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.