Pakistan blamed for not curbing terrorist leader 

Incident exposes failings in Modi government policy

A devastating suicide car bomb attack at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir yesterday that killed some 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in the area’s worst terror incident for decades has today united India’s political leadership in tributes to the victims at the same time as the government starts to consider what action to take against Pakistan.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, led government and opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, Congress president, at an airport ceremony evening, paying respects as coffins were flown into Delhi. Modi and Gandhi cancelled other public appointments, as did Priyanka Gandhi on her first press conference as a party general secretary. “We will stand with the government,” said Rahul Gandhi.

While the country mourns, questions are being asked about how the incident at Pulwama was allowed to happen, which is significant because the devastating attack highlights failures in the Indian government’s policies on Pakistan and Kashmir, plus inadequate security planning.


Modi now has an opportunity to act tough with Pakistan in the run up to India’s coming general election due in the next two months. There has been speculation in Delhi for many months that he would find a way to ratchet up tensions in order to win votes. Yesterday’s suicide car bomb attack, with the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror group claiming responsibility, has triggered such an opportunity.

Modi dominated the tribute ceremony (above) for several minutes, standing bowed in front of the coffins and walking alone around them with hands clasped as in prayer. A more modest leader might have taken at least one top military or cabinet leader with hm, but Modi chose to be the focal point of the ceremony during prime time evening television,

In an earlier televised address, he said that “the terrorists have made a big mistake and they will have to pay a very heavy price”. Referring to Pakistan, he added, “We will give a befitting reply, our neighbour will not be allowed to de-stabilise us.” He said he had given the army “a free hand”.

The government has cancelled Pakistan’s most favoured nation trading status, which has existed since 1996. Formal trade between the two countries only amounts to about $2.4bn (there is far more via Dubai), but the move is symbolic because it marks a new low point in bilateral relations and is intended to send out an international signal. Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, told reporters that India would work to ensure the “complete isolation” of Pakistan.

A military strike on terrorist bases across the Line of Control (LoC) between the two countries is one of the options being considered. In September 2016, ten days after 18 Indian soldiers were killed in an attack on an army camp at Uri – the last major incident in Kashmir – India conducted a “surgical strike” against terrorist locations in Pakistan.


19-year old Adil Ahmed Dar in the video made before the suicide bomb blast

Modi has repeatedly played this up as a major initiative to impress his Hindu nationalist electoral vote bank, culminating with a leaked video of the action, and celebrations of the second anniversary last September.

There are also implications for India’s relations with China, which protects Pakistan and has repeatedly blocked India’s request for the United Nations Security Council to list Masood Azhar, leader of the JeM, as a ‘global terrorist’.

Today a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing expressed shock and sympathy over the attack, but failed to indicate that China would support India at the UN over Azhar, who has complete freedom of movement in Pakistan.

Intense diplomatic activity is under way with the Indian government meeting ambassadors of some 20 countries in Delhi today, calling for pressure on Pakistan. India’s high commissioner (ambassador) in Pakistan has been recalled to Delhi for consultations.

There are reports this evening that top US officials are talking to Beijing, urging it to withdraw its UN objections. That would lead to Azhar being listed by the UN and to China putting pressure on Pakistan to take action against him which, in turn, would reduce the risks an escalation of hostilities on the LoC.


While the JeM has claimed responsibility for the attack, the car carrying the bomb was driven by a 19-year old Indian boy, Adil Ahmed Dar (above), from the Pulwama district. The JeM released a pre-recorded 10-minute long video statement by Dar in which he says, “By the time this video reaches you, I will be in Heaven”. He criticised India saying, “your oppression fuels our jihad”.

This illustrates how the Modi government’s aggressive military-oriented policy on Kashmir, and its failure to engage in dialogue with local interests, has increased the alienation of Kashmiri youth since 2014. While not condoning terror atrocities, there have been constant criticisms for many years of the security forces’ tactics and their impact on successive generations of young Kashmiris.

Dar’s family told the news website that they regarded their son, who had joined the terrorist group nearly a year ago, as a martyr. “Nobody talks about the daily blinding of civilians, killings and encounters,” said his father referring to the security forces. “Why don’t these politicians invite all the parties and find a solution to Kashmir issue?”.

Radicalised son

Discussing why his son had been radicalised, Scroll reports that Dar talked about an incident in 2016. “One day, he was returning from his school and men from the STF [security forces] stopped him and made him rub his nose on ground”. The men had forced the boy to make a circle around their jeep with his nose, his father said: “He kept mentioning this incident again and again.”  His son “wanted to become a cleric and had already memorised eight chapters of the Quran”.

Indian soldiers examine the debris after an explosion in Lethpora in south Kashmir's Pulwama district

Dar drove a car with 60kg of high explosives which caused a massive blast when it hit and demolished the bus (pictures above) that was part of a convoy of 78 vehicles carrying over 2,500 troops.

While security operations had been carried out to ensure there were no landmines or terrorist preparations to fire on the unusually large convoy, no preparations had apparently been made to block or check road vehicles, even though the highway had been opened to civilian traffic – enabling Dar’s vehicle to have access. This is the latest of a series of security lapses in recent years under the Modi government.

Modi’s policy in relation to Pakistan has been erratic since he was elected in 2014 and he has become increasingly aggressive, playing to his nationalist vote bank in India. The deteriorating relations with Pakistan have worsened the situation in Kashmir where killings and violent confrontations with security forces in the Srinagar valley have increased in a revival of . Home ministry figures show that the number of terrorist incidents have risen from 222 in 2014 to 614 last year while the number of security force personnel killed has gone from 47 in 2014 to 80 in 2017 and 91 in 2018.

The central government has made no significant moves to stem this decline, and is unlikely to do so until after the general election. This indicates a fraught and dangerous two to three months, both in Kashmir and on the Line of Control.


This blog post has been revised on

Posted by: John Elliott | February 8, 2019

Delhi’s India Art Fair looks for new owner as Basel bales out

Fringe events pull in thousands to view art for the first time

Boosts for a flattish modern and contemporary market

Delhi’s annual India Art Fair was a success last weekend, even though its Swiss owners have put it up for sale. It brought together a focussed collection of 75 Indian and international galleries that reported substantial sales, plus other displays, though the organisers shied away from revealing attendance figures.

The fair is becoming significant for inspiring fringe events, which this year included gallery exhibitions of leading artists such as Arpita Singh, an under-recognised painter now aged 82, and the opening of an art museum at the Old Delhi’s Red Fort with four galleries of works tracing India’s history that is attracting thousands of visitors.


Ayesha Kidwai with Grandma, oil on canvas by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar Museum

The past year however has not seen strong sales in the Indian modern and contemporary art market. This was confirmed by ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, whose 2019 South Asian Art Market Report recorded only a 6.8% increase in sales of seven leading auction houses during 2018 compared with 17% a year earlier.

The report highlights a trend that has been evident throughout the year and reported on this blog – that Christie’s and Sotheby’s are being beaten on sales by Indian-based auction houses, notably Saffronart but also Astra Guru, whose sales rose 63%.

Overall, art market sales rose 7.7% to an estimated $240m with gallery sales rising 9.1%. This included a revival of the flagging contemporaries, whose sales doubled to $5.82m. But, as ArtTactic emphases, the auction market is still dominated by a handful of famous names led by Tyeb Mehta ($15.4m sales), S.H.Raza ($15.2m) and M.F.Husain ($10.8m), with the top 25 artists accounting for 87% of the auctions’ total.


A Krishen Khanna bandsman and F.N.Souza painting on the Dhoomimal Gallery stand at the art fair

ArtTactic also produced a report on South Asian Art and Philanthropy, focussing on a growing number of public art initiatives that have more than doubled in the past ten years with over 30 new openings.

The latest of these is the Red Fort project where the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), building on its reputation for substantial expenditure on shows, has taken over a 27,000 sq.ft. three-storey barrack block for a year.

It has four historical exhibitions  with patriotic themes covering three centuries of art, the most stunning of which are portraits by British and Indian artists of people ranging from grand maharajahs to a self portrait by modern artist Paritosh Sen, and a collection of works by India’s nine “art treasure” artists including Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ravi Varma. There is also a remarkable collection (bought intact by DAG from a London owner) of all the 144 aquatint prints produced by Thomas and William Daniell after they travelled around India at the end of the 18th century.

Restored by the government’s usually lethargic Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the colonial era barrack is part of a revival project supported by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who is encouraging the development of patriotic and nationalist museums. He opened galleries in two barracks at the Red Fort last month, including the DAG’s and one devoted to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a prominent political leader who sided with the Japanese against the British during the second world war. Two other museums follow the theme critical of the British covering the 1857 army uprising (mutiny) and the 1919 Amritsar massacre.


Krishna and Yashoda by Raja Ravi Varma at DAG’s Red Fort galleries

According to the ASI, about 4,000 people visited the museums on February 1. Some 1,500 of them went to DAG’s galleries that were only just opened, a figure that rose to 2,500 two days later. This is presenting a challenge faced by all such public shows in India – how to make people aware of the remarkable works they are viewing.

I was at the DAG museum on February 1, and many of those I saw seemed to have no comprehension of what they were looking at. Walking quickly, they glanced briefly at important works, thus reducing the value of the exercise. “The visitors are mostly ill-informed about art. Most would never have seen an original work in their life, so they will not know quite what to make of what they are seeing,” acknowledges Kishore Singh of the DAG.

A similar point is made by Peter Nagy, who runs Nature Morte, a gallery in Delhi and is the curator of an impressive sculpture park in the Madhavendra Palace at Jaipur’s 18th century Nahargarh Fort. This is the first such exhibition in India and, while it is not part of the art fair programme, it was linked to the annual Jaipur literature festival last month. Displaying the sculptures in the grand setting of the palace, it is another example of the new ventures mentioned in the ArtTactic report, in this case a partnership between the Rajasthan state government and private philanthropists.


Spine of Spine by Savia Mahajan in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park

“We get 5,000-6,000 people visiting the Sculpture Park every day during the October-March high season…..If we get 100 people per day paying attention to the art and being inspired to learn more about contemporary art in general, then I think we are doing great,” says Nagy.

The DAG is working on ways to improve the access to information and has hired staff and interns to guide visitors, while the sculpture park is developing an educational programme.

“Once visitors encounter the artworks, they are engaging by reading our signs in both Hindi and English, taking photographs and asking questions,” says Noelle Kadar, the park’s director.

Arpita Singh

Arpita Singh

India’s most prominent philanthropic collector is Kiran Nadar, who has two museums in Delhi and staged the Arpita Singh exhibition that is open for six months (video of the works and opening here). There are 109 oil paintings, watercolours, works on paper and sketchbooks on showing, as one writer has put it, Singh’s “carnival of images arranged in a curiously subversive manner” with an artistic approach described “as an expedition without destination”.

This was the first retrospective of an artist who hit the headline in December 2010 when one of her works, Wish Dream, was sold in a Saffronart on-line auction for $2.24m, which was the highest price achieved by an Indian woman artist at auction and a world record price for an artwork sold online. Since then there has been a steady flow of Singh’s works in auctions but no spectacular sales. Experts suggest that is partly because owners have been seeking unrealistically high estimates and reserve prices, while auction houses have not been willing to risk reserves not being met.


Girls by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar museum

That might now change, following the interest generated by Kiran Nadar’s show. It will be worth watching to see whether Arpita Singh now gains the same popularity in auctions that happened to Bhupen Khakhar, a provocative gay artist, after his retrospective three years ago in London’s Tate Modern gallery.

Sales at the fair

Most galleries are shy of revealing their sales, but there have been various positive reports from this year’s fair, along with some criticisms. Foreign galleries have had mixed results in past years, but the New York-based David Zwirner, which has branches in London and Hong Kong, was showing for a second year and said relationships it had built with Indian collectors had “really paid off ”. Strong sales included a work by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama bought by a “major India collector”, as well works by other artists new to the Indian market. Zwirner also has a work in the sculpture park.


A poster in the DAG’s Red Fort galleries

Prajit Datta from the Aicon Art in New York said works had been sold by five of its seven artists on show. They included a sculptures by Rasheed Araeen, an influential British-Pakistani artist, and by the Algerian- French Rachid Koraichi, both of whom are collected by the Kiran Nadar museum.

Delhi’s Vadehra and Dhoomimal galleries reported sales ranging between $2,000 and $140,000, while Chatterjee & Lal from Mumbai put theirs at $2,800 to $42,000.

With so much activity, it may seem odd for the fair to be up for sale, but the MCH Group of Switzerland, which owns the internationally famous Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, decided last November to cut back its activities and abandon plans for a string of regional art fairs after it was hit by a fiasco at its key watches fair.


Mahbubur Rahman’s Transformation in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park

It is selling the 65% controlling interest in the India fair that it started buying in 2016. Angus Montgomery Arts, a UK-based exhibition and events company that has been involved since 2011, has a 35% stake, which it could be interested in expanding. Sandy Angus, the chairman, worries that an Indian businessman with his “own agenda” might buy the stake. Other rumoured potential Indian and international bidders for the 65% include Sunil Munjal of the India’s Hero auto industry family, who runs the annual Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. Galleries and auction houses are being excluded.

MCH appointed a new ceo this week who will finalise valuations and a timetable. The group is being criticised by people involved in the fair for its inconsistency as an investor, and for bringing uncertainty to the event, though MCH says it will remain committed till a sale is agreed. It is credited with having sharpened the focus and raised the standards of exhibits under a new director, Jagdip Jagpal, who took over last year.

Whoever buys control will inherit a fair that is now well established, though the limited participation by foreign galleries – there were only 15 out of the 75 – shows that it is not yet fully recognised on the international art circuit. Aside from that, its real value is the way that important events are expanding on the fringe, broadening the opportunities for those with no knowledge or experience to view the best the art can offer.

Posted by: John Elliott | January 13, 2019

Delhi foreign affairs conference produces UK case to leave EU

Netherlands-Hungary immigration dogfight on conference platform

Asia’s debate continues on need somehow to “contain” China

As Britain flounders towards its unpredictable semi-European future, an international foreign affairs conference in New Delhi has surprisingly produced a persuasive case for Brexit being the UK’s best long-term course, despite all the problems and uncertainty, and even if remaining in the European Union seems more immediately sensible.

It happened at India’s annual Raisina Dialogue in a brief but memorable dogfight between speakers from Hungary and the Netherlands over immigration into the European Union, and in an equally memorable but more constructive speech from Spain’s foreign minister, who pleaded the case for sovereignty-ceding political, diplomatic and defence unity.

Who could want to stay in such a divided club with such unreal disruptive ambitions? Former British prime minister Tony Blair, for one, who bounced onto the stage full of smiles to assert the case for a new remain-yielding referendum. “You have a Brexit that is pointless or a Brexit that is painful,” he said. Since there was no majority for either, “it makes sense to go back to the people to ask do you really want to go ahead with this?”


Brexit of course wasn’t the main focus of the conference, which was organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation, a leading policy institute, and was attended by some 600 delegates from over 90 countries.

The threat of a growing and aggressive China inevitably was the main concern, as it was last year. I reported then that, even though China was gradually moving to a position where it would dominate the world’s international affairs, disrupting established institutions and trade routes and building its own alternatives, most of the rest of the world had little idea how to respond except to try to persuade it not to be too disruptive.

People I spoke to this year said ideas had moved on since then, though it was difficult to pin down how. The main thought was “containing” China’s disruptive expansion, which speakers pointed out was an inadequate reactive approach compared with what was described by a Japanese admiral as China’s conflict-provoking drive. India’s naval chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, whose fleets are desperately under-equipped, mournfully noted that China’s navy grown by 80 ships in the last five years – the biggest naval growth in two centuries.

borrell raisina

Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell

Much has been made of The Quad, a group linking the US, Australia, Japan and India as the vehicle to contain China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Its limitations however were spelt out by Stephen Smith, former Australian defence minister, who said the countries had only had had only two or three meetings in ten or eleven years and indicated it was not a viable forum.

Tony Blair’s call for a fresh referendum has considerable support in the UK as the next sensible step if prime minister Theresa May’s blighted agreement is rejected by Britain’s parliament on January 15.

No-one knows whether that would produce a majority to remain in the EU because of the economic costs of leaving, or to leave because of the tough treatment meted out to the UK since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

What the Raisina Dialogue pinpointed however was that there are deeply held issues, especially how to treat and control immigrants, that defy solutions so it may be better for the UK to try to do it itself which, indeed, is May’s approach.

Add to that, if Britain did remain in, there would be constant arguments about Spain’s – and France’s – keenness for closer union on issues like an army that would arouse the passions of the UK’s anti-EU lobby and bedevil British politics for years to come, as they have done already for decades. The rump of the Conservative Party, and other groups, that passionately believe Britain should leave will never give up, so maybe it is better to cut loose now.

The theme of Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, was that no single European nation was capable of dealing with the emergence of “economic giants” such as India, China, and Brazil.The only solution was for countries to act together. “Sometimes, ceding sovereignty can help protect sovereignty” he argued. ”We cannot be a soft power forever. The EU needs to develop its hard power to be collectively seen as a credible power”.

We are few, we are old…..

Borrell, who is a former president of the European Parliament, painted Europe as a continent in decline in terms of its percentage of the world’s population, and the size of its economy compared with the rising powers of Asia and Africa.

“We are few, we are old, and we are dependent because we buy 60% of our energy, and being few, old and dependent is not a good prospect for the future,” he declared.

The only way was therefore to be united, “putting together our army, our diplomatic strength and what we have best – our intellectual capacity, cultural heritage”, but that required “sharing sovereignty”.


Marietje Schaake, an MEP from the Netherlands

A speaker from Finland also saw the EU as the “protector of our security”, while one from Latvia similarly said the EU is “about security and offers peace” which required a “sense of partnership”.

Borrell recognised however that many European countries did not want to cede sovereignty, especially those in eastern Europe who had relatively recently been freed from the group of the Soviet Union. “Sometime you listen to them saying Brussels is a kind of new Moscow,” he said.

The European Union dogfight broke out during a session on Diversity within the Union – The EU’s Mid-Life Check-List. It began when Marietje Schaake, an outspoken politician from the Netherlands, said there needed to be “shared obligations…sharing burdens”. She robustly condemned Hungary, saying it took billions of dollars of EU funds, but then did not accept Syrian refugees, which meant it was not doing its share of what was needed.

Péter Szàray, Hungary’s security minister, who was sitting next to Schaake on the platform, countered that his country had been within its rights in refusing to accommodate the refugees and close its borders because the EU’s Schengen free movement of people rules allowed a country to close its borders in exceptional circumstances.

Scathingly noting that “the only migrants still in Hungary are the ones on posters,” Schaake, who is a member of the European Parliament, said that “countries cannot expect full benefits and zero obligations from EU membership”, adding “shared obligations are important over individual interests for the EU”.

She insisted before the session that she was going to attack Hungary, instead of avoiding the issue of immigration, which Szàray had suggested.

One could argue that, if a club has such differences that they have to be aired in a third country‘s foreign affairs conference, is it worth being a member. Would it not be better to get out and leave them to their inconclusive bitter wrangles?

EU sensitivities

So sensitive are EU members about what they all say about each other that Francoise Nicolas, director of a French Asian affairs centre, resented the Spanish foreign minister apparently (she said) referring to her country when he had talked about small EU states not realising that they were small.

She capped that however with a dig at the UK, saying that a small state which “was about to leave” would “be more negligible and will know it” – that was greeted with laughter.

France’s foreign secretary, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, also referred to the UK when he said in the final session on The Road to 2030 that, in the EU, “we are more sovereign than when we are on our own”, echoing a point made by Borrell.

That was a dig at Mark Sedwill, Britain’s newly appointed Cabinet Secretary, who doubles up as national security adviser and had flown in specially for the conference, abandoning his crisis-ridden Whitehall office. Never mind, said Gourdault-Montagne, patting Sedwill’s arm, “the closeness of our relationship will remain”.

It might have seemed irresponsible for Sedwill to desert his London office, a few days before the parliament vote, for a conference in India, but these are extraordinary times. His decision not to cancel shows how desperate Britain is to keep in favour with its old colony, hoping this will help it negotiate a trade pact once Brexit is done, assuming it is.

The other message from the conference was that Brussells had treated Britain so roughly that no other EU member would dare risk trying to escape. As the Finnish speaker put it, referring to Britain’s current plight, “I don’t think many countries will be willing to experiment with these sorts of ideas”.

“We’ll miss you guys,” Marietje Schaake told me. Maybe, but having got so far, is it really sensible to try to scramble back into such a club?

Posted by: John Elliott | January 8, 2019

Billionaires and Jugaad have built India’s ‘Gilded Age’

BOOK REVIEW: Two journalists’ look at how modern India works

Mukesh Ambani daughter’s wedding and a shady car crash

Former US secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and others among the hundreds of guests at the Ambani family’s mind-blowing wedding celebrations last month that cost maybe as much as $100m, will not have been given a copy of The Billionaire Raj.

hiliary ambanis

Hilary Clinton with Mukesh and Nita Ambani

Mukesh Ambani, a top industrialist who revels in showing he is India’s richest man, treated the guests to massive pre-wedding parties in the Rajasthan city of Udaipur and to the wedding ceremony at his (literally) over-the top 27-floor home in Mumbai (there was a later less glamorous reception for thousands of guests). But Billionaire Raj will not have been in the elite guests’ two-tiered invitation box, each rumoured to have cost Rs300,000 ($4,300), nor on their bedside tables.

The six-page prologue of the book – and the most revealing of its 300 pages – tells of another side of Ambani’s life that he would rather not display. Indeed, it is remarkable that the various publishers of the book in the UK, US and India have not been forced to remove or at least tone down the six pages that explain how an Aston Martin owned by one of Ambani’s Reliance Industries’ companies had a spectacular 1.30am crash in Mumbai in December 2014. The driver, described as a young man, was rushed away into the night by escort cars and a portly 55-year old Reliance driver claimed the next day that he had been behind the wheel.


Crabtree’s US edition cover shows the Ambani’s home towering above its surroundings

This is the world that James Crabtree, a former Financial Times’ Mumbai correspondent writes about in Billionaire Raj, recounting tales of people he met, and some he didn’t – strangely it appears he did not interview Ambani, whose empire straddles oil exploration and refining to textiles and telecoms with significant (and useful) stakes in the media and even India’s iconic Oberoi hotel chain.

It is also the world that another former foreign corresponded, Dean Nelson of the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph, explores in Jugaad Yatra, which describes the “fix-it” mentality that governs much of Indian life. The Ambanis’ father, Dhirubhai, built a wide-ranging successful business by mixing deft fixing of government policies and regulations with astute management, skills his son Mukesh has inherited and burnished. Nelson ranges widely with extensive original stories and research that reveal how Indians’ (and his own family’s) ability to make the most of scarce resources leads on to what is recognised internationally as laudable frugal engineering.

Jugaad came into action after the Ambani’s Aston Martin crash. The owner of another car in the accident, an Audi, told a local newspaper that the driver, who was bundled into one of the two escort cars, was a young man. Later however she signed a statement in a magistrates’ court that the 55-year old had, after all, been the driver. No-one was hurt, so it was easy for the media to let the story fade away, unlike what happened in Delhi in a 1999 hit-and-run case when a BMW driven by the son of a prominent Indian Navy and defence agent family killed six people in the early hours. The son finished up in jail, but not before two witnesses changed their story saying it was a truck, not a BMW.


The identity of the Ambani car driver was being widely gossiped in Mumbai’s business community, but Crabtree does not provide a name. Forbes’ on-line India edition however did do so, saying that “speculation online [with a link, now removed] has been rife that Akash Ambani, Mukesh’s older son was allegedly involved in the smash-up”. (He’s the brother of Isha Ambani, the bride in the recent wedding). Forbes’ veteran business writer, Naazneen Karmali, wondered in the article who bought new upgraded models for the owners of the Audi and another car in the crash, because insurance companies have said that they did not paid up.

Mukesh Ambani is basically a hard working and focussed businessman with extensive entrepreneurial and managerial skills that were displayed first on oil and gas projects and more recently on Jio, his latest mammoth venture that has changed the face of India’s telecommunications. The extreme extravagance on his daughter’s wedding seems out of kilter with this driven and ruthless entrepreneur, as does his multi-storey home.

Crabtree and Nelson both tell compelling stories about India’s business life, revealing how the country works. Crabtree has an underlying theme of extravagant wealth among widespread hardship, but mostly tours through examples of Mumbai’s “gilded age”. That is the subtitle of his book that draws parallels with America in the second half of the 19th century when it had ‘the great corporation, the crass plutocrat [and] the calculating political boss”, as one historian put it. Nelson burrows away in small towns as well as mega cities.

james crabtree

James Crabtree

There’s a contrast in the characters they describe. Crabtree goes for the colourful, focussing for far longer than is deserved on the widely reported Vijay Mallya, who inherited a liquor business, expanded it and branched out into other businesses including an airline named after his Kingfisher beer brand. He managed by whatever means to elbow most other beers out of often government-controlled wine and beer shops, but his management style was far too unfocused and erratic for the airline which collapsed. He fled to Britain to escape court action and is now fighting extradition.

Crabtree spends considerable time on Mukesh Ambani, despite the lack of an interview, but there is no mention of many other stars of past and present business generations.  Ratan Tata, patriarch of the Tata conglomerate, is only mentioned twice, including the astonishing line that he is “perhaps the only man to rival Mukesh Ambani’s stature in business”. That remark requires a new definition of “stature” because Tata, while not always deserving the pedestal on which he is generally placed, is in a league that Ambani can never hope to match.  Crabtree also brackets Mallya with Ambani and Gautam Adani as “self-evidently talented managers” when, if there was anything self-evident about Mallya, it was that he hadn’t a clue how to manage a business efficiently.

Kumar Mangalam Birla, the only surviving leading industrialist from the once sprawling Birla business clan, is only mentioned once, and the older business families such as Bajaj, Godrej, Kirloskar, and Singhania get rare mentions. The entrepreneurial characters who founded the highly successful IndiGo and currently-struggling Jet airlines, that survived when Kingfisher collapsed, do not appear, even though both are excellent examples (like Ambani) of mixing entrepreneurship with managing government relations. India’s internationally successful software companies get scant attention. Among market leaders, Infosys has less than half a page, while Wipro is amazingly not mentioned, nor is Tata’s TCS (along with most of the activities of India’s biggest group).


Dean Nelson

These lapses can be understood if one accepts that Billionaire Raj is not focussed primarily on business, but goes instead for stories that bolster the image of a Western movie sort of swashbuckling corporate culture with a touch of the Mafia and Trump-the-businessman thrown in. That view is bolstered by the number of Indians in Forbes’s annual list of the world’s rising from just two in the mid-1990s to over 100 – without including hordes of illicit hidden wealth. Crabtree gives us a good informative read, with entertaining pen portraits of crony capitalists and others, and has useful chapters on how corruption works.

Nelson goes for slightly different jugaad “fix it” characters and appropriately chooses one of the controversial London-based Hinduja brothers, and a veteran of the Delhi-based cigarettes to cosmetics and education Modi family. The only businessman to figure prominently in both books is Anand Mahindra, a leading exponent of frugal engineering who runs the Mumbai based Mahindra group that for decades has been regarded as one of India’s most ethical groups.

When I wrote Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality in 2014 (there is a new updated edition out in March), critics said I had failed to realise that India, with all its corruption and failings, was just going through a growth phase. To criticise it now, I was told, missed the point that it would come good, as America had done with a Progressive Era following the Gilded Age, and with the robber barons Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Carnegie becoming respectable.

Crabtree reflects a similar guarded optimism that India will replicate America progression, though there is little evidence of that. Nelson does not seem to think that the negative fix-it attitudes of jugaad will change. Even if characters like an Ambani, a Mallya, and an Adani follow the Rockefeller and Carnegie course, now or in later generations, there are hordes of new would-be crony capitalists (big and small) lining up behind them to fix and milk the system in league with greedy politicians and bureaucrats. With its speed of technological and social change, and an increasingly impatient youth, today’s India is far different from 19th century America.

The Billionaire Raj – A Journey Through India’s Gilded Age, by James Crabtree. Oneworld Publications (UK), Harper Collins (India), Penguin Random House (US), 2018

Jugaad Yatra – Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving, by Dean Nelson. Aleph Book Company, Delhi 2018


Posted by: John Elliott | December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas…….

…… all of you who visit my blog – do keep coming back in 2019!

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Posted by: John Elliott | December 12, 2018

India’s state elections change the political landscape

Modi and his BJP hit by defeats as Gandhi’s Congress recovers  

Congress wins Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh

The Indian political landscape has changed. The Congress Party is no longer in decline under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, and the prospect of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party with its Hindu nationalist agenda being in power for the next few years does not look as inevitable as it seemed just a year ago.

This is the main take-away from the state assembly election results announced yesterday (Dec 11). Congress has won power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – three key BJP-governed states in what is known as the Hindi heartland. It lost Mizoram in northeast India to a regional party, and failed to make an impact in Telangana that was separated from Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

KNath claim IMG_2658

Kamal Nath, Congress’s Madhya Pradesh state president, claims victory at 2.30am – Congress’s final figure was 114 and the BJP’s 109

In Madhya Pradesh, constituency counting yesterday was evenly balanced for much of the day, but at 2.30am this morning  (India time), Kamal Nath, the Congress state president, (above) claimed victory with 116 seats, a clear majority in the 230-seat assembly. That dropped slightly later in the night to 114 against the BJP’s 109, but  Congress has a majority because it is supported by four independents and two parties based in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP made a counter claim but that was dropped when the figures became clear.

The results show that the Congress Party is re-energised after its devastating general election defeat in 2014 and subsequent defeats in most state assembly polls. The reversal of that trend has enabled Gandhi to confirm his role as the party’s leader, a year after he took over the president’s post in December 2017 from his mother Sonia Gandhi.

Voting patterns

It does not however mean that the BJP will necessarily do badly in the three heartland states in the general election due by next May. Nor does it mean that Modi’s government will be defeated nationally, though the BJP would lose 44 of the three states’ parliamentary seats in the general election if today’s voting patterns were repeated, according to estimates by the NDTV television channel.

The results, which were broadly in line with exit polls published on December 7, also show that Modi has lost a lot of his personal vote-winning power that has has driven BJP successes over the past five years. It remains to be seen whether he can recover that in the general election campaign.

The question now is how Modi will react to what, privately, he will regard as a serious defeat and a negative verdict on his rule. Specifically, will he try to win the electorate by focussing on economic development, or will he strengthen the BJP’s  divisive Hindu nationalist agenda with its anti-Muslim overtones, driven especially by Amit Shah, the party president.

Shaktikanta Das 48010057On the economy, Modi will be looking to Shaktikanta Das (left), who was appointed yesterday as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, to relax interest rates and drive growth. Das was the secretary for economic affairs in the finance ministry till May last year, and was in charge of Modi’s economically damaging bank note demonetisation at the end of 2015.

As a career civil servant, he was accustomed to working for and with government ministers, and is therefore different from the past two governors who come different backgrounds and have been conscious of the need to maintain the RBI’s traditional independence.

Das replaces Urjit Patel (below) who resigned quietly and with “immediate effect” on December 10 after two years in the post. Patel was coming under intense pressure from the government to accept its policies and to allow it to interfere in RBI affairs. Reports suggest he had tired of the battles and pressure involved and decided to retire ten months early, which is a very rare occurrence for RBI governors – it has only happened once before since 1947.

urjit patel 2-kR5E--621x414@LiveMintThis is significant because it is yet another example of the Modi government’s persistent attempts to undermine the independence of India’s respected institutions such as the Election Commission and the judiciary including the Supreme Court.

Welcoming the results last night, Rahul Gandhi said that Modi had “refused to listen to the heartbeat of he nation”, whereas he had learned from Congress’s 2014 general election defeat that he had to listen. Congress had led the country in reforms such as the “green revolution” in the 1980s, and the 1991 opening up of the economy, and it was now developing a “vision for the future” that would tackle the lack of jobs and youth disenchantment.

This picks up on the main issues that faced the BJP in the states – distress among farmers despite various government schemes, a failure to generate jobs, and the negative effects of the 2015 demonetisation together with later complicated implementation of a new national sales tax (GST). That hit the BJP vote in rural areas – for example losing it the tribal vote – and in the towns.

There is also a debate about how far a “soft Hindutva” stance adopted by Rahul Gandhi influenced votes to support Congress, in preference to the BJP with its harsher nationalist version that includes its slant against Muslims and bans on cow slaughter and beef eating.


Rahul Gandhi (centre) with (to the right) Sachin Pilot, Rajasthan Congress president and a candidate to be the chief minister

Gandhi has been ostentatiously visiting Hindu temples over the past year and has talked about how cows should be protected. Meghnad Desai, a leading political and economy commentator, yesterday suggested on a television programme that “Rahul has turned Congress into a Hindu party”. That was the “biggest change ever” to the party’s ideology. Congress politicians refuted this, pointing out that Congress accepts and works with all religions, but it is a fact that Gandhi has paraded Hindu credentials on election campaigns.

The detailed results in the states showed a substantial shift towards Congress. In Madhya Pradesh, it added more than 50 assembly seats to its tally in the last (2013) election. The BJP has been in power under Shivraj Singh Chauhan, its chief minister who has a sound reputation for implementing policies, for three terms totally 15 years. It would have been remarkable if it had won a fourth term.

In the adjacent state of Chhattisgarh, Congress added almost 30 seats, winning the contest with 68 seats against the BJP’s 16 in the 90-seat assembly. In Rajasthan, it added around 80 seats, winning 101 against the BJP’s 73 in the 201-seat assembly.

General election seats

The national importance of the states is indicated by votes in the 2014 general election, when the BJP won 27 of the 29 parliamentary constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh and all 25 seats in Rajasthan.

But results in national elections can be very different. In 2003, the BJP won the three states in assembly elections but lost the 2004 general election, and in 2008 the Congress lost Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2008 but its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition won the 2009 general election.

There will now be a tough and probably bitter battle between the BJP and Congress during the next four months till general election voting begins. It is likely to be even more bitter between the two leaders as Narendra Modi tries to counter the growing confidence of Rahul Gandhi.

Sotheby’s bounces into Mumbai but some prices set too high

Bhupen Khakhar emerges as auctioneer’s new favourite Progressive

It looks as though auction interest might be picking up in India’s contemporary art market, where prices slumped a decade ago. That followed a few years of over-priced frenetic buying by image-conscious collectors who were chasing the latest big names during the country’s art boom of the early 2000s.

Saffronart, India’s leading auction house, this week sold all the 47 lots in an on-line auction from the Amaya Collection of contemporary works for just under $1m. The collector was Amrita Jhaveri, formerly with Christie’s, who was one of India’s first serious buyers of contemporary art from the late 1990s.


This Side Is The Other Side by Subodh Gupta

The question now is whether this indicates a real recovery of interest. Dinesh Vazirani, founder of the auction house, thinks it might for two reasons. “Every time a great collection comes in, there’s a lot of excitement and the market regenerates itself,” he says, adding that younger collectors are interested in more recent works at a time when those by earlier generations of modern artists are becoming more expensive.

Hugo Weihe, who was till recently Saffronart’s ceo and earlier headed Christie’s South Asia sales, says the auction benefitted from the works being fresh to market and coming from a single owner who was a respected collector. “This provided the context for good results, and it bodes well for the growth of the market”.


Saurabh Society by Atul Dodiya

Amrita Jhaveri, who runs the Jhaveri Gallery in Mumbai, sold the works because she had too many in store and needed to rationalise her collection. The single source gave a coherence to the auction that a sale of randomly collected works might have lacked.

Some works were sold for less than Jhaveri originally paid, but most showed considerable gains. A bronze and milk urns bronze sculpture (above) by Subodh Gupta, who benefited hugely from the buying craze in the early 2000s, sold in the auction for $257,916 (Rs1.78 crore) including buyer’s premium. It is one of a series of three and Jhaveri bought her’s a decade or so ago for less than 10% of that figure.


New Avataar by Chintan Upadhyay

Gupta hit a $1.1m high in 2008 for an airport luggage trolley painting in a Christie’s auction, but prices crashed and a similar work fetched only £180,000 ($250,000) at Sotheby’s in 2010. Jhaveri says that the bottom didn’t fall out of the over-inflated market at that time. “It went back to where it should have been”. She thinks that the prices achieved in her auction indicated realistic values – they were all under $100,000, apart from Gupta’s scooter, and about a half were under $10,000.

Lot 23, Mehta, Durga Mahisasura Mardini (1993), INR 20,00,00,000-30,00,00,000 copy

Tyeb Mehta’s Durga Mahisasura Mardini

Other artists in the auction included well known names such as Jitish Kallat, G. Ravinder Reddy, Bharti Kher, Chintan Upadhyay (above) and Surendran Nair. The second top sale was Saurabh Society, a 48in x 72in oil on canvas (above) depicting small town India by Atul Dodiya, which sold for £72.870 (Rs50.28 lakhs) including premium.

There have been very few contemporary auctions in recent years, though some works have started to creep into moderns sales and AstaGuru, a Mumbai-based on-line auction house, had an auction in October 2016.

The Jhaveri sale came at the end of a busy few weeks for India and South Asian modern art auctions.

Sotheby’s bounced back into prominence with a partially successful mostly-moderns sale in Mumbai on November 29 that included furniture and photographs. It notched up sales totalling $7.9m, with 80% of 59 lots being sold (having overcome the loss of its India ceo who went on leave a week before the auction after being named in the country’s MeToo wave).

Lot 12, Sher-Gil, The Little Girl in Blue (1934), INR 8,50,00,000-12,50,00,000

The Little Girl in Blue by Amrita Sher-Gil

Filling a prestige pre-Christmas slot in the auction calendar curiously vacated two years ago by Christie’s, Sotheby’s total figure was not far off the $8.31m achieved by its rival in New York two months ago.

It was notable for having works that have rarely been seen or offered on the market, but two of its top four paintings by famous members of the post-war Progressives group, M.F.Husain and V.S.Gaitonde, failed to sell because, experts said, they were priced too high. This followed a similar situation in London on October 23, when four of its five top lots failed to find buyers and sales totalled an astonishingly low £974,313.

In Mumbai, its highest priced work, a 58in x 41in acrylic on canvas by Tyeb Mehta titled Durga Mahisasura Mardini (above), sold for a hammer price of Rs 17 crore or $2.43m which was below the lowest estimate of Rs20 crore, though he buyer’s premium brought it up to Rs20.49 core. This was surprising because the work had been with the same owner since it was painted in 1993 so was a fresh offering.

It did nevertheless compare well with a very low Mehta sale at the New York Christie’s auction two months ago when Diagonal XV, a 66in x 51in oil on canvas, went for a hammer price of just $1.15m ($1.39 including buyers’ premium). That was well below a $1.5m-2m estimate, and also lower than what was assumed to be the reserve price. Perhaps the market for this leading artist is beginning to fade and his works need more sensitive pricing.


The Bathing Ghat  by Bhupen Khakhar

Sotheby’s most notable work in Mumbai was a small 19in x 16in oil on canvas, The Little Girl in Blue by Amrita Sher-Gil (above), which sold for a hammer price of Rs15.5 crore ($2.22m) – Rs18.69 crore ($2.68m) including the premium. This was well above the top estimate of Rs12.5 crore ($1.7m) and an auction record for the artist. The work had remained in the same collection for 80 years after being displayed in the artist’s first solo show in 1937.

The top end of Indian modern art auctions has been dominated for years by just a handful of names – Souza, Gaitonde, Husain as well as Mehta – so it was noteworthy that Saffronart’s top lot in its moderns auction (which followed the contemporaries), was for a work by Bhupen Khakhar, a far less well known artist from the same Progressives group. This was a 68in x 45in oil on canvas titled The Bathing Ghat (above), which sold for $900,000 (Rs6.21 crores), including buyers premium, almost double the top estimate.

Souza LouisA Bonhams

Louis Armstrong by F.N.Souza

That was the second highest auction price ever recorded for this ostentatiously gay artist who was largely ignored till he had a retrospective at London’s Tate Modern gallery in 2016. His auction record of $1.1m was achieved at a Sotheby’s auction in London a year ago. Now it is rare to find a moderns auction that does not include his work as owners seek to benefit from his growing popularity. Sotheby’s had five of his works in its auction.

Another remarkable result was achieved by Bonham’s, which is rarely in the news, at a sale in London last month when an 11in x 8in ink on paper drawing of Louis Armstrong by F.N.Souza, one of the leading moderns, reached a record price of £125,000 or ($159,459) including premium. The auction produced sales totalling £3.15m, selling 52 out of 57 lots.

With these auctions, Saffronart has established itself as the market leader, beating Christie’s with total sales so far this year of $28.89m accounting for 28.55% of the market compared with Christie’s $26.63m (26.35%). AstaGuru comes next with $16.55m followed by Sotheby’s at $11.73m.

The cardinal rules for the Indian market have been reinforced with these results – find fresh works with the best pedigree (provenance is the correct word) in terms of ownership, and pitch them at estimates and reserve prices that do not deter bidders. Also choose the most practical location – New York with all its prestige can be matched or outclassed by Mumbai.

Posted by: John Elliott | December 3, 2018

Narendra Modi’s vote-winning power looks vulnerable

Exit polls suggest bigger Congress gains than expected


DECEMBER 7, 2018: Exit polls published today for assembly elections indicate that the Congress Party might be doing significantly better than had been expected.

The figures are averages calculated by the NDTV television news channel from exit polls conducted by a number of organisations, whose results varied very widely. The actual results will come on December 11 when votes are counted.

If correct, and that is far from guaranteed the figures mean that Narendra Modi’s influence, which I described in my blog below earlier this week, has not been as successful in swinging votes as had been thought possible. 

Congress’s strongest prospect is in Rajasthan, where it had been expected to do well unless Modi had managed personally to muster support for the BJP towards the end of the campaign .

The surprise is in Madhya Pradesh, a BJP stronghold, where the result looks evenly-balanced and far too close to call. The same applies to Chhattisgarh.

Not included in the chart above are Mizoram in the north-east, where the Congress looks like losing power to a regional party, while in Telangana, a state-level party seems set to hold on to power against a combine of the Congress and another regional party, the TDP.

State assembly polls set the tone for general election

‘Is 2019 election to be fought on terrain of faith vs ground reality?’

DECEMBER 3, 2018: Does Narendra Modi continue to have pulling power over a vast section of India’s 900m electorate? That is the big question in current assembly elections that are taking place in five states, led in importance by Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the BJP is in power. It will then be the central question in the general election due by April/May next year.

The states have their own local issues and there are many national problems, but individual reports I have heard and read from various parts of the country indicate that, for many, confidence in Modi over-rides such concerns and even dissatisfaction with state governments.

This would mean that Modi (below) does still have that pulling power, though probably not to the same extent as in 2014 when he became prime minister.

PM-Modi-in-NepalIf this is correct, the Bharatiya Janata Party could emerge from the current polls in a strong position to be re-elected nationally next year, the question then being how big a majority it could secure.

Opinion polls have been indicating a close result in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, but the position should become clearer when exit polls are published this coming Friday evening December 7 after voting ends. The count will take place on December 11.

Support for Modi would not mean that he is seen as the saviour in the way that he was in 2014, but that there is no other national leader who inspires trust among voters.

There is no sign that the opposition parties, which are now coming together for the general election, will coalesce around one politician. The leader of the Congress Party historically has had that role, or has at least been a “king maker”, but its president, Rahul Gandhi, does not have the experience or authority to do either.

Gandhi needs Congress to win in one of the states in order to build his credibility after a series of losses across the country, offset only by a marginal victory in Karnataka in May. His best chance is probably in Rajasthan where the BJP chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, is said to be unpopular, and where Congress seemed to be in to lead until a series of big Modi rallies last month.

Were it not for Modi’s dominant personality and image, Congress and other opposition parties should now notching up victories. The government has not met the targets, expectations and hopes that Modi flamboyantly set in 2014, partly because of a lack of improvements in the broad running of the economy. Promises of urgently needed new jobs have not materialised, and a raft of economic and social schemes ranging from the Make in India manufacturing campaign to Swachh Bharat (Clean India) have been far less successful than has been claimed.

In addition, there has been a serious decline in social cohesion and an acceleration of attacks on personal freedoms that are causing immense concern among urban-based opinion leaders, and more widely among Muslims and other minorities. These issues may not however turn out to be major vote-influencing factors among the vast mass of voters who have other priorities.


The BJP has been ramping up Hindu nationalist issues, which are currently focussed on the highly controversial proposed construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on the site of a Muslim mosque. Built on the site of one of the holiest temples, the mosque was demolished by Hindu demonstrators in 1992, which led to widespread riots..

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a hard line wing of the Sangh Parivar (family of organisation) that includes the BJP, has been pressuring the government to start the long-delayed construction before the election. That would provide a cause to rally the BJP’s Hindu nationalist cadres at election time, increasing communal tensions. A week ago there were mass demonstrations (above) at Ayodhya organised by the VHP and the Shiv Sena, a rival Maharashtra-based party.

Hindu nationalist causes

Amit Shah, the BJP’s hardline president and Modi’s closest ally, supports the Ayodhya cause, which is supposed to be on hold pending a supreme court ruling on how the site should be shared between Muslims and Hindus.

Indicating that Hindu nationalist causes will be ramped ahead of the general election, Shah has raised communal tension in recent months in West Bengal over the treatment of possibly illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh, and in Kerala over women being allowed, by a supreme court order that is opposed by Hindu traditionalists, into a famous temple at Sabarimala.

“Is the 2019 election going to be fought on the terrain of faith vs rationality – faith vs ground reality? How many jobs have been generated? Has the quality of school education improved?” a columnist asked rhetorically on The Wire news website recently.

758164-farmers-protest-mumbai-112618The economic failures were graphically demonstrated last week when tens of thousands of farmers marched through Delhi (left), Mumbai and Kolkatta protesting against the low prices they receive for their crops under government-controlled systems that push them into debt and suicide. The farmers were demanding better prices and wavers on bank loans. This is a potent issue in the states now having elections, but the government has done little to offset the problems.

Economic measures taken over the past two years are still having an effect on small firms, especially the demonetisation three years ago of 86% of bank notes that failed in its bid to curb black money and corruption. This was a Modi dream project, but has been implicitly criticised as a “massive, draconian, monetary shock” by Arvind Subramanian, then the government’s chief economic adviser, in a book being published this week. Neatly titled Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley economy, the book mocks demonetisation as “one of the unlikeliest economic experiments in modern Indian history”.

Contested figures

The government last week launched revised economic statistics that conveniently reduced the average growth figures for 2005 to 2012, when the Congress-led coalition government was in power, from a previously announced 7.75% to 6.82%, which is less than the 7.35% average since 2014. This inevitably led to accusations that the government was fixing the figures to win votes by playing down allegations that growth was hit by demonetisation and the introduction of a new general sales tax.

The government claims the figures are based on “internationally accepted standards”, but the Business Standard, India’s leading business newspaper, has this morning taken the extreme step of calling for them to be withdrawn because “the data does not align with that from the real economy — tax revenues, credit growth, trade performance, corporate sales and profits, or indeed the level of investment”. The growth figure for the last quarter dropped to 7.1% from a high of 8.2% earlier this year.

PTI10_26_2013_000158BIn the current elections, the key contests are in Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP has been in power for 15 years with the same chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The other states are Mizoram in the north-east India where Congress rules, and Telangana that used to be part of Andhra Pradesh where a regional party runs the government.

Madhya Pradesh, which is India’s second largest state with a population of 72m, is seen as the bell-weather for Modi. It would be remarkable for any party to win a state for a fourth consecutive term and a line is emerging in the media – presumably pushed by Modi’s staff – that he and Shah would put a positive spin on losing there and in Rajasthan.

Neither Chauhan nor Raje (photo with Modi above) are from the Modi-Shah hardline Hindu nationalist wing of the BJP, and Raje’s aloofness from Modi is widely known. Chauhan would gain stature if he won for a fourth time and could prove a challenge for influence inside the party, though he has confined himself to his state since Modi emerged as the party’s national leader.

If the BJP loses power in either, it will be blamed on Chauhan and Raje, and if Modi wins it will be billed as his victory. The current indications are that it will be Modi’s victory because voters still believe in him.

No longer seen as a “white war” or India’s “forgotten war”

Khadi poppies and marigolds commemorate sacrifice

Until four years ago, virtually nothing had been done in either Britain or India to recognise the sacrifice of more than 74,000 Indian troops who died fighting in World War One. Also ignored was the vital role played in almost all the theatres of the conflict – Europe, the Middle East and East Africa – by the total of more than 1.3m servicemen from what was then undivided India.

This was scarcely mentioned in 1964 on the 50th anniversary of what was dubbed a “white war”, later becoming known as “India’s Forgotten War”, even though the Victoria Cross (the Britain’s highest military award) was won by eleven Indian soldiers.

IMG_2456Change began in 2014 on the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. The contribution has now been fully recognised in events that have been taking place in London and India ahead of this Sunday’s 100th anniversary of the Armistice, which coincides with Britain’s annual Remembrance Sunday.

In the UK, red khadi poppies mark that change at the end of four years of events tracing the history of a terrible war. Some 40,000 khadi poppies have been distributed alongside the traditional British Legion paper poppy.

Khadi is the spun cotton cloth identified with Mahatma Gandhi, who not only led India’s independence movement, but in 1914 encouraged Indians in Britain to volunteer for service.

The poppies were launched in London’s Trafalgar Square last Sunday during annual Diwali festival celebrations that mark the triumph of good over evil.

TMay poppy IMG_2458Theresa May has said she would be interested in wearing a khadi poppy during the events, though she had a traditional poppy at the Cenotaph ceremony in London today.

In Delhi, Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a former army officer, yesterday presented leather-bound (and electronic) copies of war diaries to colonels of 26 Indian regiments that were involved. Today he attended a multi-faith ceremony of remembrance at the city’s war memorial – a contrast with the Christian orientation of most other events around the world.

The increased interest, even determination, in the UK and India to commemorate the contributions and sacrifice reflect changing attitudes over the years. In 1964, Britain had not moved on sufficiently from its colonial past to commemorate the contributions of its old territories, and India did not have the post-colonial self-confidence to assert its military history (it had been defeated two years earlier in a brief war with China).

India has also moved on from deep resentment, which would still have existed in 1964, that Britain did not acknowledge India’s contribution to the war effort by awarding it some form of autonomy, or at least the sort of dominion status of Australia and Canada.


During a march past of Indian troops, a woman pins flowers on to the tunic of one of the soldiers – Imperial War Museum archives

“Many Indians volunteered in the expectation that one good deed would lead to another, that Britain would end the colonial Raj,” Tugendhat said in Delhi, acknowledging the history. “When those hopes were dashed, India’s sacrifice in the war became an awkward and painful subject, which both countries preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, the generation who fought in the war grew old and died, taking their stories with them. And India’s immense contribution went largely unrecognised”.

Now India is asserting itself internationally as a growing economic force in contrast to the UK’s probable-post-Brexit future and declining military capability. With its Bharatiya Janata government, India also has a nationalistically proud party in power.

Those who volunteered were mostly desperately poor and uneducated. There were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and maybe other religions as well, but they were all fighting in a war that was seen by both sides as being blessed by Christ. An American Baptist leader, Samuel Batten, even called the war “a continuation of Christ’s sacrificial service for the redemption of the world,” as the Wall Street Journal has reported. German theologians endorsed a letter by prominent intellectuals that declared Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war policy a defensive necessity.

“The soldiers came from the length and breadth of undivided India, from the Punjab, Garhwal, the North West Frontier, Rajasthan and Nepal to Madras and Burma and represented different religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Most of the sepoys, flung into the greatest war of the century, were from peasant stock and hill tribes,” says Shrabani Basu, a journalist and author, in For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18.


Indian soldiers serving with the British Army, at camp during World War I, circa 1916 – Getty Images

Scarcely any would have previously travelled abroad, or even dreamt of ever leaving their home areas. When they arrived for battle, they had scant clothing for the cold climate and inadequate shoes. They were given weapons they had never used before, yet they were quickly sent into action and played a leading role in some key campaigns

“Less than four weeks after landing at Marseilles, the Indian troops were thrown into the First Battle of Ypres against the world’s best-equipped army,” says Basu. “They went into the trenches still in their cotton khakis, soon to face one of the harshest winters they had ever seen….They faced the first gas attacks totally unprepared and without any equipment”. The recruitment drive carried on through the four years of the war – as late as spring of 1918, 100,000 Indians were needed to fight in Turkey.

The motives of the volunteers varied. Some maybe had loyalty to the King Emperor, though not as many as a BBC presenter would have liked when a programme on the war was being recorded in Delhi in 2014. It became clear this was not an empire’s “patriotic army”, as one speaker put it.

For most, it would have been the attraction of wages in cash that could be sent home plus a uniform with tough shoes – and loyalty to their villages with forceful leadership by local headmen. The natural loyalty and bonding of a soldier with his regiment, plus the pride of going off to war and the respect that would be earned back in the villages, all contributed – though there were desertions and mutinies.


Indian infantry in France with an early version of gas masks

The launch of the khadi poppy was marked at an event hosted by the London School of Economics’ South Asia Centre where Lord Gadhia, a British peer of Indian origin, explained how the campaign had developed.

Noting the contribution made by the Indians to the war effort, Gadhia said that David Lloyd George, the war-time British prime minister, had written (in the last volume of his War Memoirs) that if the Indians had “stayed home, the world would have taken a different course”.

In India, the marigold – the traditional flower for celebrations and commemorations – has been selected by  the United Service Institution of India as a symbol of remembrance.

The British government has announced plans for three six-foot statues of soldiers to be erected at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to honour the sacrifices made by a total of over 3m Commonwealth soldiers, sailors, airmen and labour corps from the Caribbean, Australasia and Canada, along with what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who served in the war. That is in addition to various Commonwealth memorials, including one erected in 2002 on Constitution Hill near Buckingham Palace to the memory of soldiers from the  sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean who died in the two World Wars.

Basu records how enthusiasm was turning to despair by the first winter. “No one who has ever seen the war will forget it to their last day,” wrote one soldier. “Just like a turnip is cut into pieces, so a man is blown to bits by the explosion of a shell… All those who came with me have all ceased to exist… There is no knowing who will win. In taking a hundred yards of trench, it is like the destruction of the world.”

The tragedy is that while the Armistice commemorations have been in progress, there has been no armistice in the world’s current conflicts. On India and Pakistan’s Line of Control (de facto border) in Kashmir, an Indian soldier was killed by sniper fire yesterday and the day before an army porter was similarly shot.

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