected experts speculated whether President Donald Trump’s recent confrontational suspension of US aid and security assistance to Pakistan would worsen rather than curb the Pakistani army’s and intelligence service’s support for international terrorist organisations. China is stepping into the aid and power vacuum left by the US and some people hoped privately that it would restrain Pakistan because it would not want an escalation of terrorism from what India’s foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, neatly dubbed “ungoverned spaces”.

4 Navy Chiefs Raisina-696x420

There was plenty of experience, clout and brains at the conference, including navy chiefs (above) from the four “Quad” countries – Japan,  Australia, India and the US – that have formed a alternative (containment) grouping to China’s OBOR, plus army chiefs from India and the UK. Foreign, defence and security ministers and their deputies from Iran, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Australia, Singapore, the US and India mixed with a galaxy of ambassadors past and present.

Then there were former leaders and officials, including former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, and retired US general David Petraeus. And of course there were think tankers galore populating the extended days – breakfast sessions started at 9am and night-caps “over kahwa” (Kashmiri tea) ran from 10.30pm.

As so often happens at such gatherings, the discussions were, for many people, an end in themselves. “I think we identified the issues well” was a typical refrain.


None of this stellar roll call of international experts had any real solutions. When I put that at the end of the conference to Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran former US ambassador, he advocated “congagement”, which he wrote about earlier this year. China should be “engaged” and encouraged to participate in existing institutions, laws and treaties. At the same time, countries concerned about China’s expansionism should try to “contain” its reach with fresh alliances and alignments. He acknowledged that the advent of China’s President Xi Jinping meant that the balance needed to be increasingly tilted towards containment.

The gradualist engagement approach was implicitly condemned just as the conference ended by Trump’s administration, which criticised the terms on which America had supported China entering the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Those terms had “proven to be ineffective in securing China’s embrace of an open, market-orientated trade regime”. Trump told Reuters earlier in the week that he was considering a big “fine” against Beijing for forcing US companies to transfer their intellectual property to China if they wanted to do business there.

Some of the best sense was talked by visitors from two countries in China’s immediate arc of influence. Patti Djalal, a former Indonesian ambassador to the US and one of the most practical of the think-tanker speakers, said that China’s rise could not be checked, so it needed to be accommodated peacefully with the country being engaged strategically.

That meant finding a way to present the US-Australia-Japan-India “Quad” not as a rival or adversarial response to China’s OBOR (which is what has been done), but as a co-operative connectivity plan

Paucity of Ideas

There was, said Djalal, a “paucity of ideas” about how to move to the next level on China. “Strategic ego” was a stumbling block – when China offered the OBOR, the US wouldn’t join in because joining would be accepting China’s leadership. “On one hand, we need regional architecture. On the other, major powers can’t make that strategic leap”.

Australia’s navy chief, Vice Admiral Tim Barret, warned against a lack of direction and co-ordination: “There’s a plethora of fora. An emphasis on info-sharing. A multitude of exercises, most relatively simple”. But, he warned, “an abundance of arrangements, poorly managed or not aligned, produces dilution of practical outcomes.”

India’s current and future foreign secretaries, both former ambassadors in Beijing, took a broader view and even saw some benefit in China’s rise. Jaishankar, who gives up the post at the end of this month, acknowledged: “We need to have a balanced view. Certainly, for India, in some ways China has been a motivator and an example.”

But he warned that China’s emergence was not just that of another world power but of a “very different power” that was “challenging the international order”.

Gokhale saw the 21st century as a “tipping point” in history with the re-emergence of India and China as the world’s globally large economies. Without mentioning China or the OBOR, he put them in a historical perspective, saying that connectivity had been a “hot topic” for centuries with the Roman Empire, the Suez Canal, and the sea routes of the Portuguese and Spanish all benefitting certain civilisations and countries.

Finally, he asked rhetorically: “What is the rest of the world going to do to ensure that there is a certain rule setting, and that rule setting globally is not disrupted because any one country or any group of countries decides it has its own set of rules and then proceeds regardless”.

He didn’t of course get an answer, but at least the questions had been asked.

this article appears on the Asia Sentinel website 


Chief Justice of India under attack by his peers

Four of the five most senior judges in India’s Supreme Court last Friday held an unprecedented press conference to complain about their colleague, Dipak Misra, the Chief Justice of India. At first glance it looked like a spat between ageing legal minds angry at being side-lined during the allocation of cases by their boss, who they insist is not the boss but just the first among equals.

The event hit media headlines and stirred up political controversy because judges had never before gone so public with grievances. Their complaint – about the allocation of major cases and alleged government influence – was also significant because it comes at a time when Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata government is being accused of having little respect for key institutions that underpin India’s democracy. Amit Shah, the BJP president, was involved in one of the cases cited by the four.

The judges were back in their courts on the morning of January 15, seemingly working as if nothing untoward had happened. There were however tensions, though official statements were issued that all was “back to normal”. Efforts were made by both the government and the legal establishment over the weekend to play down the importance of Friday’s eruption, and also to shift attention by blaming the four judges for undermining the reputation of the judiciary.

The row has been simmering for some time and will not be so easily dismissed. Four months ago, the four judges wrote a letter to Misra, which they issued publicly last Friday, complaining about the way that cases were being allocated. The chief justice is regarded as the first among equals but, as “master of the roster”, has the right to decide on the allocation, subject to a convention that nationally important and sensitive cases are given to the most senior and experienced of the court’s 25 judges.

SupCt judges pc

The basic complaint of the four (above) is that Misra has been giving cases to junior judges who, though the four did not specify this, are either loyal to the BJP government or can be influenced – corruption has spread across the judiciary in recent years including the top court.

The letter to Misra, who is due to retire in October, complained that there “have been instances where case having far-reaching consequences for the Nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rationale basis for such assignment”.

The real issue has been spelt out by an outspoken senior Supreme Court lawyer, Dushyant Dave, to a leading news website. He has said the protest reflected “frustration on the part of the senior judges at the conduct and behaviour of the Chief Justice of India in dishing out matters of public importance and political sensitivity to a chosen few, who will decide only in favour of the government, the BJP and the RSS, and who will not independently decide those matters.”

Death of a judge

Dave said he knew of 50 other instances where leaders of opposition political parties’ cases were dismissed, while “matters affecting the current government and the political party in power” were sent “to certain judges to see that they (the government of the day and the political party in power) benefit”.

One of the four judges said that their press conference had been prompted by issues surrounding the death of a judge, B.H.Loya, in December 2014. Loya was hearing a case over the alleged killing of a gangster in a “fake encounter” in 2005. Among the defendants was Amit Shah, now the BJP president, who was accused by the Central Bureau of Investigation of ordering the killing when he was Gujarat’s home minister (and Modi was the state’s chief minister). The case was dismissed after it was taken over by another judge.

Dipak Misra CJIThere has been continuing controversy over the cause of Loya’s death, which was recorded a cardiac arrest.

Loya’s family was reported to have alleged that he had been offered a substantial bribe shortly before he died, and there continue to be conflicting reports and testimonies involving doctors, police and others about what happened when he was taken ill.

A court headed by the chief justice last week admitted a public interest petition asking for an inquiry into the matter, but then allotted it to the tenth most senior of supreme court’s judges, not to the most senior and experienced. The four judges met Misra (above) and complained and, after he failed to meet their demands, held their press conference.

On January 15, Loya’s 21 year old son,appeared at a media conference closely flanked by two lawyers. Unexpectedly, he said that the family accepted his father’s death was natural and asked for the public debates to end. His appearance however caused more controversy with allegations that he was not reflecting the family’s views.

Other controversial cases, involving alleged bribes, include judgements given by Misra on appeals by a medical institute that had been barred, along with others, from admitting students. That case is still in the courts.

Of more political significance, Misra was the judge who ordered in November 2016 the playing of the national anthem in cinemas to “instill committed patriotism and nationalism” – an initiative that fitted with the government’s nationalist and authoritarian approach. Two months ago however, he changed his mind and, along with two other judges, said it was not compulsory, which the government supported.

The reputation of the judiciary has been declining in recent years because of increasing corruption at all levels. Dushyant Dave told the news website that “ the higher judiciary, corruption, political interference are destroying judicial independence for quite some time, which has always been kept under the wraps, unfortunately, due to weak bars and an even weaker press”.

Government attempts to influence the judiciary are also not new though, lawyers say, they have not blown up so seriously since the mid-1970s State of Emergency ordered by prime minister Indira Gandhi.

It is too soon to forecast how this will play out. What is clear however is that the BJP, for whatever reason, does not want an inquiry into Loya’s death, and is resisting Congress Party demands for one.

Two pro-government English language television channels are this evening running long programmes aimed at rubbishing suggestions that there was anything controversial about the death, and attacking lawyers and others who want an judicial inquiry. Medical records have been discovered that are aid to show Loya did die of a heart attack.

All of which leads to the question of why the BJP and the government are so concerned!


Posted by: John Elliott | January 14, 2018

Cleaning the Ganges is a Metaphor for India

“River of Life, River of Death – the Ganges and India’s Future”  By Victor Mallet.   Oxford University Press 

India’s River Ganges is a mess. The great and awe-inspiring sacred Ganga, as it is generally known, is revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus who foul its waters and assume that all will be well, however awful and health-endangering it becomes.

That in many ways is the story of modern India, a country that manages to be awe-inspiring and brilliant, but is also frequently dysfunctional, defying most efforts to make it work better.

The challenge for an author is how to combine a study of all the enormous potential and the failings of this magical and frustrating country, and to explain how people tolerate the faults but do little to improve them, while making the most of what is available.

Successive foreign correspondents based in India have tackled this in different ways, mostly with broadly based surveys of political economic and social life, but with an increasing emphasis in recent years on the negatives.

Victor Mallet, a widely experienced Financial Times journalist who is now the paper’s Hong Kong-based Asia news editor, has chosen a neat solution by writing about the Ganges after spending four years in Delhi as his newspaper’s South Asia correspondent.

River of Life....He has explored the 2,525 km river’s history, religion, economics, industry, environmental and health issues, and the people, while using it as a metaphor to explain how India functions, or doesn’t. Politics comes in too because Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, has failed so far to fulfil his 2014 promise to clean the river that Hindus both revere and pollute.

A keen yachtsman, Mallet first developed an interest in the river when he spotted an image on a Delhi map of a sailing boat in a red circle – the universal sign for a yacht marina. It is in an industrial zone called Okhla on the banks of Delhi’s (filthy) Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges.

There he found “an immaculately kept building and garden called the Defence Services Sailing Club” with sailing dinghies nearly stacked on racks. “It was obvious that the boats were rarely used. The caretaker confirmed it. The reason was there in front of the club: the stinking, foamy black filth that was once a river”.

After explaining how the Ganges was portrayed in India’s legends and paintings “as a natural paradise of lilies, turtles and fish” where “the cheerful god Krishna would play his flute amid a troupe of adoring female cow herds”, Mallet reports that “the water at Okhla is so polluted by human waste that it contains nearly half a million times the maximum level of faecal coliform bacteria established as the Indian standard for bathing water”.

That is a good introduction to modern India, enabling the author to show in the first two pages of his preface why the Ganga is such a great vehicle for exploring all the contradictions of a country that could be a world leader but somehow is not (yet?) getting there. As he travels, he meets a contrasting series of people from Saffron-clad Hindu priests to engineers and well-meaning environmental activists, and from tannery businessmen and bureaucrats to ashram devotees.

Superbug River

The most horrifying part of the book is a chapter headed “Superbug River”. Many of us living in Delhi (and elsewhere in India) tolerate air pollution many times above safe limits, as well as undrinkable tap water, because we are protected by purifying filters in our homes and offices.

Mallet however uncovers much worse health hazards in the Ganges, saying that people are liable to pick up a recently discovered bacterial gene that can make various diseases highly resistant to antibiotics.

He stumbled on the gene, known to scientists as NDM-1, while researching “normal” pollutants such as sewage and industrial waste. “It only takes a short visit and exposure to acquire such genes in your gut,” he was told in Britain by an environmental engineering professor. As Mallet notes, this is a politically sensitive matter – Indian officials and doctors “were furious” when The Lancet medical journal in 2010 named the new gene NDM after New Delhi.

Devout Hindus, says Mallet, are unwittingly spreading diseases, and antibiotic resistance to diseases, in the very river to which they have come to pay homage. Water samples have demonstrated that what are usually regarded as the relatively pristine reaches of the upper Ganges near Haridwar suffer surges of bacterial pollution during visits by thousands of urban Indians during the May-June pilgrimage season.

Throughout the book, the Ganges is the main focus but, along the way, there are many other subjects and issues ranging from the poisoning of vultures and a state government suggesting the use of cow urine as a hospital disinfectant, to corruption among water tanker drivers (and others), and India’s desperate need for jobs that Modi’s Make in India campaign cannot begin to solve.

Modi was elected in 2014 both to change the way that India is run by making the machinery of government cleaner, more effective, and less bureaucratic, and to create jobs and opportunities for the aspirational young. Make in India is one of a myriad of high profile schemes that he has launched to try to inject focus and drive into a somnolent government, but it is difficult as yet to assess how much has actually been achieved as a result of all the razzmatazz.


Modi’s pledge to clean the Ganges and reverse the failure of many earlier attempts can however be assessed, especially at the holy city of Varanasi which he chose as his parliamentary constituency. Little seems to have been achieved in the city apart from some beautification of the ghats on the Ganges banks.

Varanasi’s disillusioned residents reminded Mallet about Modi’s televised launch of a plan to clean tonnes of mud off the city’s famous Assi Ghat, and criticised the lack of progress on the more important problem of sewage. Such cosmetic projects were like “putting lipstick on a woman with a dirty sari”.

Curiously, Modi made Uma Bharti, a religious activist and politician the minister in charge of water, and thus the Ganges. Mallet says “she appeared more interested in proving the existence 5,000 to 6,000 years ago of the extinct Saraswati River… than in solving the very real crisis facing the contemporary Ganges.”  That demonstrates one of the Modi government’s limitations – that several ministers and leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party are more interested in Hindu religion and mythology (and nationalism) than they are in building a strong nation that works.

Mallet is however too optimistic about the prospect of the Ganges being cleaned. He cites great and well-organised religious festivals like the Kumbh Melas, which bring millions of worshippers to the Ganges, as examples of even the most corrupt state governments being able to perform. “Good organisation and efficient infrastructure, in short, are no more impossible in India than anywhere else,” he declares.

This misses the point that the Kumbh Melas are one-off events where a single official is given overall charge without political interference (though politicians are quick to claim credit when all goes well). There are other similar examples, such as the building of the Golden Quadrilateral highways around India 15 years ago and the construction of the Delhi Metro railway. In each case, politicians stood aside and left officials to get on with the job – and there was overwhelming support for what was being done.

Sadly, that is unlikely to work with cleaning the Ganges because there are too many interests and the project is neither time-bound like a Kumbh Mela nor of clear immediate benefit like a metro or highway.

Cleaning the Ganges is therefore a perfect metaphor for modernising India. The task, as this well-researched book shows with its detailed reporting, is just too huge and too complex for quick solutions. And that is something Modi is discovering with a general election which is due by April next year but could happen earlier.

This review first appeared on Asia Sentinel news website

Posted by: John Elliott | December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

to all my blog readers – do keep coming back next year!

Christmas card IMG_2540

Posted by: John Elliott | December 18, 2017

BJP holds Gujarat and wins Himachal Pradesh

Modi has failed to get the 2019 general election boost he wanted

Rahul Gandhi has made a good start as Congress president

Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to two victories in regional assembly elections. He has extended the party’s rule in his home state of Gujarat for the sixth consecutive term after 22 years in power, which is a rare achievement. The BJP has also won in the small northern state of Himachal Pradesh, ousting a Congress government.

The Gujarat result however is almost a personal defeat for Modi in his home state, and it does not give him the springboard he hoped for to sweep on victorious through state elections next year and the general election in March-April 2019.

Unusually for a prime minister, Modi held 34 rallies in Gujarat to boost the flagging record of the BJP state government, but the party has won only 99 seats, well below the 115  that it won in 2012. The 99 is around ten seats  below the figure BJP leaders had been expecting and far below the 150 total that Amit Shah, the ebullient party chairman, had boastingly forecast.

Rahul Gandhi at election campaignIn the same way, this result  is a success for Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress president (left). He has not led his party to victory, but his campaigning, which included 30 rallies, shows his potential as a leader and has boosted the Congress seat tally from 60 in 2012 to 77.

In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP’s victory with 44 seats against 21 for Congress, was expected because the outgoing Congress chief minister is facing serious corruption allegations.

It is significant that Modi, although he remains his party star campaigner, was not able to overcome considerable opposition to the BJP in Gujarat. This opposition has arisen because of a lack of development by the state level in recent years, and because of the way that Modi’s nation-wide demonetisation blitz, and a new sales tax (GST), has hit small traders and business whose cash-based transactions are often outside the tax net.

The BJP did well in urban areas such as Ahmedabad, the state capital, and even in Surat where diamond traders and textile businesspeople were expected to vote against the BJP.

Modi after voting

The main Congress support has come from agricultural areas where small faming communities are dissatisfied with the state government’s record on infrastructure, especially water supplies. That is where the personal reputation of Modi was least effective and where anti-government feeling was energised by three minority groups, one led by a 24-year old member of the large Patidar community, Hardik Patel.

Modi has been criticised for his style of campaigning, personally attacking the Congress, Rahul Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh, and raising the spectre of trouble from neighbouring Pakistan. If anything, Modi raised Gandhi’s profile with his barbs.

Early on in the campaign, he veered away from his usual proud focus on vikas (development) after he realised how dissatisfied the electorate was with the BJP state government’s performance.

Modi reverses 2014 campaign role

That was a curious reversal of what happened in the 2014 general election campaign when Gandhi and other Congress leaders, with no vision, lost votes by focussing on scare tactics about Modi and the BJP,  whereas Modi had a positive message about economic growth and development in the future and won. This time, with an amazing error of judgement, Modi attacked Rahul and the Gandhi family but had no vision about the future of Gujarat and lost seats to Congress.

Modi has also been criticised for the way that the Election Commission, which till now has been one of India’s most respected impartial and incorruptible institutions, has appeared to bend to his will. It delayed announcing dates for the Gujarat election after it declared them for Himachal, thus leaving time for Modi to announce a package of economic measures for the state, along with changes to the GST which helped traders. He then broke election rules by staging a virtual road show (photo above) after he cast his vote on December 14.

Governments always try to pack the Commission’s ruling body with supporters, but do not usually exploit them to such a degree. Modi’s critics say this illustrates that he has little respect for India’s institutions, which he is prepared to undermine in pursuit of his personal leadership objectives.

“Medieval past”   

Rahul Gandhi launched an outspoken attack on Modi during his presidential acceptance speech on December 16. In an oblique reference to attacks on Muslims and killing of people suspected of easting beef or transporting sacred cows, he said Modi was “taking us backwards to a medieval past where people are butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat”. Such “ugly violence shames us in the world”.

The big question now is how Modi will react to his failure to achieve the sweeping victory in Gujarat that he and Shah wanted. The BJP is likely to face tougher opposition when it tries to defeat Congress in Karnataka and be re-elected in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Modi is also targeting three smaller states in the north east of the country where the BJP has little standing – he was campaigning there over the weekend.

Modi has this evening stressed development but he needs to focus much more on jobs and economic growth, and on trying to ensure that the myriad of social and development schemes that he has launched become effective. The temptation will be to fall back on the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rallying cry of anti-Muslim Hindutva and issues such as banning the eating of beef and extreme displays of nationalism.

He will probably go for both, which means watching to see whether what Gandhi dubbed the “medieval past” becomes more prominent as 2019 approaches.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 14, 2017

Exit polls give Narendra Modi’s BJP victory in Gujarat

Rahul Gandhi pushes Congress vote up a forecast 10 seats 

Exit poll in Himachal Pradesh shows BJP defeating Congress

Exit polls published by television channels indicate that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is holding on to power in his home state of Gujarat. Most show it winning  in the range of 105-125 seats compared with the 115 it had in the last election in 2012. This is in line with the widely predicted result and would mean that the BJP’s ambitions significantly to increase the 2012 tally have failed.

The polls mostly indicate that Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party has won in the range of 65-75 seats, adding five to 15 seats to 2012’s total of 61. If correct, this would mean that  Gandhi has managed to have an impact on the votes, though not as significantly as the party had hoped.

This modest Congress success would however have to be set against the polls suggesting that the party  is facing a devastating defeat in the northern hill state of Himachal Pradesh, with the BJP seizing power for the first time with 47 to 55 seats against Congress’s 13-20. The outgoing Congress chief minister is facing serious corruption allegations which will have affected voting.

PM Modi casts his vote in Gujarat

The votes in both states will be counted on December 18 and, if the exit polls are correctly forecasting clear BJP victories, the results should be known soon after midday. Such polls can of course be wrong because they depend on voters telling the truth when they leave election centres!

The last day of voting on December 14 in Gujarat was marred by a controversy over Modi ignoring Election Commission rules by  staging a virtual road show after he cast his vote (above). The prime minister’s critics see this as evidence of his lack of respect for India’s established institutions, though there are also other allegations of less dramatic rule-breaking, including Gandhi taking part in a television interview.

The Election Commission has reported that the voter turnout in Gujarat was 68%, down from 71.3% in 2012. This supports the likelihood of the BJP staying in power because there has not been the surge in voting that usually indicates a desire for a change of government.

After 22 years of BJP rule in Gujarat, with Modi as a widely-praised chief minister from 2001 to 2014, the prime minister’s aim has been to show that his populist vote-pulling power remains strong enough for the party to achieve the considerable feat of being voted back for a sixth term in office.

For Gandhi, who will formally take over from his mother Sonia Gandhi as Congress president on December 16, the aim has been to demonstrate that he is now capable of reviving the party’s flagging prospects and propelling it to victory in 2019.

If the exit polls are correct, Modi will have succeeded in rescuing the BJP from the failings of the state government while Gandhi will have taken the first steps in establishing himself as a viable Congress president.

SEE ALSO: Gujarat election used by Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to boost national ambitions

Congress unlikely to have dramatic state assembly win it hopes for

Gujarati pride in Modi being prime minister looks like saving the BJP

For past few weeks the two leaders of India’s main political parties have been slugging it out in the western state of Gujarat as if they were engaged in a national general election campaign. They have both been fighting for their political futures, using the state’s current assembly election as the springboard for India’s next general election in March-April 2019.

Gujarat is the home state of prime minister Narendra Modi where his Bharatiya Janata Party has ruled for 22 years and he was a widely-praised chief minister from 2001 to 2014. His aim in the current election campaign has been to ensure that the BJP does not win fewer than the 116 seats in the 182-seat assembly that it won in the last election in 2012, and maybe adds significantly to that number.

The other top leader is Rahul Gandhi, who has gained that ranking this week by being confirmed as president of the Congress Party, a post he will take over from his mother Sonia Gandhi on December 16.

His aim has been to demonstrate that, after years of shirking responsibility and failing to emerge as a political leader, he is now capable of reviving the party’s flagging prospects and propelling it to victory in 2019. In Gujarat, that means reducing the BJP’s majority in the assembly by significantly increasing the 60 seats that Congress won in 2012.


Rahul Gandhi prays in one of many Hindu temples he has visited in Gujarat in recent months

After a two-day visit to Gujarat this week, my assessment is that Gandhi has failed in the campaign, which officially closed last night (tomorrow is the second and final day of voting) dramatically to increase Congress’s position. The party will almost certainly gain a few seats, but probably not enough to embarrass Modi – though the BJP certainly will not win the 150 seats extravagantly claimed by Amit Shah, the party’s president.

Experienced journalists and other observers in the state ducked giving me forecasts, saying the election was too uncertain to call. At least one opinion poll has forecast a surge for Congress though, of the four polls conducted in December, two have the BJP winning 134 seats and two say 102.

The first signs of any surprises will come when exit polls are announced tomorrow (Dec 13) evening. The count takes place on December 18.

My assessment is primarily based on the most convincing argument I heard in Gujarat – that Modi is regarded by voters as their man, who they are proud to have sent to Delhi as prime minister. They do not want to do anything to harm his national standing and thus reduce his chances of winning again in the next general election.

This is despite undoubted widespread dissatisfaction with the current Gujarat state government, which has failed to perform well on development and social issues under two chief ministers since Modi moved to Delhi in 2014. After 22 years, many voters believe it is time for a change, but will not abandon Modi.

Demonetisation and GST

It is also despite the fact that there is anger in some areas about Modi’s controversial policies of demonetisation last November, when he cancelled 86% of bank notes overnight, and a new sales tax (GST) that he introduced in July as a breakthrough equivalent only to India’s declaration  of independence from Britain in 1947.

Both demonetisation and GST were badly implemented.  Across the country, they have seriously disrupted traders’ and other small businesses’ traditionally informal cash-based and tax-free transactions. In Gujarat, there is widespread resentment, especially in the western city of Surat, which is a diamond and textile centre, and in Saurashtra, where the BJP is believed to have done badly in the first phase of voting on December 9.

Local issues have played little part in the election campaign, despite Gandhi’s attempts to play up the state government’s failings with a 50-page development-oriented election manifesto. He has tried to highlight issues such as water supply shortages, and secondary and higher education which is predominantly supplied expensively by the private sector.

Gandhi has managed for the first time to relate well to vast crowds at rallies, showing humour and sensitivity that has often been missing in the past. Observers say that the Congress party’s organisation in the state has also improved considerably and that, for the first time in many years, the party has been making a concerted effort to win. Strangely, that is reported not to have been so earlier when Ahmed Patel, an MP and Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, played a leading role in the organisation.


Narendra Modi left Ahmedabad yesterday in a seaplane as a publicity stunt

Gandhi has however sometimes got his facts wrong, for instance suggesting that a Tata Motors factory set up with generous state government loans to produce the company’s unsuccessful Nano car was closing – it is producing a successful new model. He has a reputation for failing to master and understand a brief, and this has been evident at various times during the campaign.

Modi and other BJP politicians abandoned his usual focus on vikas (development) as a rallying cry when he realised how dissatisfied the electorate was with the BJP state government’s performance.

He then focussed on praising his own record and personally denigrating Gandhi. He also turned to populist gambits, raising the spectre of Pakistan (which borders Gujarat) as a threat – something the BJP has often done in past election campaigns when worried about voting intentions.

Pakistan Congress collusion

After former Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh attended a private dinner given in Delhi last week for a former Pakistan foreign minister, Modi unrealistically alleged that Pakistan was colluding with Congress to bring down the BJP in Gujarat.

He seemed to have no worries about dramatically lowering the tone of the political campaign and breaking convention by implicitly denigrating a respected former prime minister, presumably believing that the line would win the BJP voter support.

He also mocked Gandhi for suddenly visiting a large number of Hindu temples, which Gandhi had done in order to counter the BJP’s appeal as a Hindu-focussed party.

If hyper-activity is sometimes a sign of both a desperation to win and a fear of defeat, then Modi’s frenetic saturation of Gujarat with political rallies and speeches must indicate that the BJP was worried about losing more than a handful of seats to Gandhi’s energetic campaign.

In a final publicity flourish, Modi left Ahmedabad yesterday from the city’s Sabarmati River in a seaplane – an aircraft so rarely seen in India that one newspaper carried a description of  what it is. Gandhi mocked the flight as a gimmick but, for Gujarat voters, it was probably yet another example of what can be achieved by their former chief minister.

If his populist tactics have worked, Modi will have succeeded in rescuing the BJP from the failings of the state government. What is not so clear is whether Congress is doing well enough for Gandhi to have begun to establish himself as a viable Congress president.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 4, 2017

Rahul Gandhi finally to be Congress president

The “pop-up” crown prince accepts his inheritance

First test is current election in BJP stronghold of Gujarat 

At last the years of waiting are over. Rahul Gandhi, the 47-year old “pop up” vice president of India’s Congress Party, is being elected – anointed would be more accurate – as the party president. Nominations for the post closed this afternoon with no rival candidate emerging and generations of top Congress politicians gathered in the party’s headquarters to congratulate the “young” Gandhi, who has been resisting his coronation for years.

Later this month, when the formalities are completed, Rahul Gandhi will succeed his mother Sonia, who will be 71 on December 9 and is not in good health. She has held the post for 19 years, waiting for him to be ready and willing to inherit the dynastic mantle of his father and her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991.


Rahul Gandhi signing his nomination with Manmohan Singh watching (left) and Jyotiraditya Scindia advising (right)

Rahul Gandhi’s succession has been widely mocked and criticised for its lack of democracy and the inevitability of his rise during a laborious and long-delayed country-wide candidate-selection process without any other contestants stepping forward. Prime minister Narendra Modi today congratulated the Congress on their “Aurangzeb Raj”, a caustic reference to the undemocratic succession of India’s Mughal rulers.

“Rahul has been the darling of the Congress men and Congress women and this is yet another step in his devotion to the Congress party and country,” former prime minister Manmohan Singh (above), 85, told a television reporter in a remark that seemed unnecessarily eulogistic but in fact echoed the views of most Congress politicians who believe the party would break up without a Gandhi at the top.

How well Rahul Gandhi does or does not do as party leader – and many expect a negative rather than a positive outcome – is of vital importance for the future of Indian politics and the country’s noisy and chaotic but effective democracy.

If he emerges from the ineffectual role he has played since he entered politics in 2004, the Congress could again become a major force, working with other mostly regional opposition parties to challenge the dominant Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But if he fails, political opposition to the BJP and prime minister Narendra Modi will remain fragmented, and Congress itself could gradually implode.


Rahul Gandhi being greeted before the nominations by Pranab Mukherjee, a veteran Congress politician and, till recently, President of India

Gandhi’s ascendancy should not therefore be dismissed as merely a questionable but inevitable dynastic inheritance in the family that has dominated the Congress Party since before independence in 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s great grandfather, became prime minister.

A state assembly election now taking place in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, presents Gandhi with his first crucial test. An election has also recently been held in Himachal Pradesh, a small northern state currently run by Congress.

Voting in Gujarat, where the BJP has been in power continuously since 1995, is scheduled for December 9th and 14th, and the count for both states will be on December 18th.

The BJP is virtually certain to win in Gujarat. Gandhi’s success or failure will be judged on whether he has managed to work effectively enough with other opposition groups to reduce significantly the BJP’s number of seats from the 115 it won in the last election in 2012 to maybe 100 out of the total 182. That will be difficult, though BJP leaders appear resigned to losing some of their majority after 22 years in power.

Nationally, Congress is at its lowest point ever. Gandhi has had a series of election failures since he became vice-president in 2013, when he gradually took over some of the  party leadership from his mother.

Congress lost badly in the general election in 2014, after ten years in power, winning only 44 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. It failed in a state assembly election in Bihar in 2015, and was routed earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The BJP secured a landslide victory in UP and significantly won six out of ten assembly seats in the districts of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Gandhi family’s traditional political base where Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are the members of parliament. Last week in UP civic polls. Congress lost Amethi’s two municipal board seats.

The BJP has been targeting the Amethi constituency with Smriti Irani, a fiery politician and government minister, standing against Rahul Gandhi in 2014. She cut his majority from 370,000 in 2009 to just 108,000, and is now aiming to humiliate him further by defeating him in the 2019 general election.

It may seem odd that the BJP is putting so much effort into attacking and ridiculing the hapless Gandhi. “Some people grow in age but not in understanding”, Modi said in parliament in May last year.

The reason must be that they realise the Congress Party cannot function effectively without a Gandhi as the leader. Mocking him and defeating him in key elections therefore weakens both him and the party. On the other hand, if he does emerge as an effective leader now that he is the party president, he could rally opposition and provide a significant opposition to Modi in 2019.

No leadership potential

Till recently, he has shown no leadership potential and has had no distinct political or economic message. He has taken no apparent interest in formulating and developing government policy beyond occasional bursts of noisy opposition and carefully scripted speeches and interventions in parliament. He refused when Congress was in power to gain experience as a minister, despite being urged to do so by Manmohan Singh.

He earned the “pop up” reputation because of the way he has suddenly taken up issues, or visited trouble spots, especially those affecting the landless poor, but has shown little or no further interest after a few loud and mock-angry performances.

Early in 2015 he literally disappeared from public life just before Budget Day and was away, presumably abroad, for 56 days without any explanation of where he was or why he had gone. Later it emerged that he had been pondering a major political role, maybe becoming party president – the post he is now accepting at he end of 2017.

Even Jyotiraditya Scindia (see top picture), one of the most competent and discreet Congress politicians of Gandhi’s generation, and a close adviser, said in a television interview that, while he accepted Rahul Gandhi’s (and Sonia’s) leadership, “the time for introspection is way over. I think the time for execution [of a new approach] should have started a couple of months ago”. That was in March 2015 and it has taken till now for the new approach to begin.

Re-energised campaigning

A re-energised Rahul Gandhi began to emerge in September when he visited the US and impressed audiences with his grasp of issues at the University of California in Berkeley and then in Washington and New York , though his answers to questions were not always impressive. This favourable view gained wide publicity in India, angled at the idea that he had progressed  from his earlier off-beat style. He was guided in the US by  Sam Pitroda, one of his father’s close advisers who first helped develop India’s telecom industry in the 1980s. Pitroda has stayed close to the family over the past 30 years and now has brought a fresh angle to Gandhi’s presentations.

Gandhi has emerged further in recent weeks during the Gujarat election campaign where he has stayed the course with several day-long visits packed with election meetings. But his style is not subtle: for example, with the Hindu nationalists as his main opponents, he has suddenly made a series of visits to Hindu temples, which he has not done before. At one temple, he was reportedly entered in the visitors’ book in the “non-Hindu” list, which unnecessarily gave Modi and other the chance to question his religion. The report was denied, but the event revived memories of criticisms that Sonia Gandhi faced because of her Italian Catholic background.

He has also harried the government, especially over its controversial demonetisation and sales tax (GST) policies that have caused widespread disruption and hardship for very small traders and businesses. He can with some justification claim to have forced the government to introduce wide sweeping improvements to the GST.

There have been media reports that the Congress Party has been in touch with UK-based Cambridge Analytica, which helped President Trump win his election with closely focussed campaigns. It has also stepped up its Twitter and other social media campaigning, though that ran into problems with several thousand retweets on a @OfficeOfRG tweet from alleged ‘bots’ of Russian, Kazakh and Indonesian origin.

Rahul's PidiMore positively, he allowed his Twitter handlers to announce somewhat sarcastically, but with a sense of fun, that his pet dog ‘Pidi’ (left) was the mastermind behind his tweets. “People been asking who tweets for this guy… I’m coming clean, it’s me… Pidi. I’m way cooler than him. Look what I can do with a tweet… oops… treat!”, Rahul tweeted with a video of Pidi balancing a biscuit on its nose and then obediently, on Rahul’s command, eating it.

Perhaps his main failing is the sense of entitlement that he displays as the crown prince of the dynasty that has played a leading role in India politics for a century and has had a dominant role since independence. Although he can be a mild conversational individual genuinely interested in social and other causes, he has an air of superiority that is not acceptable to leaders of other parties.

Sitaram Yechury, a Communist party leader who has had good relations with Congress, said on television last month that “Sonia is the glue that binds the opposition”, adding “the united opposition will break if Rahul takes over.”

For that reason, reports suggest that Sonia Gandhi will continue to play a role on broader opposition issues, leaving Rahul to run the Congress Party. How well that will work remains to be seen. One of the reasons for Rahul declining to become president in recent years has been a clash between the older and younger generations of the party’s leaders, with Sonia Gandhi siding with those who want to minimise change.

That is a challenge that Rahul Gandhi will now have to grapple with. Much will depend on who he picks as his chief advisers, and how well he and they work with the older generation.

Later, there will be speculation about whether he ever wants to be prime minister and whether, if Congress emerged from a general election as the leading party (improbable though that seems today), he would hand the prime minister’s job to someone else, as his mother did with Manmohan Singh.

What is clear is that the Gandhi family is here to stay, with Rahul’s sister Priyanka, hiding for now in the background but possibly a potential player.

For many observers, as the Financial Times put it in an editorial a few days ago, Rahul’s presidency cements Congress’s “status as a hereditary anachronism”.

The reality however is that, while it may look anachronistic from abroad, it is not so in India where there are many political dynasties in the states.

The more important point is that, as a reluctant heir, Rahul Gandhi has been doing the country a disservice by not stepping aside because he has been blocking the evolution of the Congress Party, either under new competent leadership, or by allowing it to split and crumble and thus encourage new opposition alignments to emerge.

He now has a chance to prove the critics wrong.


Ivanka Trump “thanks” Modi for “bringing promise to millions”

Contrasting visits by former US president and president’s daughter

India’s politicians and media revel in making an enormous fuss of visiting foreign leaders, especially when they are flooded with compliments in return. This week there has been one American leader – former President Barack Obama who slipped in relatively quietly and made a powerful speech – and one leader’s daughter who was accorded such a head-of-state style welcome that India will find it difficult to surpass it when her father visits next year, the daughter being Ivanka Trump and her father the US president.

Obama picked up on India’s main current social issue when he said that, along with other countries (obviously including America), it should ensure that a Muslim population felt integrated. “That is something that should be cherished and nurtured,” he said.

Obama HT conf

In answer to a question this morning at a conference (above) organised by the Hindustan Times newspaper, he said he had told Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, the same thing in private talks when he last visited India in February 2015.  “I think his impulses are to recognise Indian unity. I think he (Modi) firmly believes unity is necessary for the progress of the nation”.

Many of Modi’s critics, and of his Bharatiya Janata Party’s brand of strong Hindu nationalism, doubt that he recognises such a need for unity because of the way that the Muslim minority has been harassed since his government was elected in April 2014.

Obama had warned in February 2015, during a “town hall” meeting in a Delhi assembly hall, that India needed to be “unified as one nation” and that the country would “succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith”.

This was seen at the time as implicit condemnation of the pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim policies of hardliners in the BJP and its umbrella organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was not known however till today whether he had said the same thing in private meetings with Modi.

Obama, who is reported to charge up to $400,000 to speak on Wall Street, went on today implicitly to urge moderate Hindus to make their views heard because, he said that “politicians are often reflections of forces in the society”.

“If you see a politician doing things that are questionable, one of the questions you can ask yourself as a citizen is ‘am I encouraging this?’ If communities across India say they won’t fall prey to division, then it will strengthen the hand of politicians who feel that way”

“Thank you” prime minister

Ivanka Trump’s visit was more razzmatazz and far less profound. Narendra Modi looked grateful and happy than when she told an audience of 1500 entrepreneurs in Hyderabad on November 28, with him sitting in the front row: “What you are achieving here is truly extraordinary. From your childhood selling tea to your election as India’s prime minister, you’ve proven that transformational change is possible. And now you are bringing that promise to hundreds of millions of people across your country. Thank you.”

It was bemusing to watch Trump, age 36, praise 67-year old Modi and then thank him – on behalf of whom? Modi presumably thought it was for her father, but she didn’t say so, though she did repeat that India had a “true friend in the White House”, which President Trump told Modi in Washington earlier this year.

robot Ivanka ModiTogether the prime minister and the US president’s daughter and adviser (right) were opening America’s eighth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (something that Obama had started when he was president).

Hyderabad – dubbed “Ivankabad” by one eulogizing newspaper – is a leading information technology centre, as well as being famous for its food, which Ivanka Trump celebrated rather clumsily saying “now, your tech centres may, may, even outshine your world-famous biryani, maybe, ha-ha”.

She was the leader of he US delegation to the conference and switched style after all the praise and attempted laughter-generators to her main serious theme of encouraging entrepreneurs, especially women. The next morning she had a business-like approach with no-nonsense points at a seminar on the role of women in business.

She had been personally invited by Modi to come to the conference, and Hyderabad went to enormous lengths to clean up the city, clearing out hundreds (one report said 4,000) beggars from the streets (as it did for President Clinton in 2000), filling potholes and paving ceremonial areas, as well as parading 10,000 security personnel. There was a banquet the first evening at one of India’s most stylish palace hotels, the Falaknuma, with quests seated at what is said to be the longest dining table in the world that accommodates 101 people.

Cheap labour

The visit was slightly marred by criticisms that the signature clothing brand that she founded uses cheap labour in India and elsewhere, but this was a minor irritant compared with a trip to Berlin in April where she was booed. In Tokyo a month ago, the media made a fuss of her, but her speech at a conference drew a smaller audience than expected – and, according to reports, was partly recycled in Hyderabad.

There were also rumours that Rex Tillerson, America’s secretary of state (soon to be sacked according to media reports), had stopped his officials accompanying Trump because he was unhappy with her high profile.

Obama rose above such matters, referring only to the Hyderabad conference during a “town hall” meeting with young leaders, organised by the Obama Foundation, where he urged them to inspire, mentor and help others to improve society.  “There are so many different ways to bring about change, to do good, and to help people. No one should feel limited to one way of doing it,” he said.

Amb Ken Juster IMG_2504Tweeting inevitably came up during his session at the morning conference where, without actually naming Donald Trump, he said that such technology “can influence snap judgements about complex decisions…instead of deep analysis and evaluation”.

The most extraordinary tweet of the week came as the Hyderabad conference finished from Ken Juster, who arrived in Delhi two weeks ago as the new US ambassador. “We have witnessed #USIndia strategic partnership at its finest,” he said. It had been “a smashing success!”

It wasn’t clear what was “strategic”, except in the sense that Modi and his government had feted Trump’s daughter as if she was the president, presumably in order to please her father and boost the two countries’ relations.

Dec 2: “Strategic” has become clear today because President Trump has called Modi and, says a White House press release, “the leaders expressed satisfaction with the recent Global Entrepreneurship Summit” – which basically means that Trump is satisfied with Ivanka’s reception and Modi is therefore also satisfied.



Narendra Modi in talks this week with Prince Charles

Would like maybe to host the Trade and Investment Centre

There is a later version of this article on

India is considering playing a leading role with Britain in revamping the Commonwealth when the international organisation of 52 countries holds its summit in London next April.

One idea being mooted is that administration of the grouping should be de-centralised with specific subjects being run from other countries, breaking the ponderous grip of the imperial style Marlborough House headquarters in London near the royal family’s homes of St. James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is believed to be interested in India taking on the larger role – and maybe responsibility for trade and investment. He is expected to discuss this with Prince Charles, who arrives in Delhi on Wednesday on a two-day visit.

The heir-apparent to the British throne has been invited to Delhi by Modi, and the agenda for their talks includes plans for what is traditionally called the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).


Price Charles in Singapore last week

Prince Charles will also follow up on a formal invitation for Modi to attend the summit that was sent to Delhi recently by his mother the Queen. Although India had not yet formally replied, Modi is expected to accept, combining that with a formal bilateral visit to Britain that will add substance to his trip.

Britain wants India to play a big role in revitalising what is formally called the Commonwealth of Nations (without the word British). Downing Street is therefore anxious that Modi should attend, not only to indicate India’s commitment to the organisation but also to take a lead.

Modi skipped the last gathering in Malta in 2015, and prime minister Manmohan Singh did not attend the previous two in 2011 and 2013 in Australia and Sri Lanka, missing the former because he had more pressing engagements and the latter because of regional sensitivities involving India’s Tamils and the island’s human rights record.

It is not yet clear whether India would be accepted by other Commonwealth countries as a leading player – though of course decentralisation would also lead to other countries taking responsibility for subjects such as security and climate change.

India has not proved itself adept at managing diplomatic relations even with its South Asian neighbours, which resent the way it exercises its clout. This has driven all of them (apart from Bhutan, so far) to respond positively to blandishments from China. Similarly, other smaller Commonwealth nations may resent India assuming a large role, though it does expect support from African countries.


The Commonwealth logo.

Modi’s interest in the Commonwealth is partially indicated by the involvement of Manoj Ladwa, an Indian-born businessman and consultant based in London who is on the board of the Commonwealth Enterprise & Investment Council and is a high profile advocate of a significant India role. Ladwa was one of the top people in Modi’s highly successful general election campaign in 2014, and was also in charge of the prime minister’s triumphant mass rally in London’s Wembley Stadium in November 2016.

“The Commonwealth cannot continue to be London-centric and it is only right and proper for India, with 55% of the Commonwealth’s 2.3 billion population and 26% of its internal trade, to play a more frontal and central role,” he told me yesterday. “This could be done by India providing facilities for trade and investment”.

Continuing that theme, he added: “This is not a solution to all problems, but it is worth having a look at. The Commonwealth has remained relatively stable but has not done all it could because it is London-centric”.

Although the reorganisation ideas are at a very tentative stage, there is general acceptance that the Commonwealth, which embraces a third of the world’s population in English-speaking democracies spanning ethnic and religious boundaries, could play a bigger role as a significant international alliance.

This appeals to the UK, which is looking for new international post-Brexit links, though the Commonwealth’s limited record of past achievements has prevented this being treated very seriously. The idea was not helped earlier this year when someone in the British civil service dubbed its Commonwealth trade ambitions as Empire 2.0 (initially for an Africa free trade zone).

A strong Commonwealth also appeals to India because China could not be involved, unlike many other international forums where it is either a leading member or has managed to attach itself as an observer, for example in South Asia’s SAARC regional organisation..

At a time when China is pushing its One Belt One Road international initiative for economic and trade corridors linking Asia to Europe, a re-energised Commonwealth could provide a counterbalance for countries such as Australian, Malaysia and Singapore as well as India that are under Chinese pressure to co-operate. It would also fit neatly alongside a link-up being developed by the US, India, Japan and possibly Australia to counter China’s ambitions.

The aim therefore is to give next year’s summit a more radical purpose than is indicated by the traditionally bland theme, Towards a Common Future, which has been chosen by the Commonwealth Secretariat with subject headings of “prosperity, security, fairness and sustainability”. These cover boosting intra-Commonwealth trade and investment, increasing security cooperation on terror and cyber attacks and organised crime, promoting democracy and good governance, and dealing with the effects of climate change.

Manoj LadwaManoj Ladwa (left) produced an anthology of essays that included the Commonwealth ideas called Winning Partnership: UK Relations Beyond Brexit in July, where he advocated India becoming a Commonwealth “business hub”. He spoke about his ideas at a recent private conference in Delhi organised by the Observer Research Foundation in September. He is in the city this week for Prince Charles’ visit.

The idea of India and the UK teaming up to boost the Commonwealth first surfaced when C.Raja Mohan, a leading Delhi-based analyst and writer on international affairs who now heads Carnegie India, wrote about it in a similar anthology published in 2011. Called Reconnecting Britain and India, it was edited by Jo Johnson, a former Financial Times journalist and now a minister in the British government, and Rajiv Kumar, now head of India’s Niti Aayog (planning commission).

Raja Mohan had little time in his essay for the Commonwealth, which is valued by many member countries for the often low-key work that it does. He said it had been a “political bully that was incompetent at its best, impotent at its worst, and increasingly irrelevant on the economic front”.

But he suggested that India should take over some of the leadership role from London because, as a rising power, it could influence the Commonwealth’s economic prospects and emerge as a new influence countering China’s dominance.

Mohan’s words were prophetic on China but I found few supporters either in Delhi or London, for his ideas when I wrote about it on this blog. Mohan  acknowledged to me that the idea “is indeed new and does not have much currency at the moment”, but added: “A rising India must consider taking over the leadership of the commonwealth at some point of time”, working with English-speaking leaderships of Commonwealth countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

There were few supporters in Delhi in 2011 because the idea was not on the government’s agenda, but that has now changed with Modi’s positive interest in carving out new international roles for India. Similarly, Britain now has its post-Brexit motives.

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla are coming to India after pre-CHOGM visits to Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Part of the agenda, though this is not spoken about, is to build up the prince’s image so that his role as head of the Commonwealth is not disputed by other member countries after he succeeds his mother and becomes King.

He will host the summit in place of the Queen, who is 91. The event is taking place in London because Vanuatu, the South Pacific island, which was to have been the destination, suffered extensive damage in a cyclone at the end of last year.

Locations for the official meetings will include Buckingham Palace, with a leaders’ retreat hosted at Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s homes. In parallel there will be other events including a large business forum.

Delhi is awash with royals. The King and Queen of Bhutan have just left, and the King and Queen of Belgium are here this week at the same time as Prince Charles and Camilla.

The undeclared theme of next April’s summit will however, if the new ideas move ahead, be to move beyond royalty and turn the Commonwealth into a worthwhile international alliance, not just a post-imperial club with noble intentions and some good works.

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