TCS Daily

India's Political-Business Nexus

By Arjun Swarup - October 13, 2008 12:00 AM

The decade and a half following India's economic reforms of 1990-91 has been an exciting and transformational one for India and its people, and has also had a significant impact on the entire world. Much good has happened, with increasing growth and prosperity benefiting millions. The world has observed the rise of a large and vibrant middle-class, an aggressive and innovative private sector, and the growth of a soft culture. It is true that severe challenges still remain, caused mainly by massive disparities in income and access to resources, which mean that over 300 million people remain desperately poor, and large parts of the country not benefiting from growth.

A lot of India's growth and stability today has been credited to its overall political structure and institutions. This is what has kept the nation united through the numerous challenges it has faced, and continues to face. The federal nature of the government, coupled with the presence of an independent judiciary and a powerful media have all combined to create the unique phenomenon that is Indian democracy. There are notable flaws, such as weak law enforcement, and an excessive bureaucracy, but, for better or for worse, Indian democracy has worked.

However, over the past few years, a major development has occurred in India, almost silently, which illustrates the uglier side of this system. While the growth rates clocked by the economy over the years have been impressive, most of the major policy changes benefited big established business houses. This has resulted in the India of today being a highly oligarchic economy, with a relatively small population enjoying disproportionate power, wealth and influence (four of the world's ten wealthiest individuals are from India). Actual market friendly policies, which would help the middle-class and poor by boosting entrepreneurship would often be to the detriment of this group, and are often inhibited. In the 1950's, Eisenhower warned the Americans of a "military-industrial" complex which could skew American priorities. His fears might have been unfounded, or at the very least, quite exaggerated. However, India today does the face the danger of a political ? big business complex distorting its priorities.

This phenomenon was partly displayed during the debate over the Indo-US nuclear deal. A seemingly innocuous bilateral treaty, it created frenzied debate, polarized the polity and the nation, and forced the government through a no-confidence motion. To a complete outsider, it all seemed a lot of action for something which appeared quite routine. To Indians though, it all seemed wearingly familiar.

The nuclear deal holds many ramifications for India, and the general consensus amongst the scientific, business and intellectual community is that it would be beneficial, if negotiated properly. Power generation is one area where the deal is said to have probable benefits. India remains critically deficient in power generation, with large parts of the country, including metros, suffering from severe power shortages. This has had a major impact on the growth of small business units, especially in manufacturing.

Since nuclear energy can be used to generate power, it appears that the deal could help meet the shortage, and thus, presents a huge opportunity for big business houses. Each major political alliance in India has its support base comprised of various business houses, and each alliance feels the pressure to make sure the deal goes through when it is in power, to ensure the maximum benefit for its support base. Simultaneously, policy changes such as decentralizing power production, removing subsidies or limiting power theft are often prevented, as those would enable the entry of other players into the sectors. It is like a double whammy effect.

Two other areas where the impact of the political-business nexus can be seen are agriculture and retail. Organized retail presents a massive opportunity for India to broad base its growth, and help kick start the agriculture sector, with estimates ranging from $ 500 billion to over $ 1 trillion. A large amount of agricultural produce in India is wasted each year due to the lack of cold storage, to the tune of $ 7 billion. Investments, both foreign and domestic, should be welcomed in this sector, as well as initiatives to promote local small businesses. Yet, the whole sector has been dominated by big players, who would rather establish consolidated supply chain which would squeeze prices all along the retail chain.

On a broader governance level, the negative impact of the political business nexus can be observed. Running for public office in India is an incredibly expensive proposition and campaign financing remains murky, with virtually no accountability. This works perfectly to the advantage of the business lobbies, in exercising control over political parties. The labor market also remains highly informal and unorganized, as this keeps labor prices cheap. Another good example is the real estate sector, where acquisition of land for commercial or private purposes remains incredibly difficult, for businesses which want to establish themselves. It needs to be pointed out that these phenomena were not the creation of the big players today, but it works to their benefit today to ensure that the status quo remains.

It is entirely likely that the influence of this group would diminish with the passage of time, and that fears about it would prove unfounded (as some of Eisenhower's were, in the case of the US). Yet, in the Indian context, there needs to be a greater awareness of the dangers posed by such developments, and how they could impact the overall growth story.


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