The nexus between politics and big business
By K.P. Nayar
A bright, enterprising Indian, who recently turned down an offer to run one of India’s leading industry organizations, summed up the rejection so succinctly as to make sense of the gathering gloom about the country’s economy. This individual, whose access to American leaders short of the president and the vice president has been witnessed firsthand by this columnist, said that the decision to turn down the offer was because industry organizations had lost their relevance in the current lay of governance.
This person of choice who must remain anonymous has several decades of experience of dealing with industry and has had a ringside view of momentous changes affecting India’s economy, including the downs of the 1900s and ups of the early part of the previous decade. When this individual talks of representative organizations of industry and commerce losing relevance it is a story that runs somewhat as follows.
Even when Manmohan Singh, as finance minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, decided to shed the albatrosses that weighed the economy down, the perceived taint about businessmen lingered for long afterwards and politicians would not be seen rubbing shoulders with individual industrialists, at least in public. Under no circumstances would they engage in any open display of bonhomie, such as accepting rides on private planes owned by captains of industry, as they do nowadays; nor did these captains own such manifestations of opulence.
Representative organizations of business continued to be necessary as vehicles of institutional access to the government. Many ministers, of course, had industry connections and vice versa, often more than mere ‘connections’, but these were almost never touted in public.
This columnist has peeped, as a younger journalist, into the daily schedules of prime ministers to find certain slots without names, merely carrying the legend, “reserved”. No one other than the prime minister, his trusted private secretary and the visitor in question knew whom those slots were reserved for, and such meetings were inevitably held at 7, Race Course Road, the prime ministerial residence, and never at the South Block office.
During the National Democratic Alliance government, with the rising importance of men like Pramod Mahajan, things began to change. Even then, such were the reservations about associating oneself with business that before Jaswant Singh joined Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 13-day government on May 16, 1996, as finance minister, he initiated steps to sell off all his stocks and shares lest there was any appearance of a conflict of interest.
But industrialists gained unfettered access to all levels of government during the United Progressive Alliance rule when fraternizing with the private sector was not only no longer considered unsavoury, but it became a badge of a minister’s progressive and development-oriented thinking. Only few ministers, like A.K. Antony, remained exceptions to this new rule. Such ‘unfashionable’ ministers were mocked by journalists whose media houses had no qualms about deputing half a dozen correspondents to the annual international business jamboree in Davos even as they showed nowhere near such professional interest in villages where the country’s farmers were committing suicide in desperation. Many captains of industry now simply call up ministers on their cell-phones and fix up appointments. The more savvy among the cabinet members meet up with businessmen in the exclusive, members-only reserves of the capital’s five star hotels or similar ones in Mumbai, something that would have been unthinkable at one time.
Naturally, the industry organizations that once represented the collective wisdom — and wealth — of Indian entrepreneurship are ghosts of their former selves. What would have been my role, wondered the individual who turned down the offer to lead such an organization, had I accepted the offer, other than to give out an occasional sound-bite to a television channel, issue a press release, moderate an inconsequential meeting or host a cocktail party for, say, the visiting foreign minister of Tuvalu or Estonia?