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Big business and elections

Published : Jan 15, 2010 00:00 IST

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ANIL AMBANI, who was vice-chairman, Reliance Industries, addressing members of FICCI at an international conference on taxation policy in New Delhi in November 2002.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

ANIL AMBANI, who was vice-chairman, Reliance Industries, addressing members of FICCI at an international conference on taxation policy in New Delhi in November 2002.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

IN the Indian business landscape, Reliance stands alone. Dhirubhai Ambani embraced the cult of equity ownership when other industrial barons were preoccupied with more conservative strategies of perpetuating their control. This ensured the recruitment of a substantial body of shareholders to his cause an agglomeration of corporate and civic voters with substantial political clout. The Reliance patriarch also made the kind of strategic investments in the political domain that provided the hospitable environment for him to redeem his more extravagant pledges to shareholders.

Ambanis style of working the delicate nexus between business and politics was visionary for its times. When other industrial groups were searching for alibis for non-performance in the pervasive apparatus of governmental controls, Reliance was showing how the regulatory mechanism could be bent to optimal advantage. Today, in an environment of liberalisation and deregulation, it remains a powerful force for tutored change, its awesome presence in the capital markets and the industrial landscape ensuring that all talk of a level playing field will remain just that.

Having come off second-best in an encounter with an upstart, the older industrial groups are today beginning to set great store by transparency. The Tatas and the Aditya Birla group have set the lead by establishing Trusts to fund elections in a transparent and accountable manner. Yet, the expectation that the rest of business and industry will do so seems unduly optimistic. This must seem curious, since Indian business has today been largely unshackled from the compulsions of the licence-quota regime and hence is relatively free of the need to court political patronage.

In ascriptive terms, the role of government in the economy has traversed an entire continuum over just the last decade. Once looked upon as the benevolent provider of all necessities of life, government today finds itself in considerably reduced circumstances. Indeed, today that government is considered best that confines itself to the minimalist role of facilitating the energies of private enterprise. But in the perception of big business, this does not yet approach the vanishing point of the government. In the approaching elections, big business is not quite investing in no government. Rather, it seeks a government that is durable and stable in its resolve that it will stick to the bare essentials.

It is a paradox of this whole situation that the decade of growing political instability has run coterminously with a fairly settled course of economic policy. The resolve to retrench and retreat from the economic domain has, in other words, been common to all governments over the last decade, irrespective of their political stripe. By all the indices that could be used to judge the stability of the economic policy environment, the decade of the 1990s shows a fairly consistent record. There have been no back-and-forth adjustments of tax rates, whether direct or indirect these have generally drifted downwards and moved towards a framework of greater simplicity. International currency parities again have moved against the rupee, the decade having witnessed a complete decimation of its value against the U.S. dollar. In the new liberal orthodoxy, however, this is an unmitigated blessing. And, finally, the regulatory framework for trade and industry has tended towards a dismantling of controls and greater leniency of rules.

Business lobbies have quibbled about the pace of economic reform, without quite being able to achieve any sort of unanimity. But clearly, the evidence of the last decade seems to indicate that political instability has not really dampened economic activity. If the sentiment of the business community were to be assessed in terms of the indefinable animal spirits that drive the markets, the months since the fall of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government have witnessed a virtual effusion, with the stock markets scaling new peaks.

The public have cause to be wary of unnatural forces in the markets recent conjunctures of massive speculative price rises have normally been associated with feverish political fund-raising. Illustrative examples would be the sugar scandal of 1989 and the stock market bubble of 1992. Sugar was revisited by the politically induced speculative fever in 1994, and the most recent outbreak of the disease was in the onions and vegetables market in 1998. Irrational exuberance in the stock markets was again an attendant phenomenon of the preludes to the last two parliamentary general elections. There is reason for the concerned public to study the boom in the stock markets today for the agents that are driving it and the forces that are immediately benefiting from it.Two extreme situations may be distinguished in terms of the nexus between business and politics. Business lobbies could make collective decisions and channel their contributions on an agreed basis towards political parties in the interest of ensuring a certain framework of policies of common benefit. There could, at the other extreme, be unaccounted and surreptitious funding, sourced for the most part from tax evasion or speculative activity conducted under political patronage.

The former option is impractical simply because the power to mobilise funds and the willingness to contribute to a political cause are unequally shared among business houses. Reliance clearly stands at the apex in these matters, although there is a continuum of capabilities stretching downwards from this peak.

Despite their collective interest in the perpetuation of the process of liberalisation, the recession of the last two years has engendered clear distinctions within Indian big business. It may have seemed at one time that business and industry being common, though not uniform, beneficiaries of liberalisation could have funded the political process collectively through registered associations and trusts, in return for a collective quid pro quo. This would have represented a salutary departure from the older practice of businessmen funding political parties in their individual capacities in order to extract personalised benefits for their enterprises.

Yet the era of liberalisation is a reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Chambers of commerce and industry look the other way as their members pass on unaccounted contributions to their political favourites. The Associated Chambers of Commerce (Assocham) has formally disavowed any intention of instructing its membership on how to fund the political process. Says Assocham president K.P. Singh: That is not our business. We cannot tell our members how to do these things. It is for individual members to decide for themselves. As far as transparency goes, the Companies Act is there to take care of it. These remarks, ironically enough, were offered at a presentation made by Assocham to the media on the economic agenda that it wants political parties to incorporate into their election manifestoes among which transparency in government functioning features prominently.

Despite the provisions of the Companies Act, concedes K.P. Singh, corporate entities may not wish to make their contributions to political parties transparent primarily out of fear. The Act requires a donor company to make the identity of its recipients public. But if the chosen political party fails to make it to the corridors of power, there is every risk of the company that chose to patronise it being victimised. Few are likely to have the confidence of Rahul Bajaj third in a line of succession of politically active and influential businessmen to declare which party he channelled his donations to in the 1998 elections.

Tarun Das, Director-General of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), unburdens himself of sentiments that are broadly congruent: When an individual businessman donates in cash to politicians, he expects some quid pro quo for his enterprise. Nobody makes political contributions in the interest of policies that will benefit the entire nation. The CII, says Das, does not conceive of a situation where it would try and persuade its membership to pay political donations by cheque. Although the BJP has written to all industrialists insisting that payments be made by cheque, few are likely to comply.

Das believes that there will be a greater chance of fostering transparency if the Income Tax Act is amended to make political contributions exempt from tax. Asks he: When all other expenses, including advertising, marketing and even entertainment, can b e shown as tax-deductible business expenses, why not election funding? The sub-text of this question, of course, is a notion of political donations as a facilitator of business efficiency, through selective application of governmental powers.

Meanwhile, the CII has appointed a deputy director-general specifically to brief politicians on economic issues in which its members have an interest, even as it holds seminars and meetings with prominent parties on what it would like to see in their election manifestos. It is also in the process of extracting a commitment from political parties on time-bound implementation of undertakings given in election manifestoes.

This influence obviously originates in the money that will change hands between now and the day of polling funds that it is reasonable to suppose will originate in tax evasion or officially sanctioned speculation in the market. This is a presumption that industry does not care to dispel. And neither does it seek to contest the view that all political donations made are finally recovered from the mass of the citizenry, whether as a penal price or as unpaid taxes. Finally, the issue of transparency on political donations, it appears, touches upon the very core of representative politics. And the push towards this objective is likely to be one among many new initiatives that will be called for if politics is to be salvaged from the morass into which it has descended.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 15, 2010.)

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