Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Power Problem: India’s Infrastructure Dilemma

Jack Barton

Trains were stranded during the power failure. AP.
A few weeks ago the second-largest nation on earth, one possessing nuclear arms and a space program, suffered the largest power cut in history.  After two days India, of course, carried on as if unaffected but the true financial implications may never really be clear.
Power cuts are of little concern to people living in India, they are an irritation but for most a minor and regular one.  When I lived in Bangalore, India’s IT capital, local government administered rolling power cuts whenever power looked low or even when it didn’t in the build-up to occasions such as Global Investors Week lest potential investors be put off by an embarrassing power failure.  Herein lies the true potential for damage, the question of what the power cut may have done to India’s image and prestige.
It is doubtful that the power cut alone will really have much of an effect, but it is a telling example of what is possibly the biggest challenge facing India and its struggle to enter the modern world: a lack of infrastructure.  This is a desperately difficult problem to face for a country as large as India but it is a stimulant for almost all of the problems the Indian people are struggling to overcome; inadequate roads mean India has the highest traffic casualty rate in the world, healthcare schemes are not delivered properly resulting in 42% malnutrition rates among children, the military cannot work effectively against growing insurgencies, the police fail to deal with the smuggling of drugs, guns and thousands of child slaves every year.
Inadequate infrastructure does not only hamper progress in these issues and impact India’s image and ability to attract investment, it seriously endangers India’s progress as a member of the BRICS on the road to becoming a Great Power.  Money is pouring into India, but this is slowing and failure to invest in infrastructure means this does not reach those at the bottom of the ladder, combine this with a completely inadequate education system and a young population and all of these problems could just get worse.
Put simply, India is not as modern or reliable as our politicians like to think.  Progress is being made, most recently in a healthcare bill, an ambitious food plan and a new commitment to tackle child slavery, but international politics threatens the potential of any new plans.
Earlier this year, a diplomatic row was caused by Indian officials saying they did not want aid money from the UK anymore.  Due to the space program and the recent commitment to spend $13 billion on new fighter jets, alongside a survey stating that India possessed more poverty than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa it was easy to see this as a question of international image.  What was possibly a more powerful incentive however was a profound fear for the country’s independence.
What makes this fear difficult to negotiate for Western leaders is that it is probably a very sensible one.  The strategic advantages of influence over India would be obvious to any Western leader and what’s more, as far as the West is concerned, they have something to offer in exchange.  The problem is compounded by India’s government which has the task of running a huge and diverse country yet is dogged by scandals and operates a clumsy and corruption-ridden bureaucracy.
With better infrastructure, the government would be more effective, it would require less aid and could grow truly independently.  India’s dilemma is that the threat of Western domination undermines their willingness to receive the help that could make this real.
What is needed is a change of approach from both sides, the Indian Government must acknowledge that financial and expert help will bring about the benefits they need but the West must be willing to provide this on the basis of an equal partnership.  I do not believe that our Governments still see India through some post-colonial haze of nostalgia, but they do need to stop seeing it as a cure-all for problems in Asian foreign policy.  They need to trust in the fact that allowing India to prosper will bring about stability in the region without Western powers pulling all of the strings.  India may well one day be a Great Power, but it will never be that and an ally to Western powers unless we stop trying to influence and take a piece of that power ourselves.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Defining Democracy in South and Central Asia

Jack Barton

Kyrgyzstan’s elections last year resulted in the first peaceful transition of power since independence, though there were clashes in June this year. Vladimir Pirogov / Reuters. 
Democracy is hailed among the highest of Western values; one that occupies our politicians’ speeches, their lawmaking and their foreign diplomacy.  It is an ideal with the political weight to justify almost any form of foreign policy – whether creating economic ties with ‘democratic’ countries or undermining the governments of ‘autocratic’ ones.  These labels are handy when it comes to public relations but news stories can emerge at any moment to confuse the picture – for anyone who is looking.
In South and Central Asian countries these convenient labels are applied as much as anywhere; it is particularly easy for Western governments as this region tends not to cause widely-publicised moral dilemmas – unlike the Middle East or China.
To illustrate the sliding definition of democracy, a good place to start is India.  In a previous piece I discussed the mega-corporations, the military, the old political families and the resurgent groups in Kashmir and the central forests – all of whom undermine the claim of the Indian government to rule.  Despite these factions, the government itself is democratic, the country threw off its imperial shackles and built a democracy which has created burgeoning economic growth.  But it does not take much to question this picture.  A rough estimate of the 2009 election showed that only 58% of eligible voters cast their ballot.  This is actually logistically quite impressive considering 72.2% of the population live in remote rural areas and 22% live below the poverty line (including 93 million slum dwellers – 50% of New Delhi, 60% of Mumbai).  On the other hand it means that 42% of Indian people of voting age have no political voice and it is these who are suffering; they are being dispossessed by huge industrial schemes such as the creation of power plants, steel factories and vast toxic dumps, they are the ones working in mines in illegal conditions and they are the ones struggling with completely insufficient healthcare – watching their children die or grow up malnourished.  The Indian Government can do what it wants because, other than open insurrection, these people have no voice, and by ignoring the rights of these people, the government deprives them of any chance to find one.
Many Western Governments would put their relationship with India near the top of their list of Asian priorities, some depict it as a ‘shining example’ of democracy for the developing world, while others simply ignore the masses of disillusioned and disenfranchised, and their lack of basic rights.
But it is unfair to put India in a Western context only, it must be compared to its neighbours.  Traditionally, Pakistan has earned itself an image as a dysfunctional and violent failing state but here at least all the signs suggest that the state of democracy is improving, with greater adherence to the country’s constitution and a strong democratic opposition keeping the government relatively on track.  Voter turnout in 2008 was estimated at 45%, even lower than India but at least here there appears to be genuine development.  Of course I must refer to what I said earlier; Pakistan’s increasing usefulness may have led the West to nurture this improved image, but it is hard to argue with the steady increase in voter turnout and it will take a long time before Pakistan is seen on a par with India, simply because its divisions and instabilities have come under much more recent global scrutiny.
A discussion of the governments of any part of the World is important yet often ignored for political convenience.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s tour of Europe has done little to draw greater attention to events in Burma but they are widely reviled and draw condemnation on neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh which rejects Rohingya refugees, and China which pushes the Kochin back into the conflict zone.  Sri Lanka has suffered 3 decades of civil war and some parts live under military control with 10 soldiers for every civilian.
When we consider the governments of South and Central Asia in their own context it is easy to see how India was described as a ‘shining example’ of a democratic developing nation.  One thing that must make us pause though is that the origin of that quote is Tony Blair and all other political, moral and recent historical considerations aside, he is a man who last year sold his services to repaint the face of another Central Asian government: Kazakhstan.  This state shoots strikers, burns the offices of opposition leaders and kills their leaders, but as far as their government, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Jonathon Powell and other Portland Communications associates are concerned, it is all a question of PR.
You cannot group any region’s governments together but as far as current foreign policy in South and Central Asia is concerned, the definition of democracy is a flexible one and one that can be applied where convenient.  This type of short-termist labelling may not be unexpected but the inevitable result is hypocritical and immoral relationships, embarrassing backtracking and simply messy foreign policy which in the long run does more harm than good.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Burma: the difficulties of democratisation

Bhavin Vyas

David Cameron and the symbol of struggle: The Prime Minister became the first to visit Burma since independence in 1948 but the struggle for democracy continues. Photo: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images.

“We want to help see the changes that can bring the growth of freedom of human rights and democracy in your country."

With these words, David Cameron became the first Western leader to officially visit Burma (Myanmar) since Aung San Suu Kyi won a succession of by-elections in April. Cameron also became the first British Prime Minister to visit since Burma gained independence in 1948, and his presence was not only momentous but telling too. He was in Burma with a message of reward – that of lifting EU sanctions in return for reforms made by the government. 

Though the international community remains cautious, the reforms were clearly seen as promising enough to relax long held sanctions. ASEAN approved Burma’s bid for chairmanship in 2014, the US appointed its first ambassadorfor 22 years. Burma, once a prosperous nation in British colonial times, was beginning to be welcomed back from isolation after more than 50 years of junta rule. However, the recent ethnic violence has threatened international integration and the road to democratic reform. It leaves Britain and the international community asking potent questions surrounding its role and what steps to take given its promise to lift sanctions.
Ethnic violence and instability
The recent ethnic violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has already claimed over 50 lives since clashes began in the Rakhine state in May. The clashes erupted in response to the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman, for which three Muslim men have since been sentenced to death. Revenge attacks between Buddhists and Muslims escalated the clashes and in response, President Sein declared a state of emergency and handed administrative authority to the army over Rakhine state. This has left a familiar uneasy feeling. Burma has long been a hotbed of oppression, emergency rule and ethnic strife. Arbitrary state violence helped the junta maintain power and control.

It has shockingly highlighted the fragility of ethnic relations in Burma. Rohingya Muslims have lived for many generations in Burma but are seen by the government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are not officially recognised as one of the country’s ethnic minorities. Rakhine state has the highest concentration of Muslims in Burma, and there have been long-standing religious tensions in the region. 

The recent violence has again exposed the ethnic rifts in Burma, and threaten to derail democratisation. Photo: KHIN MAUNG WIN AP.
Since the clashes, tens of thousands have started to flee back to Bangladesh. The UN has estimated that over 90,000 have fled, with more than 30,000 already in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. Dhaka has since closed its border with Burma, turning away thousands each week, which will only propagate the violence.

The long road ahead

The violence also exposes the long road still ahead for the government and the Burmese people. Back in 2008, mass protests forced a constitutional referendum, which set into motion events that led to the dissolution of the junta, to be replaced by a military backed civilian government. With the dissolution of the junta, major reforms took place; political prisoners were released, press and internet cencorship laws were relaxed, a ceasefire was agreed with ethnic rebel groups, and anti-fraud laws were introduced. Symbolically, Suu Kyi was released after 15 years of house arrest. 

However, as is the case in countries embracing democracy after years of authoritarian rule (see Egypt, Algeria, Yemen for recent examples) the footprint of the old regime is still deeply embedded in Burmese society. Signs of arbitrary state control have not disappeared; corrupt judiciary, violent police and security services, and terrible prison conditions are still visible. A Reuters exposé on prison conditions shows the lack of transparency upheld by the government over the release of political prisoners. Despite 650 being released since May 2011, it is still unclear how many remain imprisoned or when exactly they will next be released. The decision remains arbitrarily in the hands of the quasi-civilian government. The gulags still exist in the country.

Much in the same way, brutal systematic attitudes towards women have yet to change. Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) reported that soldiers entered the war-torn state and raped a 48 year-old woman. Another KWAT report stated 43 cases of sexual violence and rape, of which 21 were killed, by the Burmese army in Kachin since June 2011. Kachin has long been a ground for struggle between the state and rebels seeking independence and as a result has become neglected by the government, creating a humanitarian crisis

Britain must stand by Burma

As such, there still exists no model of strong justice in the country. The indelible mark of a junta rule makes it hard to bring those soldiers who commit such acts to justice. Cases against soldiers have been readily dismissed by courts. This poses difficult questions for the country and international backers such as Britain. Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent trip to Britain has been a boon for Cameron. She is a celebrated symbol of struggle against oppression, but Britain must remain watchful not to allow initial reforms to distract from the struggle still ahead. The internal situation in Burma is hence destabilising for several reasons. It brings to question whether a democratic institution should be established first to allow a just society, or vice versa. 

For his part, Cameron has pledged to offer support for better and stronger governance through public financial management training, on the rule of law and strengthening parliamentary democracy. There is also a promise of £3m in peace-building work to address ongoing violence in Burma, as well as support for education and healthcare. Britain must also ensure that help is not wasted, as in the example of £2m in aid to Kachin that locals have yet to see. 

Britain can do little about the violence directly, but it must exert pressure through support. Burma needs structural changes, and support rather than sanctions from Britain are necessary. The current violence threatens Burma into becoming a state of unfinished reforms, with an authoritarian social fabric and ethnic strife, but Britain must stand by it to help it through.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Who is Really Running India? - the question western governments can't be bothered to ask

Jack Barton

The Naxalites control vast swathes of central India.
It does not take a great political mind to know that western governments are falling over themselves to get closer to India, nor does it take one to realise why.  Of the four BRIC nations it is the one which appears to offer the most from a closer friendship - strategically positioned between the volatile Middle East and the threatening China, the West believes that they have something to offer India in return for their friendship, unlike with some of the other emerging powers.  As I have pointed out in previous posts, India does all it can and more to encourage this impression so that western governments continue to invest, building stronger economic ties while overlooking those who suffer at the hands of Indian economic policy.  This attitude is not just mercenary and self-promoting, it is woefully lazy foreign policy.  We are investing as much as we can into a country so detached from our own and growing at such a fast pace that we cannot be bothered to address the most important question and more importantly the political fallout from its answer - who is really in control in India?

The most obvious answer is the one governments tend to work with when dictating foreign policy - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Indian government.  Leaving aside for a moment the criticisms levelled against Singh in recent years and the fact that he is attempting to hold together a coalition government, alternative groupings both old and new hold such power that they could make policy-making for even the strongest government an uphill struggle.

General V K Singh recently took the government to court - the Indian Express all but accused him of threatening to coup
Indian news has recently been dominated by a dispute between the government and the army.  Army Chief General V K Singh has in recent weeks taken the government to court over a disagreement about his date of birth, claimed in a leaked letter that 97% of India's military is useless due to lack of supplies and according to some reports threatened to seize power in Delhi.  The last of these is obviously the most significant; the Indian Express newspaper claimed that two army units, including a special forces battalion had marched on Delhi without the government's knowledge.  General Singh and the government have both denied the claims but the reaction from commentators across the country reveals a great deal about how real this threat could be.  The Indian Express stands by its report and from the perspective of the general public there is little reason to believe the government who routinely suppresses or misleads the media.  Whatever the truth, the Indian military is clearly not as reliable an arm of the government machine as Western powers would like to assume.
In February Indian police arrested 47 villagers for protesting against the building of a toxic dump near their village. intercontinental
Another power-base completely outside the Indian government's control yet ignored by the West lies in the handful of enormously wealthy corporations that reach into every aspect of Indian life.  Based in their control of vast natural resources and investment in the booming technology sector, these corporations have created an elite of incredibly rich and influential men.  Their power is not only clear through their control of the retail market and the media but by the fact that they can quite clearly do whatever they want with the resources India's exports rely upon.  In 2006 police fired upon people protesting against the construction of a boundary wall by Tata Steel, in recent years tens of thousands of rural people have been displaced by these corporations with the consent of the Indian Government.

Which brings me onto another aspect of the Indian population that undermines the power of the Indian government simply by its existence - the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the disillusioned.  At the extreme end of the Indian population, the government's attitude towards its rural poor has been so inflammatory that it has created an insurrection in the forests of central India, which has grown in momentum in the past decade to the point of what some commentators are calling civil war.  Labelled 'maoists' and 'terrorists' by the government, this guerrilla army numbers tens of thousands of fighters (estimates peak at 120,000) who regularly attack military and police targets.  At the less extreme end of the spectrum, a campaign to have 'none of the above' as an option on election ballots has been equally persistent.  Apart from the treatment of the rural (and urban) poor, corruption scandals, failing education, a lack of medical care and persistent poverty have created mass disillusionment among all Indian classes - the government's position in dictating policy grows weaker as its basis of support simply vanishes.

I have not even mentioned the social, ethnic and religious factionalism that divides the Indian population.  But in barely scratching the surface of the competing powers that undermine the Indian government, it becomes obvious that the question of ruling India is not as simple as Western leaders like to assume.  When Obama smiles benignly down and gives the Indian government a pat on the head for reaching out to Pakistan, when Russia leases them nuclear submarines, it simply looks like good foreign policy.  They must know though that the Indian government exists because there is no united opposition, that Manmohan Singh is in every way a figurehead.  If we insist on hoping to gain from a tighter friendship with India it is surely worth doing it properly, asking the questions rather than relying on assumptions.

Friday 9 March 2012

The ‘Foreign Hand’ – Manmohan Singh takes us back to the Cold War

Jack Barton

Protesters at the Kudankulam power plant. Downtoearth.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited another round of criticisms on himself in February over remarks he made to the journal Science blaming the setbacks faced by India’s nuclear energy programme on foreign NGOs.  Suggesting that these NGOs, based in the US and Scandinavia, were funding the protests that have stalled the building of a nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu, Singh has been widely criticised from politicians and activists at home and commentators abroad.
Foreign observers have been quick to make the comparison with former Prime Minister Indira Ghandi who routinely blamed the problems faced by her administration on the influence of the ‘foreign hand’ – sometimes specifically citing the CIA.
It is difficult to say what is most remarkable about Singh’s statement; that it veers sharply from his usual foreign policy or that by all accounts it is completely unsubstantiated.  Much of the domestic furore came from the Indian campaign groups who have been fighting the proposed nuclear scheme.  Udayakumar, the coordinator of the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy, claims that the records kept by the Ministry of Home Affairs show the suggestion that activists are backed by foreign NGOs is ‘a complete falsehood.’  V. Pushparayan, an activist from the Coastal People’s Federation, said that Singh was using ‘absurd allegations’ to divert peoples’ attention from the real issues.
This has been an interesting diversion from Singh’s usual foreign policy.  Critics have often referred to the Indian PM himself as the ‘foreign hand’ for his reliance on foreign investment for economic growth.  In the same interview Singh stated defensively ‘we are a democracy, we are not like China’; while it would be interesting to see how many of the population of the villages who will be displaced by the Kudankulam plant vote, this is technically true – and it is clearly the source of Singh’s problems.
India is a democracy, so when the government is pushing through unpopular growth schemes, Singh can’t possibly blame the protest on his electorate.  He has so far focused his blame on the media and his coalition partners, now the ‘foreign hand’ is causing further setbacks for the fledgling great power.
The nuclear energy scheme is another example of governmental policy putting growth above everything else.  All of the investment, all of the prestige India has gained under Singh’s tenure has been based on remarkable growth figures and tangible signs of modernisation.  Nuclear energy would be another symbol of modernisation and reliability (it would also lessen India’s reliance on oil from Iran) and as such the project will go ahead over the protests from environmental activists and the farmers and fishermen of the 17 villages that will be affected by the power station.  Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been visiting the proposed site in secret.  The station will go ahead just as the mining and agricultural schemes on land sold by the Indian government to western corporations already have - projects which have displaced ten of thousands of villagers in collateral damage.
Critic Devinder Sharma has voiced much of the popular criticism against Singh: 'Whether it is GM crops or nuclear plants, the PM is more interested in the commercial interests of American and European companies. He is not concerned about the environmental and human impact of these risky and unwanted technologies on his people.'
Western NGOs have not been creating problems for the Indian government but it would almost be preferable if they had been.  A coalition of women, fishermen and farmers from 17 villages is protesting against a government scheme which will end their way of life, not only would a bit of help from a humanitarian organisation be justifiable from a moral perspective but the political implications could have been enormous.
The fact that Singh’s remarks were false has allowed the US and Scandinavian governments to ignore them.  Under the surface this has been an extremely telling episode in Indian foreign relations – it should have caused more of a stir, not only did Singh blame foreign funding but he condemned it, any governmental response to this would have had to have acknowledged that NGOs had every right to support India’s marginalised population, that it was the right thing to do and therefore that in ignoring these groups India was in the wrong.  Instead Western government have not deigned to respond, they have been allowed to ignore it in the same way they ignore all of the abuses carried out by their trading partner, in the way that allows Britain and France to compete to sell India arms – and will allow the US and Russia to compete to sell them nuclear reactors.
There is no question over whether a European government would be allowed to override the objections of its populace in this way without inviting criticism.  It is almost a given that growth in India is coming at this price, but it is a growth that Western governments are feeding and supporting, taking what they want from it and ignoring the consequences.  India is an ally and a trading partner, it relies on the West for its growth and yet the problems that result from this growth are not our problems, and for some reason they are not our responsibility.

Friday 17 February 2012

Japan – a Forgotten Asian Partner

James Horrax

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan before their bilateral meeting at the G8 summit on May 27, 2011 in Deauville, France. Pool/Getty Images Europe.
Over the last ten years, attention in Asia has been diverted to the emerging markets of China and India. With predictions that China will become the world’s largest economy between 2020 – 2025, and India the world’s largest democracy (for all it’s faults) in a region where its government is unusual to say the least, it is perhaps not unsurprising that British foreign and trade policy has developed around Asia’s giants. 

Further to the East however, lies an economy which is larger by GDP per capita than both India and China combined – the archipelago of Japan. 
Japan has been thrown into the shade by its own noisy neighbours in China and Korea in recent years – and it was only last year that China replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy – but it still represents a key and important strategic relationship for Britain and the West over the coming years. 
Since the end of the Second World War, Japan has been a reliable ally for Britain and after Europe, China and the US, the UK has been Japan’s largest export market. However recently its economy - after a relatively successful period from 2000 – 2008 - has begun to struggle. Many will point to one-off mitigating factors including the powerful earthquake and tsunami which struck last March and the subsequent shut down of many nuclear reactors which as a result have helped push the costs of energy higher. But the truth is, Japan’s relative success in the early part of last decade was because of a boom in consumer consumption in its largest export markets – particularly in electronics, cars and financial services. 
Now there is a chance for Britain to return the favour. As was mentioned in my last post, David Cameron and the Coalition Government have made a big play of saying the world doesn’t owe Britain a living and the Japanese present economic malaise could be an opportunity. Despite Japan having a highly developed consumer culture, Britain can export plenty of services and expertise. Japan’s demographic time-bomb which is seeing an increasingly aging population, is increasing the need for pharmaceuticals and medicine which British firms like GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca should be taking advantage of. The effective negative interest rates which Japan’s pension pots have been labouring under also makes financial services another sector where Britain can grow in Japan.
Following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, David Cameron called on the European Union (EU) to offer a free trade deal to Japan to help recovery. While progress on this appears to have ground to a halt for now, for the benefit of all parties this deal should be resurrected and implemented as soon as possible. However there are some protectionist economic measures (specifically in the agricultural industry on both sides like the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and high import tariffs on products to Japan) which appear to be a sticking point. If the rich world is to grow its way out of its present economic funk, ensuring that tariffs and subsidies are removed will help government expenditure in the immediate term and eventually trickle through to the wider market, forcing costs for consumers down. It is only by increasing global trade and removing barriers to entry, that consumer driven economies like Britain and Japan can hope to get back to sustainable long term growth.
Still Japan is not just an economic strategic ally, it is also a regional and geo-strategic one too. As the situation in North Korea continues to unfurl, maintaining military and security intelligence cooperation in the area is vital and this is where Japan, along with South Korea will be of crucial importance. 
UK should be building close intelligence ties with Japan and South Korea in case of a North Korean collapse. Nautilus.
Japan’s relationship with North Korea, and its Chinese paymasters, is often fraught with historical and cultural tension. It is hardly surprising the US maintains a strong military presence on Okinawa given how Japan is a perfect vantage point with which to view the Far East peninsula. Historically, British ties have been less strong in this area, although with the continuing developments in the Middle East and the attention of strategists being held by Iran, it would be dangerous to assume this part of the world will simply sort itself out. As such, Britain should also focus on developing intelligence ties with Japan. This need not be costly but the consequences for failing to do so may be enormous. 
If North Korea is to collapse as reports suggest, Britain and its allies need as much information as possible, particularly since the most valuable assets North Korea will possess upon falling will be its nuclear materials which can be easily siphoned off and smuggled out of the country. While a rising China is unlikely to allow this to happen, their foreign policy is based on a laissez-faire principle of non-interference rather than liberal interventionism and nothing can be assured where projection of Chinese force is concerned.
Japan’s role, alongside its South Korean neighbours, will be of critical importance in the coming years. Britain must develop its ties accordingly. 

Monday 13 February 2012

A Mercenary Attitude to the Indian Economy

Jack Barton

India’s 1.13million strong military has long been criticised for underfunding and out of date equipment. Getty Images/Daniel Berehulak
At the end of January, after months of negotiations and sales pitches, the Indian ministry of defence indicated that it has chosen to buy 126 Rafale Fighter aircraft from the French firm Dessault rather than the Eurofighter Typhoon from BAE Systems and Italy’s Finmeccanica.

The decision has outraged many British politicians and commentators, drawing criticism of the Indian government from the right and the British government from the left.  David Cameron drew criticism by getting involved personally in attempting to change the Indian government’s mind.  Since it has been a clear aim from the start of his administration to garner closer ties with India, particularly in terms of trade, this must have left rather a sour taste.  Commentators have suggested that this is down to a fundamental misunderstanding of who holds real power in India; Cameron has worked hard to foster good relations with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh – underestimating the unofficial power still wielded by the Ghandi family who David Miliband was much closer to.
The reaction of Conservative MP Peter Bone (“What on earth do they know about cricket and curries”) sparked a much-read article by Labour MP and Guardian columnist Tristram Hunt.  The article highlights the dangerous effect of an attitude toward India “enveloped in the language of colonialism and entitlement” which threatens to forever undermine the relationship.
While I am more than happy to criticise David Cameron for attempting to cosy up to the Indian Government without attempting to understand the nuances of Indian politics or the very real danger of post-imperial arrogance, it is hard to believe that either of these things were really the problem.  India chose the Rafale over the Eurofighter Typhoon simply because it was cheaper.
India has the second-largest military in the world but the 10th largest military budget, and this time last year the Indian government increased the defence budget by 11.6%.  Its enormous military machine is engaged in an overhaul it has been attempting to complete for almost half a century, spurred on by what is essentially an arms race with China.  For all of BAE’s assurances that the Typhoon is a better aircraft, the Indian air force already uses French planes and Dessault’s offer was lower.  Undoubtedly many factors went into India’s decision but it really should not be a surprise, and what’s more from India’s perspective it is hard to see it as a bad decision.
The Eurofighter Typhoon was widely tipped to win the contract by analysts. Reuters
Much of the criticism has been drawn from the fact that France gives no aid to India whereas Britain donates billions, the Sun has even called for an end to British aid to India.  Arms trade companies are at best in a murky ethical position on the whole, squabbling over a $10billion arms sale to a country where over 30% live below the poverty line is even more dubious.  But calling for aid to be reliant on their buying our weapons surely crosses a line.  BAE will not cease trading with India, they will keep trying to change their minds, they will keep selling them arms whenever they can.  Britain cannot cease giving aid to India, apart from the suggestion that this would be some kind of reprisal, the government has made it all too clear how much increasing trade would benefit us and how keen they are to gain tighter links with New Delhi.
There is a good chance that this deal will fall through – it has been suggested that Nicholas Sarkozy brought the price down temporarily to gain a political victory in an election year.  This would explain the British government’s indignation but highlights yet another unsavoury element of this affair.
The British government is just not in a position to complain about this and in doing so it risks revealing an incredibly mercenary attitude toward its dealings with its former colony.  In constantly trying to increase its financial and diplomatic stake in the developing country, our government forfeits its right to criticise India’s massive – and ever-increasing – defence spending despite their continuing to take (and so clearly need) aid money.  Furthermore what should oblige India to choose our more expensive option?  The British government’s stance has repeatedly demonstrated that they think that we are the ones that have everything to gain from this relationship, had the Indian government chosen the more expensive option they would have come under enormous criticism for wasting extra resources so badly needed elsewhere.
It is easy to attack the UK arms trade from a moral perspective and of course the fact that Dessault is likely to win the contract is hardly a result of the company’s altruistic aims towards cutting Indian defence spending.  It is necessary to take a step back though; the outrage displayed by our government is a PR disaster, bringing to light an incredibly mercenary attitude where aid is there to buy us favours and winning a defence contract with a poverty-stricken country is a political victory rather than economic expediency and at best a necessary evil.