File photo | Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella | Marlene Awaad / Bloomberg
File photo | Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella | Marlene Awaad / Bloomberg
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In 1941, the occupying Nazis began to deport and murder Poland’s Jewish population. This so shocked a German industrialist and Nazi Party member, that he systematically used his personal connections and wealth to shield and protect Jews from deportation and certain death. In the end, he bankrupted his business but managed to save 1,200 Jews, whose descendants still live today.

The story of Oskar Schindler is only the best-known example of German industrialists who put themselves and their businesses at risk to save Jews during the Nazi regime. Others include Berthold Beitz, who similarly shielded Jews while managing an oil field in occupied Poland. It’s noteworthy that neither Schindler nor Beitz were politically motivated nor were they necessarily anti-Nazi, but they were acting on a humanitarian impulse to save lives.

One could argue that wartime and genocide are extraordinary situations and bring out the best in extraordinary individuals. In normal times, it has not been customary for business leaders to weigh in on political matters, less still to take matters in their own hands. The culture that business leaders should stay aloof from politics and focus on maximising shareholder value and nothing else has slowly begun to change. The concept of corporate social responsibility is partly about good public relations but it’s not just that, it also captures the idea that business is part of society and not separate from it, and that business leaders do, therefore, have a social responsibility separate from pleasing their shareholders.


Also read: Would love to see a Bangladeshi immigrant create India’s next unicorn: Satya Nadella on CAA


The Canada example

A few courageous corporate leaders have taken this logic one step further and have begun speaking out on issues of national and global concern, using the platform that their position gives them to articulate a liberal and humanitarian view.

After the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian jet by Iranian authorities, killing all 176 people on board, including 63 Canadians, the CEO of a major Canadian food conglomerate, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods, took the highly unusual step of using the company’s Twitter feed to express his anger at the Donald Trump administration, going so far as to blame the US president and his family, whom he called a “narcissist”, for the death of the wife and child of one of his employees who died in the jet crash. Whether one agrees with McCain that Trump is ultimately to blame for the loss of life in the plane crash or not, what cannot be denied is McCain’s courageous action. His company has important business dealings in the US and any backlash against his comments could seriously harm his company’s bottom line: he clearly has “skin in the game” and therefore his comments have earned credibility. Unsurprisingly, his comments have also elicited a debate in Canada between those who laud his courage and others who decry his overstepping the bounds of conventional corporate responsibility.

Even more recently, the Indian-born American CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, was pointedly asked what he thought about India’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the protests it has sparked. While careful to avoid directly criticising the Indian government, Nadella said that it was his upbringing in a multi-cultural India and his immigrant experience in the US that shaped him, and that he would love to see a Bangladeshi migrant become a successful entrepreneur in India. He added that capitalism thrives best with free markets and a liberal political ethos.


Also read: Shashi Tharoor: I want a New India where Rahul Bajaj can invest & speak fearlessly to govt


Nadella had less to lose

It would be hard to disagree with anything Nadella said, and it’s rather obvious that India is not doing well either in promoting free markets or a liberal ethos currently. The real debate surrounds Nadella’s decision to speak out. Microsoft earned about $1 billion in revenue in India last year, a relatively small share of its global revenue of $125 billion. One could argue therefore, that unlike McCain, Nadella had less to lose by indirectly criticising Indian policy.

For example, if Nadella were asked to share his views on human rights abuses in authoritarian China, would he feel as free to speak up? At the back of his mind, he would be aware that about 10 per cent of Microsoft’s revenues are earned in mainland China and that Chinese authorities do not take kindly to being lectured on human rights.

Nadella’s comments have evoked angst in the ecosystem surrounding the Narendra Modi government, perhaps because they felt that with his background, Nadella was “one of them”. But their real anger should be directed at India’s relative economic unimportance, almost more than a quarter-century after liberalisation.

If India was even half as important to Microsoft’s business as China, Nadella might have thought twice about voicing his criticisms publicly. The correct lesson is not that India should grow rapidly because it’ll be in a better position to stifle dissent and criticism like China, but that the Modi government’s current fixation on its religious and cultural agenda has crucially distracted attention from the economy at a difficult time.


Also read: If BJP leaders could speak like Rahul Bajaj, this is what they would tell Modi & Amit Shah


Indian CEOs need to wake up

India’s real GDP growth for the fiscal year about to end is projected to be only 5 per cent, the lowest since the last full year of the UPA government in 2013.

By contrast to Nadella’s candour, Indian business leaders historically have been highly deferential to the point of sycophancy of those in charge, and not without some justification. Unlike in the US or other advanced economies, in which the government has little discretion in trying to punish a business leader they don’t like, in India, governments have ample discretion to hound and harass critics, whether through bogus tax cases or opaque and long-running investigations into their business practices.

The world over, corporate leaders perhaps have begun to realise they’re not merely passive in dealing with governments but wield considerable leverage through their impact on the economy and job creation. For instance, Michael McCain’s company Maple Leaf Foods is set to make a major investment in the US state of Indiana worth about $310 million, which is likely to create many jobs. Politicians in that state may or may not approve of his comments, but they certainly need his investment dollars to create jobs and be re-elected in the stagnant rust belt of the US.

At some point, Indian CEOs may wake up to the fact that they hold similar leverage and could begin to exercise it. Normal times may not require the extraordinary moral courage of a Schindler or Beitz, but no society will function well if its thought leaders, including corporate leaders, operate in an amoral vacuum.

As Nadella rightly observed, capitalism works only if markets are allowed to be free and if a liberal ethos prevails. By contrast, over-regulation and an illiberal ethos are not only bad in themselves, they are not conducive to the success of businesses. Hopefully, India’s corporate leaders will soon begin to connect the dots and develop the courage to start speaking up on what stifles both economic and personal freedoms.

The author is an economist and commentator. She is on Twitter @rupasubramanya. Views are personal. 

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24 Comments Share Your Views

24 COMMENTS

  1. No doubt, for Microsoft’s financial health, India is not economically important. But, for the same reason, India cannot accommodate all illegal immigrants and make them citizens. Nadella’s generosity with another country’s economy to enable a Bangladeshi illegal immigrant to become an entrepreneur is a misplaced generosity.

    • he is taking about nurturing all talents – from all over. by your logic, usa shoudl throw out all NRIs. let us have fun demanding that!

  2. 1. I find that some influential Indians who are settled in USA are taking part in a debate on slowdown in Indian economy and some are also making comments about CAA. Their intentions may be good but I feel that they should keep away from our internal politics-at least they should refrain from making political comments on a public platform. 2. Very recently Noble Laureate Abhijit Mukherjee too made comments on NDA government’s policies and that did no help anyone. 3. It is not possible to avoid being criticized if individuals like Satya Nadella make political statements. 4. I think this is an unwise way of getting involved in India’s political affairs and it is of little consequence though the individuals making statements in support of one political party or the other may feel that they are serving cause of Indian democracy. I think such statements do not serve any purpose except that they may give a false feeling of satisfaction of doing ‘something good’ to individuals like Satya Nadella.

  3. Nadella ‘s views are impressionistic and his only idea is put a glow of his status as the CEO of a global blue chip co.
    He is not an Economist by profession,and his interpretation of the subject does not appear to be correct.What he is perhaps voicing
    is even worthy Indians have to migrate to countries like US to grow and prosper. Incidentally Bangladesh is doing better economically
    exploiting current international market opportunities and they will look for more greener pastures than India.In my view this write up
    is redundant and does not contribute to overall value of the paper.

  4. I hope Rupa Subramanya is aware that the congress Sena NCP govt has sacked a Professor of Mumbai University for criticising Rahul Gandhi, the biggest duffer of Indian politics and a lazy spooled dynast. What’s her take on the FOE now ?

  5. My dear satya na dell a this is not 1941///////
    So its Very Unlikely you may not compare 1941 Nazi History with Today’s Economic development growths & war controversy with Highly Digitalized weapons Systems……okay….

    RKRISHNAN.FP/IPS/KKRA/IJK.TCR.KERALA.
    ((( Geopolitical zones Risks consultant)))

    • Funny! why the need to tag your supposed designation? a joke? if not, I have to say that a real GZRC would have better formatting and better grasp of the medium of expression.

  6. This again is a convenient interpretation of what Nadela said. Even with CAA a migrant can come into India, LEGALLY, and start a business. Did Nadela go to America illegally? If he had he would have been hiding in cupboards and driving taxis.
    Nadela should also tell the public how much time it takes for an immigrant to get citizenship in America (watch the movie For Here or to Go, and that is an example of people who have entered into the US legally).
    What the leftist want is to open the borders. Most of this is for vote banks.

  7. The article has two fallacies: 1. it conflates criticism of one’s own with criticism of others. Nadella is of Indian origin – so his criticism of India is the most relevant and cogent. There are brave Chinese who are commenting about the inadequacies and excesses of their own government. 2. it assumes that times are “normal”. they are NOT! India may not be Nazi Germany yet, but signs of incipient Fascism is present everywhere. If we stop it now, we may avoid the holocaust – Nadella’s statement should be seen in this context.

  8. The problem with Economists is that they have never done a decent days work in their lives! All they do is sit and read books by other economists or ponder over data and predict about the world, which is mostly wrong! because one they allow their biases to come in and also are very selective about the data they use. Its like asking a parrot to predict your future!!!
    Rupaji, read Satya Nadella’s comment again, “he would love to see a Bangladeshi migrant become a successful entrepreneur in India”. Yes I also agree with Satya on this because what he was clearly implying that the Bangladeshi Immigrant should come into Bharat legally either through a work permit or through other legal means and not crossing the border illegally. Satya did not come to the USA by jumping over the wall from Mexico, he went their legitimately, studied and got a degree, then got a work permit to work legitimately in USA. And yes most business leaders do not criticise the China because unlike Bharat, China does take strong penal action against anyone who criticises them. They even put employees in jail to settle their scores with corporations and governments. I am surprised that you chose to ignore this selectively to criticise this Govt and also Bharat. While Microsoft does only about 1 billion in Bharat, it is still very critical for them as Bharat is the one of the most important development hub for them.

    Read the news, who is here to push his business >> Amazons Jeff Bezos, Are you suggesting that Bharat is not important to him?? is here to see the Kutub Minar? IBM CEO comes to Bharat atleast 3 to 4 times a year, and I can give you a list of several such CEOs who come here regularly. So Rupaji, get your facts right, but hold on, I guess as an economist that is next to impossible!

    • There are two BBC news items that caught my attention yesterday: (1) Boris Johnson rejecting Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second referendum on Scottish Independence; and (2) the news on Wu Huayan which “While China’s economy has boomed over the past few decades, poverty has not disappeared, with the National Bureau of Statistics saying that in 2017 there were 30.46 million rural people still living below the national poverty line of $1.90 a day.” (BBC News Website, 14 Jan 2020). How opinion should we form of Boris Johnson, and how should we evaluate China’s performance?

      The problem is that India has been a soft state, and there are sections in India and overseas which want India to remain a soft state. In India this section of what I will call ‘perpetual cribbers / whiners’ who would criticise Modi and his government if he calls ISI to join the Pathankot probe, and also when he refuses to talk to Pakistan. These people will give more weight to some Jayapal but wet their pants if asked to give their judgement on similar behaviour be leaders of other nations (perceived to be developed and strong states). These are the people who would appreciate US embassy’s visa policy and their instruction on declaring social media account, but will vehemently oppose any such move by their own government. What a shame?

      Yes, agreed Modi should loosen control and take some serious steps towards accelerating the economy, investing in real world-class ports, automated industrial parks on a very urgent basis as he has little time left (I strongly believe no one is bigger than the Indian voter), but to say that this government has taken lousy decision on each and every issue just shows blatant bias.

      • Why “to say that this government has taken lousy decision on each and every issue just shows blatant bias”, and to say that congress didn’t do a thing in its 60 years rule is not A LIE? How many times Modi, Amit Shah & Co. has questioned ‘what has the congress done in 60 years’, meaning it didn’t do a thing in those years?

  9. I don’t buy this argument that India is being criticised because its economy is sputtering. That is a separate issue, not helping our place in the world. Or its corollary, that had the economy been performing much better, these voices would have been stilled. People like Satya Nadella are speaking up because they are dismayed. Nor can one believe that 36 Representatives have signed on to Ms Pramila Jayapal’s resolution because they are acting at Pakistan’s behest. 2. If we are sensible, we will heed this growing chorus of disapproval. Journalist Archis Mohan has tweeted : It is already quite a lame duck government similar to Rajiv’s by 1987, and its (mis)handling of economy and protests will make things worse.

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