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Need for rational, constructive voices - Sidharth Birla, Former President, FICCI
The Hindu Business Line, May 16, 2017
Before I sign off from writing during summer the obvious flavour of the month is the completion of three years of the Government. I recall well the swearing-in ceremony in the blazing heat of New Delhi and the palpable enthusiasm generated by a new-look development agenda for the nation. The multi-faceted successes of the intervening period are creditable and have also helped India etch a new impression in the minds of global investors and political leaders.

I was impressed with a talk given recently by Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian. I enjoyed the analytical part that outlined many economic positives, but was intrigued by some behavioural references. Even though some of the CEA’s remarks were restricted to officialdom, they prompt me to think about the distinguished role business leaders and industry chambers must play in the emerging scenario.

Below par

Paraphrasing what the CEA described as a global phenomenon. “.. experts often hold back objective assessment. Instead they censor themselves and in public are insufficiently critical, nor independent of officialdom. Further, to the extent they offer criticism it is watered down to the point of being unidentifiable as criticism”. Yet “.. there are notable Indians who are consistent exceptions to this critique. What strikes me is how few these exceptions are, and how infrequently the experts are willing to engage in public debate about the macro-economy”.

“ .. this is serious since high-quality policy making demands high-quality inputs and debates”.

In the emergent environment, conventional wisdom is being challenged or stood on its head in so many areas — always intended to be for the larger good. Could it be appropriate for business leaders (on their own or as part of collective industry bodies) to re-evaluate their roles and value additions? Why did the CEA feel that inputs and debates are sub-optimal in quality and occurrence ?

An ethos of advocacy

The FICCIs, CIIs, and PHDs of this world and their global ilk, all have analogous purposes: to be a collective voice of advocacy, and represent/protect the economic well-being of business and professional communities, thereby contributing meaningfully to national progress. Evolving and maturing in tune with a dynamic or disruptive policy environment in a constructive, practical yet forthright manner is central to their mission.

The ethos of our business forefathers (which included stalwarts such as Purshotamdas Thakurdas, JRD Tata, GD Birla, Shri Ram and Kasturbhai Lalbhai) led them to create the legendary Bombay Plan pre-Independence. It elicited both praise and disapproval.

For that time in history, the plan was fraught with complexities including the possibility of being found “politically incorrect” whether by the exiting or incoming government. However, even under this setting the objective of the authors was to “merely put forward a basis for the objectives of economic planning in India and to stimulate discussion and criticism”.

Numerous commentators later wrote that, though the plan was unfortunately relegated, ‘it is no exaggeration that it occupied something of a mythic position with scarcely a study of postwar Indian economic history that does not point to it as an indicator of developmental and nationalistic aspirations of the domestic capitalist class’. These aspirations, by the way, are still germane.

The central point is that such expression reflected a non-partisan approach and articulation on the part of the business community, in the larger interest of the nation. If and how to accept it or modify it was a matter for the national leadership to address.

What’s demanded

Rational, responsible, constructive and spirited opinions that are the hallmark of the business community need to manifest themselves even today as a response to the challenges. The nation’s development agenda, one that the Government has committed itself to, requires this.

The trust of civil society, as well as proponents of control within the Government, may also align better with the true needs of the economy and smooth functioning of the business sector. I am sure we all realise that trust in a constituency quickly wanes if it is perceived to be self-centred or a closed club where infractions can be ignored or blamed on someone else.

People through history have readily turned to creating generic groups that can be criticised at will and with a broad brush. For example, people did this with the political class; business is now also a punching bag. An era of declining trust poses serious challenges to those of us seeking to engage in effective discussion, decision-making and participation processes.

The convergent approach that upheld healthy links between society, government and business can and must be revived. It is often said that someone has to begin the cycle of trust by an act of faith. It’s obvious that the prime mover of the cycle must be the greater wielder of power. There’s no use waiting for the other person to make the first move.

Don’t pontificate

I feel it is also essential for all constituencies to eschew pontification or criticism, as well as self-flagellation or intimidation, to preserve positivity and promote a conducive environment.

There is a strong reciprocal relationship between individuals of reputation and organisations of reputation — each can choose to trigger assertive engagement with the ecosystem by the other. To fulfil the charter that they effectively represent and/or protect the economic well-being of business and professional communities, a comprehensive self-analysis of the responsibility of and articulation by business leaders and industry bodies is possibly merited.

For context, I also encourage reading the complete speech of the CEA, available in the public domain.

To end on a cinematic note, I paraphrase the morally upright King of Jerusalem (from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven): “A king may move a man, but that man can also move himself. Even though those who presume to move you be men of power, when you stand before God you cannot say ‘I was commanded to do thus’ or ‘Virtue was not convenient at the time’. This will not suffice.”

The writer is an entrepreneur and Former President of FICCI. The views are personal
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