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India Inc's activist agenda - Outside View by Sidharth Bhatia

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India Inc's activist agenda
Jan 25, 2011

Indian businessmen, especially of the big variety, tend to keep a very low public profile. While they are quite comfortable talking to the press on purely business matters and giving controlled interviews to fawning reporters, and are even happy hobnobbing with politicians and ministers are summits and conferences (like hailing Narendra Modi as the greatest visionary of our times), they hesitate to engage with social and political questions. Rarely will you see a top industrialist commenting on a major issue-his PR advisors would warn against saying anything controversial.

Indeed, PR departments have now begun to exercise a lot of influence on chairmen and managing directors as far as giving press quotes are concerned. One journalist recently recalled how he was warned off by Niira Radia and her henchmen when he asked a fairly innocuous question to a big wig about expansion plans. "No he did not say that," she told the reporter aggressively and he was too stunned to react. Political statements therefore are a strict no-no.

Now, suddenly, India Inc seems to be getting assertive. In recent months, well known businessmen, individually and collectively, have stuck their necks out, seemingly unafraid to speak their minds.

Ratan Tata, who rarely speaks to the media, let fly angrily at the government on the leaks of telephone taps on his PR agency chief Niiara Radia. The leakages of these private conversations, was very disturbing, he told a television channel and then for good affect also filed a petition to ensure that more leaks did not appear in the press. Clearly therefore his ire was not merely against the leaky government but also against the media and what he called our "banana republic." Just before this controversy broke, Tata had hinted at being asked for a huge bribe to start an airline.

Around that time, Tata also got into a letter war with businessman-turned MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar who pointed out that Tata was protesting too much and had also benefited from the 2G spectrum policy. Tata hit back soon enough with a letter of his own. It was all quite unusual in the annals of Indian business.

Now comes a joint letter sent by prominent businessmen and women (and a few from other fields too) to the government demanding that the country needs governance and that the endemic corruption must be controlled and stamped out. The context of this letter is clear—the various scams that have made the front pages have disturbed the business class which, one presumes is also mostly at the receiving end of such corruption.

This is a welcome initiative indeed. For some time now there has been a feeling that the government has become preoccupied with scandals and scams and has not devoted enough to time to its primary job, governance. There have been no new reforms for years, no path breaking policies that can propel the economy forward. Instead, we have had hyper inflation and blatant corruption. The mantra of "9 percent growth" has taken a life of its own, as if it will continue on its pre-ordained path without any help or hindrance from anyone. In short, whether the government manages the country well or not, the economy will gallop along nicely, thank you. This as we know is dangerous thinking, since this growth cannot be taken for granted; anything can trip it. The global situation is still uncertain and all kinds of events could overtake us if pro-active measures are not taken. Inflation is a good example-it happened because no there was no thinking about the affects of the weather and supply-side management; the ministers were too busy with cricket and the prime minister too busy managing his wayward flock. So to that extent the letter writers are right.

However, there is something that is bothersome about this activist agenda. Take the case of this latest missive. As businessmen and citizens the petitionists definitely are within their rights to ask questions of the government. But some fairness is in order. Shouldn’t they also be telling their peers that they should not indulge in corruption? After all, for every bribe taker there is a bribe giver. And if bribes are taken for big business deals, it follows that the bribes are given by businessmen to clinch those deals. The revelations of the 2G scam show that inexperienced companies got telecom spectrum licenses which they then sold for a huge profit. Was any bribe given, and who gave those bribes? That is a question which businessmen need to address.

Similarly, while there is no question that telephone tapping is worrisome and the leaks in the media even more so, especially for those who innocently were at the other side of a telephone conversation, the nature of what has been revealed makes the whole thing a matter of national interest. Niira Radia was a PR person for two of the country’s biggest corporate houses; one of them got a license and subsequently a scam was detected in the whole thing. Surely the nation would want to know more about the issue? As for the irresponsible media, getting at secrets is the job of the press. However much the media has become toothless in recent years and too cozy with the establishment and with businessmen, in this case journalists have done a good job; they had no alternative, the story was too big.

So it is difficult to buy into this outrage because it is selective and not fair-minded. If the biggest and most respected names in Indian business can stand up and come up with a code of ethics for themselves and will shun anyone who breaches it, the citizens of this country will doff their collective hats. As things stand now, no one is fully convinced about the sudden activism of Indian big business.

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.

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