It is in the nature of organizations, whether governments or businesses, to reflect and introspect, comprehend events, learn from mistakes, and make amends. On occasion, even atonement might be necessary. Casting a look back at 2019 might be instructive for both our Government and businesses because the future path for both seems convergent, unlike the poetic metaphor about divergence in the woods. The one characteristic that defined 2019, and set it apart, was the windstorm of youth protests sweeping across the world, from Santiago to Hong Kong and from Barcelona to Mumbai, unrelated and separated by geography but united by an invisible thread of anger and frustration. The inheritors of today’s politics and policies are visibly upset at the disregard shown for their concerns and future. They are irate about the world they inherit: ecologically fragile, torn apart by rising inequality, and brimming with ugly emotions. This is a planet in which their role—in terms of the economy, politics or the environment—seems uncertain and vulnerable, despite people under 24 making up 41% of the world’s population. The discontent seems to have spilled over to India as well, and the ire seems primarily focused on the government for its economic policies and politics, which may have left a sizeable proportion of our youth feeling helpless and alienated.
Political activity in India during the year did not stray too far from global trends. Having conceded three assembly elections—in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh—at the start of 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to wrest a historic mandate in the general elections, with a 300-plus majority. Administrative stability was expected to usher in tough reforms that weak governments could not push through. Efforts on the economic front were indeed made, but political consolidation appeared to get higher priority. Freed from coalition compulsions and confederation compromises, the BJP embarked upon an agenda that had been part of its election manifestos but was assumed to be secondary: the repeal of Article 370, pressure on the apex court to fast-track its Ayodhya judgement, and a new citizenship law. It was the last of these that drew Indian youth out onto the streets. With a steady stream of young people joining the job market every month, an image took shape of a government playing to its denominational support base even as worries mounted over an economy in need of urgent attention. Growth slowed, manufacturing showed signs of contraction, consumption demand began to dry up, and investment stayed stagnant. It did not make for good optics.
There is a lesson in all this for companies as well. India Inc. has been too nonchalant about the norms of corporate governance. A large number of firms binged on loans from banks and other financial intermediaries, but misused the proceeds instead of deploying money productively and employing more people. The year saw a succession of defaults and curious arrangements between companies and financial institutions. Without internal reforms, India Inc.’s persistent demand for the easing of labour regulations and other rules seems incongruous. In many ways, corporate India appears divorced from such ground realities as joblessness and unrest. Much needs to change before the country can confidently move ahead to reclaim the India story, as it were. As 2019 ends, so must the policy of solipsism that has so recklessly been pursued by so many.
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