Corporate leaders should consider promoting an expansion of democratic spaces and proliferation of alternative political visions.
An alarming report by the news agency Reuters quotes corporate India to say “everyone is scared” of the Narendra Modi government and does not want to run afoul of it. It reported several industry executives claiming that “a public diatribe against two Indian business giants by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s officials and his ideological allies has unnerved the business community.”
The reference was to an article by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliated “Panchjanya” magazine alleging that India’s iconic IT Company, Infosys, was trying to “destabilise the Indian economy” because of glitches in the Income Tax Portal which it manages. It alleged that Infosys was in cahoots with “Naxals, Leftists and the tukde-tukde gang”. Earlier, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal had lashed out at the Tata Group for allegedly working “against national interest” by opposing stringent rules for ecommerce and placing profits over national interest. He chose a meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to sarcastically chide the Tatas saying, “…may be you bought one or two foreign companies, now their importance is greater than national interest?”
A senior member of RSS justified the verbal attacks on corporates in the name of accountability. “Why should questions not be raised, have corporates become a holy cow?” he asked.
Corporate India has facilitated the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular. It has continued to flood the election coffers of the BJP by purchasing ‘anonymous’ electoral bonds. But today that does not give it insurance against intimidation.
This relationship of fear was not always the case. In his earlier avatar as an ambitious chief minister of Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi was the darling of corporate India. Sunil Bharti Mittal had declared, “He is running a state and can also run the nation”; Anil Ambani, now nearly bankrupt, had dubbed him “lord of men, leader amongst leaders and king amongst kings”; Anand Mahindra had predicted a future when “people will talk about the Gujarat model of growth in China”; and Ratan Tata had said that “only a fool would not invest in Gujarat”.
Yet even when he first took power, according to the New York Times, some of his ministers leaned on corporate houses to cut-off support to media houses that were critical. Most corporates remained silent when rank and file supporters of the government perpetrated acts of violence and rioting in the name of cow protection and targeting minorities for being “anti-national” and “seditious”. The few who spoke up, felt the heavy hand of the government.
In November 2015, the government descended like a ton of bricks on Infosys Chairman Narayana Murthy when he said that economic progress can happen only if “there is no distrust, no fear” and “if the majority community doesn’t oppress the minority community.” The registration of the Infosys Foundation was cancelled. When Kiron Majumdar Shaw spoke of “tax terrorism” and the suicide of Coffee Café Day owner V G Siddhartha, she complained of officials threatening her not to make “such statements”. Rahul Bajaj was accused of spreading a fake narrative when he publicly complained of fear in the industry.
No one knows what the state of communication between Corporates and the Modi government is. They still do not speak their mind collectively against economic policies that favour industrialists selectively. Industry organisations continue to describe every Budget as “visionary”, ranking it 9 out of 10. However, BJP MP and former Commerce Minister Subramanian Swamy has cautioned, “Government have (sic) no business to be in business. But there is an essential implication: Business have (sic) no business to be in Government. If they do then it is crony capitalism.”
Corporate leaders have yet to understand that they have not been targeted specifically. Even beyond the corporate world, governance routinely relies on fear. A constant and general awareness of an invisible sword hanging over anyone who does not conform is necessary to the style of governance by fear. Fear has multiplied across society with new laws targeting people for the religion they follow, their dietary habits or speaking out against the government. Anxiety has tended to push people towards self-censorship.
If Corporate India wants breathing space then they will have to take a stance against this culture of governance. They will have to refuse to fatten the electoral purse of the party in power and spread its electoral investments to promote a healthy democracy. The open embrace of religious majoritarianism, the deliberate choking of democratic spaces and the repression of social and economic movements (the farmers’ agitation is almost a year old now) cannot be ignored. Corporate India will not remain untouched–indeed, the signs are already there–by the social upheaval in the offing.
Corporate leaders funded the national movement challenging colonialism. They had the wisdom to see the political and economic limitations of colonialism. Now they need to see that modern authoritarian leaders who come to power through elections, unlike the Pinochets and Mobutus of yore, can cause equal if not more damage to societies. The world over the rise of elected authoritarian leaders has led to the convergence of social, economic and ecological crises. India seems neck-deep in this morass already.
The current leadership in India has already let the economy slide precipitously: there is unhappiness in organised labour, the unorganised sector is on a ventilator since it was hit by the pandemic and farmers are up in arms. This will increase the vulnerability and precariousness of ordinary people, wage earners, farm hands and most importantly, consumers. Is it conceivable that this would not impact businesses?
Corporate leaders should consider promoting an expansion of democratic spaces, proliferation of alternative political visions, encouraging the rise of new political leaders and speaking up against erosion of democratic rights. They have to recognise that if freedom for the corporates and repression of the weak are two sides of the same coin, then a better coin needs minting.