First published in The Statesman March 14 2006 Editorial Page Special Article
By Subroto Roy
If souls can transmigrate, so may souls of companies, and future historians might well look back and say that the new US-India “CEO Forum” heralded the modern rebirth of the East India Company. Like the old Company, the new Forum has many ambitious, competent people. The American side includes heads of AES Corporation, Cargill Inc., Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Honeywell, McGraw-Hill, Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd, PepsiCo, Visa International and Xerox Corporation. The Indian side includes heads of Tata Group, Apollo Hospitals Group, Bharat Forge Ltd, Biocon India Group, HDFC, ICICI One Source, Infosys, ITC Ltd, Max India Group and Reliance Industries — all stalwarts of what Mr Kanu Sanyal’s Naxals would have termed India’s “comprador bourgeoisie”.
Presiding over the Indian side has been Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trusted confidante, Montek Singh Ahluwalia (whose family moved to the USA after 20 years in India). Indeed it may have been his idea to have a government-sponsored business initiative. A “US-India Business Council” has existed for thirty years in Washington as “the premier business advocacy organization promoting US commercial interests in India.… the voice of the American private sector investing in India”. But for both Governments to sponsor private business via the Forum was “unprecedented” as noted by Washington’s press during Dr Singh’s visit in July 2005. The State Department (America’s foreign ministry) announced it saying: “Both our governments have agreed that we should create a high-level private sector forum to exchange business community views on key economic priorities…”
The Forum seems to have gone well beyond exchanging business community views, and has had a clear impact in the sudden redefinition of the direction of India’s foreign, military and energy policy. When Dr Singh addressed America’s legislature, the main aspect of the speech he read there had to do with agreeing with the American President “to enhance Indo-US cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear technology”. And nuclear energy has suddenly begun to dominate India’s news and national political agenda — even though the 2503MW of nuclear power produced in the country accounts for merely 4% of our civilian energy needs, barely significant. But before nuclear or any other deals could be contemplated with American business, the Dabhol payouts were required to be made. The Maharashtra State Electricity Board — or rather, its sovereign guarantor the Government of India — paid out at least $140-$160 million each to General Electric and Bechtel Corporations in “an amicable settlement” of the Dabhol affair. (When is the last word going to be said on that?) Afterwards, General Electric’s CEO for India was kind enough to say “India is an important country to GE’s global growth. We look forward to working with our partners, customers, and State and Central Governments in helping India continue to develop into a leading world economy”.
A weak and corrupt Delhi
Such nice rhetoric was on close display during the deal-making leading up to and beyond President George W. Bush’s recent India visit. America’s Ambassadors are mostly political appointees and special friends of the President of the day; the present Ambassador to India is a prominent Texas businessman, and business has been driving American thinking with India all the way. After Dr Singh’s visit, the US Foreign Commercial Service reportedly said American engineering firms, equipment suppliers and contractors faced a $1000 bn (1 bn = 100 crore) opportunity in India. Before the Bush visit, Dr Singh signed vast purchases of commercial aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, as well as large weapons’ deals with France and Russia. After the Bush visit, the US Chamber of Commerce has said the nuclear deal can cause $100 bn worth of new American business in India’s energy-sector alone. Getting American legislators to agree will require “massive grassroots efforts” at lobbying politicians, saying that “energy-starved” India will now become open “to US investment in key areas from IT and telecom to pharmaceuticals and insurance”. Mr Bush’s foreign minister Condoleezza Rice (who has authored the political aspects of the new India-orientation) and her pointman Nicholas Burns have said, “we are suggesting India-specific amendments to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954… It’s a waiver authority … We are not seeking relief from US law for any country in the world except India and we don’t anticipate putting any country forward. So it is India specific.” India will separate by 2014 closely entwined civilian and military nuclear facilities and put 14 of 22 civilian nuclear reactors under international inspection.
Now the East India Company had not intended to rule India but ended up dictating to a weak and corrupt Delhi, waging wars across Bengal, the Deccan and North India, and inducing “regime change” all over the place among local satraps. In the modern context, the American Government and its businessman Ambassador to the Delhi Court have made it crystal-clear India’s support has been expected in the matter of American policy towards Iran. Dr Singh has been his own Foreign Minister, crafting his America policy aided by Mr Ahluwalia on one hand and Mr M. K. Narayanan on the other. None of the three has diplomatic, historical or foreign policy-making experience. Mr Narayanan is a retired officer of domestic counter-intelligence (which is traditionally Pakistan-specific). Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia are retired economic officials. None has ever outlined for public scrutiny any views on India’s history, politics or foreign policy in any book or essay. India’s historians and career diplomats (and not just the most loquacious and greedy ones) have been silenced. Yet this is a time when a well-respected Indian world figure (though unfortunately there may be none, except Zubin Mehta) could have brought Iran and Israel to the conference table together. Iran must recognise Israel and the two countries must exchange ambassadors if the present tension is not to degenerate into more war in our region. Israel needs to declare itself a nuclear weapons’ power and not be belligerent towards Muslims, and Iran could be allowed to pursue its nuclear research within reason. It is in India’s and Pakistan’s common interests to see that Jimmy Carter’s extension of the Monroe doctrine to include the Persian Gulf be replaced by the Zionist philosopher Martin Buber’s idea of a “federative structure” for the peoples of the East. Instead the reverse is happening.
What economics does say
Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia may say economics has been driving their new foreign policy. But what economics actually says is that Government should have nothing to do with any kind of business. Government should encourage competition in all avenues of economic activity and prevent or regulate monopoly, and also see to it that firms pay taxes they are due to pay. But that is it. It is as bad for Government to pamper organised business and organised labour with subsidies of any kind as it is to make enterprise difficult with red tape and hurdles. Businessmen are grown ups and should be allowed to freely risk their capital and make their profits or their losses without public intervention. Government’s role is to raise taxes and provide public goods and services properly. We need to remind ourselves that India is a large, populous country with hundreds of millions of materially poor ill-informed citizens, a weak tax-base, a humongous internal and external public debt (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), a non-investment grade credit-rating in world financial markets, massive annual fiscal deficits, an inconvertible currency, nationalized banks, and runaway printing of paper-money. There is plenty of serious economics that has yet to begin to be done in the country. New Delhi must wake up from its self-induced dreaming.
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