It all began on Friday, May 2, with a question about rising food prices during a presidential press conference in Missouri. The answer from President George W. Bush, taken from the official transcript, included these thoughts:
Worldwide there is increasing demand. There turns out to be prosperity in developing world, which is good. It's going to be good for you because you'll be selling products into countries -- big countries perhaps -- and it's hard to sell products into countries that aren't prosperous. In other words, the more prosperous the world is, the more opportunity there is.
It also, however, increases demand. So, for example, just as an interesting thought for you, there are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class. That's bigger than America. Their middle class is larger than our entire population. 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.
And in the last couple of days, there's been a lot of coverage in India about those comments and the heated reaction there from politicians, analysts and others:
- Times of India: Parties unite to slam Bush food remark
All major political parties, including Congress, BJP and the Left, on Saturday lashed out at US President George W Bush for blaming the growing demand in India for the spiralling global food prices even as the Opposition also used the opportunity to attack the government.
- Hindustan Times: Bush's 'cruel joke' may rock house today
Defence Minister AK Antony on Sunday said US President George W. Bush’s statement that the growing demand for foodgrains in India had led to the spiralling of global food prices was a “cruel joke”. The BJP, too, attacked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his silence on Bush’s remarks and said that it would raise the issue in Parliament on Monday. Anger over Bush’s statement continued unabated on Sunday with West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacherjee saying “he has gone out of his mind since his downfall is near”. Antony, the first cabinet minister to speak out against Bush, said, “USA’s policies were also responsible for the foodgrain shortage. Those who criticise us shouldn’t set apart agriculture land for other purposes. The countries, including US, should rectify their mistakes.”
David C. Mulford, the U.S. Ambassador to India, has had to respond to the controversy and defend the president. From an Economic Times article, "Bush is an admirer of India, Says Mulford":
Reacting to the domestic political criticism against Mr Bush, Mr Mulford said the president was not making any critical comments against India or Indians and maintained, “hostile political commentary is not productive.”
Mr Mulford pointed out that Mr Bush is a "great friend and admirer" of India who in his remarks had merely expressed his support for the progress developing nations were making in both food production and nutrition. The president, he said, had expressed concern about the global food price increase and called on all nations to help in the fight against hunger. He further said that Mr Bush has increased the US food aid contributions to $5 billion over the next two years.
The White House clarified Bush's statement on May 5:
The White House has sought to clarify President George W Bush's remarks blaming India for the surge in global food prices, which evoked wide protest from politicians in India.
"We think it is a good thing that countries are developing, that more and more people have higher and higher standards of living," Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said in reply to a question in Washington on Monday.<snip>
The White House official said, "The point I think is that as you increase your standard of living, the food that you eat can venture more into meats that require more commodities to feed the livestock, which uses more of those commodities, whether it's corn or wheat or other commodities, and it drives up the price. So, that is just a function of how those food prices that we have seen spike around the world."
This newspaper is no uncritical admirer of President Bush. We have held the view that many of his policies, especially the Iraq war, are disastrous for the US as well as the world. However, the US president's take on the global food crisis is quite reasonable. In his reply to a stray question at a conference in Missouri, Bush said food prices are high for a number of reasons — including high energy costs — and partly because there was now more prosperity in the developing world, which is good. He cited the example of India, where a 350-million middle class, larger than the population of the US, is demanding better nutrition and better food. Bush hasn't said anything original; he has only repeated what economists have been saying for a while.
The hysterical response from our politicians and sections of the media to Bush is simply out of place. It reveals a sense of immaturity that is unbecoming of an aspiring global power. If India sustains the current rate of economic growth and manages to deepen the roots of democracy, it should emerge as a global power in a few years. But do we know what it means to be a global power? Do we recognise that big power status calls for a sophistication in our understanding of the rest of the world? Do we realise that big powers don't see themselves as victims or always define international relations in conspiratorial terms? A big power has to behave like one.
What do YOU think? Post your comments below. See SAJAforum's coverage of the rising price of food and the rice-purchase limits in some U.S. stores.