Another view of the Murthy-Gowda slugfest

Written by Sucheta Dalal | Updated: Oct 31 2005, 06:20am hrs
The war of words between HD Deve Gowda and NR Narayana Murthy has all the ingredients necessary to capture the imagination of the intelligentsia, as well as the chattering classes.

Consider the dramatis personae: one is the archetypal politician, manipulating his so-called populist concerns to further his political ends. His target is a man who symbolises the new Indian dreameducated, intelligent and middle-class, who acquired fame and riches without compromising on honesty and good governance; and proved that world class businesses can be built ethically. Murthys Infosys Technologies also captured public imagination because it is a wealth creation machine that benefited millions of employees and shareholders. Its top brass, unlike grasping politicians, also set an example through generous personal donations to various causes.

When Deve Gowda chose Narayana Murthy for his unfair attack, it was obvious that right thinking individuals would be solidly ranged behind him. The media idolises Murthy and has been at the forefront in joining battle with him, as have a mass of activists and public spirited citizens. Middle class Indians believe that corrupt and self-centered politicians are preventing the country from taking its rightful place on the international stage. Many Indians are global toppers today because they are unencumbered by domestic restrictions. They are outraged that a politician has chosen to attack someone who succeeded while staying back in India.

Isnt this the overwhelming view one has about the Deve Gowda-Narayana Murthy slugfest Yes, it is. But I found that a cross-section of people who have nothing to do with politics are also gleeful. Let me clarify that I have ignored most of the noise on the blogosphere and stuck to serious views in this column.

IT sector is tasting the murky world in which other businesses operate
Till now, the IT industry had by-passed this muck in the absence of laws
Probably the reason why Indian industry has remained silent on the episode
The first quietly contrarian view is from industrialists in the traditional manufacturing sector. One of them pointed out that the debate over unionisation of IT workers and the Deve Gowda-Murthy controversy has, for the first time, forced the pristine clean IT sector to taste the murky world in which others are forced to operate. From licenses and permissions at municipal levels to central clearances, such as environment and pollution, Indian industrialists have been forced to bend, crawl and grease the palms of netas and babus. Many hated doing it, but were forced to find ways to operate the system. The IT industry bypassed this muck and thrived in the absence of laws and regulations.

Its probably why Indian industry associations, who otherwise compete to have Mr Murthy as a speaker, have maintained a thundering silence over the issue. As someone told me: Infosys will soon realise that the world may be getting flatter, but the terrain remains rather bumpy in our little patch. An obvious reference to Thomas Friedmans glowing references to the Infosys gang in his bestseller.

Gowdas deft manoeuvre of shifting the attack to Karnatakas former chief minister SM Krishna has also neutralised the stridency of a few diehard Murthy backers. Without going into the merits of Gowdas charges, their message to Murthy is: stay away from politics and politicians. Although a meaningful dialogue with the government is necessary to accelerate industrial development, Murthys supporters would rather he stayed away.

They offer a comparison with the more low profile Azim Premji of Wipro or the American multinationals who have set up large BPO operations in Bangalore. Here again, they seem to ignore the fact that unlike others, Murthy and Nandan Nilekani, as sons-of-the-soil, are in an advantageous position to push infrastructure development in Bangalore and Karnataka more meaningfully.

Gowdas cunning message seems to have worked with the humble farmer, as well as the ignorant middle class. Murthy gave a detailed response to Gowdas allegations, but populist rhetoric has greater recall than meticulous but indigestible facts. Even intelligent academics calculate the value of Infosys land not at the market price paid by the company, but the current market value after Infosys has established a major presence there. Similarly, there is a lot of sniping about the five star hotel built by Infosys, ignoring the fact that finding hotel rooms for visitors is a business imperative in space-starved Bangalore.

Gowdas crafty attack against Murthy is not surprising. It is the silent reaction of other businessmen that is the more interesting aspect of this episode.