Two datasets are out in the open. One, the Indian economy in FY ending 2020 grew at slowest pace in a decade (coronavirus not to blame), and two, some richest men of India saw their wealth soaring in the same period. India suffered contraction in quarter ending June but billionaires, including chairmen of Reliance Industries and Adani Group, are getting richer. All this may seem normal on its face but we need to know what lies beneath this disparity where the country is becoming poorer but a few aren’t.
In virtually no time, Reliance’s Jio has become the undisputed jewel of India Inc. Foreign investors are rushing to buy stake in the enterprise and their analysts know that Jio will give great returns. What began with a disruption in the telecom industry by luring the mass with free voice calls and data has now spread in many sectors. Reliance can now be a common man’s grocery, clothing, internet, digital payment and toys (Hamleys) supplier, and much more, all at the same time. From ports to airports and green energy to edible oil, Adani is almost everywhere and is setting new records with deals like airport takeovers and world’s largest solar contract.
Why did we refer to the term ‘oligarch’ in the title? Oligarchs are typical to Russia and former USSR, and their rise was fueled by the nexus between politics and industry. Oligarchy means ‘the rule of the few’. These private players are dominant forces in the economy and no matter what happens to health of the nation’s economy, they manage to thrive, and thrive well.
The second part of the title says ‘the fall of many’ and these are the small and medium businesses in the Indian economy. Now that they are under intense pressure, the government has only one relief for them- borrow more. This vicious measure will result in small businesses shutting shops and banks reeling under their NPAs. Soon, and it’s already happening, small grocery stores in the neighbourhood will face death at the hands of ‘oligarchs’ who will have both- better bargaining power and economies of scale. Oligarchs will decide what the mass buys, where they buy it from and what price they pay for their purchases.
And this rise of oligarchs doesn’t come without clandestine sponsorship of the ruling government. Now if Facebook wants its WhatsApp payment business to get regulatory approvals, it must not only show bias towards the ruling party in its conduct of normal business operations, it should also invest in the business of the oligarch, the oligarch who in turn funds the ruling party. That’s nexus, easy.
But what about the popular support? India, indeed, is a democracy where elections must be won to hold on to power. And this popular support is derived by playing the nationalism card. It’s too simple. Shun all rationality and pragmatism, and issue a clarion call of nation-first. Urge people to reject imports and go for local alternatives backed by the argument that lesser the imports, greater will be the prosperity. But why not answer this- by keeping competition over price and quality out and giving local provider a free rein to pass off substandard and pricier goods in the market, who are you really allowing to prosper?
From rail projects to renewable energy to 5G infra, the oligarchs can now prevail without having to face competition over price and/ or quality. Who, however, is at loss when competition disappears and a select few control everything? It’s the common man. And in such a scenario, small and medium firms too have no option but to bow out. Just think why the farmer, who produces and sells for little to the middle-man, never thrives but the middleman does? Because the middleman has a better bargaining power and this is the same when small businesses compete with oligarchs.
The informal economy of India is collapsing but the wealthy few are becoming wealthier. We are already in the phase where we are facing the threat of oligarchy, the rule of the few.