(*The writer is an author and corporate advisor. He is a Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. He was a Director of Tata Sons and a Vice Chairman of Hindustan Unilever).
To implement national plans, leaders must activate the machinery of the whole of government, set policies and direct resources. The aggregate machinery of government is failing our citizens.
Recent rhetoric says “less government, more governance” but the unfolding reality does not match up. Indian government, center and states, face a real governance issue. Nyaya and niti are foundational to a thriving civilized society. In this article, I comment in the COVID context.
I express a different view from the commentaries made so far about the stimulus measures. Though the fact was denied, the economic slowdown long preceded Covid, so a stimulus was overdue. There are no perfect measures, so debate about adequacy and efficacy of the measures will continue. However, there is another need: to develop a more nurturing environment and better governance. To draw from an agricultural metaphor, curated lands help even mediocre seeds to deliver superior crop.
The metaphor implies three guiding principles: neeyat, meaning good intent; nyaya, meaning efficient laws and niti, meaning effective conduct.
Business enterprise in India is widely dispersed. There are 63 million enterprises, 12 million registered for GST and only 19,500 companies with capital of Rs 10 crores or more. There are instances of dubious neeyat (intent), though the economy desperately requires good-to-honest entrepreneurs. Bad neeyat must be deplored while honest risk-taking must be encouraged. National chambers of commerce have an important role to play, but for the few larger players. MSME and start-up sector must also play their role. Odd and difficult-to-unravel things are thought to happen, for example, the stories on Ruchi Soya (V Keshavdev & Krishna Gopalan, Outlook Business, 5th June 2020, N.Mahalakshmi, Outlook Business, 8th June 2020). Like Yudhishthira, companies must lead better by demonstrating exemplary conduct, worthy of emulation. Creating a nurturing business atmosphere is everybody’s national duty.
Business atmosphere is greatly influenced by how public leaders, both central and state, think, behave and act. No ecosystem has perfect nyaya and niti, but society should experience progressive improvement. With respect to nyaya, in my last column, I referred to the dilution of the principle of promissory estoppel by a recent Supreme court ruling (BS, 28th May, Union of India vs VVF Company and others).
Nyaya and niti are intertwined. Niti of businesspeople is influenced by the fair, transparent and consistent enforcement of nyaya. Our ease-of-doing-business rankings apart, our laws are full of ambiguities and frequent changes. Proper and righteous conduct by citizens is severely inhibited because greed overpowers goodness. Even though set in a local context, the Shoojit Sircar film, Gulabo Sitabo, exemplifies the influence of nyaya on niti through a twisting story about ownership of a Lucknow haveli.
Public leaders should set an example for citizens. When the framers wrote our Constitution, they consciously chose a federal system of government and they assigned lists of responsibilities of the center, concurrent and state. Central government is charged to nurture harmony among the states, but what the citizen experiences these days is quite the opposite. The center-state system was designed to be an asset, not a liability. In times of crisis, central government’s duty is to lead the public through a process of diagnosis and identifying a shared plan for solving it. To implement the plan, central leaders will need to activate the machinery of the whole of government, set policies and direct resources. But the aggregate machinery of government is failing our citizens.
In his column (BS, 13th June), TN Ninan has pointed out the sloganeering that accosts citizens: 2 P’s for plug and play; 2 C’s for command and control; 3 D’s for democracy, demography and demand; 3 P’s for people, planet and profits; 5 I’s for intent, inclusion, investment, infrastructure and innovation; 5 T’s for talent, tradition, tourism, trade and technology; 5 S’s of foreign policy, samman, samvad, sahyog, shanti, samriddh. There are slogans like Make in India, Vocal for Local and Minimum government, Maximum governance, not to forget hypes like UDAY for electricity and return of black money through demonetization. It is time that verbiage be buried, and instead pragmatic actions that deliver be implemented.
A friend of mine mentioned a four-quadrant leadership grid with niti on the x-axis and nyaya on the y-axis. The two top boxes are occupied: by Maryada Purshottam Sri Rama (high nyaya & high niti) and by Leela Purushottam Sri Krishna (high nyaya & medium niti). The lower two boxes are occupied by Duryodhana (high nyaya & poor niti), and by Ravana (both poor).
Both in business and the public domain, citizens need to operate largely in the Sri Rama and Sri Krishna boxes. Then and only then an ecosystem of trust will grow.