In India, one thing that marks the ideology of postcolonial capitalism is the imputed moral legitimacy of the private sphere in the eyes of the dominant economic classes.  Not only is the private sector seen as more economically efficient and productive than the public sector, but the private sphere also enjoys a level of legitimacy because of it’s supposed “autonomy” from “politics,” ostensibly separated from the corruption and nepotism of the Indian public sphere.  But the privileging of the “efficient” private sector over the “corrupt” public sector is complicated by an additional element, that is, the projection of an image of India as a “recognized” part of the global economy.  Indeed, it is the private sphere that is credited not only with boosting economic growth to a “respectable” level (surpassing the humiliating “Hindu rate of growth” that characterized the pre-reform Indian economy), but also with securing “recognition” for India as a legitimate global economic player.  Yet this recognition is inherently unstable; it’s status is persistently haunted by the anxiety of gaining and retaining the respect and admiration of “the global” (which is usually thinly veiled as the West), and is never fully certain.  Within such an anxious epistemic and ontological terrain (see Fanon 1952 and 1963 for the existential pitfalls of identity and recognition in the colonial and postcolonial context), “proof” of recognition often materializes discursively in the reified moral legitimacy of a private sector that provides a new, albeit fragile, sense of Self for the neo-liberalized postcolonial nation.

If the private sphere becomes the anxious site in which the uncertain status of postcolonial identity is negotiated and “secured,” then what happens to this “security” when the moral legitimacy of the private sector is itself called into question?

The Rs. 78 billion corporate scam of Satyam Computer Services Ltd., said to be the biggest corporate scandal in the history of post-independence India, has momentarily put a dent in the moral stature of private capital.  But the discourse surrounding the Satyam scandal in India, particularly the outcry against dishonest accounting practices by Chairman Ramalinga Raju and his cohorts, quickly moves beyond questions of morality as such, and begins to reveal the anxieties of postcolonial identity and recognition in the neoliberal global economy.

A recent article in a weekly business magazine is fairly representative of the dominant discourse surrounding the affair in India.  Entitled “Morality, where art thou?”, the piece details the accounting frauds and aggrandizement of company books that clearly put Raju and others at the company’s head legally in the wrong.  The title of the article notwithstanding, however, it immediately becomes clear that the argument against Satyam is not so concerned with questions of morality, accountability, and public trust as ethical values andworthy business practices in and of themselves.  Clearly, one discerns there is more at stake than mere business ethics and “morality” as such.  Writer Savreen Ghadoke clues us in to such stakes when he asks the following questions: “Has the exposure of the Satyam corporate scam tainted Brand India Inc.?”  Might the scandal damage “the image of India Inc. on the world map”? 

The writer points out that following the disclosure of Satyam’s dishonest accounting practices, “losses to the tune of $2 billion were accounted by stocks of Indian companies listed on the NYSE.”  But beyond this financial loss itself, the actions of investors on the NYSE symbolized a loss that went beyond monetary measure: “It took almost two decades for the likes of Wipro, TCS, HCL Technologies & Infosys to carve a niche for themselves on the world IT map and just one corporate scandal may finish all that.”

But why, we might pause to ask, would “just one corporate scandal” negate “two decades” of strong and ostensibly honest economic performance?  After all, corporate scandals happen all the time, including in the mother of all capitalist countries, the USA, which in 2001 experienced a similar fraud case with Enron.  Indeed, as the author himself notes, “value destroying behaviors such as fraud and corruption respect no borders.”  So if corporate scandals seemingly go hand-in-hand with financial capitalism wherever it roams, why does the Satyam case pose such a singular threat.

I would argue that perhaps for the first time since economic liberalization in 1991, the moral legitimacy of the private sector in India has been seriously questioned.  And because this moral legitimacy also lies at the heart of a projected image and identity of India as a safe and “recognized” investment destination, it also becomes the source of a greater anxiety which is fundamentally about the contingency of recognition through neoliberal capitalism.  The discourse which surrounds the Satyam scandal is haunted by the prospect of losing face in front of an ostensibly “global” audience of investors, analysts and entrepreneurs, of erasing two decades of “catch up” work pursued earnestly by Indian corporations and pro-corporate policy makers.  That such a scandal immediately moves from being “just another case” of corporate greed to reflecting badly on the nation itself, tells us much about the fragility of postcolonial identity and recognition.  It also provides some clues as to what exactly is at stake in the projected image of India as a brand, that is, India Inc.  We can learn much about the politics of contemporary India if we peer into the ideological and discursive work that must go in to producing and reproducing such an image (and the ideological work of image projection is not limited to the purely “discursive” public sphere, it also materializes in public spaces, in urban design and planning, in the built environment, and in policies such as “slum re-settlement”—ie. slum demolition).  The ideological work of stabilizing the anxious relationship between projection (of the image of “brand India”) and desire (for recognition from the Global), produces specters of impossibility that materialize in everyday urban life in India.  Such apparitions materialize in the zones of indistinction between the public and the private spheres, the formal and the informal economies, the cultural and the economic domains, etc.