Friday, May 8, 2009

India , the emerging imperialist ?

The old style imperialist that we all know about used to eye a nice, prosperous piece of land and then find some means of possessing it. The means have varied from time to time; a couple of centuries ago, it would have meant sending in your army to capture that piece of land and govern it my sending in your own people. That is the most classic form and that has now fallen in to disuse. However, a modified version is in place. Here you identify a stooge who is from the local people and get him to dance in your tune as you play the music. This form is still popular and quite in vogue and here the army plays an important but supposedly subservient role. And a more recent form is the economic variety of imperialism where countries subvert the economic backbone of a country to protect its own interests. This too has been in vogue in recent decades but is of course more subtle.

We in India have always considered ourselves as the victims – and so the annual breast beating rituals that occur on the 26th of January and the 15th of August. No disrespect to the freedom fighters and all those who laid down their lives for the cause. The point here is that perhaps the Indians of today – no doubt to protect the interests of Indians like myself are going about doing the same thing as the British did in their time. What did the East India Company primarily do? Trade, right? The political action that buzzed in the background was all to ensure that trade interests were always protected. We read all that in our history books – nothing new so far.

Have you imagined India in that role? Probably never. But India, plagued by an increased specter of food shortages is joining a growing band of Asian nations in eyeing the last continent left to be still eyed for trade – usually one sided trade. Weak nations with even weaker governments are willing to trade in arable land for the right prices so that we in India as well as other such emerging giants might eat well. How much land has been sold? Between 15 million to 20 million hectares, which is more than all of Germany’s farmland it seems.

Many governments, either directly or through state-owned entities and public-private partnerships, are in negotiations for, or have already closed deals on, arable land leases, concessions, or purchases abroad. Is agricultural land only available in Africa? Of course not! But it is relatively speaking much easier to strike deals with governments or more accurately individuals who control government in Africa where institutional checks and balance mechanisms are weak and prices are cheaper. So the Indian government and several companies have intensified the chase for farmland abroad and even farmers from Andhra Pradesh have gone and invested in land in Kenya.

Now our patriotic sensibilities will be deeply offended at the thought of some one calling us and our motivations imperialistic for we all like to walk the high moral ground and this is perfectly understandable. But in our neighborhood at least, India is quite known the as the neighborhood king, strutting and flaunting its strength in the tiny part of the world called South India. Check out Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and what they have to say about how India throws its weight around in its immediate neighborhood. The national interest is supreme as it was then, as it is now. From trade to imperialism, India can not be faulted on not learning its lessons from the East India Company!

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