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The medium & the message

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Has media reaction to the Prime Minister's speech last week, at the annual meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry, been excessive? Certainly, some of the commentary in the Press has been unusually sharp, and on TV the focus of attention has been on the high-TAM issues of CEO salaries and conspicuous consumption""so much so that questions have been asked as to whether the government is now going to start controlling private sector salaries. More generally, insofar as the English language newspapers (including this one) are concerned, the response seems to have been almost uniformly double-barreled: there is a point or two to what Manmohan Singh said, but he is picking on industry for problems that are caused by the failures of the government.
That is certainly the crux of the issue, but the time may have come to separate the message from the messenger, because it should be noted that the Prime Minister was reluctant to address the CII forum, and was persuaded to do so only after CII representatives asked him to talk to them on what he saw as the social responsibility of business. He did what he was invited to do; it was not his idea that industry needed a lecture on how it should behave in the larger social and economic environment. If the same speech had been made by, say, a suitable figure of eminence from the world of business (one can think of names like Ratan Tata and NR Narayana Murthy), and not by the Prime Minister, would the reactions have been different? Perhaps yes. The comments on the sharp surge in senior executives' salaries in recent years, the in-your-face display of wealth in what is still largely a poor country, the importance of thrift, the need for business ethics and social responsibility""all of this would perhaps have been treated as well-meaning advice, and there may even have been sympathetic resonance from various quarters.
The fact that the response has been so different merely because the speech was made by the Prime Minister, suggests two things. First, the level of frustration on account of what people see as the Manmohan Singh government's failure to do what seems blindingly obvious in so many areas, is widespread and deeply felt. This after all is Dr Singh's natural constituency, and it perhaps sees him now in the same way that Sachin Tendulkar's disappointed fans view their former idol. That frustration with the government has perhaps prevented people from noticing the careful way in which Dr Singh couched his homilies, almost bending over backwards to not be seen as coming down too hard with what he was saying.
Second, the days when people would accept lectures and sermons from politicians may be over. People in public life are no longer seen as occupying the high moral ground, from which they can give sermons to ordinary folk. Indeed, those in public life are seen as having failed the rest of the system, while businessmen have risen to the challenge of competition presented to them in the age of reform. Besides which, the display of conspicuous consumption by parliamentarians (one only has to watch the kind of vehicles parked outside Parliament House), many of whom have no ostensible source of income to match the cost of those vehicles, not to mention the number of ministers with a criminal history, tells its own story. One thing is for certain: his own parliamentary colleagues are unlikely to invite Dr Singh to give them a talk on how politicians are failing the system.

First Published: Mon, May 28 2007. 00:00 IST