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April 9, 1998


Varsha Bhosle

Monopoly game

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Opposing McDonald's move to set up its third outlet in Bombay, BJP corporator Parag Alvani says the burger chain is a threat to the "mainly Jain" residents of Vile Parle; that it was "planning to spoil Indian culture" by promoting non-vegetarianism; and that it would surely introduce beef. "They say one thing today and do another thing tomorrow. They price their vegetarian products at a high rate so that our children will start eating meat... Let them give us proposals for roads and bridges and we will welcome them," said the Oracle.

Then, the VHP, which began its campaign by alleging that McDonald's used beef in its burgers, switched to the swadeshi track: Said Mumbai VHP secretary Ramesh Mehta, "We are not opposed to non-vegetarian food but to McDonald's, which will take away the jobs of the locals." (!)

The hoteliers associations instantly shot down the swadeshi bozos by calling it an attempt by local politicians to gain publicity. "Nobody has empowered them to fight for us," said Sitaram Shetty, president of the Indian Hotels and Restaurants Association.

"There are umpteen restaurants in the city which serve beef but the VHP is silent about them... It is because of restaurants such as McDonald's that we are learning the importance of cleanliness... Wherever there is a group of restaurants, everyone prospers as customers have more options," stated Santosh Shetty, president of the Western India Hotels Association.

"Some politicians are trying to rake up an issue through a misinformation campaign. We have nothing against McDonald's. The person running the chain here is an Indian, so are the employees, and the raw materials are bought from Indians," said M D Shetty, chairman of the Federation of Hotel Association of Maharashtra.

Even so, the VHP's Oracle insisted, "We have the interest of the nation at heart. McDonald's may have the government's permission, but Vile Parle will not welcome them."

This, after the PM's and finance minister's assurances that multi- national corporations already established in the country will not be harassed.

Next, on April 3, the Indian Express revealed that "(Swadeshi Jagran Manch organiser Muralidhar) Rao was critical of Union Urban Development Minister Ram Jethmalani for declaring that he would invite foreign investment in the area of social infrastructure (sanitation, road construction, housing, etc). 'Private participation in these areas is fine, but we will definitely not allow foreign investment in them,' Rao asserted."

Once again, Bhosle is being forced to shift to the familiar Opposition benches...

Apart from the fact that Vile Parle is not a Jain ghetto, there are two issues that arise from the dingbats' statements -- the second of which, regarding vegetarianism versus meat/beef-eating, I will tackle another day. For now, I'll simply rejuvenate an old essay -- for my views on the sham of Swadeshi have changed not a whit...

In the 1970s, a Jebel-Ali based Arab businessman called Ahmed Bakhr arrived in Bombay with a proposal to construct two marine bridges which would reduce the city's traffic congestion. He offered to bear all the expenses, including fees for foreign, experienced marine-soil specialists and engineers, high-grade material, labour, etc. To recover his investment in and make a profit from these much-needed, international-standard bridges, Mr Bakhr proposed to collect the tolls at the bridges for about four years.

The government rejected the project. Give it to a foreigner? Never! Significant swadeshi issues -- like kickbacks to approve cement doctored by desis -- would have slipped from the fists of ministers and bureaucrats. Not to speak of personal slices in the toll itself. Moreover, it would've underlined the limited span of time taken to cover the cost of such projects...

Need I cite the decades Bombayites paid toll at the indigenous Thane Creek bridge, and how soon cracks appeared in it? Do you notice the patched fissures in Bombay's Kemp's Corner flyover, or feel safe driving on the new Dharavi one? Can we all get together and ram these defective ventures down the xenophobic swadeshi throats?

That no one thought of reviving the marine bridges with native builders is another matter altogether: Foresight and action don't fall within the scope of swadeshi dogs-in-the-manger. To add insult to injury, the Sena's Pramod Navalkar, in 1996, came up with this brilliant solution to Bombay's traffic problem: drivers must use hidden, off-the-track lanes and byroads. Navalkar thought the number of cars were doomed to freeze in the twilight zone of that year.

I've had it up to here with such bilge. The opposition to MNCs is merely a political ploy motivated by those who can't stand the heat in the competitive international business kitchen (obviously, hoteliers can, industrialists can't). It must be hard to deal with outsiders ignorant in our mandatory ways and the tacit subtleties of "peti" and "mithai". When they do manage to get it across, look what happens -- a Bofors backfires, a havala racket rocks the careers of ministers. But only temporarily; yeh hai India.

Under the guise of nationalism, swadeshi does nothing but resist progress, and the sole winners are industrialists who are now under pressure to *not* produce substandard goods (that's the only way I can put it). Since Independence, apart from the stray J R D Tata (whose ancestors were foreigners, anyway), how many have set up industries with national prestige and welfare foremost in mind? How many considered an alternative to Delhi's medieval coal- powered electricity plant? Do Indian tycoons know the meaning of "good finish"?

Let's take the example of automobiles: For decades, we bore with the most ridiculous and inefficient cars in the world. After the threat from Maruti (and don't forget the flak Suzuki got), our swadeshi Birlas finally relented to the 20th century by heralding a new model which would update the vintage (Morris) Ambassador. Tan-ta-raa.... for a whacko premium, the shape of the headlight went from round to the dazzlingly futuristic square. Period.

As for the Walchand Group's Premier, I must say it afforded me great pleasure. Alas, those days are gone when we stood at the window during the monsoons, wagering on the number of Premier Padminis sure to stall in even a normal downpour. 'Take it or leave it' was the only option. Such were the results of our monopolistic self-reliance.

The West, too, has its share of perversities in business and politics -- but an economy-pulverising profiteering is not one of them. Whereas in India, profit is only for diverting to Geneva... It is against policy to plough it back for research and development, modernising machinery, or helping the country capitalise from exports. Such are the industrialists I should be laying down my Coke for. Simply blame everything on the license- permit raj and all's well with the swadeshi world...

Then there's the rich and powerful farmers lobby which claims that since India's is an agrarian economy, everybody should be as busy as guppies in heat closing its economic borders for the farmers' benefit. Naturally: Once restrictions on foreign trade are fully lifted, so will governmental grants to agriculture. Despite surplus output, India bought wheat from Russia as it was cheaper than the grubstaked home-grown product relaxing in godowns.

Less than two years from 2000 AD, when the rest of Asia is well entrenched in heavy industrialisation, India should return to the soil...? With a crazily mounting population, we can't yield the sheer tonnage required to cross the narrow margin of foreign exchange returns to make India a mighty force in the arena. Excuse my pathetic grasp, but I thought it should be the production and export of stuff like cars, PCs, steel, arms and ammunitions. And these have to meet international standards.

Forget televisions and computers, but is there anything the West has invented and instituted that we can do without from minute to minute? We wake up in the morning, peer at the clock, switch off the electricity to the air-conditioner, brush with a toothpaste, flush the wc, activate the water-heater, use a shower, soap and talcum powder, shave with a safety razor, splash a cologne... And all this before the fully-awake stage. Fact is -- cue for Hindutvawadis to faint -- we don't even make decently absorbent and comfortable sanitary pads.

There are no two ways about it: the West has always had the initiative. We have NONE. Those of us who do, go West -- after being beaten by our corrupt system. Busy crowing about Vedic vimaans and astras, we have done little to better our lot. What great miracle is about to be wrought by deterring job-creating MNCs now?

More ludicrous is the belief that MNCs should be tolerated only in the essential industries sector -- and only if they divulge their formulae and methods. How cute. Are they our sasuraal-walas with the sole mission of Indian upliftment on their hard-boiled minds? I don't understand how swadeshi minds work! If you want computer chips, you better lump the potato chips, buddies. We have nothing unique to offer Them -- it's a world of compromising give and take.

In 1996, KFC was harried on the grounds of over-the-limit chemicals and, believe it or not, substandard hygiene (apparently, a fly as pesky as Sonia was spotted in its Delhi kitchen). We are to believe that the Food and Drug Administration of India actually monitors the stuff that goes into pav-bhaji, chaat, pani-puri and chutney, and that hygiene conditions in all our domestic eateries meet its directives... Since I've twice returned with frenzied intestines from the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel's Shamiana, I won't bother to comment on this farce.

The openly unjust dealing with the high-profile food chains *has* to stop. It sends all the wrong signals to future investors -- including those in the crucial infrastructural market we desperately need.

Which is precisely what Manchkin tycoons seek. It is profitable to keep India a small pond so that they can remain its big fish. And interested parties cater to them for their own inscrutable reasons. As I see it, what India needs today is not just foreign investment and foreign acumen, but also foreign business ethics and, above all, a sound foreign flogging on its swadeshi posterior.

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