THERE was a time when this country was ruled by real leaders, not flunkeys like Manmohan Singh and clowns like Kapil Sibal. There was only one power centre, and that was the Cabinet. What the Cabinet said, was the last word, and there was no appeal, even if there were differences over Cabinet decisions.
Now we have a Cabinet only in name, and the Prime Minister has to go by the remote control. So instead of one power centre, we have several, and nobody knows who is running the country. And since nature abhors a vacuum, we have several power centres, instead of one, and often they are at loggerheads with each other. One such power centre is the bureaucracy, followed by the corporates and media. Between them, they rule the country, but rule is a wrong word. Actually, they only manage the country in the absence of rulers.
Bureaucracy has always been powerful in India, as it is in most other countries. It has now acquired a political role, as the politicians themselves are totally dependent on the bureaucracy. So bureaucrats appear on TV regularly, and hold forth on this and that, as if they were running the government. This does not happen in other countries.
Then there are the corporates – the Tatas, the Ambanis, the Birlas and others. There was a time when they rarely made an appearance except on the financial pages of newspapers. Now they are all over the place, and often make front page news. The rise of the corporates in an entirely new phenomenon in India and the corporates themselves are amazed at the clout they have acquired and the power they have begun wielding since the economy was opened up.
In the recent 2G scandal, the corporates made more news than Raja & Co. Even Tatas, who generally keep away from such shenanigans were involved. The 2G drama revolved round a woman called Niira Radia who suddenly popped up from nowhere to grab headlines and was found to be at the centre of the scandal. Corporates, including Tatas, were paying her hundreds of crores to grab a slice of the goodies, of course, at a price. Politicians have always been in the pay of corporates, particularly Congress politicians, but this time things went too far. The corporates had become bold enough to get their own men appointed to the Cabinet, but also decided Cabinet portfolios. And all the time, our friend Manmohan Singh kept saying that everything was under control.
Who exactly are these corporates who wield so much power? Twenty years ago, before the economy was liberalised, they rarely made the grade. Now they are so close to the government, they seem to be running it. Take Tatas. It was always a big group, but so were many others. But now big business has really become very big. Tatas employ nearly half a million people, which means that half a million families depend on Tatas for their livelihood. Even General Motors in America was not so big. The corporates in India now control the lives of more people than does the government itself. And it is slowly taking over the administration of the entire country, mainly because the politicians, who should have been ruling the country, have failed to do so.
Those who think that New Delhi is India’s capital have not realised that the capital has shifted to Mumbai, which used to be the country’s commercial or economic capital. Now it is political capital too. I doubt if the so-called government in Delhi can take any big decision – political or economic – without consulting those who matter in Mumbai, just as the President of the United States can hardly venture to take a big decision without consulting New York and the men who run its stock market. The US government rises and falls according to the Dow-Jones index, which is to America what the Sensex is to India. Manmohan Singh used to go on and on about Sensex which, for him, was a barometer of the country’s economy. It is also a barometer of the country’s politics, as, increasingly, it is big business which has a bigger say in running the country than the political class, which is busy counting money in shady deals or keeping an eye on its bank accounts in Switzerland and Cayman Islands.
In the light of this big shift in power, what should Indians do? We should do what the Americans do, namely, pay more attention to economic issues than political issues. And economic issues are not only confined to inflation and price of onions. The biggest economic issue is, of course, black money, and the ownership of companies.
Take the ownership issue. Just because a particular company is a Tata Company, doesn’t mean it is owned by Tatas. Its real owners could be anybody, from the Sheikhs of the Gulf to the Saudis. It is said that half of the companies in the world are owned by the Saudis, including such veteran US companies like IBM and General Electric. Indian companies are so small in terms of capital that the Saudis can purchase them by the dozen, without anyone noticing. I have a feeling that considering the heavy flow of foreign investment into India, at least half our companies are owned by foreigners.
This means we have no control over them. Outwardly, they may be Indian companies but are actually foreign-owned, and therefore non-Indian. This is the result of increasing globalisation, and why institutions like the World Economic Forum which is run by multinational companies are so keen on it. The World Economic Forum, which is such a favourite place of our tycoons, is a secret weapon – and perhaps not so secret – of international big business to acquire control of corporates in developing countries. And considering the rise of the Forum in the last few years, it seems to be succeeding in doing so.
International big business is not only acquiring control over the Indian corporate sector, but will soon own most of it. Manmohan Singh & Co may think it controls Indian corporates but that is only on paper. Real control is vested in foreign companies and/or the Saudis who run the show behind the scenes. Ten or twenty years from now, I doubt whether there will be a single company in India that is really owned by Indians.
Indian newspapers and magazines are full of stories about how Indian executives are now managing so many foreign Companies, from Citibank to Pepsi. But remember they are only hired hands and do not own the companies. It is said that Coca-Cola company is actually owned by the Sheikhs of the Gulf and PepsiCo by the Saudis. The books, of course, do not show it, just as our books do not show that the controlling interest in several Indian companies is now exercised by Sonia Gandhi’s family in Italy.
Indian corporates concentrate considerable financial and political power in their hands and are now a power- centre in their own right. So much so that even Tatas had to seek the services of a non-entity like Niira Radia in getting their work done in Delhi. Who is Niira Radia and how did she come to acquire so much power that Indian corporates did not hesitate to pay her hundreds of crore of rupees to get their work done? No one seems to know. If she, and people like her, a front for foreign corporates or even foreign countries like the Saudis? Are the Radias working for foreigners? It is time we sought answers to these questions, for the weaker our government becomes, the stronger these power centres seem to grow.