India turns its back on Western ways

Tim McGirk in New Delhi reports on a campaign to halt the influx of foreign goods, money and values
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The Independent Online
For many people here, Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Lifebuoy soap are dirty words. Indians are recoiling from the shock of a fast-paced liberalisation which, after decades of protectionism, is buffeting the nation with Western consumerism and permissiveness.

A climate of xenophobia has been created by nationalist politicians in which multi-national companies are no longer regarded as the bearers of hi-tech goodies and cash but as invaders, the new Mogul hordes. With general elections six months away, this anger against all things foreign is likely to intensify.

These nationalists - an unlikely combination of leftists and Hindu revivalists - are trying to shut down the country's first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, in Bangalore. The reason given is that its food is supposedly unhealthy, even though, a few streets away, hawkers sell cucumber slices doused in water scooped from open sewers.

In a land where the cow is held sacred, McDonald's has yet to begin grilling its Big Macs.

This xenophobia has even brought out Indian defensiveness towards its trees. Thousands of farmers routinely demonstrate against a US firm, WR Grace, for "genetic colonialism". The firm's sin was to patent a method of preserving extract from the neem tree, which Indians have used for thousands of years for everything from a pesticide to toothbrushes. One left-wing MP, George Fernandes, who had Coca-Cola banned from India in the 1970s because it would not divulge its secret formula, fulminated: "Patenting neem is like patenting cow dung".

Many foreign firms which looked hungrily at India's colossal potential market are peeved by this turn of events. Foreign investment this year has doubled to $2bn (pounds 1.4bn). But after a new right-wing Hindu government in Maharashtra state cancelled a $3.5bn power plant with Enron, a US multi- national, foreign firms are reluctant to invest in the country's worn- out roads and electricity grids. Five European banks reportedly pulled out of big projects after Enron's ills.

Maharashtra's capital, Bombay, is stricken by power black-outs, yet the right-wing Hindus' popularity zoomed when they tore up Enron's contract. It showed they were standing up to the multi-nationals, even though millions are now doomed to nights in the dark.

India is being convulsed by changes that are probably more far-reaching than anything seen for the past 300 years, and that encompasses Britain's conquest of the sub-continent. A prominent psychoanalyst, Sudhir Kakkar, said: "Traditional Indian society was untouched by British colonialism. The British didn't have the capability nor the wish to interfere that deeply. But now the elite who runs business and government want to change society's values."

The new economic opportunities created by reforms have also upset Hinduism's social hierarchy. The caste strata are being reshuffled like a stack of cards. Lowly Kerala labourers who went off to the Gulf came back to live in bigger houses than the upper-caste Brahmins and land-owners who were once their masters. Leather work, because of its associations with dead animals, until recently was only done by the despised Untouchables. But as the shoe export market grows, a tanner now earns more than someone belonging to a higher caste.

"The ferment in Indian society isn't just economic," said Dr Kakkar. "Many people feel the Western world is encroaching, that all traditional values are under siege - the family and relations between the sexes."

The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi are used as a rallying- cry. Gandhi's doctrine of swadeshi, or self-reliance, is being manipulated by the nationalists to boycott a list of nearly 100 foreign products, from Nescafe to Adidas trainers. The left backs the swadeshi campaign, arguing that a country with over 400 million people living in poverty cannot afford to fatten the multi-nationals by having Indians buy into the Levis and Pepsi lifestyle.

Their partners, the Hindu revivalists, think that the global culture which is hitting India through Rupert Murdoch's satellite Star TV is corrupting religious beliefs.

In many ways, the phenomenon of the Hindu idols drinking milk last week could be interpreted as a reaction to India's social upheavals. The elephant-headed Ganesh was rumoured to refuse milk offered in a plastic Coke cup, and when the idol snubbed the stockbroker's milk, some thought it was because Ganesh opposed the economic reforms.

Try to imagine the jolt that a poor Indian labourer, leaving his village for the first time, would get when he wanders into a roadside teashop and sees Baywatch on the television. A social activist, Swami Agnivesh, explained: "Somewhere this labourer will sense that this is a threat to his values, and he'll feel helpless about it."

The moneyed classes may have swooned over Western consumerism, but most Indians do not have enough rupees to even dream of buying the things they may glimpse on satellite television's soap operas. The nationalists are cashing in on this sense of helplessness, especially among the lower-middle classes. The swadeshi campaign is also backed by many Indian companies which enjoyed a monopoly during the years when protective tariffs kept out foreign goods.

An economist, Prem Shankar Jha, said: "What we're seeing isn't xenophobia as much as petit bourgeois fascism. These companies know they can only survive under conditions of extreme protectionism."

Gandhi said it best. India should "keep its doors and windows open to wind from all sides but we should not allow ourselves to be blown off our feet", the sage wrote. Baywatch may well knock the Indian labourer off his feet.