The Business Of Being In Power

Updated: Jan 26 2003, 05:30am hrs
When a hero emerges out of the blue, I am thrilled. I refer to Mr Jairus Banaji, described as an Oxford-based economic historian and his courageous performance at a business conference organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) at Mumbai last week.

Actually, it should have been a mundane affair. There is a chief minister, one just re-elected. He is invited to a gathering of businesspersons. It will be an event on the calendar of activities. The chief minister can be expected to utter the mandatory words: Government has no business to be in business. There will be a photo-opportunity, a sumptuous lunch or dinner and everyone would have a good time. That is how most business-government interactions are: carefully programmed, not a flower out of place, banal and boring.

When the CII invited the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Narendra Modi, to a meeting last week, the meet must have been planned to be another banal and boring event. No fireworks would have been expected. As a matter of fact, Mr Banaji himself did not light a matchstick. He simply asked Mr Modi how he could promise strong growth, development and progress in Gujarat without restoring the rule of law through justice for the victims of communal terror. A confident and mature chief minister would have welcomed the opportunity to present his side of the case and to outline what he intended to do to restore a sense of security among the victims.

Nothing of that sort happened. Before the chief minister could reply, the praetorian guard sprung into action. Mr Banaji was shouted down, the CIIs leaders rushed to Mr Banaji and with the help of the guards (plainclothes police) bundled him out of the meeting. And when the chief minister deigned to reply, it was an intemperate and arrogant rebuff to the questioner: I have the mandate of the people. I assume that this was greeted by thunderous applause.

Why do business persons grovel before politicians, especially ministers I know that it is not because of admiration or respect for the office. The answer is simple. It is fear. Business does not fear a minister who is honest, candid and law-abiding. In fact, businesspersons establish easy and friendly relationships with such ministers, and these friendships endure after the ministers have demitted office. Businesspersons are mortally afraid of ministers who are corrupt, despotic and would not hesitate to unleash the might of the government against them. The more corrupt and more despotic a minister is, he will have businesspersons crawling at his feet.

The power of government is enormous. Add to that the extra-legal powers that a chief minister can marshal through party cadres, servile civil servants and trigger-happy investigating agencies. In the hands of Mr Bal Thackerays nominee or Mr Laloo Yadavs wife or Ms Jayalalithaa, such power, legal and extra-legal, assumes frightening proportions. A wily politician knows that a demonstration of his power, from time to time, will keep businesspersons on their tenterhooks. For example, in 2001, during the early months of her current term of office, Ms Jayalalithaa unleashed the police and effected a midnight arrest of Mr Karunanidhi. Ms Jayalalithaa was not merely enforcing the law against her foremost political adversary, she was sending a tough and clear message to all her enemies and would-be friends, including businesspersons. When the CII or Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) or Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham) invites Ms Jayalalithaa, would you expect them to do anything but praise her vision, dynamism and sterling contributions to the advancement of Tamilnadu

In the past, business has collaborated with the near-fascist Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra. In West Bengal, even while scores of businesses migrated to other States, businesspersons who were forced to remain in that State generously contributed funds to the CPI(M). Business organisations remained mute when the RJDs thugs looted a showroom in Patna and drove away with Tata vehicles.

Despite the destruction of the Tehelka website through blatant misuse of governments power, business continues to wine and dine with the ministers concerned in the present Central government. If business organisations are sincere in their claim that they want better governance and the rule of law, Tehelka is the testing ground. They should immediately give a call for funds, save the promoters and their friends from ruin, and restore the website.

Contrast the CII-Narendra Modi meeting with another meeting last week. It was described as an informal meeting between the leading lights of the Hindi film industry and Mr Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the new chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir. Mr Sayeeds endearing invitation to the film industry to take advantage of a refurbished Dal lake and snow-covered Gulmarg, with the promise of security, had no takers. Instead, the poor chief minister was subjected to a lecture on the plight of Kashmir Pandits, as if Mr Sayeed was responsible for the tribulations they had suffered in the past. The film industry could take liberties with Mr Sayeed because Mr Sayeed was powerless and did not arouse fear.

Today, business loves to talk about good governance. Businesspersons do not stop with corporate governance, they venture to offer suggestions on how the countrys governance can be improved. I welcome the new spirit of business. But, I am afraid, this new spirit can hardly be sustained if business does not confront the moral issues plaguing the governance of the country. Can business duck the questions thrown up by the pogrom that caused incalculable damage to the economy and the social fabric of Gujarat Will business have the courage to expose the ministers who demand and receive bribes, and take a stand that they will not pay bribes anymore Will business chambers throw out of their ranks the fixers and brokers whose only qualification is their proximity to powerful ministers and civil servants

Good governance should be the concern of everyone. The enormous power of the governments is the enemy of good governance. That power must be whittled down and broken. It will take time. Until then, those who have a passion for good governance, must struggle against the power of governments. Business must be seen to be a part of this struggle and not seen as a collaborator of governments, especially the evil ones. Mr Banajis act of courage raises my hope. May his tribe increase.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)