Death Of A Businessman -- VG Siddhartha, Part 2

VG Siddhartha, founder-owner, Chairman and MD of Coffee Day Enterprises Limited, poses for a profile shoot on September 26, 2015 in New Delhi, India.(Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images)

(by L Subramanyan)

So, now we know that VG Siddhartha is dead. His body has been found and identified. Already political battle lines are being drawn where the opposition party is accusing the ruling party of destroying entrepreneurship in the country. And this wrangling will go on...

However, the issue is a little more than that.

To me, the question is one of the primordial risk-reward conundrum and how as a country, while we do champion chest-thumping on some of the success stories in businesses, we are still unable to create a ‘climate’ where the average middle class person wants to take risks, and reap the rewards.

One reason could be our decades-old preoccupation with the concept of democratic socialism, which as a concept is as much of a nonsense as its practice is. The second is also our perception of wealth, and by extension, the wealthy. Historically, most of our stories are about the nobility of the poor and the villainy of the rich – from MN Nambiar to Jeevan to Amrish Puri.. these are immensely rich blokes who try to browbeat the poor but noble into eternal servility.. this is the narrative that we have been brought up on.

Even our Prime Minister endeared himself to the country by calling himself a ‘chaiwalla’ who rose to be the head of the largest democracy in the world.

This narrative extols the virtue of the poor toiling and becoming the noble person. (S)he is not meant to become very rich, or for that matter extremely rich, for then (s)he would become ‘them’.

Risk-taking as a consequence is a trait that is shunned by our society and its pillars. Be it a banker, or a taxman or a family, we don’t want to take risks. And hence, when we see those blokes who do take risks, we are unable to comprehend them.

I was told this story of a young man who has always loved music and in fact was a gifted singer. However, the parents were not sure as to ‘what he would with his music’ and enrolled him into an engineering program. Now 21, the boy is graduating and has a Youtube channel of his own which displays his amazing prowess in singing. He wants to be a playback singer and cannot tell his parents about it. The parents want him to take a job in the IT industry and become stable. The boy wants to take risks. The parents win.

VGS need not have died. In the generally accepted narrative, he was not from a middle class and had married into a very influential and wealthy family. He could have retired at 21 or continued working for a living, till he died of old age, marrying off his children and playing with his grandchildren.

That would have been an ordinary life.

He chose to walk the entrepreneurship path. He chose to take risks and built a large business, probably larger than anything he had imagined when started out. He played in IT investments, built out his CCD business into the largest in India and dreamed of building it even bigger. A life less ordinary

He took risks that could not be supported by the existing system.

As this piece is being written, there are already knives out for the Tax department honchos, with many even suggesting that the person mentioned by VGS should be booked for abetment to suicide. That is so absurd that it needs to be dismissed outright. The tax officials were only doing their job– following the rules as laid down under law. If the rules are absurd, don’t blame the officers who implement it but the lawmakers, who frame and perpetuate these rules. Blame the government that frames a law that attaches a businessman’s assets and prevents him from converting it into cash to pay off tax dues. Blame the lawmakers who do not allow any discretionary rights to the taxman, who even if feels that the assessee is good, must still follow only the rules. Blame governments that create something as monstrously stupid called a ‘retrospective tax’, to cover up their lack of knowledge of business practices and ensure that a business gets embroiled in a lawsuit for years together.

VGS could have done what some of his brothers did – buy a one-way ticket to London or Antigua or some other equally distant land. He could have cocked a snook at the laws of the land and lived out the rest of his life. He didn’t.

Many Indians that I speak to constantly tell me about how the Indian business environment does not foster innovation. We often wonder why the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter et al are founded in the US, and why even after almost 40 years of the emergence of the IT industry, we have not been able to create a single product for the global IT industry but help others create it by sticking to the less risky services business.

We should stop wondering and start smelling the coffee!