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CFOs to bankers to SME owners, what India’s business class says about Modi govt

I conducted 63 interviews over the past five months. The majority sentiment among Indian capitalists today is that the mood has moved back to the 1970s.

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The singular defining moment in recent memory around the question of state-capital relations was the exchange between Rahul Bajaj and Amit Shah at an industry conclave in Mumbai in December 2019. Bajaj and Shah were symbolic of larger tensions that have emerged between India’s business elite and the Indian state more broadly. Not only were these two men from polar opposite parts of the political spectrum, they also had fundamentally different views about the role of businesses and politics in public life. Rahul Bajaj viewed politics as an enabler of good business, whereas Amit Shah viewed businesses and their activities as enablers of winning politics. This was a key schism between them as they faced off at the conclave that day.

When Rahul Bajaj addressed the stage (where Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal were seated), the one thing that stood out was his open admission that there was an atmosphere of fear among industrialists (“ham darte hain”), that the business community was not sure that any of their public or private critiques were being taken in the right spirit (other than denial), and that the broader environment was deteriorating.

Amit Shah addressed a number of Bajaj’s points, but most notably stated, unequivocally, after a long pause, that there was no reason for anyone to be afraid (“kisi ko darne ki koi zaroorat nahi hai). He admitted that the atmosphere needed to be improved, but also contested Bajaj’s narrative and went on the defensive by listing the consistent critique that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had experienced.

The content of this exchange lies at the heart of the deterioration of state-capital relations today. But it remained unclear where the consensus view of Indian capital lay and what was signal and what was noise. So we set out to try to take the temperature of capital, and figure out what the business class really thinks about the current state of the Indian economy, their interactions with the bureaucratic and political class, and what it might take to improve the business environment.

Over the course of the last 4-5 months, I conducted 63 interviews with large promoters, CFOs, bankers, SME owners, partners at large law firms and consultancies, start-up founders, venture capitalists, economic journalists and even a few politicians. Not surprisingly, most of them only agreed to an open conversation on condition of anonymity. The following narrative is collated from these interviews.

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The uncertainty

It has been clear for some time that the private sector is very pessimistic about the future of the Indian economy. The single best measure of this is new investments, and investment levels have declined every year continuously from FY 2014-2015 to FY 2019-2020 well before any pandemic hit. While there are many reasons for this trend, what was cited over and over again in my interviews was the two large negative shocks to businesses in the form of demonetisation and GST, coupled with the increasing risk aversion in lending among banks.

There are perhaps two categories of businesses to consider in this situation; those sitting on large amounts of cash, and those who have just enough money to continue covering their operating costs. The number of businesses, particularly small and medium enterprises (SMEs), that have transitioned from the first category to the second in the last half-decade has gone up significantly, and many company promoters admitted to their unwillingness to invest, simply because they have not done good business for a while. For the small group of companies that have managed to remain in the first category, there still remains considerable uncertainty of what the rules of the game are under the Narendra Modi government.

Why is it so difficult to do business in India today? One of the biggest problems is the unstable intermediation, which makes it difficult for businesses to have any certainty about the future. Will my product be banned tomorrow? Will I have access to Internet where I am doing business? Will I get my licence or permit in a timely fashion? Will the public sector bank lend money for my business? How much tax will I be expected to pay next year? How much cash should I hold on to in case of emergency?

These are just a sample of the many concerns. Businesspeople, both small and large, expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the predictability of regulation, taxation and implementation of what used to be fairly straight-forward processes during earlier regimes (even in Modi’s Gujarat). This, combined with a shrinking ability to have their concerns taken seriously by top administrators and politicians has meant that many businesses have preferred to wait and watch, rather than rush into new investments in this renewed environment of uncertainty.

Also read: Why well-to-do Indians are fleeing the country and economists aren’t returning

Suit-boot ki sarkar

When the first Modi government came to power in 2014, riding high on the support of the private sector, it was expected to bring all the perceived benefits of the Gujarat economic model to all of India.

But unfortunately, after the first year, the infamous ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ moment occurred, when in the Lok Sabha, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi openly accused the Modi government of rubbing shoulders with businesspersons and forgetting the ordinary people. This critique rung true and stung hard. And its aftermath morphed into an extended exercise in social distancing and image management, where even being seen with corporate leaders was prohibited by top politicians for almost a year.

The reaction to the suit-boot ki sarkar moment dispossessed India’s administrative machinery of some of its key avenues of interacting with industry and resolving problems: attending conferences, private convenings, meeting in chambers, and other usual forms of state-capital socialisation. Not only were politicians explicitly prohibited from public appearances with businesspeople, but this signal went down the chain, and Secretaries and Joint Secretaries started doing this as well.

The IAS officers who were the lifeblood of the economic bureaucracy suddenly found themselves having to conduct their interactions with businesspeople either over the phone, or through safer intermediaries. Some of them just stopped talking to businesspeople altogether, worried about the professional consequences of breaking the Lakshman Rekha. The situation got bad enough that certain, braver, more empowered IAS officers (primarily in the PMO) had to start putting out feelers to the business community, bypassing economic line ministries, which were paralysed by fear and risk aversion.

This paralysis slowly diminished over the next few years, but the damage had been done. A new bureaucratic normal had been created, where the mere appearance of being close with the business community was frowned upon. It was easier for most career-preserving bureaucrats to leave all the decision making and socialisation to their political masters.

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Incoherent economic philosophy

Sabyasachi Kar and co-authors have argued that in most developing countries, formal rules-based systems are less likely than deals-based systems between firms and bureaucratic and political elites, which at least creates some amount of short-term certainty about the business environment.

However, what seems to have emerged post suit-boot moment, is a concentration of decision making power in two major offices, and then a kind of political and intellectual hot potato that jumps between a few different offices: the PMO, the Ministry of Finance, Niti Aayog, the Finance Commission, certain well-established PR agencies, the minister who is in favour that week, the RBI, and a few influential economic and financial intermediaries. For the last five years, none of these entities can be said to have consistent influence, but every week or month a few of them are in favour and a few of them are not. In such an environment, a credible intermediary can turn ineffective overnight (by omission or by commission is unclear), and hence no deals are stable. Even large political financiers in 2014 have sometimes found it difficult to get their voices heard.

Almost all of my interviewees agreed that the election of Modi’s BJP government in 2014 and its subsequent agenda of reform (economic and otherwise) has fundamentally changed the nature of the existing deals with capital, but not always in a positive way. The biggest complaint we heard from business was a bewilderment at the incoherence of this government’s economic philosophy. Despite the clarion call of minimum government, there have been no major disinvestments of PSUs in the last six years.

The policy paralysis of the bureaucracy during UPA-II seemed to now have moved to the public sector banks. Despite the overtures of cleaning the temple, policies like those around electoral bonds opened up brand new forms of cronyism. As one leading consultant put it, “While this government may want to privatise and dismantle certain public sector companies, what it will replace them with will be even more statist.” An experienced promoter put it even more starkly, “We always hated MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act), and I’m seeing echoes of that same philosophy returning.”

However, India’s capitalists have played a major role in the country’s economic slowdown as well. Various consultants and SME owners spoke of their frustration that India’s largest capitalists simply do not seem to be interested in articulating their ambivalence about India’s current economic trajectory (as Rahul Bajaj did) because they are certain that they will be able to weather the storm and dominate the environment that awaits them on the other side.

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Coercive capitalism

Despite all the messaging surrounding Startup India, starting a company in India today and having it survive is an unforgiving, frustrating process. Venture capitalists and start-up founders are full of tales of woe and vitriol regarding the archaic taxation laws that they still face, the difficulties with registration, and the complete inability of convincing the Indian banking system to lend them any money.

The reality of start-ups in India today is that most of them survive despite the government, not because of it. Many of the more promising companies and start-ups are preferring to register in Singapore, with a subsidiary in India, to avoid red tape and unexpected changes in taxation. Much of venture capital in India comes from abroad as large domestic financial institutions still have not evolved the willingness or skill to value promising early stage businesses.

Part of the problem with capital as a class is that its traditional institutions of collective action, the chambers of commerce, have become completely captured by the largest firms. And in the process, their representations, asks and demands of the Indian state have become myopic and unrepresentative of industries as a whole. As a consequence, much of the real anxiety of capital is communicated through private back channels by influential editors of publications, PR agencies, and various other forms of intermediaries, who are similarly flummoxed by the inconsistency of various sites of lobbying.

To give one example, this government’s flip-flop on electric vehicles policy has been a continuous source of consternation for the auto industry. As we see industries like telecom and airports being dominated by companies in favour, it is hard to infer anything else but a complete disregard for competition. However, many among the Mumbai crowd feel that with an interminable ability to borrow, some of these incumbent firms may be able to avoid hurting consumers disproportionately through price gouging.

Regardless of how concentrated capital becomes, one major turn that we are seeing is a move towards a more coercive form of capitalism, where capital acts largely as a subcontractor of the Indian state, rather than a genuine partner in the growth process. Particularly in the infrastructure space, but even in other areas, the state as procurer, regulator and lender gives the Indian state many avenues of influence on large firms, which means that in the co-dependent relationship, private capital almost always ends up being submissive. The dream of the public-private partnership economy dreamed up by people like Vijay Kelkar and Rakesh Mohan seems to have unfortunately become dormant for now.

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Where’s the optimism?

If there is, in fact, so much wrong in state-capital relations, then why is so much foreign capital flowing into India? Is the entire painting so far too dark and apocalyptic? When I asked this question during my interviews, I received a range of different answers. The portfolio managers were all optimistic, stating that India’s comparative growth story was still quite strong in the developing world, and that the money, both in the form of Foreign Institutional Investment (FII) and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), would start to flow in quite considerably, especially post-Covid when investors start to look for more opportunities outside of China.

But some of the financiers had a valid counterpoint to this, which was that we are currently living in unprecedented times when global financial markets are awash in excess capital. Many investors with long time horizons are desperate to deploy capital, even if they can only secure 4-5 per cent returns, because they need to push the money out to balance their national accounts and gain at least some return (given the rock-bottom bond yields in countries like the US, or sometimes negative yields in places like Germany). In such circumstances, India’s baseline growth, its growing young population, its growing electricity, housing, and consumer demand, and its sheer scale are by themselves enough to warrant a gamble.

The unfortunate catch in this situation is that since such capital is often quite risk-averse, most of the money will go to the largest business groups, the ones that can be expected to manage the unexpected twists and turns of India’s political systems. In the last few years, in aggregate, only large-cap stocks have consistently gained in Indian equity markets. Collectively, mid-cap and small-cap stocks have either flat-lined or lost value.

And while a certain corner of desperate foreign capital is piling on in India, most elites in Mumbai have been cognizant of gradual capital flight over the last half-decade as an entire generation of businesspeople (primarily ranked in the 50-500 range by market cap) have been sending their children and money abroad (to Singapore, Dubai, London, US) as they see shrinking possibilities for future business in India, and would prefer their engagement with India to be in the form of investment capital and hot money, rather than the headache of owning and running a business on one’s own.

Also read: After Ambani, it’s Adani who’s beginning to carve up India’s post-Covid business monopoly

Anger, disappointment, betrayal

There is an emerging perception that the Modi government is moving away from dealing with domestic capital (outside of the 10-20 largest groups), and is treating foreign capital preferentially. Given the amount of foreign private equity investment, investment into Reliance since the onset of Covid-19, the preferential abilities for large firms to borrow abroad, courting of sovereign wealth funds and state-owned enterprises such as Saudi Aramco, Rosneft and Gazprom that have passed, it is hard to dispute this sentiment. This might be a reflection of the BJP’s frustration of dealing with many small domestic capitalists, and having an easy exit option in the form of desperate international capital. Or it might be part of a larger pathology of control, where compliance and discretionary allocation of capital are preferred to chaotic, unpredictable market mechanisms.

Many of my interviewees, after initial hesitation, were bursting with shades of anger, disappointment, and betrayal. While some Indian capitalists were definitely crooked, took advantage of the system, and consistently manipulated it to their benefit, colouring the entire class with this brush is unfair and reductive. And yet this is the majority sentiment among Indian capitalists today; that the discourse has moved back to the 1970s where the dastardly capitalist is manipulating the system and the saviour needs to come in and fix it.

Whether the saviour wins the day or not, the clear place to start fixing this problem is the banking system. Pushing more money to deserving MSMEs, preventing excessive lending to the same business groups, being more strict regarding defaults and calling in pledges for shares, reducing liberal evergreening practices and minimising phone-banking and politicisation of public sector bank lending practices would be a good place to fix the capital allocation problem. But this will not fix the deeper problem of erosion of trust, which may well take another decade to recover. For that trust to return, good economics will have to be just as important as good politics. But right now, unfortunately, that appears to be a distant reality.

Rohit Chandra is a Visiting Fellow at Centre for Policy Research (CPR), and an Assistant Professor at IIT Delhi. Views are personal.

This article is an edited excerpt of the author’s essay ‘Taking the temperature of capital’, first published in the Seminar magazine and hosted by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

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  1. The problem is wrong people’s inputs are taken. Bajaj should be the last person whose input needs to be taken. Bajaj was monopoly flourished under license raj and produced substandard products, Like auto -Rikshaws which are dangerous to start for poor rikshaw drivers. It can hurt their hands. But because they don’t have voice and consumer organizations are not so strong Bajaj gets away with it. If he had done that in western countries he would have gone broke paying damages.

  2. This is serious. Those in the govt really need to look at this. Only in India can you desperately fight for jobs and hate the ones providing them. The deep rooted statist and worse socialist mindset hasn’t gone i guess. If the govt can’t really take the business community, the creator of millions of jobs, then atleast they could meet them through video conferencing. There needs to be healthy and free and open discussions among the industry (of all sectors) with the govts (state and centre). This is truly disappointing because Modi was seen as the man who could tap into the potential of India’s businesses.

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