Arpita and the Bombay Plan

This is the 21st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Much amusement came yesterday when I read of Arpita Mukherjee ranting against singing shows on television. Arpita, in case you haven’t heard of her, is a singer who came to national attention by taking part in singing reality shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Fame Gurukul. She has an album out now called Yeh Hai Chand, and in the course of a recent interview she said, “Reality shows create unnecessary hype.”

She went on to disparage the voting mechanisms of such shows, and said, “most of the competitors who are not talented win music talent hunt reality shows.” Critics of such shows would no doubt be pleased at Arpita’s outburst – she is a beneficiary of the shows she lambasts, which seems to make her criticism credible. Fans of those shows would rail at her hypocrisy and ingratitude. Actually, her comments are entirely rational and predictable. In fact, she reminds me of JRD Tata and GD Birla.

In 1944, with India on the verge of independence, a group of industrialists that included Tata, Birla and other notables like Purushottamdas Thakurdas, AD Shroff and Kasturbhai Lalbhai came up with a document called “A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India” – also known, famously, as the Bombay Plan. In this, instead of arguing for free markets, they made a case for massive state involvement in the economy. Fans of big government held it up as a sign of validation – India’s biggest businessmen were putting their faith in central planning instead of free markets. In his wonderful book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.”

Well, I find Arpita’s and the industrialists’ actions to be analogous, and not remotely befuddling. The shows Arpita criticises enabled her entry into the music business, but now that she has got her break, they are a threat to her. They provide an assembly line of singing talent to the music industry, acting as a filter for talent, and are the biggest source of competition for Arpita. Who likes competition?

Similarly, state controls on the Indian economy shut out competition, and helped entrenched players like Tata and Birla. It is a different matter that the controls and license raj went too far and hurt even the industrialists who had been in their favour, but they did prevent competitive markets, which was in their interests.

It would be presumptuous to conclude that either Arpita or the Bombay Plan authors consciously intended to shut out competition, but their incentives were certainly aligned that way. And while Arpita’s comments will have no impact on the viewership of reality shows, businessmen who fear competition have harmed this country immeasurably.

India abounds with businessmen who form strong interests groups with deep pockets to lobby governments for protection against competition. Rahul Bajaj’s infamous Bombay Club is one such group, which couches its protectionist beliefs in the rhetoric of ‘supporting’ Indian companies. We have seen protectionist policies in virtually every sector of our economy, from steel to petrochemicals to the media. Indeed, some newspapers that publish editorials railing against protectionism also then lobby against foreign investment.

These tendencies go beyond the world of business. Arvind Kala wrote in this paper on Tuesday of how Punjab’s Akali leaders were against the Dera Sacha Sauda mainly because they represented a threat to the monopoly they aspire to retain on Sikhism. The communists support harmful labour laws that protect the interests of the unions that support them, even though they harm many more workers than they help. And so on: I’m sure you can think of dozens of examples just by looking around you.

Big businesses can often be the biggest enemies of free markets, and we must stop taking the actions and words of industrialists like Bajaj as representative of those who believe in economic freedom. The real beneficiaries of free markets are the billion-plus people in this country. Competition raises the quality of goods and services that they get, and lowers prices. Foreign investment leads to economic growth, and increases employment and productivity.

Businesses whose interests are aligned differently will inevitably be strong forces against freeing up markets even more, and they can only be countered if all of us raise a stink about it. We need free markets, for only they can provide prosperity to the millions in our country below the poverty line. We need Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Indian Idol a little less, but without them we’d have fewer alternatives to Himesh Reshammiya. There is no better argument for competition than that.

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You can read all my earlier columns for Mint here.

Arpita was my favourite contestant from her season of Fame Gurukul, and you can see one of her performances on that show here—I wish whoever uploaded the song hadn’t referred to it as Rat Ka Nasha. It has all the template drama of a reality show, as well as celeb judge John Abraham responding to anchor Mandira Bedi’s query of why he likes Bengali women by saying, “I think they’re a race in themselves.” Other races, it would seem, are part of other races.

Also, here are the rushes of a recent interview of Arpita, with the cheesiest notes ever on the right panel. Next week I’ll link to JRD Tata’s music videos.