Battle cry of India's political circus: 'Blame it on the billionaire'

 Nevin John        Last Updated: November 26, 2015  | 12:15 IST

Quite often these days, the names of industrialists are dragged into political debates. In most of these talks, the industrialists who created wealth are villains, and are 'uncommon men'. While Ambanis, Tatas and Birlas are mentioned at the large-scale (or national-level) debates, the smaller wealth creators are targeted in local politics.

The UPA government was always called an anti-proletarian regime. The then opposition parties blamed them for corruption - remember the allegation that the natural resources and spectrum auctions helped industrialists increase their wealth - and the wealth creators turned 'Gabbar Singhs' and 'Mogambos' in the eyes of the common man. (The argument that they amassed wealth through unethical and corrupt ways should be treated separately and it is the duty of the government to unearth any misdoing.)

In one of the first direct attacks during the Delhi election campaign, Arvind Kejriwal pointed fingers at the Ambanis for allegedly holding black money in Swiss banks and blamed them for the electricity situation in the state. In his first stint of 49 days, Kejriwal slapped a criminal case against Mukesh Ambani and cut the electricity tariff by half. He also asked for auditing of the books of power distribution companies of Anil Ambani and Tata.

During the 2014 national election campaign, the UPA leaders also alleged a Modi-Ambani-Adani nexus. If you thought it was going to get muted thanks to the 'achhe din' debate, it wasn't to be as the names of the industrialists kept cropping up in places for no fault of theirs.

The Prime Minister himself brought in an Ambani comparison for explaining his thought on equality and fraternity. Modi, in an interview to a leading English daily, said the laws couldn't be different for Reliance Industries' chairman and for the common man. He explained that red tape shouldn't be there didn't mean it shouldn't be there for Mukesh Ambani, but be there for a common man.

A week later, addressing party MPs, the PM clarified his pro-poor stand citing housing schemes, "We are working to provide a house to everybody… Who will benefit from it? … Are we going to build a house for Mukesh Ambani?" Close on his heels, senior BJP leader and parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu said on Sunday that the Ambanis and Gautam Adani were already rich, and they didn't amass their millions under a BJP government.

Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, in his return-to-stage speech, spoke in-large about the Modi-industrialists nexus to win the hearts of farmers. "How did Modi win the election? By taking money from industrialists. He will repay this debt by giving your land to these industrialists." In his follow-up speech in the Lok Sabha, Gandhi called the Modi-government a "suit-boot ki sarkar".

In Mumbai, the scene is not enthusiastic. As before, the business engines are not moving. The economic condition, however, is improving, but investment plans are still on hold. One top senior industrialist asked in a brief chat recently, "How will one take investment decisions in this environment? For none of our doings, the company names and the promoter names are being dragged into the central stage. This is happening locally with automakers, telecom players and retailers. Most of the wealth creators are shown in a bad light."

Historically, politically motivated fights with corporate leaders have helped leaders gain power. Mamata Banerjee's fight against land acquisition for Tata Motors' Nano plant at Singur brought her the chief ministership in West Bengal. Disgruntled Ratan Tata had packed up the project and went to Gujarat after the then chief minister Modi's invited him. Before that in 2006-07, when Reliance's retail business was launched in Uttar Pradesh, the then CM Mayawati and the BJP leader Uma Bharti (she was running her own party Bharatiya Janshakti Party then) had gained their ground by attacking opening of Reliance stores. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi emerged onto the national scene through his fight against Anil Agarwal's Vedanta Resources and its bauxite mining plans at Niyamgiri.

Many more references of names are expected as Kejriwal also jumped into the scene to win hearts, fighting the land acquisition bill. Also, the assembly election in Bihar is expected in September- November. Next year will see three more elections.

The political mud-slinging hurts the industrialists in multiple ways. The bad-toned comments will affect the perception of the brands and pull the share price down. Many state governments take up their investment proposals suspiciously. Land allocation or acquisition for projects will become tough because of local protests. Foreign investors, usually, are sceptical about investing in such companies - for example Vedanta's issues.

Politicians should gauge the impact before loosely commenting on a businessman. If they find any misdoings, it should be handled legally, rather than thrown up for public debate.

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