Sunday, May 18, 2008

On the Branding of Swadeshi

India's economy is in crisis. Inflation has raised its ugly head. Even our huge new middle class is in trouble. The poor may sink completely. Our greatest immediate difficulty is that those most essential of commodities - staple foods and fuel - are seeing the fastest rising rates.

At the same time, complexity takes hold of our economic, political, religious, and cultural fronts. Yet we are being sold a strange brew of oversimplifications. It's the cost of development, they say; or, reform is always painful and so costly to implement...

There is a deliberate bid to reduce the political fallout by confusing the issues. Great and somewhat relentless forces have silently been unleashed in our nation. Though we can see the evil clearly in our neighbors' experiences, we are blinded to our own inability to see ourselves as we really are.

Strategically and with global implications, the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, the sidelining of 'Mushy' Musharraf, and the now more hidden face of the military oligarchy there, coupled with the fallout of the 'war on terror' on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, has led the US, Britain, and the EU to seek much closer ties with India.

We see the rise of the West in India most clearly in the fields of defense and retail. More subtle signs include the red carpet welcome to Western based MNCs, as well as a deliberate (but silent) turning away from the independence theme of Swadeshi that formed the economic backbone of Mahatma Gandhi's freedom movement.

It is not just one Indian national party that has changed their tune to welcome the latest trend to global capitalistic hegemony. Both our leading political blocks - the Congress led UPA, and the BJP led NDA, are openly shedding nonalignment for Western goodies.

Just a couple of small examples show how far we have come since our 'non-aligned' days of standing tall for freedom. On the one hand our politicians try to convince us that our economic and defense needs dictate our strengthening trade with the West and even with Israel. On the other hand, we are not willing to accept desperately needed gas from Iran. Iran's policy of seeking nuclear self-sufficiency (as we too had done) apparently now offends our Realpolitik and the necessity of pandering to the American foreign policy. We feel safer as American dependents - now how strange is that?.

I think the biggest blind spot that we have is our fear of China. There is no logic to this fear. Any rational analysis would show that closer ties between these two economies promise huge benefits for both sides. It is an economic alliance that the West justly fears. All sorts of pressure has been brought on our politicos to increase the alienation, and our brave leaders have succumbed. There is no logic, but after all an immediate need in the depths of their pockets.

No similar 'pots of gold' await any deal with Iran. While our nation may benefit immensely from the low cost of sorely needed Iranian gas, and we continue to surreptitiously buy Iran's oil, this pales in comparison to the loss of secret revenues from those neoglobalists who want to call the shots for us.

As Mahatma Gandhi knew, when there is no Swadesh there can be no Swaraj. Yet we no longer care for the Mahatma's advice.

Swadeshi is also prominently missing in agriculture. The obvious result is that while the prices of basic foods skyrocket, the traditional farmer gets poorer and poorer. Those that benefit directly, and immensely, are the stockists and 'middle men' - now a misnomer in itself for this niche has been fully occupied by MNC minions. It almost seems as though our political bosses are aching to replace the myriad millions of traditional farmers with mega farms controlled by a few choice corporate houses.

The new breed of MNC linked trading house can stock (it used to be called 'hoard') and therefore exercise empty 'value addition' with impunity. They sell at self-created demand peaks in connivance with a government that will authorize exports of commodities that are in short supply. The obfuscation is most clearly visible when the government blames 'global' factors including that wonderful commodity, crude oil. The recent global spike up in the prices of commodities should actually have absolutely no impact on domestic prices when our own agricultural production is more than self sufficient! The same goes for cooking oil where retail prices at one stage rose by more than 50% over just a six month period!

Meanwhile, the farmers starve, fail to pay their debts, and commit suicide. We face a drought this year with the failure of the SW monsoons. And on the sidelines await the ever-eager property speculators, who are just waiting to pick up excellent farmland at distress sale prices, to hand over to the cash-rich agri-corps, who are also circling hungrily above. Once the carcass has been picked clean, we Indians who earn only a tenth of what the West averages, will yet pay the full 'global' price at par for our own commodities. Paying such a price to our existing farmers seems not to be an option. No, we will wait for the corporates to make the killing!

As Gandhiji remarked so many years ago, "Swadeshi is that spirit in us which requires us to serve our immediate neighbours before others, and to use things produced in our neighbourhood in preference to those more remote. So doing, we serve humanity to the best of our capacity. We cannot serve humanity by neglecting our neighbours"

And further and more pointedly, Swadeshi is "a call to the consumer to be aware of the violence he is causing by supporting those industries that result in poverty, harm to workers and to humans and other creatures"

The  maha atma Gandhiji came, and he did more than his bit to rescue us from our coils of slavery. There is no sense in yearning for him to come again. The only ones who can save us from our (oh so 'Gandhian') politicians, are ourselves. Right now we have only ourselves to blame for not calling our politicians to account. It is high time for our youth to rise and discover the true power of the ballot, voting for persons who are not so bent on first taking care of lining their own pockets. But that is only the beginning.

We must find ways to hold our politicos to account, to demand that they lead well and honestly, and to demand that they have a vision for humanity, for the India that can be built up by a committed and caring India.

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