Get out of India,socialists tell Coke and Pepsi

February 18, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

NEW DELHI, India -- "Quit India!"

More than half a century ago, with the Japanese army advancing toward the Indian frontier and seemingly unstoppable, Mohandas K. Gandhi, the "Great Soul," launched the call for the British to leave his country, immediately and unconditionally. His target was the injustice and humiliation of colonialism.

Now a coalition of alarmed Indian socialists has dusted off his slogan and his tactics of nonviolent protest to battle a more recent foreign foe: "cola-onalism," the fizzy, ubiquitous drinks made by Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

"These are the two most aggressive agencies of pushing in what I consider American culture. That includes a lot of things, from junk food to Madonna to Michael Jackson," said George Fernandes, a former minister, labor organizer and leader of the Janata Dal party.

Unless the soft-drink giants leave India voluntarily by the month's end, starting March 1 their bottling plants and retail outlets will be picketed and trucks carrying their products will be blocked, Mr. Fernandes announced on behalf of Samajwadi Abhiyan, an umbrella alliance of socialists.

Mr. Fernandes, responsible for driving Coke out of the Indian market in 1977 (Coke returned last fall), claimed that movement organizers can count on the support of 200,000 nationalist students in universities in the New Delhi area, as well as "millions" worried that jobs in Indian enterprises are in jeopardy.

Those forecasts seem preposterous. But regardless of how many people lie down in front of delivery vans or agree to boycott Coke and Pepsi, the "quit India" campaign, freighted with the symbols and strategy of the fight against imperialism, is a reminder of how touchy some Indian leaders and intellectuals still are about foreign penetration of their once tightly sealed economy.

"The world has changed in 50 years,' " objected P.M. Sinha, managing director of Pepsi Foods Ltd., who claims that Mr. Fernandes and his backers just haven't kept up. "The country today exists in a new environment of global integration."

Pepsi, he said, will stand pat.

"Quit India" redux may be one of the last gasps of the ideal of a self-sufficient, import-free India minted in the heyday of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

Last year, a new, more open India attracted more foreign investment than during the whole of the 1980s. American, as well as European and Japanese, companies are arriving.

The experiences of Cargill, the U.S. grain-trading dynasty, indicate that, at least in some economic sectors or regions, foreigners may be in for a bumpy ride.

The Minneapolis-based company sells hybrid sunflower and corn seed in India; in December 1992, hundreds of militants attacked its office in Bangalore, looted the seedlings and computer records and tossed them in a bonfire, said Cargill's Indian-born general manager, Raza Hasnain. Last July, a mob was back, laying waste to sections of a seed-processing plant under construction.

Cargill was targeted because of a provision in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, then being debated, that allowed the patenting of new strains of seeds. Mr. Fernandes warned at the time that multinationals like Cargill "will hook farmers to their products, then raise prices. . . . our agricultural base will collapse."

Mr. Fernandez claimed that over the next three years, Coke and Pepsi combined will siphon almost half a billion dollars in royalties and profits out of India.

"This is a country where four-fifths of the villages are without potable drinking water," Mr. Fernandes said. "The law of the market cannot be allowed to operate."

Mr. Fernandes says that India already has its own colas and that foreign concoctions are really no different, so India isn't getting any advanced foreign technology in return for permitting market access.

In a larger sense, he is concerned about India as it exists today -- a country where vast private wealth, 60 percent illiteracy and widespread poverty coexist. "Unless there is a return to Gandhi, we are lost," he said.

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