NEW DELHI―On Thursday morning, Milind Deora, the Congress candidate from Mumbai South constituency, tweeted a short video clip with a cross-section of people endorsing his candidature. On any other election day, this would have been a routine development with limited popular interest.
However, Deora’s name soon started trending on Twitter—his video, it turned out, included an open and unrestrained endorsement from India’s richest man and Chairman of Reliance Industries Limited, Mukesh Ambani.
“Milind is the man for South Mumbai. Having represented South Mumbai for 10 years, I believe that Milind has in-depth knowledge of social, economic, and cultural ecosystem of the South Mumbai constituency. Both micro-enterprises and large businesses can thrive in Mumbai so that attractive, new employment opportunities can be created for our talented young women and men,” Ambani says in the video.
While Ambani is known to be close to most politicians, he has never openly taken a stand for or against any individual. The timing also struck many as significant, since the Congress has based its ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ campaign against Narendra Modi on the alleged kickbacks a company owned by Anil Ambani, brother of Mukesh, received from the Rafale deal with France’s Dassault Aviation.
Another prominent businessman in the video is billionaire banker and promoter of Kotak Mahindra Bank, Uday Kotak, who also gives a thumbs-up to Deora. “Milind truly represents Mumbai ka connection,” he says.
HuffPost India reached out to Reliance Industries Limited and Kotak Mahindra Bank to understand why their leaders decided to take a rare political stand for an opposition politician. A spokesperson for Kotak Mahindra Bank said Uday Kotak’s participation in the video reflected his personal endorsement of Deora and did not affect the bank at all. This person also added that this should not be seen as an endorsement of the Congress. RIL did not respond to an email questionnaire and Deora himself did not respond to calls and messages.
We also spoke to a cross-section of voices who, for a number of reasons, have their pulse on the close relations between politics and business in India to understand how they perceive today’s development.
1) Prashant Bhushan, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court:
People are beginning to sense which way the wind is blowing. Usually, these big industrialists like to cover their bets. Mukesh Ambani had old connections with Milind Deora’s father. So, otherwise it is not surprising. But in this climate, it is significant.
2) Hemindra Hazari, Independent Analyst:
It is unusual. It introduces a political dimension and political risk. Business, especially for banks which are highly leveraged and manage public monies, tend to get identified with parties if their promoters publicly support one party or another, so I feel they should publicly remain apolitical. Uday Kotak publicly backed Modi during demonetisation and now that BJP’s electoral prospects are looking doubtful, he is backing the Congress party.
“I am happy that it has come out in the open. This shows that corporate influence in electoral process is increasing. I don’t think it is good. If the outcome of the elections are going to be determined by corporate influence, the government, regardless of the party in power, will follow priorities of corporates in making policy decisions. This is usually the case in free market economies where corporates dominate. It is undesirable in a society as diverse as India: Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar, Founder Member, Association for Democratic Reforms”
3) Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of the Association For Democratic Reforms:
I am happy that it has come out in the open. This shows that corporate influence in electoral process is increasing. I don’t think it is good. If the outcome of the elections are going to be determined by corporate influence, the government, regardless of the party in power, will follow priorities of corporates in making policy decisions. This is usually the case in free market economies where corporates dominate. It is undesirable in a society as diverse as India.
4) Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, writer, independent journalist and political commentator:
I see Mukesh Ambani try to kill more than one bird with one stone. He sees a good chance of Deora in becoming an MP. His father served as an MP three times. Deora family is an important political player in that part of the country. So he is backing the right horse.
The richest man in India is seen as closer to those in power. He is a smart and savvy businessman. The question is: is this an indicator that India’s richest man is hedging his bets?