It’s lunchtime in New Delhi’s busy Connaught Place, and businessmen dressed in European suits are hurrying past street-food stands to McDonald’s–for a Chicken Maharaja Mac. One of twenty-two branches in India’s capital city, this McDonald’s attracts businessmen from multinational companies and India’s IT sector, and is a status symbol to India’s growing middle class. But today there is a commotion outside. Hundreds of women in saris and salwar kameez have blocked the McDonald’s entrance, chanting “America off our soil!” Signs along a railing scream, “US Invades for Profit, India Boycotts US Goods.” Demonstrator Amarjit Kaur, national secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, is furious. “The US imposed sanctions on Iraq for twelve years, making women and children suffer, so we are using food and consumer goods to tell America that the world is not with them.” Frantic McDonald’s employees lock the restaurant from the inside, and prospective customers scurry away.
Just after coalition forces first attacked Iraq, the governments of India and Pakistan expressed their “deep anguish”; both were under tremendous pressure from opposition leaders to take a strong stance against military action. Some opposition members of the Indian Parliament immediately demanded a countrywide boycott of American goods, particularly ubiquitous American brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and McDonald’s, as well as British-owned Lever soap. In Pakistan, antiwar sentiment was so strong that the government simply couldn’t ignore it, despite its carefully guarded ties with the Bush Administration. During the military action, traders regularly went on strike in several Pakistani cities, and religious groups issued regular boycott calls.
Despite the relatively quick end to military action in Iraq, across Asia and the Arab world protesters–organized by politicians, religious groups or trade unions–continue to call for a boycott of American and British goods, bringing a new dose of anti-Americanism to countries fearing the implications of a superpower invading a much weaker country. For the first time in decades, anti-Western sentiment has become so pervasive on the Indian subcontinent that it has the foreign-goods market on edge. Almost one out of four people in the Asia/Pacific region say they have avoided purchasing American brands, according to a survey by the Leo Burnett ad agency. Market research firm Roper ASW finds that although US culture still appeals in many countries, rifts are emerging, especially in South Asia and Europe.
In India’s eastern city of Calcutta, dealers in foreign goods feel the aftershocks of the war particularly acutely. Two political parties in Calcutta’s Communist-led West Bengal state called for a boycott of American goods, and a prominent Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against American products in protest against the US-led war on Iraq. Several weeks ago, activists vandalized a Calcutta Nike showroom. Shortly after that incident, members of the ultra-leftist People’s War Group stormed a Pepsi warehouse and destroyed multiple cases of the soft drink, saying it symbolized the superpower that was trying to create a new world order. In another concerted attack, protesters in southern India forced a water-bottling unit owned by Coca-Cola to shut down for several days.
For students across India, drinking Coke and Pepsi has become reprehensible. At Delhi’s distinguished Jawaharlal Nehru University, boycotts have sent the beverages out of stock. High schools have also staged high-profile boycotts of US and British products. Sahir Raza, a 16-year-old organizer in Delhi, says his friends are angry enough about the war to sacrifice drinking Coke and Pepsi. Raza, who carries his books in a Tommy Hilfiger bag and watches HBO, admits that there’s no way to eliminate America’s pervasive presence in his life. But he is optimistic that the boycott will “teach America a lesson.” Two weeks after the United States took Baghdad, eight Delhi schools held a peace assembly supporting the boycott and discussing the aftershocks of military action in Iraq.
Obviously, all this has India’s foreign-supplies market on edge. In the southern state of Kerala, which one politician declared a “cola-free zone,” traders and shopkeepers have reported significant drops in sales of Coke and Pepsi. Small shopowners in the state worry that they will be targeted by protesters if they stock the drinks. In Calcutta, shoe stores carrying US brands report selling cheaper Indian brands to customers who usually buy the more expensive, foreign-made footwear. And alternative “Muslim colas” like Mecca Cola have fueled the anti-American buying trend in Europe and the Middle East. The newest such brand, Britain-based Qibla Cola, which will hit the Indian market this month, anticipates massive sales.
The boycotts might have only a symbolic impact on multinational corporations, but they come at a time when many US companies are struggling in weak overseas markets. They have left their mark on Coca-Cola Co., which generates about 70 percent of its business abroad. The company recently admitted that worldwide boycotts during the war on Iraq have also had some effect on its sales, although it won’t be specific about the damage done.
Still, many Indians say fighting American-owned multinational corporations is a losing game. In a globalized world, tracing the roots of consumer goods isn’t easy (as Americans trying to boycott French products have discovered). No one knows this better than Coca-Cola. In the 1970s, when India banned multinational products, an imitation Coke called Thums Up made it big on the Indian market. So Coke simply bought Thums Up, along with the Indian soft drinks Limca and Maaza, and a water-bottling company, and cornered the market. Eventually India liberalized its trade laws and let Coke–the real Coke–in.
On a Saturday afternoon, a week after the war in Iraq officially ended, McDonald’s in Delhi is again teeming with customers. A snap survey reveals that most of them think the United States was wrong to go into Iraq. Over a plate of fries, 24-year-old Vibhuti Narang says she disagrees with the war, but boycotting America via McDonald’s is naïve. Everyone who works in McDonald’s is Indian, she points out, and they would lose their jobs long before America suffered from any boycott. McDonald’s, she says, feels almost like home, even while it’s stalwartly American. That’s the genius of companies like McDonald’s and Nike: They’re actually bigger than America.