Disruptions in Parliament or a stuck GST Bill: What’s bothering India Inc?

Industry captains’ petition on change.org won’t be enough to get MPs to work.

WrittenBy:Jagdeep S. Chhokar
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India and India Inc have come a long way since 1944-45 when eight leading lights of Indian industry (J R D Tata, G D Birla, Ardeshir Dalal, Shri Ram, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, A D Shorff, Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas and John Mathai) wrote and issued “A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India” that came to be called The Bombay Plan.

The Bombay Plan was issued when independence from the British rule was on the horizon and it was essentially a set of proposals from the industry for how the economy should be managed and developed after independence.

In 2015, Indian industry, now known as India Inc (represented by the Confederation of Indian Industry, CII) puts out a “petition” on change.org, an international website that calls itself “The world’s platform for change”. The petition is written in the form of a “letter” to Members of Parliament and political parties. The petition is titled “Parliament to function – urge all political parties to have a collaborative and consultative process in the Parliament”.

Though at the time of writing this piece, the petition had been signed by 51,383 persons and counting, what is of great significance is that the first three signatories are the President, President Designate, and the Director General of CII. Of course, the next 33 names read like a who’s who of Indian business and industry.

As petitions go, this is a short one, only 299 words in four paragraphs, three of which are rather short. The first two short ones, extoll the virtues of Parliament and point out the dangers of extreme political partisanship. The third paragraph that seems to be the essence of the petition, stresses the importance of passing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill. The last paragraph states, “We, therefore, urge all political parties to have a collaborative and consultative process in the Parliament and allow the Parliament to function, to debate and legislate.”

The exhortation by the corporate world to “all political parties” is commendable but do political parties not know this already? It would be naïve for India Inc, or for that matter anyone else, to even imagine that our political parties are not aware of the need, actually indispensability, of negotiation, consultation and collaboration. And we know that India Inc is not naïve.

Where India Inc seems to have a blind spot, and for a long time now, is not being able to or not wanting to look at the forest while counting the trees. To be specific, it seems to think getting the GST Bill passed is the objective. Yes, it certainly is the objective, for now, but there will be some other objective after some time. By dealing with one issue at a time through exhorting the political class to behave constructively, it is not solving the real problem.

The real problem India Inc has — and the country as a whole has it — is that while each political party behaves rationally in its own, individual and partisan interest, the political establishment as a whole, or all the political parties put together, do not behave in a non-partisan way or in the national interest. Each political party is a tree and the nation is the forest.

Disruptions in Parliament happen because political parties do not really feel accountable to the people. All Members of Parliament, though formally elected, owe allegiance to their party leadership who actually gave them “tickets” to contest elections. Since the internal functioning of none of the political parties is actually democratic, the leadership of all parties does not even worry much about its own members. Their main focus is to retain their own positions of power within the party set-up.

Thus, political parties do not feel accountable to anyone except themselves. Their smugness arises from the feeling of invulnerability for five years after each election, and knowing that their competitors after five years will be the same, at least in general terms. All political parties come together instinctively whenever they sense a danger to their collective well-being, such as attempts to get them under the Right to Information Act. These are the only times when they work together seamlessly.

The situation is actually alarming. While the India Inc petition may say “Democracy is a great Indian asset” and that “Parliament is held in great esteem by the people”, a report released as recently as August 6, 2015, by the Centre of the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) titled Democracy in India: A citizens’ perspective reports a three per cent decline in the number of people who support democracy. Also, the satisfaction with democracy decreased by nine per cent from 2005 to 2009. “There has also been a disproportionate rise in the number of respondents who say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy works in the country – from 15 percent in 2005 this number has shot up to 37 percent of respondents.”

Alongside this, the proportion of respondents who “prefer authoritarian rule” has almost doubled, from six per cent in 2005 to 11 per cent in 2013.

It is in this environment that India Inc has to introspect: whether it is going to be satisfied with getting specific legislations such as the GST Bill passed or would it like to work for, or at least support, the creation of a more stable, predictable, mature, balanced and transparent polity. To use a cliché, would it like to get fish to eat or learn how to fish?

The latter will not happen by exhortations to “all political parties” to be “collaborative and consultative” in Parliament and to “debate and legislate”. It will happen when political parties are made demonstrably and verifiably democratic in their functioning. This requires legislation that political parties will not pass if left to themselves. India Inc will need to work in a “collaborative and consultative” way with other segments of society to get political parties to do that. It is only then that “real” democracy will become “a great Indian asset”.

Is India Inc up to the task? Time will tell.


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