By Somasekhar Sundaresan

Corporate India has ordinarily never mustered the courage to speak in one voice on any national issue in an institutionalised manner. That they are doing so now with the mess that is Parliament is welcome even if comical.

The Confederation of Indian Industry has launched a petition on change.org, and social media is aflutter. The group has initiated an appeal to political parties to “have a collaborative and consultative process… and allow Parliament to function, to debate and legislate”.
Corporate India is one section of our society that has singularly demonstrated a lack of cohesive national policy focus. Every corporate chief has typically been focussed on the slant that our laws and policy should have to suit his or her own objective without a thought to the wider section of society. Perhaps due to this reality, the appeal has barely managed to refer to the only possible neutral topic: the importance of amending the Constitution to bring in the goods and service tax. It generally speaks of the need to “discuss important issues, like floods, security issues, other economic priorities, etc.”

The appeal does not name the Congress or any other political party. But the Congress and the Left are enraged. Payback time, says the Left – indicating that industry is being loyal to the king. This is proof that the current government is one set up for industrialists, says Sharad Yadav of Janata Dal (United). Comical, says the Congress’ Manish Tiwari, asking where the industrialists were when the BJP wiped out session after session for ten years. “Return on political investment (is) floundering (and) now they want Parliament to bow to their diktats,” he argues, finding fault with the timing of the first ever institutionalised collective appeal from the corporate sector.
Self-censorship is a classic Indian trait. Attacking the timing of any principled campaign is the easiest way to attack the principle underlying the campaign. And no campaign to make an unpopular point popular, or to shake up society from its slumber, can be won without sticking hard to some core principle underlying the campaign. Attack the timing as inappropriate and you can hope to shoot the message along with the messenger.

Examples abound. One may campaign against capital punishment and merciless handling of mercy petitions, but when Yakub Memon is being hanged, one is supposed to keep shut. One may campaign for free speech, but one must not do so when the national debate is over the effect of pornography. One may have sympathy for the plight of Kashmiris but one must not make a mainstream movie on it since Pakistan has made noises at the same time. One may argue that throwing anyone in jail indefinitely without support of a single legislated legal provision is really bad, but doing so when it is Subroto Roy who has been thrown in jail, is not acceptable.

It is indeed true that Corporate India has ordinarily never mustered enough courage to stand together and speak in one voice on any national issue in an institutionalised manner. Little wonder that we have a horrible company law governing corporates. When it really mattered, there was no cogent debate on the core issues that were wrong with the law. Individual industrialists spoke against issues like limits on board tenures for friendly “independent” directors and rotation of auditors, but worse measures still got through, such that in less than two years since the new law the government committee is trying to rewrite it.

Of course corporates have also been effective in collective efforts. Mumbai’s industrialists have effectively stymied the building of a vital flyover at Peddar Road, where many of them live. They came together to support a law that would make acquiring land from farmers even easier – while this is said to be a failure, truth be told, today it is easier to forcibly acquire a farmer’s land as compared to forcibly acquiring a public shareholder’s shares in a listed company.

Yet, when corporate India speaks up on the need for Parliament to function, it is useful. Light from any source is illuminating. The CII campaign has caught the public imagination, thanks to public tolerance of failed Parliamentary sessions wearing out. Just as we finally have a Speaker who knows to throw the rule book at lawmakers, we finally have a generally-disinterested group taking a public stance. The need for any principled stand is always at a time of crisis.

This piece was published in Mumbai Mirror and allied editions on August 14, 2015