Lead India - A Corporate-Sponsored Circus

February 16, 2008
C R Sridhar

Splashed on the front page of the Times of India (11th Feb 2008) is the photograph of the winner of the Lead India contest R.K. Misra playing a drum and surrounded by his friends, relatives and admirers. Gushed TOI, an English daily, known for its unabashed support for Corporate India ‘Misra emerged winner after overcoming 63 other contestants and 10 gruelling rounds of scrutiny. Besides winning the favour of most voters, he got 6 of 7 jury votes.’ Implicit in the report was the subliminal message that the sternest natural selection was at work in the Lead India Contest weeding out the weak and the inefficient contestants and selecting the brightest and the best as political leaders for India.

The euphoria generated by the glitzy media event attended by corporate honchos, opinion makers and politicians was heady and infectious. It smacked of a closely held private club whose members swore by the ideals of meritocracy and sound governance. Spotted in the distinguished gathering was the CEO of a private bank, which had the dubious distinction of using goons to collect debts. Whether such practices constituted good corporate governance is a matter of opinion argue the corporate class beguiled by the seduction of moral relativism. Recently the Apex court declared such methods as illegal awarding exemplary damages against the bank.

Squeaky-clean leadership

The assumption of Lead India that Corporate India provides examples of squeaky-clean leadership requires a leap of faith and dollops of naivety. And it is not borne out by facts. While it is tempting for the middle class to lament about the bad corrupt politicians and the parasitic government servants who thwart the developmental goals of the nation, such a view is far from truth. For in the equation of corruption lies the role of big business. The nexus of big business with corrupt government officials and politicians offers us a vantage view of the complexity of Indian corruption. Mr. Shanti Bhusan, former law minister, in a foreword to the book Reliance - The Real Natwar written by Arun Agrawal, admirably sums up the position not only with respect to Reliance but the corporate sector as a whole, ‘It is the thesis of Arun Agarwal that all political parties get huge financial help from Reliance which is why they remain silent even at the most egregious violations of law by Reliance.’ Further Mr. Bhusan adds significantly, ‘Bulk of the media too compromises and remains silent.

Other examples such as collapse of banks like Global Trust and the stock market scams by Harshad Mehta involving big private banks explodes the myth that lays the blame entirely on the Government. We must forcibly remind ourselves that the loot of public money is a collaborative effort of Big business and Government. The corporate sector as providing clean no nonsense leaders is mere fantasy as it is a part of the problem and not part of the solution.

The myth of superior governance of the corporate sector is again a self-perpetuating illusion spread by TOI and the financial daily Economic Times. Dinned into our collective consciousness is the mantra of efficiency of the private sector over public sector. The pages of the Economic Times are replete with instances of corporate honchos making rather overblown claims that they offer far superior leadership to the moribund public sector. This received wisdom that is bandied about freely in corporate dominated media deserves scrutiny. ‘One assumption underlying the dogma,’ says T.T. Ram Mohan who teaches at IIM (Ahmedabad) ‘that public sector enterprises are doomed to inefficiency, and that competitive market forces can be relied on to make firms more efficient once they are privatized.’ (Privatization in India - Going Beyond Economic Orthodoxy)

But is this really true?

Combining rigorous data analysis with case studies to provide a balanced evaluation of the process of deregulation and privatization within the overall context of economic reforms, the author demonstrates, remarkably, that, contrary to the prevailing view, private sector firms do not outperform public sector firms across all sectors.

Apples to horses

Moreover, the assertion made in the contest that people who manage their business well can also be good in government service is an extremely shaky proposition. It is like comparing apples to horses. Government service calls for different priorities such as public good while business aims at profits. Public good is often described as an unruly horse, which involves complex decision making for the public servant to satisfy the stakeholders with unequal purchasing power who cannot be turned away on the ground that they cannot pay.

In areas such as Health and Education the infusion of the profit motive can be dangerous as it can drive out vulnerable sections of society from seeking education and health facilities. Do we view patients coming for health care as consumers driving business revenue? Do we cut off travel to the poor on the ground that they cannot pay? These are the challenges confronting the government and the mantra of profit and profitability so enamored by the private sector would lead to profitable enterprises not serving the people at large.

Corporate-friendly leaders

The covert agenda of campaigns like Lead India is to spawn corporate friendly leaders who spread the gospel of neo-liberalism. The so-called free market with the invisible hand of demand and supply guiding the destiny of the nation is a figment of corporate fantasy. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winner for economics, points that for public good to be realized there must be a strong government enforcement of anti-trust and consumer laws to foster competition and protection of consumer interest. Without strict enforcement of the government private sector would run amuck mulcting the people. Adam Smith who is endlessly quoted by the corporate class was not such a great devotee of greed and self interest as made out to be. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he points out virtue and not greed was the most important standard in social life. Adam Smith was quick to point that society should be alive and vigilant to the dangers of ruthless profiteers from holding the society to ransom.

The battle for leadership in India would be fought on the dusty plains of Indian villages. Here majority of the poor Indians live who were betrayed by the state which neglected to deliver them food, shelter and protection from disease. It is this India that would make and break the politicians who failed to deliver them social justice. Here the sound bites of corporate sponsored leaders would have no resonance. The tall claims of the corporate sector that its animal magnetism would be unleashed for the good of the poor would fall on deaf ears and receive the contempt it deserves. It is this Republic of India steeped in ancient inequities that carries both hope and despair in the difficult years to come.

Sridhar is a Koshy's regular, a Tinto Brass fan, and a cynical Bangalorean
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February 16, 2008
12:58 AM

Excellent analysis Sridhar, scary thought - being led by someone who embodies the TOI ethos.

BTW, have you seen Halla Bol - stay tuned for my review

February 16, 2008
02:41 AM

I think the "campaign" would have had more credibility if it had come from a paper like the Indian Express or The Hindu (Never mind their political leanings). TOI is a joke. they're crying themselves hoarse on being selected as a top media brand.

My blog post on Lead India.


Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Javed Akhtar, Sunil Mittal and shiver me timbers, Priyanka Chopra! Huh? Some kind of a joke? FIVE persons from the film industry? These are your ambassadors? For an initiative that purports to "provide a platform to the good men and women out there who refuse to be daunted by the system, and struggle against massive odds to make life better for their fellow Indians."?

February 16, 2008
04:31 AM

Lead India is a publicity gimmick. The ones that didn't make it landed up on its page 3. Nisha Millet, being one of the runner-ups from Bangalore, generously flaunts her ample bosom on page 3 nowadays.

Actually, I think TOI needs to be slapped with criminal cases for obscenity, and its senior editors should go to jail.

Even if one leaves aside the obscenity, TOI is a mediocre paper at best, with below-average quality of reporting and editorials.

February 16, 2008
06:31 AM

Wanderer i don't think ANY newspaper should be at the forefront of this kind of cheerleading.You are missing the point altogether.RK Misra is only a front...he's a poster boy for the very same failed neoliberal policies that demand that we all hand over our lives to the corporates.

TOIlet paper
February 16, 2008
06:48 AM

C'mon lets all vote for these Public Private Partnership hucksters...lets all privatise every teensy weensy bit of our lives....lets all have RK Misra lead us down that garden path...lets privatise our water and sewerage like they did in Great Britain in 1992 when private water companies were permitted to install pre-paid meters in Birmingham.The rates charged were so exorbitant that people who couldn't afford to flush their toilets started defecating into pots, which they then emptied out of the windows of their tower
blocks. It made one quite nostalgic. No one could have accused the Conservative government of breaking its promise to bring back Victorian values.

February 16, 2008
06:53 AM

Very soon you'll have people like RK Misra talking about the need of using public money to subsidise private capital and we'll all be hanging on to every word he says.

February 16, 2008
07:01 AM

Read this piece...
Its called Private Affluence, Public Rip-Off
George Monbiot observes...
"The reality is that PFI, or "public private partnership" as the government now prefers to call it, is a scam. It works for neither socialists nor free marketeers, as it offers neither effective public provision nor business efficiencies. Far from introducing market disciplines, it has become an official licence to fleece the taxpayer....."

Who needs TOI?
February 16, 2008
07:07 AM

the defenders of corporate power tell us that companies are accountable to the public because they are responsive to their shareholders, and some of those shareholders are people like us. But the problem with the 'great shareholder democracy' is that rich people have more votes than others - it is no democracy at all.

February 16, 2008
07:17 AM

Now that RK Misra is the "leader", what exactly are his powers? And who has the right to grant him any authority in public matters? TOI must surely be kidding if it tries to portray him as any kind of "leader" in the real sense. He is just a paper tiger, in the literal as well as figurative sense.

February 16, 2008
07:30 AM

would like to take up on #4 .Soliciting votes for RK Misra some of his campaign agents said...

"We wish to share with you a personal message (below) by our very own Bangalore Infrastructure Champion - Rajendra Misra - one of the finalists of the LEAD INDIA campaign organized by The Times of India. RK has been instrumental in architecting the infrastructure development initiative at Bangalore and various other projects in UP and Rajasthan.

He has lead several crucial projects:
He was responsible for the first set of Public Private Partnership (PPP) roads in Bangalore:

A. Connecting Airport to Saibaba Ashram via Whitefield & Marthahalli Bridge (8.27 km)
B.Banneraghatta Road starting JP Nagar junction to Meenakshi Temple (5 km)
C. Sarjapur Road from Iblur junction to railway crossing (9 km)

He single - handedly oversaw the execution of 19 IT/ BT roads across Bangalore which has survived 3 monsoons :)
He is the member of govt's high powered task force for creating access infrastructure from Bangalore city to the new international airport.

Please consider the contribution made by him and exercise your vote....."
....and so we should all vote for TOI's poster boy based on his vision of PPP.

PPP OR PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP is the keystone of RK Misra's ideology.It is a largely flawed model of development already discredited in Britain and around the world but still has its faithful followers here in India...for reasons that are very obvious...finally the aim is to let the corporates run the show...the Lead India campaign pushes that agenda forward on a thin veneer of altruism.

February 16, 2008
07:33 AM

PPP is an off-shoot of neo-liberal policies.Neoliberalism claims that we are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. The role of government should be confined to creating and defending markets, protecting private property and defending the realm. All other functions are better discharged by private enterprise, which will be prompted by the profit motive to supply essential services. By this means, enterprise is liberated, rational decisions are made and citizens are freed from the dehumanising hand of the state.

This, at any rate, is the theory. But as David Harvey proposes in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, wherever the neoliberal programme has been implemented, it has caused a massive shift of wealth not just to the top one percent, but to the top tenth of the top one per cent(4). In the United States, for example, the upper 0.1% has already regained the position it held at the beginning of the 1920s(5). The conditions that neoliberalism demands in order to free human beings from the slavery of state - minimal taxes, the dismantling of public services and social security, deregulation, the breaking of the unions - just happen to be the conditions required to make the elite even richer, while leaving everyone else to sink or swim.

February 16, 2008
07:39 AM

I agree with some of the comments here.the most powerful promoter of this neo-liberal programme is the media. Most of it is owned by special interests who use it to project the ideas that support their interests. Those which threaten their plans are either ignored or ridiculed. It is through the newspapers and television channels that the socially destructive ideas of a small group of extremists have come to look like common sense. The corporations' tame thinkers ....cheerleading hucksters like TOI sell the project by reframing our political language...and they need RK Misra to be their poster boy.

February 16, 2008
07:44 AM

The trouble with PPPs
An un-holy alliance
Christopher Sheil critiques public-private partnerships (PPPs).

February 16, 2008
07:45 AM

or even its earlier avatar PFI
PFI 'more expensive' than public funding

February 16, 2008
08:23 AM

What was interesting was some major corporates sending out 'official' mails and posting bulletins, exhorting their staff to vote for RK Mishra, an action that would be grounds for firing were any employee to similarly promote any political party or other company.

What backroom deals have been struck under this campaign, and which pocket borough will be used for the promo-election campaign, come 2009?

February 16, 2008
11:17 AM

Skeptic, I got the point.duh!
I was only trying to point out that if at all such a campaign had to happen, it would have been better if some other paper had done it. That way, there would have been a semblance of good intentions.

Raj Mehta
February 16, 2008
11:45 AM

Aaman - I bet most of the comments in this thread seem to be made by the same person posting under different names. Why ? They are far too similar in content and sentiment and appear to be posted almost at the same time, give or take a few minutes. Please check out if my assumption in true.

February 16, 2008
12:07 PM

Raj, there are different IPs, but people, please do stick to one IP - we don't have any registrations *yet*, and the identities you bear should be sufficient.

February 16, 2008
04:41 PM

why do people read TOI?

February 17, 2008
03:02 AM


An important point not mentioned in my piece is that there has been inadequate response to the question- who funds the economic development of our country?

The cliched answer given by some of the contestants is micro-credit, that is, handing out loans to the rural poor to buy cow or buffalo.This approach is based on the Grameen Bank(Bangladesh) of giving small hand loans to housewives to tide over immediate crisis in the household.

Critics have pointed out that this not enough as it is too little and cannot replace government efforts in collecting taxes and applying the money for the developmental goals of the nation. That pressure should be brought on government officials to ensure that the money should be spent honestly is a given. But Corporate India is unsuited as public service totally alien to its ethos.

While it is true that it is no business of the government to be in business (running hotels or selling liquor)it is also equally true that it is no business of business to be in government- a point glossed over by Lead India.

February 17, 2008
01:47 PM

Another outstanding post Sridhar! (I mean, after the one on torture)


""But as David Harvey proposes in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism"

RS; David Harvey is DA MAN!! What a fantastic kick-ass intellectual!! I've met him a couple of times, and man he really kicks ass big-time!! His _The Condition of Postmodernity_ was just too good to be true, as is his _The New Imperialism_ and the title you mention above. What a guy, that David Harvey!!

February 18, 2008
12:45 AM

Dear commonsense,
Shall check out David Harvey. Thanks for your comments.

Danda Mar
February 18, 2008
05:46 AM

I can only ascertain with my current research work and some of the very distinguished papers out of LSE(London School of Economics) on private sector and its miraculous performance and capabilities. Let me tear apart the bloody Indian middle-class myths about private sector which they espouse and serve the upper-class rich.
1. The privatization of electricity market in UK only acerbated the monopolistic trend and is a paper I worked on with a Canadian professor, the number of utility companies after the deregulation dropped to about 3, prior to deregulation there were about 15, and I leave it to the blogger's imagination in which case do you suspect better competition and pricing. There are scholarly works on energy pricing in the UK being bundled to the disadvantage of the small industry and consumers. Often overlooked in this manic drive towards efficiency and competition is that private players once they are large in size, can start manipulating markets and form cartels and oligopolies to squeeze the customer; victim is the competition which we all felt would ensure better services. Our error lies in looking at public sector behemoths and then assuming that private sector will be nimble and agile, hungry for customers. Ask anybody who has worked for large conglomerates and will tell you that they are no different, including the likes of GE, Siemens. I think as an academic its important to study the market scenario prior to deregulation, and let me refer to the EU Anti-Trust rulings on Microsoft and the dismissal of GE-HONEYWELL merger on grounds of monopoly and scuttling competition. So first principle LARGE BEHEMOTHS ARE THE VERY SAME IN THE MARKET BEHAVIOUR IRRESPECTIVE OF BEING PUBLIC OR PRIVATE.

Look at the problems of the British Rail industry and you will find the cost-cutting measures starved the infrastructure financing necessary to keep with increased loads. The rail tracks are owned in parts by different companies and they point to the fact that their buck stops where the next player takes over. Imagine the circus of travelling through 10 stations in a light railway and then slowing down at the 8th since the company managing that track does not want to spend on repairs. I have personally witnessed the confusion and chaos in Britain in the water supply since most of the trained engineers were retrenched and they did not invest on modernizing the maps of the water supply pipes. SO SECOND PRINCIPLE IS WHERE LARGE CAPITAL INVESTMENTS ARE REQUIRED PRIVATE SECTOR MAY NOT BE THE BEST BET AND WHERE THE RETURNS WILL NOT BE IMMEDIATE.

I will open myself to scathing attacks on this forum by defending PPPs but when done properly and with the right intentions, I feel PPP has a glorious future provided:
1. No corruption in terms of handing over the plants at lower prices.
2. Very clear where the public part comes in and the private part plays an active role.
3. A strong civil society like trade union to ensure good and clean administration when involving the public services and goods.

I feel increasingly there is nothing wrong with private hospitals PROVIDED they offer the best facilities to the needy and poor, so the STATE can play the role of strategic planners who ensure policy support and direction. The best PPP I can imagine is the German railway system which ensures cheap travel tickets for students, elderly and follows the Berlin diktat on investments.

Lets hope my defence of good PPPs dont expose me to attacks, since increasingly the state can play a strategic role with its intelligentsia and civil service.

February 18, 2008
02:32 PM

When it comes to economic development of a nation, we can not afford to take dogmatic approaches or permit policies driven by ideological purity. Both government and private sector have to compliment each other - each sphere comes with their own limitations and strengths, and politics remain the art of blending both to complement each other - which is, like politics, is always going to be messy and ever-evolving - but there is no other alternative to it. There is always going to be areas that private sector can not address adequately and government sector will need to step in and step back when private sector becomes capable. What makes it harder is that government sector can not be as dynamic and flexible as private sector - government sector can not easily relinquish what it acquires under its domain because whatever government does create too much political vested interests that can not be overcome by mere considerations of good economics or national interests(particularly in India). One can argue about common good, national interests and what is 'national' but they are hard to define in India, and consensus rarely exist across Indian political spectrum on such core matters. Thus, it government is more likely to be rigid, inflexible, non-responsive, indecisive and rudderless - no political faction willing to give up their hard fought gains posited in government. It is such gridlock within government that forced India to look else where to generate development - i.e. private sector and foreign sector which hitherto socialist India had suppressed and shunned. Liberalization and globalization are new mantras to beef up India's private sector, and why not? Private sector is an economic expression of people of India, just as government is political expression of people of India - they are not either-or propositions, they both come from same set of people and must co-exist in India. Ideologies that seek to negate one or the other have to yield or face dustbin of history. Future is bright for those who can forge better partnership between government and private sector that actually deliver development and progress. We have had enough talk of development, progress, poverty, rich-middle-poor and upliftment that do not deliver anything except power to those who wage politics in their name. People of India has tasted blood and can no longer be held back.

February 18, 2008
03:39 PM

Hey Sridhar, first of well written article dude. Well after reading your article I thought myself over it for a few days and though agreed with most of what you have written, but not entirely.

I agree that all these corporates handling the government is a scary thought, they will be busy pleasing their own kinds, giving sops to businesses, always deciding on the basis of profits, bye bye subsidies, and public facilities may take a back stage. But at the same time I would always prefer voting for Narayan Moorthis, Azim Premji, even Ambanis then Mayawatis, oops Behenjis.

I also find your argument of private sectors just interested in profits and not to public welfare, lacking and half empty. Because you know all private companies offer best of facilities for their employees, not just a good remuneration. Its always an honor to serve Google, you know why??? because they treat as an honor to employ you. The facilities in Google campus is envied by people who have the most comfortable lifestyle. Go to Infosys campus, and you feel that this place should actually have VISA issues, as it doesn't even look Indian. The biggest offices you go in Gurgaon, not just offers fattest pay checks, but best gyms, awesome parks, cleanest drinking water and best workplace. Can't our whole country use some of that?????

Moreover you are forgetting that these people have the experience to make money and go on the path of progress. The fact is the internet used in India is more because of corporates pushing government then government taking initiative. So even for social welfare they are not too far behind. The biggest firms offer the most to social causes, whether that be orphanages, or old age homes.

Now I don't mean the picture is all hunky dory, as the issue of lobbyist controlling the politics in US also frowned upon. But I guess I would still prefer these people in the government rather than just controlling the government from outside, as it absolves them from answering.

These are my views, I know not as well as you put them in your article, but hope you get the point.

February 18, 2008
03:51 PM

Danda Mar, nice nick there! True, the dichotomy between "private" and "public" and their relative benefits is not so clear-cut. I mean where would Japan or Korea be without the regulative role of the state? In Britain, Tony Blair simply continued the privatization mania of Thatcher, despite, the different parties affiliations notwitstanding. As you say, at the end of the day, to implement policies only because one is in favor of them in an abstract, ideological sense, without examining at the ground-realities, is well, madness. The Indian middle-class is using "privatisation" as its mantra without paying attention to its possible toxic after-effects...others insisit on anti-privatization without examining its toxic after effects...

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