National Interest: The accused

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Oct 28 2013, 09:00am hrs
You have seen the government rise to defend the allocation of the Talabira coal block to Hindalco only because there is an implied threat here to the prime ministers office. This is unusual, welcome, yet really late. Under UPA 2, by now, the redefining of Indias corporate class as the chorporate class is complete. The Anil Ambani, Sunil Mittal and Ruia groups were already under criminal investigation of some kind or the other. This month, with the Supreme Court asking the CBI to investigate the Radia tapes, we have seen two of Indias most respected (Industry Minister Anand Sharmas words, not mine) join that mournful procession. Meanwhile, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has been canvassing for investment across international financial centres, and his hand-picked RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan (probably the UPAs first wise appointment to a key autonomous position), is working to stabilise the rupee. Its not going to be easy. Not when all of Indias top entrepreneurs are spending more time with experts in criminal law than on mergers and acquisitions.

You can look at it in two ways. One, that 22 years after Manmohan Singh launched his reform, two-thirds of its biggest stars find themselves at the door of the CBI. Two, that it is just over six months after Rahul Gandhi had his first public conversation with entrepreneurial India, at the CII (April 4, 2013). He hailed them as cutting edge and pleasantly surprised both his admirers and critics with that smart line about a job being the difference between aspiration and empowerment. He also invoked John F. Kennedy to say that while a rising tide lifted all boats, you needed to build new boats for those who didnt have any and were therefore left out. The same cutting edge businessmen who were to build that boat are now in the doghouse. And his own rhetoric has changed radically. It is back to the 1960s, povertarian, rich versus poor idea of India, where the fate of Bharat was sealed by a handful sitting in air-conditioned offices. ACs moved from being an elitist luxury to one of our aspirational white goods a long time ago. You are also tempted to ask if the NAC, which drafted such virtuous handouts for the poor, functioned under an old ceiling fan, or a neem or peepal tree. But lets not get distracted.

THE prime ministers defence, in spite of its unusual clarity, will not make much difference now. The latest turn in the coal allocations case provoked him to finally speak up. But it should also make him introspect. Shouldnt he have been defending his own policies, from telecom to coal, from the very beginning, instead of falling back on the panicky the guilty will be punished and the PM has done nothing wrong line It convinced nobody. It only confirmed the impression that his was a much weaker PMO in UPA 2. Nobody would have ever insinuated that this prime minister did something for money, or other personal benefit. The charge against him, always, was that he was weak. Unwilling to shoo away encroachers on his authority and shy of defending his own policies. On 2G as well as coal, he would have been better off saying that he and his office devised innovative policies aimed at quick growth and employment, plentiful connectivity and energy, rather than revenue maximisation. Let the voters take a call on whether these were wise or not. And within these, if somebody had broken the rules in exchange for favours, he would be punished. Raja, for example, is under trial not for following the first-come-first-served policy but for violating it, allegedly for financial benefit.

Coal allocation, actually, was a more innovative policy. India was horribly short of coal. The 1973 coal nationalisation (under Indira Gandhi) gave Coal India Ltd the monopoly over Indias most abundant mineral. And there is nothing worse or more incompetent than a PSU monopoly. Because it wasnt possible to undo that nationalisation in this Parliament, the PM and his advisors tried to get around it. The solution was offering captive mines to genuine users, on a non-commercial basis. This had For Rent written all over it, and his office and authority were too weak to prevent its misuse. See, for example, the choice of coal ministers through nine years of the UPA.

Until now, however, he did not defend his policies. He and his spokesmen only said either that he had done nothing wrong (coal), or that he did not know (2G). It is such a cruel story to tell at this point, but since the prime minister went to school in old Punjab, he might remember the old story about the senior education officer on an inspection of a village school checking the students GK by asking who had broken the dhanush in Sitas swayamvar in the Ramayana. Sure enough, the nervy teacher asked apparently the brightest student in the class to answer. I dont know who broke the dhanush, said the prodigy, but I can assure you that I didnt. The latest shock, with the CBI knocking at the PMOs door, has forced the prime minister to change that script. But too much damage has already been done to his image and to that of corporate India, with whom he shared such an affectionate relationship since 1991. And his party really doesnt care.

IT is not as if corporate India has helped its own cause meanwhile. Economic reform changed much, multiplied its size, profits and riches. But its leaders failed to keep up with this in terms of popular stature and respect. Indias businessmen are Indias worst, the saddest sycophants, gushing over a Rahul speech one day and over some Modi one-liner for the rest of the week. Every budget (including Pranab Mukherjees, with the Vodafone retrospective taxation) gets eight or nine out of ten from them on TV while they whine and curse off-camera. Then they expect the media to fight their battles. In the post-Radia tapes India, where people started to believe, by and large, that all powerful people, from businessmen to politicians to lawyers and judges and, of course, the media, were complicit in reducing our governance to a multi-layered elite conspiracy, corporate leaders did not talk of self-correction or any repair to their image. Each was quietly celebrating the misfortune of someone else until now, when it seems nobody is left. There are so few exceptions to this, particularly outside the relatively staid universe of the IT industry.

Corporate India also needs to reflect on the way it had latched on to the Anna bandwagon in the touching belief that people thought only their netas were chors. So, pass that Stalinist Jan Lokpal bill, let the CBI become an autonomous monster, cut the legal processes and send these thugs to jail. Until the politicians turned the tables. Can it be anybodys case that the cop is the most honest, the most professionally competent and fairest of all Indians You campaigned for a police state in the belief that only your political leaders were thieves. Now, the cops are rewriting the rules of Indian business.