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Why Padma awards are important to businessmen

By Bhupesh Bhandari
February 11, 2011 15:03 IST
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Every year, the night before Republic Day festivities start, the government comes out with the annual list of Padma awardees - artistes, academicians, social workers, public servants, and businessmen.

About a week before the list is announced, inquisitive businessmen begin to sniff around if their names are on it.

A Padma award, after all, adds greatly to a businessman's prestige. Walk into the office of anybody who's got it and you won't miss his picture with the President.

Elsewhere, in cosy clubs and drawing rooms, each name is dissected threadbare by those who didn't get it.

The key numbers - return on capital employed, share price et al - are painfully collected, minutely debated and summarily dismissed. The heartburn is enough to set all the holy rivers of the country on fire. This time was no different.

"Can you tell me what he has done in life?" This is a question I have ducked at least a half-a-dozen times ever since the list came out.

This is not to run down the contribution of businessmen to our national life. They manufacture goods, provide services, reach products to markets, create jobs, earn foreign exchange and do philanthropic work.

The government of any free-market state has always been aware of their usefulness. And if they are rewarded for their enterprise, there is nothing wrong with it. But can we know how the awardees are selected?

Rewarding businessmen has been a long tradition in the country. In the pre-Independence days, the government used to dole out knighthoods to businessmen regularly.

For the lesser businessmen, there were titles like Rai Bahadur.

In the thick of the Second World War, around the time Mahatma Gandhi had launched the Quit India movement, the government made Lala Shri Ram of DCM a knight. Overnight, he became Sir Shri Ram.

True, he had started from scratch and built a large business empire of textiles, sugar, engineering goods and potteries; but the purpose of the knighthood was not lost on many.

The freedom movement was strong and it needed businessmen on its side so that supplies could be reached the armed forces in remote frontiers without any hindrance.

Lala Shri Ram was a leading manufacturer of textiles. The government had no choice but to keep itself in his good books.

There was much opposition from Lala Shri Ram's family - how could he call himself a nationalist and accept this honour from the imperial government?

He had been a champion of swadeshi all his life, though critics said the boycott of imported cloth suited local manufacturers like him very well.

So, his acceptance of the knighthood remained an inexplicable contradiction in his life. To be fair, the businessman did not wear the title on his sleeve - he always insisted on being called Lala Shri Ram.

Soon thereafter, his younger brother, Lala Shankar Lal, too was knighted.

Is the same principle still at work? Political parties do need huge funds to contest elections, the cap on expenses fixed by the Election Commission notwithstanding.

And it is an open secret that much of this money comes from corporations. Many of them disclose in their profit-and-loss statement donations made to all political parties.

Still, there needs to be transparency in the Padma awards. What makes the wise men on the Padma committee choose one businessman over the other?

The Padma awards, though the most prestigious of the lot, aren't the only awards on offer for businessmen.

Most of these awards are decided by jury; Ramalinga Raju's case shows how some of these can be way off the mark. Satyam had won a string of awards in 2008.

Teleos in association with the Know Network had for the second year in a row given it the Asian MAKE (most admired knowledge enterprise) award.

The MAKE awards are given to leading Asian organisations that leverage enterprise knowledge to create value through innovation, product or service excellence, and operational effectiveness.

Oracle had given it the "Partner of the year 2007" award for acquired applications. Satyam was "Citizenship Partner of the Year" at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference Awards.

Raju was the 2007 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for his business acumen and his efforts to service the community.

Other recipients of the award included names like Mukesh Ambani, Kumarmangalam Birla, Sunil Mittal and N R Narayanamurthy.

In fact, Raju went on to represent India at the global edition of the award at picturesque Monte Carlo.

For three days, he rubbed shoulders with the best from the world of business, though he failed to bag the final honour. (The only Indian to have won at Monte Carlo is Narayanamurthy.)

As late as in September 2008, Satyam had won the coveted Golden Peacock Global Award for Excellence in orporate Governance for 2008 at the Ninth International Conference on Corporate Governance held in London.

"It is a testament to our efforts to continually innovate and advance corporate governance best practices in our industry and around the world," Satyam CFO Srinivas Vadlamani was quoted as saying.

Everything came crashing down when Raju confessed his crime in the early days of January 2009.


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Bhupesh Bhandari in New Delhi
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