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Influencing India: Experts who wield enormous influence in their fields

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Wielding power is relatively easy, particularly when you get it through birth or through elections, but influence is something altogether different — it can sometimes flow from power but it can just as easily be divorced from it. In the new year, we give you a list of those who wield enormous influence in their fields, from high finance to schemes to help the poor, from shaping to creating political leaders. Some in the list have been born to it, but in an era when business barons are routinely ousted by market forces, their remaining in this list is testimony to a greater power than just birth. And to their longevity.

There is no firm way to describe the Establishment in any society. In Britain, where the notion probably originated, the Establishment is seen as a shadowy world peopled by those with long-term power and inherited privilege: the landed aristocracy, Eton/Harrow products and Oxbridge graduates who get easy access to the best careers, members of the gentlemen’s clubs, senior members of the civil service and the military, leading figures in the City (or financial world), senior Palace aides, church dignitaries and such. Some would also include media personages—The Times, after all, used to be known as the paper of the Establishment. It is in a phrase the ruling elite, which from within its ranks provides most of the leaders and those who hold important offices.

The idea has been transported to the United States, where for decades references have been made to an ‘East Coast Establishment’. But the term is not synonymous with Power—you can have power without being a member of the Establishment (as Richard Nixon would have been happy to testify). The more operative word would be Influence.

The term has its negative connotations too—of people who are against change, who encourage group-think and conformity, and who work outside the formal institutional structures of power and decision-making. Hence the talk even of an Establishment in the art world, for instance.

In its better sense, though, the Establishment has been thought of as a stable, public-minded elite that looks to the long-term interests of the system, and which therefore seeks to protect it from wayward people who might wield power for the moment, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of electoral politics.

In India, Manmohan Singh has said more than once that the country would benefit from having such an Establishment. The question is, does it? By definition, the Establishment is a group of people with privilege, not necessarily people who would shine in a meritocracy. In important ways, India has got rid of or marginalised this set—the maharajahs and zamindars, for instance. The Indian Establishment would therefore have more of the characteristics of a meritocracy, though not unmixed with privilege.

So the question was intriguing enough, and Business Standard decided to compile a list, not of the richest (who figure in our annual compilation of the Billionaire Club) or of the most powerful (which would be a predictable and therefore tedious list comprising the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi, the Chief Justice, the army chief and so on down the line of all those who hold high office and/or lead political parties). Listing Establishment figures would be a more complex task—and hence, by definition, one that can be challenged on the basis of subjectivity and bias, if not outright ignorance.

India does not have easy points of reference for compiling a list, like a domestic Eton and Oxbridge (though Doon/Mayo and St Stephen’s might like to think otherwise), gentleman’s clubs (India International Centre may be a surrogate, but you cannot inherit membership there), and landed gentry (the only maharajahs who count are those in politics). And we used some key tests to whittle down from a long initial list, excluding those in high office today because that would be stating the obvious.

Qualification then depended on answers to questions like: How long has s/he been a member of an “in” set in India’s two power centres (Delhi and Mumbai), people who would head an invitation list of the most desirable guests? Irrespective of party leanings, do they get consulted by the Prime Minister on national security issues? And so it is that Brajesh Mishra was the national security adviser in the Vajpayee government, but is sought out by Manmohan Singh too. K Shankar Bajpai has had ready access to both prime ministers, in part because he can reach deep into the US foreign policy establishment (and hosts them at his excellent table when they visit Delhi). K Subrahmanyam has been the doyen of the security community for as long as anyone can remember, someone sought out routinely by foreign ambassadors and by many in the government, while C Raja Mohan (now a researcher based in Singapore) ranks among the more influential people on the Track II circuit, because of his creative formulations.

Similarly, if the finance minister were to want to improve his understanding of the financial crisis and its implications for India, who would he call? Perhaps Deepak Parekh of HDFC and KV Kamath of ICICI, or Uday Kotak of the bank to which he has given his name. Bimal Jalan and Shankar Acharya are other sane voices that get heard in the Reserve Bank when it comes to crisis management and monetary responses, while the most influential investment banker in the country, with surprisingly equal acceptability in the offices of the A list of the business establishment (Ratan Tata, Kumar Birla and the Ambanis) would be Nimesh Kampani. In the world of Indian finance, it is hard to think of anyone else who would match these people in access and influence, though whoever happens to be chairman of the State Bank of India would always qualify ex officio, as it were.

And whom would Sonia Gandhi consult, say on inclusiveness questions? Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, perhaps—people who have positioned themselves as conscious outsiders. Roy left the Indian Administrative Service many years ago to work with an NGO, and Dreze has chosen to go and live in an urban slum. But the fact is that they define the debate on key political initiatives like the Right to Information law and the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme. An article by either in any newspaper would immediately be read, and their views noted; and anyone in a relevant office would meet and listen to them carefully. You could exclude them (as many would in the case of Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment) by arguing that their belonging to an NGO automatically means that they cannot be a part of the Establishment.

Sometimes, people choose not to use the influence that they have. So one question is whether a person is actively engaged with public issues and seeks to influence them (Samir Jain of the Times of India does not, Shobhana Bhartia of Hindustan Times does—for instance). Such instances, however, are rare—although you could argue that people like Sai Baba and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also have enormous influence over the rich and powerful but choose not to use it. KS Sudarshan of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh would also be a figure of the Establishment in a quite different way, because the Sangh Parivar influences so much of social debate and political trends.

Jain would qualify because his influence is not personal, it is institutional—the trends that he has set in the Indian newspaper world have influenced the media and indeed society far more than non-establishment people would recognise. Other media personages like Kalanidhi Maran of Sun TV and Dinakaran and Ramoji Rao of Eenadu and ETV have often seemed like king-makers in their states, while N Ram of the Hindu has focused on trying to shape the national discourse.

Sometimes, people have been at the top of their field for so long that they automatically become the voice of the Establishment in their area of human endeavour. When such people speak, they are heard and, even more important, their views heeded (like M S Swaminathan on food policy, and CNR Rao of the Indian Institute of Science, who has been a scientific adviser to prime ministers all the way from Rajiv Gandhi to Manmohan Singh). In a different way but for the same reason, David Davidar includes himself because, as head of Penguin India for a quarter century, he could make the claim that he has published every Indian author worth publishing. No one else has had a greater influence on India’s books business. There are also economists like Vijay Kelkar and C Rangarajan, who have made seminal contributions to economic policy, and who met the Prime Minister in quiet sessions to discuss dealing with the economic downturn.

Then there are those with genuine international reach, like RK Pachauri on global warming, Tata in the most influential board rooms around the world, and Mukesh Ambani, who is on the governing bodies of the Brookings Institution in Washington and the International Red Cross.

Quite a few potential inclusions were disqualified as being a part of the ‘Page 3 set’, though Malvika Singh of Seminar is a quintessential part of the Delhi establishment, and not just because she knows and brings together everyone who is worth knowing. Some would be excluded because, even if influential and indeed powerful, they are sociologically in the nature of outsiders—like Mayawati, though not perhaps Amar Singh.

As in the case of Malvika Singh, a key question is whether a person’s influence and reach go well beyond any formal position that s/he occupies (as with Tarun Das of CII and Amit Mitra of Ficci). It was Das who reached out years ago to Philip Zelikow, then director of the Aspen Strategy Group in the US, and started an annual dialogue session between the Group and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Zelikow had co-authored a book with Condoleezza Rice, and has been described by the Washington Post as her soul-mate and one-man think tank. Naturally, he played an unheralded role in the US decision to do the nuclear deal with India.

Sometimes, without holding formal office, a member qualifies for inclusion by influencing the debate, as Ajay Shah did on monetary policy, and Surjit Bhalla on the poverty question, among other things. Both have got co-opted on to various committees and commissions that then gave them an even greater say—Shah on financial sector reform, Bhalla on the statistical system. Both are now a part of the economic policy establishment, even though one works in a newspaper and the other runs an investment house.

Others who could qualify are the heads of think-tanks—people like Suman Bery at the National Council for Applied Economic Research and Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research. And moulding himself into a public intellectual is Nandan Nilekani, who has long since gone beyond Infosys, of which he is a co-chair. He is now on the National Knowledge Commission, head of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, and on other public bodies, and has just authored Imagining India, which he hopes will help mould public debate and action.

Then there are the grey eminences who have star power wherever they go, and who can help settle contentious issues (as APJ Abdul Kalam did on the nuclear deal, or Jyoti Basu). And people who wield power behind the scenes, while the Khan trio and sundry actresses traipse across the silver screen—film moghuls like Yash Chopra who would constitute the Establishment of the film world.

This cannot be considered a complete list, but it might help define what the Indian Establishment looks like. Readers who feel provoked by whom we have included and whom excluded, are invited to write in with their suggestions.

First Published: Thu, January 01 2009. 00:00 IST