The growing trend of corporate bigwigs entering Parliament has become a matter of serious discussion.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi
SUPERFICIALLY, the political drama that was played out on August 17 at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border and a day later in Bejhera Khurd village near Dadri in Ghaziabad district was a trial of wits and strength between the followers of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh and the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.) government. The first round was won supposedly by the government, when it prevented the march of V.P. Singh and his followers to Dadri. The second round was claimed to have been taken by the former Prime Minister, when he managed to slip into Bejhera Khurd and plough some land.
In terms of sloganeering, it is a tussle between the Uttar Pradesh government's grand plans to "set up the world's largest pit-head power plant at a single location in order to mitigate the State's electricity shortage" and the demand raised by the Jan Morcha led by V.P. Singh seeking "just remuneration for the land acquired from farmers of the region for the mega power plant". At a more fundamental level, however, the developments signify the increasing influence that corporate interests and players wield on the country's political and administrative systems. Both V.P. Singh and leaders of the S.P. have referred to this dimension repeatedly over the past three months.
According to V.P. Singh, the manner in which the Dadri land was acquired from farmers for the project to be set up by the Anil Ambani-led Reliance Energy Generation Ltd. (REGL) exemplified the government's bias towards the industrial group. "The government has paid 60 per cent of the price of the acquired land using taxpayer's money. If the raw materials for the Dadri project are being bought at market prices, why can't the same be true for land as well? Why should farmers be made to subsidise industry?" said V.P. Singh.
The S.P. leadership has claimed that the Dadri campaign was launched by V.P. Singh and his associates, particularly Jan Dal leader and Lok Sabha member Raj Babbar, in the larger context of the corporate hostilities between REGL and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), headed by Anil Ambani's brother Mukesh Ambani. Talking to Frontline, former Union Minister and S.P. Lok Sabha member Beni Prasad Verma asked how V.P. Singh and Raj Babbar discovered the cause of the Dadri farmers nearly two years after the land acquisition process was completed and well after the Ambani brothers had fallen out leading to the division of the Reliance business empire. "There is no favouritism here, as facilities provided to REGL have been accorded to other private sector enterprises in the State's power sector, including the Tata and Birla group of companies. Similar facilitation to large-scale projects of the private sector has been done by other State governments, including the Congress Ministry in Haryana, where the beneficiary is the Reliance group headed by Mukesh Ambani. Why is it that V.P. Singh and Raj Babbar are not launching agitations there?" Beni Prasad Verma asked.
Talking to Frontline, V.P. Singh agreed that Dadri-like situations existed in other States too. According to him, tribal people and other traditional communities are getting displaced across the country in the process of setting up more and more corporate projects. "And this is being done in total violation of the very free-market principles, which the leaders of the corporate sector swear by. If market forces are the guiding forces, then they cannot be made to operate selectively. It should be true for the owners of the land too and they should have the choice to sell or not to sell the land, and decide the terms of sale in case they decide to sell it." V.P. Singh also added that the Dadri agitation was only the beginning of a movement to advance this cause and that he and his associates were determined to spread it to all those parts of the country where corporate sector projects had violated free market principles in land acquisition and caused displacement of traditional inhabitants.
Whether the Jan Morcha fulfils the promise of launching similar agitations in other parts of the country or not, there is little doubt that its Dadri initiative has brought corporate influence in contemporary politics under the spotlight. But the agitation is not the only factor that has attracted the attention of people to this issue. The growing trend of corporate bigwigs "acquiring" membership of Parliament, especially the Rajya Sabha, has also drawn attention to it. Even sections of the government, including Ministers with traditional political backgrounds, have begun to voice their concerns, albeit in private, that many of these corporate bigwigs are prone to using their parliamentary offices to advance their private interests.
The latest to join this group of corporate bigwig Members of Parliament were Rahul Bajaj, head of Bajaj Auto Industries, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha with support from ideologically disparate political parties, ranging from the Hindutva-oriented Shiv Sena to the secular Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, Rajeev Chandrashekhar of the BPL group, who was backed by the ruling Janata Dal (Secular)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance in Karnataka. Other corporate bigwigs in the Upper House include Vijay Mallya of Kingfisher Airlines, who became the working president of the Subramaniam Swamy-led Janata Party after getting elected to the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, industrialists R.P. Goenka and Rajkumar Dhoot (Shiv Sena), hotelier Lalit Suri and media magnate Vijay Darda.
Unlike many of these corporate leaders, industrialist Naveen Jindal fought an intensely contested Lok Sabha election to become an M.P. Significantly, Anil Ambani was a Rajya Sabha member supported by the S.P. in 2004, when the Dadri project was set rolling. He resigned in July, in the wake of the `office of profit' controversy.
As M.P.s, almost all these corporate bigwigs are members of important committees of Parliament. Sections of the government are of the view that many of these M.P.s are functioning in such committees where a conflict of interest is evident. Mallya is a member of the Standing Committee on Industries and a permanent invitee to the consultative committee on Civil Aviation. Darda is on the Standing Committee of the Communications, Information Technology and Information and Broadcasting Ministry, while Dhoot is a member of the Consultative Committee of the Finance Ministry as well as the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.
A significant number of traditional politicians, cutting across ideological lines, are of the view that this penchant of corporate tycoons to acquire Parliament membership has recorded an unprecedented rise in the past five years. And almost all of them see this as a cause for concern. According to Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav, an overwhelming majority of the "corporate sector M.P. set" is motivated only by self-interest. "They have no understanding or concern for the issues and problems of the people," he said.
Sharad Yadav claims to speak from personal experience. He told Frontline that he had shown Vijay Mallya the door from his party after realising that promoting himself and his interests was the liquor-airline baron's primary concern. "When he was with the J.D. (U) briefly. Mallya was not seen to be taking up national issues, but was most interested in setting up a corporate-style plush workplace at the historic office of the party on New Delhi's Jantar Mantar road, with scant regard to the fact that it was a place from where politicians such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai had functioned. (Mallya was not available for comment on these remarks efforts trying to contact him through phone and e-mail).
Sharad Yadav feels that the view that the "corporate push" for positions in Parliament has gathered strength and momentum since 1991, along with the introduction and continuation of the process of economic liberalisation and globalisation. He said: "A culture that looks to the West and questions our pre-liberalisation democratic experience has been deliberately developed through this process. It is a culture that seeks to vulgarise the style of functioning of the traditional politician and projects money-spinning corporate honchos as role models. This climate has strengthened the urge of these bigwigs to go for parliamentary positions." Sharad Yadav added that both the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, in which the Janata Dal (U) was also an important participant, and the current Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government failed to check the march of corporate leaders. He also blames smaller parties such as the S.P. and the Janata Dal (Secular) for opening their doors to corporate leaders such as Anil Ambani and Amar Singh.
The British author Rob Jenkins has written about similar issues in his book Democratic Politics and Economic Reform in India (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Jenkins notes that liberalisation not only leaves many of the traditional sources of patronage untouched, but creates new ones and individuals and interest groups are likely to believe that they can adapt and build new coalitions in response to the changing environment. Jenkins does not perceive any perilous prospect in these developments but states "democracies are less constrained by unholy interest-group coalitions than previously thought," though "they are not paragons of consensus building".
Political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi, an associate of the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, who has observed the political processes of the country closely for nearly six decades, is of the view that the most worrisome aspect of the new thrust of corporate bigwigs to get directly involved in politics is related to the quality and character they are bringing to it. "Corporate leaders have had close association with our political process right from the days of the freedom struggle. Jamanlal Bajaj was the treasurer of the Indian National Congress for approximately one and a half decades until he died in 1942. The association between the Birlas - G.D. Birla and K.K. Birla - with two generations of Congress leaders is well recorded. So is the association that three generations of the Shervani family have had with the socialist stream in Indian polity, including leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Ram Manohar Lohia. But all these corporate players associated themselves with political parties essentially as social and political activists, not as big businessmen or industrialists. As political activists they always subjugated their personal and business agendas to the political agenda devised by traditional politicians. "The qualitative difference today," adds Tyagi, "is that the roles have changed and more often than not the agenda, especially the economic and political agenda, is dictated by the corporate bigwigs and not by the political leadership."
Tyagi points out that the political leadership of the earlier period knew where to draw the line vis-a-vis the corporate-sector activists. "Nehru's repudiation of the "Bombay Plan" advanced in 1944 by seven prominent businesspersons of the period, including G.D. Birla, J.R.D. Tata and Kasthuribai Lalbai, reflected the understanding and conviction of the leadership of that period. "The `Bombay Plan' laid stress on public investment in building social and economic infrastructure, agrarian reform and agricultural research, and the need to set up educational institutions. Above all, it conceptualised a framework for India's transition from agrarian feudalism to industrial capitalism and visualised the post-Independence development of India through increased industrialisation in the post-Second World War global atmosphere. Significantly, the Plan also visualised an increased association with American capitalists as opposed to British industrialists. Nehru and other leaders of the time refused to accept the Plan in its entirety but two years ago Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed the "Bombay Plan" and said its central portions still remained relevant.
Many traditional politicians agree that apart from the "climate of liberalisation", a number of maladies that the political class themselves have inflicted on the political system have contributed to enhancing corporate influence on politics. The cost of electoral and political campaigns have gone up in leaps and bounds over the past one and a half decades and it is accepted that almost all serious candidates have to depend on corporate support to raise resources. Rajya Sabha elections have reflected the "money factor" through the blatant use of money power to canvass votes from Members of the Legislative Assemblies. Rajya Sabha elections in the past 15 years have many a time become exhibitions of money power.
There are indications, however, that sections of the UPA government and parties supporting it, particularly the Left parties, are keen on addressing the issue of corporate influence on administration and politics in order to devise some corrective measures. Sitaram Yechury, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Rajya Sabha member, is one of the first politicians to underscore the need for such an effort. Speaking in the Rajya Sabha during a debate on the Office of Profit Bill, Yechury demanded that a comprehensive definition of "office of profit" be worked out, keeping in mind not only public offices but also the private interests of MPs.
Clearly, Yechury was pointing towards the use of the parliamentary office by many members to advance their private interests and make private gains. Pressures such as this have apparently compelled the government to initiate discussions with the presiding officers of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha to stop and prevent this trend. But there is no official confirmation of this move yet and it remains to be seen what shape it will take ultimately. In the meantime, the pursuit of corporate interests as well as the fighting of corporate battles using political platforms and offices will continue unabated across the country.