Byline by MJ Akbar: Very Private Sector
Is corporate India communal?As a broad theory it is safe to say that the rich in India and Pakistan are far more communal than the poor. Of course they pretend not to be, and either disguise their truth in deceptive manners or reserve it for closed door discussions when like speaks to like. Historically, divisive politics was led by the elite: either the Muslim landlords of UP and Bihar or their Hindu counterparts of Bengal, along with the rising and newly assertive bania in north and central India
The family reunites at least twice in a lifetime, once to celebrate a birth, and again to mourn a death and comfort the living. A tragedy beyond our control can become an opportunity within our means.
Death has placed an immense print across the north of the Indian subcontinent, in the shadow of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. Have the divided emotions of our subcontinent been jolted into some realignment by the massive earthquake from Kashmir to the Frontier?
The balance sheet is positive. To expect much more would perhaps be foolish. Money is always useful, but the vital need at such times is the immediate despatch of materials: waterproof tents, sheets and shoes, beds, blankets (winter has arrived), gensets, milk powder, analgesics, antibiotics, artificial limbs. India makes much of what is immediately needed and sent it by air and train. The government of Dr Manmohan Singh has been not only quick to respond to a neighbour, but very effective in rushing relief to quake-affected Jammu-and-Kashmiris.
The personal involvement of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the relief operations was visible. The Army responded with emergency speed, and its work in remote areas like Tangdar and Uri will be remembered by the people. The CPI(M), in an effective gesture, gave a donation of Rs 5 lakhs to the Pak high commissioner. After some unnecessary initial hesitation, help was received in Pakistan as gracefully as it was sent from India. Shoaib Akhtar was talking on behalf of his countrymen when he told Australian television in Sydney about Indian generosity. Islamabad went many steps further, and accepted aid from Israel. From such seeds will change emerge, slowly, and if the seeds are nurtured.
The debate in India swivelled around a sub-theme: why was corporate India so abstemious? It queued up to donate when an earthquake ravaged Gujarat; where are the photographs of cheques being handed to the PM’s relief fund this time? It is time to bring the question out of the closet. Is corporate India communal?
As a broad theory it is safe to say that the rich in India and Pakistan are far more communal than the poor. Of course they pretend not to be, and either disguise their truth in deceptive manners or reserve it for closed door discussions when like speaks to like. Historically, divisive politics was led by the elite: either the Muslim landlords of UP and Bihar or their Hindu counterparts of Bengal, along with the rising and newly assertive bania in north and central India.
If you examine the major political formations in India, you realise that ideology is created not only from top-down but also from bottom-up. Marxist secularism works well in Bengal because it sidesteps large portions of the middle class and goes directly to the peasant and worker for its support. Muslims and Yadavs are natural allies under Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav because they do not have a vested interest in communal conflict. When there is conflict between the two, it is almost always artificially engineered by the dangerous mix of lies, innuendo and the deliberate manipulation of crowd-mania. This makes, aberrations apart, the two Yadav parties secular in spirit as well as behaviour. Mayawati’s Dalit formation, the Bahujan Samaj Party, may be sectarian (as indeed others are) but it is not communal. The ideology that spawned the BJP, hostility to Pakistan, and aggression towards Indian Muslims, fits smoothly with the general sentiments of the trading community which constitutes its most loyal support base. The Congress, which gets support (or not) across the classes and castes, tends to respond with variable emphasis, depending on which element of its platform is making a demand. It can travel easily from quasi-communal to proto-secular.
India’s private sector emerged, by and large, from its trading class; and its primary instincts, inflamed by partition, were anti-Muslim. A cursory look at jobs given to Indian Muslims in the private sector in Bengal and the north (with the exception of Parsis and multinationals) during the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and perhaps even the Eighties will confirm this.
But the nature of Indian private sector has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. There has been a significant shift from traditional families to entrepreneurs, who have not only established new, highly successful businesses, but also bought failed brands and revived them. The names who dominate the telecommunication and aviation sectors, for instance, were unknown in 1980, or very marginal. Entrepreneurship, financed by bank or market capital, is driven by profitability, not family networks and influence-peddling. Muslims could succeed as easily, or with as much difficulty, as anyone else: CIPLA and WIPRO, giants in pharmaceuticals and IT, are owned by Indian Muslims. The rapid, even astonishing, growth in non-traditional businesses like outsourcing left no time for communal bias in hiring: competence was the only criterion, because whatever religion might do for the head and the heart, it had no influence whatsoever on the bottom line. A parallel arrival of a new, generally overseas-educated, generation in traditional business groups, like the Calcutta Marwaris, played its own role in eliminating bias.
Let me provide some completely unscientific data as evidence. It is based on the few eminences of corporate India that I happened to know socially. They are not intimate friends by any means, but long years of sniffing out communal breath helps one sift. An arbitrary checklist: the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil; Gautam Singhania; Vijay Mallya; the Jain brothers Samir and Vineet; Anand Mahindra; the BPL co-brothers (as they say in the South) Ajit Nambiar and Rajeev Chandrashekhar; the Goenka brothers Sanjeev and Harsh; the Neotia family, Suresh and Harsh; the Birla scion Shobhana Bhartiya. They may run their business brilliantly or badly, they may enjoy a lifestyle that might drive you up more than one wall, but the one thing they are not is communal.
So why is their hand so far away from their pockets?
One of the few industries to have donated immediately, and for Pakistanis as well as our own Indians, was Infosys, an extraordinary success story created by brilliant minds and financial genius of men like Narayanamurthy.
I wonder what the greatest of the modern entrepreneurs, Dhirubhai Ambani, would have done. I knew him a bit, if only because the journalist in me often sparred with the driving force in him. I believe that he would have made an exceptionally huge donation on both sides of the border within 24 hours, that is when the magnitude of the disaster became clear. He would have given the same amount on either side of the divide, although the destruction in India is far less. Why? That’s a no-brainer: because charity begins at home. However, charity does not end at home. Dhirubhai Ambani was utterly loyal and munificent to those who were loyal to him, but he was not generous. It is difficult to be both rich and generous. He was not sentimental. Sentiment and the Ambani clan have never been introduced to each other. He would have done it because he was shrewd. During my last meeting with him before his stroke, over a longish lunch, he had only one subject: improving India-Pakistan relations, because he believed that it was the only way to ensure the prosperity of both nations. Dhirubhai Ambani would have invested in the one commodity that is priceless, and whose returns are immeasurable, the goodwill of the people. Maybe if his sons stopped obsessing about each other they might remember what their father dreamt. Companies and industrialists who spend a fortune on advertising campaigns to improve their image, do not seem to understand that governments can rise or fall depending on how they respond to disaster.
The first, terrible week is only the beginning of a story that will take years of narration. Whole villages have to be re-built, lives rehabilitated, children rescued from shock and hope restored to adults. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, clearly a practical man, sees his opportunity in tragedy. Apparently he is planning to turn rubble into model, earthquake-proof villages, hopefully with modern infrastructure. That must be the goal in Jammu and Kashmir as well. Dr Manmohan Singh will readily appreciate that. Will the Indian private sector understand that too?