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LETTER FROM U.K.

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Rafale French Fighter Britain Reeling Under Huge Indian Deal Lost to France

By Shastri Ramachandaran*

When the British first came to India it was, avowedly, to civilise the natives. Now, 65 years after they departed, they are agonising over the threat posed by the civilised in India to the native – the Jarawa tribe in the Andaman Islands.

 Britain and its members of parliament appear to be agitated over India doing nothing to stop the exploitation of the Jarawas for tourist purposes. A motion moved in the House of Commons by Conservative Party member Mike Crockart reads: "This House is concerned that tourists in India's Andaman Islands are treating the recently-contacted Jarawa tribe like an attraction in a human safari park… and calls on the government of India… to take immediate action to close the Andaman Trunk Road in compliance with the law."

Three Liberal Democrat MPs of Britain's ruling coalition have endorsed the motion and two British members of the European Parliament are also making noise over the issue.

India's exploitation of tribes, including corrupting them for tourist and exhibition purposes, is nothing new. The Scheduled Tribes (STs), who constitute about 8% of the population are not only exploited but also deprived of their constitutional and legal entitlements. The increasing marginalisation and pauperisation of the STs, who have been uprooted from their habitats and homes and denied access to survival resources rarely makes headlines in India or elsewhere.

Then why are the British suddenly getting worked up over the exploitation of the Jarawas? Why have the Jarawas become a diplomatic issue between New Delhi and London? Because, India's $11 billion deal for fighter jets went to the French manufacturer, Rafale, which pipped the Eurofighter Typhoon, produced by a consortium of four countries, including Britain and Germany and in which British Aerospace is a major stakeholder.

British anger – government, parliament and media – at losing the contract to France is what has triggered the censure motion against India in the House of Commons and criticism in the European Parliament.

Another manifestation of British kolaveri is the clamour to stop development aid to India. A clear case of aid with strings, though it is an uneven bargain to expect a contract of $11 billion in return for annual aid of less than £300 million. British aid to India is ridiculed, not for being a pittance, but for being undeserved, for being 'frittered away' or 'stolen' instead of mitigating poverty.

The British rage conceals both truth and hypocrisy. The underlying truth is that the British economy, like most others in the advanced industrial West, is in deep crisis: it desperately needs the money, the manufacturing activity and the jobs that could have come with the contract for the fighter jets. Of course, John Bull is too proud to say, like President Obama did when he came to India in 2010, that the contract was needed as a matter of survival.

The situation highlights the hypocrisy of the British in particular, and the West in general, of using aid to wrest defence contracts; of giving a little development aid to make a killing through lucrative commercial and defence contracts.

British and western military hardware peddlers conveniently forget that the Indian state in no way serves India's poor by purchasing fighter jets, be it from France, Britain or elsewhere. They refuse to dwell on the paradox of a few millions given in aid ostensibly for 'fighting poverty' being used to rip off billions by way of defence contracts.

Had Britain criticised India for squandering on military purchases money that could be better used to fight poverty at home, it would have struck a chord among large sections in India, and elsewhere in the world, that are opposed to such expenditure.

Those favouring less expenditure on defence deals would say that these take away scarce resources from more pressing national priorities – line food, shelter, healthcare and education. India's 2011-12 defence budget is Rs1,64,415.49 crore ($36.03 billion) – nearly 12% more than in the last fiscal and the highest in recent years.

In the last five years, according to analysts, India has surpassed China as the world's largest importer of weapons systems. In the next four years, India is expected to sign defence deals worth $120 billion.

Winning these contracts is a high-stakes battle for crisis-hit western powers. Britain has lost one big-ticket deal. Its government, parliament and media have now launched an offensive to make sure that Britain is not done out of lucrative contracts in future. Defence contracts would be a key factor in mending the ruptured ties between the UK and India.

Picture: Rafale French fighter | Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Source: IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Shastri Ramachandaran is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator.

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