NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A remark by President George W. Bush saying India was partly responsible for rising global food prices has sparked a nationalistic storm across the political spectrum, with the defence minister calling it a “cruel joke”.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s main opposition party, threatened on Monday to force a parliamentary debate on Bush’s remarks that India’s increasingly prosperous middle classes were helping push up prices.
The political uproar highlighted how quickly a latent anti-U.S. nationalism in India could rear its head despite years of diplomatic rapprochement. It also underscored how food price rises have become a huge electoral issue in India.
“U.S. policies are also responsible for the food grain shortage,” Defence Minister A.K. Antony told local media on Sunday, saying that official encouragement of biofuels in the United States was causing food shortages.
He added that Bush’s remark was a “cruel joke”.
“Bush has never been known for his knowledge of economics,” India’s Junior Trade Minister Jairam Ramesh said.
“He has just proved once again how comprehensively wrong he is. To say that the demand for food in India is causing an increase in global good prices is completely wrong.
Rapid economic growth and better wages, powered by nearly two decades of liberal reforms that have made India’s economy the third-largest in Asia, have fuelled demand for farm products at a time when output has stagnated.
India has imported wheat in the last two years and imports of edible oils have risen to help meet rising consumer demand and changing food habits. India has also banned non-basmati rice exports to ensure local availability.
At the same time, dwindling global stocks of staples like wheat and rice, Asian demand and government mandates to produce crops for fuel have stretched the world’s ability to feed itself.
Praising the growing prosperity of developing countries, Bush said on Friday “there are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class”.
“That’s bigger than America ... and when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up,” Bush said, according to a White House transcript.
During the Cold War, India was an ally of the Soviet Union. It is only recently that the growing Asian power has tilted towards Washington, a move that has often sparked opposition from influential leftist parties that prop up the government.
The Congress-led coalition is worried inflation, at a three year high of more than 7 percent, could ruin their chances in general elections due by early 2009.
Hindu nationalist and leftist opposition have made food inflation one of their main electoral platforms.
The opposition quickly jumped on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s silence over Bush’s remarks. “He has got only a few days left in office and at least he should now stand up to protect the country’s honor and dignity,” BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.
“India will not accept such interference. The government should take serious note of the U.S. president’s statement and give a strong reply.”
West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, one of India’s main leftist leaders, was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying Bush “has gone out of his mind since his downfall is near”.
One thing that failed to spark debate in India was Bush’s estimate that there were 350 million middle class Indians — despite that figure being challenged by many experts.
A study by the McKinsey Global Institute last year estimated India’s middle classes numbered only 50 million, out of a total 1.1 billion population.
Editing by Simon Denyer