The India of Capitalists’ Nightmares by L.K. Sharma

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A businessman should know that perennial social conflict fuelled by low-level religious violence is not good for business. Business needs social harmony to grow and prosper.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reliance on money power has paid him a huge political dividend over the years. If the flood of funds in his direction continues, his disastrous anti-people decisions will extract no political price from him. Popular agitations against his government, ignored by the pliant media, will be unable to strike hard enough.

Modi is carried by the corporate bigwigs over their shoulders, safely through the battleground of elections and choppy waters of mass unrest.

The corporate power has become nearly invincible because of the astounding cost of elections, estimated to be more than Rs 50,000 crore. Money makes democracy run. Some activists publicise the horrendous amounts spent on fighting elections. Most elected legislators and the Election Commission have no problem with such expenditure and the electoral reform groups’ reports are consigned to the dustbin.

Modi shows his unlimited gratitude to the opaque and hidden donors by showering incentives on the private sector and selling to it the family silver – assets created by the public sector. This attracts more donors.

Incentives are supplemented with vengeful official action, which turns non-givers into eager contributors. Fear of government agencies makes the liberal donors shut the pipelines feeding the opposition parties. An opposition party starved of funds fails in electoral politics, notwithstanding its noble principles and ideological commitments. Pauperisation of his political opponents is what Modi does so well.

Business leaders, incentivised or fearful, go through the regular routine of praising Modi. They did so when he was the chief minister of Gujarat and do it even more now, when he is the Prime Minister. In another kind of country, or in another time, such praise would have harmed a political leader, depending on the masses who resent the rich. Here, neoliberal economic policies have altered the capitalists’ public image.

To observe this change, one must watch the Bollywood movies of the 1950s and 60s that portrayed them in an unfavourable light. Today’s capitalists have the same traits but they are now seen differently. Modi’s rise coincided with the emergence of the ‘aspirational India’.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) communalism should have hampered Modi in wooing the capitalists but Indian capitalists are generally short-sighted as they focus on short-term gains. They completely ignored the dangers of communalism and helped in its propagation even though most of them are not sectarian. Modi, who knows India’s social fault lines better than the average academic, managed to yoke together the strange bedfellows – capitalism and communalism.

A test of the business leaders’ humanity came in the context of the Gujarat communal killings in 2002. Gujarati captains of industry, who inherited the trusteeship principle, used to raise a voice against injustice and set an example for the rest to follow. They popularised a conciliatory approach to resolve differences and disputes. They never kept quiet in times of a disturbance. But in 2002, no more than one voice was raised. And soon, even that fell silent, perhaps because of a signal from New Delhi.

The pattern was set. Big business learnt to be generous to Modi and to seal its lips during any crisis affecting the common people. If a business leader happened to make an adverse comment against the government, it made big news. Once, Rahul Bajaj, chairperson of the Bajaj Group, spoke up about rising intolerance in the presence of a Union minister. That caused a lot of comment in the media, which found it ‘daring’. 

On rare occasions, eminent industrialists are unable to hold their tongues, ignoring the consequences. For example, Kishore Mariwala once went public, saying how ashamed he was of India’s reputation abroad.

He shared on social media his experience in Phuket, Thailand, where he had gone for a sailing holiday. He had charted a yacht and when he went to the company’s office, the receptionist enquired if he was from India and if he was a Hindu. When he wondered why he was being asked this strange question, the receptionist replied: “Sir, all our skippers except one have gone with out other yachts. The only one left is a Muslim. I hope you don’t mind that.” 

A shell-shocked Mariwala said, “Not only I, but most cultured Hindus don’t behave like this”. Perhaps his prompt response was more effective than an Indian embassy press release about the ‘fringe elements’ of India.

The business tycoons saw Modi as their guide to a treasure island and did not realise that communalism is not in their interest. They ought to value social harmony, if not on moral grounds, at least for pragmatic reasons.

British history tells us that inter-religious clashes between the Catholics and Protestants declined sharply once the London Stock Exchange was established. This development was observed by Voltaire during his sojourn in England. He wrote that the people “lived happily together” because of the London Stock Exchange.

“Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt,” Voltaire observed.

Commerce promotes tolerance and is promoted by tolerance. 

A businessman should know that perennial social conflict fuelled by low-level religious violence is not good for business. Business needs social harmony to grow and prosper. While keeping the pot boiling through polarisation and identity politics wins votes for a party, it does not create a conducive investment climate. Even a small trader keeps his communal feelings under control while merrily selling goods to another community. Money has no colour or creed.

What happens to the business prospects of companies if a very large section is marginalised and its economic activity declines? What happens to economic growth and social progress when ordinary workers are unable to go to work and children are unable to go to school because of sustained low-level violence in vulnerable areas? The answers are easy to guess.

Some business tycoons have quietly realised the danger, resulting in the flight of capital. They track the foreign investment trends and know why some international companies wound up their India operations recently. Some of them have bought property abroad just in case India keeps going in the wrong direction.

Examined from this angle, the Nupur Sharma episode illustrates how capitalism raised its voice against communalism. Without that, the BJP spokesperson would have got away, despite having hurt the religious feelings of Muslims with her comments on the Prophet. She had to be ultimately suspended, not because the government was afraid of an agitation by Indian Muslims and not because some mighty Western democracies may issue statements advocating communal harmony in India.

Here, the tiny oil-rich nations proved more potent and influenced India’s course of action in the Sharma case because a couple of prominent Indian business tycoons and the Union government have strong business interests in the region, where Islam is the dominant and official faith. Thus, business overrode all considerations and Modi was forced to displease his core constituency that lionises Sharma.

The Sharma episode dramatically conveyed to the Indian corporates that communalism does not pay. And the political force that released the genie out of the bottle was not acting in their interests, even though it appeared to be doing so by offering incentives at the cost of the national exchequer.

But they helped in popularising the concept of a Hindu nation and now they cannot dethrone the Emperor of Hindu Hearts who has come to command mass following because of his wearing the religion on his sleeves and telling the majority to be fearful of a minority. 

These rich tycoons can make some difference by distributing donations to political parties a bit equitably. That will weaken one of the pillars supporting the BJP’s election machine. That will reduce the resources for horse-trading after every state election.

 

If the BJP is not empowered with astronomical funds, its ability to polarise the electorate and promote identity politics will also be curtailed. What the Indian corporates do after discovering the dangers of communalism will be seen only at the time of the next parliamentary elections.

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Disclaimer: The India of Capitalists' Nightmares by L.K. Sharma - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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