NEW DELHI (Reuters) - One of the most telling images from the frenzied media coverage of India’s corruption scandals in recent months was billionaire telecoms tycoon Anil Ambani emerging from the CBI headquarters after questioning.
The reputation of the country’s titans of industry has taken a beating over a rash of graft cases, and with it has come the risk of a backlash over their murky links to politicians.
Once seen as invincible, even heroes, big businessmen were lauded for freeing India from the bureaucratic shackles of a planned economy into a globalised world and they were often feted in Bollywood as good guys battling corrupt officials.
That is changing.
“The interrogation of Ambani would never have happened five or 10 years ago,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor at the Hindu newspaper, who has written on the scandals. “Society at large had grown to admire these people. People are now associating business with corruption as never in the past.”
The scandals, which include the alleged sale of some telecoms licenses for kickbacks, come after two decades of reform that opened up the economy and spawned dramatic corporate growth.
In a country where more than 450 million people live in poverty, around 50 billionaires account for 20 percent of India’s GDP and 80 percent of stock market capitalisation, according to a 2009 Asian Development Bank report, which warned that an excessive concentration of power could hinder growth and reforms.
In 2010, there were six Indian industrialists on Forbes.com’s list of the world’s top 50 billionaires.
The risks now for companies are greater judicial and media scrutiny and stricter enforcement of regulations: the upside for foreign investors may be greater transparency.
“What industrialist has gone to jail in the last 10 years? Until now the big industrialists, and politicians, the bad ones, could get away with what they wanted,” said billionaire Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto and an Indian lawmaker.
“In terms of corruption ... this will continue for many years but we have reached the bottom of the pit,” Bajaj told Reuters. “I am not saying they are saints but willy nilly they are being forced to put their house in order.”
Ambani, owner of No. 2 mobile carrier Reliance Communications, denies wrongdoing in the telecoms case.
Ambani’s grilling was part of a growing probe in which one telecoms executive was arrested and others, including billionaire Prashant Ruia, chief executive of the Essar Group business house, were questioned.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government have come under unprecedented attack and his former telecoms minister has been arrested.
One of the clearest signals of change came earlier this month when, in an unprecedented statement, the Supreme Court told the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI): “We have a large number of people who think themselves to be above the law. You must catch all of them. Merely because a person is in the Forbes list of millionaires and billionaires does not matter.”
Indian entrepreneurs are widely respected for innovation and business acumen. The rise of a globalised, corporate India with the likes of software leader Infosys have helped spur growth rates to near double digits over the last few years.
Most companies are not tainted by corruption, and Indian executives have long enjoyed the image of being more innovative than the bureaucrats-cum-businessmen in rival China.
But the recent scandals have exposed the nexus between the corporate world and politics, where it is not uncommon for lawmakers to have their credentials on one side of their cards, and their business details on the flip side.
Ambani was elected as a member of parliament in 2004, with backing from the leftist Samajwadi Party. He quit in 2006 in a controversy over MPs holding profit-making positions, citing the need to uphold propriety in public life.
Other wealthy businessmen are also lawmakers, including liquor and airline baron Vijay Mallya and Naveen Jindal, managing director of Jindal Steel and Power.
Asia’s third-largest economy is dominated by billionaire owners with a concentrated wealth akin to that of Russia’s oligarchs.
So many billionaires were using Delhi airports with their private jets to visit government ministers for business that airport authorities have clamped down on their operations, infuriating executives.
But a Who’s Who of corporate India has now been mired in controversy in the past year.
Even the icon of India Inc, Ratan Tata, went to court to stop the release of leaked taped conversations of lobbyist Nira Radia and top industrialists, politicians and journalists, with talk of swinging deals, granting favours and ministers taking bribes.
The tapes published in local media showed Radia, whose lobby company represents Tata and Mukesh Ambani, speaking to politicians to ensure Andimuthu Raja was appointed telecoms minister. Raja is now under arrest over the graft case.
The founder of Satyam Computer was arrested in an accounting fraud -- software services had previously been seen as one of India’s cleanest sectors -- and the head of India’s $4 billion cricket premier league was fired over alleged irregularities.
“The image of the socially responsible businessman, the untainted hero, has taken a beating,” said V. Ravichandar, head of Feedback Consulting in Bangalore, which advises multinationals.
All this may point to a regulatory response that could damage India’s attractiveness to foreign investors.
There are signs a growing urban, middle class -- with an increasingly important political weight -- is losing the respect it once had for these tycoons, a sentiment that would feed into the ruling Congress Party’s leftist roots.
“The old order is changing fast and I don’t think the politicians realise it, especially the government,” said a veteran executive from one of India’s top companies, who declined to be named for fear it could hurt his company.
“The scary thing is that people are taking out their frustrations on us in the industry. Before we were respected, now we’re in the firing line.”
One businessman said he knew executives linked to graft cases who, worried about the public hurling insults at them, had stopped dining out in Mumbai.
Recently, thousands of youths took to the streets across the country in spontaneous protests against corruption, something unheard of a few years ago.
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh typifies the new intolerance emerging in India. He has blocked huge industrial projects over environment concerns, including U.K.-based Vedanta Resources’ plans to expand its alumina refinery.
“Many companies have navigated the system very creatively in the past,” Ramesh told media. “There have been numerous instances of large companies who have circumvented the laws.”
The question is how far CBI probes will go into a world so closely linked to the political establishment, and whether that establishment will apply pressure. The CBI has been criticised as politically influenced, and few industrialists are put in jail.
A new actor has also appeared. The Supreme Court, under a new chief justice, has pushed the probes, overseeing the CBI investigations and directly targeting the business elite.
Many companies fear the investigations, spurred on by public pressure and 24-hour media coverage, could lead to a witch hunt.
“There is media and public pressure to go after anybody,” said Bajaj.
Some believe business will soon hit back. Prime Minister Singh has already criticised media coverage, saying India’s self-confidence was being damaged.
“One expects them to play the card that it will affect India’s image and investment,” said Ravichandar.
Though the scandals are traumatic, some say India is going through a cleansing to make it a better investment destination.
“That transparency will be good for foreign investors,” said Ravichandar. “It will give confidence that India is increasingly open and that interests may be protected by the judiciary.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy and Paul de Bendern in Delhi and Jui Chakravorty in Mumbai; editing by Paul de Bendern and John Chalmers