FREEDOM IN CAPITAL LETTERS
We mere nationals have long learnt that the safest way to deal with multinationals is to bow in homage and get out of the way. Ever since I learnt, while doing a bit of research on one of the great architects of India’s freedom, Subhas Chandra Bose, that the Ford Motor Company offered the freebie of its new V- 8 cars for the use of Congress ministers at the 1938 Haripura session, reverence has deepened into total awe.
Henry Ford, the eponymous pioneer of the American automobile industry, is famous for his assembly line; but this was a stroke of genius as an investment in goodwill. He got cushions in place early and firmly under the broad posterior of the future of India.
This nugget came from Mihir Bose’s biography of Subhas Bose. Searching for confirmation of Ford’s imaginative seduction in Leonard Gordon’s magisterial work on the Boses, Brothers Against the Raj, I learnt that Bose was actually driven to the Congress camp city in a chariot donated by a local worthy, harnessed to “51 lusty bulls”. The trademark Congress vehicle in those days was the peasant’s bullock cart; it would also serve as the Congress election symbol after 1952. But such symbolism, lusty bulls included, was reserved for the last mile. Bose arrived at Haripura, a small and till then largely inaccessible village on the banks of the river Tapti in Gujarat, at the session hosted by Sardar Patel, by car. Gordon does not state whether this car was a Ford V- 8 or not.
Old Henry Ford, or his executives, knew in 1938 what the mighty British Raj could not fathom; that power was shifting from one fulcrum to another, and the age of empire was on the verge of surrender to egalitarian nationalism. Ford was investing in a relationship with Congress ministers through the irresistible combination of comfort justified by convenience.
By 1938, Congress had already tasted power, although it was no more than a desultory sip. Congress had been elected in more than half a dozen British provinces after the 1937 polls, but it was still a long way from jumped- up municipal authority in Lucknow to an independent government in Delhi. Anyone who believed at Haripura in February 1938 that India would be free in nine years was thinking with his heart, not his mind.
It took a devastating world war for British resolve to crumble beyond restoration; and this war against Hitler was still 18 months away. If Hitler had not turned out to be a completely homicidal maniac, Britain’s powerful appeasement lobby might have kept Britain out of conflict. Hitler had no quarrel with British rule in India; he supported it with almost as much eagerness as he dreamt of German rule over Britain. In the long term, no force could have prevented Indian independence, but it would have been a more violent, lengthy process had Hitler not exhausted Britain. In one of the great ironies of history, Germany recovered from defeat in 1945 but the British Empire never recovered from victory.
There is some irony then in the fact that Bose, radical and pugnacious as ever, chose in his Haripura presidential address to castigate capitalism: “There is an inseparable connection between the capitalist ruling classes in Great Britain and the colonies abroad.” Surely Bose did not think American capitalists were exempt. In another fascinating aside, Bose told whoever was ready to listen that he would not permit Japanese multinationals in free India, even when he was marching alongside Japanese forces to liberate his motherland. The Japanese, more focused on the immediate, said nothing.
The conflict between the ideal and the practical is at least as old as the germination of ideas of what modern India should become. Six decades later, we both revere Subhas Bose and drive around in nifty Japanese cars, thinly disguised by an Indian pseudonym, Maruti. It is a very Indian compromise. We are very good at putting idealism in a framed photograph on the wall and getting on with life and chasing its pragmatic opportunities.
Multinationals are cool, remorseless and concentrated on the profit margin. Politicians fulminate; commentators sermonise. Everyone with a voice had something to say about the ghastly eruption of violence at the Maruti factory in Haryana; its Japanese owners kept verbal intervention to a minimum, and spoke through an Indian when they had to. They read chapter and verse from the factory rule book, demanded accountability for death, and got on with life. Impressive.
This column is not a plea for Ikea furniture in every Indian village in place of the charpoy. This is wistful envy on Independence Day, tinged with the hope that one day Indian businessmen, strengthened by a cold smile, bereft of self- pity, denied their divine right to waffle, will do unto others what some others have done unto us.
Old Henry Ford, or his executives, knew in 1938 what the mighty British Raj could not fathom; that power was shifting from one fulcrum to another, and the age of empire was on the verge of surrender to egalitarian nationalism.