18 JANUARY 2016
Starting up to stand still?
Two lakh passes were sought for the Start Up India workshop at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan with a seating capacity of 1,350, a good indicator of the interest in the action plan for start-ups unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a nine-hour talkathon between Silicon Valley honchos, financiers, Indian unicorns and top government officials. Amidst the euphoria, at least one Silicon Valley CEO, B.J. Arun of July Systems, warned that India was witnessing a bubble similar to the heady dot-com rush of 1999-2000 in Silicon Valley with too much money chasing too few ideas. The high demand for passes to the event is probably a sign of that growing bubble. India, Mr. Arun warned, won’t recover as easily as the U.S. did after the bubble bursts, only to be told by his Indian counterparts that there is no bubble and even if there is, the fittest would survive. That confidence is refreshing, coming from under-40 first generation entrepreneurs. The government’s action points seem laudable for starters, if not deep enough. They include Rs. 10,000 crore of funding for the next four years, tax-free and labour-inspection-free existence for start-ups for the first three years, speedier patent clearances with the exchequer footing most of the bill, and promises to fix taxation hurdles that deter domestic and global financiers from bankrolling new ventures in the coming Budget. That the government must intervene less for start-ups to succeed — Mr. Modi’s core message — drew the loudest cheers, followed by the tax breaks on start-up profits. The tax breaks fly in the face of the corporate tax reform being pursued to lower rates and phase out exemptions; but it is a headline-grabbing measure that won’t hit revenues as few start-ups would make profits in the first three years.
A bigger issue is the attempt to define the start-ups eligible for the sops, support and funding announced by the Prime Minister: firms set up in the past five years with an annual turnover below Rs. 25 crore, working ‘towards innovation, development, deployment or commercialisation of new products, processes or services driven by technology or intellectual property’. The mere act of developing products or services that do not have potential for commercialisation or have no or limited incremental value for customers would not be a start-up. Moreover, a start-up shall be eligible for tax benefits only after it is certified by an inter-ministerial board. Slotting something like innovation into a template may not click and until more details emerge, it just sounds like more red tape to clear to avoid some red tape. Smarter ventures would seek funding on their own and work without official sops, but the government must not lose sight of the need to fix India’s overall business climate. Failing that, even with tax sops, start-ups will continue to quit India and list or register elsewhere. Bubble or not, that’s one issue Indian unicorns are unanimous about.
Freedoms only for the outraged
A comedian, Kiku Sharda, has been arrested under Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code for presumably “outraging” the religious sentiments of Dera Sacha Sauda adherents by mimicking their leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The case was filed by a Dera follower in Haryana, and the State police reached Mumbai to make the arrest. In Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, meanwhile, a court has accepted a plea by a local leader of the Hindu Mahasabha for proceedings against actors Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. Their misdeed: wearing shoes in a “temple” on the sets of a television show. By the standards of intolerance to creative, literary and academic work over the past two decades in India, these instances are unexceptional — and it is beside the point to iterate the commonsense distinction between reality and representation, between fact and superstition. It is a meandering but firm line that links them up with the vandalisation of the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune over a single line in a fine study of Shivaji; the intimidatory outrage that inhibits the release of films such as Bajirao Mastani and Jodhaa Akbar which unsettle orthodox storytelling; the moral policing that forced the shooting of Water, on the treatment of Hindu widows, to be shifted out of Varanasi; and the pressure on publishers to withdraw from circulation entire books (Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History) or excise chapters from compilations used as university texts (A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’). It is the line that has also run through the murders of Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar.
There is no doubt that Section 295(A) of the IPC is in urgent need of amendment to limit its misuse. As is the section dealing with sedition, freely imposed by the state on folk singers, cartoonists, students watching cricket and defiant political upstarts. But these are attendant issues of the crisis in India’s politics today. In democracies worldwide, questions of representation and liberty have been taken forward in the political sphere, and in India even more so. India’s politics, by parties of the freedom movement like the Congress but also regional parties, took the lead in increasing the space for rationalism, modernity, liberty and freedom of expression. That uncompromising cover for liberty is now giving way to pervasive political competition to frame hurt identities and nationalism for partisan advantage. And those freedoms and the modernity project have been rendered yet more fragile in the past couple of years, with many of the so-called fringe outfits that feast on communal intimidation drawing strength from their affiliation to the Sangh Parivar, and thereby to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Months after writers, academics and artists foregrounded the abnormal circumstances today, it is unfortunate that India’s politics and its legislatures have not joined the debate wholesomely. This is why it takes just a couple of outraged persons to remind the world’s largest democracy that it has lost the essential instinct for liberty.