Thursday, 11 August, 2022
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Is anybody out there?

India’s growth is robust in spite of stalled governance, fuelled almost entirely by private enterprise. Yet there is a disconnect between corporate & political India, between Mumbai & Delhi.

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Speaking at a memorial meeting at Birla Matushri Sabhagriha on July 13, 2002, a week after Dhirubhai Ambani’s death, I had made a semi-facetious, pop-sociological comment on why he attracted so much awe and envy, respect as well as hostility. I said: to understand the phenomenon of Dhirubhai, you have to see Mumbai and Delhi as two different and distant sovereign republics that are yet to establish diplomatic relations with each other.

In Delhi, you acquire power through politics, and use that to collect wealth. In Mumbai, you acquire money through enterprise and use that to get, or buy, power in Delhi. Dhirubhai was a unique Indian entrepreneur: he spanned the two republics as no one had done before him (and after). He had power in Mumbai and had the key to Delhi. That’s the reason he grew into such a larger-than-life figure.

But this week’s argument is not about Dhirubhai. It is about the loss of clout, stature and respectability of the city, or the republic, of Mumbai and, by implication, corporate India. This is also about how New Delhi has again acquired pre-eminence over Mumbai, in matters of business and finance, for the first time since the reforms began in 1991. Many of the capital’s Bhawans have been restored to their old power and glory; the Congress party’s discourse has become utterly silent and suspicious of corporate India, if not plain hostile; and some individual minister have arrogated to themselves discretionary and arbitrary powers that you last saw only during V.P. Singh’s mercifully short raid raj.

It is, in fact, in this light that you have to read the Open Letter written by some of India’s most loved corporates, accompanied by some of our most respected former judges and regulators. Far from being able to influence policy, these conscience-keepers of corporate India, are now reduced to making desperate appeals to New Delhi’s good sense.

And how much clout they now have is evident in how little response their letter has evoked. Nobody of consequence in the UPA government has responded. Or from the BJP? Nobody has even made a token statement sharing their concern. Nobody has invited them for a meeting, or for a more detailed conversation to ask why they are so sullen, when the economy is growing at 8.5 plus, and just a week before Indian entrepreneurs’ beauty parade in Davos. Today’s UPA isn’t sure how it should be conversing with business; and those of its leaders, including the prime minister, who still speak for free economy, are generally snipped at by the Great (and rapidly-growing) Congress Whisper Factory as being anti-poor, and not in sync with the party, or with 10 Janpath.

Of course you could fault the signatories of this open letter for being unwilling to wound and petrified (perish the thought, actually) to strike. That is why the letter, signed by some of our most respected and powerful citizens, is so unspecific in what it is complaining about, or the actions they want taken in redress. It is full of platitudes and, frankly, in places reads like the usual rant you hear from the anchors of two-and-a-half muck-raking TV news channels these days of course much more elegantly and gently worded. That, also, is why the letter loses much of its impact. You need to pick up an oversized magnifying glass and search between the lines. Then, maybe, you will find what it is all about: the use of arbitrary powers by many ministers; the return of widespread rent-seeking, political arrogance, bureaucratic negativism, of environmental obstructionism that harms the poor; of poor communication between the Centre and the states; even the BJP has been chided most gently for confusing dissent with disruption. People of such eminence have persuaded themselves to write all this in such subtle language almost like the Urdu of old Lucknow that the meaning is lost. Nobody in today’s Mumbai wants to take a panga with UPA 2’s Delhi any more.

Also read: PMs come and go but these PMO officials have prospered — under Vajpayee, Manmohan & Modi

Look at the stature of the people who have to raise their voice, and yet are treading so carefully. Two of them, Ashok Ganguly and Deepak Parekh, were members of the prime minister’s Investment Commission (the third, Ratan Tata, is of course in Supreme Court asking who leaked his private phone conversations even if he was wire-tapped legally!). Bimal Jalan and M. Narasimhan are former RBI governors. Sam Variava and B.N. Srikrishna are two of our most respected former Supreme Court judges and one, Azim Premji, is not only one of our greatest IT czars, but also our most pre-eminent Muslim entrepreneur and has now made the largest, personal endowment to charity. And these are not odd-ball busybodies, or retired, marginal people fulminating. Many are insiders to the UPA’s system. Anu Agha is on Sonia Gandhi’s NAC, a body today more powerful than the cabinet, which it routinely attacks; Justice Srikrishna’s report on Telangana has just been accepted by the government. Deepak Parekh’s wisdom is routinely sought by government, even during a hopeless crisis like Satyam. And Ashok Ganguly is not just a Rajya Sabha member nominated by this government, but also has the ear of Sonia Gandhi.

You wonder, therefore, just what is going on. India’s growth is robust in spite of stalled governance, widespread negativity, and noise, and it is fuelled almost entirely by its private enterprise and yet its most respected leaders feel so left out, and vulnerable. India’s government is led by several people who, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have emerged as our most business-friendly leaders post-reform in 1991. Yet there is a disconnect between corporate and political India, between the Congress and business, between Mumbai and Delhi. One of the two sovereign republics may have stolen a march over the other by reclaiming some of the powers it lost through reform but the two still haven’t established diplomatic relations.

That job cannot be done by Murli Deora, the new corporate affairs minister, even though Somnath Chatterjee once described him as the MP from Nariman Point. He can be Mumbai’s ambassador in Delhi but the need now is for the political capital to reach out to the financial. The Prime Minister will need to start talking and the Gandhis both mother and son must realise, as they did in 2009, that he’s still their best bet to pull the UPA out of the hole it has driven itself into. The drop in FDI figures lately has been precipitous; and if more Indian entrepreneurs, demoralised by the Congress’s pinko newspeak and corruption, take their investments overseas, growth will stall 2012 on. Besides the great India growth story, you can then also kiss all of the NAC freebie fantasies goodbye.

Also read: How Manmohan Singh played a key role in India signing its first bilateral investment treaty


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