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Modi's Image In The Jio Ad Is A Snapshot Of Our Times

13/09/2016 7:07 PM IST | Updated 14/09/2016 8:31 AM IST
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Take a momentary pause and visualize US President Barack Obama munching French fries alongside a mammoth McDonald's cheeseburger in a full-page ad in the New York Times. That would appear blasphemous -- the Commander-in-Chief playing corporate salesman in a hotly contested space also featuring Burger King, KFC, Shake Shack and the ilk. Shock and awe, anyone? Besides business ethics and political morality, the unanswered question would be, was there a quid pro quo for that in-your-face endorsement? Maybe an approving concession on tax liabilities, nonchalantly overlooking environmental transgressions, campaign funding of the political party et al? It would certainly be unprecedented in crossing a sacrosanct line segregating Big Business from The Establishment. Such an event actually occurred in India when Prime Minister Narendra Modi featured in the ad for telecom brand Jio, launched by India's biggest industrial behemoth, Reliance. Goodbye propriety?

[A] cozy corporate cabal exercises disproportionate influence in sensitive matters of economic decision-making.

Big Business has emerged as a formidable power centre in India's political and social eco-system; ambitious, creative, cash-rich, talented and often greedy, its suspect ways are often concealed by public-relations sophistry. However, allegations abound of quid pro quo arrangements and extra-constitutional influence in policy making. Analysts draw parallels of the scenario in India with the robber barons of the Gilded Age in the US.

If the Radia tapes appeared inflammatory, the Essar tapes were atomic in nature. The latter indicated that former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee's PMO was being run under certain unambiguous diktats by a glitzy remote control 1500km away. Thus, Modi featuring prominently in an ad for Jio (meant to be a price-disruptive game-changer in the struggling telecom industry), raised eyebrows and a stentorian protest on social media. #JioModi trended. Had Modi voluntarily violated consecrated lines which disassociated such public bonhomie between the country's CEO and the MD of a publicly listed firm, who interestingly, has serious business interests involving India's natural resources? This appeared egregiously brazen. This was #SuitBootKiSarkar redefined. Rumours escalated that a cozy corporate cabal exercises disproportionate influence in sensitive matters of economic decision-making.

I remember in early 2004 I was attending a corporate symposium where CEOs moved about with feline alacrity and everyone seemed to have an unusually sunny disposition. People joked that their refulgent countenance was a mirror image of India Shining, that celebrated phrase of unbridled optimism and, finally, electoral doom. In several photo-ops, the high-profile head honchos did a collective thumbs-up. When I nervously protested that this utopia looked grossly exaggerated as it was based on just one year of 8% GDP growth of the NDA government and a convenient tweak of poverty estimates, I was dismissed with contemptuous indifference, as if a gate crashing party pooper. I beat a hasty retreat. CII/FICCI/Assocham are 5-star event management spectacles at best and a colossal opulence of the sugar daddies at worst. Take your pick! They are platforms for the self-promotion and private business lobbying of a select group, the Big Boys. I would like to term them as India's "obnoxious oligopolies". MSMEs are barely heard. The Gujarat Global Investors Summit is another such corporate shindig.

India's corporate sector has unfortunately a very convenient moral fibre, which is also unusually elastic.

India Inc publicly adulated the bearded, beaming Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on an annual basis. They looked smitten by the first flush of love as they serenaded Modi, adding that they couldn't wait to see the poster-boy of the saffron party unfurling the Indian tri-colour at Red Fort. Modi's human rights violations hardly mattered. Modi had once asked the CII to publicly apologize for social activist and ex-Thermax chairperson Anu Aga's condemnation of the 2002 "genocide". Tragically, the CII capitulated instantly. It was Modi who singularly delayed the GST bill, but no one dared to protest. The Congress, of course, was attacked for raising fundamental issues on the GST. Why the double-standards?

India's corporate sector has unfortunately a very convenient moral fibre, which is also unusually elastic. They are creatures of extraordinary accommodation. When Dr Manmohan Singh's government took over in 2004 there was a drastic collapse of the stock markets. Bust! Those black-suited merchant bankers and the bespectacled 20-something analysts predicted serious doomsday , a black hole if you will, what with a centrist national party in a fragile coalition supported by withering age-old Marxists on the wrong side of India's demographic median. Of course, their crystal-gazing was based on facile factors; no one even briefly comprehended the huge premium the Dr Singh--P Chidambaram--Montek Ahluwalia combine could bring to India's economy and its financial markets. India grew (on the old index) at 7.75% over a 10-year period, lifted 140 million people out of poverty and GDP growth peaked at 9.6%. And all this while the Great Recession intervened in 2007. India's GDP trebled, and its stock-markets peaked five times over.

All the super-rich worry about is "ease of doing business" and GST. Corporate malfeasance, falling HDI and rising joblessness worry no one. Neither does food inflation.

Corporate India initially seemed angry that India Shining had been grievously derailed by country bumpkins. What was palpable was their cosmetic assessment of India's real issues of poverty and the onerous burden of improving education, health and removing backwardness. Our blue-chip brigade only understands corporate taxes, exchange rates, prime lending rates and stock market reforms. Unfortunately, the government has a lot more to do.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan put it succinctly:

"Instead of redressing the balance between the poor and the rich, between the disconnected and the well connected, between the powerless and the powerful, the India state, despite all of its socialist rhetoric, often ends up discriminating against the former and in favor of the latter. The government, despite the best intentions of some dedicated officials, has the bicyclist's mentality of bowing on top and kicking below."

There may be an imperceptible "institutional-bias" in our government, favouring India Inc. Subsidies is a bad word for stock-market policy wonks.

If India's business lobby was servile and subjugated to the political class up to the early 1990s as they pleaded for quotas and budget concessions, one now saw the emergence of its raw arrogance and bullying power. Under Modi, free-market fundamentalism obsessed with "growth" is trashing the environment, curbing social sector expenditures and worsening inequalities. But all the super-rich worry about is "ease of doing business" and GST. Corporate malfeasance, falling HDI and rising joblessness worry no one. Neither does food inflation.

What next? A full page ad showing a tight bear hug?

The Supreme Court's Singur land verdict is a huge wake-up call for India Inc, known for manipulating state governments for cheap subsidies. That insane blunder, led by a draconian takeover of the land of the poor, uprooted the CPM, who were till then undefeated for over three decades in West Bengal. But now the blurring of lines between Big Business and the Modi Sarkar is a disturbing signal that crony capitalism has got further embedded into our social-economic texture. What was earlier taboo has abruptly become kosher. What next? A full page ad showing a tight bear hug?

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