India: Stir over Norwegian Telenor

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Shastri Ramachandaran*´
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

NEW DELHI (IDN) - Norwegians often venture where lesser mortals fear to tread. They are also known to be diplomatic and modest. But Norwegian Trade Minister Trond Giske, who warned India of "political implications" if telecom giant Telenor is forced to quit the country, obviously doesn’t give a damn about being diplomatic.

Nor does he personify the Lutheran modesty typical of Scandinavians when he thumps the table to say: "Telenor is not just any company. Fifty-four per cent of its shares are owned by the Norwegian people through the state."

True, Telenor has taken a hit of $1.38 billion as a result of the Supreme Court order on the scam-tainted award of 2G licences and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommending fresh auctions. The company has not raked in profits as it did from India anywhere else in the world. Which makes its $3 billion investment too prized a treasure to be lost without a fight.

Yet Giske's tone and tenor is, to put it mildly, most undiplomatic. And, that is unlikely to influence people or win him friends. He has invoked Norwegian national pride and politics in a matter of business, and his language is a departure from the familiar in relations between friendly countries.

Doubtless, the award of 2G (second-generation wireless telephone technology) licences was illegal. The corruption involved shook the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, a coalition of centre-left political parties in India, cost a minister his job and landed him and his party colleague in jail, and is exposed in all its ugly aspects. It has inflicted a colossal loss on the national exchequer and was brazen loot in full public glare. The telecom players involved, including Telenor and its Indian partner, knew they were beneficiaries of a crooked process that was legally untenable although it took some years for the matter to be taken to court and struck down.

Telenor risked investment in what was gained through a dubious process and should accept the ‘level playing field’ along with other losers. Far from doing that, it is making threatening noises that have no place in business or diplomacy.

Merely to avoid a business loss, Giske invokes the power of the people. Is recovery of a dubious investment purportedly in the interest of five million Norwegians more important than thousands of millions of rupees robbed from a billion Indians by a corrupt regime? Whatever happened to the famed Scandinavian values of probity in public life and fair play?

Five million is about the number of vehicles on Delhi's roads. To think that Norway, like Denmark, should instruct India on values and consequences in such intimidating tones would be laughable, if it was not actually happening.

Had Giske challenged the regime's corrupt practices, he would have been hailed like those in Sweden who blew the lid of the kickbacks paid in the Bofors gun deal. But, today's Scandinavia has not a trace of what made it a 'moral superpower' in decades past. Now, Sweden is in the news for being a poodle of the US military-intelligence establishment in hounding Julian Assange.

Denmark blotted its copy book, first by refusing to hand over a criminal wanted in the Purulia arms drop case and then by a media team coming here on the pretext of shooting a documentary but actually funding and filming a reality TV show in a slum. This led to India not issuing visas to Danes, which hurt decent Danish citizens who would not stoop to such practices.

Worse than the offence, is their defence of it in public and craven submission in private. Now, in a desperate attempt to mend relations, the Danish government, NGOs, diplomats and business are ready to do any Indian bidding and please anyone in government, political, business and media circles.

For Norway, this is the second major clash with India after the rather emotional issue of Norwegian child care authorities turning into child-snatchers. Although the Indian couple involved in the case was, deservedly, exposed, the authoritarianism of child care agencies has been checked. Other parents deprived of their children by state agencies – not only in Norway, but also in Sweden – have been emboldened to speak up.

The sad part is that the emerging political and business elite in Scandinavian states may actually succeed in striking cynical deals with corrupt or opportunistic elements in India. While this may keep the official, especially business, channels between India and these countries well-greased, people-to-people relations and value-based cooperation may deteriorate further.

In Norway, as elsewhere in the world including India, the discreet charms of the seasoned politician have given way to the in-your-face manner of a brash new breed. It is hard to imagine Norway's International Development Minister Erik Solheim, its former minister Vidar Helgesen or former Prime Minister Gro Harlen Brundtland making their case with the loud swagger of Giske.

The question is whether New Delhi would dare to confront the bluster and call their bluff.

*Shastri Ramachandaran is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, had worked as Senior Editor & Writer with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing. This article first appeared in Daily News & Analysis (DNA) on May 16, 2012. [IDN-InDepthNews – May 16, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer's previous articles in IDN:

Image: Norwegian Trade Minister Trond Giske | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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