When the legendary Mark Twain wrote The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today along with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873, there was a certain ambiguity about the ways of the rich and the monied classes in the social hierarchy. But that does not hold true for the moment, what with a bold and nuanced breed of journalist-writers taking on the might of big business in a manner that is breathtakingly novel. The big story about the ‘1 percent’ and rising inequality is getting to be told in an undisguised way across the world, and this country, too, is dissecting aspects of the truth, from gas wars to corporate espionage, in a veritable torrent. While a gamut of writers is moving mountains in unearthing the reality sans the charming ambiguity and enormous layers of what goes into hiding it. The flavour of the day is quite certainly provided by the literature that has mushroomed to detail the working and practices of one of India’s most important business houses, the Reliance group.
Of course, corporate intrigue is a hydra-headed phenomenon that has many manifestations, and what we are witnessing in the media is essentially an attempt to get at the truth or the available avenues to it. As senior journalist and author Alam Srinivas, whose versatile and prehensile mind has dissected truth from a range that includes the cricket czars and the Ambanis, says, “As those who know are often not talking about their versions of the truth, the next best thing is to quote those who claim that they know.” It is indeed a formidable task in India, where crony capitalism holds unchecked sway and its practitioners are almost legion.
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Srinivas sure knows what he is talking about, for he had been earnestly following the story for a number of years before he finally decided to go public with his investigation. What hit the stands a decade ago was titled Ambani vs Ambani: Storms in the Sea Wind, an irreverent look at one of the most controversial and celebrated families in business. The financial details and the irregularities that he was privy to needed to be guarded extremely closely lest the whole thing came out in a form that would have embarrassed him and others. What’s true of him also holds good for someone such as the seasoned Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who in his ambitious take on the business house has apparently not missed a trick as far as research and providing detail to his tale is concerned. Nifty aphorisms are certainly not what binds the reader to the book, which, according to most contemporary accounts, has taken on leading figures of the political establishment in its sweep and is much the better for that.
Five years ago, Australian writer Hamish McDonald laid bare the dynamics that operate in the House of Ambanis in Ambani and Sons, where he traces the almost inevitable dose of the rags-to-riches syndrome down to the family feud of colossal proportions that had an immense political fallout.
Politicians from virtually all persuasions and public men from all walks of life have been part of this tale, which was almost universally acclaimed as a minor classic before some others in the genre surfaced. That officialdom has been in cahoots with the corporates and often been subjected to arm-twisting when they have resisted is one part of the book that needs to be absorbed by all serious readers.
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In the not-too-well-or-rigorously-documented annals of corporate shenanigans and irregularities of Indian business houses, certain exceptions have been notable for their depth. One such effort that comes to mind is Sudeep Chakravarti’s Clear Hold Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, which is a spirited riposte to the not-so-clever ways in which the corporates virtually steal the rights of hapless victims through subterfuge and damned lies.
As he details the cloyingly smooth and dangerously apathetic tales that are told about big business and its commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Chakravarti rips apart the shibboleth of lies that surrounds the actual reality regarding flashpoints such as Vedanta, Tata Steel, POSCO and Koodankulam, and this surely is highly valuable reportage with strong analytical inputs. The manner in which Kalinganagar and Niyamgiri Hills have become the metaphor of our distressingly myopic times has been effectively brought out in this riveting narrative.
The book unravels how local communities and stakeholders are being taken for a ride in the name of development, which can be illustrated by a tell-tale fact. Almost exactly a year ago, on the same day that the last of 12 villages voted Vedanta out of Niyamgiri for good, the multinational announced a huge csr and pr campaign called ‘Our Girls, Our Pride’. The farcical nature of this sham campaign is there for all to see, in spite of Vedanta roping in filmstar Priyanka Chopra as the brand ambassador of the project, which has NDTV as its partner. The village councils may have had their say, but the truth of the matter is that with the Odisha government displaying what Chakravarti calls a “remorseless strategy to use every aspect of government, from local administration to local police, as an expression of corporate will”, the tribals can do precious little except hope that the too-clever-by-half conglomerate plays it by the rules. But there is little likelihood of that happening, because here as also at the other flashpoints, there is an alarming degree of bonhomie between governments and the corporates.
Chakravarti offers a close critique of how disaffection was inevitable given the consolidation of vested interests thwarting local communities in the name of development. From land acquisition to resettlement and rehabilitation, the project-affected communities have been shortchanged all through, with the result that the prospect of growth has gone for a toss and the cost of business has increased because too many opportunities have been lost and delays and liabilities have mounted. The book details how V Kishore Chandra Deo, the UPA’s “combative and conscience-driven” minister for tribal affairs, was in for a rude shock when all his pleas for following constitutional safeguards for the Scheduled Tribes were ‘forgotten’ in the anxiety to appease the conglomerates.
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In a devastatingly written chapter, which talks of how “a few farmers meet the face of a corporation” in Charkudih, Jharkhand, and how distrust and resentment grew in the region where “the language of land acquisition has spawned a free market vocabulary”, Chakrabarti takes no chances and puts his best foot forward. The reasoning is precise and the arguments have a sharp cutting edge, which make nonsense of the tall claims made by the likes of Adi Godrej. The manner in which the acknowledged captain of industry roots for land acquisition shows how the rights of those who were dispossessed were neatly sidestepped, and all this happened in the name of ensuring livelihood for those ousted!
Not surprisingly, the same shenanigans are being replayed over the previous regime’s land acquisition law and the amendments proposed by NDA-2. Once again, as the farmers protested and critics said it was a sellout to big business, the government put its foot down.
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Yet another theatre of conflict between vested interests, chiefly the State, and determined locals is Kudankulam, where the residents show the author a broken statue of Mary at a local church to symbolically highlight how the Idinthakarai skyline has changed forever. Locals, apart from being shocked in several other fundamental ways, had the added mortification of having their precious idols being desecrated and properties damaged. Neither the state nor the Central government thought it worthwhile to talk to the affected community, which inflamed passions even further. Nameless people of small means suddenly became fugitives from the law as the locals devised ingenuous ways to keep the protests going even after their key leaders were captured.
Accusations of foreign NGOs funding the agitation against the nuclear plant gained currency in a largely uncritical and uncaring media. Amid all this, claims and counterclaims about safety have continued in a manner that is intelligible only to the initiated and the scientists. The affected people have thus been effectively blocked from all ends, and the role of State power comes in for scathing criticism.
In the given genre, the trials and tribulations through which Tamal Bandopadhyay traverses in telling Sahara: The Untold Story is notable for both its content and the sheer labour that has gone through the effort. Even as the author makes it clear at the outset that what follows may not be the true and complete picture of a complicated task, his revelations about the unfathomed downside of a massive organisation are commendable indeed. While corporates have complained of the stranglehold of regulators ad nauseum, they have been ingenuity personified in hoodwinking the rules as they are, and it is a journalist’s basic task to decipher the truth as it is sought to be kept away from the public domain.
A Rs 200 crore defamation suit and legal ways to obstruct the publication of the book give it the feel of a job that was accomplished in far-from-satisfactory tidings, by a man who has specialised in keeping a hawk’s eye on the goings-on in the financial sector. The group’s guardian angel is profiled closely and well, and his well-known association with glamour and film stars, cricketers and politicians form an essential part of the tale. The discerning will do well to keep a volume handy for reference and understanding, for this is a tale that simply needed to be told.
In the context, a truly revelatory tract is PC Parakh’s Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths. It is a knowledgable bureaucrat’s insider account of a prime minister who failed to govern even as he headed the government, and of a bumbling system that was traumatised in the face of a challenge that it created for itself. For months on end, the government of the day hid behind the convenience of an ongoing judicial enquiry to keep the caper in the wraps, but much more than Sanjaya Baru’s take in The Accidental Prime Minister, it is Parakh who comes out as more lucid and forthright in the effort that leaves nothing to the imagination. The feckless spending and the irresponsibility that underwrote the scam have been faithfully recorded, and along with former comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai, it is Parakh who has provided a pithy chargesheet on the upa in its second avatar. In the country’s rather chequered history of books on the ways of the corporate and government sectors, Parakh has indeed carved a niche for himself.
Now we come to an extraordinary tale about the travails of middle-class existence in the new India and how its problems have only mounted in the face of corporate avarice, apparently unchecked in its rise. As a British reviewer writes, Siddhartha Deb’s empathy for his subject can be felt through the range of Fitzgerald moments he undergoes in the course of his narrative in The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India. There is an ironic if not a diabolical twist in the fact that in the face of the contempt case that its central protagonist Arindam Chaudhuri waved, the publishers of the Indian edition reportedly went along with the idea of dropping the chapter specifically written about him. How globalisation has also devastated the lives of the millions is another reflective theme to which the author repeatedly returns while etching out the copy.
Insider tales often have the habit of leaving the readers rather cold because what they promise to reveal is often not there to the desired level of depth and analysis, and from all contemporary accounts, the New York-based writer has done his job meticulously.
In terms of sheer volume at any rate, the hitherto nascent research into the ways of the corporate world is slowly but surely getting fleshed out with many of the writers involved willing to walk the proverbial extra mile to sustain their narratives. It is indeed good news that the shibboleths are being decisively exposed, for that is the way a vibrant democratic ethos needs to work.