Indian businessmen have traditionally operated behind the scenes, whether it comes to getting their work done, or paying for it. In the case of the latter, it is only when the government brought in anonymous electoral bonds that political payments by cheque got a boost. And, even after a particularly bad budget, with onerous tax proposals for industry, due to a fear of retribution, a FICCI or a CII will vie with each other to give the finance minister a 12 or a 13 on 10 for it; parallel to this, however, the chambers and various others will be lobbying privately for reversing the proposals. Indeed, even when the government acts against individual companies, very rarely do you see even mild protest. Indeed, when the UPA refused to honour the legal commitment made by the NDA to give Anil Agarwal of Vedanta the option to buy more shares of Hindustan Zinc and Balco—under the privatisation done by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government—at a set price, the London-based industrialist didn’t complain or take the legal action many assumed he would. Which is why, most were taken aback when the UK-headquartered Cairn Energy Plc—it sold its stake in Cairn India to Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta—decided to file for damages against the Indian government’s tax demands and seizure of its shares and dividends a few years ago.
In this context, it is a pleasant surprise to see Reliance Industries’s chairman and managing director Mukesh Ambani and Kotak Bank’s managing director Uday Kotak openly endorse Congress candidate Milind Deora for the south Mumbai seat. It is true the Ambani association with the late Murli Deora—former oil minister—goes back a long way, but coming out in favour of an Opposition candidate is a bold step by Indian standards. Of course, what is not clear is whether this is part of a larger trend where Indian businessmen will endorse parties and candidates—as they do in the US—or whether this is a one-off; in the case of Ambani, perhaps, it could be that his empire is so large, no government can really afford to ignore him and the issues he wants attended or, for instance, the tax concessions that he wants in order to make certain investments. If it does catch on, though, it will be a good thing, since endorsements by industrialists or investors, or even the media, help others make up their minds about candidates. So, given his personal reputation, an endorsement by a Narayana Murthy, for instance, will go a long way in convincing voters the party/candidate is not corrupt. An endorsement by top corporates, similarly, will indicate to voters that the party will come out with pro-industry policies. Indeed, if well-known industrialists are willing to come out in the open in favour of candidates—and this means they don’t think there will be any reprisals of any sort due to this—sooner rather than later, they will not be averse to making political donations even without the cover of anonymity.