Having been active in businesses in at least a dozen countries across three continents, I must confess that the maximum hostility I have met is in India. Virtually every single official in India is suspicious of businesses and takes on an extractive approach—how to get something out of the business and businessperson. The honest official wants to collect higher taxes or duties or fees or whatever for the state, even if it is justified only by an extreme distortion of the prevalent rules, even if it means that the underlying business goose that lays the proverbial golden eggs is likely to be badly mauled, if not killed. The dishonest official simply assumes that the business is making egregiously high profits, whether that is the case or not, and he/she needs a cut of the same which should be as big as possible. And all officials, without an exception, blithely assume that money has no time value; therefore, delays have no costs. It simply does not matter if a decision is taken today or next week or next month or next quarter. If the business suffers, so be it! There is an ever-present overhang of dull frustration in the life of anybody who runs a business in India. And if you try to run it relatively honestly (complete honesty is a logical impossibility), then the sense of frustration becomes like a permanent wracking cough that you live with.
I remember once when our company made an extremely modest investment in Britain. A Cabinet minister personally thanked me and all the officials I met were so gracious. Not a chance in India. Starting with the greedy patwari, the greedier tehsildar, the inspector (a cadre very large in our country), the registrar (we seem to register more documents than any other country), the tax officer (who blithely assumes that the businessperson is definitely hiding something), the senior secretary in the state secretariat (who should be actually welcoming a business that is investing in his/her state, but who is quite indifferent) to the senior secretary in Delhi who generously gives you 15 minutes, during most of which time he or she is on two different telephones with VIPs—the entire range of Indian officialdom has decided that it is their bounden duty to persecute and harass Indian businesses. The question of being gracious simply does not arise. It sounds like a pipe dream.
And out of the blue comes the Prime Minister and announces that businesspersons create jobs, add value, perform a useful social function—and that the PM is not just grudgingly willing, but actually happy and proud to be seen with them in broad daylight and, more tellingly, not in mysterious back-rooms. Ah, what a relief. As a businessman, I suddenly feel that I am no longer a hated, diseased person. All this while, even though customers have bought my products, employees have worked in my firm and parents have wanted their children to marry our employees—all of which demonstrated a measure of social acceptance—somehow, in the public domain, I felt unwanted, disliked and persecuted. If I had been neglected, frankly, I would have been quite happy. But the negative targeting was getting to be debilitating. And now there is a feeling of relief and a certain anticipation of good things to come. The PM’s message is not just a reflection of his views. It is a message directed at the patwari, the tehsildar, the inspector, the registrar and the secretary that businesspersons are to be treated with respect.
The interesting corollary, embedded in the PM’s speech, is that while the dishonest citizen—businessperson or official or public figure—will be taken to task; those who operate with integrity, add value, pay taxes, pay their loan instalments on time, pay their employees on time, provide decent customer service, are committed to exemplary quality—or those who pursue artha, within the confines of dharma, as my friend Gurcharan would put it—not only have nothing to fear, but can expect respect and support from the state.
Many years ago, at the height of the permit-licence raj, a businessman friend of mine was wading through his grandfather’s diaries and letters—he looked up at me and said, “You know even the British did not harass my grandfather as much as our own government harasses me. As a matter of fact, the British actually supported him quite a bit.” His eyes were welling up. At that time, in our inanely (insanely?) socialistic country, no political leader would have had the courage, let alone the wisdom to stand up and acknowledge the positive role of the business community. The second corollary that struck me was that the PM’s speech happened in the same week when the government moved to change the rules to stop penalising and persecuting honest officials who act speedily and efficiently. Clearly, either planned or otherwise, this represents a multi-pronged approach to start ending the paralysis and gridlock that has characterised so many decades in our country’s history.
Thank you, Prime Minister, and thank you for saying it in public so that the message goes across to the entire gamut of the Indian state and in a couple of years, several people, not just your truly, can confirm that India has ceased to be hostile to those who create value, jobs and wealth within a penumbra of integrity.