Opinion | Business leaders need to speak out on political issues

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

In the past, we had men like J.R.D. Tata who would comment freely on policies as well as on leaders

One called it a “controlled, pump-priming exercise", another dubbed it “well balanced", while many others were more effusive in their praise, with a chief executive officer even commending the minister for being “very articulate". A budget for a new India, a budget that will trigger consumption demand... virtue upon virtue was showered by our corporate denizens. Mind you, all this was for an interim budget, with a possible shelf-life of no more than a few months.

It followed the time-honoured tradition of cheering on a finance minister every time a Union budget is presented. Why, even the 1973 budget by Yashwantrao B. Chavan, considered one of the most anti-industry ever, failed to draw any more than some muted criticism from our business leaders. In case of such unfriendly budgets, the standard response has been to avoid any comment.

Noticeably, many of the same business leaders are fairly active on social media, always ready to raise a laugh with a quip or two. But when it comes to being critical of politicians and parties, there’s a studied silence.

When it comes to singing hosannas, extolling the virtues of political leaders and their actions, though, expect the same leaders to compete with each other. Thus, when India’s score on the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking improved dramatically, if somewhat suspiciously, many of the same leaders were effusive in their praise.

The reticence to question government policy, unless of course it hurts their business interests directly, has become more pronounced over the last few years.

Last month, amid the clamour of voices commenting on the debatable move to reserve 10% of government jobs for economically weaker candidates falling in the general category, there was one noticeable absence. Hardly any corporate leader in India chose to comment on the issue. Whether the silence was a sign of approval or merely an effort to stay away from controversy isn’t clear. It did confirm what has been a consistent pattern of obsequiousness masked as political correctness.

It is almost as if our businesses are not a part of our society and, therefore, continue to remain unaffected by developments around them.

There have been honourable exceptions as when Bajaj Auto managing director Rajiv Bajaj called the idea of demonetization itself “wrong". Bajaj, of course, is cut in the same cloth as his father Rahul Bajaj, who has rarely minced words, whether it was while anchoring the Bombay Club in an effort to protect the interests of domestic Indian industry or backing the then Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Patel on the issue of central bank autonomy.

In the past, we had men like J.R.D. Tata who would comment quite freely on government policies as well as on political leaders. Despite his friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, he was often openly critical of his economic and foreign policies. That neither his business nor he suffered any form of reprisal for this is to Nehru’s credit as well.

Perhaps such public-mindedness is impossible to expect in these strained times when the distance between Delhi and Mumbai goes beyond geographical miles. Yet there are two good reasons why India’s corporate elites need to speak up on issues of social and political importance.

For one, while neither ideology nor morality will convince them to do so, business interests might just be a good enough objective. There are enough examples of that from across the world.

In the US, Nike’s sales and stock price rose after it chose controversial football star Colin Kaepernick for its ad campaign. Kaepernick had dropped to his knees while the national anthem was playing during a football game in 2016, protesting the treatment of African-Americans by the police. Nike chose to feature him in its ads in 2018 even after criticism from US President Donald Trump.

Equally, when Under Armour founder and chief executive officer Kevin Plank publicly came out in support of Trump after his election, some of the company’s celebrity brand endorsers such as National Basketball Association star Stephen Curry openly criticised his pro-Trump remarks. The result was a widely reported #BoycottUnderArmour campaign on Twitter and a drop in the company’s stock price.

That’s also the reason why Delta and United Airlines stopped discounts for members of the all-powerful National Rifle Association after the Parkland shooting in February 2018 when a gunman opened fire at a high school in Florida, killing 17 students and staff members. Would any of the Indian airlines show similar defiance by banning fringe groups that are known to victimize people on religious grounds?

The other reason is that, increasingly, millennials expect businesses and business leaders to take up activist positions on political and social issues. “Corporations are people" is how Mitt Romney, the 2012 US presidential candidate, once put it and people are expected to have opinions and be unafraid of expressing them. Employees, customers, and even shareholders now want their companies to take a stand on political issues and be vocal about those stands.

Corporate leaders in India and the companies they run need to put their mouth where their money is.

Sundeep Khanna is an executive editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage

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