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Business Standard

Kanika Datta: A little restraint

It is hard not to wince when some of India's most prominent businessmen bend over backwards to highlight Mr Modi's virtues

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Industrialists' vocal endorsements of unwittingly suggest a tacit acceptance of the more questionable elements of his regime

The endorsements grow more extravagant each year. In 2009, he was a “lambi race ka ghoda” () and prime ministerial candidate (). This year, he’s a “Lord Among Men”, “King of Kings”, “Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Dhirubhai Ambani” rolled into one (all courtesy Anil Ambani), a worthy competitor to China (“we will soon compare Gujarat to China”: ) and so on. Even the ’s new Chairman weighed in. “In Gujarat, we see a culture of implementation, reflecting the qualities of the chief minister,” he said.

The US, UK and Australia appear to have decided to forgive him past trespasses after a decade and sent delegates to the sixth edition of the . Narendra Modi himself stood up and bowed in gracious acceptance of these accolades.

Okay, we get it. It’s efficiency, and lack of business values above all else and Gujarat is a model state in that sense. If anything, this was underlined after the somewhat zany nature of the recent investment summit under West Bengal Chief Minister . Mr Modi’s slick event management against Ms Banerjee’s version of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party must have strengthened Gujarat’s attractions, but, frankly, there’s no comparison since West Bengal is rapidly becoming a failed state.

So sure, maybe Mr Modi is cashing in on Gujarat’s established reputation and maybe his state is not among India’s fastest-growing and maybe the human development indicators aren’t that great and maybe he’s communal. But, industrialists will have you know, the state’s “CEO” chief minister and his administration undeniably deliver what business wants. This appears to be the unambiguous message to the political class in other states and at the Centre.

There is much for state administrations to learn from Gujarat. Industrialists would not be so eloquent if that were not the case. It is not surprising that Gujarat easily pulls in investments worth billions of dollars (including an extravagant Rs 1 lakh crore commitment from Mukesh Ambani this time) whereas Karnataka managed Rs 1.6 lakh crore and Chhattisgarh Rs 1.24 lakh crore in their investment summits in 2012.

But watching TV footage of the Gujarat jamboree last week it was hard not to wince at the spectacle of some of India’s most prominent businessmen bending over backwards to highlight Mr Modi’s virtues. Do India’s leading industrialists really need to comport themselves in this manner?

Whatever his undeniable strengths, it is hard to erase 2002 from public memory. His refusal to own responsibility for being unable to quell one of modern India’s worst communal riots or even apologise for them remains a disturbing element in his regime. His consistent stance that he’s been cleared by the court reflects a discomfiting amorality in his make-up. Admittedly, his economic agenda has made the state more communally inclusive by default, a point carefully made, but widely misunderstood, by Deoband seminary cleric Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, who retracted it within months. But that’s not quite the same thing as being secular or, at any rate, non-communal and, surely, that should worry industrialists a little.

Granted business is amoral by definition and money is ideology-neutral. But is that a quality Indian businessmen want to highlight in a country as plural and unequal as India? Thermax’s Anu Aga, one of the few leading lights of industry (HDFC’s Deepak Parekh was the other) to roundly criticise Mr Modi for 2002, expressed it well after his third victory in the Assembly elections. “We need development but not at any cost. Development is important but so are a host of other issues. One of the most important things is secularism and we can’t ignore that,” she was quoted as saying.

The reverse can also be true, of course. It makes little sense to discourage industry with maverick behaviour and single out a particular community for pointless pandering in the interests of “secularism”, as Ms Banerjee is doing in West Bengal. But that’s not an extreme anyone advocates (except perhaps Trinamool lackeys). Still, industrialists’ vocal endorsements of Mr Modi unwittingly suggest a tacit acceptance of the more questionable elements of his regime — even if they don’t mean it that way. Mr Modi certainly appears to have interpreted it thus. It proved the basis of his raw triumphalism within the Bharatiya Janata Party well before the electorate returned him for a third chief ministerial term with a slightly smaller majority and surprise loss in areas like Sanand, location of his showcase Nano plant.

Maybe Indian businesses need to be reminded that it is Mr Modi who needs their money and investments to maintain his industry-friendly image, not the other way around and especially not in these liberalised times when they can invest anywhere in the world. So, maybe Ratan Tata can say, with all the authority of his newly minted emeritus status, that those who don’t invest in Gujarat are “stupid”. But does India Inc need to be quite so vocal about doing the “clever” thing?

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