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July 31, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Ashok Mitra

India, a vassal state?

What was the cliche about, about for whom the bell tolls? The signs are glaring enough. It is perhaps only a matter of weeks before New Delhi appends its approval to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Pakistan will, of course, do the same. If Foggy Bottom wants to make a ceremony of its sardonic sense of humour, it might actually ask the two countries to sign the treaty on the same day.

The behind the scene negotiations now on are to evolve a facesaving formula for enabling the governments of the two down and out nations to somehow tell their respective peoples: never mind appearances, the wholesale capitulation is in fact a stupendous positive achievement. This will be small compensation for the grimness of the gathering circumstances: the American will keep twisting our arms till it hurts, and hurts excruciatingly.

For Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his party colleagues, such a denouement cannot but be a major tragedy. The swadeshi bomb, these gentlemen had genuinely believed, will allow them to carve out for India a formidable place in the sun. The probable upshot is going to be precisely the reverse: to render us into a full fledged vassal state of the United States -- as much a vassal state as Pakistan has long been.

But, then, is not the development a continuum of the process set in motion by an exhausted Congress in the mid-summer of 1991,or, to be even more exact, by Rajiv Gandhi 's wild profligacy during 1984-1989? The splurge of fiscal deficits and heavy imports in the late eighties was responsible for the payment crisis and consequent abdication to the International Monetary Fund-World Bank in 1991. Indian mandarins, however, prefer to see that act of surrender as heralding the entry into the epoch of reforms.

A dash of serendipity has helped to sustain this delusion. The deregulation of the economy the IMF-World Bank bosses insisted upon New Delhi had no choice but to comply with. They, however, discovered a virtue in the new arrangement. Now that foreign investors could be invited to move in freely and take total charge of the economy, the Indian upper classes, who had the resources to pay taxes as well as to save a part of these resources to finance capital formation for economic growth, were liberated from that load of responsibility. Affluent Indians in effect never had it so good. Their social obligation henceforth, they concluded, was only to consume, the function of savings was expendable.

The savings and investment necessary to impel the system to move forward, it was implicitly assumed, were tasks exclusively belonging to the domain of foreigners. Consumer goods of all descriptions flooded the country, imports soared, but there was seemingly no cause for concern, the current account gap, countrymen were given to understand, would be taken care of by remittances in the form of portfolio investments and such like; the long term problems of capital formation would be solved via direct foreign investments, which was bound to grow by leaps and bounds. If China could get $ 40 billion annually, and even wretched Indonesia gathered in $ 10 billion, why, India -- the world’s largest functioning democracy, with 5,000 years of civilisation behind it -- would without question attract at least $ 10 billion of foreign capital per annum, more so since all fetters on foreign investment had been removed.

The Indians could therefore eat, drink and be merry without inhibition. Grey eminences, burdened by wisdom, have not deviated from the standard line, ever, in the course of the past seven years: the answer to India's economic problem is direct foreign investment, to be supplemented by the sale of equity of public undertakings. Original thoughts of the first water.

True, dissenters existed within the Hindutva ranks to specific aspects of this model, for example, its overwhelming emphasis on the role of exogenous forces for promoting growth. They have been overruled. To the Bharatiya Janata Party stalwarts who matter, the model's general contours are as excitingly attractive as these have been to the Congress leadership. Both parties draw their main support from within the same space; the avaricious upper middle class mind loves to go to bed with the idea of living it up sans an iota of cost or sacrifice.

The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch was, till recently, wont to take a jaundiced view of the views and attitudes of international financial and trade agencies and of their symbiotic relationship with the transnational corporations. Pokhran II has transformed the picture. The sanctions the US administration and some of its allies have clamped against India, instead of igniting the ire further of the swadeshi superpatriots and goading them to renew the pledge of economic self-reliance, have thoroughly emasculated them. They are now a chastened lot, and firm believers in the claptrap of the free market, Johnnys come lately occupying the Congress benches.

Once the CTBT gets signed, bygones are therefore likely to be bygones, the BJP regime would be as loyal to American concepts and notions as the P V Narasimha Rao regime demonstrated itself to be from its earliest days. Tightening or loosening the noose so that India could breathe either not at all or a little bit more easily would depend on American whims.

There is no reason why the BJP leaders would not turn out to be fast learners; notwithstanding the capitulation without reservations, the consumption level of the hitherto comfortably placed Indians would not be disturbed. That would be a major gain. Once their level of living is approximately taken care of, India's upper classes would gratefully swing towards the BJP's direction; as corollary, Hindutva would come to have solid Western protection.

Picking friends of such a genre need not be any alien experience for the Americans; their machinations in Iran in the mid-fifties against Mossadeq, their crude attempts to pit Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt against Gamel Abdel Nasser, their arming and financing the Taliban in Afghanistan in the eighties, not to speak of their coddling of George Fernandes's pet, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, for the past half century; the Americans have an impeccable record of patronising the most reactionary and obscurantist elements in country after country to advance what they consider to be their global interests.

Following the gobbling up of the BJP by the US administration, large chunks of the support base of other parties who fill the middle ground in Indian politics, including of the Congress, would commence shrinking, and the propagators of Hindutva would enjoy a rapid accretion of strength. Apart from the Left, few would then be left to depend the secular citadel.

Open sesame, and Indian society will be, all of a sudden, comprehensively globalised. The American presence will have a pervasive influence; local satraps will engage in fierce competition with one another in order to emerge as the favourite offspring of the American matters. It will be to the minutest detail, a marionette's tale.

The Americans cannot be blamed too much if, to amuse themselves, they keep switching their preference from this native puppet to the other one. Soon dogfights among the native sons might ensue to settle the issue of which one amongst them could don the fundamentalist garb most convincingly.

In this evolving screenplay, other political concerns, which held centrestage till the other day, will receive the short shrift. Corruption, for instance, will cease to be an interesting theme. In any case, the American ethos takes a practical view of Asiatic corruption. In the circumstances, Ottavio Quattrocchi, for all one dares to prognosticate, may return to New Delhi as a towering conquistadore. He and his like will perhaps discover a new role for themselves: lobbyists on behalf of this or that Indian political or business tycoon with the American superbosses. India will still formally remain an independent republic, but the so-called Washington consensus will turn out to be the presiding deity of the nation's destiny.

The demons Pokhran II have managed to invoke, albeit temporarily, will be most satisfactorily extinguished. It is only fitting that there will be as thanksgiving, a proliferation of Ram temples all over the country; the designs will be done by top-notch American architects.

Everything will be fine and excellent. There is one small clot of doubt though. What if the Americans insist that, as part of the total deal, the Kashmir issue too be multilateralised?

Ashok Mitra

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