Posted by: John Elliott | September 23, 2019

Trump and Modi bond to woo some 50,000 Indian Americans

“Howdy Modi” says Houston at joint jamboree with Trump

Hugs and walking hand in hand after Trump arrived late

Two of the world’s most powerful orator politicians bonded yesterday (Sept 22) to woo an audience of tens of thousands of Indian Americans for their support and votes.

Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, and the US president, Donald Trump, were greeted by an ecstatically cheering crowd at a rally in a massive Houston football stadium

Billed as “Howdy Modi! Shared Dreams, Bright Futures”, and with 50,000 people registered to attend, this was a remarkable performance by the two leaders. After Trump had spoken for 25 minutes and Modi for 50, the Indian prime minister led the American president hand in hand round the stadium acknowledging the cheers.

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They will meet more formally in the next few days for talks that will try to solve a serious trade dispute between their two countries. In June, the US cancelled India’s beneficial status under a trade preferences scheme. And yesterday, among the smiles and hugs, Trump warned that he was determined Indian people would have access to “products stamped with the beautiful phrase Made in the USA”.

Modi is used to such Indian diaspora events – he has appeared at ten around the world since he was elected in 2014, most memorably at the first in New York’s Madison Square Garden a few months after he became prime minister. A year later he was in London’s Wembley Stadium where David Cameron, then the prime minister, introduced him to a 60,000 audience.

IMG_6532But yesterday was the first time an American president had shared such a rally with another country’s leader. It was also the largest audience in the US for a foreign leader, beaten only by Pope Francis in 2015.

The programme did not however begin quite according to plan. After a 90-minute warm-up session of music and dance by 400 artists that was greeted with frenzied applause, Modi walked dramatically on stage, met leading politicians and made his opening remarks. But Trump was nowhere to be seen – he’d decided to spend 30 unscheduled minutes with local coast guards and holding a press conference.

All was well when he eventually arrived and made his speech. It was, he said, a “profoundly historic event”. Modi was “great man and a great leader”. He spelt out how he has improved job opportunities for Indian Americans and got loud applause and a standing ovation, with Modi and his officials taking part, when he pledged to rid the country of “radical Islamic terrorism”. There was also sustained applause for him to “protect America’s borders”.

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Times of India graphic

Modi spelt out his government’s economic and other policies. He summed them up (probably fairly) when he said, “Today, India is challenging those who believe nothing can change.”

For Trump, it was a way to connect with some of America’s four million people of Indian origin ahead of next year’s presidential election.

He showed them his closeness to Modi and displayed a connection with India that many regard as their home country.  According to a 2018 survey, Indian Americans were more disapproving of Trump’s presidency than the average Asian Americans. On several key policy issues, they identified with Democratic Party policies.

For Modi, it was chance to woo people who may have a vote back in India, and who have money to donate to the BJP. They can also influence families back home, saying how impressed they were when they heard Modi speak. Diasporas are usually more intensely patriotic than people in the home country, and this makes many of them natural BJP supporters, especially now that Modi is driving a nationalist agenda.

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a pre-event poster

Modi also gained internationally from appearing alongside Trump. He said that Trump had introduced him to his family “and today I have the honour to introduce you to my family — over a billion Indians and people of Indian heritage around the globe”.

Such closeness is specially significant at a time when there has been some international criticism of Kashmir being deprived of its special status, along with an extended massive security clampdown on the freedom of movement and communications.

Modi’s main problem at home is that economic growth rate has fallen to 5%, but he attempted to deal with that last week by cutting corporate tax rates from 35% to 25%, the lowest since India became independent 72 years ago. That enabled him to make a positive economic pitch at the rally.

Both leaders will have gained from yesterday’s performance that was timed to be watched by evening television viewers in India. It now remains to be seen how long Trump can sustain the mood and resist his characteristic tendency to send disruptive tweets.

Posted by: John Elliott | September 6, 2019

Modi first 100 days hit by sharply slowing economic growth

Mega publicity blitz on the 100 days’ achievements

Modi tops the polls as best ever prime minister 

Narendra Modi’s government is launching a mega publicity splurge this weekend to parade its achievements during the first 100 days since the general election in an attempt to draw peoples’ attention away from its failure to stimulate India’s declining economic growth.

It hopes to repeat the general election’s Modi magic where the prime minister successfully steered the electorate’s eyes away from a faltering economy and promoted himself as the chowkidar or guard who would protect peoples’ security.

The government’s lists of successes that will be announced at a press conference on Saturday (Sept 7), and in subsequent events in Delhi and across the country. They will burnish the image of the prime minister who has dominated the news headlines during the 100 days.

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Poll results published in India Today (and below)

Modi’s popularity is at a record high. A poll published in India Today magazine found that 71% of those surveyed endorsed him (left). He was also rated as India’s best-ever prime minister by 37% of respondents, far above his predecessors (below). Another poll published in The Economic Times gave him 64% backing.

Reports suggest that Modi will mark the 100 days at India’s ISRO space agency headquarters in Bengaluru where he will watch the Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission landing on the moon. That notable achievement will be notched up as a BJP success, though it is really the result of decades of scientific work that began under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’ first prime minister.

Top of the list of achievements promoted this weekend will be the ending of the Muslim’s triple talaq divorce procedure and the cancellation of special rights and privileges for Jammu and Kashmir under the constitution’s Article 370. Both these measures appeal to the Bharatiya Janata Government’s Hindu vote bank, as does the drawing up of a National Register of Citizens in Assam that has controversially – and inaccurately – named 1.9m people as illegal immigrants.

The crisis that Modi and his colleagues are trying to blur is that the economy is growing at its slowest rate since 2012-13 after eight years of Congress rule. GDP growth fell to 5% in the three months to the end of June, down from 5.8% in the previous quarter and 8% a year earlier. Manufacturing growth has dropped to 0.6% compared with 12% a year ago with the auto industry especially hard hit, agriculture has fallen to 2% from 5% last year, and unemployment is rising.

Modi and PMs IMG_6261Such figures contradict Modi’s claims in the election campaign that his government was producing the country’s best ever economic figures. The figures also cast serious doubt on his target for India to have a $5 trillion economy by 2024, up from $2.7 trillion currently that the government has been hoping would rise to $3 trillion by next March.

His popularity ratings however show that there is widespread faith in his supreme ability to solve the problems, plus recognition across rural India that government schemes such as those to build toilets, electrify villages, finance construction of homes, and supply gas cylinders are widely appreciated, even if many are incomplete and do not work well.

Modi’s approach as prime minister has always been to launch unrealisable targets and claim exaggerated achievements. That links with a suggestion early on in the last government by Arun Shourie, a former BJP minister and strong Modi critic, that the government “believes that managing the economy means ‘managing the headlines’“.

An hour or so before the 5% growth figures were announced on August 30, the government grabbed the headlines by announcing a plan to merge ten public sector banks into four businesses, which would reduce the total number to 12 compared with 27 in 2017 before the start of a programme of phased mergers.

This is seen as a worthwhile and long awaited development for the over-indebted and often politically influenced banks, giving them stronger balance sheets and greater willingness to provide loans that will stimulate the economy. But these positive results will not come quickly and the announcement did not carry much significance for the immediate economic growth problems.

Other measures have included rolling back announcements in the July Budget that threatened foreign capital flows and undermined investor confidence, and persuading the Reserve Bank of India to help with budgetary financing by breaking with convention and transferring $25bn from its balance sheet to the government’s treasury. Foreign direct investment rules have been relaxed for mining and retailing.

Russian President Putin and Indian Prime Minister Modi visit the shipbuilding plant "Zvezda" outside Vladivostok

Narendra Modi in Russia this week with Vladimir Putin

These and other initiatives will not overcome the lack of consumer demand, nor correct the damage done to India’s small and medium sized business by the last government’s demonetisation of bank notes and complex introduction of a good and services tax.

Private sector investment is at a 15-year low, with a lack of business confidence that is partly caused by fear of intrusive government officials and over-bearing tax enforcement.

Throughout the 100 days there have been examples of the government’s basic authoritarian approach and of repression.

Corruption charges are being pursued mainly against high profile Congress politicians, while alleged crimes involving the BJP are not being tackled by the investigation agencies. This indicates that, even though he has won an overwhelming election victory, Modi is determined to continue to destroy the Congress Party’s reputation. The most notable example is P.Chidambaram being sent to Delhi’s Tihar Jail on remand for alleged corruption involving regulatory clearances when he was finance minister.

On another level, the government is trying to reduce what it regards as dissident influence in educational institutions. This has been demonstrated in a small but significant way by the leading Jawaharlal Nehru University asking Romila Thapar, 93, one of India’s most respected and lucid historians, to produce her curriculum vitae to justify why she should remain a professor emeritus.

Kashmir repression

The greatest repression however is in Jammu and Kashmir since the government cancelled the state’s special status under section 370 of the constitution, reduced it to the status of a union territory partly administered from Delhi, and hived off Ladakh.

For most of the last month, there has been a communications blackout with no telecommunication or internet links. Many areas have been under curfews with movements of people severely restricted. More than 500 politicians, including heads of mainstream political parties such as Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah have been detained in hotels and other locations, separated from their families apart from rare visits in recent days.

The government claims the state is peaceful but there are countless reports of demonstrations with violent action by security forces (described here). There are shortages of food and medical supplies. In one area, “local boys used forceps to take pellets out their wounds, fearful that a trip to the hospital could land them in jail” said one report. “The J&K police have a network of men in the city hospital to keep an eye on every visitor.”

The restrictions are being slowly lifted though Amit Shah, the home minister in charge of the operations, said internet would remained closed for most of this month. There is now a risk of violent reactions with activists whipping up widespread street protests and clashes with the authorities.

There are also signs of criticism building up in the US Congress about the security clampdown. So far Pakistan, which claims Kashmir as its territory, has failed to garner much international support for its complaints.

The story of the first 100 days is therefore mixed. Parliament had a record session ending a month ago, passing 28 pieces of legislation, though the government was criticised for restricting the opportunity for scrutiny of  proposals.

The overall impression is that Modi is determined to maintain the momentum of initiatives, though he has yet to find a way to reverse the slowing growth rate.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 6, 2019

Constitutional coup ends Kashmir’s historic rights

Changes have some support across India but methods are suspect

Lack of consultation and heavy security invite unrest in the future

Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government yesterday (Aug 5) overturned 70 years of history and controversially changed the constitutional standing of India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, cancelling its status as a full state and ending special rights and privileges.

An initiative to map out a new future for the Himalayan state is long overdue, and the recent general election manifesto of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said the government would take action by cancelling the effects of the constitution’s Article 370. [Modi made a television address on the decision on Aug 8]

This move has considerable support in India including from some leaders and younger members of the Congress Party that declared its opposition.

But yesterday’s unexpectedly rapid-fire  events were widely condemned because they evaded constitutional requirements and were carried out in a manner that invites a hostile and violent reaction in Kashmir.

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Home minister Amit Shah entering parliament with his papers clearly showing his check list for action on Kashmir – Huffington Post

The Muslim-dominated state is on a security lockdown with top political leaders, including two former chief ministers with strong democratic records, under house arrest.

More than 35,000 extra troops have been rushed to the area in recent days and movement of people is restricted. In Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, schools are closed, some 20,000 Indian and foreign tourists have been evacuated, and internet and telecommunications are shut down.

Whether the move to cancel Kashmir’s special status will lead long term to improved economic development and job opportunities is arguable, but it is clear that the government has gambled with the region’s future stability. The prime minister’s last sudden gamble was his bank note demonetisation in November 2016 that turned into an economic disaster.

This is one of several measures rushed with minimum debate through an extended Budget session of the parliament following the sweeping general election victory won in May by Modi’s BJP. Others included controversially ending the triple talaq Muslim divorce procedure, which shows the government is tackling key items on its Hindu nationalist agenda. Pending items on that agenda include introducing an Indian Civil Code to remove individual religions’ statutory rights and rebuilding a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in northern India, all of which come under Amit Shah, the hardline Home Minister and BJP president who drove yesterday’s moves.

Once security is relaxed, there are likely to be widespread and probably violent demonstrations and clashes with army, paramilitary forces and the police in Kashmir, exacerbating a situation that has worsened since Modi came to power in 2014. There will also be the risk of increased cross-border terrorist attacks from neighbouring Pakistan, as happened earlier this year when an attack triggered cross-border air combat.

Jammu and Kashmir is especially sensitive because part of the state is claimed by Pakistan, and there have been reports in the past few days of increased military activity across the disputed border or line of control.

There were street protests in Pakistan yesterday against India’s move. The foreign ministry said it would “exercise all possible options to counter the [India’s] illegal steps”, indicating that it would try to whip up international opposition.

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35,000 security forces sent to the region

Adding to the sense of crisis, US president Donald Trump has twice offered in the past two weeks to mediate over the two nuclear powers’ border dispute, which Modi rejected in line with India’s traditional insistence that the differences can only be tackled bilaterally.

Trump is being urged to intervene by Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, who recently had constructive talks with the president in Washington. Khan wants the US to become involved in Kashmir as part of a pay off for Pakistan co-operating with America in achieving a peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The BJP’s recent general election manifesto said it would end Kashmir’s semi-autonomous special privileges contained in the constitution’s Article 370, along with Article 35A’s ban on non-Kashmiris buying property. Its 2014 manifesto said this would be done “after full consultation with all the stakeholders”, but that phrase was dropped for this year’s election. Nevertheless, it had been assumed that the government would not act quickly, and would make the change a gradual process.

There was therefore widespread surprise yesterday when both the 370 and 35A rights were cancelled in a series of moves that began with a cabinet meeting, followed by Amit Shah making a statement in parliament. President Ramnath Kovind then signed an order cancelling the Article 370 provisions, and Shah began to steer legislation through parliament that divides the state into two Union Territories.

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Kashmir’s most famous tourist spot – Dal Lake in Srinagar

It had been expected that the government would propose a constitutional amendment revoking 370, which would have needed a two-thirds parliamentary majority that could have been difficult to achieve. The government instead chose a simpler route, with the president issuing an order that cancelled the state’s special status, while leaving Article 370 in place.

This is allowed under the constitution providing the state government agrees. Modi avoided having to seek that (almost certainly unattainable) agreement by pulling the BJP out of the state’s coalition administration in June 2018 and putting the state under what is called governor’s (ie Delhi’s) rule. Since then there has been no government to give its agreement, so Modi and Shah arranged for the president to act unilaterally, leading to accusations that they have evaded constitutional requirements.

Shah’s legislation was passed by the Rajya Sabha (upper house) yesterday and by the Lok Sabha (lower house) today, after a long debate and political uproar. It ends Jammu and Kashmir’s status as a state with a fully democratic assembly, and divides it into two Union Territories (UT). The Jammu and Kashmir UT will have an elected assembly, but the national government will play a permanent and direct role, as it does in other Union Territories such as the capital of Delhi and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The BJP’s National Democratic Alliance coalition has a substantial majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and is only a few seats short of a simple majority in the Rajya Sabha (house of elders).

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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah

Some other parties supported it in the Rajya Sabha yesterday, which partly reflects a view across the country that ending the Article 370 measures and integrating Kashmir fully into the country is a good and long overdue move.

The 370 measure was intended to be temporary when it was introduced in 1950, and since then the state has been demanding increased autonomy. No government has tackled this issue, partly because of political inertia, but mainly because it would have been virtually impossible to do so without Pakistan wanting to be involved in the negotiations because of the disputed border.

The BJP has wanted to end the special treatment for years. Shah argued in parliament yesterday that benefits would include increased investment from elsewhere in India that has largely stayed away till now. Job opportunities would increase, education establishments would be developed, and doctors, other professionals and executives would be prepared to live in the state because they would be able to buy homes. He rejected fears that Kashmir’s culture and character would change, and added that Kashmiris would gain rights to information and education that have not existed in the state.

That may all be true, and there is no doubt that decisive government action has been needed for many years to break the policy logjam.

In their haste and determination to curb opposition however, Modi and Shah have unilaterally downgraded and fettered democratic institutions. They have done so by evading constitutional requirements and by putting the people and their leaders under crushing security restrictions.

That looks like a recipe for riots, violence and unrest, which Modi and Shah will seek to crush.

The criticism about yesterday’s events is therefore not so much about what the two politicians have done, but the way they have gone about it. The worry is about what other sudden unilateral power plays they are planning for the future.

Modi assumes credit but environmental protection has been cut

 Forest approvals waived for major railway projects

There’s rarely any good environmental news as storms and heat waves wreak havoc across the globe, but India has broken that trend with a big increase in its tiger population, reporting yesterday (July 29) that the total has risen by a third from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018.

This is significant because it means that India, which is home to 75% of the world’s wild tigers, is well on its way to meeting an international pledge to double the world’s tiger population by 2022.

As is usual in such a census, the 2,967 figure is an average of findings that ranged from 2,603 to 3,346. The 2,226 in 2014, and a 1,411 figure in 2006, were also averages, though the population may have been under-estimated in those years. Techniques have improved and the area covered has been enlarged in the latest census, and it is not clear how much that has contributed to the new total.

tiger_census_pm_modi_660_072919120846Always keen to claim credit for what is achieved, Narendra Modi, the prime minister, personally announced the figures (left) yesterday (July 29) and said India is “now one of the biggest and most secure habitats of the tiger”. He is also boosting his image by appearing in the Man vs Wild wilderness survival tv series, filmed in a tiger reserve.

His association with the figures however led some critics to question their validity, and his government has done little to improve the protection of the tiger and other wildlife such as elephants and leopards since it came to power in 2014.

Instead, it has done the opposite by whittling down the power of various environmental agencies and by easing the way for statutory environmental procedures to be avoided by infrastructure and other projects.

Two days ago it was reported that the environment ministry has exempted 13 railway projects costing Rs 19,400 crore ($2.8bn) spread over 800 hectares of land in four states from the process of seeking environmental forest permits. At least four of the projects will damage sensitive areas including a national park, a tiger reserve, a tiger corridor and wildlife sanctuaries.

So it is not all good news, as the savage beating to death of a tiger in Uttar Pradesh by angry villagers shouting  “maar, maar” (beat it, beat it) three days ago also showed.

Conflict

The tigress was apparently involved in attacks on humans and the incident graphically illustrated a growing problem of human-animal conflict as development eats into tiger country.

“Rural communities in India have always shared their space with large predators such as tigers & leopards with occasional conflict, but in recent times as India’s the population has increased massively, forests & other wildlife habitats have shrunk and become fragmented, so there is huge pressure on them from surrounding villages,” says Belinda Wright, founder director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

“When the government or large companies want to extract minerals, create a dam, lay a new railway line, canal or highway, it is almost invariably in wildlife habitat. It is no longer a case of animals sharing space, but rather how to survive. In many areas, there just are not enough prey species and water for the big cats to survive, so they increasingly prey on livestock.”

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HT file photo

The new survey covered a wider area of 380,000 sq kms (147,000 sq miles), 20,000 sq kms more than in 2014. There were a total of 15,000 camera traps, up from 9,700 in 2014, which photographed 83% of the tigers recorded.

Tigers’ unique stripe patterns were compared to avoid double-counting and this was combined with extensive on-ground information recording tracks and data sampling of prey species, vegetation and human involvement.

Yesterday’s is the biggest increase since the current method of combining camera traps with marking animals began in 2006. That replaced a more easily falsified and less accurate method of making plaster casts of tigers’ pug marks.

There is no doubt that the results are impressive, and there has been an increase in some state-level efforts to curb poaching. In some areas however the numbers have dropped. In Chhattisgarh they are down to 19 from 46 in 2014 and in other eastern states the record is also poor, often because of industrial encroachment

Poaching gangs curbed

In the large western state of Maharashtra, the tiger numbers have gone up from 190 to 312. Nitin Desai of WPSI, who is based in the state, says that there has been no instances of organised poaching by traditional gangs in central India since 2013, when the Maharashtra Forest Department carried out a big operation against organised poachers from the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, virtually putting an end to their reign.

That does not mean that tiger deaths have not happened, nor that parts of tigers killed in other ways, for example by trucks on highways and electrocution by low hanging cables, has not led to the animal parts and skins being sold.

Tigers are getting killed in large numbers – at least 60 this year – as are leopards. India lost at least 218 leopards over the first four months of 2019, more than 40% of the previous year’s death toll of 500.

The main message from yesterday’s news is that India has far more tigers than had been thought, despite the killings. That is good, though the government needs to release more detailed figures so that they can be analysed by experts.

The cause of tiger conservation however is not served by a prime minister who uses the news to make unjustified claims.

Modi said in his statement: “We have to create a healthy balance between sustainability and development. More roads and cleaner rivers, more homes for citizens and, at the same time, quality habitat for animals are necessary for a strong, inclusive India.”

No one can argue about that. The problem is that his government is not creating or protecting “quality habitat for animals”. If it was, it would not be exempting the railway projects mentioned above from environmental tests and regulations.

Finance Minister Sitharaman delivers Modi’s Budget

‘Behavioural economics’ not controversial reforms to get 8% growth

Narendra Modi has said he intends to build India into a $5 trillion economy by 2024. Today (July 5) his finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, delivered a Budget speech that picked up on that ambition and mapped out what she described as a “five-year target” and a “ten year vision” for a “new India”. Neither Sitharaman nor Modi has however explained how the necessary economic growth would be achieved or financed.

There were few policy surprises in the speech, which set an ambitious agenda for the Modi government’s second term following his Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide election victory last month. With the mention of a ten-year vision, it did however indicate that the government envisages being in power for at least a decade.

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Nirmala Sitharaman abandoned finance ministers’ tradition of carrying Budget papers in a dark red briefcase, saying it was “high time to move on from the British hangover.” She used a bahi khata or red cloth folder enclosed with a string and emblazoned with the national emblem.

There were also no signs that the prime minister intends to use his political strength to drive through controversial measures such as bank privatisation and labour law reforms that would encourage investment, but instead will adopt a gradualist approach aimed at nudging India into a new growth path.

This was indicated yesterday (July 4) in the finance ministry’s annual Economic Survey, which adopted “behavioural economics” to “nudge policies gently steer people towards desirable behaviour while preserving their liberty to choose”. The government, the survey added, was planning to go ahead with programmes to usher social change.

It was not therefore surprising that Sitharaman’s speech was thin on economics and financial strategy.  It contained none of the usual financial and monetary statistics on revenue, expenditure, deficits and  allocations, though some of these were announced in a pre-election interim budget on February 1. Various tax changes including higher rates for top earners.

The first hour of the speech listed old and new schemes that ranged from toilets-oriented Swachh Bharat, village electrification and building highways to expanding digitisation, reducing the use of cash, cleaning rivers and boosting space development. How these programmes would be achieved was not spelt out. There was a surprising lack of detailed focus on primary education and healthcare services that need urgent attention, though detailed figures showed a substantial increase in funding for health..

Sitharaman was slightly more cautious than Modi about the highly ambitious $5 trillion target, saying it was the aim for the “next few years”. The current level of $2.7 trillion would reach $3 trillion by next March.

Economists say it would take 11 or 12 years to achieve $5 trillion in real terms at the government’s target GDP growth rate of 8%, which has yet to be achieved. Growth dropped to a five-year low of 5.8% in the first three months of 2019 and the Economic Survey forecast 7% for the current financial year, noting that investment growth has bottomed out after years of decline.

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Nirmala Sitharaman presenting the Budget documents to President Ram Nath Kovind (centre), accompanied by top Ministry of Finance officials

The $5 trillion is more realistic if it is measured in nominal terms including inflation, but the survey warned that it could only be achieved with a sustained 8% figure, and with the private sector as well as public sector investment that “drives demand, creates capacity, increases labour productivity, introduces new technology, allows creative destruction, and generates jobs”. That investment has however been lacking, though the Budget indicated that it is relying on foreign direct and portfolio investment and overseas borrowings.

As part of a special focus on encouraging entrepreneurs, corporate tax is being cut to 25% for companies with revenue of up to Rs4bn, and tax benefits are to be provided for start-ups, whose fundraising will be exempted from tax department scrutiny. There was however no relief for the biggest companies, which might have triggered much needed investment, and industrialists voiced concern about a suggestion that the minimum public shareholding in listed companies would be raised from 25% to 35%, reducing the holdings of promoters.

The government plans to ease foreign direct investment (FDI) regulations in sectors such as aviation, insurance (including intermediaries) and media animation, while local sourcing norms will be relaxed for single-brand retail companies. Protectionism has been extended with customs import duties being raised on 36 items ranging from cashew nuts and fatty acids to stainless steel products and books, though the rates were reduced on some other items.

Mega-manufacturing

Foreign companies will be invited to bid to set up “mega-manufacturing plants” in advanced technology areas such as semi-conductors, the solar industry, computer servers and laptops. They would receive tax exemptions and other benefits that are also being planned for manufacturing electric vehicles, with buyers receiving tax concessions.

Disinvestment of stakes in public sector companies (maybe of more than 51%) and in banks is to continue, including Air India that failed to find a buyer last year. Public sector banks, which urgently need reform, are being propped up with Rs700bn of fresh capital. An unpopular measure was an increase on one rupee in taxes on petrol and diesel.

A wide-ranging plan for the railways includes corporatising factories, redeveloping 50 railway stations, and modernising signalling systems. Labour laws are to be streamlined into four standardised labour codes, which should reduce disputes, though this falls short of significant reform.

The fiscal deficit target has been lowered from 3.4% to 3.3% for the current financial year, which Sitharaman almost forgot to mention, announcing it after she had finished her formal speech. Economists are sceptical whether this can be achieved.

Sitharaman delivered her two-hour speech with aplomb, but it was a Modi Budget, or maybe a Modi-Shah Budget with input from Amit Shah, the powerful party president and Home Minister. Sitharaman became India’s first woman finance minister only three weeks ago, and her appointment astonished observers and analysts because of her record in the last government as commerce and industry minister and then defence minister.

Modi has led in some pre-Budget discussions that would traditionally have been run by the finance minister, and the major decisions will have been taken by his Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) working with top finance ministry officials.

He was criticised in 2014 for not seizing the advantage of being a newly elected prime minister to tackle controversial reforms. It was thought then that he felt he needed first to learn how the central government operates.

He now has no such excuse, yet he seems to prefer incremental change, nudging forward. It remains to be seen if he has learned how to implement the myriad of policies and schemes involved.

Khakhar’s ‘coming out’ gay painting doubles his record at £2.5m

Famous artists’ distinctive early works win good prices

Sotheby’s achieved a double first in London this week with an auction of 30 South Asian paintings that had never before been offered for public sale, and then sold an explicitly gay work by Bhupen Khakhar, one of India’s most controversial modern artists, for £2.54m ($3.2m), more than doubling the artist’s previous auction record.

Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Benares, Oil o n canvas, 1982, est. £450,000-600,000

Two Men in Benares (left) has caused a sensation since Khakhar painted it in 1982, choosing the Hindus’ sacred city, also called Varanasi, for the location.

It is so explicit, with two naked men embracing alongside village scenes, that there have been objections to its public display since it was first shown in Mumbai in 1986, when Khakhar used it to indicate that he was gay (in a country where that was, till last year, illegal).

The £2.54m (£2.1m hammer price plus buyer’s premium) was more than four times the top estimate. It was achieved after a long drawn out tense series of small-step bids, eventually with two determined buyers battling through the second million pounds (below). The winner is believed to be an American, possibly buying for a US museum. The runner-up, who fought back till the price topped £2m, is thought to be an Indian collector living in London.

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The auction, on June 10, totalled £5,489,875 (including buyer’s premium) and was the high spot of London’s South Asian art week. Sotheby’s had another general £1.97m sale, producing a total for the two auctions of £7.46m ($9.6m), far above the estimates of £4.1m-£5.8m).

On June 11 Christie’s annual London auction produced a total of  £5.88m, and a June 12-13 on-line auction by Mumbai-based Saffronart had total sales of $4.14m (Rs28.58 crores) – see below.

The Khakhar work formed part of a collection assembled, mostly directly from artists, by Guy and Helen Barbier, who visited India frequently from the US in the ten years from 1978 when he was setting up Arthur Anderson, then a leading accountancy firm. They became friendly with various artists including Khakhar, Ram Kumar, and two who are still painting in Delhi, Krishen Khanna and Rameshwar Broota.

Rameshwar Broota- Lot 20Helen Barbier, who was in London for the sale, said Khakhar’s Benares work was one of their favourites because it was a powerful spectacle of village life and humanity.

It was a time, she said, when artists were producing political and socially conscious works (more so than is usual now).

Two Broota paintings in the auction demonstrate this, both from the artist’s Ape series. They show, as one writer has put it, “a nation fighting internal demons and not ones from the outside”.

MF Hussain Lot 5

One of these works, Anatomy of that Old Story (above), almost quadrupled its estimate at £423,000 or $537,887 (£340,000 hammer price plus buyer’s premium).

The main strength of the collection is that it contained significant early works by famous names, done before the artists had settled into their better-known popular series.

There was an expressive painting, Marathi Women (above) by M.F.Husain that sold for a hammer price of £350,000, almost five times the estimate.

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Townscapes, and an intimate painting of a couple, by Ram Kumar contrasted with his focus in later years on numerous landscape-based abstracts.

The Christie’s sale also benefited from offering early works, notably a cityscape (left) painted by S.H.Raza in 1952, long before he produced his usual bright squares, circles and triangles.

This gouache and ink on paper went for a hammer price of £450,000, more than double the top estimate of £200,000 and the second highest ever auction price paid for a South Asian work on paper. A Raza oil on canvas of a reddish church and landscape did similarly well.

These works were a refreshing change at the auctions that are usually dominated by the later works of the Progressives that led the Christie’s and Saffronart sales.

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Christie’s had a Tyeb Mehta work, Falling Figure with Bird (right),  on their auction catalogue cover. Sotheby’s put on its cover an equally predictable but important F.N.Souza, which is untitled but known as Susanna and the Elders (below).  Souza described it as a “probable masterpiece” .

Both paid off. The Tyeb topped Christie’s sale at a hammer price of £1.4m, lower than the bottom £1.5m forecast. Sotheby’s Souza went for a hammer price of £980,000, beating a £800,000 top estimate.

The Saffronart auction was led by an early work by V.S.Gaitonde that sold for $1.38m, nearly doubling the mid-estimate. A Souza at $660,000 more than doubled the mid estimate.

Both were early works acquired direct by the owners from the artists and were being offered at auction for the first time. Souza gifted his brightly coloured townscape to a paints company that later became Winsor & Newton (now owned by Colart) – it is assumed the company did not charge him for the paints.

India art buyers are generally cautious and lack the imagination to stray far from these known names. The Barbier collection shows that the focus could be wider.

FN Souza- Susanna and the Elders

Posted by: John Elliott | May 31, 2019

Home minister Amit Shah tops India’s government with Modi

Former foreign secretary Jaishankar strengthens international role

Sitharaman a surprise finance minister as economy worsens

Education minister has said there were nuke tests 100,000 years ago

After an apparent hiatus that delayed the announcement of India’s cabinet for more than 12 hours, the names of Narendra Modi’s new government appeared at midday today (May 31), confirming what was already evident – that this is now a Modi-Shah government with Amit Shah, who till now had been the tough Bharatiya Janata Party president, sharing the limelight with Narendra Modi and becoming home minister.

Modi and his team were sworn in yesterday (May 30) in the grounds of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The crowd was so large – reportedly some 8,000 people – that it is tempting to suspect he was trying to replicate the swearing of a US president, where Donald Trump fared badly two years ago because of large gaps in the crowd.

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crowds at the swearing in ceremony with Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president’s palace, in the background

The soundest appointment announced today was S. (Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar, 64, as minister for external affairs. A former foreign secretary and ambassador to the US under Modi (and earlier to China), Jaishankar is a strong advocate of Modi’s foreign policies. They have a matching vision of India’s role as a strong nation with key big-power bilateral relationships.

He will want to strengthen the country’s regional presence, and also sharpen the delivery and effectiveness of Indian diplomacy around the world. He has worked at the Tata group as an international ambassador for the past year, but there was always a strong possibility he would return to be with Modi after the election.

Top 4

The potentially most controversial appointment is Shah, 54, as minister for home affairs. A hardline Hindu nationalist, he has been outspoken on the need to take a tough line on matters such as illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar and a pending citizenship bill that is directed against Muslims. He is also likely to regard Kashmir as a problem to be dealt with by strong army and security operations, rather than a more collaborative approach, and will have control over the country’s paramilitary security forces.

Together, Shah and Jaishankar will strengthen the policy and strategic advice that Modi receives on key security and foreign affairs issues such as Pakistan and China, where Ajit Doval, a former spy chief has held tactical sway as Modi’s national security advisor in the prime minister’s office (PMO) since 2014.

The potentially weakest appointment is that of Nirmala Sitharaman, 59, who unexpectedly becomes minister for finance and corporate affairs, just as the seriousness of the country’s economic problems is becoming evident.

GDP figures released today confirm earlier disputed figures. In the three months to March the economy grew by only 5.8.%, down from around 6.5%,. The annual figure to end-March dropped from 7.2% in 2017-18 to 6.8%, the slowest for five years. New unemployment figures for what is known as the formal sector are at a 45-year record high of 6.1%. Agricultural growth is down at 2.9% from 5%.

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Narendra Modi, taking the oath

These figures confirm the government’s failure to boost growth and tackle a growing job shortage, points that Modi, Jaitley and others were unwilling to acknowledge during the election campaign.

Help for farmers was announced along with other measures this evening at the new cabinet’s first meeting. Sitharaman’s primary focus is on the budget speech that she will deliver on July 5.

She has been mentored for years by Arun Jaitley, the outgoing finance minister, who told Modi this week that he could not take a government post because of serious ill health. She did not shine as minister of state in charge of the commerce and industry ministry from 2014, nor did she make sufficient early moves when she became defence minister 20 months ago.

Sitharaman will not however be totally in charge. As happened when Jaitley had the job, there is a strong nexus between top finance ministry officials and the PMO, which keeps a tight grip on all policies. Jaitley will also, presumably, continue his mentor’s role. She is only the second woman finance minister, the first being Indira Gandhi when she was prime minister 50 years ago.

Amit Shah was strongly rumoured by usually reliable media outlets just a few hours before the swearing in to be taking the finance ministry post. With previous experience as a stockbroker and as minister for finance (and many other areas) in Gujarat when Modi was the chief minister, he would have brought a sharp focussed mind to the job.

Whether the switch from Shah to Sitharaman, maybe linked with other changes, caused the more than 12-hour delay in announcing the cabinet is not yet clear.

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Pratap Chandra Sarangi takes the oath

The minister who understandably expected to get the finance job was Piyush Goyal, who became temporary finance minister when Jaitley was seriously ill last August and again earlier this year when he presented the government’s interim budget. He was an effective power and coal minister early in the last government and then took charge of railways. He now adds the key role of commerce and industry ministry, succeeding Suresh Prabhu who has not been given a ministerial post.

Prabhu was also the aviation minister during last year’s bungled attempt to privatise Air India. His number two, who has also been dropped, was Jayant Sinha, a former banker who was a successful minister of state at finance before he moved to aviation. Sinha’s career was possibly blighted by his father, former BJP finance minister Yashwant Sinha, being one of Modi’s most vocal critics among veteran politicians.

The job of trying again to privatise Air India has gone to Hardeep Singh Puri, a former top diplomat who became a Rajya Sabha MP and has been minister of state in charge of housing and urban affairs. His minister of state role has now been extended to take charge of aviation, even though he failed to win Amritsar for the BJP in the election.

Among other appointments, Rajnath Singh, who was home minister, has been moved to defence. Nitin Gadkari has added the important job-creating ministry of small and medium enterprises to his highways and transport portfolio. Former tv star Smriti Irani, who hit the headlines by winning Rahul Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency of Amethi in the election, has been given responsibility for women and child development in addition to textiles.

Nuke tests 100,000 years ago

Perhaps inevitably in a Hindu nationalist cabinet there were questionable ministerial candidates.

One was Pratap Chandra Sarangi (above) from Odisha (Orissa), who hit the popular headlines as he emerged from his bamboo hut where he lives to go to Delhi. He is also remembered as head of  the Bajrang Dal, a hardline rightwing group linked to the BJP, when a Hindu mob brutally killed Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in 1999.

Then there was Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, appointed minister of human resource development in charge of education. Referring to an ancient Hindu sage, he said in 2014, “We speak about nuclear science today. But Sage Kanad conducted nuclear test one lakh [100,000] years ago.”

Someone is ‘delusional’

Perhaps the most telling event of the day was the treatment by Amit Shah of Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) state-based party is in the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance. It won 16 seats in the election and the BJP won 17, so Kumar thought his party shold have the “proportional representation” of two ministers in the cabinet.

Indicating the government has lost none of its arrogance with allies, Shah told him there could only be one as a “symbolic representation”, which he declined.

Kumar had the last word with a sharp dig at Modi’s campaign grandstanding: “No one should have any confusion that it’s a victory of the people of Bihar. If somebody is claiming that this is his personal victory, then they are delusional.”

The Congress Party should let him go and find a non-Gandhi leader

India needs a coherent secular voice to challenge Hindu nationalism

Rahul Gandhi has opened the door to a logical extension of Narendra Modi’s revamping of the Indian political scene, and his Congress Party should have the guts to let him have his way.

He offered a near-revolution when he resigned from being president of the Congress Party on May 25 – and reportedly said he meant it. This would be an urgently needed sequel to the political revolution that Modi has wrought over the past five or six years, culminating in the Bharatiya Jana Party’s landslide general election victory last week.

Rahul’s move would not just trigger the end of Congress’s out-dated and increasingly ineffectual dynastic rule under his family’s leadership, but could also lead to growing unity among secular parties that do not subscribe to the right wing Hindu nationalism of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

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Rahul Gandhi, his mother Sonia, and former prime minister Manmohan Singh at the May 25th Congress leaders’ meeting

Currently that secular unity is spasmodic, and there is also no coherent leftist and liberal voice in Indian politics at a national level with the demise of centrist-left Congress and the collapse of the Communist parties in West Bengal (which now hold sway only in Kerala).

Regionally-powerful state-based parties that make up most of the opposition are more based on caste and other local interests than political ideologies. They do however mostly oppose extreme Hindu nationalism and are likely to be more willing to join non-BJP coalitions if Congress had experienced and decisive leadership and if they did not have to doff their caps to the Gandhis.

Both Modi’s victory and Gandhi’s resignation stem from dramatic economic and social changes that have swept across India over the past three decades. Rule by the old Delhi-based elite, which relied for its strength and survival on the dynasty, is no longer viable or wanted by a population where 65% are under the age of 35, with 170m first-timers on the 900m electoral role last week.

When the votes were being counted five years ago and it was clear that Modi would become prime minister, I wrote on this blog: “Virtually everything to do with government will now change, not just ministers and policies but how the people at the top react to events and even the language they speak – many of leading politicians, including Modi, prefer to use Hindi. Modi will bring in top bureaucrats from his home state of Gujarat and elsewhere and little known politicians will have important ministries. For business, as in other areas, a new era is about to begin, with new relationships and ways of working.”

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Rahul Gandhi hugging Narendra Modi in parliament, July 2018, after saying he would “take out this hatred out of you and turn it into love.”

I had not then foreseen how far those changes would stretch out from Delhi. They encompass virtually the whole country and have embraced a new generation that, it seems from last week’s result, buys into the Modi doctrine because, however flawed, it offers the prospects of prosperity and a strong and secure India that inspires patriotism.

Congress does not know how to generate that response. It continues to talk in the pre-1991 (the year of the big economic reforms) jargon of protecting the poor instead of enabling them to meet their aspirations. Rahul Gandhi does not seem to understand the needs of business, nor how to combine that with sound social policies such as right to information legislation introduced by the last Congress government.

It is therefore time for a change at the top of Congress. In India, they are mercilessly mocked by Modi and his supporters for clinging to power.

Internationally (not that this matters too much) the survival of the (semi-Italian) Gandhis is seen as unbelievable and even ludicrous. Rahul Gandhi has not corrected that impression with his international tours, even though last November I wrote that in London he was showing signs of getting his act together.

I sensed that he had a new sense of purpose that stemmed from a passion to drive Modi out of office. Last week, he failed to do that after a series of mis-steps that ranged from not forging alliances with regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi to continually condemning Modi instead of offering a constructive alternative.

Rahul Priyanka

Rahul Gandhi arrives at the May 25 meeting with his sister Priyanka

Gandhi has always been a reluctant leader. He entered active politics in 2004 but failed to focus.

He refused ministerial posts in the last Congress government, and resisted taking over the Congress presidency from his mother Sonia until the end of 2017.

Having only been in the job for 17 months, he arguably, should not be running away so quickly, but the need for a change negates that line – and he said he would remain active as a party worker.

He should however have handled his resignation more openly on May 17. He announced it in a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), which inevitably rejected it because other senior leaders do not want to risk losing their positions under someone new.

He then reiterated that he meant it and reportedly also said “don’t drag my sister into it” when Priyanka Gandhi’s name came up as a replacement. (Her appointment to the higher ranks of the Congress leadership during the election campaign had underlined the family’s grip on power.)

But he failed to appear at a media conference where his resignation was announced by officials. That inevitably gives rise to the thought that his resignation was born more out of frustration with the election result and out of anger than determination. He reportedly voiced his anger at the CWC meeting, complaining that his line had not been followed on a variety of issues including attacks on Modi and his opposition to sons of politicians being made candidates.

The meeting fell back on the ineffectual formula it adopted in 2014 that the whole party organisation should be revamped. This did not happen, but it should now, with Gandhi making way for a successor who should be chosen by secret ballot to avoid sycophancy.

The CWC is expected to discuss what to do later this week. It will also have to tackle increasing uncertainty in the party with at least three state-level party leaders offering to resign.

Whether Congress would survive as it is, or split as many have feared it would do without a Gandhi at the top, would remain to be seen.

But both Congress and the country need the change.

Congress routed as Modi uses hope and nationalism to win the youth

Rahul Gandhi loses Amethi and sister Priyanka has little impact

Narendra Modi won a massive general election victory yesterday that returns him for a second term as India’s prime minister and gives him a fresh chance to show that he has the executive ability to push through urgent changes in India’s economic development while also reining in the divisive aspects of his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has defied almost all forecasts by winning 303 seats in the Lok Sabha, up from 282 in 2014 [figures updated May 25]. This has boosted its share of the vote from 33% to 37.4% (more than 50% in the Hindi heartland states) and has increased its clear majority. Its coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has won a total of 353 seats with 45.5% of the vote, underlining Modi’s powerful parliamentary position.

Modi will be sworn in, and the new government will be formed, on May 30, with fresh faces expected in senior ministerial positions. This will be quickly followed by a series of new policy announcements in a 100-day action plan covering the economy, industry, education, health and other areas. Modi was criticised for not doing this when he became prime minister five years ago.

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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah arrive for the victory rally at BJP headquarters

Addressing a victory rally in Delhi last evening, Modi struck a moderate nationalist tone saying, “If someone has won, it’s Hindustan that has won, it is democracy that has won, it is public that has won.”

The victory raises questions of how far Modi and Amit Shah, his chief ally and the BJP president, will drive their authoritarian Hindu nationalist agenda which, in the past five years, has weakened institutions, made many Muslims fear for their safety, and led to restrictions on personal and media freedom. There are specific fears about constitutional changes in Kashmir and the treatment of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh.

Modi countered these fears yesterday when he said that the BJP was committed to the constitution and to federalism. “The spirit of our democracy and constitution gives us the responsibility to run country by taking everyone along,” he declared.

The result is devastating for the Gandhi dynasty and its Congress Party, which increased its seats by just eight from 44 to 52, far short of the minimum 100 that it had been hoping for and not enough to be automatically named the opposition party in parliament. Its United Progress Alliance (UPA) has won only 91 seats with 27.1% of the vote, bolstered in southern India by the DMK in Tamil Nadu, winning 23 seats, and Congress defeating its traditional Communist rival in Kerala.

Rahul Gandhi has lost his seat in the family’s traditional Uttar Pradesh (UP) constituency of Amethi to Smriti Irani, a formidable television star-turned-politician, though he won in Kerala where he was also a candidate. The only Congress victory in UP, which has 80 seats and was once the party’s stronghold, was won by Sonia, Rahul’s mother.

His charismatic sister, Priyanka, who was expected to rescue the party by boosting votes, having formally entered politics for the first time, had no visible impact. She appeared to be successful at electioneering but failed to turn this into votes.

Congress’s defeat is unlikely to change the Gandhi’s dynastic role at the top of the party because there is no potential leader with the nerve to challenge Rahul or the ability to lead – the family holds the party together but also prevents it moving forward. [On May 25, Rahul Gandhi offered his resignation, which the party leaders rejected, but Gandhi was reported to be insisting he would step down].

Congress candidates were roundly defeated in the three states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that the party won in state assembly elections last November. It has also lost badly in Karnataka where it is in power. The BJP can now be expected to try to unseat the Congress governments in these states. It will also build on a powerful position it has achieved in West Bengal in advance of the state’s assembly elections in 2021.

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Rahul Gandhi acknowledges the BJP victory and concedes his seat loss in Amethi

Modi has proved himself to be a savvy as well as a powerful politician.

The victory is primarily due to that and to the organisational abilities of Amit Shah, who has been elected as an MP for the first time and will now play a bigger role in the direction of the government, either as a minister or from the party headquarters. He is 14 years younger than Modi, who is 69 in September, and will be seen as Modi’s heir apparent, or maybe even eventually his rival.

In counts for state assembly elections that took place alongside the general election, the BJP has had less success. It has been defeated heavily in Odisha by the state-based Biju Janata Dal (BJD) winning 112 seats against its 23 and Congress’s 10. This will be the BJD’s fifth consecutive term in power under its chief minister Naveen Patnaik.

The BJP has lost  three seats and won none in Andhra Pradesh, where Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, the son of a former controversial chief minister, led his relatively new YSR Congress to an unexpectedly large victory. YSR has won 152 seats against 22 secured by the Telegu Desam Party (TDP), headed by Chandrababu Naidu, a veteran politician and the outgoing chief minister. In the north-east of India, the BJP is winning overwhelmingly in Arunachal Pradesh, but failed to secure seats in Sikkim.

There will be many debates about how Modi has managed to achieve almost nationwide personal support after being widely criticised for leading a divisive government and for failing to provide jobs and address other economic issues. Maybe referring indirectly to his disastrous demonetisation of bank notes in 2016, Modi said today that he may “have made mistakes”, but he did “not do things with bad intentions”.

He has also been criticised for conducting a brutally scare-mongering election campaign that demonised Pakistan and used a terrorist attack, and India’s military response, to galvanise patriotism that fed into the BJP’s Hindu nationalism.

Pavan Varma, a former senior diplomat and now a prominent politician belonging to a BJP ally, explained on a television discussion last evening how this approach appealed. He said that Modi understood the aspirations of India’s youth, with 65% of the population under 35. The youth, he said, “identify with Modi’s nationalism” because they wanted prosperity and “a country of which they could be proud”.

Rahul Gandhi, though some 20 years younger than Modi, has failed to understand this and has therefore not been able to galvanise the young with his softer all-inclusive non-nationalistic approach.

When he was elected five years ago, Modi said he wanted ten years to implement change. He has now won his second five years and has a big enough parliamentary majority to build what he described today as the “New India”.

This is something that many people fear will end tolerant secular traditions, but voters have nevertheless given it their support. It is now for Modi to show that what he plans is good for the country.

The new “Modi” edition of my book, IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality”, analyses the record of Modi’s past five years. It is available in Indian bookshops and here – Amazon India https://amzn.to/2HldJQ3 . Amazon US  https://amzn.to/2CmQwZE  Amazon UK https://amzn.to/2FinQTm

India awaits another shake-up as exit polls suggest another Modi win

Modi sidesteps election rules with media-blitz visit to sacred shrine

As we wait for Thursday’s likely confirmation of yesterday’s exit poll forecasts that Narendra Modi has been re-elected for anther five years at the head of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government, an excerpt from the new “Modi” edition of my book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality has been run on the Scroll.in news website.

It is timely because it reminds us how Modi came in with hope, and as a great shock to the Delhi establishment. Soon the hopes came undone as he failed to rein in excesses of his rabidly anti-Muslim colleagues and as other aspects of Hindu nationalism became clear.

narendra-modi cave

On the eve of yesterday’s final voting in the current election, Narendra Modi astonishingly obtained the (tame) Election Commission’s approval to sidestep the no-campaigning rule with a media-blitzed visit to the sacred Kedarnath shrine where he visited the temple, meditated in a cave (above) and then talked to the media (other photos below)

At the end, I ask whether the Achhe Din (good life) achievements of the Modi government in the following years have been sufficient to justify the changing political and social landscape. Many people would say they do not, but it seems India’s voters disagree – and the country now waits to see how much of a shock his re-election will be, assuming the exit polls are correct.

Here’s the excerpt:

“Delhi was in for its biggest shakeup for decades. Virtually everything to do with government was about to change, not just ministers and policies but also how the people at the top reacted to events, who they associated with, and even the language they spoke – many leading politicians, including [Narendra] Modi, preferred (or felt bound) to speak Hindi.

As a journalist in London, I had seen and reported wholesale changes and the shock in the outgoing leftist establishment when Margaret Thatcher demolished the ruling Labour government and led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979. Thatcher brought in a totally new style, not just new policies and decision-making priorities but a new political environment.

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Modi was as driven as Thatcher and his arrival was quite different from what had happened when Vajpayee became the BJP prime minister in 1998, as Tavleen Singh, a newspaper columnist, has explained: “The courtiers simply moved to his court and then back to the court of Sonia Gandhi when he lost the election in 2004.” Modi brought in top bureaucrats from his home state of Gujarat, and little-known politicians were given important ministries. The long-established elite of India’s capital lost much of the clout and closeness to the centres of power that they had enjoyed during the Congress and Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s decades in power.

It was no use liberal Congress sympathisers and foreign observers complaining, as they had been doing for months, about a politician with Modi’s questionable history and RSS membership becoming prime minister.

A large man proud of his 56’ chest, and with a carefully trimmed white beard, this was a personal victory. Modi had run a presidential style campaign that projected his oratory and charisma. It was a personal victory, but the vote was not mostly for the divisive Hindu-centric and anti-Muslim approach of BJP hardliners and the RSS that would emerge.

PM_Modi_630_630 mediaModi was elected primarily by aspirational young voters who wanted a prime minister who would end the years of failure, obfuscation and corruption, and the gradual imploding of institutions, organisations and procedures… Modi had created the impression that he alone among all of India’s politicians could introduce and implement what the country needed. How well – or badly – he has met expectations is examined in a new last chapter added in this edition.

During the election campaign, Modi capitalised on his poor low-caste background, as he has done repeatedly since then. When he was a boy, he ran a tea stall at a bus terminus in Gujarat until he joined the RSS in his teens. This was a striking personal pitch, although his origins were no more poor or hopeless than those of Manmohan Singh, who was born in a rural village in a part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan. The difference was that Modi clambered up the rough political ladder of the RSS and BJP, while Singh moved into the rarefied economists’ intellectual and international world of Oxbridge universities, the finance ministry, Reserve Bank of India and the Planning Commission.

Modi said just after the election that, although he had been elected for a five-year term, he needed ten years to transform the country.

At face value, that meant ten years building up economic growth, development and jobs, but it rapidly became clear that it also meant embedding Hindu nationalism and building the RSS’s vision of a strong Hindu India to the detriment of Muslims.

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Modi first showed this early in December 2014 when he failed to reprimand Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a controversial new woman minister, who implied at a political rally that non-Hindus (ie, Muslims) were illegitimate, saying, “Aapko tay karna hai ki Dilli mein sarkar Ramzadon ki banegi ya haramzadon ki. Yeh aapka faisla hai” (“You have to decide if you want a government peopled by the children of Ram or one full of bastards”).

An MP from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has some of the worst Hindu-Muslim conflict, she had made similar remarks earlier, but eventually apologised. Modi dismissed opposition parties’ demands for her resignation.

Another BJP MP praised the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, the Independence leader who is regarded as the father of the nation, as a “patriot”.

Najma Heptulla, the minority affairs minister, said that all Indians were Hindus, and quickly explained she had been speaking “not in relation to the [Hindu] religion but in relation to identity as nationality.” There were mass conversions of Christians and others to Hinduism, and a government minister turned 25 December, the traditional Christmas religious and public holiday, into a working day for many bureaucrats.

The health minister voiced concerns about advocating condoms to counter HIV-AIDS and preferred “promoting the integrity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife” which, he said, was “part of our culture”. He went on to attack liberal values by saying that adolescent sex education should be banned in schools.

Mythology as medical fact

Modi’s and his colleagues’ deep roots in the culture were illustrated when, voicing widely recognised mythology as medical fact, he told an audience of doctors and scientists five months after the election that plastic surgery and genetic science were used thousands of years ago in ancient India. That, he said, was how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body, and how the warrior Karna was born outside his mother’s womb.

The theme of Modi’s speech, at the dedication ceremony of a hospital in Mumbai sponsored by the Mukesh Ambani family of the Reliance Industries group, was that India needed to improve its (grossly inadequate) healthcare facilities. He went on to quote the ancient Mahabharat epic and said that “big contributions” of ancestors in such areas needed to be reiterated.

“We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in Mahabharat. If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharat says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb,” he said. “We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

This went much further than extolling India’s widely recognised achievements in pioneering alternative ancient herb and plant-based medicines such as Ayurveda. It surprised people because the prime minister did not acknowledge that such mythology lacked western-style proof.

Schools in Gujarat were given textbooks that claimed cars were invented in ancient India. At the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai in 2015, which was inaugurated by Modi, a speaker said the world’s first aircraft was invented with 40 small engines by Maharishi Bharadwaj, a revered Hindu sage in ancient India.

Modi and many in the RSS presented such claims to resurrect past Hindu glories, implicitly discrediting secular liberals. A primary aim is to support the drive for Hindutva by establishing that Hindus were the original inhabitants of what is now India. Speaking at the event, Prakash Javadekar, who was then the environment minister, tried to bridge the credibility gap by saying that ancient Indian science was based ‘on minute understanding of observations of centuries and based on experience and logic’. He added, ‘that wisdom must be recognised’ and ‘has a relevance today’.

In the years that followed, these themes continued and the negative side of the BJP rule became evident in more threatening ways – described in the new last chapter. There was crude gang enforcement, with lynchings and killings, of bans on cow-slaughter and beef-eating, and objections to Muslim-Hindu liaisons.

There were restrictions on freedom of expression and growing efforts to control of the media, with the government and the party acting in unison on Hindutva.

The “idea of India” choice was becoming clear – would the Achhe Din achievements of the Modi government in the following years be sufficient to justify the changing political and social landscape?”

This new “Modi” edition of IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality” analysing the outgoing government’s record is available in Indian bookshops and here – Amazon India https://amzn.to/2HldJQ3 . Amazon US  https://amzn.to/2CmQwZE  Amazon UK https://amzn.to/2FinQTm

 

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