Whatever might have been Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s motivation in accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of khoon ki dalali (trading in blood), the intemperance of his words is truly shocking. Yes, politicians do use the language of the streets since that’s where they derive their support from. But neither Gandhi nor, of course, Modi are ordinary politicians. The former has a formidable lineage: his father, grandmother and great grandfather were former prime ministers. And the latter is India’s Prime Minister, elected to the most important office in the country by the people and deserving, at the very least, of respect due to that office.
Contrast the fire and brimstone of Gandhi’s words which appear to have come out of the same phrase factory that his mother used when she called Modi maut ka sudagar (trader of death), with the exchange between two of India’s best known businessmen. Sunil Mittal, who founded India’s leading telecom company Bharti Airtel, and Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, are engaged in a rousing battle over share of the world’s fastest growing market for mobile phone services. The reigning market leader and the challenger have over the last few months contested on several issues, trading charges and even accusing each other of unfair practices. Yet, their references to each other in all public forums have been marked by restraint and the language remains civil. Both businessmen, while not yielding an inch in pursuit of their business goals, made their points forcefully without resorting to the kind of violent speech that we see politicians engage in routinely.
Our political discourse is rife with invective. Gandhi, of course, isn’t the first and last politician to use colourful language to describe his opponent. While we are mercifully spared the offensiveness that Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte displayed when he called US president Barack Obama a “son of a bitch”, our politicians’ use crude and crass terms in order to impress the lowest common denominator in society that might equate such language with macho behaviour.
Surprisingly, given how we tend to run down our business class, most Indian corporate leaders have shown refinement and dignity in the midst of major corporate duels. Thus, the ever-crusty Manu Chhabria may well have muttered a few curses in private during his various battles for the takeover of Shaw Walllace and Dunlop, but in public his acrimony took the shape of strategic jousting rather than verbal slanging.
The verbal restraint isn’t confined to India.
In January this year, as US ride-sharing pioneer Uber and Chinese start-up Didi Chuxing slugged it out for supremacy in the burgeoning Chinese market, Uber founder and chief executive officer, Travis Kalanick, claimed its Chinese rival was blowing up cash on subsidies, in an effort to grab market share. How he put it though was more subtle: “We’re clearly spending less than Didi in subsidies,” said Kalanick. Dismissing the charge Didi spokesperson Sun Liang told AFP: “Uber is being wildly creative about our numbers.”
Notice though that when business meets politics, the knives are out again as moderation is thrown to the winds.
In Hong Kong, election candidates businessman, Ricky Wong Wai-kay, and former security chief, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, traded insults with Wong calling the lady “a little piece of excrement” and Ip branding Wong “a lying chameleon”.
Indeed, when the language becomes offensive in the business arena, the combatants find few takers. Last March in a violent war of words between housing.com’s chief executive officer Rahul Yadav and Sequoia Capital’s MD Shailendra Singh, the former resorted to some abusive language. For his labours, Yadav was universally panned, even if he had some substance in his grouse against Sequoia’s moves.
A hardening of stance following such an open slugfest in public also makes reconciliation all the more difficult later. In politics, as we are constantly reminded, there are no permanent friends or enemies. That’s another lesson the likes of Gandhi need to learn from business. The same Dhirubhai Ambani against whom Nusli Wadia fought his bitter and high-decibel battle in the 1980s turned something of a savior when in 2000 Bombay Dyeing faced a hostile takeover threat from Kolkata-based jute baron Arun Bajoria.
At one time, the top global companies refused to comment or even discuss a competitor. Whether it was sheer arrogance or a refusal to accord the status of a worthy rival, it ensured that there was no name calling at least in public.
Indian politicians, quite fond of giving homilies to businessmen, would do well to take a leaf out their book in this one instance.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week. To read more from The Corporate Outsider, click here.