Vinay Lal

[published on AsiaMedia, 1 September 2006]

Morarji Cola vs. Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola India’s web site makes no mention of the drink’s chequered Indian past. In 1977, Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister for over a decade, was thrown out of power after voters punished her and the Congress party for the excesses committed during the internal emergency of 1975-77. The Minister of Industries, George Fernandes, was part of the new Janata government, which styled itself as a party devoted to swadeshi, or self-reliance. Fernandes invoked a particular provision of the Foreign Exchanges Regulation Act (FERA) which required foreign companies to dilute their equity stake in their Indian associates to 40 percent if they wished to remain in the country. Coca-Cola would not oblige and was given marching orders to (as Mohandas Gandhi might have said) “Quit India.” In popular folklore, the government of Morarji Desai, a teetotaler given to a spartan lifestyle, is believed to have told Coca-Cola that, in lieu of observing Indian regulations, Coke could reveal its formula and thus continue to stay in India. In this respect, at least, Desai appears to have anticipated the present Supreme Court of India, which has invited Coca-Cola to reveal its formula and so assure itself an untroubled stay in India.

The great unmentionable in this thick plot is that Desai, a staunch believer in nature cure, was habituated to consuming a glass of his own urine every day. He maintained that regimen for at least two decades, at a time, moreover, when auto-urine therapy was virtually unknown except to a few naturopaths who would not have dared to pronounce in public the virtues of urine. Since India was keen to flaunt its modern credentials to the outside world, it was something of an embarrassment that the country’s leader was addicted to — well, another drink, something that is decidedly not modern, nor very useful in spreading consumerism or helping the rise of free markets. (Urine is free, but this is not what the proponents of the “free market” had in mind.) With Desai at the helm, one can understand why Coca-Cola had no future in India.

Desai lived to the ripe old age of 99, something not even remotely within the realm of possibility for someone brought up on a diet of Coke or diet Coke or Zero Coke.

Coca-Cola resurfaced in India twenty years after its unceremonious exit.

Elites and Subalterns: Coca-Cola’s Proper Destiny

There are ample reports that the bans on Coca-Cola have led to demands for the forbidden elixir on the black market, and it is unlikely that they will be sustained for very long.

The modern world’s addiction to sugared drinks is of more serious proportions than the more frequently discussed addictions to coke (of the other variety), tobacco, and alcohol. One of the more charming stories told about Mohandas Gandhi, whose assassin blamed the Mahatma for foisting upon the world his blind addiction to nonviolence, concerns an old lady who arrived at his ashram with a six-year old boy in tow. Her grandson, the lady explained to the Mahatma, was excessively fond of sweets, and she wanted the lofty man to talk the young boy out of his addiction to sugar. Gandhi asked her to return with the boy after a month. When she did, the Mahatma spoke to him at some length on the unhealthy consequences of excessive consumption of sugar and urged him to keep off sweets. The old lady then said, ‘You could have told my grandson the same thing a month ago. Why did you have us return to the ashram?’ Gandhi replied, ‘I myself was eating too much sugar a month ago. I had to give it up in the following weeks before I could ask your grandson to do so.’

One suspects that Mohandas Gandhi, were he alive today, would have been at least as receptive to the bans on Coca-Cola and Pepsi as he was to prohibition. But if modern India’s disdain for Gandhi is any guide, one can be certain that producers, vendors, and consumers of these beverages will conspire to keep them in circulation.

Nevertheless, the captains of industry are alarmed that the bans on Coke and other colas, just when India has finally become attractive to foreign investors, might have a chilling effect on direct foreign investment. The Confederation of Indian Industry’s America-based representative, according to a report in The New York Times (Aug. 15, 2006), has expressed hope that “U.S. companies do not use this [the bans] as a measure to decide whether to invest in India.” Similarly the President of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, Prabharkar Bothireddy, has some misgivings that the bans “could send the wrong message to investors at a time when there are vast opportunities for businesses in both countries to work together.”

Meanwhile, according to the BBC, the U.S. Under-Secretary for International Trade, Franklin Lavin, was more forthright in declaring that the bans constituted a “setback for the Indian economy.” Lavin characterized proponents of the bans as people who do “not want to treat foreign companies fairly” and criticized their attempts to dominate the discussion. The irony of a representative of the U.S. government intervening in the internal matters of Indian states is evidently lost on him.

While industry executives, corporate leaders, and other elites in the US and India have over the last few years continued to weigh in with their opinions about Coca-Cola serving as a barometer of India’s growing economy and the country’s norms of hospitality toward foreign companies, the subalterns in India have in their own way stumbled upon the inestimable benefits of Coca-Cola. On Nov. 2, 2004, a year after CSE first found inordinately large levels of pesticide in Coke and Pepsi samples, John Vidal of the Guardian reported that farmers in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh had found that Coca-Cola worked as an extraordinarily effective pesticide. At Rs 30 a liter (about 75 cents), an acre of chilli and cotton fields could be sprayed for about Rs 270 (less than $6), a fraction of the Rs 10,000 (some $220) that it would cost to spray over the same area a pesticide produced by Monsanto, Dow Chemical or other large chemical manufacturers.

Gotu Laxmaiah, a farmer from Andhra, described to an Indian journalist that “pests began to die after the soft drink was sprayed on [my] cotton.” The astute Laxmaiah also noted that Coke could be handled without gloves. According to Vidal, hundreds of other farmers gave similar reports.

Coca-Cola, one might reasonably conclude, always does the right thing. The revenge of the subalterns may turn out to be the revenge of Coca-Cola, judging from the various lives of Coca-Cola In India, if nowhere else, Coca-Cola should be thinking of its karma.