India's nuclear battle

As George Bush urges India to push ahead with a highly controversial civil nuclear deal corruption a

US President George W Bush has urged India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push ahead with a controversial deal on nuclear power between the two countries in the wake of a key confidence vote in New Delhi.

The issue has divided opinion as supporters argue it is the only way to keep pace with the energy demands of India's fast-growing economy. But many remain deeply suspicious of a deal they fear will cede too much influence to America.

“The whole thing is not about what is best for the Indian people,” said Samil Kumar, a businessman from Calcutta. “It is about lining the pockets of politicians on both sides of this filthy covenant.”

For though India’s government may have survived this week's vote of confidence the win was marred by serious corruption allegations pouring fuel on the fire of already flaming suspicion.

The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came through by an unexpectedly high margin of 19 votes. Yet only hours before the vote took place there were scenes of high drama in the Lok Sabha parliament building when members of the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) marched up to the secretary general’s table and began pulling out large bundles of cash from a black holdall. They claimed the money, totalling 10 million rupees (£118,000) was the first installment of a 90 million rupee (£1.1 million) bribe paid to the party by government supporting politicians to ensure three BJP members would abstain from the crucial vote.

The vote was triggered after the government’s left-wing allies withdrew their support for the nuclear deal struck with the US in 2005. The pact will give India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, access to US nuclear technology and fuel for civilian use. In return, India’s civilian nuclear facilities would be opened to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Those in favour of the deal argue it will help meet India’s escalating energy demands:

“Our economy has been growing at a rate of 8-9% over the last decade,” says Vishal Budda, an engineer from Delhi. “We simply need nuclear energy to keep the momentum running.”

Yet many Indians are suspicious of America’s interest as well as its intentions.

“This deal will just make us a junior partner of the U.S.,” says Vikram Mittal, President of the Haryana Student Federation of India. “America is trying to hijack our foreign and national policies. First it will be the nuclear deal, then it will be agricultural deals, then education- before we know it we will be another puppet of the U.S.”

India is under pressure from Washington to sign the accord before the U.S. presidential elections in November. Some think this pressure is an indication that America will be the real winners from this agreement.

“This deal will generate over 100 billion dollars worth of business for the U.S,” says Bhadra Kumar, a left-wing diplomat. “And it will also give them more power to maintain there dominance over the Muslim world if India is a close ally. But what do we get? Expensive power when our people are already going hungry.”

Many on the left suspect the deal has nothing to do with India’s energy needs.

“Nuclear power provides only 3 per cent of India’s current energy and this will not change massively in the near future,” says Mohammed Thallath, student of International Relations. “We have an abundance of natural resources here as well as energy security through the supply of gas from Iran. No, this is all about money - it may generate business for India but more importantly it will generate massive kickbacks for the politicians.”

India is indeed only too familiar with such corruption. A study by the campaign group Transparency International in 2005 found that more than 50 per cent of Indians had firsthand experience of paying a bribe or peddling influence to get a job done in public office. Even before the thick bundles of cash were waved around in the parliament building on Tuesday, there had been serious allegations of foul-play surrounding this vote. A week before, the leader of the Communist Party, A.B. Bhardan, argued it was no secret that votes were being exchanged for large amounts of money: “It is not a question of a few million but more than 250 million rupees (£3 million) for this horsetrading,” he said at a public meeting last week.

It is an indication of the importance of the deal with the US that both those in favour as well as those against the agreement have been trying desperately to woo members of parliament with promises of influence and lucrative jobs. One prominent MP, Ajit Singh, was even offered to have an airport named after his father, Charan Singh, a former prime minister. The government insisted the timing of this offer was purely coincidental.

As well as the cash, the BJP claim to have hidden camera footage of a member of the government-supporting Samajwadi Party (SP) handing them the money.

SP leader Amar Singh, one of the MP’s being accused, insists the allegations are baseless: “This is a conspiracy by the BJP. If they have such a tape why don’t they just show it?”

If the accusations are proven to be true it will prove a massive embarrassment for the government and its allies and those involved could face lengthy prison sentences under the 1988 Prevention of Corruption Act.

The BJP may be taking the high moral ground this time but the party is no stranger to corruption allegations itself. In 2001, the BJP’s president at the time, Bangaru Laxman, was caught on film casually accepting the equivalent of a £1500 bribe to give the go-ahead for the Indian military to buy hand-held thermal imaging cameras from journalists posing as arms dealers.

This high profile sting exposed an intricate web of official corruption which ran vertically to almost the very top of Indian politics. But after the initial uproar things soon returned to normal, the defence minister resigned only to be reinstated, and it became clear exposure made little difference.

The Indian government may have won its confidence vote but many Indians feel the chaotic scenes shown on Tuesday from inside the parliament, the first time a vote of this kind had been fully covered live on television, have left a permanent stain on India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy.

“It is so embarrassing,” says Monika Mehra, a shop worker from Delhi. “The whole world was watching that circus, I can only guess what they must be thinking about our country.”

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.