Monday, November 10, 2008

Power & Politics / Mail Today, November 10, 2008

NEVER in recent times has the relationship between the government and Corporate India been as cosy as during the last four and half years of the UPA Government. It is easy to understand why business honchos prefer to be “ politically correct” and stay on the right side of the establishment. But with our politicians – both from the ruling combine and the Opposition – showing a tendency to openly wine and dine with industry titans, it almost seems as if the two are made for each other.

The once clear dividing line between that two has blurred to the point of extinction. In the past, the government occasionally wielded the stick at India Inc but it’s more standard practice on its part, business is seldom critical about the government. As a wag said, this is a government “ by business, of business and for business”. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against such interaction. In fact, I think open contact between the two is far more preferable to the practice during the command economy days when such meetings were mostly clandestine and little that transpired was above board. Of late however, while meetings have become transparent, they have also become too frequent for comfort. In any given month, the Prime Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and even the Leader of the Opposition are seen spending more time attending conferences organised by FICCI, CII, ASSOCHAM and other such bodies than attending party workers meetings.

Maybe it’s the ambience at such do’s or the fact that in these dangerous times, they feel more secure in the company of members of the billionaire club. With thousands of young men and women losing sleep worrying about losing their jobs, Manmohan Singh was absolutely right in calling the honchos last week and asking them to resist from retrenching workers. They in turn promised him they won’t. It’s a different matter that some of them left the meeting and headed for their boardrooms to discuss Q3 performance with senior managements and then went onto do exactly the opposite of what was promised to the PM. Manufacturing jobs are being lost as some of the biggest business houses either close plants entirely or factories are shuttered for a few days a month. Many Congress leaders I know are worried with this trend and frustrated at being unable to put their views across to the party top hierarchy.

And they are right to be worried. It is not their case that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues should not meet industrialists, it is just that they are concerned that the government is seen to be following a path which seems tailormade for the Singh: For business rich. Shades of 1996? Or Barack Obama 2008? The Bush administration policies that were seen to be benefiting fatcat corporates at the cost of welfare programmes for the large numbers of the poor was one reason for the resounding win of Barrack Obama.

Next week, Manmohan Singh flies to Washington for the G- 20 meeting hosted by President Bush. Reports say Obama may attend the meeting in which case, Manmohan should request Bush to arrange a meeting with the President- elect. Who knows, Obama may agree to share a few tips. In which case, we can all hope to see Manmohan returning with a spring in his step to tell his party colleagues: “ Yes We Can”.

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