First Published : 17 Jan 2009 01:28:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 17 Jan 2009 08:14:48 AM IST
India appears to be in a funk lately. The Satyam fraud, the Mumbai attack, and the imminent departure of India's beloved George W Bush… There seems to be no end to the bad news. Thank God parliamentary elections are around the corner. The country could do with some comic relief.
In a blink, however, the nightmare will resume. The global recession, which led to India's realty collapse and the disappearance of Satyam money parked by B Ramalinga Raju, shows no signs of abating before the first quarter of 2010 — if Barack Obama, who takes over as US president on Tuesday, steers his country's economy intelligently.
Even then, India will be lucky to grow at five per cent in 2009: Capital has already flown away in large amounts, and credit costs are not coming down in a hurry. Central banks around the world have already found that their monetary tools (such as lowering interest rates) are increasingly ineffectual, and rates won't go below zero. You have to wonder how many Satyam-type crises are lurking in the shadows.
There are many lessons in the Satyam fraud, and one of them is this: the notion that it's only the smaller fry in our business class which manipulate the law to their satisfy greed (like using the IT sector's tax breaks for money laundering and land scams) is incorrect. Our top industrialists too appear to have the same level of ethical values as cow-belt politicians and child molesters.
Take Mukesh Ambani, for instance. He was in the news quite a bit in 2008, and not just because he duelled with his brother Anil over the fate of the government when Parliament voted on the nuclear deal. You might have noticed that he was the top earning CEO, at Rs 24.51 crore. Of course, you don't really believe that this was the only money in which he was swimming around: Reliance Industries
Limited is worth around Rs 2,00,000 crore, and that's after the drop in value following the stock market decline from September. You have to also wonder whether his CEO salary is enough to pay for the 27-floor house he is building in Mumbai at the cost of $ 2 billion
(according to Forbes).
Yet when it came to paying income tax, he wasn't even in the top 200 — in fact, his mother paid more tax than he did (she coughed up Rs 4.46 crore), as did Shah Rukh Khan (Rs 34 crore) and Sachin Tendulkar (Rs 8.8 crore). Such facts make sense only when you consider the kind of power Mukesh Ambani wields: a top energy sector official in the Government of India told this columnist that the ministry of petroleum and natural gas was run as if it was a division of Reliance Industries! Last summer, Sonia Gandhi was rumoured to have been in a dilemma whether to use his private jet or that of another industrialist to visit Beijing for the Olympics.
This raises the question of which is more powerful, our political class or the entrepreneurial class; or put another way, is the political class beholden to the entrepreneurial class, and not vice-versa as is usually presumed? We have always known that the smartest businessmen do not put their eggs in one basket — that Mukesh Ambani is as friendly to L K Advani as he is to Sonia Gandhi, and that Anil Ambani is still trying to live down the folly of throwing his lot in with the Samajwadi Party instead of keeping a veneer of equidistance from all parties.
Somehow, the business class has been able to convince everyone that business interests are pretty much equivalent to national interest, in that they remain the same no matter who is in power.
And if things get a bit hot — as they did for Raju the past ten days — then the easiest thing to do is to drag in the political class and let it take the heat. It is not difficult to implicate anyone: politicians need money. Tamil Nadu officials privately estimate that the DMK spent Rs 70 to 100 crore on winning the recent Thirumangalam assembly by-election, and you can imagine that even if the expenditure on the Lok Sabha polls is not as concentrated as it was in Thirumangalam, it will still be dizzyingly high. Politicians have taken money from business houses large and small (leave aside the fact that it is the businessmen who approach the politicians, and not vice-versa), and in any case, the political class is no paragon of virtue in the eyes of the voter. It is easy to tar a politician.
No wonder then, after the Satyam fraud came to light, both Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S R Reddy and his predecessor Chandrababu Naidu were on television denying that they had any sinister role in the scam.
It is still early days, and whispers continue that the Satyam saga is going to take a political twist and perhaps a political toll, considering that the Congress party is banking on Andhra for a good share of Lok Sabha seats.
If that happens, you can bet that Raju will quietly be forgotten, and will one day return to resume his role as a captain of industry.
And, after all, deflecting public anger onto politicians worked after the Mumbai attack — after all, the fact India has not gotten a single extradition from Pakistan is blamed on the UPA, and not on busybodies like Condoleezza Rice or David Miliband, both of whom have managed to keep India in check while General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani thumbs his nose at us.
This habit of the entrepreneurial class using the politician as a straw man culminated this week in two industrialists proclaiming that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was fit to lead India. Possibly they were thinking that he was a man who would both support India Inc and fight terrorism effectively.
Possibly they are right; there are many voters who think the same. However, it is presumptuous that the entrepreneurial class, discredited as it is, tries to short-cut the democratic process in our country by anointing a political leader before his time has come, if it is ever to come. Such proclamations should be loudly ignored.
If the business class really means business, then it can propose some electoral reform — with regard to financing of campaigning, which would make the political class less reliant on them. But wait a minute; if the business class did that, then it would hold no leverage over the polity of a poor nation such as India's. If electoral financing was reformed, through a device like public funding, then entrepreneurs like Ramalinga Raju and Mukesh Ambani would have to follow the rule of law.
No wonder India is in a funk. Both national security and economic security are compromised by a bunch of self-serving frauds. It isn't surprising, then, that there is a move by the information and broadcasting ministry, currently under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to muzzle the ubiquitous media (in "designated" times of crisis).