POLITICS

Why India Inc Hesitates To Push Back Against Modi The Way American CEOs Stand Up Against Trump

It’s interesting to see the pushback Trump received from CEOs.

21/08/2017 4:30 PM IST | Updated 21/08/2017 4:30 PM IST
Carlos Barria / Reuters
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs U.S. President Donald Trump as he departures the White House after a visit, in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The politics of one country can never be transplanted wholesale onto another. The contexts are different as are the historical trajectories. But it's still hard to look at the ongoing chaos in American politics and not draw comparisons with one's own.

On one hand, Donald Trump with his trigger-happy Twitter finger has made many other world leaders almost statesmanlike in comparison. Even Narendra Modi's most bitter enemies will concede that the Indian Prime Minister rarely makes a PR misstep. Even when he was widely perceived as taking a swipe at outgoing vice president Hamid Ansari, in response to Ansari's Rajya Sabha TV interview, Modi chose his words carefully, cloaking them in cutting courteousness.

But more than the overblown Modi-Trump comparisons, what's far more fascinating is watching civil society react to the two men.

The headline in The Telegraph today reads "Silence of business lambs". It compares how Indian business bosses reacted to the lynching stories in India versus how CEOs of America, including those on Trump's business advisory councils reacted to the march of white supremacists (and more importantly Trump's reaction to them).

Of course, one could argue whether an apples or oranges comparison is being drawn between scattered cases of cow vigilantism which Modi condemned and a white supremacist resurgence in a country with a history of slavery.

But it's still interesting to see the pushback Trump, a person who prides himself as being a businessman, received from the CEOs of companies like Merck, Walmart and JP Morgan. These are not seen as bastions of liberal thought. But the chief executive of Walmart, Doug McMillon still felt it necessary to say that the president "missed a critical opportunity to bring our country together." Jeffey Immelt, the chairman of General Electric called Trump's statements "deeply troubling".

Trump, a man who clearly prefers to always be seen as calling the shots, decided to pre-empt the collapse of his councils by disbanding them first. He scrapped the Strategic and Policy Forum and the White House Manufacturing Jobs Initiative saying he was "ending both" rather than "putting pressure on businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum." Days later he said his advisory council on infrastructure which was still being formed would not go forward either.

In a country where a bad review of a film like 'Toilet' can bring out the troll army, a business leader putting forth a critique of the Prime Minister will certainly be courting trouble.

The Telegraph says in India this is unlikely to happen. Business has no interest in speaking truth to power and little to gain other than troll vitriol. In a country where a bad review of a film like 'Toilet' can bring out the troll army, a business leader putting forth a critique of the Prime Minister will certainly be courting trouble.

"Corporate leaders in India don't want to be taking on the government," C. Panduranga Bhatta of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta tells the paper.

It's not that Trump takes snubs sportingly. When Kenneth C. Frazier, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck, who also happens to be African American, quit after Charlottesville, Trump tweeted "Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from the President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

But what Trump can do to Merck is more limited. As Bhatta says, "The balance of power is different from that in, say, the US. Here they fear that if they speak against the government, they may have the CBI at their door."

"The balance of power is different from that in, say, the US. Here they fear that if they speak against the government, they may have the CBI at their door."

This is not a BJP problem. This is an Indian problem. No one wants to upset the government, whether it's a Congress government or BJP or Trinamool. Every business is too dependent on being in its good books. While many industrial leaders were dubious about the economic rationale behind notebandi, Rediff.com points out only a few like Rajiv Bajaj called it a bad idea. Likewise when Nitish Kumar instituted the liquor ban, only Adi Godrej voiced his protest.

Unfortunately the same reticence increasingly holds true for much of media too. Trump has railed against fake news since the very beginning of his presidency (and his campaign for that matter) but the New York Times and Washington Post have redoubled their investigative zeal and tried to outdo each other. Many of Trump's critics have said that one silver lining of the Trump presidency has been the resurgence of media, satire and civil rights organization.

Saturday Night Live, a show that had long been seen as past its prime, was suddenly cutting edge satire. The ACLU saw membership soar. Post Charlottesville, the media found even more steel in its spine. The New Yorker, The Economist and Time, which can hardly be dismissed as "alt-left" media, did not mince words (or images) on their covers.

The Economist showed Trump yelling into a megaphone that looked like a KKK hood. Time Magazine showed a person draped in the American flag with his arm up in a Nazi salute. The New Yorker showed Trump alone on a sailboat, blowing hard into a KKK-hood sail, putting the wind into its sail as it were.

Imagine the reaction in India if a magazine were to do anything comparable with Modi. As AIB found out, even the cover of comedy cannot be protection against an FIR if you make fun of the prime minister. Suddenly it becomes all about insulting the office of the prime minister.

We cannot single out Modi here. Kapil Sibal, as the UPA information minister, tried to force Facebook and Google to pre-screen content because he was upset at "highly offensive" content about Sonia Gandhi", a person who was not even the prime minister. Cyber cafes have been trashed because of Orkut pages that denigrated Bal Thackeray. Everyone remembers what happened to the two young women who dared to wonder why a city had to be shut down for Thackeray's funeral.

In the US, CEOs might have been moved by their own conscience. But equally they were aware of a public backlash pressuring their shareholders. Major non-profit organizations like American Cancer Society equally careful about public image, have cancelled charity galas that were scheduled to be held at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club. The Cancer Society had been hosting events there since 2007.

In contrast, in India, the backlash is more likely to come against those seen as piping up against the government.

In contrast, in India, the backlash is more likely to come against those seen as piping up against the government, as Aamir Khan found out after he spoke up about a "sense of insecurity", interestingly the same phrase that got Hamid Ansari into hot water recently. Both were accused of being unpatriotic. Both instantly got the same troll response inviting them to go live in Pakistan instead.

Both were accused of being ungrateful for their success in India. Ansari, unlike Khan, was not a brand ambassador for anything. So no one could pressure a corporation like Snapdeal to drop him. Given the reaction to Khan, one can imagine what would happen if an Indian celebrity really had a moment like Meryl Streep did at the Golden Globes where she blasted Trump without naming him. That celebrity would have likely found a virtual mob on Twitter and a real mob outside the door.

Is it any surprise that for most of us discretion is the better part of valour? Better a silent lamb than a sacrificial lamb.

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