The two big headline-grabbing stories of the past week were the family feud in the ruling Yadav clan in Lucknow and the equally disturbing move by the Tata Group to sack its chairman, Cyrus Mistry, four years after he was given charge of India’s best-known corporate entity. Both crises raise the question about the inherent resistance to change in India, whether in politics or business.
We are essentially a people who are still obsessed with the past and with traditions and rituals, however outdated they may be in a modern-day context. India may have made huge strides in economic terms but that, lest we forget, was the result of a change in official mindset brought about by an unprecedented economic crisis in 1991.
As chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav represented the youthful face of the Samajwadi Party and his performance, while not spectacular, was still considered acceptable. Yet, with elections looming, the Old Guard, led by his father Mulayam Singh, seems determined to re-establish the traditional leadership hierarchy rather than allow the next generation to take charge. The convulsion at Bombay House follows a similar-sounding script. India’s most respected corporation seems to have opted for status quo rather than allow Mistry to undo Ratan Tata’s legacy and undermine corporate culture.
It is a reflection of Indian society’s attitude and values. We are essentially a people who are still obsessed with the past and with traditions and rituals, however outdated they may be in a modern-day context. India may have made huge strides in economic terms but that, lest we forget, was the result of a change in official mindset brought about by an unprecedented economic crisis in 1991. It is often said that the country takes one step forward and two steps back. This is why we see frequent glimpses of our deep-rooted conservatism, whether it is to do with cow politics, khap panchayats, ultra-nationalism, honor killings, attitude to women, the unbending caste structure, bureaucratic inertia or the excessive control that the government exercises on people’s lives and choices. It is reflected in the resistance to electoral reform, police reform and judicial reform. It is why we still have Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, dating back to 1860, which outlaws homosexuality, and an un-written code that discourages kissing in Bollywood movies. The licence raj, as businessmen will confirm, is alive and well and living in North Block.
Narendra Modi, despite his right-wing credentials, is perhaps the biggest symbol of change, whether in economic policies, diplomacy, domestic crusades like Swachh Bharat, building toilets or Make in India. All these projects are facing teething problems, an indication of how slowly and reluctantly change happens in India. It also explains why we are seeing Mulayam try to regain political control of India’s biggest state and Ratan Tata returning to preside over the corporation he retired from in December 2012. In India, the future somehow always remains hostage to the past.