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A rotten joint venture

If the US credit crisis has brought out the rotting innards of the global financial system that’s been built to deceive, maybe its “India impact” can make transparent the putrefying alliances between money and power, writes Gautam Chikermane.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2008 22:55 IST
Gautam Chikermane

The late night air around the three-storeyed Kingfisher Airlines’ Vile Parle office in Mumbai on October 13 was thick with expectation. Reporters stood outside waiting. Five hours later, when the chairmen of Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways emerged, armed with their wide smiles, the “alliance” they announced — which experts termed ‘cartelisation’ — only served to cover their next day’s intent.

Speaking to journalists, who at 10.30 pm were jittery juggling their deadlines, Vijay Mallya and Naresh Goyal, announced cutting expenses through code-sharing, joint fuel management, cross-selling of flight inventories, joint network rationalisation. All these because of the “downturn in the world economy”, rising cost of aviation fuel and “slowdown in economic activity”. Their ‘alliance’ talked about benefiting consumers. (I still don’t understand how.)

But most important, in highly defensive words — “it’s not new”, “has been done across the world”, has the “blessings of” Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, is “in national interest” and so on the announcement waxed eloquent about common ground handling and cross-utilisation of crew. Very impressive smokescreens to couch what you and I and any person with any common sense would define as: “sacking”.

The wake-up call the next day wasn’t just for the 800 Jet Airways employees who had been, rather unceremoniously, handed termination letters and the 1,100 who were to get them shortly. What followed was unexpected, as uniformed air hostesses and stewards screeched and shouted hoarse their frustration to hungry TV channels. And as these young workers from middle India, who attempted to climb their way up the economic ladder by taking a high-priced career risk, suddenly discovered democracy, a new world was born.

For long I have been a votary of stakes-driven democracy. I have argued that there will come a time when India’s 300 million middle class, scattered in its geography, economics and aspirations — far from their dollar-a-day co-citizens and farther still from their eight-digit income fellow countrymen — which has no political constituency to fight its case and often feels like an outsider in a system of privileges and entitlements that plagues the recently fractured Indian polity, will find their political voice through mass prosperity. I have argued that politicians will be forced to serve this EMI, SUV, foreign vacation-chasing citizenry.

Where I have been wrong is in the way this merger of middle India with political India has played out. My thesis was that as these numbers grow (with poorer households joining the middle class), politicians will seek them out, organise them into constituencies, nurse them. The first of such mergers we saw on October 14 is tonally different. It was not Raj Thackeray who sought out the shrill employees; it was employees who went to Thackeray seeking political pressure.

Many of these uniformed employees who took to the streets are the same people who last month were criticising Thackeray for his ‘Maharashtra for Maharashtrians’ stance. Maybe they identify with — and perhaps even joined — the violence that his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) unleashed on 17 railway board examination centres, preventing 6,000 from taking employment exams on October 19 and later when Thackeray was arrested on Tuesday.

Binding this merger is the glue of cold cynical self-interest, not political or economic beliefs. Thackeray gets a now-we’re-ready-to-vote potential constituency on a platter; and the employees use a political wannabe to fulfil their immediate reinstatement needs.

Following violent posturing by Thackeray in Mumbai (and in Kolkata, that centre of indian trade unionism), who threatened to stop all Kingfisher-Jet flights in the two cities, an “emotional” Goyal relented and took the employees back on October 17. Call it the blue collarisation of the rising white collar, it is surprises like these that make India’s democracy so colourful.

While this may appear to be a complex mesh of crossed livewires throwing sparks, to me it’s really an unwinding. For too long businesses have been poisoned by politics and vice versa. Often, both the business class and the political class had become stakeholders in one another’s activities, each feeding the other through contracts and permissions on one side and benami equity stakes (the days of cash bribes are more or less over) on the other.

Moving from Maharashtra to West Bengal, this liaison of business with politics is being questioned, in a different way. In his October 15 “open letter to the citizens of West Bengal”, Ratan Tata posed his first political question, post-Singur: “Would they [the young people of West Bengal] like to see the state consumed by a destructive political environment of confrontation, agitation, violence and lawlessness?” His spokesperson pointed out that politics, social change, business, economics, policymaking are too important to be left to politicians, social activists, business people, economists and policymakers.

Any crisis, like the one the world is facing right now, apart from being managed painlessly also presents an opportunity to reflect on the world’s highly complex and intermeshed political, economic, social, cultural systems. If the US credit crisis has brought out the rotting innards of the global financial system that’s been built to deceive, maybe its “India impact” can make transparent the putrefying alliances between money and power. The act of opening and accepting it would be medicinal. This can be followed by legal surgery.

So do we really want to hand conjugal rights to them? Are we seeking political interference in entrepreneurship? Or wanting policymaking outsourced to cartels? These cosy relationships seem comforting in the short run, for short-term gains, like tomorrow’s job or the next election. In the long run, this unholy marriage of politics and business will take us back to where we started out. And we will — all of us — lose the one precious enabler of development we snatched for ourselves in 1991: economic freedom. Choose.