April 08, 2020
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A Paradox Called Swadeshi

A simple riddle: can you be proud of India and defensive of its abilities at the same time?

A Paradox Called Swadeshi

CAN we have some sense of priorities, please? If the utterings of some of the leaders of the BJP and its allies are to be believed, the principal danger the Indian economy faces is from foreign corporations, hounds from hell foaming at the mouth, with only one aim in life: enslave every Indian, body and mind. So don't allow any more foreign companies in the consumer goods sector, change Maruti Udyog's name to Swadeshi Udyog, so on and so forth. In this regard, I would like to make some humble submissions to Mr Gurumurthy of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Mr George Fernandes of the Samata Party and their ilk.

My first humble submission is that the presence of a Coke or a Kellogg is a totally insignificant issue in a country where about 40 per cent of the population is below the poverty line, and about 50 per cent illiterate. We're talking about a totally different scale of problems here. Renaming Maruti Udyog won't put one extra grain of rice in the tummies of the marginalised (unless they are signboard painters and stationery printers), won't lead to one child learning to read and write, won't make one monster reconsider his decision to slaughter his newborn daughter. These are the real problems, the crucial issues, the shame of our nation, not whether someone's selling some coloured sugar water. It's ridiculous for a government to even be spending any time thinking about the threat posed by six McDonald outlets instead of directing all its energies to examine how primary education can be made compulsory, how laws can be changed so that infrastructure projects can actually take off, how some basic healthcare can reach the poor.

My second humble submission is about this term "national pride". The BJP and its allies are heavy on national pride. Honestly, I am, too: while 70 per cent of our classmates in IIT went off to the US of A, my wife and I didn't even consider that option: we wanted to stay in our own country...brain drain, second-class citizens, all those notions. So is our pride in our civilisation—yes, I believe India is far greater than a nation, it is a civilisation—so fragile that we should scurry around every time someone sets up a junk food restaurant or beams in some new veejay wearing a dress sewn out of a handkerchief? The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch believes Kentucky Fried Chicken and its cohorts will spoil our dietary habits. If our dietary habits can be so easily spoiled, they should be. If some airhead talk show hostess can affect India's morality, then our moral moorings must be pretty tenuous anyway. Doesn't anyone in the BJP wear jeans, as American a concept as any? Has that affected their ideology in any way?

Why is this "national pride" being manifested only in a defensive, negative way? Why is it all about putting walls up, shutting our windows? Why is it not positive, why is it not about setting up 16 Indian restaurants in the USA for every one that McDonald's opens in India? Why is it not about getting three albums on the international charts for every Michael Learns to Rock song that gets on our countdown shows? If Khaled can sing in Algerian and sell lakhs of cassettes of Didi in India, why can't Daler Mehndi (mind you, I'm no fan of his) sell a million in France? Why can't Mani Ratnam do what John Woo and Ang Li have done in Hollywood? National pride should be about aiding Dabur in every way possible to give Body Shop a run for its money, it should be about the Taj taking on the Sheratons, and not about griping and pointing fingers.

The BJP, given its ideology and undoubted commitment levels, is the one party which can actually do something for our national pride. It can provide prime ministers who don't spend their time hugging everyone in sight and bending over backwards to prove we're nice guys. I would like a world where when India stands up to speak, others shut off their Walkmans and listen. If the BJP believes India has the talent and gumption to achieve that, it should get on with the job, and stop listening to whiners.

My third submission: the swadeshi brigade should develop some respect for the average Indian. He may be illiterate, but he's the man who can defeat the Congress at Amethi after Sonia Gandhi campaigned there. If he was a fool, Sony and Panasonic and Thomson would have been wiping the floor with BPL and Videocon by now, Coke would not be pushing Thums Up again, Lost World dubbed in Hindi would be making more money than Dil To Pagal Hai. It will be extreme folly—and utterly wrong—for politicians to decide for him what he wants. He knows that better than all of the politicians put together. He can figure out easily who's offering him value for money, and as long as he gets value for money, it shouldn't matter whether the company is Indian or American.

So what about the fact that the American company has 600 times the money the Indian one has, that it's 40 rupees to a dollar, that a Rs 100-crore loss could destroy an Indian firm but would be less than the annual salary of the US company's CEO? What about the fact that when a US company finds itself outsmarted by its Indian rival, it can simply buy the Indian company—and consequently, marketshare? Yes, this is where the government should make the playing field level. Liberalisation can work only with very strong and transparent laws on monopolies, restrictive trade practices, and dumping. Congress and UF policies have been totally amiss here, and so we have transnational monopolies or duopolies today in sectors like shaving razors, ice creams, soft drinks. This is where a government can and should vigorously protect our businessmen's interests. And let the man on the street decide the rest.

Swadeshi policymakers need to solve this paradox they suffer from: you can't be proud of your nation and defensive about its abilities at the same time. True national pride is when every Indian is literate and fed and can rise to potential. True national pride needs to be a positive force, not an excuse for the unworthy to shy away from the contest.

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