Posted by: John Elliott | April 14, 2018

India to take on more Commonwealth responsibilities

Modi has official visit to UK and then attends CHOGM

Role of Prince Charles a key question for summit “retreat”

LONDON: India is set gradually to increase its involvement in the affairs of the Commonwealth. This will emerge next week in London at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where prime minister Narendra Modi will play a prominent role, having first had a short official visit to the UK.

The Commonwealth of Nations, as the former British Commonwealth is known, is at a crossroads. Britain, which is the host next week to 53 member countries and will be the leader till the next summit in 2020, has been working for the past year to try to turn it into a more constructively useful international organisation.

CharlesModi baton

An exaggerated view of the Commonwealth’s future leadership, with Prince Charles passing the baton to Narendra Modi, which appeared in a UK magazine run by Manoj Ladwa, a proponent of India taking on a major role and hosting a business hub

It has been urging India, which is by far the largest member country with 55% of the Commonwealth’s 2.3bn population and 26% of its internal trade, to become more active, with a long-term possibility of playing a leading role.

There has been a continuing debate in Delhi about how much it wants to respond to the UK requests, including whether it should host a trade and investment sub-headquarters or hub.

The conclusion appears to be that it will increase the work that it has been doing, but that the idea of a business hub did not gain sufficient traction either in Delhi or among other members of the Commonwealth. It is likely that this and other similar ideas will be considered again in 2020.

The arrangements for next week’s summit do however provide Modi with a special role, and it will be the first time an Indian prime minister has attended since 2009.

During his official bilateral visit on April 18, Modi will meet Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles (with whom he developed a good relationship in Delhi last November) and Theresa May, the prime minister (who had a difficult visit to India in November 2016). He is expected to renew an agreement that expired in 2014 on the return of illegal immigrants from the UK, and his engagements will include a visit to London’s Science Museum and signing of high tech pacts.

Modi will also have a televised event with about 2,000 UK-based Indians. This will be more low-key than his 60,000-people spectacular at Wembley Stadium on his last visit to London in November 2015.

Prior to the UK, Modi will visit Sweden for a day and attend an inaugural five-country India-Nordic summit.

Draft communique

It is not yet clear what will emerge in the final CHOGM communiqué, which is currently in draft form, about how far the Commonwealth should go ahead with what is officially called “reform and renewal” of its organisation and functions. This will probably not be resolved till April 20, when presidents and prime ministers go to a “retreat” at Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s homes outside London.

The informal talks on that day will probably also include whether and when Prince Charles should inherit the Queen’s (personal, not constitutional) position as head of the Commonwealth.

CHOGM LogoCHOGM starts in London the day before the retreat with structured formal meetings on four broad-based subjects – prosperity, security, fairness and sustainability – under the overall theme of Towards a Common Future. Earlier in the week, there will be foreign ministers’ meetings as well as four forums on youth, women, people, and business, plus fringe sessions on other issues.

Indian proponents of the country taking a larger role see the Commonwealth as an international organisation where it can operate without interference from China, its potential long-term enemy that has managed to gain access to other forums such as a South Asian grouping known as SAARC. They argue that it would help India strengthen its presence in areas where China is increasingly active, for example in Africa where India is building a development role, and in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere such as the Pacific and Caribbean where it could strengthen its relationship with the Commonwealth small island states.

India and China

This comes at a time when India is responding to China’s increasingly global reach by becoming more active in international organisations, shedding its traditional role of an often reluctant and frequently negative participant.

“India has been gradually stepping up the entire range of its multilateral engagement…You should see our engagement in the Commonwealth within the framework of that broader perspective,” Rudrendra Tandon, a senior external affairs ministry official told a media briefing in Delhi this week. The most obvious example was the United Nations, but India was also stepping up its role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Tandon said that the Commonwealth had the added attraction that it looked after and advocated the interests of small states, including small islands. “This is a category of country in the international system that is of particular interest to India,” he said.

India will therefore be shouldering more responsibilities and expanding the Commonwealth work that it has been doing in a low key way, but without much real influence. In recent months it has played a much bigger role than in the past on preparation of next week’s agenda and draft communiqué.

The aim is to test in the years ahead whether the bigger role has more benefits and opportunities than liabilities.

The current international crisis over use of chemical weapons in Syria, which is supported by Russia, illustrates possible problems. India regards Russia as one of its oldest allies and will be wary next week of being drawn into US and UK-led condemnation, and support for air strukes, before investigations have been completed.

A report, India and the Commonwealth: Redirecting the Relationshippublished this week by Carnegie India notes that, in 2015–2016, India was the fourth-largest contributor to the Commonwealth’s budget. It also provided 16–20% of the experts in the Commonwealth technical assistance program (more than any member, after Britain). Another new report, Commonwealth Trade Review 2018: Strengthening the Commonwealth Advantage, produced by the Commonwealth Secretariat says that India is the top recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) from within the Commonwealth group of countries, and the second biggest source of investment after the UK.

“Child in an orphanage”

But the Carnegie author, C. S. R. Murthy, a Delhi-based academic, says rather scathingly that  “scholars have described the position of the Commonwealth in India’s foreign policy as ‘no more than a child consigned to [an] orphanage’ in recent decades”. During the late 1940s and 1950s it was a “cornerstone”, but then became a “useful embellishment” during the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1970s, Indian leaders suggested that the “economic content of the Commonwealth must become more meaningful and purposeful if it had to survive” – the same point that is being made now.

The long-held counter-view is that India, as one of the world’s two largest emerging economies, should not get involved in a relic of its old colonial ruler and the British Empire. There is also doubt whether the short-staffed and under-funded external affairs ministry should be stretched further by taking on a Commonwealth role.

Britain sees the Commonwealth as an opportunity to build new international relationships as Brexit takes it out of Europe, though it acknowledges that it cannot hold an overt post-imperial leadership role after its two-year term in charge ends in 2020.

It hopes however that its Commonwealth activities will help with its primary interest of negotiating the post-Brexit bilateral trade pacts that it will desperately need. Widely rumoured (and criticised) ideas of the Commonwealth becoming a trading bloc is not however a runner in the foreseeable future, despite someone in the British civil service last year stupidly dubbing the UK’s Commonwealth country trade ambitions as Empire 2.0 (initially for an Africa free trade zone). That Empire 2.0 tag is frequently cited by critics to over-state and then criticise Britain’s Commonwealth ambitions.

“Imperial amnesia”

Behind all these short-term issues there are basic questions about whether the Commonwealth is worth saving. A new book, The Empire’s New Clothes – The Myth of the Commonwealthbeing published in the middle of CHOGM is highly critical of the organisation and its future. It has been written by Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University who, despite being the head of the Commonwealth’s only academic institute, is a well-known critic. According to the publisher’s blurb, the book “strips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia”.

That is an unduly negative and unfair view because the Commonwealth is valued by 31 small states among its 53 member countries, which rely on support they receive and welcome the voice it gives them in international affairs. The other 22 countries of varying size have mixed views and many – including the UK and India – are critical of the negative influence exerted by the central secretariat on new ideas. All decisions have to be taken by consensus, which slows and even kills progress.

Charles Modi

Prince Charles with Narendra Modi in Delhi last November

The Commonwealth is split with many African and smaller countries wanting it to continue focussing on providing them with aid. Others, led by the UK, want it to take an active role – for example in areas such as a Blue Charter on the governance of oceans, an agenda for trade and investment, a declaration on cyber crime and revised guidelines for independent (including younger) observers of elections, that are lined up for approval at the summit.

There is also a debate about whether the ponderous grip of the Commonwealth Secretariat, currently located in Marlborough House near the royal residences of Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace, should be decentralised with functions such as climate change, trade and investment and the oceans governance, moving to other countries.

That now sees less likely than it was a few months ago though it will be discussed during the retreat. There is strong pressure from some of the Commonwealths official and nonofficial bodies – there are over 70 – to keep the secretariat intact.

Prince Charles role

Behind the scenes there will be discussions about whether Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, should inherit the leadership of the Commonwealth when he succeeds the Queen. He has been touring Commonwealth countries in recent months and will play a prominent role next week. This appointment is not automatic but is in the hands of the Commonwealth’s 53 leaders, and it is not yet clear whether there will be a consensus at the retreat to announce his role or consider it again when he becomes King.

There will however be a royal splash at the Youth Forum next week and a Women’s Empowerment reception, which will be attended by Meghan Markle along with Prince Harry, Charles’ second son, who marries the American actress next month.

The reasons for widespread scepticism bordering on cynicism about the prospects of the Commonwealth becoming a useful organisation were well illustrated on April 11 when six Commonwealth organisations, including the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association, unveiled proposals for a 12-point code of conduct titled Principles on Media and Good Governance. This was aimed at reducing threats to the media and reducing the killing of journalists – 57 journalists have been killed in Commonwealth countries in the four years to 2017.

The organisers said they had failed to interest the Commonwealth Secretariat in including the code in next week’s communiqué.

Akbar Khan, secretary general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, downplayed the setback, saying, “the Commonwealth is a soft power organisation”.

The questions for next week are how soft it should remain, and whether New Delhi has the will needed to help toughening it up during the summit and in the following two years.


Less elite entertaining and more focussed widespread marketing

Saffronart and Sotheby’s pushed into third and fourth place

There is a new kid on the block in the world of Indian modern art auctions and it’s beating the market leaders. It is Mumbai-based Asta Guru, which took the market by storm this week with a two-day on-line auction that yielded total sales of Rs89.16 crore. This beat other international and Indian auction houses in the current season and was the second highest ever after a Christie’s Rs97.65 crore ($14.7m) result in Mumbai in December 2015.

The auction yielded two record prices, including one for a work by a well known but not top-selling Indian artist, Manjit Bawa, and it just missed a record for a work by Tyeb Mehta, one of the most famous highly priced members of the mid-20th century Progressives “moderns” group.


Manjit Bawa’s record-breaking  oil on canvas

The big surprise was that Asta Guru’s total (which the auction house calculated at $12.71m), was higher than Christie’s South Asian modern art auction in New York on March 21, which was seen as a substantial success with sales totalling $10.29m. This included a new record price for a monumental acrylic on canvas called Tapovan (below) by S.H.Raza, a leading member of the Progressives, at a hammer price of $3.7m ($4.45m including buyers premium).

That was also the highest figure ever paid for a modern or contemporary Indian artist. It beat Rs29.3 crore ($4.38m) including buyer’s premium on a hammer price of Rs25.5 crore that was achieved for a Vasudeo S. Gaitonde painting in the Christie’s Mumbai 2015 sale.

Third in line after Asta Guru and Christie’s came Saffronart, India’s better known auction house, which broke from its on-line base on March 13 with a live Mumbai auction that yielded Rs27.64 crore ($4.32m). Trailing further behind was Sotheby’s New York auction on March 19, which achieved just $2.79m, having been dragged down by a failure to sell two significant works by Raza that could have added $3m or more.


Tyeb Mehta’s Bull

Another measure of Asta Guru’s success was that 15 of its works sold at or above $200,000, 13 of them above $300,000. By contrast, Christie’s had eight at or above $200,000 while Saffronart had five and Sotheby’s just one.

This showed Asta Guru is mining this potentially lucrative area at a time when auction houses are saying that the best results are being achieved at the top end and at much lower figures well below $100,000.

With Asta Guru’s website, it is easy to monitor an auction with access to lists of the most popular and the most highly priced works, as well as the general catalogue. As the auction closed on March 27 evening, I tracked bids (in dollars) on various lots. While most high priced works drew only three or maybe four bidders, some had more though, as happens in live auctions, the ultimate tussle at the end was between just two.

The top hammer price of Rs17.37 crore ($2.80m) – Rs19.98 crore including buyers premium – was achieved for a 70inx60in oil on canvas titled Bull (above) by Mehta. After two potential buyers dropped out after just one bid each, the battle was joined between paddle numbers 1701 and 1617 who pushed the hammer price with a total of seven bids from $2.09m at 8.35pm to 1617’s winning  $2.80m figure an hour later.

For the second highest priced work, a 55inx40in oil on canvas by Gaitonde that fetched Rs11.50 crore including buyers premium, there were only three bidders with just two bids on the final evening.

More exciting was the fourth highest but record-breaking priced work, Bawa’s  untitled 66inx78in oil on canvas (above) that attracted 21 bids. It started with eight bidders, but narrowed to two who pushed the hammer price from $453,903 to $898,698 in the final half hour, with 1617 (again) winning at Rs7.79 crore (double the estimate) including buyers premium. Bawa, who was born in 1941 and died in 2008, was 15-20 years younger than the leading Progressives and his works, though popular, rarely make such a prominent entry in auctions.


Ganeshji by M.F. Husain

Another keen contest took place for 24inx30in acrylic on canvas painting of the elephant god Ganesh by M.F.Husain, one of the most widely known and prolific Progressives. This fetched 20 bids from three potential buyers with paddle 1617 losing out to 1699 after the hammer price rose from $90,031 to $159,495 – four times the average estimated value – in the final ten minutes.

Asta Guru is not actually new – it is ten years old, but it has only begun to emerge as a significant player in the last four or five years, growing at an annual rate of 55% according to Siddanth Shetty, the head of strategy. The family-owned group was started by Vikram Sethi, its chairman, who set up The Arts Trust in 1990 that later became an on-line art gallery known as the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art and a source of market analysis.

Its reputation in the trade is that it takes care to manage relationships with both sellers and collectors so that it can source the best works and attract buyers. Christie’s and the others of course say they do the same.

Tushar Sethi, the ceo, says that 80% of the auction buyers are based in India, with Mumbai being a major centre for clients, and that it has 2,500 registered potential bidders. Some 90% of its works are sourced from India, though it hopes to broaden its base later this year with a New York office, its first abroad.

Tapopvan SHRaza

S.H.Raza’s record breaking Tapovan

The strong India focus increases its competitiveness against the international galleries. Christie’s charges a 25% buyers’ premium on most works with 20% above $250,000 (and 12.5% above $4m).

Indian buyers importing works from Christie’s New York or London auctions have to pay the country’s new 12% general sales tax on top of 10% import duty, making a total of almost 50% (without including the cumulative effect of the three levels). Asta Guru charges a 15% buyers’ premium plus the GST, but without the import duty because most of its buyers are in India.

Sethi said it threw a large dinner event, its first, in the top end Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai for this auction, but it does not usually splash out on the sort of lavish entertaining done by other auction houses in Mumbai, Delhi, London and New York, nor does it transport works for pre-auction displays in other cities. Instead, it printed 9,000 copies of its 2cm thick catalogue, couriering them to potential buyers, and it communicates via Facebook where Sethi says it has 120,000 followers.

ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, reported in January that there was a swing from international to local auction houses with “moderns” art sales at Christies, Sotheby’s and Bonhams (which is a smaller player) being 22.5% lower than in 2016 than in 2017, while India’s Saffronart, AstaGuru and Pundole (also of Mumbai) more than made up for the loss. Asta Guru saw the highest percentage growth, almost doubling its total from 2016 and had become, said ArtTactic, the third largest auction house after Saffronart (which is also into jewellery auctions and property sales) and Christie’s, beating Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

In terms of their overall business, India’s South Asian art market is relatively small for the big galleries such as Christie’s, which started an annual Mumbai auction in 2013 but abandoned it after a flop in 2016. The market is however important for their prestige, and they hope gradually to persuade Indian buyers to become more interested in international art. For the future, Asta Guru’s result shows they will face increasing competition from the locals.

Army and air force ill-equipped for action

Government avoids urgent fighter contract yet again

New draft production policy sets unreal self-reliance targets for 2025

India’s armed forces are seriously under-equipped with out-dated armaments ranging from guns and tanks to fighter jets, but the government seems to lack both the political will and the financial and bureaucratic capability to remedy the situation.

This has become clear in the past month with a serious of statements and reports about under-preparedness at a time when there is an active debate on the country’s ability to fight simultaneous border wars on the two fronts with Pakistan and China, improbable though such a double confrontation may seem.

The government has today published a draft of the latest of a series of production policies that were first issued in 2011, but have led to little change. It plans to raise foreign direct investment limits and, with scant chance of success, make India self-reliant by 2025 for 13 manufacturing areas ranging from fighter aircraft and warships to land combat vehicles and gun systems.

The Indian Air Force has only 32 squadrons of fighter jets when it should have 42, and many of these are seriously out-dated Russian MiGs, plagued with frequent crashes, yet new orders are constantly delayed. The Indian navy does not have the submarines and other ships needed to police its home ground of the Indian Ocean at a time of increased Chinese adventurism, nor other equipment such as torpedoes, nor adequate maintenance and safety measures. The army’s guns and some armoured vehicles are seriously out of date and ammunition supplies are grossly inadequate. 

Much of the public comments and reporting on these shortages focuses on the Ministry of Defence’s frequent prevarication over placing orders that can last for many years. The reality however is that so much of the annual $63.2bn defence budget goes on salaries, pensions and other routine costs that less than 25% is available for new weaponry, and much of that is committed to existing orders.

“The government can promise all it likes. It doesn’t have the money,” says Ajai Shukla, a former army officer and a leading defence journalist and analyst. “It doesn’t have the expertise, intelligence and political will to shape priorities in a coherent manner”.

Corruption, rivalry and blacklists

The result is a complex mixture of reluctance by officials to sign off on orders (fearing later allegations of corruption), foreign suppliers being blacklisted for alleged payment of bribes, disruption of tenders by competing interests, public sector corporations resisting private sector involvement, rivalry between government departments, the shortage of funds, and a Ministry of Finance refusal (just re-confirmed) to allow the armed forces to roll over unspent funds for use in later years.

Make in India lion

The Make in India clunky lion icon

For close observers of India’s defence scene, there is little new in this, but the key point now is that little has changed since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister. He focussed his Make in India manufacturing policy, launched in September 2014, on defence, which looked an easy target for a boom in foreign investment and jobs.

It has however been a dismal failure with no major projects despite frequent re-packaged policies, including the latest “strategic partnership” plan for foreign involvement that has not taken off. 

As a result, there has been an astonishingly small inflow of only Rs1.17 crore ($180,000) foreign direct investment (FDI) since 2014, according to a parliamentary answer given earlier this month. Alongside that, plans for manufacturing companies to become involved in a substantial way are repeatedly stalled.

India has been the world’s biggest arms importer for more than a decade, buying in 60-65% of its equipment which accounts for nearly 12% of global sales according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s latest annual report. Russia, the US and Israel are the main suppliers, with France bidding to become a leading player.

The precise levels of out-datedness of equipment has been spelt out to a parliamentary committee by the army’s vice chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, who said that any modern armed force should have “one-third of its equipment in the vintage category, one-third in the current category and one-third in the state of the art”, according to a parliamentary report of the Standing Committee on Defence which was tabled in Lok Sabha on March 14.

Two-thirds vintage equipment

”As far as we are concerned, the state today is 68 per cent of our equipment is in the vintage category, with just about 24 per cent in the current, and eight per cent in the state of the art category”, Chand told the Committee.

Even worse, he warned that the army did not have enough funds to buy ammunition needed for “ten days of intense war” – a scary admission at a time when there is regular firing crises the Line of Control with Pakistan and when India should be prepared for a confrontation with China in the Himalayas.

rafale-fighter-jet-2Chand said the army’s financial allocation this year “is insufficient even to cater for committed payment of Rs 29,033 crore ($4.48bn) for 125 on-going schemes, emergency procurements, or the urgent procurement of ammunition for 10 days of intense war) and other DGOF (director general ordnance factory) requirements.”

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) last year said that there was only ten days’ supply of 61 types of ammunition, a little over 20 days for 26 types, and 30 to 40 days for another 33 types. It found “no significantly improvement” in its 2015 report’s findings that only 10% of stockpiled ammunition met war wastage reserve requirements.

The most widely reported example of procrastination and indecision concerns India’s urgent need for 126 fighter jets known as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), which were first sought with a formal “request for information” to companies in the US, Russia and Europe in 2001. 

Estimated over the years at $10bn-20bn, the bids involved four twin-engine fighters – America’s Boeing F-18, Russia’s MiG-29/35, the four-nation Eurofighter, and the French Dassault company’s Rafale – and two single-engine, US Lockheed’s F-16 and the Swedish Saab Gripen.

Eventually the French Rafale (above) was chosen in 2012, but that became bogged down in contract details, including arrangements for substantial parts to be made in India, plus a lack of finance. 

Modi junked the order and personally ordered 36 Rafales “in fly-away condition as quickly as possible under government-to-government deal” when he was visiting Paris in April 2015, without informing the then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar. That deal also became bogged down in negotiations.

Saab Gripen

An over-optimistic headline!

It took 18 months to finalise at Euro 7.87bn (Rs 59,000 crore) and is now the subject of corruption allegations mounted by the Congress Party against Modi because he bypassed established procurement procedures and because the cost was significantly higher than the original 126 fighter price.

Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa acknowledged that this was a cost-cutting option last November. “Right now, we are concentrating on the single-engine so as to make up the numbers with lower cost”, he said, adding there was a requirement for twin-engine fighters later. 

In the past few weeks however, the defence ministry has indicated to all the companies involved that it wants to include twin-engine options, thus side-lining the F-16 and Gripen. Some 17 years after launching the initial inquiry, this will inevitably delay a decision for several more years, though the government could have gone ahead with the order now and looked later for a twin-engine option. France is pushing for a second batch of 36 Rafales but India is resisting that for now, which is s scarcely surprising given the corruption allegations.

No accountability

An internal defence ministry report leaked by the NDTV television station earlier this month condemned “multiple and diffused structures with no single point accountability, multiple decision-heads, duplication of processes, delayed comments, delayed execution, no real-time monitoring, no project-based approach and a tendency to fault-find rather than to facilitate”.

Prepared late last year by defence minister of state, Subhash Bhamre, the report said that of 144 deals in the last three financial years, “only 8%-10% fructified within the stipulated time period”. Delays exceeded deadlines by up to 15 times. 

The report pointed to the well-known problem of a “lack of synergy between the three services” plus the Coast Guard which “put greater strain on the limited defence budget and as a result, we are unable to meet the critical capability requirements.” Various departments in the ministry “appear to be working in independent silos” driven by their interpretation of policy and procedures, and the armed forces viewed the ministry’s acquisition wing “as an obstacle rather than a facilitator”. 

Special problems were found with a technical oversight committee that caused delays and rarely produced anything relevant, while a cost negotiation committee did not have access to international benchmarks. Finally, the finance ministry and cabinet committee on security would cancel purchases because, the report said, they were “not aware” of the defence ministry’s plans and needs.

Defexpo among the temples

Meanwhile politics trumps everything, even the siting of the bienniel international Defexpo exhibition which, till 2014, was always held in Delhi. In 2016 Parrikar, then the defence minister, moved it to his home state of Goa, which led to some from exhibitors.

In January however the current defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced that this year’s event will be held next month at Mahabalipuram in her home state of Tamil Nadu. Mahabalipuram is a famous temple town more than an hour’s drive from Chennai, the state capital, with none of the infrastructure or accessibility needed for a big international exhibition.

But, hey, if you are not going to place orders, does it matter if your biennial showcase is in a difficult location and visitors and exhibitors stay away?

Posted by: John Elliott | March 9, 2018

Sonia Gandhi launches detailed attack on Modi’s government

Rare major speech from former Congress president  

BJP “set to subvert the essence of India”

Sonia Gandhi, the usually silent head of the Gandhi dynasty and former president of the Congress Party, has today delivered one of the most direct and heartfelt attacks on the record of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government that has been heard since the 2014 general election.

Asserting that the government was “set to subvert the essence of India” with a long-planned “dangerous design”, the speech is significant because, ahead of the 2019 general election, it spelt out fears that the Modi government will change what Gandhi described as India’s open liberal democracy. 

She said that traditional dialogue anchored in “decency reason and argumentation” was being replaced with “invective innuendo and abuse”. That was changing the liberal nature of Indian society that encouraged debate and discussion and allowed dissent.

IMG_3619“Our freedom is under systematic and sustained assault” (video), she told an India Today conference in the business capital of Mumbai to occasional but not massive applause. 

“Today we are embracing a regressive vision….Fear and intimidation are the order of the day. Alternative voices are being silenced literally in far too many cases through violence even murder….religious tensions are being fuelled, vigilante mobs and private armies have been let loose with state patronage”. 

This was a reference to the government, together with the BJP and the party’s allied organisations often supported by gangs of vigilantes, harrying Muslims, attacking and quelling critics, and even killing people suspected of eating beef.

Modi has sometimes spoken against such actions, but usually too late to have much impact.

Each one of Gandhi’s points was well based, to varying degrees, on what has been happening in the past four years since the government was elected – not in terms of economic, foreign or other such policies, but on the basic aspects of a free democracy

Re-engineering DNA

“Our society is being polarised with an eye to winning elections ….. Something even more sinister is happening. Our social DNA is being re-engineered and it will have devastating consequences,” she said.

“Our judiciary is in turmoil. RTI was brought to bring transparency, but today that law is in cold storage. Aadhaar is being turned into intrusive instrument of control,” Gandhi added, referring to right to information legislation, and an Aadhaar electronic identity card system that was introduced by the Congress government but is now being extended to areas such as bank accounts and mobile phone registrations.

She also criticised the way that the government ignored what had been achieved by past governments. “Was India really a giant black hole before 26th May 2014? Did India march to progress, prosperity and greatness just 4 years ago? Is this claim not an arrogant insult to the intelligence of our people?” she asked.

Sonia before speech copy

Sonia Gandhi before her speech today

Mocking Modi without naming him, she said: “What has made our democracy precious is conversations not monologues, accountability not shunning any form of public questioning and interrogation” (though neither she nor Manmohan Singh, her prime minister, often made themselves available for media and other public questions when they were in power for ten years till 2014).

Gandhi was the president for 19 years and continues to have an active role in politics because she heads both Congress in parliament and the United Progress Alliance that includes other parties. The speech comes at a time when she is trying to unite Congress with allies  – next week she is hosting a dinner to push that forward.

She spoke with a quiet authority that cannot be managed by Rahul Gandhi, her son, who is now the Congress president but commands little respect among other politicians.

Answering questions after her speech from Aroon Purie, the head of the media group, she acknowledged that Congress had failed to match the BJP’s marketing of policies, both during the 2014 election campaign and since then in state elections. Congress now needed “a new style of connecting with people” for projecting policies.

She claimed that the massive corruption of the last Congress government had been exaggerated and dismissed other allegations, though she carefully sidestepped commenting on a current case involving the son of Palaniappan Chidambaram, previously the Congress finance minister, over alleged bribes on foreign investment approvals.

Saying “that is a very difficult question”, she also avoided saying whether Congress could survive as a viable political party without a Gandhi in charge, or whether it would break up.

Though Purie did not spelt it out, the question stems from concern that Rahul Gandhi will lead the party into election losses, as happened last weekend in three north-eastern state assembly elections.

That leads on to the worry, which lies behind Sonia Gandhi’s speech, about the widespread changes that a Modi government would be able to introduce during a second term of office if the opposition remains weak – maybe even challenging (as she mentioned) the Indian constitution.

Persistent rumours suggest Modi would like to introduce a presidential system of government with, of course, him as the president.

Posted by: John Elliott | March 4, 2018

BJP expands in north-east India despite setbacks elsewhere

BJP cheats the Congress of its chance of victory in Meghalaya

Congress and Leftist failures open up Christian areas for BJP

Rahul Gandhi flies out of India at a key time (again) as his party flops

The growing clout of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the steady decline of the Gandhi dynasty’s Congress across India was evident again over the weekend with results of assembly elections in three north-eastern states that also demonstrate the fading appeal of Communist politics.

The BJP has won a substantial electoral victory in Tripura, even though it had no seats in the last assembly, ousting a Communist-led Left grouping that had ruled for 25 years. It also has a chance of forming a government in Nagaland. Congress did not win any seats in these two states.

The BJP is also set to be part of the government formation in Meghalaya in coalition with several regional parties. It won only two seats in the election, but has outmanoeuvred the Congress Party that won the most seats though not enough to have a majority on its own (see below).  


By convention, Congress should have been given the first chance to find allies and prove it had a majority. Two of its most experienced national leaders, Kamal Nath and Ahmed Patel, flew to the state capital of Shillong to assist in the creation of a government, but were sidelined while the BJP stitched up its alliance with the regional NPP.

Together, these events demonstrate the little skill and clout that Congress now wields. The Meghalaya coup replicates what the BJP did in Goa and Manipur last March when it formed the state governments even though Congress had won the largest number of seats.

With allies, this means that the BJP will be in power in 22, and maybe 23, of India’s 29 states, making it much more of a national party than Congress.


The northeast states, where Christianity is more widespread than Hinduism, have been treated badly by Congress over the years. The party has paid more attention to maintaining existing conditions and supressing local uprisings than in development. It has also done little to assimilate the area, which lies to the east of Bangladesh and Bhutan and is linked to the rest of India by a 20-40km “chicken’s neck” strip of land coveted by neighbouring China. 

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) that ruled Tripura in a Left coalition for a quarter-century, has also done little for development and has allowed its administration to become seriously corrupt with rising crime. It has however held on to 45% of the vote, down just three percentage points from the last polls in 2013. Congress dropped from 36% to 2% and the BJP rose correspondingly from just 1,5% to 41%, which indicates that the BJP snatched Congress’s voters.

Having won earlier elections in Assam and Manipur, the BJP’s latest successes show that Modi has managed to conquer the area, despite the party’s Hindu nationalism,  and despite various dominant Christian (often competing) denominations ranging from Baptists and Presbyterians to Catholics that have opposed the BJP. Tripura is Hindu-dominated, but Nagaland is over 80% Christian and Meghalaya, where Congress did well in the voting, is over 70%.


Political power in the states before the BJP won Himachal Pradesh last December and before this weekend’s results

Sitaram Yechury, the CPM general secretary, yesterday said (no doubt with substantial justification) that the BJP “unscrupulously utilised huge amounts of money power and muscle power” in Tripura to unite anti-Left parties.

The BJP has however been gradually building up support in the northeast. In Nagaland, it has pulled together a peace accord to end a decades long insurgency.

It is also benefiting from years of community-based development work carried out since the 1940s by its umbrella organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), especially in remote tribal areas.

General election

With a general election due by early next year, all regional polls are being watched closely to see whether Modi and the BJP are holding on to their appeal, and how well Congress is faring under Rahul Gandhi, its new president.

While Congress did badly in two of the northeast states, it has had some small but significant by-election successes elsewhere. It defeated BJP candidates in Rajasthan a month ago for three seats, two in parliament and one in the state assembly.

Congress’s wins

Last week it won two assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP is in power in both those states and its chief ministers were closely involved in the electioneering, so the results provided Modi with a shock and the Congress with rare good news. 

Last December, the BJP won the state assembly for the first time in Himachal Pradesh, a small northern state, but was re-elected in Gujarat, Modi’s home state with a reduced majority.

These results show that Modi and his colleagues are still able to win victories in new states where they spread a vision of hope for the aspirational youth, but they can face problems where they are already in power. Projected forward, Congress supporters pray that this is an indication of what could happen in the general election if voters feel short-changed over the Modi’s promises of development.

Few commentators believe that Modi and the BJP will be defeated because that would mean an improbable decline from the 2014 result when the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance won 336 out of 543 seats. But there is speculation about how far that majority might be reduced and how much Modi’s personal image and his pride would be damaged. 

Modi tirade in Parliament

Modi reacted extraordinarily to the seat loss in Gujarat with a tirade of a speech (video here) lasting more than an hour in parliament on February 7 when he was replying to the president’s address. Traditionally, the prime minister would deal with forward-looking policy issues, but Modi recounted the achievements of the government in somewhat unparliamentarily tub-thumping style.

This indicated that he had been rattled by the Gujarat result, even though the BJP seats only came down from 115 to 99, maintaining a comfortable majority. After 22 years in power, this was a credible result for the BJP, but Modi seems not to have seen it as that.

Similarly at an Economic Times conference a week ago, he spelt out his list of the government’s achievements, accompanied by graphics, that seemed more of a desperate briefing presentation (video here) than a prime ministerial speech.

There are also other signs that the government is anxious to improve its record of achievements, which critics say are far less than Modi and his colleagues claim. Tackling corruption and corporate fraud are two special targets. Recent scams, with businessmen fleeing abroad, have provided opportunities for headline catching action by government departments and the investigating agencies.

The Criminal Bureau of Investigation action has also been stepped up against Karti Chidambaram, son of Palaniappan Chidambaram, a former Congress finance and home minister and a top lawyer. Karti was arrested three days ago for alleged corruption on foreign investment deals that took place when his father was finance minister – providing the BJP with a platform for alleging Congress corruption.

Karnataka is the next political battleground with elections due within three months, Congress is in power there, but it has a mixed record and the BJP is determined to win. If it succeeds, Modi and his close colleague, Amit Shah, the BJP president, are expected to consider bringing the general election forward from April-May next year to the end of this year. Elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which are due by November-December, might be held at the same time.

Rahul in Italy

Rahul Gandhi has spent more time recently in Karnataka than in the northeast where he only attended five meetings over two days during the election campaign.

He then flew on March 1 to see his grandmother in Italy, behaving as he often does by leaving the country at a crucial political time. “My Nani is 93. She’s the kindest soul ever. This Holi weekend I’m going to surprise her! I can’t wait to give her a hug….,” Gandhi tweeted.

His grandmother might have been surprised, but his critics were not. Once again, Gandhi is not in India when his party needs visible leadership, which is raising questions about his commitment to politics. 

The only improvement this time was that he announced where he was going, which he used not to do on frequent trips abroad.

Shadow of  Khalistan separatism destabilises goodwill State visit

Modi warns against supporting challenges to a country’s unity

 Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau flies back home tomorrow morning (February 24) after one of the most diplomatically accident-prone state visits by a foreign country’s leader to India for many years. 

Trudeau was ignored by prime minister Narendra Modi for four days. The government seemed to make no attempt to steer the media into positive coverage of the visit, and newspapers mocked the excessively flamboyant Indian “wedding attire” that Trudeau wore to several events that he turned into virtual family holiday outings. 


The Times of India February 23, 2018


This unexpected turn of events stemmed from Trudeau being unwilling before the visit to distance himself and his Liberal Party from Canadian Sikh radicals who campaign for the Indian state of Punjab to become an independent Sikh country called Khalistan.

He did however agree to a joint statement issued at the end of the visit on tackling terrorism that named the International Sikh Youth Federation, a Khalistani group, along with Pakistan based militant organisations

Sikhs are an important vote bank in Canada, where about 40% of over 1.3m people of Indian origin (4% of the population) have roots in Punjab. There are four Sikh ministers in the current cabinet, two with alleged Khalistani links (which they deny), and Trudeau has appeared publicly as Liberal Party leader with prominent Khalistan campaigners.

The extent of the links was demonstrated when an invitation to a celebration dinner at the Canadian High Commissioner’s Delhi home on February 22 went to Jaspal Atwal, a Canadian with a history of being a Khalistani supporter with the International Sikh Youth Federation, who had been photographed in Mumbai with Sophie, Trudeau’s wife, earlier in the visit (below). 

Atwal was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail for being involved with three others in an attempt to assassinate an Indian politician on a visit to Vancouver in 1986. The convictions were overturned because of the way evidence was obtained, and last year Atwal is reported to have been removed from an Indian home ministry “black list”. 

His dinner invitation caused considerable embarrassment till it was cancelled a few hours before the event. Trudeau told the media that one of his members of parliament “took full responsibility” for organising the invitation and that the background would be investigated.

Modi and the Indian government are well acquainted with the pressures of vote bank politics, but they are considerably more sensitive about attempts to revive the Khalistani movement that rocked Punjab and Delhi during the 1980s. There was more than a decade of violence with 25,000 people being killed according to some estimates. 

Image-1Prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 after she had ordered troops into the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, to remove heavily armed Khalistani leaders who had turned the temple complex into a fortress. In 1985, Canadian Khalistani militants were accused in Canada of organising the bombing of an Air India Montreal-London flight that crashed into the Atlantic killing 330 people.

Trudeau arrived in Delhi with his wife and three young children last Saturday afternoon February 17. He was met by a junior minister in Modi’s government (the minister of state for agriculture), which was in line with protocol but was far below the welcome some foreign leaders receive – Modi even went to Delhi airport to greet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month.

Image-1-1 Modi did not issue one of his welcoming tweets, nor was there any other sign of a central government greeting while the Trudeaus visited, and attended events in Punjab, Gujarat and Mumbai. Finally, on February 21 when the family was back in Delhi, Modi tweeted that he was looking forward to meeting Trudeau. By then, the media had decided that the visit was being given a cold shoulder, and government spokesmen only made low key attempts to deny did there were any snubs.

C.Raja Mohan, a leading foreign affairs commentator and head of Carnegie India, wrote in an Indian Express column headlined “Canadian bathos: Justin Trudeau’s vote-banks”  on February 20: “Delhi is struggling to make sense of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political indulgence of Sikh extremists in Canada…… Delhi is disappointed that despite its repeated efforts, including at the highest political levels, to flag the question of Sikh separatism in Canada, Ottawa has seemed reluctant to address India’s concerns.”

That firm wording indicates that Mohan knew he was reflecting the government’s view, as he no doubt was when he wrote: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is more than eager to serenade visiting leaders in his home state, Gujarat, did not travel to Ahmedabad to be with Trudeau on Monday. This underlines the new cooling that is enveloping the relationship.”

IMG_3586-2Mohan said there was worry that Trudeau’s trip could “turn out to be the worst diplomatic disaster in India” since Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1997. She had come to celebrate India’s 50th anniversary of Independence, but the visit was blighted by a series of diplomatic and other upsets.

In Punjab, Trudeau visited the Golden Temple (above) and was received by the (Congress) chief minister Amarinder Singh, who last year had refused to meet Canada’s Sikh defence minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, when he was visiting India because of his “Khalistan links”. This time both the defence minister and another alleged Khalistani sympathiser minister pledged their support for a united India and were then accepted as part of Trudeau’s Punjab entourage

Trudeau told Amarinder Singh he supported a united India and gave a “categorical assurance” that Canada, which has had its own separatist problems in Quebec, does not support such movements, The chief minister responded by handing over a list of the names of nine Canadian Sikhs allegedly involved in financing and supplying weapons to Punjab militants.

The Punjab would-be insurgency was wiped out by strong police action in the early 1990s, when the vast mass of the population had tired of the violence and wanted to focus on economic growth.

Justin-Trudeau-family-with-narendra-modif-701x467The cause of Khalistan however still has supporters in Punjab where it figures in the murky politics of both the state and the Sikh religion. The Indian government believes that Pakistan is sheltering some Sikh militants and is ready to provide bases for them to infiltrate across the border into Punjab, as it did in the 1980s and is now doing in Kashmir.

Abroad, supporters are most active in Canada though they also exist in the UK and elsewhere, often mobilising support and funds through local politics and Sikh gurdwaras (temples). Canadian Sikhs were reported to have helped finance candidates from the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab’s state elections last year – the AAP did not do well.

As often happens however with diasporas, their views do not keep pace with changes in their home country. Drugs and unemployment are the main issues in Punjab, not independence from India. “Trudeau Will Take Back an Important Lesson: Sikhs in Canada and Punjab Don’t Think Alike” was the headline on a news website story.

The Indian government has been trying to shake off the legacy of the 1980s by reducing the “black list”, as happened with Atwal, and there have also been talks recently between the two countries’ national security advisers about combating Sikh radicalism. But these did not apparently lead to Trudeau adjusting his public position on Khalistani radicals enough to placate his Indian hosts. 

Modi-and-Trudeau hugThe mood eased this morning when Trudeau was given an official state visit welcome in the forecourt of the president’s palace. Modi gave him one of his now familiar hugs and was photographed with the Trudeau family (left and above). 

Trudeau then had official meetings with the Indian government, including nearly two hours of talks with Modi, after which six memoranda of understanding on commercial, security (including the militants Sikhs reference) and other topics were signed. 

Both leaders pledged to work with each other but, as he flies out, Trudeau will no doubt be wondering how to deal with his Khalistani supporters back home, having been told by Modi, speaking in Hindi today at a joint press conference after the talks, that “there should be no space for those who misuse religion for political motives and promote separatism”.

“We will not tolerate those who challenge unity and integrity of our countries,” declared Modi

Leaving aside the point that Modi’s critics will say that he and his Hindu nationalist supporters misuse religion for political motives to the detriment of Muslims, this is a clear enough warning of the price for future co-operation between these two historically friendly countries.

Posted by: John Elliott | February 15, 2018

Delhi’s India Art Fair rises to the occasion

Key foreign galleries test the market 

South Asian art established as primary identity

Delhi’s annual India Art Fair has needed a clear identity after growing successfully for nine years into one of the country’s leading cultural jamborees. Last weekend that identity began to emerge with new direction, a strong Indian base, fresh international interest and a flood of fringe exhibitions and other events around India’s capital city. That should anchor it in the art world’s annual calendar, boosted by the owners of Art Basel being its biggest shareholder.

Many exhibitors reported good sales and reserves on the first pre-view afternoon (February 9) including, significantly, David Zwirner, a leading New York and London gallery (below) that came to the fair for the first time. If Zwirner had gone away unhappy, it would have damaged the fair’s foreign image and deterred others from abroad in future years – in the past big international names such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson and White Cube have not returned.

A triptych by Sujan Dangol showing three generations’ symbolic objects of Nepalese consumption. Nepal Art Council.

There was also good news on the opening day from ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, which produced a report that said the South Asian market rose 13% in 2017 to an estimated $223m, driven by global auction sales up 17% to $118.2m, though the contemporary auction market remained weak.

Gallery sales within the region were estimated, on the basis of a partial survey, to have risen only 8% to $104.5m (including $81.1m in India), but this included strong contemporary sales with newer galleries allocating over 70% of their space to such works

Commenting on the success of contemporary art in galleries, Anders Pettersen, who runs ArtTactic, says that “auction houses show little confidence in this market, so by default contemporary art is sold through galleries, art fairs or online, though the it is still relatively modest”.    That was reflected in the fair, where many exhibitors showed contemporary works and relatively few offered (albeit impressive) works by India’s famous old Moderns such as S.H.Raza, Tyeb Mehta and F.N.Souza.


Starry Pumpkin – fibreglass reinforced plastic and tile – by Yayoi Kusama, showing in India for the first time. David Zwirner gallery, London/NewYork

Many visitors however felt that there was nothing outstandingly memorable among the contemporary works.

That was despite some socially conscious paintings such as those by Nepalese, Gujarati and Assamese artists (above and below), and a humorous rendering of Mahatma Gandhi doing a selfie (below), plus a few quirky exhibits like a clever painting of a carpet, which looked so real that visitors strained to touch it.

Zwirner had sales and reserves ranging from etchings and screen prints at $10,000 up to major works around $650,000 (Rs4.3 crore) by artists who included Thomas Ruff, Yayoi Kusama, and James Welling. “We came to see what was possible. We have strengthened existing connections and made some new ones,” James Green, a Zwirner director, told me, indicating the gallery would be back next year.

Along with other Indian and foreign galleries, Zwirner was attracted by Art Basel’s owner, the Swiss MCH Group taking control late in 2016 with a 60.3% stake. Even more important for many however was the choice last August of Jagdip Jagpal, 53, (below) to succeed Neha Kirpal, the founder director.

Jagdip Jagpal IAF FinEx photoJagpal was brought up in London by Indian (Bengali and Punjabi) parents and has been an international programme manager at the UK’s Tate.

Till last year she was working in Manchester on a New North and South network to bring together arts organizations from South Asia and the UK. She decided last year, on her second visit to the fair, that she wanted to become the director.

“I’m proud of being Indian,” she told me. “We’ve focussed on Indian galleries to get those who haven’t been coming”. She allocated 70% of the space to South Asian galleries and applied strict criteria with firm guidance about the works on show, refusing to admit some 30 would-be exhibitors. “They mustn’t show stuff that hasn’t sold elsewhere so has been brought here,” she says. In total, the fair had 70 galleries, broadly the same as recent years, with some 420 artists.


A triptyc by K.P.Reji from Baroda (Gujarat) depicting dissatisfaction with security forces.  The Guild, gallery, Mumbai

One of Jagpal’s leading fans is Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai and returned to the fair this time after staying away for four years. “We love her energy and that’s why we are here,” he told me. “Young Indians buyers are willing to buy challenging words at international market prices….it’s been our best year ever”.

The most flamboyant participant in the fair for the past few years has been the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), run by Ashish Anand, whose continually high expenditure causes wonderment among rivals, not least because of its gallery expansion to Mumbai and New York with rumoured plans for London.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary as a family business, DAG has had two brand-building exhibitions over the past week that have surpassed anything else on show. Navratna – Nine Gems at the art fair showed India’s “national treasure” artists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, and Rabindranath Tagore, while India’s French Connection at the Visual Arts Gallery in the Habitat Centre had works by 27 Indian artists who had studied or worked in France. They included Amrita Sher-Gil (again), S.H. Raza and Jehangir Sabavala. Also at the Habitat, DAG staged a series of events that included a lecture by Pablo Picasso’s grandson.

The Reader | Acrylic on shaped mattress | 48” Diam IMG_8673

The Reader by Anju Dodiya – acrylic on mattress 48” diameter. Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi

Other notable exhibitions on the fringe have included two by contemporary artists that are still open – a 50-year retrospective of Vivan Sundaram at the Kiran Nadar Museum, and gripping recent works by Anju Dodiya (right) staged at Bikaner House by the Vadehra Art Gallery.

At the end of the fair on February 12, a large number of galleries said they had sold well, or had reserve options on works that they expected to go through, though some of the first evening’s euphoria cooled.

One of the biggest deals I heard about involved a collection of five paintings by S.H.Raza dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, which a private Delhi buyer acquired from the Akar Prakar gallery of Kolkata and Delhi for an undisclosed sum.  Experimenter from Kolkata told the organisers it sold 80% of its works with buyers including Kiran Nadar’s art museum and Devi Art Foundation.


Endangered – acrylic digital painting on canvas by Veer Munshi who also did the sculpture. Art District III gallery, New Delhi

Delhi galleries that told me about good sales included Gallery Espace, which sold a complete collection of recent small works by Manisha Gera Baswani on the first day for between Rs250,000 and Rs450,000.

Threshold said it had sold well in the Rs150,000-800,000 range, and Art Indus was successful between Rs120,000 and Rs300,000, having brought in lower priced works this year.

Higher up the price range, Art District XIII sold a new Veer Munshi painting of Kashmir (above) for around Rs700,000. Dhoomimal Gallery did “better than last year” with sales of its Moderns between Rs500,000 and Rs2m. Palette Art Gallery was “happy” with contemporary sales from Rs600,000 upwards.

Among the foreign galleries, Aicon from New York was “overall happy” (ie, not ecstatic) with several sales and reserves around Rs20,000-30,000, while Lukas Feichtner Galerie from Vienna did well on its second year at the fair with contemporary sales totalling Euro100,000. From Bahrain, Art Select was pleased with sales of five women artists’ paintings on its first visit.


Sounds Good by Sachin Bonde, described as “dental pop, etching and collage on brass weighing scales” – a set of ten variable sizes. 1×1 Art Gallery, Dubai

Foreign galleries have not always been successful, sometimes because they brought Indian artists who were already in plentiful supply. Often it has also been because there has not been much Indian appetite for foreign works – many Indian collectors aim for whatever their friends and peers can recognise and admire on their walls, which steers them to Indian artists (mostly Moderns despite a brief surge a decade ago for contemporary works). This year however, partly because of guidance from Jagpal, they did better.


Gandhi taking selfie with a cow by Debanjan Roy – painted fibreglass. Akar Prakar gallery, Kolkata

The ArtTactic report notes a swing from international to local auction houses with Moderns art sales at Christies, Sotheby’s and Bonhams being 22.5% lower than in 2016 while India’s Saffronart, AstaGuru and Pundole more than made up for the loss. The relatively less-known Asta Guru has emerged as the third largest auction house after Saffronart and Christie’s, beating Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

Now that the art fair is over, attention moves back to the famous old Moderns who dominate the top end of auctions, as they will do next month with auctions in New York, where both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have a Raza as their highest priced offering – Sotheby’s is called Ville Provenҫale and is expected to fetch more than $2.5m. Saffronart also has a live auction in Mumbai with a Tyeb Mehta work as its top lot.

Meanwhile Jagpal says she is starting work immediately on next year’s fair and is aiming to have the “concept” ready by the end of March. The exhibitors will be expecting greater success when they return, and visitors might welcome some more memorable examples of contemporary art.


Sudipta Das with her Soaring to Nowhere installation hung from the ceiling. Depicting the displacement of refugees, it was bought by a London collector with four more editions available – Gallery Latitude 28, Delhi

Posted by: John Elliott | February 1, 2018

India’s Budget aims for votes with “Modicare” for the poor

Preparing for general election that might come early

Congress beating BJP in Rajasthan elections

Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, today presented his annual Budget which was designed to help the Bharatiya Janata Party government win the next general election that is due by April next year but might be brought forward to the end of this year.

Jaitley’s broad aims in his last annual budget before the election were to show that the government cared for the less well off, and especially the rural poor, with a special focus on health and education where the government is strongly criticised for not having done enough since it was elected in 2014.

This lack of success has been underlined today with by-election results in Rajasthan  where the BJP is in power. The Congress Party has won two parliamentary seats and one state assembly seat, defeating BJP candidates. In West Bengal, the regional Trinamool Congress has won an assembly and a parliamentary seat.


Arun Jaitley arriving at Parliament

Delivering his almost-two-hour speech for the first time partly in Hindi (the language favoured by prime minister Narendra Modi and most other of the Hindu nationalist government’s ministers), Jaitley set out five aims: to strengthen agriculture and the rural economy, improve health care for the less well off, provide help for the aged, boost infrastructure construction, and improve education in conjunction with the states.

The annual Economic Survey which was published on January 29, helped him by forecasting that the rate of economic growth will rise from 6.75% to 7.2-7.5% in the next financial year. Jaitley said the country was “firmly on course” to exceed 8%. This was because the country is emerging from a slow-down triggered by the chaotic and disruptive implementation of the demonetisation of bank notes 15 months ago and the new goods and services tax (GST) last summer.

More tax payers

The survey said that GST had triggered a “50% increase in unique indirect taxpayers” which led to “3.4 million new indirect taxpayers” and an additional 1.8m individual tax papers (adding 3% to the total). However a majority of the people’s total earnings are below the tax threshold.

The finance minister is being criticised for allowing the fiscal deficit to reach 3.5% this year against a target of 3.2%, and for aiming at 3.3% in 2018-19, which many commentators considered unlikely to be achieved. There is general concern about increased spending, but the main worry is that many of the proposals and schemes announced will not be adequately implemented,

“Modicare” health insurance

The headline announcement was a National Health Protection Scheme to provide the poor with insurance to access private sector health care without building up sizeable debts. The plan is to roll it out in the next six months and eventually to cover 100m poor and vulnerable families – an estimated 500m people, 40% of the population.

The government will provide up to Rs500,000 (US$7,800) a year per family for private sector secondary and tertiary level care. Jaitley said this would be the world’s largest government-funded healthcare programme, but critics commented that it would create a government-funded bonanza for private sector insurance and healthcare companies.

“If we manage to reach even 10 crore Indians, the world will consider Modicare more successful than Obamacare,” Jaitley said in a television interview.

budget speech

Prime minister Modi applauding during the speech

Perhaps the most unpopular budget initiative for the well off is the introduction of a 10% capital gains tax on stock market investments held for more than a year and exceeding Rs100,000 (US$1,560) – there is already a 15% tax on short-term investments of under a year.

Jaitley’s budget has been criticised for not doing enough on job creation at a time when, according to one official estimate, educated unemployment may be as high as 20%. The survey is trying to improve the jobs outlook by including occupations in what is called the informal sector.

On other points, Jaitley said the Government “take all measures to eliminate use” of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, which it did not consider legal tender. It would however explore use of the crypto-currencies’ block chain technology to boost the digital economy.

A billion flights a year

Among his more ambitious targets, he said that the country’s airports’ capacity would be increased five-fold with a target “to handle a billion trips a year” – though he did not say when this would be achieved. Currently, the Airports Authority of India runs 124 airports and there are a few private sector operators.

In a protectionist move aimed at boosting India-made goods and encouraging companies to manufacture in India, he announced an increase from 15% to 20% in customs duty on mobile phones and a rate of 15% for televisions.

On defence, Jaitley announced yet another initiative to increase India’s at present low level of defence manufacturing with the promise of what will be the latest in a long series of defence industrial policies. The aim would be “to promote the domestic defence sector by investment from private and public sector”. The only change here is that the public sector is being mentioned as well as the private sector, which might reduce opposition from the defence establishment.

On railways, which have been hit by a series of serious crashes and accidents, Jaitley promised that “focus will be on safety, maintenance of railway tracks, increase in use of technology and fog safety devices”, plus the installation of escalators and railway station wi-fi connectivity.

General election timing

Indications that the general election might be brought forward came earlier this week. In his annual address to parliament, India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, echoed the views of Modi and the BJP’s 2014 manifesto that assembly elections should take place simultaneously with national polls to cut costs and reduce the negative impact that constant electioneering has on government policy making.

If Modi goes ahead with this proposal in the coming months, and organises a constitutional amendment, the next national election could be brought forward from next April to around the turn of the year along with various assembly polls including key states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan that are due by next January.

Overall, the budget has caused little excitement. Modi said during a long television statement that it would “bring new opportunities for rural India”, but that will depend on the government’s dubious ability to implement what it has announced. There is widespread scepticism about this happening, for example on education and health.

Modi and his ministers are regarded as being strong on the razzmatazz of announcements and special schemes, but weak on making them happen. That needs to change, if Modi is to avoid a difficult general election, whenever it comes.

Posted by: John Elliott | January 21, 2018

China expands its reach and meets little resistance

“Congagement” suggested as a solution

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Infrastructure needed

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

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

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

4 Navy Chiefs Raisina-696x420

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Paucity of Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this article appears on the Asia Sentinel website 

Chief Justice of India under attack by his peers

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

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

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

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

SupCt judges pc

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

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

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

Death of a judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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