It's time to examine our attitude to foreign investment
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
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
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