Business, the Fifth Estate, must provide Leadership

February 21, 2016

The last two weeks have been filled with the JNU event and its aftermath. From students to lawyers and judges, lots of opinions have been expressed in the press and social media. In addition, press persons, members of the ‘intelligentsia’ and politicians have of course opined. The uniformed services too have voiced opinions in anguish rarely seen before.

What is missing in all this is the opinion of any business-man or business-association. Neither have the press thought it necessary to seek opinions from business, nor have any business-persons expressed any opinions on their own. While this is not surprising at all, I, for one, find it out of synch with the environment we now live in. Business needs to weigh in and be counted. Silence from business leaders will be counter-productive. Business has long been a silent recipient of all political activity, or interacted with government usually for personal or specific corporate benefit. Even when speaking about legislation, the particulars of individual businesses tend to dominate the voice of the concerned business people. This relegates business-people’s opinions to the background since they are perceived to be narrowly focused solely on their personal or business well-being – to the exclusion of all else.

The press, the ‘Fourth Estate’ – after Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary – has been the searchlight on all activity that keeps us all honest and civilised. Over the last few years, though, the press has chosen to print/broadcast largely content that will maximize consumption, and thereby advertising revenue. Achievements of individuals or organizations, issues that urgently need balanced bi-partisan debate, fine-ness or success in any human endeavour, figure very little in the press. We are largely fed a diet of bad news, because the press believes bad news sells. The press gives us far less about that which ‘should’ concern us, in preference to that which produces better business results. The press has become just another business, to the exclusion of all else – abandoning its role as conscience-keeper of civil society.

Even educational institutions appear to be giving up their role of providing thought leadership. There is a widely prevalent belief in our educational institutions, especially public-funded ones, that they need only be concerned with ‘rights’ – rights of this group or that, rights to this and that. One almost never hears talk of duties. Rights don’t exist in a vacuum. They come together with duties. But our ‘intelligentsia’ does not appear keen to promote this approach of balance, which will ensure a more civilized society.

One of the most gratuitously egregious myths that pervades Indian society today is that we have a right to a number of freebies – free food, free education, free this, free that – with no thought about how they are going to be paid for and who’s responsibility it is to provide them. This is, in essence, an abdication of all balance in thinking.

Business is conducted in this very milieu. Boards of Directors of large corporations are leaders of entities that have succeeded in conducting their activities and achieving their goals in this very environment that is our nation. It may well be said that business has essentially utilized all the goods and the bads of the system, to its advantage. However, it is time for business to stop sitting on the sidelines. As entities that directly or indirectly contribute meaningfully to creating the infrastructure that underpins the entire eco-system, businesses needs to enter the picture. It is time successful business leaders actually started providing leadership beyond their immediate business domains – both through words, and more importantly their deeds.

Some great examples of such behavior are – Infosys, the Tata group, Wipro. There are many more, and there need to be even more – individuals, corporations and business associations. Board governance need not be restricted to ‘CSR’. Boards can do more – in their own self-interest, as well as in the interest of the society they do business in.

Business, the Fifth Estate, must provide leadership to take us out of this needless chaos. Governance is not the responsibility of Government alone.

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3 thoughts on “Business, the Fifth Estate, must provide Leadership

  1. Good point made. A little utopian though given how corporates wok and engage with governments.

    Insular views have always dominated business thinking in the post independence era. In the Pre-independence era it was a means to an end – independence, and thus always had national interest in mind. No such pervading and bonding ideology exists today. To voice their views, industry needs gutsy champions or vocal and revered icons who no longer are in active business. Ratan Tata would be one such.

    While you quote some well known names in CSR, industry bodies have maintained stoic silence and measured indifference (or lip service) to both CSR, social wellbeing. The Fifth Estate, as you call it, should not be represented by individual businesses but the Industry Associations like CII, FICCI, ASOCHAM etc. So long as the industry wants to play kosher with the other estates, it will never voice its opinion. Businesses innately do not own social responsibilities as it is not their core purpose, especially in an age where lean, mean and purposeful organisations are the order of the day. It is for this reason that aggregates and confederations should pitch in. Fear of individual reprisals do not exist if aggregates participate.

    Should industries be concerned? Yes. Maruti for e.g closed its factory in Manesar. Such truant activity needs to feed into strategic thinking for either choice of doing business in those locations or protecting investments in those locations.

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  2. I agree. Business needs to stand up and be counted and not purely out of self-interest (although it could be argued that the well-being of the nation encourages the well-being of business ). But like the previous person who commented, I believe businesses are not sufficiently independent of government to be prepared to take a stand. What if that license isn’t granted? What if my company is harassed for what I have said…fears that people who have a lot to lose do have! But the more who make their voices heard…perhaps collectively if consensus on what to say can be reached… the better. Take today’s example in the UK. The bosses of a number of big companies..we’re talking massive…have publicly stated that they believe leaving the EU would be bad for Britain. It may not be the best example because the subject is not particularly controversial…but it could have been, if the government was prone to labelling people as anti-national for simply stating their views! Would big business have spoken up if that was likely to be the government’s response?

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  3. Business leaders have to go beyond making money, to making the nation. Influencing thought process is very critical. Can a representative forum be formed to guide political process, like the ADR, which has initiated transparency process for all standing for elections.

    How about a process that if parliament fails to pass a bill, no other discussion be allowed till decision and action is taken on that bill.
    Dipanker

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