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The business of politics

The recent allegations against BJP President Nitin Gadkari raise questions about conflict of interest when politicians double up as businessmen. As many as 128 of the 543 members of the 15th Lok Sabha have a background in business. Here are others who straddle the worlds of commerce and public interest. Gaurav Choudhury writes.

india Updated: Mar 01, 2013 11:41 IST
Gaurav Choudhury

Can commerce and unflinching public interest rest well in the same bosom? Some think it can be a carefully managed ropewalk, while critics see significant room for conflict of interest.

Whatever the nuance, the simple fact is that India, since it began growing under an economic reforms programme launched in 1991, has steadily yielded a crop of businessmen doubling as politicians on the side.

The crossover is a double-edged one, because for many of these businessmen, there is a revolving door between the world of their companies and the policies and programmes they nurture as public figures.

The catch: while they get to influence regulations in an economy that still hangs significantly by the apron strings of the government, they also are increasingly under public gaze in a vibrant democracy that is frequently throwing up allegations of crony capitalism.

No party, it seems, is immune to the charms of having moneybags in their ranks.

The last few weeks have seen the glare of public scrutiny on many prominent figures who straddle the world business and public life. There have been a couple of cases involving an alleged nexus between politicians and business persons, raising questions of conflict of interests in influencing policy and administrative decisions suit specific business interests.

"In the recent past there are two distinct trends that have emerged in the Indian political system: The businessman becoming the politician and the bureaucrat becoming a social activist," said Shiv Vishvanathan, eminent social scientist.

According to National Social Watch Coalition (NSWC), a civil society organisation, as many 128 of the 543 members of the 15th Lok Sabha had a business background.

"This means about 25% of the strength of the Lok Sabha, it emerged, belonged to industrialist/trader/businessperson/builder category," NSWC said in a report "Citizens' Report on Governance and Development 2010."

Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Rajya Sabha MP and entrepreneur pointed out it would be incorrect to say all entrepreneurs join politics just to further their business interests.

"In India, what is missing is a strongly defined code of conduct and ethics of politicians. It is imperative to define transparent norms on how the government should deal with private companies," Chandrashekhar said.

While historically leading respected business groups have thrown up public figures who have been actively involved in the independence movement, development issues or charity, critics fear that there is a disturbing trend in recent times has been rather glaring instances where people associated with business groups have influenced policies or decisions.

"It may be true that some businessmen are in politics to further their personal business interests. But that should not be reason enough to bar entrepreneurs from joining mainstream politics," Chandrashekhar said.

It is sometimes argued that this demonstrates the maturity and the adaptability of the Indian democratic system, critics say this also carries the risk of resulting in multiple crony capitalism.

"This is because politics is now increasingly seen as the art of distributing largesse. A politician, who is also a businessman, can shift the onus of his responsibility as it suits him," Vishvanathan, who is a professor at the OP Jindal University, said.