In circa 2023 India, someone set out to do just that. To try and build a giant subcontinent’s infrastructure in 5-7 years. Nothing of this scale in history has been attempted. Just for context, the Mughals and the British tried for their own reasons and did their best with roads, rails, drains for 700 years and got us where it got us. This man’s company’s goal is simple. To run India’s ‘flow’ – flow of power (electric supply), people (ports, airports), energy (coal, water).
The thing about infrastructure – a nice airport or water in taps or a smooth highway – is never appreciated. Its success is when you don’t notice it, and take it for granted. In India, we notice infrastructure all the time – complaining about traffic or sewage, everything feels half-built. And it appears this government’s goal is to build it about as quickly as a T20 match takes. To do that in 2023 you need an amount of money about ten times what it took to build America in the early 20th century.That money didn’t exist then. It doesn’t now. If we cleaned out RBI, we couldn’t afford it. If we cleaned out most of the foreign banks, we’d still be short. Which is why, while the media tries to figure out where this chap has fallen on a world’s richest list and where his share price is, he has a larger problem: trust. You cannot build a country so quickly on established modes of financing – bonds, cash, commercial paper etc. – following corporate governance and research analysts and pleasing short-sellers. You can only do it if the world believes you can do it.
A bunch of prospectors and mad men took a bet on an idea of America. This man is taking a bet on an idea of India. He needs people to believe it can be done. And that’s all debt is – future belief. Is it ambitious? Mad? Has he overstretched? Is every rupee borrowed accounted for? Of course not. That’s mainly because not even god, whichever one you believe in, could tell you if all this will make India a superpower. This man’s defence would be, at least he tried.
And he would be well within his rights to say, ‘Where were all these audit and transparency rules when the Vanderbilts and JP Morgans and Rockefellers and Carnegies and Fords made America ‘flow’? And suddenly, when India wants to become something overnight, I’m the problem?’ As history shows us, business ethics and nation-building are incompatible. Of course, opposition political parties and the press will jump on this because no massive development leap India has gone through, has happened without controversy. Liberalisation was seen in its time as suicide, a sale of the nation to the West.
Many times, a loud shouting nation shoots itself in the foot by saying it’s a scam. Take the ‘2G scam’ that led to some ‘notional loss’. Could it be that shouty news anchors ruined the future of Indian mobile data so you are now at the mercy of only two players?
Critics would argue that you can’t wrap accounting chicanery in patriotism. But as a counterpoint, some nations were built on blood, some by theft, some by partition. There isn’t a single nation that’s been built entirely on a set of clean audit books.