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India's business leaders look to assume new roles

India's Business leaders have traditionally stayed away from politics, but this time round, they decided to run for office. But can they make a difference?

Touted as the world's largest democratic exercise, India's month-long general election has come to an end.

Corporates in the South Asian country have traditionally stayed away from active politics, instead using their money and power to finance political outfits and politicians. This year's election, however, marks a shift in attitudes, with some of them - who have seen success in the business world - running for office.

This development has also assumed increased significance, particularly against the backdrop of India's flagging growth rates and a host of other development-related issues.

From the near double-digit growth rates it once boasted, Asia's third-largest economy has slowed down considerably - to less than 5 percent growth in the previous quarter - way below the rate economists view as necessary to generate enough employment opportunities for the millions of young Indians pouring out of colleges and universities every year.

Inflation is a major problem with price rises cutting into households' purchasing power. India's reputation as an investment destination also took a hit after several high profile tax related disputes between the government and multinationals such as Vodafone. In addition, the nation still suffers from infrastructure bottlenecks and rampant corruption, hampering growth prospects.

Indien Wahlen Narendra Modi 30.04.2014 - Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), holds a lotus cut-out after casting his vote at a polling station during the seventh phase of India's general election in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 30, 2014.

Modi has made economic growth and development his main topics

In this context, many former business leaders such as Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the Bangalore-based IT giant Infosys, and Meera Sanyal, former head of Royal Bank of Scotland's Indian operations, have made economic development and growth their main poll plank, highlighting their credentials as successful entrepreneurs and promising to turn around the country's fortunes, if elected.

'Sense of frustration'

"Some of the factors motivating business people to stand for election include a sense of frustration with the lack of economic reform momentum and the poor track record of implementing change by successive Indian governments," says Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia economist of the analytics firm IHS.

They are following the strategy of the opposition's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who has made development a centerpiece of his electoral campaign, marking a change in the world's largest democracy's electoral discourse, in which issues such as caste and religion traditionally played a predominant role.

Experts say the skills business managers acquire by running large organizations are much-needed in India's governance. "Corporate leaders who have a strong track record of delivering results and getting projects implemented may be able to galvanize much greater momentum for efficiency in administration and delivering outcomes," Biswas told DW.

They are also likely to be more effective in pushing much-needed infrastructure development projects as well as in persuading foreign companies to invest in the country by creating a better business climate, he added.


However, there are also those who are cautious about this development. According to India-based political analyst Sameer Jaffri, in the past, corporates used to finance politicians and political outfits in order to gain influence over government decisions.

But with financial clout playing a much larger role in the elections, business leaders themselves are attempting to enter parliament, which will "enable them to have a direct say in the country's policy making," explains Jaffri, adding that 16 percent of candidates contesting this time are people from the business community.

Observers are also skeptical about their ability to bring about change. Analyst Biswas believes, it will be difficult for individual corporate leaders who win parliamentary seats to have a substantial impact in speeding up economic reforms, if the next government is another fragmented coalition.

Jagdish Bhagwati, Economics and Law professor at Columbia University, is of the view that change will come to the country's corrupt politics from clean leaders and not from "businessmen who are often into influence-peddling."

Many opposed investment and trade liberalization because "they preferred to get favors rather than compete," Bhagwati told DW.

The real issue

Political parties also seem to be more open to giving "outsiders" the chance to contest the vote, as traditionally the nation's political landscape has been dominated by family dynasties, although many analysts believe it's mainly due to business people's wealth that political parties have been willing to accommodate them.

There is also criticism that these new entrants mainly spring up from the country's urbanized elite and lack awareness and understanding of the issues faced by India's predominantly rural population, which is crucial to victory at the ballot box.

In rural areas, caste and identity politics still trump issues such as development and growth.

Wahlen Indien 2014 - Women in Rajasthan in a que to vote in Indian Parliamentary Elections 2014.
Copyright: DW/J. Sehgal
via Mahesh Jha, DW

Rural voters decide the outcome of the Indian elections

"Because of their background, most of them are contesting from highly urbanized parliamentary constituencies where voters know them and can relate to them," said Jaffri.

But Bhagwati says the real issue is not whether the candidates are business people or traditional politicians, or if they are from urban areas or rural regions. "It is whether they are smart enough to know what to do about poverty and corruption, matters that require the ability to come up with the right policy prescriptions."