It appears to be a busy week for optics, that cliché so beloved of business, politics and image-meisters.

Visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping was made to feel at home in India by his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both buried under an avalanche of photo-ops and booming business ties, the thorny issues of mutual sabre-rattling across the Himalaya and mutual influence-peddling in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Buried by this masterclass in optics was a relatively minor event in New Delhi, though significant from the perspective of business and its engagement with stakeholders—that other cliché. An emerging and influential collective, Public Affairs Forum of India (Pafi), on 18 September organized a day-long conference that brought together senior executives, policymakers, politicians, bureaucrats, economists, activists and media persons to jaw with heavies in public affairs and public relations. Pafi describes itself as representing “large- and medium-sized transnational Indian and foreign companies and firms".

The theme was clear enough—“Engaging Stakeholders: Creating Value, Altering Perceptions."

And so was the stated challenge, not the least of which was optics about public affairs. “Over the years, it has grown from government relations to addressing stakeholder concerns for companies," Pafi’s programme read. “It is not only about fixing problems but also addressing issues that have a bearing on economic and industrial growth. This can happen only through a constructive dialogue."

Some among us might emit a chuckle or two over implications of the phrase “fixing problems" in a gathering the uncharitable might describe as being largely one of “fixers". But I am happy to be part of any constructive dialogue, through this column, other writing, talks and several books—and by actually being at the conference. I have a quibble with the title of the session I participated in, “Managing Stakeholders engagement: engaging civil society and media"; the best one can say about it is: at least they aren’t being coy about addressing two groups that most irritate businesses. But it was undeniably an opportunity to spread the mantra of corporate governance, of application of human rights in business practices—and corporate accountability and liability should things go wrong on these counts.

It seemed appropriate to highlight again the sober truth that for any dialogue to lead to positive outcome, there needs to be acknowledgement of realities. Such reality cannot be restricted to the imperative of business and profit motive and other key bricks for economic growth, but must also acknowledge the fact that businesses often feel strengthened, even invulnerable, when they are in partnership with the government, from project clearances to joint venture. Harassment of communities, eviction, beatings, even death has followed such horrifying application of stakeholder engagement, as it were. India is replete with examples, practised by several among the species that Pafi seeks to represent. Bad blood follows bad practice; it’s as simple as that.

The ways out of such a morass, and the ways to pre-empt sinking into one, have for long been evident. Success has followed in areas where governments did not confuse the doctrine of eminent domain with domination, and were less inclined to be used as extensions of corporate will. Conflict has been minimized or absent when businesses extended human resource development beyond the boundary of the corporation to include a particular project’s footprint, and truly applied corporate social responsibility. Such responsibility includes, among other things, remaining outside areas of armed conflict until that conflict has been resolved. Such ways would lead governments and businesses to discover they have embraced the eminently productive and profitable religion of human rights.

Public affairs practitioners and their masters, business planners and chief executives, need to accept that optics cannot replace truth in plain sight. As I have written here and elsewhere, like finance, industry and business, activism, awareness and public opinion too have benefited from shrinking time and space, from networking. The tolerance of communities and activists against misdemeanours of business, both private and state-run, backed by weak application of policy and law by the government, is steadily reducing.

All this makes optics a tricky, even ironical, trade.

Some Indian newspapers carried advertisements on 18 September for a movie backed by Sahara Movie Studios scheduled for release this December—Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain. The copy mentions the movie is about “A 30-year-old industrial disaster that is still killing people." You know which. The founder of the Sahara group is currently in jail for his failure to appear before the Supreme Court in connection with contempt proceedings against two group firms and its directors for not refunding money owed to bond investors.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

Close