Ratan Tata is, without doubt, one of the most respected business leaders in India. When he says that he was advised to bribe a minister of the Union government a sum of Rs 15 crore to get governmental approval to start a private airline company, everyone concerned must sit up and take note. This is no casual remark. However, and very regretfully, this is no example of “whistle-blowing” either, as some in the media seem to think. It would have been if Mr Tata had named the minister and made public his demands at that time. Even now, Mr Tata is blowing no whistle, he is merely whining and seeking to occupy high moral ground. It would do him enormous credit, and boost the morale of smaller businessmen and ordinary citizens who face similar situations all the time, if he were to name and shame the minister concerned. Mr Tata also had a different kind of brush with a minister of the present government and on that occasion too, he chose not to go public with his complaint. If business leaders of the stature of Mr Tata are willing to strike but afraid to wound, what can one expect of lesser mortals? Far too many businessmen complain these days in private about corruption in public life, but shy away from naming and shaming. The same organisations that complain privately about rent-seeking by individual ministers seem quite happy to honour them in public in one way or another.
For every bribe taker, there is a bribe giver. The one who gives is also guilty of wrongdoing, though in the case of ordinary citizens facing people in power, one can understand their fear of authority. But an influential and powerful business leader can afford to speak up and speak out, and blow the whistle without fear or favour. If business leaders collectively take a decision that they will not offer bribes and that they will name and shame those who demand, this could have the effect of restraining both bribe takers and givers. Consider the example of private airlines brought up by Mr Tata. Naming and shaming at the right time may have helped prevent wrongdoing by a minister who may well have got away with benefiting some other business person at the expense of the exchequer. By remaining silent, Mr Tata has neither been brave nor has he served the cause of good governance. His tangential remarks this week, followed by clarifications, make him look smaller.
Recent revelations of corruption, followed by some decisive action by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has whet the nation’s appetite for greater transparency in government. A wave of middle-class anger is sweeping through the country. More heads may role as other instances of corruption in public life and in high places are exposed. The time has come for leaders of Indian business who believe in good governance to speak up and strengthen the hands of those in government who wish to take action but are unable to do so for want of information. The time for some genuine whistle-blowing is now and business leaders like Mr Tata must stand up and be counted.