A history lesson on India Inc for Manish Tewari

Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari has sent out a word of advice for Corporate India through the media. Be careful of whom you support, he is supposed to have said while addressing journalists in Mumbai, according to this report in the Economic Times.

He also gave our industrialists a lesson in history. Remember Europe in the 1930s, he warned. The leader European businessmen supported wholeheartedly then “caused a lot of harm and destruction all over the world.” He left the leader unnamed but the Economic Times rightly identifies him as Hitler. And we all know who the 'Indian One Who Tewari Did Not Name' is. The Economic Times identifies him as well.

Manish Tewari will do good to remember his own party's dictators. PTI.

Manish Tewari will do good to remember his own party's dictators. PTI.

But why does Tewari have to go back eighty-odd years? And to a different continent, at that? Why not look within the country and go back just forty-odd years? Specifically, India in the 1970s?

Tewari was only ten years old during a certain dark chapter in India’s democracy and so he may not have any memories of this period. The history books he would have studied in school also would not have dealt with those events, so a lesson for him in recent Indian history is in order.

India was then ruled by the Congress Party and Mrs Indira Gandhi was the undisputed supremo of the party and the government. Buoyed by the stupendous mandate that she had got in the 1971 elections, Mrs Gandhi went about systematically destroying every autonomous institution that the founding fathers of the Constitution had created. The mess that the country now finds itself in has its roots in that period, when the notions of committed bureaucracy and committed judiciary were used to pack the civil and police service and the judiciary with loyalists. Loyalists not to the country, but to the Congress Party and by default Indira Gandhi and by further default a certain Sanjay Gandhi.

The arrogant disdain for democratic processes kept escalating, finally culminating in the declaration of Emergency in 1975. The Congress likes to paint the 'One Whom Tewari Did Not Name' as a dictator, but he will only be India’s second. Just as it has been the trend-setter in the case of dynastic politics, it is the Congress again which has the dubious honour of giving India its first dictator. India is Indira and Indira is India, we were told. (Before people turn apoplectic at the thought of equating Mrs Gandhi with a certain maut ka saudagar, I concede that there were no killings on the scale of the 2002 riots during her time.)

But the real point about this history lesson relates to the businessmen and entrepreneurs to whom Tewari dished out advice. As Mrs Gandhi went about making a mockery of India’s democracy, India Inc. of those days did not utter a squeak in protest. Worse, they went all out to back the Congress Party and Mrs Gandhi. When it was believed that she would resign following the Allahabad High Court setting aside her election in 1971 for electoral malpractices, a delegation of Indian businessmen went to her and pleaded that she stay. These were not small-time businessmen. They were respected industrialists, led by none other than K. K. Birla.

Why should we think these industrialists were better than those who, thirty years later, hugged the One Tewari Did Not Name and called him king of kings (disgustingly servile as that was)?

There’s only one thing that’s clear from all this. Industrialists and businesspersons aren’t bothered about the ideology of the party or leader in power. All they want is a stable business environment, tax sops and other freebies and if they can indulge in some crony capitalism, well, that’s icing on the cake. They are not even interested in parties or persons who espouse their cause if they are not in power. What else can explain the fact that the Swatantra Party, which kept championing the cause of free markets, hardly got any funding from business houses? Businessmen preferred to pay fat bribes to ministers and bureaucrats in return for assured licences and pour money into Congress coffers to ensure favourable competition-killing policies.

In the 2006 West Bengal assembly elections, it was well known that a significant section of businessmen in the state were hoping that the Left Front would return to power because Mamata Banerjee was not seen as a very credible leader. In fact, there’s talk now that during the next election, they will once again back the Left Front.

Nor are they unduly bothered by things like genocide. The only thing that worries them about riots is how it disrupts their supply chains and affects their business operations. Forget Gujarat, Indian businessmen have no qualms about setting up manufacturing bases in China, never mind a certain problem called Tibet.

This apparently cold-blooded attitude is not unique to Indian businessmen. The change in the United States attitude to China in the seventies and its silence over human rights violations in that country is dictated by the agenda of American businesses. So is its support of tinpot dictators everywhere from South America to West Asia. China will never be faced with an economic blockade, something other dictatorships with less attractive markets are subjected to.

So if you want India Inc. to stop singing the praises of the 'One You Did Not Name', Mr Tewari, just get your government to take away his USP. In the remaining months that your government is in power, get it to create an environment that is investment-friendly (no, that does not mean encouraging cronyism), end the policy paralysis, take policy and other measures to set right the infrastructure sector. Get the economy back on track and deliver results. When you do that, India Inc. will come running back into the Congress fold.

Seetha is a senior journalist and author.