NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - A wave of religious intolerance as India heads towards elections is emerging as a new risk for its biggest companies.
Over the past weeks, a telecom giant, the Indian lender led by Asia's richest banker, and the local rival of Uber Technologies have been roiled by controversies linked to comments on Facebook and Twitter involving a minority community in the Hindu-dominated nation.
All these started as social media posts, then gained a life of their own as people backed or vilified the comments, eventually forcing the companies to react to contain any damage.
Tensions on social media are mounting as the world's largest democracy approaches elections early next year that will pit the Hindu nationalist beliefs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party against the main opposition, which often spotlights secularism and rising religious intolerance.
Risk consultancy Kroll says it is seeing an exponential increase in questions from corporate clients on how to manage the fallout from incidents on social media.
"It doesn't just carry reputational and business risk, it can snowball into business continuity risks that can spread faster than a forest fire," said Tarun Bhatia, a Mumbai-based managing director at Kroll.
"Companies can't choose their customers or control what they say. So it comes down to how companies manage these incidents, how quickly they react."
Bharti Airtel, India's biggest telecommunications provider thanks to its 304 million subscribers, was tested on that recently.
This is how it began: Around noon on June 18, Twitter user Pooja Singh complained about an Airtel customer service representative. An Airtel employee replied, promising to get back with more information, and signed off as "Shoaib".
This is a recognisable Muslim name in a country currently riven by passionate teams of social media trolls, akin to the US experience where political discourse often degenerates into hate-filled accusations.
"Dear Shohaib, as you're a Muslim and I have no faith in your working ethics... requesting you to assign a Hindu representative for my request. Thanks," Pooja Singh responded. Soon after, another Airtel representative named Gaganjot - a clearly non-Muslim name - promised to resolve Pooja Singh's concern.
On the morning of June 20, Airtel published a statement on twitter refuting accusations that it gave in to Pooja Singh's alleged discriminatory demand, something that had already attracted severe criticism of the carrier and threats to discontinue its services, including from opposition lawmakers.
The statement said that both Shoaib and Gaganjot were just following established workflow processes that "got read as 'bowing down to bigotry'".
"Airtel has been resolute for 23 years" and "our training manuals will never carry instructions to pause and check one's identity before serving a query", the statement read.
The company did not reply to an email from Bloomberg seeking further comment.
The reputational risks to companies of an increasingly polarised political and social discourse online are relatively new in India, according to Kroll.
Loss of reputation or brand value was not a key concern for Indian corporates surveyed for the Allianz Risk Barometer 2018, even while it was among the top 10 for companies in the rest of Asia-Pacific and in the United States.
Almost a quarter of a company's value is estimated to lie in its brand, according to the Allianz report.
Corporates are starting to take notice. Some of India's biggest companies are upgrading training manuals across India and customer service teams are proactively flagging such incidents to colleagues who handle media interactions, officials at three companies said, asking not to be identified as the matter is sensitive.
Software is being installed to flag posts linked to the brand that contain trigger words and employees are being reminded of policies that urge them to write on social media only what they would say in public, two of the people said.
There are expectations that as the election draws nearer such risks will escalate and employees are on the watch for incendiary messages about religion, ethnicity or gender, one said.
"We have published and communicated a comprehensive policy on social media to our employees," said Makarand Khatavkar, group head for human resources at Kotak Mahindra Bank. "Any violation of the policy could result in disciplinary action, including termination."
The lender, controlled by billionaire Uday Kotak, in April fired an employee who published a post condoning the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl. It was a crime that shocked India, and the involvement of Hindu men linked to Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party may erode support for the government, both among voters and donors.
"These incidents contribute to the weakening of BJP's hold, because they spur opposition unity and strengthen the opposition," said Satish Misra, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. "The corporate world would also take these things into consideration. These incidents have forced them to rethink. The majority of funding went to BJP in 2014, now more balanced funding will take place."
Another recent victim of this malaise was ICICI Securities, which was forced to apologise to a journalist in June for a social media post made by one of its employees.
ICICI Securities declined to comment to an emailed query on how it planned to prevent such issues in the future.
India's biggest ride-hailing app Ola, which is backed by Softbank Group, fired a driver who - on the night of June 17 - refused to drop a passenger to an area he said was dominated by Muslims.
When reached by Bloomberg for comment on June 21, the company re-sent a statement issued June 18 that apologised to the customer and reaffirmed its policy of non-discrimination.
"Ola, like India, believes in secularity," the statement read.