Af-Pak: this is the ONLY game changer in the UK – India relationship

ADVICE TO DAVID CAMERON FOR HIS FORTHCOMING PRIME MINISTERIAL VISIT TO INDIA

Accompanied with the increasing level of media interest in the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to India, it’s heartening that my recent posts on the bilateral relationship have also stirred some interest.

Regardless of the substantive points that result from this visit, it’s obvious that this opportunity will be used to affirm the new Government’s desire to bring a step change to the relationship.

There’s been speculation as to the shape and size of the accompanying delegation, and the only difference from the past, as far as I’m concerned is that David Cameron’s taking almost a third of his Cabinet with him, I assume, to underscore the emphasis on building a wide ranging, cross departmental, relationship. So, I’m lead to believe Messrs Hague, Willets, Cable, Osborne, are definitely on, as are blue chip CEOs like Stuart Rose of M&S.

Such a symbolic act serves to assure Indian counterparts of Team GBs’ seriousness, which I’m sure will be warmly received and all goodwill credited & reciprocated over the term of this parliament.

Apart from the presentational aspects of the visit, which I accept are fairly important, my thinking on the substantive points that may emerge and set the path for an enhanced relationship have also been in development.

In previous posts, I realise that there’s been a far too great an emphasis on the trade & investment relationship. Actually, when I sat down to think about the real game-changers in the relationship during the Blair era, the vast majority came as a result of a change in thinking in our Foreign Office.

So, it’s no surprise that William Hague, during his years in wilderness, has cultivated a fairly strong understanding on India, and that he should realise that the following two aspects are critical to the step-change that the coalition govt aspires to:

DECOUPLE INDIA-PAKISTAN

Not that I see this as too much of a problem, but there is a tendency to link the two neighbours. This hyphenation creates unnecessary tension, as the past ten years clearly demonstrate, India’s charted a very different path to Pakistan, there’s definitely a sense that the world needs to treat both countries on their own merits and not as a hyphenated couple.

The most obvious example of such a change in thinking i.e. one based on merit, is that of the US – India Civil Nuclear Agreement, which broke the mould and provided a much needed step change to the US – India relationship. Despite both India & Pakistan being nuclear armed nations, it was made clear that no such deal could be done with India’s neighbour as a result of her poor proliferation record.

We really don’t need to balance what we do with India in Pakistan. Both countries are separate entities, with their own prospects and challenges. So let’s treat them as such.

The added advantage the Tories have is that they don’t need to be worried about the Pakistani vote bank in constituencies across Britain, which to a degree resulted in Labour’s need to perform a finely balanced act in the way it treated India & Pakistan. It was felt that the impact in Labour seats of any divergence in treatment could have a material impact in local & general elections.

AFGHANISTAN

That India wants what we and the Americans do is not in doubt. A stable Afghanistan is the aim that the international community rightly aspires to. However, the big difference is in approach.

Also, there’s a school of thinking that promotes that India has a limited role and view to offer, which couldn’t be further from the truth. India has a vested interest in the region, and used to share a border with Afghanistan pre 1947, so to argue otherwise shows a shallow understanding of the region.

The difference in approach I refer to is that of engaging the enemy, which in this case is the Taliban… which we seem to favour. For India, this is a total show-stopper. Given that the last time the Taliban got involved in running Afghanistan, India suffered badly.

We’d do well in remembering the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 184 in 1999 where the Taliban regime provided safe passage to the Pakistani hijackers who took control of the plane, which was forced to land in Kandahar. On the airstrip, the Taliban even moved its well armed fighters near the aircraft in an attempt to prevent Indian Special Forces from storming the aircraft! This flash-point was a massively significant event for India, which played out on national TV for days and is etched permanently in their national psyche. So to ask them to cast it aside as an extreme, sole example shows our total insensitivity.

Furthermore, it transpired in later investigations that one of the Pakistani militants who was released by the Indian authorities in the barter deal for the return of hostages, went onto form a terrorist group called Jaish-e-Muhammed, which received extensive aid from the Taliban and pro – Taliban groups in Pakistan for attacks in India.

To say that the approach to bringing an enduring stability to Afghanistan matters is important, would be a major understatement and show a major disregard to a country that Cameron is trying to forge a “strategic partnership” with.

A “strategic partnership” necessitates the convergence of views on domestic, regional, and global issues, where you try and understand each other’s sensitivities in order to work more effectively to achieve mutual goals. In 2004, Blair ensured there was a convergence of views on foreign policy – by stating our support for India’s seat on the UN Security Council; by calling a spade a spade when it came to condemning Pakistan for supporting cross border terrorism in Kashmir; and finally by ensuring India was invited to G8 meetings, albeit as an observer.

We may have our political pressures in wanting to bring our troops back home, but if this means that we’d have to engage the Taliban in discussions, India’s track record with them and their obvious discomfort need to be taken into consideration, as once we’ve left we’re going to have to rely on regional partners (read: India) in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability.

Prime Minister Cameron needs to work towards assuring India that our approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan would have their interest at heart. Without this, I fear the “strategic partnership” that we’re all looking for remains an aspiration.

If there’s a game-changer, then this is it.

Dear Dave… game-changing ideas on India for the PM

Dear Dave-bhai,

Further to my last blog-post about the UK – India relationship, I wanted to offer two specific suggestions on how you could create a name for yourself on the UK – India circuit, which I know is what you and the remaining political class would love to do.

Whilst you’ve not announced it yet, we’re all aware that some people jumped the gun by letting it be known that you’re visiting India in July. In preparation, you may want to incorporate the following:

With the UK – India Trade & Investment relationship floundering rather than flourishing, your visit could mark a departure and arrest the decline if you did the following:

DITCH THE HIGH PROFILE CEO DELEGATION ON YOUR FORTHCOMING VISIT

As news worthy as they are, ditch the high profile CEOs that you’re planning to take along with you. What’s the point? They already have operations in India, they have the money to survive, and enjoy the access they so crave.

Instead, why don’t you take the Director’s of 20 SMEs ranging from widget manufacturers to regional retailers. It’s these guys that need the education and improved understanding of the opportunities a country like India provides. They fear the uncertainty of a very complex environment in India, but get the cost advantage of China, which is something your government needs to get right. After all, if you’re after a strategic partnership with India, you need to think a little beyond schmoozing the good & great from UK Plc on this much awaited visit.

EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION

There’s no two ways about this, the world marvels in envy at our education system. We’ve known for a very long time that the education sector is as central to our global influence as the Bollywood film industry is to India, so let’s try and regain the lead that’s been stolen from us by the Americans and Australians in India.

We already have examples of success, such as Lancaster University that have set up a joint venture partnership in Delhi to provide accredited courses and degrees to students in India. They predict that in the not too distant future, they’ll have more graduates coming out of the Delhi campus than the mother base in Lancaster!

That’s just one example, but we could look at funding a new wave of research collaboration, educational exchanges at all levels, and perhaps could look at helping India in bridging its skills deficit as a result of our excellence in this field.

We know that India churns out more graduates that the whole of Europe together, but rather than get lost in such statistics, you would do well to understand that the Indian education system, on the whole, is not as great as we’re lead to believe. Why can’t UK centres of excellence enter into partnerships with struggling institutes of technology, science & engineering colleges, business schools etc which exist all over India to assist them actively?

Education could easily be the game-changer that you’re looking for.

Dave – the truth, as unpalatable as this may be to you, is that the previous government brought a paradigm shift to the way India is dealt with, here and in international quarters. However, the opportunity you have is also very clear to me. Put simply, exert some effort in making things happen and you’ll create a legacy that’s enduring.

With my best regards,

Vikas

Where can the UK – India partnership go? Take Two…

If you recollect the 90s, any mention of India in the West used to be hyphenated with the word Pakistan following it. It was at the end of one of the most gruesome and violent periods in the recent history of India that the Blair Government swept to victory. India had a nationalist coalition government at its helm for the very first time, who flexed their muscles on issues concerning national security. In 1998, they broke the moratorium on nuclear testing and suffered global sanctions, which are now defunct and removed.

Recognising the need to hedge its bets, Blair embraced India as a counterbalance to China, despite it not having the promise that we see today; and in all fairness stuck at it despite disastrous visits by the Queen and also by Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary. Little did he know at that time the Y2K bug would actually prove to be a major boon for bilateral relations as it was around this time that Indian IT firms started winning global IT contracts as a result of their price advantage, heralding a promising trade & investment partnership.

Blair’s New Labour Government followed this up by a phenomenal visit to India in 2001, where he signed the New Delhi declaration, which he broke the mould. Simply put, he turned the way the world thought about India, and India knew his endorsement really mattered. For the first time, the UK stated that India was a deserving member to the top table of the international community – he committed to campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This was ground-breaking on any terms.

He followed up by ensuring that India became Britain’s largest bilateral aid & development recipient. His logic was simple: to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, the UK taxpayer needed to assist India in eradicating poverty, after all to make an impact on the global scale, India was critical as a third of the world’s poor live in India.

Like this, whether we talk about improving defence ties, promoting education exchanges, increasing trade & investment, Blair pushed the boat out. Every single government department had to have an India champion within it.

In later years, Brown as PM continued on the same trajectory. By this time, India was a permanent fixture at G8 meetings – which would’ve been inconceivable even a few years before, and a true partnership emerged between Manmohan Singh – an economist and former Finance Minister of India & Gordon Brown – an academic and long time Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In later years, the wheels may have come off slightly (read my post on David Miliband’s visit to India as Foreign Secretary, click here), but it’s important to recognise that the Labour government was radical in its approach to India. Like I said before, they truly broke the mould.

Given all the rhetoric on the Conservative Government’s desire to build an “enhanced partnership” with India (the Queen singled out India in this year’s Queen’s Speech), I’m scratching my head as to how they’re going to differentiate themselves from New Labour’s record on India – which incidentally could’ve alienated a massive anti Indian support base that exists within the Party, which almost makes Blair’s support for India even more praiseworthy.

Here are my suggestions as to what the Conservative Government could do to deepen relations with India:

1. Build on the foundations of the UK – India Education & Research Initiative, by promising more funding to promote institutional linkage that can take advantage of the new Indian laws allowing foreign universities to set up there.

2. Take stock of the trade & investment relationship. Why is it that despite so many independent agencies and taxpayer funded promotion bodies our trade support system struggles to excite SMEs to seek partnerships in India. The legend that is Alpesh B. Patel, again reinforced the view that we (read ‘he’) do well in attracting Indian investors to the UK, but struggle in the opposite direction.

3. Don’t cut aid to India. When Andrew Mitchell visits India, he’ll be surrounded with millions of reasons of why we should continue. My friend – Geoffrey Clifton Brown MP, who at the time was a Shadow International Development Minister, visited India last year as part of the IPT delegation and recounted his experience which supported and recommended continued support & aid.

4. Engage the diaspora, for example invite prominent members of the thriving business community to join business & political delegations to India. One of our biggest assets is our diversity. With so many people of Indian origin in this country, make the most of it.

Maybe like George Osborne’s efforts to crowd-source views and suggestions, Prime Minister Cameron may wish to throw a life-line to the civil servants whose job is to put some meaningful suggestions on what an enhanced partnership could look like before his widely expected first visit to India.

Incidentally, another friend – Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, who’s a leading policy expert on strategic & security issues at the IISS wrote the following piece, which proves to be a good read: http://www.iiss.org/whats-new/iiss-in-the-press/june-2010/uk-india-a-special-relationship-for-the-21st-century/?vAction=fntUp

India’s rise and the promise of a US – India Partnership

Having just read the speech delivered yesterday by William J. Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the White House, I thought I’d list some of the phenomenal quotes, which should leave those suggesting otherwise in no doubt about the political capital that’s being invested by the Obama administration on India.

The speech is called India’s rise and the Promise of US – Indian Partnership and was delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC on 1st June 2010.

You can read the full speech by clicking any of the quotes below:

“The simple truth is that India’s strength and progress on the world stage is deeply in the strategic interest of the United States. ”

“Never has there been a moment when India and America mattered more to one another. And never has there been a moment when partnership between India and America mattered more to the rest of the globe.”

“The further truth, however, is that progress in U.S.-Indian partnership is not automatic. It requires continued hard work and vision on both sides. It requires patience and creativity. And it requires honesty in dealing head-on with concerns and doubts that arise on both sides.”

“India’s leadership, and the potential for U.S.-Indian partnership, extends well beyond Asia. India’s role in promoting global security is growing.”

“……it is a striking fact that the U.S. military now holds more bilateral military exercises every year with India than any other nation.”

“Expanded U.S.-Indian defense cooperation, unimaginable not so long ago, is a valuable means of supporting our shared interest in India’s broadened international security role. Our stake in India’s defense modernization is real and increasing, and defense trade has taken off since our 2005 framework agreement.”

’’India and the United States have both suffered devastating terrorist attacks, with the scars of 9/11 and 26/11 still fresh in both our societies. Since the horrific assault on Mumbai in November 2008, U.S.-Indian cooperation in counter-terrorism has deepened rapidly, in the interests of both our countries. Partnership on cyber security is another area ripe for development.”

“Our Strategic Dialogue this week elevates India to the rank of our most important global partners, allowing us to discuss and coordinate policies of global import, including on the future shape of the international economic system and on what we can do together to promote human development in other parts of the world.”

“In addition to the regular dialogue we have begun on East Asia, we look forward to quiet, systematic exchanges on other regional issues, such as the Middle East and Africa, where we can benefit from each other’s perspectives, and each look for ways to contribute to peace and security. India’s expanding global role will naturally make it an important part of any future consideration of reform of the UN Security Council. ”

“We’ve found greater common ground on climate change, and the Copenhagen Accord could not have happened without leadership at the highest levels from India.”

“The United States has both a profound interest in India’s success, and the capacity to contribute to that growth in ways that benefit us both.”

“We can, and we should, transform our export control relationship, befitting the 21st century U.S.-Indian strategic partnership. That will open the door to historic new cooperation in space, and a number of other areas for high tech cooperation.”

“Next year India will be the largest single-country recipient of U.S. climate funding, because India’s success in charting a new energy future is deeply in America’s interests.”

“India’s development of its greatest resource — its immensely talented people — is another focus of U.S.-Indian partnership.”

“The Singh-Obama 21st Century Knowledge Initiative offers new funding to increase linkages between American and Indian universities.”

“India and the United States have reached the stage where our individual success at home and abroad depends on our cooperation. That is what is different about our relationship today. That is the promise unlocked by the civil nuclear agreement, and all the advances of recent years. That is the “big idea” that can animate our partnership for decades to come. And that is the challenge before us, symbolized by the inauguration of the first-ever Strategic Dialogue: how to widen the arc of our cooperation, how to build systematic habits of collaboration, how to turn the transformational accomplishment of the civil nuclear accord into partnership across a much broader front.”.

“I have no illusions that this will be neat or easy. It will take a lot of time, and a lot of effort. Differences will occur, and doubts will linger. But at this extraordinary moment, we have leaderships who understand and respect one another, broad public and bipartisan support, a growing record of trust on which to build, and remarkable scope for partnership in Asia, in promoting global security and prosperity, and in India’s historic modernization. If we get this moment right, Indians and Americans can have an enormously positive influence on each other’s future, and on the course of the new century unfolding before us.”

The Conservatives & India: Politics of climate change

So, I was invited to the launch of the UK – India Business Leaders Climate Group on Friday at the London Business School, in which David Cameron MP launched a new forum that links businesses in UK & India to find synergies and technologies that fight global warming.

Amongst the good and great, Lord Chris Patten – one time Chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Hogg – Chairman of 3i and former Head of John Major’s Policy Unit at Downing St, and Sir Stuart Rose of M&S – all rubbed shoulders with almost half a dozen Shadow Tory Ministers and approx 50 business folks.

On the face of it, great idea… but I can’t help thinking that DC’s statement that the group was an apolitical force for good, is slightly misleading given the make up of the room and the critical remarks of the current government.

Looking at this from the Indian side, this represents a much cleverer manner to court the Conservatives, rather than the approach they’ve adopted in the past few years of going after them in a more aggressive manner. This, the more subtler approach is probably a reaction to the narrowing in opinion polls, in which it seems we’re headed into hung-parliament territory and not a certain Tory win.

Does Uncle Sam get India?

Manmohan Singh should breathe a little easier now. In the run up to the visit, I can imagine that his blood pressure would be higher than normal for the simple reason that Obama has been busy cosying up to the Chinese and he’s also been lavishing Pakistan with a lot of attention – both states who have a fraught history with India.

I say that he must be breathing a little easier because Obama rolled out the red carpet for his first state visit, and said all the right things on the big subjects that define the current relationship.

In a TV interview, I was asked about the state of the US – India relationship, and rather than focus on the icy nature of historical bilateral ties, I decided to emphasise that the US and India don’t really have the luxury of avoiding each other, any more. The truth is that in the interdependent global economy we live in, US & India need each other to prosper.

Take the attraction for the US:

  • India’s middle class (approx 300m) is the size of the entire US population. This presents American companies with a larger market.
  • India’s demographic profile is a massive advantage. With nearly 40% of its population under the age of 30, you can imagine the opportunites that are thrown up for American service lead companies.

For India, the US has always been a major market, so it came as no surprise when I interviewed the ten entrepreneurs for my book (http://www.indiaincthebook.com), that the US formed the centre-point for their global expansion. Take for example:

  • There are more drugs from Indian pharma companies on US supermarket shelves than in India
  • That Mahindra & Mahindra has stolen market share from native American firms selling tractors to their own farmers
  • That, on average, Indian IT firms earn nearly two-thirds of their revenues in India
  • That Bharat Forge supplies components for 2 our of every 3 trucks in the US

However, what I’ve found is that the bilateral relationship in increasingly defined by the US – India Nuclear Agreement that was signed in 2008. With the market being valued at $150 BILLION(!) and American firms like GE and Westinghouse in pole position, they seem ( surprise, surprise)  eager for India to push on with its nuclear programme.

In its pursuit for energy independence, this visit gives Manmohan Singh and equally, Barack Obama something to smile about. It’s safe to say that Uncle Sam gets India.

On the eve of Indian elections… new poll research

Thought you may be interested in the Indian election survey we commissioned.

What it shows:

• So far, the electorate have been treated to a ‘policy-lite’ campaign, with no real debate on substantive issues. Caste and religion remain defining issues in this election.

• Anyone can still make it. It’s all down to the post poll alliances that are struck at the end.

• The Congress & BJP will have an equal share of seats, it’s their coalition allies that will make the essential difference.

• Previous groupings like the UPA (Congress Party + partners) & NDA (BJP + partners) have more or less been disbanded. They remain convenient terms to apply, but mean little in the real sense.

• Regional parties are flexing their muscles by choosing to join together, under banners such as the Third Front or Fourth Front, avoiding grand alliances offered by the Congress or BJP.

Detailed breakdown of projected wins under four main scenarios is here: http://indiabriefingcentre.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/090414-sc-team-cvoter-election-survey2.pdf

Musings from last week…

The Congress withdraw a senior Congress MP over his alleged involvement in the 1984 Sikh riots that occurred after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. At a press conference last week, a Sikh journalist threw a shoe at the Home Minister as a sign of protest, which snow-balled into the two MPs withdrawing their candidature and bringing media attention to the Congress Party’s record on communal politics, which was a huge relief for the BJP as this shifted media attention from Varun Gandhi’s “hate speech”, that was being played out in the media in preceding weeks.

Personal attacks from the Congress leadership have intensified. Manmohan Singh (uncharacteristically) and Rahul Gandhi have publically criticised Advani, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. Excerpts from a press conference below:

“Mr Advani has strength in speech with weakness in action.” – Manmohan Singh on LK Advani

“I would not have been found weeping in the corner, when a mob of hoodlums was destroying the centuries’ old mosque.” – Manmohan Singh on LK Advani when the Babri structure was razed to the ground in 1992.

In obvious reference to the Kandahar plane hijack episode Manmohan Singh said, “The difference between the UPA government and the NDA government is that they released terrorists while we killed nine and captured one alive.”

Referring to Mr Advani’s remarks that he did not know about the release of terrorists and the flight to Kandahar carrying Jaswant Singh, Rahul Gandhi said: “If he is such a strong leader, how come then the home minister did not know something…there are two possibilities. Either he is not telling the truth or his senior leader, Prime Minister Vajpayee, did not trust him”.

Likewise, LK Advani demanded an apology from Sonia Gandhi for her statement that India was in greater danger from people inside than foreign terrorists, which he said was an implied attack on the BJP. Advani said he was shocked about her remarks that “we are in greater danger from people inside than from foreign terrorists entering India”.

He said though Gandhi did not name his party, it “substantially accuses us and the comments were clear”.

On the third front, he said: “The so-called Third and Fourth Fronts were irrelevant as they were opportunists, who had no platform on their own or a common platform. The CPI(M) was trying to cobble a Third Front only to fight its own growing irrelevance.”

IPL in England

With the BCCI’s decision of shifting the IPL out of India, one would think that the chances of the Congress Party returning to office are diminished as a result of this one decision. Anything other than this is simply not comprehensible for the simple reason that cricket is religion in India. Or so it would seem..

IPL Commissioner – Lalit Modi’s ability to articulate and convey key messages has to be applauded, as I believe he recognised and stemmed any criticism by positioning the general election as being of paramount priority to India and for once, cricket needed to come second! In a land in which cricket is religion and Sachin Tendulkar is God, Lalit Modi’s played his master innings by rolling out personalities like Sachin and Shah Rukh Khan to reinforce his messages as he realises that the last thing he or the IPL wants to be accused of is being ‘anti-national’.

As we’re in an election cycle, It goes without saying that the Opposition is using this opportunity to paint the Congress as being soft on security matters; and the Congress realising that in a country where cricket is taken so seriously, it needed to get its rebuttals in quickly.

So, would the IPL work in England?

There’s no doubt that the ECB, like every other cricketing nation, was green with envy with what they witnessed last year in India. By rolling out the red carpet to the BCCI, the ECB would undoubtedly regain a central role in international cricket, and if it plays its cards well, would suggest that the ‘Indian’ is substituted by ‘International’ in the title of the competition.

With regards to the logic of shifting to England, Sachin was right in saying that whilst the Indian public wouldn’t have the same experience as last time, the larger Indian diaspora living in the UK would come out to support their teams, as they do everytime India tours here.

Even with our unpredictable weather, Easter weekend and May Bank holiday coming in between, I believe that having it here is for the greater good of the game.

India's Obama – The Mayawati Moment? 10 facts about Mayawati

Indian political observers may accuse me of taking this a tad too far, but on some levels I do believe that this moment may the closest we get to, in seeing the Obama effect in India.

You can say what you like about Indian polity, call it dynastic, corrupt, rigged etc, but the truth is that it’s clung onto its democratic traditions to emerge as a shining beacon in a region of failed democracies.

Sure, India is dwarfed by China in terms of international and strategic importance, but the fact that a lady like Mayawati can emerge from nowhere and become a contender for the highest office in a country is praiseworthy and worthy of celebration.

The US took over 200 years for an Obama to emerge; in India, if Mayawati ends up as PM, we’ll have seen the Obama phenomenon – someone from the oppressed class / caste in office – within 62 years of independence!

The comparison ends there.

So, what do we know about Mayawati?

1. She was born in Delhi to parents from the Dalit caste (previously referred to as untouchables) and went on to pursue a career as a teacher.

2. Her potential was spotted by the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and from then onwards, she’s never looked back.

3. The BSP, under her direction, have consistently increased their share of votes across India as she’s tried to broaden their base by inducting candidates from other castes and backgrounds.

4. She’s the Chief Minister of India’s most populous state – Uttar Pradesh (UP) and commands a majority, where most other states are dependent on coalitions with other parties. As a result of her dominance in UP (which returns the largest number of MPs to Delhi), she can be sure of winning the lions share of seats there. Commentators predict that if she gets upward of 40 seats, then its for her to decide what happens in Delhi.

5. In 1995, at the tender age of 39, she become one of India’s youngest Chief Ministers and whilst her tenure was short lived, she came to the fore and registered herself as a future contender, which she’s lived up to becoming.

6. As is common in India, she’s ousted hundreds of police officers, civil servants and the like due to their political allegiances lying with her sworn enemy, the previous Chief Minister – Mulayam Singh Yadav from the Samajwadi Party.

7. In a similar vein, she’s the subject of several court cases related to corruption and general goon behaviour.

8. To say she’s a megalomaniac is putting things lightly; her birthday celebrations are huge media events that her foot-soldiers use to ingratiate themselves. Recently, an engineer was killed after he reportedly refused to pay money demanded by one of her tribe for her birthday celebration fund.

9. Its also claimed that in 2007 – 08, she paid more income tax that India’s richest businessman – Mukesh Ambani! Who say’s politics doesn’t pay?

10. In terms of opportunism, all she’s concerned with is obtaining office. She’s thrown her lot with the BJP and the Congress when its suited her, and I suspect we’ll see more of the same this time around.

Apparently, with a focus on bursting onto the national scene, she’s been taking advice on her image, having English tuition, and socialising with Delhi types on a more regular basis!

As I said, I make the assertion that this is India’s Obama moment, but I’m not sure she’s India’s Obama.

Briefing on Indian Elections

Following from the briefing that we’d organised yesterday evening at the House of Commons on the upcoming Indian elections, our inbox has been swamped with requests for the presentation made by Yashwant Deshmukh – who’s one of India’s top pollsters. Whilst we’re probably more immersed than others in keeping on eye on the machinations of Indian politics, I found the insights provided by the panelists and also some of the audience very logical and agreed with their analysis.

In particular, I felt that Lord Desai, who’s advised several Indian Prime Ministers, and clearly, has the inside track on politics, was exceptional in his comments. Despite the pro-Congress Party perception that people have of him, I felt he was very balanced and gave the Congress as hard a time as the BJP. He narrated a story to me of when he was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Sanman Award from Prime Minister Vajpayee and asked why, depite the stinging criticism of the NDA and of the BJP was he being awarded the honour. Vajpayee, in his response, said something to the effect of: “We take heart in the fact that you’re equally critical of the Congress”. 🙂

What Desai explained was that he expected the Congress to make it back and cited examples such as of the confidence that the Congress has shown through the very conservative interim budget a few weeks ago. He said that the lack of throwaway gestures and sops are a clear sign of their thinking. In addition, what I thought was a very personal insight, was his admiration for Sonia Gandhi’s long term strategic thinking – for example, her placement of Naveen Chawla (Chief Election Commissioner) and Pratibha Singh (President) in their current roles to coincide with the probable dates of the election and therefore strengthening her ability to fix the result, if required. I’m lead to believe that such moves are par-for-the-course across the political divide, but are less well thought through or executed.

Yashwant Deshmukh’s clear view was that he forsees a situation in which a minority party like Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party could stake their claim to high office with the support of either principal party. What was interesting was that he termed the upcoming election as a ‘semi-final’ for the main event in 2012, in which he expects the contest to be between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

I’ve placed his presentation for on our company website for you to download – www.saffronchase.com – let me have your views. Do you agree with his analysis?

The really interesting thing about the event was that apart from the panelists, there were several individuals in the audience who have been offered seats in the Indian parliament, or are involved in politics in India but make London their base. Such as, a past Mumbai region Organising Secretary for the NSUI; which is the Congress affiliated student body; a eminent businessperson who is regularly consulted by the Samajwadi Party and the Congress on various issues; a business magnate who’s been offered a party position in Delhi, a lawyer with equations with the gen-next of Indian politics etc etc.

In summary, all panelists agreed that in the next election, we’re going to see an overwhelming influence by regional parties, which may result in a minority government that is kept alive with the support of the Congress and will fall within two years.

On the foreign direct investment / commerce front, what was was clear was that there would be no rolling back of policy decisions, but you couldn’t guarantee the fast-tracking of initiatives such as the lifting of the caps in the financial services, retail sector and others. All agreed that they saw such decisions at a standstill for the next few years.

We’re organising a visit for those interested to India at election time to soak up some of the atmosphere by attending mammoth rallies (100,000 people minimum), and to see for ourselves the key issues that candidates face in their constituencies. We received great interest from the audience, please let me know if you’re interested in joining our delegation. We hope to take some UK parliamentarians, businesses, journalists and others to witness the largest democratic exercise conducted on the face of this planet.