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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

It's time to examine our attitude to foreign investment

Private Airlines It is characteristic of this government that nobody knows what its policy on civil aviation is. One ministry appears to be in favour of the Tata-Singapore Airlines project; another ministry seems determined to stall it. A third report has it that the project will go through anyway because the right kind of influence has been exercised.

The confusion resembles the differences over media policy. In the area of print, the Foreign Investment Promotion Board has approved of a proposal for an equity tie-up between Business Standard and the Financial Times. The information and broadcasting ministry has acted as though the FIPB approval was a huge mistake and the Cabinet seems to have agreed with I&B minister C M Ibrahim.

In the television sector, the confusion is compounded. One draft of the Broadcasting Bill which is shortly to be presented to Parliament would prevent foreigners from owning more than 20 or 30 per cent of a television channel.

As no private channel uplinks from India, the legislation may seem unnecessary. But the government has suggested that it will enforce it by preventing any channel that is 80 per-cent foreign- owned from raising advertising revenues or marketing itself in India.

Of course, this would wipe out TVI, Sony, Home TV and the entire STAR network. But more to the point, it would also spell the end of CNN and the BBC in India.

It is easy to say that this is an absurd, xenophobic proposal that would only benefit Zee TV. But the point is that nobody is even sure that this is what the government thinks. According to newspaper reports, the I&B ministry wants to privatise DD III. In itself, this is no bad thing. But apparently, the ministry is willing to sell 50 per cent of DD III to foreigners.

So what is the government's policy? Is it against foreign ownership of television channels? If so, then why does it hope to flog half of one of its own channels to foreigners?

One can attack or support the government if one knows where it stands. But the extraordinary thing about Mr Deve Gowda's Cabinet is that you cannot oppose it on any issue: it is both for and against everything at the same time.

I don't want to devote the rest of this column to a critique of the Deve Gowda government. In this case at least, Mr Deve Gowda is only reflecting the national consensus or, more accurately, the national confusion. We have still to seriously analyse our attitude to foreigners and foreign investment in particular.

At present, we declare that we have overcome our xenophobia and yet every time there is a project or an event with foreign participation, something seems to go wrong. The Enron saga is one example. The fuss over the Miss World contest is another. In both cases, the basic objection was xenophobic. Evil foreigners were either corrupting our politicians or our womanhood.

It isn't enough to say that M D Nanjudaswamy and his ilk do not represent India. Perhaps they don't. But every time they trash the office of Cargill seeds or destroy a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, no public censure attaches itself to them. Rather, the rest of us sit back and watch as curious spectators.

Our ambivalence suggests that despite the knee-jerk upper middle class response that foreign investment is a good thing, we still have to be convinced of this at some deeper, more significant level.


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