Why has India’s corporate sector had such an arm’s length relationship with our politics? In this season of elections, why are so few men and women from the world of business in the fray for the top elected jobs at the centre or in the states?
Many economists have played a major role in our political system capped by Manmohan Singh’s decade-long tenure as prime minister. Somehow, despite the dismal science’s poor record of getting most things wrong, it is considered an appropriate background for public life, but businessmen and women are still not acceptable.
This government has its sprinkling of ministers from the world of business, Nitin Gadkari and Jayant Sinha, immediately spring to mind. A handful of Indian businessmen, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, T. Subbarami Reddy, Praful Patel, have also made their mark as parliamentarians, yet, it is inconceivable that someone who has earned his or her spurs in business would ever ascend the highest office in India.
Thus, while the movement for Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy as president did gain some traction 10 years ago, with then president the late A. P. J. Abdul Kalam endorsing the move, there has never been one for Murthy or Nandan Nilekani or Kiran Mazumdar Shaw as Prime Minister.
Politics today is as much about business and economy as it is about governance. The US has a consistent record of top executives and businessmen aiming for the highest office. In 2010, George W. Bush became the first American President with an MBA degree (from Harvard to boot) while in 2012 Mitt Romney, chief executive officer (CEO) of Bain Capital and former governor of Massachusetts, became the Republican party’s presidential nominee.
Today, even as real estate tycoon Donald Trump is in the Oval office, others like Michael Bloomberg are preparing their pitch for it.
Europe too has had a history of business and politics intermingling though not always with great results. French President Emmanuel Macron is a former investment banker while in Italy another real estate mogul Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister for five years between 2001 and 2006. In Croatia, Tihomir Orešković who was the CEO and chairman of Pliva, Croatia’s largest pharmaceutical company, became a compromise prime minister for a while.
Corporate executives are generally trained to work to deadlines and deliver results to their shareholders. The best among them tend to be innovative and know how to work with given resources. Vitally they understand return on investment, something which most wasteful politicians don’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around. Which is why, we see dozens of airports and stations being built which are then barely ever used.
Strip away the hypocrisy of politics being public service and therefore not conducive to profit-oriented business people and there’s really no reason why we can’t change the decades old narrative of the latter being unfit to lead the country.
A businessman or woman as Prime Minister floats visions of the avatar of Adam Smith come to roost over our pure and noble land not to speak of civilizational collapse because of mass layoffs brought on by callous mechanistic left-brain-only decision-making.
It isn’t as if politics and business don’t do deals behind the scenes. The age-old mistrust between business and politics is actually a false schism that needs to be sandblasted in the post capitalist shared economy that functions and acknowledges openly the give and take between consumers and corporations.
Business people, by nature, have an efficiency bias and we could do with that because most economists have been fuzzy and politics is honestly not been much more than a lot of bandied ism with a huge leaven of realpolitik.
If the big genesis of our times is behavioural skewing in both marketing and market dynamics, why not extend that to politics as well? Why can’t a businessperson with less traditional role-playing baggage of being the politician, not look at the needs of the electorate and perhaps actually measure and allow herself to be measured in deliverables? Let’s not forget Narendra Modi also rode the wave of economic deliverables to an electorate sick of sloganeering such as garibi hatao that achieved little.
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.