Without quite intending it, Gujarat is helping India rediscover Gandhigiri. In the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit earlier this month, Ratan Tata applauded Narendra Modi’s “pragmatism, charisma and capability”, while Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal enthusiastically proposed that he be made the chief executive of India. Moditva was surpassed by Khushamoditva.
In response, those who haven’t forgotten Modi’s questionable capabilities exhibited during the 2002 riots, have taken up Gandhian weapons, wielding purchasing power to make a political point. They remind one of the burning of Lancashire mill cloth during the swadeshi movement. They have begun small, but they set a precedent for public assertion that the business and the political class would be stupid to ignore. This week, the Markazi Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind has proposed a call to boycott Reliance and Airtel products. The Coordination Committee of Indian Muslims may follow suit. Unlike other Muslim initiatives, this boycott reaches out to everyone, in the name of the Mahatma. However out of the ordinary, these are institutional responses anchored by community leaders. The show-stealer is a one-man act launched on the internet by Ranjan Kamath who is asking us to switch off our Airtel, Reliance and Tata mobiles on January 30, the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination.
“The brands that make India rich… languish in ethical poverty,” his petition reads. Cellular Silence Day hopes to enforce ethics with an attack on corporate revenues that the Mahatma himself may have applauded. This is electronic Gandhigiri. Gandhigiri over GPRS, at the cutting EDGE. It’s already got a rise out of the Tatas, who have apparently slapped Kamath with a legal notice threatening a defamation suit.
Like the post-26/11 campaigns in Mumbai, this initiative uses new technology to involve apolitical demographic groups — the youth and the middle class, potential sources of energy in national life. During the recent fuel price hikes, another guerrilla campaign had urged car-owners not to top up their tanks — a sudden drop in demand would back up the oil companies’ supply chain like a blocked toilet. These campaigns signal a new trend of decentralised public action against companies. The Satyam scam, for instance, was exposed by ordinary shareholders, not the agencies which police companies and markets. But is it legitimate for us to mix business with politics? Yes, because the corporate sector does it all the time. We elect our representatives, but their policies are strongly influenced by corporates. In the case of Gujarat, as Tata said in his endorsement, “you’re stupid if you’re not here” — but only if you’re a business investor. If you’re from a minority community or merely different in some way, you could regard a CEO’s opinion as foolishness. Modi provides good governance for business, not the common man. The activism we’re seeing now addresses precisely this conflict of interest.
I have no idea who Kamath is but I like the style of his email appeal, a small request from an ordinary individual. No fancy designation, no organisational backing, no grandiose claims of representing a community and refreshingly different from politics. I don’t know about you, but on January 30, my mobile will be off the air.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine