Infosys Vs 'Punch-ajanya': What To Do And Not Do When Critiquing India's Business Icons

by R Jagannathan - Sep 8, 2021 09:09 AM
Infosys Vs 'Punch-ajanya': What To Do And Not Do When Critiquing India's Business Icons When making allegations against iconic people or companies, one has to be very careful with the facts.
Snapshot
  • Infosys is not immune from criticism for its failure to produce a flawless new income tax portal, but these criticisms should not be blown out of proportion.

The Panchjanya article criticising Infosys, India’s iconic software services company, for sins of omission and commission is being made too much of. Large parts of the article, barring the one relating to the less-than-wholesome functioning of the new income tax portal built by Infosys, wander into the realm of opinion, including the claim that the Infosys Trust helps anti-national forces.

With the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) distancing itself from the article, the brouhaha should have died down, for no one can assume that an individual editor cannot have his own views on Infosys which are at variance with the organisation he is associated with. And when it comes to opinion, howsoever wrongfully held, it comes with the right to free speech.

However, several connected ideas need to be unpacked here, for the issue has gone from merely examining the merits of the claims made in the article to whether the RSS itself may be targeting India’s No. 2 software services company with a $100 billion stock market valuation.

First, the demonisation of companies has now become the political norm. Before 1991, it was customary to target big business houses as enemies of the common good. Bollywood has regularly targeted businessmen as evil, and there is even a Bollywood song from the film Chakravyuh, that runs something like this:

Birla ho ya Tata, Ambani ho ya Bata, sabne apne chakkar mein desh ko hai kata.

(Loosely translated, it means, Whether it is Birla, Tata, Bata or Ambani, they have looted the country for their vested interests).

That Bollywood, which has links to underworld finances and drugs, should think that businessmen taking the risks to create wealth and jobs should be excoriated thus tells us what the populist view of businessmen may be.

After the Anna movement against corruption started in the last decade, it was open season for politicians and the Left to target businessmen from Ambani to Adani. From Arvind Kejriwal to Rahul Gandhi, from Prashant Bhushan to other Left-wing organisations, all of them have targeted big business, with or without facts on their side.

So, one should hardly think that the Panchjanya editor who stood by his article on Infosys is somehow an outlier in this race to demonise businesses.

Second, there is a need to separate companies from the activities of their promoters or charitable foundations.

Infosys may be funding its Trust, but the decisions the Trust takes are not necessarily influenced by the board of the company. This is true as much about Tata Trusts or the Azim Premji Foundation. In fact, it is entirely possible for the wealthy rich to be funding private universities like Ashoka University, which is largely manned by the usual Left-liberal suspects that have brought the Jawaharlal Nehru University much disrepute. Usually, those who fund such projects, including the trusts financed by promoter wealth, allow these trusts to take their own call on who they should recruit or finance. That they may be funding some of those who seem to be aligned with interests which would like to malign the government in power or nationalist elements is hardly a new phenomenon. In the name of supporting academic freedom, cancel culture may be brought in through the back door.

The short point: it is okay to call out those funding such elements, if you disagree with the political inclinations of those who they have funded. I have done this in the past with the funders of Ashoka and Krea Universities. But one cannot demean the companies or individuals who funded them. Companies should indeed be careful about where they put their money, but they cannot always be presumed to be on the same page politically as those they have indirectly funded.

Many Indian businessmen, from Ratan Tata to Anand Mahindra to Rohan Murty (son of Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy), have funded their alma maters in the US, and some of these universities are hubs of Hinduphobic activities.

It is one thing to say that these wealthy individuals should be doing more at home, or looking more closely at the credentials of the people they hire at the top, but quite another to assume that they may be funding anti-India or Hinduphobic activities. The tragedy is partially of their own making, but not entirely: liberal universities are flush with Left-liberal “cancel culture” specialists, and those funding specific programmes in their alma maters for academic purposes are unable to prevent Hinduphobic or anti-Indian professors and students from taking the money and doing their own thing.

Then there is the genuine criticism – about the goods and services tax and income tax portals that Infosys has been associated with.

Here one has to make two points.

One, government portals are incredibly hard to do, since they are about customising software for one institution with multiple stakeholders who may not all be on the same page on what they want from the portal. The finance ministry and its tax sleuths may want one kind of information or functionality from it, while the other objective is to make the portal easy to use even while pre-filling data from other sources.

Two, a customised portal will only be as good as the inputs given to the software company’s engineers on what is required. Very often specifications keep changing as people in government seek added functionalities not covered by the original tender. It needs continuous interaction and testing to ensure that it satisfies all users, including the millions of individuals and corporations that will use it for simple and complex filings.

Any software platform can only be as good as the guidance and detailed functionality specs given by the buyer, and if the Infosys portal has many problems still, it should reflect poorly on the tax department’s own ability to articulate clearly what it wants the portal to do.

Suffice it to say that such complex portals go through multiple iterations before they ultimately stabilise. Several years after being launched, the US Homeland Security computers have faced glitches, and the US Customs and Border Protection’s (CPB’s) electronic visa travel system faced last-minute hurdles before launch two years ago. It is also worth recalling that even the previous e-filing tax portal took several years to stabilise, and the initial years were marked by users being unable to log in or being logged out without warning. Data used to prefill tax forms are often corrupted and inaccurate, which defeats the purpose of having the forms prefilled in the first place.

None of this means that Infosys should not be criticised for its failure to produce a flawless new income tax portal, but these criticisms should not be blown out of proportion. The criticism should be restricted to what the company promised, and what it has not yet delivered to the satisfaction of its customers, the government of India and users.

One last point unrelated to Infosys is this: when making allegations against iconic people or companies, one has to be very careful with the facts. You don’t bring your biggest icons down through mere rants.

In the US, Steve Jobs of Apple and a Warren Buffett company were investigated for backdated Esops and possible insider trading respectively. Neither was called to account since their alleged misdemeanours were minor relative to their contributions to the US economy.

In the Infosys case, only the tukde-tukde gang will benefit from being bracketed with a company that brought India, along with others, global recognition as a software superpower.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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