Ever since the ongoing pesticides-in-cola debate surfaced some three years ago, there has been a distinct consistency in it on two accounts. First, on both occasions laboratory tests confirmed that the soft drinks contained pesticides in excess of the permissible limits. Second, on both instances the union health ministers (notwithstanding that the previous health minister wasn’t a doctor) not only doubted the findings but gave a clean chit to the cola companies as well.
Incidentally, the debate has got glaring inconsistencies too. While the health minister has even threatened to take the investigating party to court, the states that had imposed a ban on colas following the toxic revelation are unwilling to revert it. Such contrasting positions allow half-truth an opportunity to stay ahead of the truth. No wonder, the cola companies get a guarded reprieve and the intellectuals a chance to contribute confusion ad infinitum.
As the discourse on an issue of immense public interest gets transformed into a mind game of possibilities, the discerning public gets a taste of what noted critic Edward Said had referred to as `the mood of political correctness’. No surprise, therefore, columnists like Swaminathan Aiyer refer to drinking water, milk and fruit juices for having several times more pesticides than what has been found in the soft drinks. But the question remains: Does that absolve the colas of their toxic impurity?
However, it does allow the discourse to take to a tangent as it gets polarized between two categories of intellectuals: the technocratic intellectuals —who are committed to change policies —and the conformist intellectuals—with their self-righteous agenda to mould public opinion. While the former challenges the authority of the state, the latter stays close to the levers of control. The debate thus gets precariously balanced between the truth and the half truth.
No surprise, the results of confirmatory tests on pesticides in five dozen cola bottles have to measure against obscure results from two cola bottles. The issue of pesticides-in-colas is being projected as a waste of time, or a low-priority issue simply because more people drink (contaminated) water than those gulping soft drinks. Defying logic, the conformist intellectuals are clearly playing subservient to the powers-that-be.
For those who wish to understand what might lie ahead on the cola debate, it is important to understand the principles that animate the decisions and actions of the powerful. It is no chance that actions by two ideologically disparate governments are consistent on an issue that should have ideally been,
in public interest, decided without a whimper. Amazingly, on both the
occasions the government’s action reflected its self-legitimising bias.
The genesis of this self-legitimising authority of the state can be traced back to the ideology behind the setting up of the Trilateral Commission. Established in 1973 by international financier David Rockefeller, the commission's purpose was to diagnose the `crisis in democracy’ reflected in the growing assertion by normally passive sections of the society in articulating their concerns. Much like the present cola case, these passive sections had emerged as `special interests’ and were threatening the power of the state in the 1960s.
With conformist intellectuals like Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton as its members, the challenge before the commission was to suggest ways such that these special interests could be restored to their proper place as passive observers. The objective of this private global body was to engineer an enduring partnership among the ruling classes of North America, Western Europe and Japan—hence the term 'trilateral'— in order to safeguard the interests of Western capitalism in an explosive world.
Without distinction, the commission’s ideology has percolated down to successive governments ever since — to serve the needs of global capitalist forces. One of the significant messages of the Trilateral Commission has been to convert each `controversy’ into a `conspiracy’ such that attention from the core issue could be conveniently diverted. With unsuspecting masses having little clue to the inner dynamics of most controversies, capitalist forces manipulate governments and the media to play to the gallery.
As government delays its action, the cola companies get a breather to mount their advertisement campaign to clear the air of the controversy. Undoubtedly, the Cola giants represent the capitalist forces of our times, who wield unrestricted influence on governments across the world—India doesn’t seem to be any exception. The special interests being suppressed are the women and farmers in Placchimada; and the technocratic intellectuals waging the pesticides-in-cola campaign.
By force or by legal action, the voice of the special interest groups is being suppressed. Only one special interest has been singled out: The corporate sector. But that makes sense. Interestingly, the corporate sector represents the `national interest’ and naturally, there can be no question that state power has to protect the national interest. The ongoing cola controversy can be easily mapped on the contours of this trilateral ideology. It is just a manifestation of the deepening `crisis of democracy’.
Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is at the Ecological Foundation, in New Delhi.