Monday, July 23, 2012

Obama Did a smart job for his country. Why is there none to do India's job?

Can the President of the United States be faulted for pushing the interests of the United States? Barack Obama was doing his duty when he asked Manmohan Singh to speed up economic reforms and let American investment into areas like retail. India can respond any which way. But Congressmen rushing to the “defence” of Manmohan Singh is not a response. It is yet another demonstration of the culture of crawling when asked to bend.

The record shows that India has often promoted America's interests rather than India's. This is because, unlike in China or even Pakistan, politicians and bureaucrats in India can be easily hooked with the bait of a free trip to America. A job in the World Bank is irresistible. There are also leaders, like Manmohan Singh, who genuinely believe that it is in India's interest to be in the good books of America. Remember the only issue he pushed with determination in all his years as Prime Minister was the nuclear cooperation bill which was more to America's advantage than to India's.

Sure, India and the US are active democracies and therefore natural allies. Healthy cooperation will be beneficial to both. But this needs to be built on a basis of equality and mutual respect. If America frisks India's ambassador to the country at an airport, if it repeatedly treats A.P.J.Abdul Kalam as though he were a terrorist in disguise, if it turns hostile to Indian IT companies with discriminatory visa and tax regimes, and if India takes it all lying down, then it is not a healthy relationship. It is a relationship that will fill ordinary Indians with hostility towards America.

American corporations are not among the world's most ethical. One factor behind the Occupy Wall Street movement is the “looting” of shareholders' money by corporate tycoons. But can they be faulted if Indians accept favours from them and do their bidding at India's cost? A mountain of literature is available on the activities of America's seed companies in India. In the most controversial issue of them all, the genetically engineered brinjal, Monsanto managed to get the necessary approvals from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee in Delhi. The story behind the story was that the GEAC as well as field research teams were infiltrated by Monsanto so that “the data placed before the GEAC was provided by the applicant company”. Greedy Indians are to be blamed if even our brinjal goes into the hands of “the world's most hated company” as The Guardian described Monsanto.

The American establishment had always placed emphasis on taking over India's agri business, no doubt inspired by the sheer size of a billion-people market. This was in fact the topic most ardently pushed by President Obama when he visited India in 2010. Some 200 American business leaders accompanied their President. They promoted a series of initiatives such as the India-US Agriculture Dialogue and revived the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture Research, a project formalised by George Bush in 2006 but went dormant after unwanted American farm techniques proved counterproductive.

In all these initiatives, the emphasis is on America increasing its exports to India and enlarging its trade surplus. What are India's needs and how are they served? Indian officialdom, from Sharad Pawar to agricultural university researchers, often give the impression that they are on America's side. Thus drugs banned in America can be sold over the counter in India. Clinical trials prohibited in America can be conducted on the poor in India. Pesticides like endosulfan, the production of which is stopped in America, still have supporters among India's power-wielders.

With Manmohan Singh in charge of the Finance Ministry, US corporate sector found a golden opportunity to pressure India into toeing the American line. Obama seized the opportunity and picked PTI for his interview – clearly a focussed message to India directly. A smart move by an alert leader in the interests of his country.

Where are the alert leaders who will make smart moves in the interests of India?