Why India’s corporate leaders rarely speak out against Hindu nationalism

Pros and cons of speaking up.
Pros and cons of speaking up.
Image: Reuters/Jagadeesh Nv
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Like most Indian business leaders, Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is struggling to strike a fine balance between speaking out and keeping mum.

On Mar. 31, Shaw warned in a tweet that religious divides “will destroy” global IT leadership. She was reacting to news about Muslim traders being prohibited from conducting business near temples in the state of Karnataka.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trolls were quick to attack her. Worse, even those who agreed with her dubbed her tweet “too little too late and too out of focus.” The thinking was that if even the hijab row, which has kept Muslim girls away from schools, didn’t evoke a reaction from her, what good was this now?

India Inc leaders struggle to take a stand

Corporate leaders like Shaw can rarely meet the varied public demands and expectations. When faced with political muscle in the mix, they only retract into their shells.

For instance, following Shaw’s comment, the BJP national IT cell head Amit Malviya tweeted, “It is unfortunate to see people like Kiran Shaw impose their personal, politically coloured opinion, and conflate it with India’s leadership in the ITBT sector.”

In 2019, the late Rahul Bajaj, a doyen of the Indian industry, faced blowback from aggressive supporters of the government after he said that people like him were scared to speak out against it.

“We don’t have the confidence that you’ll appreciate criticism,” he said at an industry-media event.

The Biocon chief, meanwhile, has shifted her position subtly following her initial comments. Her comments “are not politically coloured,” she clarified, expressing “full confidence” in the state’s BJP government. She also showed renewed optimism about Karnataka, reiterating her faith in chief minister Basavaraj S Bommai.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, lost no time in touting her as the voice of dissent. The Nationalist Congress Party urged more Indian business leaders to “speak up boldly.”

Should India’s corporate leaders speak out?

Expectations are always high for them to take a stand on critical issues. The personal and professional don’t always mix, though.

“In this social media frenzy world misinterpretations are common, many times driven by perverse intentions of others,” said Yugal Joshi, partner at Everest Group. “These can snowball into issues that may harm the business more often than help it. Therefore, corporate leaders probably understand there is limited upside in speaking up from a business perspective.”

However, the modern employee is evolving and expects more accountability. Google’s staff staged a walkout over immigration bans during the Trump era. At Activision Blizzard, they protested against bureaucracy and poor corporate governance over inaction against CEO Bobby Kotick for downplaying allegations of sexual misconduct.

It is only a matter of time before India Inc employees, too, started agitating. There have already been strikes to protest the government’s economic policies, most notably the now-repealed farm laws.

“Indian corporate leaders will need to understand aspirations of employees and, irrespective of their personal choices, may need to voice their opinion going forward,” said Joshi.