Arun Maira’s book Transforming Capitalism talks about a finer and a more sensitive post-colonial Indian business manager. A student in Jawaharlal Nehru’s India, Maira’s first-hand exposure to business leadership in the troubled decades of the late 20th century make his views on transforming capitalism interesting. Given that he is also a member of the Planning Commission, his views merit an even closer examination.
Maira sets out the tension between democracy and capitalism right at the beginning and leans toward MIT economist Lester Thurow in his book. After all, democracy stresses the essential equality of every voter, while capitalism insists that the fit must oust the unfit. Of course, Thurow somewhat exaggerated that tension to make a larger point — no state has ever pursued raw capitalism as an exclusive instrument of state policy. Nonetheless, the global economic events of recent times, along with the Anna Hazare phenomenon in our own land, has thrown the social contract between those who govern and those who are governed into sharper focus.
Juxtaposing the interplay of free markets with human rights in a world where “distance is dead”, Maira picks ideas to be examined and arrestingly contrasts them with corporate behaviour that may have been considered impeccable half a century ago, but now appear curiously out of step with the times. The author brings out the limitations of mere ‘official’ processes, as evidenced in the turbulence that is seen every time issues concerning land acquisition and water have come up recently. Instead, he stresses the need for fresher and more imaginative approaches in the engagement between corporates and society.
The latter part of the book contains a collection of essays written in recent years, and they throw up absorbing insights into sociology and reforms, NGOs and individuals, and deal with the pulls and pressures of changing India. The book is never prescriptive; it reflects the thought processes of a thinking mind.
Maira recognises that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)and philanthropy will never be an adequate response to the needs of inclusion and sustainability. He devotes a whole chapter to describing how most corporates are still stuck at the first two rungs of the five-rung ladder to social responsibility. But he stops short of highlighting the utter incongruity of tall talk on CSR coexisting with widespread tax evasion. His hesitation to name and nail crony capitalism as the scourge of our society may be attributed to politeness yet it contains the danger of obfuscating the real issue. It has the unintended effect of diverting attention to issues in the sidelines.
If capitalism is to transform our society, cronyism has to be the first target. Indeed, there could be a contra-argument that this is precisely the phase in its history when India needs the energy of capitalism more than ever before but minus the cronies, and together with a caring state and the rule of law. There are global forces at work, just as there are local forces. While they are similar, they are not quite the same. This, then, is my only quibble with a fine book. But perhaps, Indians of a certain type and the era to which Maira belongs have been temperamentally unsuited to don the role of disruptionists.