In Independent India, the ‘Firang’ first became famous in the 1970s because of Indira Gandhi who conspiratorially bestowed the ‘Foreign Hand’ with bionic powers of destruction every time her own government was shaky. But what was meant to evoke a Fear of the Foreigner instead became perfect raw material to sculpt a political joke from — the stuff of smirks, instead of scared shudders; the cue
word for a snarky jibe from a mocking Opposition.
To be able to openly laugh at your antagonist, that too at a formidable prime minister was no easy task. Yet, because of its in-built paranoia that’s exactly what the political overuse of the ‘Foreign Hand’ did — leave an imprint of embarrassment for its creator; what today’s Facebook Generation would call a ‘Face Palm’ moment. It was against the ridiculousness of everything being blamed on the invisible, but supposedly omnipotent Foreign Force that the Swatantra Party’s flamboyant and irrepressible Piloo Mody marched into Parliament with a banner strung around his neck that sardonically proclaimed, “I am a CIA agent.”
Even today, decades later, the mere mention of the ‘Foreign Hand’ — whether used to raise an alarm over anti-nuclear protests in Kudankulam or for a bizarre scrutiny of research scholars in Parliament who received funding from the Ford Foundation — evokes, mostly, a collective groan of disbelief. Irrespective of where one may stand on a campaign, policy or an individual, when opposed in terms of Foreign vs Indian, the argument tends to collapse. An invariable consequence of globalisation has been that xenophobia seems, for the most part, archaic, insecure and politically redundant.
So, what explains the fact that foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector could cause a furore big enough to almost bring down a government? Why would this be the one issue that unites groups as disparate as the BJP, the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the BSP and covers the entire political spectrum from Right to Left? The phrase itself — ‘Foreign Hand’ — has historically been a Congress tagline.
So, there is considerable irony in the fact that today its authorship has been swapped. The Opposition’s accusation that “foreign pressure” has been the driving force of the FDI decision obviously has less to do with economic theory and more to do with the mathematics of 2014. But beyond the complex courtships and seasonal dalliances that come with elections, some of our politicians clearly believe — mistakenly — that there is still an advantage in beating the foreign bogeyman.
Tragically, our politics today no longer makes space for the acerbic wit of a Piloo Mody and his ‘CIA’ badge of honour. But his wit apart, in today’s context it is also significant to invoke the history of the party he was a Member of Parliament from. The Swatantra Party, founded by C Rajagopalachari may not have been able to grow beyond his death but in the period of its influence (1959-1971, with as many as 44 parliamentary seats in the 1967 elections) it sought to be India’s first significant secular Conservative alternative to the Congress. As the earliest political advocate of free enterprise (and closer relations with the West), Rajaji was bitterly opposed to the socialism propounded by Jawaharlal Nehru who he said was taking India down “the Royal Road to Communism.”
Nehru was as vitriolic in his criticism calling his challengers a “party of fossils, frustrated individuals, champions of vested interests.” Their debate was a prescient version of our continued differences over how to find the balance between the demands of Big Business and the moral obligations of a Welfare State. History may judge the Swatantra Party harshly for failing to evolve an inclusive base but as author HL Erdman has chronicled, it also offered the first opportunity to study the “problems and prospects of a strong, explicitly Rightist and more specifically, Conservative force in India...”
For the BJP, often confronted with which form of Conservatism to embrace — social or fiscal —in its aim to be a more contemporary Centre-Right party, there may be some instructive lessons here. Its opposition to FDI in retail is a potentially identity-blurring one, making it sound more Karl Marx than Margaret Thatcher. The threat by the ever-fiery Uma Bharti to set fire to the first Wal-Mart store reinforces the traps of an ideological past, especially when it’s optional for states to accept or reject the retail reforms. In a year when the overall FDI in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat has crossed the $1-billion mark, these internal contradictions are sharp and noticeable.
Opposition concerns for the small trader don’t sound ingenuous either when there have been virtually no protests against domestic players like Big Bazaars and Spencers. Nor, have these giant retailers managed to eliminate the neighbourhood store or even the sabziwallah on his cycle cart. Just as Haldiram’s thrives but won’t ever manage to dislocate the chaat-wala at India Gate. Yes, the flattening and homogenising impact of globalisation is often less than charming — which is why locally sourced produce, farmers markets and home-crafted bakeries are making a return everywhere in the West. But it’s ultimately about the right of the consumer to choose. And chances are that Tesco and the ‘Thelewalah’ will find a way to happily co-exist.
Arun Shourie is probably right in arguing that the consequences of retail FDI — the good and the bad — have been grossly overstated. But to present an economic argument in terms of a foreign conspiracy is outmoded. Even London’s East India Company has been re-launched as a luxury goods brand, one ironically partly owned by Indians. After, all this is the land of the McTikki. How’s that for reverse globalisation?
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University’s India Initiative. The views expressed by the author are personal.