IT IS a curious time on the globe. The invulnerable world of big money and unbridled capitalism — a dazzling universe that had brooked no questions or supervision or dissent — has suddenly acquired an unusual new lexicon: it is speaking of greed and ethics and trust. And as it pleads for a trillion-dollar rescue, it is being forced into some long overdue self-introspection.
In his popular New York Times column, speaking of the financial meltdown in the US, Thomas Friedman quotes from a book by Dov Seidman: “In a connected world, countries and governments also have character, and their character — how they do what they do, how they keep promises, how they make decisions, how things happen inside, how they engender trust, how they relate to their customers, to the environment and to the communities in which they operate — is now their fate.”
Of all the sagacity (born of hindsight) flooding the opinion shelves of the world now, this feels like the one that holds the most fundamental truths. For years, we have been told by the keepers of the shiny world that the amoral workings of the free market — particularly an unsupervised free market — will march us all into a land of milk and honey. Don’t take it so slow, open up, deregulate, reform, we have been urged. And to be sure, we did need some reform from the years of the license raj.
But now it appears the one thing that has quarantined India from the current meltdown — the extreme other edge of the pendulum — is our mixed economy and the vestiges of regulation and supervision that had remained. In fact, Dov Seidman’s warning about “how” companies and countries and people do things has huge resonances for India — resonances that reach beyond issues of liquidity and speculative markets to our idea of “growth” itself. And how we will walk the path to growth. For years, it was unfashionable to throw any caveats at the growth model of the West, particularly ones that talked the language of human or ethical corporate behaviour. But those caveats have now come home to roost, and for the first time in decades, the West seems in a mood to listen. In India, we walk an even more dangerous precipice. Which is why, if we don’t listen to the unfashionable caveats swirling around us now, we could face an apocalypse a hundred times worse. Unfortunately, hurt, but less hurt than the West, India is less prone to this millennial moment of pause and introspection.
Last week, though, offered a curious bouquet of opportunities to do just that. First, there was Aravind Adiga’s hotly debated Booker win, The White Tiger. The story of a driver who murders his smug master, Adiga’s book is an important cultural moment for Indians. It is a pungent reminder of “the dark face of India” — the counter-narrative to “Shining India” that the national media and congratulatory summits at Davos have been carefully airbrushing out of global conversation. It is a timely reminder for the world, and for Indians themselves, that India does not merely comprise a thin icing of people made up of giant Ambanis and their bonsai aspirants. Yet, it would be a big mistake to think the counter-narrative to Shining India is only a reminder of Other India. No matter how much we airbrush it, we all know the Other India exists: a vast hinterland of the hungry, thirsty and utterly dispossessed. The real counter-narrative to Shining India then, that middle-class Indians need to come to terms with, is the brutal story about Shining India itself: How has it got itself to shine? If there is one apocalyptic blindness staring Indians in the face, it is this. The Dov Seidman question: “how”?
Last week, having shifted his Nano factory to Gujarat (where he said he proudly stands for everything in Modi’s Gujarat (sic)), Ratan Tata wrote an open letter to the people of Bengal. He asked them to choose between a “destructive political environment of confrontation, agitation, violence and lawlessness” or the “Buddhadeb Bhattacharya route to building a prosperous state”. The letter is extraordinary for its lack of self-awareness and messianic sense of being the harbinger of good. Throughout the Singur saga — brimful of bathos and tragedy — the media and middle-class India has backed Mr Tata, clucking anxiously about what the agitation would do to “Brand Bengal” and “Brand India”. Mamata Banerjee is a soft target: yes, she can be opportunistic and erratic, and the withdrawal of the factory has been a pyrrhic victory. But was the “confrontation and agitation” merely about her and electoral politics? Neither the media nor middle-class India nor Mr Tata ever paused to ask questions of themselves
What is this infallible Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Ratan Tata route to prosperity? Land taken over from Indian citizens on the pretext of “public purpose” — without consultation or consensus, without rehabilitation plans in place, using police force and Section 144? Public purpose that will not open itself to public scrutiny? Public purpose that does not pay fair prices or seek to rehabilitate the public it displaces? Let us assume all these questions about Singur are phantoms of Mamata Baner – jee’s making. But what of Nandigram, a CPM stronghold for 30 years, where Buddhadeb had to recapture the land through armed motorcades wielding guns and swords? What of Kalinganagar in Orissa, where tribals have been fighting the Tatas’ takeover of land for more than three years and a dozen tribals were shot pointblank by the police? What of the hundreds of other industrial or development projects across the country, where thousands of ordinary people are fighting pitched battles with the state and corporations, not because they are anti-development, but because they stand to be robbed in broad daylight? Why should Mr Tata not want this inconvenient Other India to quietly dissolve and disappear? Not “agitate” against his gold-brick plans for prosperity?
THE DOV Seidman questions: How do corporations and governments do what they do, how do they keep promises, how do they make decisions, how do they engender trust… how do they relate to the communities in which they operate?
Ratan Tata and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya are just parables for a Shining India that is blind to its own brutality and dishonesty. Blind to that most elemental of questions the West forgot to ask itself: How are we getting ourselves to shine?
Last week, Jet Airways (which owes government-owned companies over Rs 500 crore for air fuel) tried to lay off 1,900 employees because its profit margins are dropping. A phalanx of smartly dressed employees in posh sunglasses protested their sacking and threatened to go to master thug Raj Thackeray if they were not taken back. They got instant redressal. The media rallied around them, ministers made frantic calls, and overnight, Mr Naresh Goyal underwent an emotional overhaul: the 1,900 were reinstated. Which is great. Middle-class sentiment must not be sent into a panic; middle- class Indians must not be turfed out of jobs: particularly jobs the government has spent crores to create, having subsidised land and petrol and fuel and given innumerable tax holidays so corporations can create jobs in national interest.
But what of Other India? What about the lakhs of people who are being displaced and thrown out of their livelihoods every single day by the engines of growth? When they protest, forget redressal or national sympathy, are they to be shot for being confrontational?
We are often told the business of business is business — and business cannot be bothered with the business of how it does business. But if we are to avoid the apocalypse, it is time to change that paradigm. Like the West has discovered the lexicon of greed, ethics, trust, we have to discover the lexicon of “business responsibility”, which focuses not on how corporations give back to society, but on how they take from it.