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.

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