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Modi in Jio ad revives the debate of private profit versus public propriety

There is one respect in which Narendra Modi is akin to Manmohan Singh; his reputation for personal honesty

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:32 IST
Nehru shunned businessmen. His distrust was not shared by other nationalists such as Vallabhbhai Patel
Nehru shunned businessmen. His distrust was not shared by other nationalists such as Vallabhbhai Patel(HT)

In his superb short book on Jawaharlal Nehru, Walter Crocker writes of our first prime minister’s first visit to the United States, in 1949. There was a great reception thrown for the visitor in America’s greatest city, where a famous banker began his welcome speech by saying: ‘Mr. Neroo, there are fifty billion dollars sitting around this table…’

These words were meant to impress the Indian prime minister, but they didn’t. For Nehru had an aversion to business and businessmen. His disdain for commerce was a combination of his Brahminical background and his British education (first at the hands of British aristocrats, then at the hands of British socialists, both groups who disliked and distrusted businessmen in general and American businessmen in particular).

In his 17 years as Prime Minister, Nehru shunned businessmen. None of his close friends were entrepreneurs. That was a matter of personal choice, which one can understand. What was more damaging was how, as prime minister, Nehru consistently underappreciated the contribution, actual and potential, of business and businessmen to economic growth and the creation of jobs. While as a vulnerable, newly independent country, India could not have adopted a fully laissez-faire economic policy at Independence, by the late 1950s, when the country’s unity was secure and an industrial base was built, Nehru could (and perhaps should) have liberalised the economy, given freer play to market forces, and encouraged entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

Nehru’s aversion to businessmen was unwarranted and perhaps unproductive. But have Indian politicians, and even prime ministers, now gone to the other extreme in their too eager embrace of business and businessmen? I ask this question in the context of the recent Reliance Jio advertisement featuring a large photograph of Narendra Modi (this paper also carried that advertisement).

Read: Modi in Reliance Jio ad ‘legal’, but Twitter can’t stop talking about it

The placement of the photo (dominating the full page ad) made it seem as if the prime minister was endorsing this new commercial scheme/product, as its brand ambassador. The text accompanying the photo tended to reinforce this impression. It read: “In the journey of time, there come a few life changing moments. Our honourable Prime Minister’s inspiring vision of a Digital India is one such movement. Jio is dedicated to realising our Prime Minister’s Digital India vision for 1.2 billion Indians. Jio Digital Life will give the power of data to each Indian, to fulfill every dream and collectively take India to the global digital leadership…”

When I first saw this advertisement, the morning it appeared, I thought — surely the prime minister does not know of this. The ad seemed an attempt to misuse the prime minister’s name and image in pursuit of a private company’s profit-oriented agenda. Hours passed, and there was no disavowal from the Prime Minister’s Office. Then I phoned a journalist friend in Delhi, who checked with the PMO, who said that the consent for using the prime minister’s photo in a commercial advertisement had been asked for, and granted, beforehand.

Read: 13 years later, Reliance set to ‘disrupt’ India’s telecom market again

I spoke earlier of Nehru’s distrust of entrepreneurs. Notably, this distrust was not shared by other nationalists of the time. Vallabhbhai Patel, C Rajagopalachari and Mohandas Gandhi all believed that some businessmen were true patriots, whose industry and enterprise could be harnessed for the welfare of the nation. These leaders also befriended individual businessmen. Patel was close to GD Birla, Rajagopalachari was close to JRD Tata. Gandhi was close to GD Birla, closer to Ambalal Sarabhai, and closest of all to Jamnalal Bajaj, whom he regarded as a fifth son. But none of these leaders (all of whom Modi has praised at one time or another) would ever have allowed themselves to be seen indirectly or directly endorsing a commercial product, even if this be made and sold by a company owned by a close friend.

Successive prime ministers’ images, however, have featured in public sector companies’ advertising.

In terms of personality and political style, Modi differs radically from his predecessor as prime minister. Yet there is one respect in which he is indeed akin to Dr Manmohan Singh; his reputation for personal honesty. Dr Singh’s professional credibility suffered enormously because of the corruption of the second UPA regime, for which, as prime minister, he was rightly held responsible. But no one believed that he or his family profited from the underhand dealings of his government. Likewise, despite Modi’s perceived closeness to a few individual businessmen, not even his most bitter critics think that he is personally on the take.

Read: Kapil Sharma tweets bribery complaint to Modi, Fadnavis promises action

Which is what makes the prime minister’s endorsement of Reliance Jio so unfortunate. For the message it shall send to less scrupulous politicians is that they can make themselves even more amenable to commercial interests and pressures. The interpenetration of business and politics has already gone far enough in India. Both regional and national parties have allowed businessmen to buy seats and even ministerships. It is known that some MPs are paid to ask questions on behalf of business interests in Parliament, and that other MPs often accept hospitality for themselves and their families from corporate houses.

The Reliance Jio advertisement may have been illegal, violating the Emblems and Names Act. It was certainly improper. Back in January 2015, the prime minister courted some controversy for wearing a suit bearing his name. But that was merely an act of individual vanity. The lending of his name and photo to this Reliance ad is a breach of public propriety.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India

Twitter: @Ram_Guha

The views expressed are personal