LONDON - In mid-January a team of 26 top-level U.S. business executives, headed by Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, plunged into India on a deal-making trip that was claimed to have cornered $7 billion worth of trade and investment for the U.S. It was only part of an aggressive, competitive drive to grab the biggest slice of what is increasingly viewed as the world's greatest relatively untapped market.
In one of the major steps of the post-cold war period, the Indian government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao abandoned the policies of nationalism and protectionism and an extensive public sector, and in 1991 swung sharply to "reform." Serving the sector of India's national bourgeoisie, which seeks partnership with foreign capital and its command of hi-tech know-how as the fast lane to greater wealth and power, the Rao regime scrapped economic controls, slashed import duties and, in particular, removed restraints on foreign investment, its entry and activity.
After an initial period of surveying the prospects in the suddenly open Indian economy, the transnational companies have been descending upon India like locusts. In the past two years British companies doing business in India, either trade or investment, have risen from 90 to over 4,000, and 600 Anglo-Indian joint ventures have been formed, mostly for production of consumer goods.
Considering itself able to get in on the ground floor because of a long British colonial rule that left a deep cultural imprint on India, Britain has been taken aback by the aggressive U.S. trade and investment drive. Trade, or "commercial engagement," is at the heart of the Clinton administration's foreign policy, and the placing of Secretaries Brown and O'Leary at the head of business teams demonstrates the use of direct government influence to spearhead the transnational companies' penetration.
The U.S. already has the largest share of the Indian market, 8.8 percent, with Britain pushed to second at 7.4 percent. U.S. exports to India of $2.3 billion last year are forecast to hit nearly $6 billion by the year 2000. The U.S. investment stake is immeasurably greater: the new investment in India is expected to reach $20 billion by 2000.
Both U.S. and British companies are aimed especially at the key infrastructure industries - power generation, fuel and energy distribution, telecommunications, petrochemicals. Over time, this will amountto a grip on much of the economy.
An indication of how far the Rao government is being pressed is the textile agreement signed by the U.S., the European Union and India at the beginning of this year. Textiles have been one of the major Indian industries, for both the domestic and export markets. Under the new agreement, in exchange for a greater market access in the U.S. and Europe for Indian textiles, duties have been steeply cut.
The population of India is nearly 900 million. U.S. and British interests (with the Japanese at their heels) have their eyes especially on an Indian middle class of 200 to 300 million viewed as customers-in-waiting for the refrigerators, washing machines, videos and designer products of the west. Only 8 in 1000 Indians have a telephone. Telephones have been a state-owned industry up to now, but the Rao government is yielding to the foreign pressure to get into the rich prospects in that field.
For India's working people, however, the imperialist trade and investment drive and the Rao policies are harmful to the national interest. Millions of trade unionists have demonstrated against what is condemned as selling the country to foreigners and there were huge demonstrations against any Indian approval for the new GATT trade agreement which relegates countries like India even further to an "emerging market" status.
In one instance the Rao government has had to back down in the face of the people's anger. The granting of deep-sea fishing licenses to foreign companies caused massive protests by 10 million Indian fisherman of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Orissa against being deprived of their livelihood. A ban had to be declared on further foreign investment in fishing.
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