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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 20, May 8, 2010

Bright or Ugly?

Monday 10 May 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty

With his return from the Dhaka Summit, Rajiv Gandhi’s budget for foreign tours for the current year is exhausted, the most impressive that any Prime Minister of India has undertaken in the first year in office. The time for drawing up the balance-sheet for the year has not come, since the over-publicised stop-over in New Delhi by General Zia on December 16 is yet to be assessed.

The Dhaka Summit which institutionalised South Asian Regional Cooperation by setting up its Association is a modestly positive achievement, particularly when evaluated against the back-ground of differences, problems, difficulties and tensions that prevail in the region. How far it will move in taking a definite shape, whether any of the existing models of regional cooperation are valid for South Asia, and finally which way SAARC will finally go in the complex international scenario—these and many other questions are in the realm of speculation, and no careful observer will venture a firm guess. At the same time, active regional cooperation may certainly help to remove cobwebs of misunderstanding and iron out differences accentuated by external vested interests.

The big question-mark that faces the newly-born SAARC is the ultimate outcome of the intensified interaction among South Asian neighbours that it promises to bring about: will this generate in each of its members the will to stand up and assert independence from powerful vested interests, political and economic, that in the name of strategic consensus, are trying to spread their tentacles all around the globe? Or, will that promised interaction within SAARC undermine the independence of its member states and ensnare them in a collective network of economic dependence to the IMF-World Bank overlordship? In plain words, every Indian would like to know whether SAARC will enhance and reinforce the country’s economic independence, or bring it under the tutelage of powerful economic cartels and their transnational tentacles.

This is no longer a theoretical issue for even a country like India, which can in all humility claim that its line of development in the four decades since the end of colonial subjugation, has given it a measure of strength and stamina which other South Asian countries happen to lack. Incidentally, this distinctive Indian position was reflected in the SARC Summit in a different form. At Dhaka, Rajiv Gandhi was not only the head of government of the largest country in the region but the elected head of a regime which is more advanced in democracy than all the others.

However, even with such a record our country is not immune from the depredations of powerful Western capital. The leaders of SAARC would find it rewarding to make a case study of the Bhopal poison-gas strategy, the most horrendous in the annals of development since the Industrial Revolution. It has evoked a sense of horror throughout the world but that has hardly touched the venality of the bosses of the Union Carbide whose negligence led to the crime that has already killed over two thousand innocent people and has afflicted with deadly disease many thousands more. By any civilised standards, this guilty company’s assets in this country should have been confiscated and the magnitude of its guilt made the basis of a world-wide movement of educating millions about the hideous face of the transnational corporations.

While there has been spontaneous resentment at the Bhopal tragedy among many segments of public opinion, both at home and abroad, one is amazed at the manner in which the guilty party, the Union Carbide, has been allowed to hold back for over a year the legitimate compensation that the victims of its misdeed are entitled to. The Prime Minister has told the press that the matter is being handled by the Law Ministry; and his Law Minister has, of course, dutifully made a trip to the United States. There are, however, good grounds for being worried at the manner in which the matter is being mishandled so much so that one should not be blamed for suspecting the record of probity of the concerned authorities entrusted with the task of dealing with the Union Carbide. It is time the Prime Minister himself looked into the goings-on in this connection within his government which, by all accounts, amount to a veritable scandal. If a transnational corporation can virtually take for a ride the Ministers and officers of a government of the stature and reputation such as those of this country, one can easily imagine what could have happened in the countries in our neighbourhood, some of which would certainly find it difficult to stand up to the pulls and pressures, inducements and blackmail that come in the wake of the operation of giant transnational corporations.

The mishandling of the Bhopal tragedy, bordering on the scandalous, is indeed a warning for our country. The objective of Rajiv Gandhi’s programme, of modernising the economic structure taking the country into the era of Technological Revolution, is certainly to be welcomed as it fits in with the pattern of an unfolding historical process. At the same time, he as the chief executive has to guard against the danger of the transnational corporations making menacing inroads into our economy and even into our polity. In the name of bringing in high technology, there is always the danger of such powerful corporations subverting whatever economic independence we have been able to achieve and sustain in the last four decades. Technology by all means we must have, but in a manner and by a strategy that would offer no quarter to powerful foreign vested interests whose record of subversion and domination is an open secret all over the world.

Such misgivings need not be dismissed as baseless. Those who are today entrusted with the formulation and implementation of economic policies, have built up an edifice which can hardly generate the confidence of the public in their capacity and competence to guard and reinforce our economic independence. It is not that the Finance Minister has to be made a target, for it is by now widely known that a particular lobby in the world of big business, which specialises in blatantly irregular practices, is gunning for him. But the back-room operators, who have been silently manipulating our economic decision-making, are not the ones that can fight for the defence of our economy from the rapacity of international big business. Those who have chosen to remain wedded to the IMF-World Bank outlook, can they in all honestly fortify this country from being mortgaged out? The exercise that has now been going on in the Finance Ministry for the preparation of next year’s Budget has already brought out the precarious foreign exchange balance—thanks to the reckless squandering of hard currency on inessential imports in the name of so-called liberalisation—and also the virtual fiasco in internal resource raising. There could be no better commentary on the competence or otherwise of these pundits in the back-room to defend our true national interests.

The time is fast approaching for Rajiv Gandhi to decide whether so much at stake should be allowed to be mismanaged by so few, imperilling the vital interests of so many that constitute this nation of over seven hundred million. No doubt a chilling thought, but like the New Delhi winter, it can lead on to bright sunshine with a clearer perspective.

(Mainstream, December 14, 1985)

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