India Inc: Seen but not heard

Something is surreal in the state of business in India, and nothing captures it better than Tuesday’s newspapers. The headlines were dominated by reports on the attack by armed goons too cowardly to show their faces against students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The turbulence of those photos stood in stark contrast to a posed snap of a group of grinning industrialists (all men, all old) surrounding Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recording a meeting called to discuss how to jog the economy out of its becalmed state.  

Over the past few days, there has been a clamour for Bollywood celebrities to speak out against the violence at JNU,  the deleterious consequences of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the impending National Population Register (the two issues are not connected but they have somehow morphed into a giant outcry against brute majoritarianism against civil society). 

Strange, though, that no one thought to ask why the business community has been seen but not heard. It has, after all, far better access to India’s most powerful man — Prime Minister Narendra Modi — than any actor, writer, singer or dancer.  

Since December 12 when the CAA was signed into law and countrywide protests erupted, the prime minister has met with the business community, individually or in groups, at least three times. On December 20, he addressed the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry; on January 1, he held one-on-one meetings with 60 entrepreneurs and business leaders; on January 6, he met another group of industry stalwarts. 

The last meeting, then, was held just hours after the JNU assaults. Only one businessperson from that group publicly expressed his concern, though it is unclear whether he voiced them to the prime minister mano-a-mano. That was Anand Mahindra, who made an elliptical reference to “faith” in a tweet. The others who have gallantly aired their anxieties stood outside this charmed circle and even they mostly deplored the violence in generic terms. Only Harsh Goenka has been brave enough to refer to “religious bushfires lit all over the country,” as direct a criticism of the ruling party’s governance agenda as you can get from the business community. And only Naushad Forbes has been a consistent exception to the amoral silence of the business community through his writings.

Let’s give businesspeople who met Mr Modi the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they privately pointed out to the prime minister that gratuitously attacking civil society for protesting in a democratic country is unlikely to reassure investors of any stripe? That the spectacle of police manifestly responding to political orders rather than discharging their fiduciary duties is unsettling for those worried about the security of their property? 

Highly unlikely, if you judge by the alacrity with which the assembled audience at the Assocham meet acquiesced to the prime minister’s demand for more enthusiastic applause — not once, but twice.

Did they perhaps advise him on the urgent need for a predictable policy trajectory? That withdrawing over 80 per cent of currency in circulation three years ago without warning was so problematic that its impact is being felt today? That insisting on a year’s advanced deadline for the most massive change the country’s indirect tax system has helped neither them nor his government’s revenue collections? Or maybe that the muscular demand for a “strong rupee” is unsupportive for exporters, as is the slump back into protectionism?

Possible, but improbable. The response from the Assocham meet suggests that the business community wants the government to stimulate the economy now that it is clear that a generous corporate tax cut in September hasn’t done the trick. Thus, on December 31, the last day of a deeply troubling year, Nirmala Sitharaman obliged with the announcement of a humdinger infrastructure investment plan worth over Rs 100 trillion. No one yet knows where the money for all this will materialise, nor how the myriad structural bottlenecks (first stop: Land acquisition) will be cleared. No matter, it’s good optics at a time when the regime’s social agenda has hit a hurdle called civil society.    

Still, the contrast with the halcyon days of 2014 is noticeable. Then business leaders eagerly lined up to attend various investment jamborees — Make in India, Stand Up India, and what not — and heap extravagant praise on the prime minister, all of it obligingly disseminated on all TV channels. Now the meetings are held behind closed doors and the content of the discussions confidential. Which means that even at their most diplomatic, business leaders must have little good to say about the management of the economy —even if the obvious link between a divisive social agenda and the economy has eluded them. 

They may not really care much about the trajectory of Indian society; but they must surely understand that shying away from speaking truth to power will hurt their businesses just as much.

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