March 17, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Beware the Ides of March, George Fernandes

I started writing this column on March 15, and I wrote 'the long knives are out for George Fernandes... for he is an honorable man'. Alas, events have overtaken me, and as I feared, Fernandes has resigned. If the BJP government is the general target of this scandal, the specific target is George Fernandes.

Because Fernandes made the classic mistake of telling the truth: that India is in grave danger from China, which has been encircling and containing us for fifty years. The Chinese, and their fifth columnists in India, have been waiting for an opportunity to get rid of the man. I have long been a fan of Fernandes, this former seminary student and firebrand trade unionist. For on his watch, India has done a number of things that showed cojones for just about the first time:

  • The nuclear tests collectively known as Pokhran II, and standing up to US-led bullying on that and on related CTBT and MTCR issues.
  • The improving relations with Myanmar and Vietnam.
  • The strategic activities aimed at containing China by allying with Russia, Vietnam, Japan, etc.
  • The recent naval exercises in the South China Sea.
  • The strong response to Pakistani incursions in Kargil.
  • The testing of the Agni-II when Chinese strongman Li Peng was in India recently.
  • The moves towards acquiring serious blue-water capability with another aircraft carrier and the proposed nuclear submarine project.
  • The large increases in the defence budget in the last two years.
In other words Fernandes has understood that without a strong defensive capability, the nation cannot thrive. I am sure he has found the example of Tibet very instructive: unarmed monks have no defence against tanks. I have written about the purely economic need for defence before (see my column On the persistence of time). I believe the British stole at least one trillion dollars, that is $1,000,000,000,000, from India. Others estimate that the number is closer to five to ten trillion US dollars. (For comparison, the US GDP is about $3 trillion.)

The British, and all the other barbarians, were able to pillage because India was poorly defended. So the opportunity cost of not defending the country is that endemic poverty that we see all around. Is it worth spending money to defend yourself, your family, your country? The usual suspects, the 'secular' 'progressive' fundamentalists don't think so, for they like to give things away: Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh to China, etc.

And then what? Give Punjab to Pakistan, Uttar Pradesh to China? After all, they maintain that the Chinese attack on India in 1962 was an 'internal matter' for China! The Nehruvian Stalinists would probably like to show up at the Gateway of India with marigold garlands to welcome the new King Emperor, the Chinese strongman of the day, singing bhai-bhai hallelujahs. When will they ever learn, these misguided people whom no end of evidence will convince? Perhaps when they are sent to concentration camps (sorry, re-education camps) by the Chinese.

There is a classic dictum that when you wish to figure out who has committed a crime, you should look at who benefits and therefore is motivated. If you take this approach, who are the beneficiaries of the current brouhaha triggered off by the expose by

1. The Bofors affected: the Hindujas, O Quattrochhi, Sonia Gandhi. They can now bargain with the BJP: you lay off my Bofors problems, and we won't crucify you for the defence scandal.
2. The Opposition: the CPI-M have dusted off that old shibboleth, the United Front (or more appropriately the Untied Front); Jyoti Basu is dreaming again of being prime minister, to make amends for the 'historic blunder'. Not content with having ruined West Bengal and Kerala, I suppose.
3. China: the one person in India who has the nerve to stand up to them has been forced to step down in disgrace.
4. The US: now that the Bushies are getting aggressive about 'cap, roll back' and all that good stuff about India's nuclear programme, it is convenient to get Fernandes out.

Conversely, who suffers from this new scandal?

1..The man in the street in India: endemic political uncertainty has been one of India's biggest negatives as far as investors, both domestic and foreign, are concerned. We now have to worry about yet another potential general election.
2. Women in politics: Jaya Jaitly's example will be held up by those with vested interests to suggest that women have no role in politics. It is true that Mamta Banerjee and J Jayalalitha have not exactly been sterling examples of responsible politicians either, not to mention Rabri Devi Yadav or Madame Gandhi the Younger or, waiting in the wings, Priyanka Vadhera.
3. The Dalits: for it will be pointed out often that Bangaru Laxman was a Dalit. Implication: you can't trust these low-caste people, you know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
4. The BJP: this causes them to be tarred by the same brush as the Congress.

So it comes back to who had the best motive to unleash this scam and cause disruption and hoo-haa and uproar. It is not as though it is a revelation that there is corruption in India. There is corruption in every government, including the US government: large defence contracts attract large-scale corruption there too. Anybody recall the Lockheed scandal a while ago? Or the $ 200 screwdrivers or what appears to be gold-plated toilet seats? Besides, let he who amongst Indian has not given or received a bribe cast the first stone.

In my mind, the finger of suspicion points to the Chinese. For they have been known to attempt to influence politics elsewhere through all sorts of direct and indirect means. Remember the large sums routed to Bill Clinton through Chinese-American intermediaries? Also, wasn't it curious how Subramanian Swamy visited China just before his infamous Tea Party that brought down the previous BJP-led government? Then there is N Ram, who writes long paeans to the brutal Chinese rule in Tibet after being given the ten-day official, antiseptic, tour of the place.

Furthermore, the Chinese are very conscious of 'loss of face'. They deliberately insulted President K R Narayanan by testing a nuclear bomb while he was visiting their country. The sort of cavalier tit-for-tat testing of the Agni II when Li Peng was in India must have bothered them quite a bit. This could well be the reason for the sudden 'sting operation'.

Let me be explicit here: I am by no means accusing of being funded by the Chinese, but a word here and a nudge there by Chinese moles and agents in the Indian establishment could suddenly make things happen for a team of investigators, who would thank serendipity.

The general moves made by India to consolidate its blue-water naval capabilities (an area in which India is fairly significantly ahead of China) -- and especially the recent naval exercises in what the Chinese consider their inland sea, the South China Sea (you see, it has the name "China" in it and therefore it belongs to them) -- have also rattled the Chinese a little.

Very interestingly, it has been exactly one week since the Chinese announced their biggest-ever budget for their military: an official number of $17.2 billion (an 18 pc increase from last year in real terms); and the Economist suggests that 'actual spending is between three and five times higher'.

And all of a sudden, India loses its most able defence minister ever. Curious coincidence?

Nobody has ever accused George Fernandes of embezzlement or accepting bribes. He has been a model of probity and integrity. And we need him now. So won't you please reconsider and withdraw your resignation, Mr Fernandes? This country needs you.


I take my hat off to Pullela Gopichand for his extraordinary accomplishment in winning the All England Badminton Championship. A Viswanathan Anand here, a Karnam Malleswari and Kunjarani Devi there, a Pullela Gopichand, and pretty soon you're talking some real numbers, to paraphrase an American Senator.

I wish to draw attention to the good work being done by the Lobby for India: An On-Line Resource for Indian Americans which provides detailed information on the voting patterns of US politicians as it relates to India. This can be useful information for Indian-Americans to figure out how to rate their Senators and Congressmen. And no, in case you were wondering, this is not the same as the Chinese government influencing things, because US citizens and residents have the right to lobby for their favourite causes including their favourite countries.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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