Business as usual?

Don’t underestimate the import of Radia tapes

ajay

Ajay Singh | December 16, 2010



Around a decade ago, LK Advani gave a sagacious advice to the Ambani brothers. “Let politicians do their politics and run the country; you concentrate on your business,” Advani is believed to have told the Ambanis when they called on him at his office at North Block. The meeting followed what appeared to be brazen attempts by the two brothers to influence public policy and politics.

Advani was the second most powerful politician in the country after prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And he was worried about the speculation over the clout wielded by the Ambanis and their efforts to influence politics. His message was obviously no threat. It, in fact, contained an unambiguous assurance that industrial groups like that of the Ambanis would continue to get the support of the government irrespective of political affiliations.

It was nothing short of an acknowledgment of the enormous clout wielded by a powerful industrial house. It was also an acknowledgment of the fact that the government could ill-afford to rock the boat of a large corporate house. This episode bears relevance in the present context when corporate houses are seen as brazenly interfering with matters that fall strictly within the domain of the government.

Apparently there is nothing wrong if an industrial house gets the support of the government in promoting its business and creating more wealth. Even at the height of Nehruvian socialism, when it was fashionable to see the state in perpetual conflict with capital, the Tatas were pampered. Despite abolition of the Zamindari Act, the Tatas continue to retain their zamindari in Jamshedpur. The Birlas got their unhindered access to the corridors of power and gained substantially from the licence-permit raj. The enormous clout wielded by these traditional industrial houses has never been a secret.

But economic liberalisation has veritably unleashed an “animal spirit” that is running riot in the corridors of power. For the first time, India’s prime minister PV Narasimha Rao stood accused of accepting bribe in what is known as the Harshad Mehta case. In the 1990s , the fine distinction between the political class and Indian corporate houses got blurred. The natural shyness of politicians to cosy up to corporate houses gave way to defiant flaunting of such relations by politicians as a new statement of power. This was summed up by BJP’s Pramod Mahajan when he said, “I don’t treat my friends like prostitutes.” Mahajan perfectly exemplified the growing clout of corporate houses on the Indian state.

In the late nineties, particularly during the NDA regime, the corridors of power were abuzz with a new term, “RH positive”, which connoted favourable inclination towards Reliance and the Hindujas. It was a measure of corporate India’s growing clout during the NDA regime that public policies were tailored to suit corporate interests. Those keeping a close watch on the government knew how policies pertaining to petroleum, disinvestment and telecom were subjected to corporate warfare. And more often than not, such corporate struggles threatened to even unsettle the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

Advani’s elderly advice to the Ambanis should be seen in this context. But has corporate India paid heed to such a sagacious advice? If the Niira Radia tapes are any indication, business houses have emerged as the most unscrupulous subversive force in the country. What is really worrisome is the fact Niira Radia has been employed by India’s two most powerful corporate houses – the Tatas and the  Ambanis. Both must have known that the tactics adopted by Radia in manipulating policies were unfair to say the least. She has been interacting with second rung political executives with superb ease on account of her proximity to the Tatas and the Ambanis. In effect, she is running errands for her bosses who find it beneath them to interact with the likes of Raja, NK Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya. If anything, the Radia tapes are indicative of the worst kind of snobbery and over-confidence that the corporate India has acquired over the years.

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