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A New, Nuclear, India?

Yadav was implicated last year in a series of spectacular scams involving the import of cattle fodder: he is charged with pilfering close to $300 million from the state treasury. After warrants for his arrest were issued by the Central Bureau of Investigation in Delhi, he turned his official residence into a fortress; and when it looked as if the army might be called in to deal with his armed defenders, he led a long procession to the local court and surrendered before a cowering judge—but not before he had appointed his wife chief minister. His prison turned out to be a luxurious government guest house from where he continued to issue fiats and decrees. He was released on bail to contest the recent elections, where, amid accusations of seriously corrupt electoral practices (organized, allegedly, by his wife), he and his supporters won seventeen seats in the national parliament.

The BJP promises change, but whether or not it is serious about this it is probably too late to make much difference. In any event, there is increasing evidence that it is not averse to the status quo. It has promoted legislators with criminal records to key ministerial positions in order to prop up its fragile majority in the state legislature of Uttar Pradesh. One of the candidates it has backed for the central parliament was a convicted criminal with twenty-five pending cases against him, including six for murder; he lost to someone who had thirty-five criminal charges against him. Charges have been made against the party’s own leaders, although most have so far been known for their personal probity.

The social climate for the BJP-led government is no more propitious than it was for any other governments in the past. The always fragile ideas in India of democracy and egalitarianism have been further enfeebled by the grab-all-you-can mentality spawned by the economic reforms among their prime beneficiaries, the new middle class. The narrow concerns of this class are best reflected by the English-language press and television, which, apart from a handful of exceptions, is even more confused about its role in a semiliterate third world democracy. It is certainly slicker, bigger, and more self-confident than in the days of the Emergency, when, if it was told to bend, as one imprisoned opposition leader, L.K. Advani, a BJP hard-liner who is now home minister, famously put it, it crawled.

However, much of the slickness and confidence seems devoted to covering the bogus celebrities and events of the new fashion and entertainment industry—the cultural offshoot of the liberalized economy. Cindy Crawford is coming! Cindy Crawford is coming! crows a serious news magazine, and over the next few days, both on TV and in print, the nation is made to follow closely Crawford’s promotional jaunt on behalf of Omega watches. Sixty-four Dalits are massacred in one village in Bihar by private armies hired by upper-caste landlords, and the news barely made it to the front pages, where news of another Indian woman winning the Miss World contest had made headlines. The largest-circulation English-language newspaper, The Times of India, recently started a Human Rights Watch column after the ailing owner of the Times newspaper group, Ashok Jain, was prevented from going abroad for medical treatment by authorities investigating his financial misdemeanors. After weeks of remaining preoccupied with Mr. Jain’s problems, with many damaging stories about his tormentors, the column now seeks to explain its new-found obsession with human rights. A recent headline reads: “All newspapers should focus on human rights violations: Justice P.B. Sawant.”

A nation ceaselessly exchanging banalities with itself,” V.S. Naipaul wrote in 1967, at a low moment in India’s post-independence history, and the remark seems even truer now. The breakdown of the legal system, and the assault on civil liberties, the routine torture of prisoners (in a bizarre incident last month, senior air force officers asking for a pay raise were arrested and forced to sit on electric heaters), the custodial deaths and extrajudicial killings—such common and disturbing symptoms of the deep malaise in the democratic system are not much noticed by affluent Indians, and nobody knows what the BJP proposes to do about them.

Despite its popularity after the nuclear tests, the BJP has still not freed itself from the contradictory positions of its coalition partners. The defense portfolio, for instance, is handled by a maverick old socialist who is a fervent supporter of the Tibetan cause, something not very high on the BJP’s own agenda. In foreign affairs, the policies of the BJP, having now cashed its nuclear card, are likely to be directed by its domestic fortunes. Relations with both Pakistan and China have been set back a few years by the nuclear tests, and may well deteriorate further—particularly with the former. The friendly relations with Russia, which has refused to impose sanctions on India, will remain. And, despite what it says in public, the BJP wants relations with Western countries restored to normal as soon as possible: one powerful reason is its well-to-do Indian supporters in the United States and Britain who have been helping to bankroll the party’s political campaigns.

There are also many local factors, such as the state government of Andhra Pradesh, whose support at present gives the government a wafer-thin majority in parliament and whose leaders may be worried about the possible impact of sanctions on the state economy, which depends on foreign investment. Once normal relations are restored, the BJP will probably try to advance the process of seeking closer military cooperation with the United States, in order to create a strong bulwark against China.

But the government’s biggest test lies in dealing with the deteriorating condition of hundreds of millions of Indians. It is not a matter about which the BJP has ever been called upon to do much, and the statistics suggest they have got their work cut out for them. 226 million Indians are without safe drinking water; 640 million without basic sanitation; 291 million are illiterate; 44 percent of the population (one third of the world’s poor) lives in absolute poverty.

India’s poor have borne the brunt of the food price rises that were partly caused by exposing the economy to the chaotic fluctuations of supply and demand in international markets. The prices of wheat and sugar have risen to new levels; the government had to ban the export of onions, which, along with a piece of bread, constitute the sole meal of the day for many Indians living below the poverty line, and whose price, after a bad crop, has gone up three times in the last few months.

The BJP’s main constituency, too, is in trouble. Six years of economic reforms, while making the poor poorer, increased middle-class consumerism. But the reforms are faltering; the economy is in deep recession. The crises of Southeast Asia haven’t reached India—yet. But the flow of foreign investment has dried up. Property prices in Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore, once as high as in Manhattan and Tokyo, have slumped. Many Indian companies have announced drastic retrenchment plans. Desperate price cuts have been announced on foreign consumer brands such as Nike, Reebok, and Levi’s; they have proved too expensive for Indian consumers. After heavy losses, multinationals such as Sony and Kellogg are drastically revising their plans for India. To most of these multinational companies the much-trumpeted 200-million-strong middle class of India has proved disappointing: Mercedes-Benz, hoping to sell 10,000 cars a year, sells only forty and fifty every month. Peugeot’s joint venture with an Indian company is near collapse. The accumulated losses of top companies like Whirlpool, General Electric, Sony, Panasonic, Coca- Cola, and Pepsico are estimated at $375 million.

However, investments by multinational companies are expected to continue despite disappointing results so far; and they are unlikely to be much affected by the sanctions imposed by the governments of the US, Japan, and Canada after the nuclear tests. Since they stand to lose their own money, multinational companies are only likely to put pressure on the G-8 governments for a more tolerant attitude toward India: Boeing is already nervous about a deal with Air India that it fears may now go to Airbus. After announcing the cancellation of $1 billion in aid to India, the Japanese government soon slashed the figure down to $26 million and then said that all projects already approved would go through. Indeed, most of the EU nations, including Britain and France, are unwilling to impose any sanctions. Clinton’s own sanctions, which involve cutting off government aid, canceling credit loans and guarantees, and impeding World Bank and IMF loans to India, are expected to merely pinch, and not hurt, the Indian economy. Some infrastructure projects in the power and telecom sector are likely to be slowed down; the rupee, which has been shaky for some time against the dollar, has slipped, but may end up finding what experts call a realistic and desirable level.

Soon after the the events in Tienanmen Square, the Chinese government put together an irresistible package of reforms for foreign investors; the investments it attracted neutralized the effect of international sanctions and spurred faster GDP growth. A day after the tests, the BJP government announced the opening of the housing sector to foreign investment and then cleared a long-delayed mining license to a US company. There are other indications that the BJP government is following China’s example, by pushing at a greater pace the liberal reforms which opened up India to foreign investors seven years ago. In fact, the sanctions are being perceived as an opportunity of sorts by the Indian proponents of economic reforms, whose recent sluggish implementation has led to the current recession. Only last month India’s new finance minister was in the US, where he appeared before the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal in a bid to reassure American investors, who have the largest stake among all foreign investors in India, about the BJP-led government. (When asked about Swadeshi—the BJP’s catchall term for economic self-reliance—he dismissed it as a state of mind.)

The sanctions may isolate India within the international community—but only for a time. The example of France is not unfamiliar to the Indian government, which very clearly knew that sanctions would not seriously undermine the Indian economy. France faced a similar sort of international outrage after its nuclear tests 5 ; but the dust soon settled after it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It is likely that after establishing India’s claims to the nuclear club before the world (and having in the process ensured its own survival, if only temporarily), the BJP government will adopt a conciliatory position. It is already talking of formalizing its self-declared moratorium on nuclear tests and may sign, after some token reservations and objections, the CTBT, which the last Indian government rejected, thus making it easier for the G-8 countries to do business with India again.

A stable government might have inspired more confidence among foreign investors. But for now it looks as if the BJP government can only stay in power by striking dramatic postures, the options for which are at present rather limited. It can’t build a temple in Ayodhya, or enact a uniform civil code, without losing its allies and causing riots between Hindus and Muslims across India; it can’t cancel the special concessions granted to Kashmir without reviving the secessionist movement that has shown signs of flagging. It can, however, keep pressing the hot buttons of Pakistan and China and raising alarms about national security without any loss in domestic support. Now Pakistan’s own nuclear tests have made it easier for the BJP to raise the bogey again. Faced with now-growing criticism for having initiated a nuclear arms race, the BJP is only likely to step up its jingoistic talk.

The jingoism would play a major part in the BJP’s preparations for the next round of elections. Large rallies meant to celebrate India’s emergence as a nuclear superpower are scheduled to be held in the next few weeks; party leaders are meant to go out and educate the masses about threats to India’s unity. If new elections take place by the end of this year, the Hindu Pride card is likely to return the BJP to power with a clearer majority. Until then, many members of the government will make as much money as they can during their brief tryst with state power.

You get a strong feeling of déjà vu—particularly when you consider the disproportionate amount of public time and energy that in India is diverted into futile political speculation. As 600 million Indians went to the polls in February, an army of pundits and psephologists took over TV screens across India; and the air grew thick with their talk of “swings” and “caste” percentages. For days and nights on end, they discussed events and personalities about whom the most accurate thing one could say was that they would soon be overtaken by events and personalities equally inconsequential.

Increasingly, the surface eventfulness of Indian politics turns out to be a deceptive thing; and the scientific jargon employed to explain it seems to be obscuring a very basic fact: that the political system, when assessed, as it should be, on the basis of its own home-grown deformities, has long abnegated its basic responsibilities to the needy millions, India’s invisible majority, and survives only through its ability to enrich people venal enough to be part of it. Democracy in India—that much-celebrated accomplishment—seems to have degenerated into a vast colorful circus of almost continuous elections. And now, as the economy stumbles, and tough times, after the current euphoria, loom ahead for the middle class, the poor may find that the small portions of bread that occasionally went with the circuses have become even smaller.

May 28, 1998

  1. 5

    India did not join in the international outcry against France, which has now reciprocated in kind and has even opposed US sanctions.

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