Not surprisingly, an event of landmark significance in Indian politics has escaped adequate interpretation by academics and media pundits. On April 18, Mukesh Ambani, chairman and CEO of Reliance Industries Ltd, India’s largest private company (revenue: Rs.6.23 lakh crore in 2018-19; payroll: 255,000) publicly endorsed Milind Deora, Congress party candidate from the prestigious Bombay South constituency as best qualified to represent its residents in the Lok Sabha, Delhi. “Having represented South Bombay for ten years, I believe that Milind has in-depth knowledge of the social, economic and cultural ecosystem of the South Bombay constituency,” said Ambani in a social media broadcast.
Although ex facie this seems an innocuous statement of support, it is of great significance in the context of the business-politics equation. In post-independence India, particularly after the unfortunate demise in the 1960s of the Swatantra Party which unapologetically advocated the revival of ancient India’s private enterprise and free markets ideology and traditions, business tycoons have steered clear of publicly taking sides in elections. Openly backing opposition parties could make life impossible for businessmen given the numerous discretionary industry regulatory powers retained by the Central and state governments, even after liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991. And given the poor law and order maintenance record of all governments of soft state India, it’s been easy for opposition parties such as the Shiv Sena to vandalise the factories and properties of inconvenient businessmen.
At a deeper level, the public endorsement of Deora, who is running against incumbent Arvind Sawant, official candidate of the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena coalition, by Ambani (who resides in the South Bombay constituency) is a signal to political parties that India Inc has evolved into a strong and confident force within the establishment, and is no longer afraid to speak its mind publicly. Even if belated, a positive development.