The Empire strikes back!


A fairly innocuous piece in a technology centric portal about India Inc not having produced role models after Narayan Murthy, K V Kamath and Sunil Mittal when juxtaposed with Raghuram Rajan’s continuing refrain on our oligarchic capitalism that feeds off cronyism prompted me to put pen to paper. It’s ironic that Rajan is now part of an apparatus that is being seen globally as a crucible of crony capitalism.

To get to the bottom of the nondescript names that are creeping out of the woodwork in every media or CAG expose one has to retrace his steps to the late 1990s when the politico-bureaucratic class was stupefied by the legitimate wealth created by Murthy, Premji and Mittal – not merely for themselves but for a far wider class of “non conflicted” share holders who were not restricted to family members, insiders, hangers on, pliant babus or conniving netas. I have been privy to private conversations between bewildered bureaucrats who were taken aback by the sheer audacity of the technology and telecom entrepreneurs who turned billionaires without leaning on the government or any political party.

And how they have gotten their comeuppance now! There must have been a Machiavellian conspiracy hatched in Delhi and all state capitals to first throttle the growth of the IT factories by making land acquisition an opaque ritual (as Murthy was to experience with the Dharam Singh and then the Kumaraswamy regimes in Karnataka and later with the congenitally obstructionist West Bengal administration) and later by planning an organized assault on our natural resources that included land, spectrum, oil and gas, coal and one hears even thorium.

If you notice these are businesses that don’t call for top flight human talent which is quite unlike technology or banking. On the contrary, these verticals thrive on what is eulogistically called ‘environment management” skills.

So you have names likes GMR, GVK, IVRCL, Maytas, DB Realty, Loop Telecom, Tantia Construction, Abhijeet Group, Adanis and similar formations, who fail to attract an IIT or IIM alumni, hogging the lion’s share of “PPP” contracts. These are not the kind of names that you see or hear in elegant corporate events. Rather, these are names that are discussed in hushed tones by paper chasing clerks in dingy government offices where pedigreed MBAs don’t even trespass but oily and wily underlings of crony capitalist families spend an entire lifetime humoring colorless babus with wads of dirty notes or a crude invitation to a dirty picture in flesh and blood.

For those Indian businessmen (I would prefer to call then brigands) who missed the technology and telecom bus due to their sheer lack of vision and ability, the Empire has always been the preferred route to riches. Since they can’t compete, they collude. They manipulate tenders and block able bidders. These are skills that India Inc had perfected till the late P V Narasimha Rao knocked them out of their stupor in 1991. Through the 90s, these skills did not bear fruits as a generation of “non baniya” visionaries created globally admired enterprises with no favors given to or taken from the government. Middle class morality and an aversion for government patronage were the hallmarks of their stellar success. But the hyenas were only cooling their heels in the shadows.

As “Coalgate” is succeeded by what will presumably be ‘Powergate”, we will hear of more names that will sound like kirana shops. Don’t be surprised. After all, our government is open for business only to those who pay an entry fee!

(Chiranjit Banerjee is the Managing Partner at PeoplePlus Consulting. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap)

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