Why Did Gautam Adani Meet Mamata Banerjee?
The is not just about one industrialist or politician, but about industry's view of the current political scenario.
The Quint DAILY
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Among all the recent meetings that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee held, one raised more eyebrows than others - industrialist Gautam Adani calling on her in Kolkata.
The question that many asked is - if Adani is said to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, why would he meet one of his most vocal critics?
A number of Congress supporters on social media also cited the meeting as "evidence" of Banerjee being in cahoots with PM Modi.
The matter is a bit more complex. The story is not just about one industrialist or one politician, but about corporates' view of the political scenario.
WHAT'S IN IT FOR ADANI?
Adani sharing a good rapport with PM Modi is well known. Their ties go way back to Modi's early years as the chief minister of Gujarat. Adani was among the group of businessmen from Gujarat who supported Modi when he was being criticised at a meeting of the Confedration of Indian Industry following the 2002 Gujarat riots.
However, like any industrial house, business interests are paramount for the Adani group, which has also donated to the Congress in the past.
The industrial house is said to have shared a good relationship with many earlier Congress and other non-BJP governments at the state level.
One of the areas which are high priority for the Adani group are ports.
Now, while the BJP may be in power at the Centre and in a larger number of states than any other party, a majority of India's coastal states are under non-BJP rule. Among the states with a coastline, only Gujarat, Karnataka and Goa are ruled by the BJP.
On the other hand, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal are ruled by non-NDA parties. Therefore, the group has no option but to engage with them.
The group also seems to recognise the pitfalls of being perceived as close to any one party, especially given the manner in which its properties saw protests in Punjab during the farmers' agitation.
HOW THE 2006-13 PERIOD SHAPED CORPORATES' VIEW OF PARTIES
Banerjee and Modi's fates were linked in an interesting way for that we need to take a brief flashback.
Banerjee stormed into power in Bengal after playing a key role in two agitations against land acquisition for corporates in Singur (2006) and Nandigram (2007). The agitations targetted the then Left Front government for acquiring farmers' land for an Indian giant Tata and a foreign Multinational Company Salem Group, respectively.
The agitations turned Banerjee's political fortunes but, inadvertently, they did the same for Narendra Modi who saw it as an opportunity to woo investment.
Tata's exit from Bengal in 2008 and their shift to Gujarat was a turning point for Modi. It marked the beginning of the transformation of Brand Modi from a controversial CM to a favourite of Indian industry.
The 2006-13 period is crucial to understanding the equation of corporates - both Indian and foreign - with political parties in India.
On one hand, this was a period when India witnessed substantial economic growth. On the other hand, this was also a period in which three rising politicians in the country took on corporates. And these three politicians happen to be the leading Opposition figures in the country in 2021.
It began with Banerjee taking part in the agitations in Singur and Nandigram, then Rahul Gandhi joining the anti-land acquisition protests in Niyamgiri and Bhatta Parsaul and finally Arvind Kejriwal's muckraking on the alleged corporate-political nexus.
Now, what each of these three leaders said or did was probably justified. There needs to be far less arbitariness in matters of land acqusition and farm more transparency from both government and corporates in granting of contracts and allocation of natural resources.
But if one views it purely from the point of view of industry, all this added to their anxieties.
By 2012, the economic downturn had set in. The 2-G case and the alleged coal scam also turned the heat on India Inc.
In 2013, the UPA passed a strong land acquisition law that was pro-farmer but made things tougher for industry.
Then finally in 2013, the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee proposed retrospective taxation, which many believe was the last straw for industry.
Corporates don't like to take political sides unless one side seems to bring uncertainty and instability.
From Tata's shift to Gujarat in 2008 till his election as PM in 2014, Modi presented himself as a contrast to instability and as a saviour of India Inc.
From that moment till now, Modi has enjoyed the sustained support of industry. And the failure of the Opposition to provide a viable alternative has reinforced this support.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
No one in industry will openly admit that presently there is a growing sense of discomfiture in their ranks. There are only a few exceptions like Rajiv Bajaj, who has openly criticised the Modi government's policies for creating a "fear virus".
But in private, there is immense unease. The government's policy mistakes like demonetisation and its harmful effect on economic growth are only one aspect. The unease is also due to the government's attitude - from the constant threat of raids to key Union ministers using intimidatory language in meetings with industry representatives.
This doesn't mean that industry no longer supports Modi. But the very stability that had been his USP in the period discussed above is no longer there due to what is being perceived as unpredictable governance and whimsical decision making.
No businessperson, big or small, can be comfortable with uncertainty.
For multinationals, especially those in the West, there are added concerns: such as the negative press regarding religious strife in India as well as the perception of the regime's proximity to domestic barons.
However, the lack of alternatives is still a problem for both Indian and foreign companies.
Though Rahul Gandhi has never openly spoken against industry, it cannot be denied that he is viewed negatively for a number of reasons.
First, his open attacks on two major corporate houses.
Second problem is access. The feeling in India Inc is that there's no constant engagement from Gandhi's end, that they don't have an ear to air their concerns.
Gandhi's argument that he's against cronyism and not industry is a fair one but how can industry's concerns be addressed unless there's isn't enough engagement from his side?
In Congress circles, many talk about how a prominent industrialist wanted to meet Gandhi in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but the latter flatly refused an audience.
The demise of Ahmed Patel has greatly worsened matters as he did act as an important bridge between the Congress and industrialists.
Now, industry still has a fair share of leaders in the Congress it can reach out to but they aren't sure what sort of influence these leaders will have within the party.
Among the other Opposition figures, Kejriwal is untested due to the fact that Delhi isn't a full fledged state. Naveen Patnaik is a trusted name but has shown no ambitions of growing beyond Odisha.
If one eliminates leaders who lack clout, ambition or are too much to the left for industry's comfort, only three names come up as viable alternatives from the point of view of corporates, and in this order: Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Uddhav Thackeray. And it is well known that the three are working in some kind of coordination, aided by strategist Prashant Kishor.
It's still very early to say whether a national alternative can emerge. All lot has to happen for that to materialise.
But clearly, there is a vacuum and the Banerjee-Pawar axis is trying to fill it. And even industrialists like Gautan Adani are taking note of it.
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