India’s Business leaders need to speak out on political issues

Sundeep Khanna of Mint in this piece rebukes India’s business leaders for cheering everything the government says:

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.

Two reasons for them to open up a bit more:

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.

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.


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