Monday, March 31, 2014

The Rich Rule India

Author and social critic, Arundhati Roy, wants the world to know that India is under the control of its largest corporations. The 100 richest people in India control a quarter of the country's gross-domestic product. India's national politics are dominated by two parties, the Congress and the BJP. The Congress maintains a more secular stance and is often favoured by those who want more accommodation for minorities, be they Muslim, Sikh, or Christian. In American terms, the Congress is the equivalent of the Democratic Party. The BJP is actually a coalition of right-wing parties and more forcefully advances the notion that India is a Hindu nation. It often calls for a harder line against Pakistan. In this regard, the BJP could be seen as the Republicans of India.

"Wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. And these few corporations now run the country and, in some ways, run the political parties. They run the media."

The Delhi-based novelist and nonfiction writer argues that this is having devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of the poorest people in India. In recent years, she has researched how the richest Indian corporations—such as Reliance, Tata, Essar, and Infosys—are employing similar tactics as the U.S.-based Rockefeller and Ford foundations. She points out that the Rockefeller and Ford foundations have worked closely in the past with the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency to further U.S. government and corporate objectives.

Now, she maintains that Indian companies are distributing money through charitable foundations as a means of controlling the public agenda through what she calls "peception management". This includes channelling funds to nongovernmental organizations, film and literary festivals, and universities. She acknowledges that the Tata Group has been doing this for decades, but says that more recently, other large corporations have begun copying this approach. According to her, the overall objective is to blunt criticism of neoliberal policies that promote inequality.

"Slowly, they decide the curriculum," Roy maintains. "They control the public imagination. As public money gets pulled out of health care and education and all of this, NGOs funded by these major financial corporations and other kinds of financial instruments move in, doing the work that missionaries used to do during colonialism—giving the impression of being charitable organizations, but actually preparing the world for the free markets of corporate capital."

One of her greatest concerns is how foundation-funded NGOs "defuse people's movements and...vacuum political anger and send them down a blind alley.It's very important to keep the oppressed divided," she says. "That's the whole colonial game, and it's very easy in India because of the diversity."

"I'm a great admirer of the wisdom and the courage that people in the resistance movement show" she says. "And they are where my own understanding comes from." Roy says that corporate India is backing Narendra Modi as the country's next prime minister because the ruling Congress party hasn't been sufficiently ruthless against the growing resistance movement. "I think the coming elections are all about who is going to crank up the military assault on troublesome people." In several states, armed rebels have prevented massive mining and infrastructure projects that would have displaced massive numbers of people. "The corporations are all backing Modi because they think that [Prime Minister] Manmohan [Singh] and the Congress government hasn't shown the nerve it requires to actually send in the army into places like Chhattisgarh and Orissa," she says. She also labels Modi as a politician who's capable of "mutating", depending on the circumstances. "From being this openly sort of communal hatred-spewing saccharine person, he then put on the suit of a corporate man, and, you know, is now trying to play the role of the statesmen, which he's not managing to do really," Roy says. He's a political darling to many in the Indian elite, according to Roy.

Roy claims that the high-profile India Against Corruption campaign is another example of corporate meddling. According to Roy, the movement's leader, Anna Hazare, serves as a front for international capital to gain greater access to India's resources by clearing away any local obstacles.  Hazare has received global acclaim by acting as a modern-day Mahatma Gandhi, but Roy characterizes both of them as "deeply disturbing". She also describes Hazare as a "sort of mascot" to his corporate backers. In her view, "transparency" and "rule of law" are code words for allowing corporations to supplant "local crony capital". This can be accomplished by passing laws that advance corporate interests. Hazare's high-profile allies, Arvind Kerjiwal and Kiran Bedi, both operate NGOs funded by U.S. foundations.
"For the first time, the middle classes were looking at corporations and realizing that they were a source of incredible corruption, whereas earlier, there was this adoration of them," she says. "Just then, the India Against Corruption movement started. And the spotlight turned right back onto the favourite punching bag—the politicians—and the corporations and the corporate media and everyone else jumped onto this, and gave them 24-hour coverage." She adds "Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the Hazare movement did not breathe a word against privatisation, corporate power or economic 'reforms',"

 Roy says there is not a great deal distinguishing the Congress from the BJP. "I've said quite often, the Congress has done by night what the BJP does by day," she declares. "There isn't any real difference in their economic policy."

Whereas senior BJP leaders encouraged wholesale mob violence against Muslims in Gujarat, she notes that Congress leaders played a similar role in attacks on Sikhs in Delhi following the 1984 assassination of then–prime minister Indira Gandhi. "It was genocidal violence and even today, nobody has been punished," Roy says. As a result, each party can accuse the other of fomenting communal violence. In the meantime, there are no serious efforts at reconciliation for the victims.

However, she acknowledges that there is "some difference" in the two major parties' stated idea of India. The BJP, for example, is "quite open about its belief in the Hindu India...where everybody else lives as, you know, second-class citizens. Hindu is also a very big and baggy word," she says to clarify her remark. "We're really talking about an upper-caste Hindu nation. And the Congress states that it has a secular vision, but in the actual playing out of how democracy works, all of them are involved with creating vote banks, setting community against community. Obviously, the BJP is more vicious at that game."

Why do internationally renowned authors such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth or major Indian film stars like Shahrukh Khan or the Bachchan family don't speak forcefully against the level of inequality in India. "Well, I think we're a country whose elite is capable of an immense amount of self-deception and an immense amount of self-regard," she replies. Roy maintains that Hinduism's caste system has ingrained the Indian elite to accept the idea of inequality "as some kind of divinely sanctioned thing".

According to her, the rich believe "that people who are from the lower classes don't deserve what those from the upper classes deserve".

 She suggests that the concentration of media ownership in India makes it very difficult for most reporters to reveal the extent of corporate control over society. "In India, if you're a really good journalist, your life is in jeopardy because there is no place for you in a media that's structured like that," Roy says. Human-rights activists in India have had their offices trashed by demonstrators, and some have been beaten up or killed for speaking out against injustice. Thousands of political prisoners are locked up in Indian jails for sedition or for violating the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. This is one reason why she argues that it's a fallacy to believe that because India holds regular elections, it's a democratic country. "There isn't a single institution anymore which an ordinary person can approach for justice: not the judiciary, not the local political representative," Roy maintains. "All the institutions have been hollowed out and just the shell has been put back. So democracy and these festivals of elections is when everyone can let off steam and feel that they have some say over their lives."

In the end, she says it's the corporations that fund major parties, which end up doing their bidding. "We are really owned and run by a few corporations, who can shut India down when they want," Roy says.

Re-edited from here

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