THE BLOG

Why India Cannot Be Run as a Corporation

Indian media's search for a new knight in shining armor has found a recruit in Rahul Gandhi. The fourth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is the latest toast of the town in New Delhi. The credit for the Congress Party's modest, but impressive performance in the Hindi-speaking heartland of the country is accruing to him. This is the region where earlier the Congress Party's presence had reached non-existent proportions.

Naturally, the media's focus is now on the personal team he leads -- his own private 'think tank.' And the number of young people with MBAs in that team -- all from American universities -- is causing speculation that the country would soon be in the thrall of these managers, who would get a chance to run it.

A vastly urban middle class might not be too opposed to the concept of the country being run along the lines of a large corporation. Especially since their popular consciousness is suffused with the belief that the private sector is infinitely more efficiently managed than the public sector. It remains to be seen how much the collapse of the Fannie Mays, Freddie Macs, Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros has dented this core belief on which modern capitalism rests.

Indian politico-economic elite has experimented earlier with these notions. Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul's father, was the first who brought the whiff of corporate culture into politics in the 1980s when he had joined as his mother's -- Indira Gandhi, India's third prime minister -- understudy. But the whopping Parliamentary majority of three-fourths of the total seats that Rajiv Gandhi won after his mother's assassination was whittled down to less than a third over a mere five year term in office.

The next big corporate icon who was hailed as the 'chief executive officer' of a state of India, Andhra Pradesh, was a politician called Chandrababu Naidu. The World Bank found great virtues in his modernizing impulse in a state like AP, whose capital city, Hyderabad, he made the 'Cyberabad' of India. He too earned the ire of the voters in a short time to the extent that he is still in the political wilderness, losing the five-yearly state election, for the second time in a row this month.

In retrospect thus, it can be said that running a country as a large corporation is fraught with dangers. The point is to understand why. Nations by their very nature are heterogeneous. Even the most homogeneous nations like China -- with a 90 per cent Hun racial stock; with one dominant language, Mandarin; and ruled by a single party -- have a heterogeneity of public views that can accommodate more than 250 news publications.

En route to Chongqing in Central China, a fellow traveler on a boat over the Yangtze River had explained that any Chinese can shout at a street corner 'Hu Jintao is a bastard' and go scot free, provided the person does not attract a following. Jack Welch would not be able to handle that level of heterogeneity. If an employee of the GE were to do the same as a Chinese peasant, he would soon be stamped out at as 'militant trade unionist.' Commercial enterprises by their terms of reference, look for homogeneity.

They look for homogeneity, within and without. Within, enterprise talks of propagating a corporate culture that creates certain predictability. Without, they seek a consumer group that has similar spending behavior and same likes and dislikes. It helps the production lines to plan in advance.

But a country like India that thrives on its diversity does not take to homogenizing, unitarist messages easily. The sad plight of the religious rightist BJP is a case in point.

Second, India's levels of inequality militate against a corporate agenda that says 'one size fits all.' Also, the increasingly federated political power in democratic India works against one single corporate entity laying down the line for the entire country. The disparate voices that constitute the vast mosaic of Indian polity provide necessary dynamism to a situation that can often seem impossible to an outsider.

Finally, though politics is an art of the possible, the discourse is dependent on the idiom. The ruling idiom of Indian politics is economic growth, abolition of poverty, and supplanting scarcity with plenty. A corporation, on the other hand, cannot function in an atmosphere of deficiency. Its value chain demands that there are plentiful resources for it to function efficiently.

Plus, the non-representational nature of corporate leadership finds itself at sea when powerful fringe movements threaten to dominate mainstream thought. Twenty percent of India's territory is under the control of the Maoists, who have the dispossessed tribals as their loyal followers. A violent solution to the problem could cut both ways. Not only would it take away India's sheen as a global brand for pluralism, it could also sow the seeds of a future conflict that would be even less amenable to the state capacities of India.

The other solution dwells on addressing the root causes of the problem in terms of empowerment and resource transfer. This resolution of the problem would come in the longer term. Till then India has to stay solvent. Rahul Gandhi would have to go beyond the prepared text and delve into it as a politician with a mass following would do.